The 30th Annual Pordenone Silent Film Festival

Maggie Hennefeld

October 1-8, 2011

Pordenone, Italy


The annual Silent Film Festival (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto) has been attracting increasingly larger and more youthful crowds of silent film enthusiasts to Pordenone, Italy. Inhabiting a media culture in which portable film screens feel more and more like sensory extensions of one’s own body—from the iPod Touch to the all-encompassing, visceral thrills of 3-D IMAX—it is nothing short of spectacular to witness a hand-tinted, science-fiction film from 1902 manage to fill Pordenone’s palatial Teatro Verdi to the limits of its capacity.


Georges Méliès’ 1902 classic, A Trip to the Moon, which presciently figures French fantasies of moon imperialism, was controversially exhibited with restored original tinting and a contemporary, experimental musical score by AIR—the “purists” in the crowd actually booed during the screening.


Le Giornate started running in September1982 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. Now in its 30th year running, the festival has just celebrated its anniversary with a week-long program covering an impressive breadth of silent cinema: everything from early cinema (1895-1909) to 1920s Soviet “Eccentric” filmmaking (Shostakovich / FEKS), to early ‘20s Japanese anime, to a recently unearthed print of “Alfred Hitchcock’s first film,” The White Shadow (1924), which turned up last year in a New Zealand film archive. Although still missing multiple reels of footage, The White Shadow flaunts unmistakably Hitchcockian themes: The title refers to the “purity” of romantic desire for the same man that passes between two identical twin sisters only upon the event of one of their deaths.

Indeed, despite these films’ strange conventions and historically remote contexts, the festival pulses with a sense of cultural immediacy and with the excitement of novelty and innovation. Yet, how do the conventions of a ‘20s Italian melodrama about religious piety (La Grazia, 1929), or of a Georgian agitprop film about the Bolshevik underground printing press (Amerikanka, 1930) speak to our present-day cultural fantasies and anxieties? What lure do these strange and distant films hold for viewers in 2011? Many festival attendees emphasize the sense of community that has sprouted around silent film culture, and the excitement created by the liveness of the film performances. All of the festival screenings feature live musical accompaniment, which is how most films were exhibited during the so-called “silent” era.


Now more than ever, film has become such a privatized medium, with the popularity of home theaters and increasingly insular nature of the public viewing experience—for example, the proliferation of 3-D glasses. The experience of viewing films while identifying as part of a public community, unified by an appetite for revisiting the international “origins” of cinema, has indeed fostered this growing fascination with films from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The outdoor restaurants, cafés, and gelaterias in the sunny northern Italian village of Pordenone turn into veritable public spheres for the discussion of silent cinema inbetween festival screenings.


“The Canon Revisited” program, described by Mark from Bristol (a festival vet 10-years-running), is “the other big innovation [in addition to the student Collegium (which provides students from around the world with scholarships to attend the festival and to participate in daily discussions about the film screenings ) that has brought a more youthful crowd to the festival] of the last couple of years—and a highly welcome one. Although I'm knocking on in age, I found silents relatively recently, so the chance to see well-known classics…is as welcome to me as to the new generation of archivists, academics and enthusiasts coming up.”

This year’s Canons revisited included Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus (1928); German émigré director Joe May’s Asphalt (Ufa, 1929); Kenneth Macpherson’s avant-garde film Borderline (1930) which stars the famously blacklisted African-American performer Paul Robeson and his wife Eslanda; and Fridrikh Ermler’s Russian war “sleeper” A Fragment of an Empire (Sovkino, 1929), about a Russian Imperial Soldier who sleeps through 10 years of Soviet historical transformations: “He awakens from the shellshock of war to encounter the shellshock of modernity,” says Anton Kaes, Professor of Film & Media Studies at U.C. Berkeley.


“The Classics are The Classics for a reason; The Circus and The Wind [Victor Sjostrom, 1928] presented as they should be, big screen, big orchestra, big audience,” says one longtime festival-goer. In addition to their majestic exhibitions, many of these films are screened in forms unseen for over a century. Missing reels from films long deemed “lost” or “forgotten” are now being unearthed every day in archives around the world.


The innovations of digital technology play a big part in this process, facilitating the reconstruction of rapidly deteriorating nitrate prints and paper print records than may once have been deemed beyond salvation. It is a fallacy just to associate digital technology with the CGI spectacle championed by filmmakers such as James Cameron and Christopher Nolan. Digital innovations in filmmaking are just as crucial for the prolific silent filmmakers who have all but dropped out of film history.


For example, many works by the first-wave feminist filmmaker Lois Weber, director of Shoes (1916), Birth Control (1917), and Where Are My Children? (1916), have been recently rediscovered and restored, and are now on the docket for the Bologna Silent Film Festival  in July, 2012. Indeed, Le Giornate, and other silent film festivals such as Bologna and San Francisco, provide crucial venues for exhibiting breakthrough innovations in silent film archiving: both resurrecting lost or “forgotten” films and for establishing renovated and restored versions of already well-known films.


This year the festival opened with a sold-out screening of Kozintzev and Trauberg’s New Babylon (FEKS, Soviet Factory of the Eccentric Actor, 1929), a film depicting the history of the Paris Commune and French workers’ 1871 siege of Paris after the fall of the Third Republic to the Prussians. New Babylon screened with over 700 meters of missing film footage and with Shostakovich’s original musical score, which had been deemed lost by the composer upon his death and was only later discovered at the Lenin Library in Moscow. Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus (1928), which climaxes with a death-defying slapstick feat wherein Chaplin performs an impromptu tightrope walk while being pursued by a horde of wild monkeys, played with an original musical performance later recorded by Chaplin (at age 80) and layered over the opening titles.

The festival’s “Rediscoveries and Restorations” abounded, documenting diverse histories of political struggle and progressivism, many of which are, revealingly, filtered through satirical or comedic forms. In one particularly “striking” example from 1911, Jane on Strike, slapstick comedienne Sarah Duhamel plays a union head who comically wreaks havoc on the home of her bourgeois employers until they concede to better pay and working conditions for their domestic employees. It is still positively gleeful in 2011 to watch household dishes fly about and shatter, and to see these images of domestic destruction as potential harbingers of political progress. The audience response was uproarious.


In contrast, other films provided a more troubling lens through which to view silent film culture and politics: important pieces of evidence that disrupt our own impulses to romanticize the original contexts of these films’ productions and exhibitions. For example, a slapstick short, The Watermelon Patch (Edison, 1905), indulges in crude caricatures of African-Americans who raid a white farmer’s watermelon patch and are then pursued, ridiculed and all but burnt alive in retribution. Good and bad, all of these films represent significant forms of historical evidence—a window onto the cultural ideologies and aesthetic conventions that have shaped and continue to shape our own prejudices and unconscious anxieties up to the present day.


The different forms and moments of silent cinema represented in an annual Pordenone program create a patchwork: “There is something for everyone, but there is also the challenge to absorb films that you wouldn’t normally engage with,” asserts a Collegium student. From all over the world, everyone from students and academics, to film archivists, to filmmakers and producers, to northern Italian locals, to cinephilically-inclined tourists turn out to view the heterogeneous festival fare.


This year’s 2011 program dedicated significant space to Soviet and Eastern European films—with separate strands for Georgian cinema, Shostakovich/FEKS (Soviet Factory of the Eccentric Actor), and “Kertesz Before Curtiz” (Casablanca director Michael Curtiz’s early work in Hungary and then in Vienna where he directed dozens of silent films). Other programming themes covered quite a lot of ground. “Treasures of the West” compiled features from a recent DVD release by the same name, including Salomy Jane (1914), Lady of the Dugout (1918), and Mantrap (1926).

Some of the early cinema created greater narrative challenges for the festival audience, given the very different formal conventions employed during the first decade of the medium. During the early 1900s, many films were exhibited with live lecturers who would explain the films’ meanings for the audience before cinema itself possessed a developed syntax for doing so. Interpretive obstacles no doubt motivated the heavy presence on the early cinema program of slapstick gag or chase comedies, magic trick films, and stories adapted from well-known, preexisting mythical or literary narratives.


The early Japanese Anime program was also a big hit. One viewer exclaimed: “Far and away the best silent animations I've seen! Story of The Crab Temple [Hidehiko Okuda, 1924], Lumps [Yasuji Murata, 1929], and Two Worlds [Yasuji Murata, 1929]… Technically excellent, but already pushing towards cinematic art, way ahead of the Western world.” Pordenone schoolchildren flocked to the theater for the Disney Laugh-O-Grams lineup, including pre-Mickey Disney attractions such as Jack the Giant Killer (1923), The Four Musicians of Bremen (1922), and Tommy Tucker’s Tooth (1922).


“The Race to the Pole” films retraced The Heroic Era of Arctic polar expedition by many of  the modern world’s “great nations.” Reto Kromer, a Swiss film archivist who has attended the festival all but two years since 1986, named South—Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic (Great Britain, 1919) as his favorite film of 2011: “In my opinion the scenes showing the Endurance slowly being crushed by the ice are ones of the most impressive ever.” Some themes will never grow old: When you take a camera to the limits of the industrialized world, documenting the struggle of humankind to excavate the physical extremities of nature, audiences will find this gripping. 


One surprisingly controversial feature of the programming this year emerged in reaction to “The Twenty-First Century Silents.” An admirable attempt by the programmers to engage young filmmakers in the ethos of silent film production made for some genuinely awkward moments during the screenings. A festival attendee who prefers to remain anonymous: “Filmmakers who think they can homage/impersonate Chaplin or Keaton, and haven't been honing their physical comedy skills on a professional stage since childhood like they's actually cruel to encourage them, and I felt embarrassed for them as the silent tumbleweed rolled across The Verdi. The films had a couple of nice ideas, each, and the gents may make good filmmakers, but not like that.”


This day and age, with the rise of YouTube and DIY media culture, and the omnipresence of affordable filmmaking equipment and post-production software, it seems everyone is an aspiring filmmaker. However, the 21st century documentary “portraits,” such as Peter Flynn’s outstanding work Blazing the Trail about the Kalem film company’s production unit in Ireland in the 19-teens, fared significantly better at the festival than the “Twenty-First Century Silents.”


Apparently, this audience is significantly more sympathetic to feats of film preservation than to attempts at mimicry or reenactment—a truth attested to by the packed house for Kevin Brownlow’s powerpoint slideshow about his archival restoration of Abel Gance’s 1929 French biopic of Napoléon (which is premiering in a fully restored, multi-screen version at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, Calif., this March, 2012).


In a culture like ours, one that is absolutely obsessed with remixing and remashing all of its archival memories, it remains unclear whether the history of silent cinema will have a future in mainstream film reception. Regardless, the devoted niche of silent film enthusiasts who congregate every year at festivals like Pordenone, voracious to witness the resurrection of undead screen histories, has already proven to be an enduring fixture of our 21st century film culture.


Author Bio:

Maggie Hennefeld hails from Brooklyn, NY and currently lives in Providence, R.I., studying in a Modern Culture and Media Ph.D. Program at Brown University. She worked for four years during college as a writer and section editor of 34th Street, the weekly Arts and Entertainment magazine of The Daily Pennsylvanian. Maggie has published in academic journals including Screen, Media Fields, and CUREJ. She plans to write her dissertation about early slapstick film comedy, gender, and the politics of modernity.

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