I’m back with another report from on the ground at Pordenone! Continuing from where I left off in my last post: Tuesday was a blockbuster afternoon. I considered skipping Herr Arnes Pengar | Sir Arne’s Treasure (SE 1919) since it is widely available, but I’m really glad that I watched it in the theatre. A slow, beautiful look at the destructive consequences of theft and murder, set in the desolate coastal regions of Sweden. Two scenes particularly stuck in my head: when the three Scots sink their horse and carriage into the ice to cover their tracks; and the final procession of women bearing the body of Elsalill (the film’s archetype of purity and femininity) across the ice.
One point though – I thought, and a couple of people agreed with me when we discussed it later, that the print was very dark, particularly in the start of the film – not just the fact that the lighting was low key, but also the general grade and darkness of the tints. One assumes that this represents the visual qualities of the existing elements, but the contrast was notably low.
The evening session began with the presentation of the Collegium essay prize to the lovely Cesar de la Rosa Anaya, for his paper on digital restoration work on early/silent cinema: the uniqueness and Benjaminian aura of these film materials, and the ethics and decisions involved in the digital scanning and restoration process. I look forward to being able to read it in full!
The presentation was a bit dramatic for me, though, as my graphic novel-style submission got a special mention as the most original entry, and without warning to me, was projected to the huge auditorium screen for all to see! (They also credited a different person, haha). A big shock for me, and really it would have been nicer to separate it from Cesar’s moment!
Following this was one of the festival’s marquee events, the performance of benshi Kataoka Ichiro. As mentioned in my preview post, I greatly enjoyed Mr. Kataoka’s performance last year, accompanying Keaton short The Boat (US 1921), a Japanese samurai film, and the memorable and intriguing Fukujusô (JP 1935), a tale of the intense and homoerotic relationship between two sisters-in-law. This year, Mr. Kataoka accompanied 喧嘩安兵衛 | Hot-Tempered Yasubei (JP 1928), the plot of which can be concisely summarized as: Tamasaburō Bandō laying waste to the town of Edo. The rest of the programme consisted of the 1914 Chaplin shorts Kid Auto Races at Venice (the début of the Tramp – I’d forgotten just how much Charlie breaks the fourth wall in the film!), His New Profession, The New Janitor, and Dough and Dynamite (which also features a young Charley Chase, back when he was Charles Parrott). I don’t speak Japanese, so could not follow the content of Kataoka’s narration (beyond “arigato gozaimashite” and “dy-na-mite!”), but his accompaniment lends something really special to the film-watching experience: the rhythm, the tones, the cross-lingual humour of certain well-timed lines.
The late screening was 西遊記·盤絲洞 | Pán sī dòng | The Cave of the Silken Web (1927). I had eagerly anticipated this film, though perhaps more for its historical interest than as a work of cinema. But I loved it! It was a great, adventurous romp, with witty intertitles. The story is a chapter from the classic work Journey to the West, and it’s rather a short episode in the book (at least in my translation). The film follows the story: a Buddhist monk is travelling with his disciples (Monkey, Pig, and Friar Sand), when the group encounters a silken cave, populated with spider spirits masquerading as alluring women, who try to entrap the monk. No matter that the monk, serenely androgynous, refuses their advances (and, per one of the intertitles, their “heavenly nectar”!) – he is under their black magic and it falls to his disciples to rescue him. Definitely one for my dangerous female sexuality tag! This made extremely explicit by one of the ending intertitles: “Because she submitted to her desire, she was made to suffer.” Ha! The film included some great set pieces, including scenes where Pig is holding off several women with a rake while they menace him with swords, a game of keepaway played with Pig’s head (temporarily removed from his body), and the antics of the rather adorable hare spirit. Some nice special effects, such as the spider spirits fading into the web – very effective even if the registration wasn’t always perfect. The film was in relatively good condition except for the very beginning section, and the latter part featured lovely magenta tinting.
On Wednesday, my pick was La Statua di Carne | From the Beyond (IT 1921), which was just fantastic. A real highlight for me. I adore Italian diva films, and really, who could resist this catalogue write-up?
Set in the world of the high bourgeoisie and aristocracy, and featuring improbable love intrigues involving idle young people, misunderstood artists and languid maidens …
The story was filled with glorious melodrama. Count Paul Santarosa is a grieving man who encounters in Naomi of the Ballets Russes the doppelganger of his dead beloved Mary (the story of their tragic love is told in the first part of the film), and then enacts a Freudian nightmare – installing Naomi in a secluded villa where she must dress a certain way and answer to Mary when he comes to visit her. At first willing to humour him, not surprisingly she quickly finds his behaviour perturbing during his daily, two-hour-long visits: “And he just sits and stares at me. It’s uncanny!” It’s the kind of film where characters make pronouncements like “I pledge you a toast to death – the death of love!” Yet on another level, a kind of realism was operating – the characters call each other out on their behaviour (not that it helps, particularly); and when Paul declares his intention to visit Naomi every day (this directly on meeting her), she is amused and taken aback, retorting “I’ve only known you a few minutes!” Italia Almirante was suitably glamorous and languorous in the roles of Mary and Naomi, and attired in the requisite fabulous gowns and headwear. Fluidly directed; an interesting formal aspect of the film was its frequent use of dissolves. I really hope that the Cinémathèque Royale puts this film on the European Film Gateway at some stage.
Wednesday evening saw both parts of Die Nibelungen (DE 1924) shown in sequence. These restorations both screened at my local film society earlier this year, but I missed Siegfried, so was glad to have the opportunity to catch it on the big screen here. Aesthetically both of the films are just incredible: the framing and lighting, the stylized makeup, the visual effects, the geometrical motifs of the costumes and décor … who could forget Brunhild’s winged headdress? or Siegfried’s marvellous Beethoven-style über-bouffant hairstyle?
Apart from being a beautiful film, it’s a good piece of storytelling – though it’s long, for me the film never dragged. Having Kriemhilds Rache in my head, I was surprised by some aspects of Siegfried; tonally, and in pacing and storytelling, the two films differ quite a lot. The dragon was easier to kill than I would have expected. And Kriemhild’s demureness in the first film shouldn’t have taken me by surprise, yet did, as I was working with this mental image of the character – the burning, vengeful Kriemhild of Teil 2:
Brunhild’s ultimately tragic story arc was fantastic, and I really enjoyed Hanna Ralph in the role (side note: here she is not a Valkyrie, as in the Wagner). As for King Gunther, played with froglike, halting energy by Theodor Loos – even more useless than I remembered. From his enforced marriage won via trickery, to his lack of action and culpability, was there any point where the character exhibited critical thinking skills?
On Thursday morning, The Bells (US 1926) was another one I was looking forward to, and I wasn’t disappointed. I like Lionel Barrymore, he of the expressive undereye creases. Here he plays a man who commits a terrible crime for the sake of his family, and is thereafter haunted by the sound of bells (also suffering a Lady MacBeth episode as he looks at his blood-money). Also notable was Boris Karloff as the Mesmerist, eyes lamplike behind thick black-rimmed circular specs. It was a stylish, economical film that featured some nice double exposures.
At lunchtime today, the Collegium session on early cinema was excellent. On the panel was Bryony Dixon (BFI), Vanessa Toulmin (National Fairground Archive), Céline Ruivo (Cinémathèque Française), and Hiroshi Komatsu (Waseda University); each gave a brief presentation before taking questions (predictably, mine was about the practical aspects of preservation). The presenters, Dixon and Toulmin especially, really underlined the necessity of understanding the exhibitional context of early cinema – Toulmin made a remark about seeing these films as entertainment records rather than film texts (paraphrase; hopefully I remembered that correctly). As Ruivo pointed out, the idea of authorship as we understand it now cannot be fruitfully applied to this era of filmmaking; I also liked her description of Paul Nadar’s work as representing a synthesis of creativity and engineering.
Look out for another recap to round out the remaining two days of the festival! In the meantime, go and read Silent London’s excellent coverage of the festival.
Classic Tamasaburō Bandō in 喧嘩安兵衛 | Hot-Tempered Yasubei (JP 1928):
Every day Yasubei goes out to pick fights for free booze.
Repping vegetarianism in 西遊記·盤絲洞 | Pán sī dòng | The Cave of the Silken Web (1927). (slight paraphrase due to illegibility of my handwriting):
In the monk’s opinion, eating steak is as bad as theatre and dance.
Seductive euphemism: the Spider Queen to the Monk in Pán sī dòng:
“You are still not aware of how much fun you can have in our web.”
Bryony Dixon on what early cinema still has to teach us:
Well firstly, the correct technique for jumping in and out of barrels.
A group of female slaves are roped together in Mooiste Waaiers ter Wereld | The Most Beautiful Fans in the World (FR 1927):
But lo and behold, they dance as beautifully as ever.
Oh, well as long as their dancing doesn’t suffer!
Celebrity sighting: Yuri Tsivian!