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Festivals: Pordenone Silent Film Festival

By Maggie Hennefeld on November 22, 2012

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Every October in Pordenone, silent film enthusiasts, scholars, and archivists congregate by the hundreds to witness the latest work in cinema that was originally projected over a century ago. Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (Silent Film Festival) started running in September 1982 when a small group of friends organized a three-day festival in response to the 1976 Friuli earthquake that had devastated much of northern Italy. In the years since, viewers have flocked to Pordenone to watch everything from Weimar Expressionism to “serial queen” adventure heroines at the Teatro Verdi. The programs of the 31st Giornate centered, perhaps more than ever, on the disappearance and resurrection of its subjects: Rediscoveries and Restorations, The Canon Revisited, Father of the Screenplay, Actress Before Star, The Forgotten Innovators. The overwhelming variety of aesthetic modes and sociopolitical contexts on display was unified by a driving curatorial desire to unearth history’s forgotten fragments of the past and revisit them in the light of our present moment.

The Spanish Dancer Herbert Brenon

The Spanish Dancer

One of this year’s Rediscoveries, The Spanish Dancer (Herbert Brenon, 1923), riveted the Teatro Verdi, with live string orchestral accompaniment by Stephen Horne, Günter Buchwald, and Massimo Cum. A team of archivists in the Netherlands spent painstaking months piecing together the film’s story from four contradictory, half-completed versions on 35mm and 16mm. In the film, a sympathetic but transgressive romance brews between a deposed nobleman (Antonio Moreno) and the gypsy dancer who catches his eye (Pola Negri, in the role that launched her Hollywood career). Brenon’s silent pays homage to the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez’s portraits of a “vanishing aristocracy” in such works as Las Meninas (which Foucault has used as a springboard for his theory of historical ruptures). Exploiting cinema’s capacity to represent duration, The Spanish Dancer animates Velázquez’s play with mise-en-abyme in his portraiture, with Wallace Beery and Kathlyn Williams moonlighting as absolute sovereigns.

Anna Sten
Anna Sten

Pola Negri notwithstanding, the distinction of “Actress Before Star” this year belonged to Anna Sten. The haunting, Ukraine-born Soviet star studied techniques involving “emotional memory” with Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre before Samuel Goldwyn attempted to commoditize her as “The New Garbo.” As silent cinema ambassador Kevin Brownlow mused at a festival panel on Sten, recalling an anecdote about her going unrecognized years ago at a Hollywood party: “My God just look at her face. How could we have forgotten this actress?” As a Hollywood celebrity, she is best remembered for her spectacular failure in films such as Nana, We Live Again (34) and The Wedding Night (35), a “stench” that Cole Porter playfully immortalized: “If Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction / Instruct Anna Sten in diction / Then Anna shows / Anything goes!” Pordenone screened the eight extant silent films Sten made in Eastern Europe, including an experimental Soviet farce, The Girl with the Hatbox (27, Boris Barnet); a heavy-handed feat of anti-oligarchy propaganda, The Earth in Chains (28, Fyodor Otsep); and a revolutionary-terrorist suspense thriller, Agent Provocateur (28, Viktor Turin). While Sten benefited from a magnetism indeed rivaling that of Garbo, her performances never failed to stand on their own.

Colonel William N. Selig Saved by the Pony ExpressColonel William N. Selig—“The Man Who Invented Hollywood,” per film historian Andrew Erish’s new biography—resurfaced as this year’s re-discovered innovator at the Giornate. An early pioneer of Westerns and the first producer to shoot productions in Southern California, Selig anchored the festival’s commitments to American film historiography. The Western genre’s ideology of masculinist conquest and genocidal imperialism was instrumental to the American industry’s efforts to oust foreign competitors like Pathé and Gaumont from the domestic film market throughout the 1910s. Selig’s surviving archives illuminate many facets of the genre’s emergence, most notably the racial and ideological premises of nationalist film traditions that we persist to this day. Contradictory threads in the history of the Western ranged from the starkly racist vigilante justice promoted in A Lynching at Cripple Creek (1904), to the release of this vigilante furor through surprising moments of levity. Audiences erupted with laughter during Saved by the Pony Express (1911) when a cowboy who accidentally shoots himself while alone in his room unsuccessfully attempts to leave his friends a note explaining as much: “Dear Friends, I have shot myself accidentally.” Selig’s big “historical first,” The Spoilers, a 1914 American feature about Alaskan gold miners that is over two hours in length, did not hold up nearly as well as his single-reel cowboy revenge farces.

For a festival apparently tailored to purist cinephiles, Pordenone went out of its way to emphasize the medium’s bastard roots. Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre, a restoration of early, synch-sound filmed-theater shorts from the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris, spotlighted motion pictures’ inheritances from the legitimate stage, traveling shows, the circus, music hall, and vaudeville burlesque. Hand-painted tinting and synchronized sound recordings frame performances from the Comédie Française and theaters of the Grands Boulevards: Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, French dancing clown duo Footit and Chocolat’s rendition of William Tell, Michel Carré pantomiming Prodigal Son by Debussy, and Mariette Sully’s comic arias in The Doll.

In light of concerns about the cinema’s potential disappearance under the umbrella of the digital, it was instructive to witness the emergence of the motion picture medium from so broad a variety of different entertainment forms. This hybrid genealogy was also manifest in the blatant theatricality and exhibitionist direct address of the early cinema programs, including shorts by Georges Méliès, Edwin S. Porter, Jean Durand, Gaston Velle, and many others.

Likewise, given our present-day fantasies and anxieties about the “unprecedented” digital manipulability of the image, Pordenone’s perennially rich selection of animation held special interest. Piggybacking on the popularity of last year’s Japanese animation threads (featuring works by Noburo Ofuji and Shigeji Ogino), this year’s lineup featured a slate of 1920s German animated film commercials. The ads, known as Werbefilme, roll out shadow silhouettes, molten-wax figures, and comic interweaving between live-action bodies and stop-motion animation to commoditize everything from upscale perfume to VIM Scouring Powder. In one cartoon, a man dreams of his own death and then awakens with the conviction to buy life insurance (The Bad Dream, 28, Harry Jaeger); in an erotic perfume ad, an alluring, hand-drawn female silhouette is repeatedly shadowed by a censor’s live-action hand (A Graphic Joke, 24, Louis Seel).

The framework of animation extended well beyond cartoons in this year's programs. In Dovzhenko’s “cine-poem,” Zvenigora (27), human bodies lined up among billows of clouds and one by one went under the sword, literally melting into shadows as the steel hit their flesh, in a gesture mythologizing the politics of Ukrainian Bolshevism. An entire slapstick program themed around comedienne mother-in-laws (from the EYE Archive in Amsterdam) reveled in the madness of “real” bodies that behaved more fantastically than cartoon characters. In Polidor Against His Mother-in-Law (1912), Polidor enlists the Italian military to rid himself of his pesky in-law by claiming that his wife’s mother is in fact a transvestite evading active duty. Italian comic Ernesto Vaser in Finalmente Soli (1912) rids his marital bed of an especially clingy mother-in-law by launching her into space in a helium balloon. He and his wife happily watch her float out their window.

The tactility of today’s encounters with mediated images—through everything from touch-screens to the simulated multiple dimensions of ever-expanding screens—found its silent counterpart in the festival’s saturation with slapstick and trick films. While narrative cinema was becoming a less embodied and more immersive experience throughout the “cultural uplift” campaigns of the 1910s, comedies and trick films yielded self-reflexive horizons for the medium to stage encounters with its own cinematic vision. In Tit for Tat (1906, Gaston Velle), which was the iconic subject of this year’s festival poster, winged fairies are miniaturized under the lens of a scientist’s dissecting gaze with a microscope, literally representing the ways in which the spectator’s own viewing position was then becoming more private and less collective.

In the early days of the medium when vaudeville theaters played short films as their closers or “chasers,” viewers used to get up, walk around, socialize with their neighbors, and even face away from the screen and marvel at the projector. Even if film audiences later in the silent era had learned to stay put in their seats, slapstick and trick films sustained elements of the early films’ more embodied modes of address. These comic obsessions with imagining the body’s liberation from its own constraints shadowed the trick film into the classical era. Whether it was Raymond Griffith’s successful use of clay pigeons to distract a firing squad in his Civil War satire Hands Up! (26, Clarence Badger), or Laurel and Hardy’s stunt exchanging trousers atop a teetering, 20-story construction tower in Liberty (29, Leo McCarey), seeing the human body defy the laws of physics provoked great mirth in the Teatro Verdi.

The Weavers Friedrich Zelnik

The Weavers

While the fantasy of unearthing and resurrecting lost and forgotten histories animates the Pordenone imagination, The Canon Revisited is the festival’s bread and butter. Giornate director David Robinson staged a special screening of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc at the Pordenone Cathedral with live orchestral accompaniment. Dreyer’s meditative attempts to create a visual testimony of Joan of Arc’s trials through penetrating close-ups of the heretic saint’s face laid the groundwork for reconstructing a silent film “canon” about the social politics of human repression. Drawing mostly on German and Soviet cinema, the 2012 canon traced the interwar politics of economic fragility and their relation to ongoing revolutionary transformations in Europe. Through the human toll of the stock exchange depicted in Pabst’s The Joyless Street (25) and the violent uprising of oppressed textile workers dramatized in The Weavers (27, Friedrich Zelnik), Weimar cinema rubbed shoulders with Soviet montage. Vsevolod Pudovkin’s final film, Life Is Beautiful (32), shifted the canon’s anguish with a tale about the absolute turmoil of daily privation in the wake of revolutionary upheaval in Russia.

After attending upwards of 10 hours of silent film screenings per day, it is hard to say whether Pordenone attendees left with a clearer sense of silent cinema’s legacy, or a more muddled one. Perhaps it was clearer for being more muddled.

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