The remaining two days of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival wrapped up most of the programs, with some ending on a very high note – others, I just finally got to see something from after hearing a lot of buzz.
The John H. Collins program wasn’t on my radar at all before or even during the festival’s first four or so days, until I met people who had gone to check out his films and proclaimed their love for them. They mentioned specifically how different and modern his films were, and how solid they were as melodramas. And from reading the festival catalogue, you learn that he was an early auteur that died way too young of influenza at 28, in 1916, and that if he had lived longer he could have been a big name in both in his time and in film history books. Even though he had a short life, he had made a fair share of films (41 credits as a director currently on imdb) and in Pordenone eight of these were shown. I only got the chance to see the last two on the extensive program about him, and even though they were generally not considered the best of the program, I was convinced: John H. Collins deserves more recognition. As a creative force in silent film, he is just too unique to be missed.
I watched Blue Jeans (1917) and Riders of the Night (1918), and I found both very unusual for American films of the 1910s. They also moved me a lot. What they both have in common is that they take the melodrama “genre” and infuse it with stark realism. The comfortable tried and tested melodrama formula is destabilized, as it is punctuated with moments that constantly break loose of the fictive, artificial realm of the melodrama to disconcert and horrify us, reminding us of very real things. In Riders of the Night the lead female character Sally Castleton (Viola Dana) is about to be hanged for a crime she did not commit, and in a horrifying scene, a noose fades in and is superimposed around her neck. In another scene, we see the same woman clench her fist so hard that her nails pierce into her skin that she bleeds. It seems clear that John H. Collins wants us to think of suffering not only as an ingredient in melodrama, but also how it is an experience not uncommon in society.
Specifically the suffering of women. Collins, through horrifying imagery, pierces through the safe membrane of escapism we’re wrapped in when watching melodrama, to point out how women were treated in the reality of his time. His use of lighting also accentuates these harsh images and amplifies the resultant effect. A simple sawmill turns into a house of horrors. Rooms are made small and claustrophobic, pointing to how Viola Dana’s character in Blue Jeans suffered under the patriarchy. The two Collins films I saw were not only adept in their portrayal of the real struggles women endured, however. They were made confidently, and edited expertly to pace it such that it built a lot of tension. Collins knows what he is doing, and one does not have to read a lot into the films to see the talent he had as a filmmaker. Viola Dana, his wife and later young widow at 21, hold her own as a talented actress in his films and was clearly a major factor contributing towards the convincing quality of the films I saw.
One of the bigger events of the Friday was the Venezia 120 event, showing Venice 120 years ago on film (Pordenone is only an hour away from Venice by train). In 1896, it was the Lumière brothers and their assistants that captured Venice on film. The Lumière brothers are often considered the inventors of film (in reality there were many people involved with different inventions) and for having put up the first paid public screening of films in December 1895. In order to expand their business they sent cameramen around the world to film exotic places and their people, to then screen these films of familiar places and exotic places to locals. Film historian Tom Gunning considers these films (and generally non-fiction film before WW1) “view” films in that they are often minute-long single-shot films that are more about putting the viewer in the position to look for things in the images themselves and for the film to display them, rather than putting images into a bigger structure and context.
The Lumière films shown at the festival naturally showed a lot of gondolas and people of high standing disembarking from them, because they were all placed around Venice. I can’t say they were among my favorites, but it was a special experience to see them on the big screen with a student orchestra. After these Lumière films was a feature film from Germany called Venetianische Nacht (Max Reinhardt, 1913) shot of course in Venice as well. This obscure and bizarre dream-like comedy became too confusing and unfunny for me very quickly and it is the only film I truly dislike of the festival. These things happen in a festival that doesn’t focus much on set in stone canonized masterpieces though.
A comedic film that really worked for me and that surely must already be a part of the canon is the Swedish Erotikon (Mauritz Stiller, 1920). An old entomology professor is deeply interested in the sex life of bugs, meanwhile his young wife is “interested”, shall we say, in two younger men. Erotikon is despite its title not an overtly sexual film, although there’s a bit of kink there. But like Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) or Ernst Lubitsch’s film (e.g. I Don’t Want to be a Man (1918)) it pushes a lot of buttons of what is allowed to show and do thematically on film. It does it rather well. The knowing looks, the feeling that you are in on the sexual jokes, makes for great comedy. Anders de Wahl as the professor and Tora Teje as the professor’s wife are particularly joyous to watch.
Speaking for joyous to watch – I finally got the chance to attend one of the Masterclasses! It’s a much cherished part of every Pordenone festival that is both a show on piano accompaniment to silent films but also a two hour analysis of film. One or two experienced mentors teach, in this case, two younger pianists some tools in the trade in how to accompany silent films with piano play. And we get to see them try different things as they play along to films, to see what work and doesn’t. This day was devoted to two very different comedies, The Finishing Touch (Hal Roach, 1928), a Laurel and Hardy classic, and The Oyster Princess (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919). I feel like I have learned a lot about how comedies telegraph their jokes in advance, which gives the pianist clues to how to structure their accompaniment. I don’t play any instrument yet I had so much fun and got so much insight. If I were to make a top 5 of experiences at the festival, this rather unique 2 hour show would definitely be on it. If you at some point decide to go here, a Masterclass just can’t be missed!
Friday was a high-point for non-fiction films. In addition to the Lumières, the last part of the City Symphonies program was one of the best of the festival. Five shorts were shown: the Czech film Aimless Walk (Alexander Hackenschmied, 1930), a previous personal favorite Jeux des reflets et de la vitesse (Henri Chomette, 1925), Eugène Deslaw’s Les nuits électriques (1928), La zone (Georges Lacombe, 1928) and finally the obscure Austrian amateur film Prater (Friedrich Kuplent, 1929). All these truly belong under the umbrella “city symphony” in that they managed to find a rhythm through just using images from the cities themselves, often in inventive ways.
Prater surely takes the number one spot for the boldest effort, as it showed me ways of approaching film which I had not seen before, and I already feel like I have seen a lot of avant-garde films. Sure, why not put a spinning animated “wheel” over your 7,5 mm film and rapidly edit your footage of amusement parks to create the sensation of a bustling Austrian city. Prater truly is a discovery and a pioneering work in its time, and much like the other films it was shown together with a very energetic and “modern”. The icing of the cake of this screening was the accompaniment, which brought forward the musical quality of these films.