October 16, 2006

Pordenone Dispatch. 4.

Sean Axmaker wraps the Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto The Giornate straddles the scholarly and the celebratory in its survey of silent cinema every year. On the one hand, it is cinema archeology on display, bringing the lost and neglected back to life with the light of a projector and the home of a screen and an audience (and always accompanied by live music). On the other, it is a gathering of silent film-lovers eager to experience the good, the great and the transcendent films of our beloved pre-sound era, when movies told stories with a different language and sensibility.

The consensus this year was that the latter gave way to the former. Many programs were more interesting as historical revelations than as cinematic art, notably the Danish retrospective - and discovering that Griffith spent much of 1919 just coasting through uninspired stories done up with his not inconsiderable talent (but not his passion) isn't exactly the kind of revelation that makes you stand up and cheer.

Way Down East But there were joys, great and small, throughout the festival, and one of the greatest was simply being plunged in purity of silent film storytelling for a week. Griffith's cast-off films such as The Idol Dance (1920) and Scarlet Days (1919) had their moments (most of them involving the delightful ball of fire Clarine Seymour, who died soon after shooting The Idol Dancer), and the final-day showing of Way Down East (1920) was a reminder that Griffith was a master when he was engaged with his material. It also is an illustration of the importance of restoration, and not merely in the case of missing scenes (identified and described in intertitles). The quality of some of the scenes in the print (from the Museum of Modern Art) and some dubious editing distractions demand a comprehensive look for sharper source material and a serious look at the choices made in the reconstruction.

The Silly Symphony showings, played in front of the nightly "Musical Events," were also a revelation of Disney's animation at its most creative and graceful and, in shorts like the 1939 The Ugly Duckling, rich and emotional. The sheer creative ingenuity of Music Land and its war of musical instruments blasting rival kingdoms (a Classical and a Jazz kingdom, with the Sea of Discord between them) with musical notes, was terrific fun. These shorts were produced with a rich soundtrack of music and sound effects, but no dialogue, creating not so much a link between the silents and soundies but an animated choreography of dance, slapstick and drama.

The Big Parade

It's said that it is possible to see every program. I don't believe that's the case, but even if it is, you sacrifice leisurely meals, animated conversations, sleep and the time to digest it all in order to made it happen. I don't think it's worth it, so I make sacrifices, in some cases literally. By all accounts, I missed the highlight of the festival, a screening of a newly restored print of King Vidor's brilliant The Big Parade (1925). The glory of that hour (or rather, 2½ hours) was shared with Neil Brand, the beloved festival pianist whose inspired accompaniment brought the audience to their feet for a five-minute standing ovation (the only such display in the festival). Where was I? Writing up a dispatch, I'm embarrassed to say, and taking a break from an otherwise non-stop day of screenings.

My musical highlight was the rollicking score that the high-energy fourteen-piece combo The Flat Earth Society brought to Ernst Lubitsch's burlesque of a social satire The Oyster Princess (1919), a frenzied farce that spoofs the vulgarities of the nouveau riche and the pretensions of the penniless aristocracy. The match of music and movie was perfect; the combo's mix of swing, music hall and circus sounds matched the attitude and the pace of Lubitsch's runaway comedy, notably in an extended dance sequence that spins out of the ballroom scene to the entire mansion during an impromptu wedding party. It's silly and absurd and often hilarious, and directed at such a clip that it sweeps up the audience in its knockabout insanity. Sadly, the promised 35mm print of the film did not arrive and their live blast of a performance accompanied a video projection that lacked the intensity and contrast of a film print.

Louise Brooks

When it comes down to it, this is why I come to the fest. The masterworks stay with me forever, but these glimpses of silent cinema at its most purely entertaining keep me going between the peaks. Tod Browning's gypsy carnival melodrama The Show (1927) with John Gilbert as a rogue of a carnival barker, Louise Brooks's final silent film performance in Prix de Beauté (1930, France), William Wellman's unfortunately titled circus romance You Never Know Women (1926) with Clive Brook as a dour magician and escape artist and Lowell Sherman in his patented role as the glibly seductive millionaire whose sense of privilege is topped only by his arrogance, and even the New Zealand romantic adventure A Bush Cinderella (1928), an unexpectedly deft little production with a rich sense of place and spirited comic relief - these are the films that keep me coming back to the festival. Beautifully crafted, inhabited by performances attuned to the art of silent acting, directed by pros whose grace and visual sensitivity add layers of details to otherwise simple stories, they are artifacts of a cinematic storytelling tradition developed to perfection by the mid-1920s and long lost in the sound era. For a few short days every year, Le Giornate brings the tradition alive once more.

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Posted by dwhudson at October 16, 2006 7:41 AM