Archival Spaces 254
Giornate del cinema muto: Limited Edition
Downloaded 23 October 2020
Given the continued world-wide 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 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.
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 travelled 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 travelled 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.
Guofeng (1935, Luo Mingyou, Zhu Shilin), starring Ruan Lingyu and Li Lili, the former the 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.
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 an 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.
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!
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Archival Spaces 253
White Nationalist Terrorism is nothing new in America: Re-Viewing The Black Legion (1937)
Uploaded 9 October 2020
Last week at the first presidential debate, Donald Trump refused to condemn the white nationalist and racist organization, “The Proud Boys,” just as he has encouraged other racist groups, like the American Nazis, whom he characterized as “good people” after Charlotte. In Kenosha, a 17 year old white nationalist calmly shot two BLM protesters dead and walked merrily past police; he is now a “blood hero” of the Right. Only yesterday, thirteen Michigan “militia” men were arrested for conspiring to kidnap the Michigan Governor, because she defied Trump, who verbally abused Gretchen Whitmar as the murder plot hit the news.
Radical rightwing groups have always been a part of the American fabric, just as racism runs deep throughout American society, but until this President, they have remained splinter groups. The Guardian recently quoted Southern Poverty Law statistics that noted a 55% increase in such hate groups, exerting enormous influence online, since Donald Trump became president. During the Great Depression, the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations thrived. Economic stress fueled hatred then as now, but white nationalists under Franklin D. Roosevelt could not count on covert support from the highest level of government, as they do today. In the Warner Brothers’ film, The Black Legion (1937, Archie L. Mayo), white, racist terrorists are successfully prosecuted.
The film is based on the actual “Black Legion,” a white nationalist group in the 1930s Midwest, especially in Michigan(!), a Ku Klux Klan splinter group that numbered as many as 135,000 members. The film fictionalized the actual kidnapping and murder of Charles A. Poole in May 1935 in Detroit, a Works Progress Administration organizer, for which the government prosecuted 49 members of the Black Legion, of which eleven were convicted of murder, thanks to the testimony of Dean Dayton, a former Legionaire.
In the film, Humphrey Bogart plays factory worker Frank Taylor (a fictionalized Dayton) who is passed over for promotion to foreman in his factory and becomes embittered by the “foreigners who are taking away jobs from red-blooded Americans.” He joins the Black Legion, which burns down the farm of foreman Joe Dombrowski allowing Taylor to get the job. However, he is quickly demoted for not handling a machine malfunction on the floor, because he was in the lavatory recruiting for the Legion. The next foreman is also tortured, but he doesn’t get the job back. Taylor alienates his wife and slips into drunkenness, finally killing his friend, Ed Jackson, who threatened to expose the Black Legion. Like Trump and his white nationalist followers, Taylor articulates grievances and rage against nebulous scapegoats, because he believes that “native-born Americans,” i.e. white people, experience economic hardship at the hands of the other.
In a speech to the Legion, Alf Hargrave claims that foreigners who have enriched themselves with American jobs, hold an alien, un-American doctrine, “and are plotting to seize our government and overthrow the republic.” He states further that the Legion will purge the land of traitorous aliens, creating a “free, white, 100% America.” Like the dog whistles used today, the American fascists in the 1930s used code words to stoke racial fear and hatred. But like the Nazis and Communists of the 1930s, the Black Legion also terrorized its own members into silence and submission: In a midnight initiation ceremony in the woods, the gathering garbed in black KKK robes, Taylor swears an oath that binds him to undying loyalty, demanding damnation of his eternal soul, if he betrays the organization. To further undergird the oath, Hargrave gives Taylor a shell casing, saying the bullet will find him or his family, if he betrays his oath. When he is arrested, a Black Legionnaire posing as a lawyer appears in Taylor’s cell to remind him of the bullet waiting for his family if he talks. Interestingly, in a scene added by Warner Brothers after production was completed, Taylor’s lawyer states to the judge in private chambers, he was unaware of Taylor’s murderous activity. The Academy’s MPAA files would probably tell us why the after-shoot, but I suspect it has to do with absolving the legal profession of any culpability as fascist collaborators.
Warner Brothers became interested in the case as early as the Black Legion trial in 1936, sending a staff member to observe the trial and come up with story ideas. The original story was written by Robert Lord, who also produced the film and insisted on casting Bogart (at the time a supporting player), because he felt Edward G. Robinson, who was originally cast, looked too much like a foreigner, i.e. Jewish. The Black Legion maintained KKK secrecy protocols from hoods to humiliation, leading the Clan to sue Warner Brothers for patent infringement; the suit was thrown out of court. Like the KKK, the Black Legionnaires hated all foreigners, as well as Jews, Catholics and other minorities, although no African-Americans or other people of color actually appear in the film. That is surprising, given that Detroit was already heavily black, just as it was a Black Legion stronghold, but Warner Brothers, like other Hollywood studios, still practiced – by a process of exclusion – a different form of racism. The film was praised by the critics and earned Robert Lord an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, while the National Board of Review named Black Legion Best Film of 1937.
In the movie trial, — true to WB’s support of Roosevelt’s administration, — the judge reaffirms American ideals, grounded in Democracy, as he scolds the accused white nationalist terrorists: “Your idea of patriotism and Americanism is hideous to all decent citizens. It violates every protection guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, contained in our Constitution. The Bill of Rights, assuring us all religious freedom and the right to person and property, is the cornerstone of American patriotism… We cannot afford to have racial or religious hatred stirred up, so that innocent citizens become the victims of accusations brought in secrecy or of terrorists who inflict their vigilante judgment.”
I used to see Black Legion as a melodramatic treatment of an isolated historical moment, but, in the age of Trumpism, I realize that,like Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949), it is a warning that American Democracy and our liberty have to be actively protected, even when the terrorist is our own president.
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