254: Giornate del cinema muto

Archival Spaces 254

Giornate del cinema muto: Limited Edition

Downloaded 23 October 2020

Given the continued worldwide COVID pandemic, the organizers of the Giornate del cinema muto, decided to stage an abridged version of the “Days of Silent Film” online, 3-10 October 2020. Each day’s program included at least one feature, – always a new restoration or a rediscovered film – and either a program of shorts and presentations of newly published books or master classes in silent film composing. Viewers could link up to the program for a ridiculously low fee, and each show was available for twenty-four hours, making it possible for viewers in any time zone to see the films easily. Another element I really appreciated was a short documentary prior to the feature about the film archive that had contributed to the program, beginning with the Library of Congress, followed by the Eye Institute, Amsterdam, the China Film Archive (Bejing), the National Film Center (Tokyo), Cineteca Italiana (Milan), the Greek Film Archive (Athens), the Munich Filmmuseum, George Eastman Museum, and the Danish Film Institute.  

Venice, 68mm Biograph film, ca. 1898

The Festival began on Saturday evening with a series of nine shorts, entitled “The Urge to Travel” (1911-1939), that began in New York, then traveled virtually to Kraków, Poland, through the Swedish countryside to Ostende, Belgium, along the Moldau near Prague, then to the beaches at Trieste, and, finally to London. Many of the films were tinted and toned, but the real pleasure of these overseas journeys into the past was the fact that we are now all armchair travelers, due to COVID. The same held true to the program of Biograph shorts on Sunday, all of them shot on 68mm film, giving these digital versions an uncanny sharpness in detail, – they were scanned at 8K – as we again traveled virtually to the beginning of the 20th century to Ireland, Berlin, Amsterdam, Venice, Paris, and Windsor Castle, London. Seeing the way people move, their fashions,  the incredible details of their lives, made these images truly a window into the past.

The eight features of the festival, while crossing numerous genres, nevertheless focused in the widest sense on stories of family relations, whether in peril or in formation. This look at our most intimate human interactions and emotions was a smart decision, taking the smaller streaming screen into account. Penrod and Sam (1923, William Beaudine) was an absolutely charming piece of Americana, a little comedy-melodrama about growing up in a small town, boys building forts on the empty lot next door, staging make-believe wars with rival gangs, reminding us that until recent children played together, rather than staring at computer games. Unlike other Hollywood examples of the genre, the film steers clear of cheap sentimentality, even when the film’s boy hero is confronted with death.  

Penrod and Sam (1923, William Beaudine)

Guofeng (1935, Luo Mingyou, Zhu Shilin), starring Ruan Lingyu and Li Lili, the former tragic star of Shanghai cinema, concerns two sisters who are in love with the same man, the older sister withdrawing from the competition, even though she is already secretly engaged. While the older sister adheres to the virtues of Chiang Kai-shek’s “New Life” movement – following tradition, social responsibility, frugality, and modesty – the younger sister divorces her husband who financed her education and chases material pleasure, thereby destroying her family. A day later, the Giornate returned to Asia with Where Lights Are Low (1921, Colin Campbell), a Hollywood melodrama produced and starring Sessue Hayakawa as Chinese Prince Tsu Wong Shih who falls in love with the daughter of his gardener; he goes to America to study and must eventually rescue his fiancé from white slavery. Unlike the previous film, Prince Tsu comes down on the side of modernity, rather than tradition.

Guofeng (1935)
Tempesta in un Cranio (1921, Carlo Campogolliana)

La Tempesta in un cranio/Storm in the Skull (1921, Carlo Campogolliana) is an Italian comedy about a wealthy writer who believes he may be going insane, due to a hereditary predisposition, and experiences a series of surreal adventures that let me indeed doubt his sanity, but turn out to be an elaborate trick played on the writer by his fiancé and his friends to convince him he is indeed sane. Another newly discovered comedy, this time a musical from Greece, Oi Apachides ton Athinon/The Apaches of Paris (1930), follows the fate of an impoverished nobleman, known as “The Prince” in the bohemian quarters of Athens, who is roped into a scheme to fool a nouveau riches and falls in love with the daughter, only to return to his fiancé from the working classes. Based on an operetta, many songs were performed off-camera to accompany the film.

Abwege (1928, G.W. Pabst)

The most modern film at the Giornate was G.W. Pabst’s Abwege/The Devious Path, 1928, a new digital restoration first screened at the Berlinale in 2018. Starring Brigitte Helm as a bored wife of a wealthy lawyer, the film subtly displays the breakdown of a marriage, as both partners are seemingly unable to communicate their feelings to each other, their displeasure coded through minute movements of lips and eyebrows. Meanwhile, the search for excitement is embodied in a continuously moving camera that glides through 1920s Berlin’s luxurious world of nightclubs, drugs, and kept women. It is the economy of its means, embodied in Pabst precision editing, – the film was produced as a quota quickie – that makes Abwege an unqualified masterpiece of Weimar modernity. At the opposite end of the modernity spectrum is Cecil B. DeMille’s old-fashioned The Romance of the Redwoods (1917), a “western” starring Mary Pickford as a plucky young woman who travels West during the California Gold Rush and successfully negotiates the all-male world of the prospecting camps, converting through her love an outlaw into an upstanding citizen.  Although I missed the last day of screenings, including a program of Laurel and Hardy shorts, it was a great week of films.

Nevertheless, I really missed not being in Pordenone, because, of course, a big part of the festival is social, meeting friends and colleagues between screenings, having an Aperol Spritz at the Bar Posta, across the square from the Teatro Verdi or eating a meal at one of the many great restaurants, whether the Osteria Al Cavaliere Perso, the Prosciutteria DOK, Al Lido or Al Gallo, all within minutes of the theatre. The center of town is almost exclusively pedestrian zones, so it is always a pleasure to just promenade past the many shops to clear out your head when you have spent ten hours in the cinema. Hopefully, next year!

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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