The bold, the brilliant, the bonkers

12th October 2012

There is a significant sense in which early and silent cinema is less finished than features and television today. The film world on show in Pordenone at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto is, for much of the time, one of fragments, of moments, of individual elements that are not controlled and constrained by the conventions of mainstream narrative. That is (part of) the reason why this cinema is so compelling, so surprising and so strange – even as it can also offer the familiar pleasures of what now rather unthinkingly call the cinema. As a recognition – and an elaboration – of this, here are notes about ten moments from the films I’ve seen this week, moments that are bold or brilliant or just plain bonkers (and sometimes more than one). Below, you’ll find links to the exemplary daily blog by Silent London that will give you a better (and more informed) sense than I can of Pordenone’s offerings this week. Remember too that you can find the full text here as a .pdf of Pordenone’s excellent 192-page catalogue, with full details of the films below.


For sheer strangeness, the exquisitely hand-coloured fantasy short La Peine du Talion, made by Gaston Velle (and illustrated above), takes some beating. Butterfly hunters have the tables turned on them by the insects they are hunting (that’s them above) as well as a couple of impressive looking locusts.


In the same assortment of early cinema, and also from the National Film and Sound Archive, Australia, was a conventional French travelogue from 1904 titled Excursion in Italy. But after endless shots of gondolas on the Grand Canal in Venice and before we made the virtual trip to Rome, the shot below came up on screen – and somehow it was as if the world of Henry James had leapt across more than a century to reveal itself in an exquisite composition of blacks and greys. The artless immediacy of this had for me at that moment a unique beauty.

Pigeons in St Mark's Square, Venice, National Film and Sound Archive, Australia


The Cowboy Millionaire, 1913, is a tale of a rough rider who inherits a fortune, moves to Chicago where he marries the public notary’s stenographer and then invites his frontier friends to pay them both a visit. Its familiar fish-out-of-water theme is treated with an entirely infectious energy, and there’s a great travelling shot of the good ol’ boys on their horses riding through suburban streets behind our hero in his newly purchased motor. But the most intriguing image comes when they all go for a night out at the theatre – and the cowboys believe the play to be real and start shooting at the villain. Again, it’s a familiar idea – out-of-town rubes mistake artifice, whether on screen or stage, for actuality – but it is achieved here with great economy and effectiveness.


One of the coups of Pordenone this year was the presentation of a newly restored Georges Méliès film, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 1902. Pamela Hutchinson (for more of whom, see below) wrote an informative piece for the Guardian last week about this 12-minute extravaganza, which was accompanied at the festival by Paul McGann’s narration of Méliès’ own words. It closes with an ‘apotheosis’ that is more definitely both brilliant and bonkers.


I am happy to admit that throughout almost all of Dovzhenko’s strange hymn to the Ukraine, Zvenyhora, 1927, I had not a clue quite what was going on. Part folk tale, part mystical hymn to the land, part celebration of Soviet achievement, part medieval morality drama, part family saga (even if grandad appeared to last for more than a millennium through the film), and part story of the post-revolutionary civil war (even if it was hard to work out which side we should be on), this was a profound puzzle – but at the same time a thrilling intellectual and emotional challenge. Of how many films can the same be said?


Staying with the Soviets, the Anna Sten movie Earth in Chains, 1927, directed by Fyodor Otsep, is packed with memorable imagery. Towards the end Anna’s character, who is a virtuous woman brought low by the perfidy of men and the ruling classes, is working in a whorehouse. An intense montage suggesting the sexual depravity of the place culminates in a moment in which two men, who have been singled out as notably ugly and unpleasant, kiss each other fulsomely on the lips. The shot has a remarkable charge, but the film is quickly spinning off in a whirlwind narrative that eventually sees redemption for the poor but happy couple at its centre.


The Stage-coach Driver and the Girl is an early Tom Mix western short, produced in 1915. Much of it is fairly formulaic, although of course it is interesting to see the genre at this early and still comparatively unformed moment. Our hero is in charge of the coach in which a smart and sassy woman from the east is making a trip to the frontier. The coach is also carrying a payroll, which is the object of attention for a group the baddies who set an ambush. The coach has rolled over onto its side and Tom is just about keeping the villains at bay. Then there is an astonishing cut to a high camera position looking down into the valley with the coach at the bottom. The camera tilts up a mountain opposite and just as the shot settles on the ridge tiny figures of the rescuers appear on the brow and then gallop down and down to put all to rights. Quite how, in the days before on-set radios or mobile phones, such a shot could have been co-ordinated so perfectly left the producer in me awe-struck.


There is something bizarre and, yes, bonkers, about restoring and projecting a shot from a Technicolor film from 1929 called The Show of Shows that lasts only four seconds. Far too brief for a viewer to sense of, this sliver of the opening apparently features a ‘Curtain of Stars’ with more than twenty famous heads – including Myrna Loy, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Rin-Tin-Tin – poking through. But there is little chance of making any of this out as the image has gone almost as soon as it appears. Yet the attention that has been lavished on the preservation of this, and of numerous other fragments and full films on display in Pordenone, is deeply impressive.


I have already enthused – in this post – about the Phono-Cinema-Théâtre event, but another selection of early cinema featured an additional song that was apparently made by the same company but was not included in the 1900 line-up. Après la bataille is a song from a soldier’s girl about how excited she is to see the troops in action, and it appears to be precisely synchronised. Yet the sound would have been recorded first – with the singer’s head inside a capacious horn – and then the performance for the camera would have been shot later. And indeed in this case, it seems that the voice is that of the well-known Mily-Meyer and the figure on stage to be someone quite different. Even though the performer on the screen remains unidentified, she is clearly rather younger than Ms Mily-Meyer who would have been 48 at the time the film was made. Particularly delightful was the way in which this unknown singer at the end left the frame and then came back ‘on’ to bow and acknowledge our enthusiastic applause.


And finally… a recognition not of a particular scene, but rather of the many prints that I watched during the week with highly visible decomposition of the image in parts. Again and again, thrown onto the screen was the evidence of both the fragility of film and also its resilience – and in the bubbles and bulges and balloons of decay there is something both beautiful and poignant – as we learned a decade back from Bill Morrison’s 2002 film Decasia, of which this is a short extract:


Links to daily reports from Pamela Hutchinson’s Silent London posts from Pordenone…
Day 1
Introduction, Georges Melies’ The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 1902, and The Patsy, 1929, directed by King Vidor.
Day 2
Anna Sten in Earth in Chains, 1927; The Goose Woman, 1925; and some crazy German animation – which I missed out on completely.
Day 3
A devil of a lot of Dickens and some slivers of restored early colour.
Day 4
The Spanish Dancer, 1923, with Pola Negri; Die Weber, 1926, from Germany; and Dovzhenko’s ‘bewildering’ Zvenyhora, 1927.
Day 5
Early cinema treats, Selig’s 1914 The Spoilers, and more Anna Sten in Moi Syn, 1928.
Day 6
‘Soviet montage, German arthouse, a British drama, Dickens in Danish, early sound films and a big, fat two-strip Technicolor feature in the evening.’

Also, Nathalie Morris has written a great post from Pordenone for the BFI blog.

Header image: a screen grab from the French film La Peine du talion  (Tit for Tat), 1906, courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive, Australia.

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