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A Language of Their Own

Interntional Silent Film Festival

Pordenone, Italy

For sixteen years now, the International Silent Film Festival (Giornate del Cinema Muto) has been unearthing buried treasures from all around the world—this year’s finds were from China, reflecting a crucial period in that country’s history. Virtually every major restorer, archivist, or film historian of the movies’ first three decades converges in October on Pordenone, a prosperous town in Friuli that has a beautiful medieval core.

Pordenone is forty-five miles north of the more expectable place, Venice. But devotees of the conference are very loyal to its history in this region. It had its origins in a real-life episode that seems too good to be true, like an excerpt from Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, where people discover the uses of film laughter in adversity. The Friuli earthquake of 1976 hit the town of Spilembergo particularly hard. People were living in makeshift gathering places. Film clubs from neighboring towns, including Pordenone, drew on their pool of old silent comedies—Sennett, Chaplin, Keaton—to entertain and distract the earthquake’s victims.

A realization that there were some people intensely interested in silent film, and knowledgeable about it, led to an annual event that rapidly escalated in its ambitions and in the response from scholars who were called on to contribute their knowledge and curatorial expertise. All old films, but especially those from the earliest years of cinema, are endangered—lost, crumbling, rotting, needing transfer to more stable formats. Those dedicated to finding and saving these films need allies, and they now have a common center and clearinghouse for their efforts. The festival has a scholarly publishing series—catalogs, monographs, and its own annual journal, Griffithiana.

The year 1976 was not the first time Pordenone had performed a service for Spilembergo. The painter Pordenone (Antonio de’ Sacchis, always known by the name of his home town) supplied Spilembergo with its principal artistic treasure in 1524—painted panels for the large organ in the town’s main church. Closed, the panels show a Virgin Mary spiraling upward, at her Assumption, in a rocket fume of angels. Opened, the panels show two scenes of men falling—Simon Magus plunging from a tower and Saint Paul spun around at his conversion and sliding backward down the neck of his horse. The interplay of these vigorous soaring and plunging figures seems already to have the spirit of cinema, and the action of Paul, who strikes back at God’s light with the battle-axe he carries, made me think of an entry in this year’s Griffithiana. Yuri Tsivian, writing about Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, quotes a claim that “no one will ever be able to account for the effect of the gesture with which the pugilistic father, as he is being shot, draws back his arm as if to strike back his very death.”

The town Pordenone itself took its enduring shape from a disaster. After a consuming fire in 1318, the town’s one main street was lined on both sides with walls of contiguous houses, built of brick and observing strict regulations of height and frontal alignment. In the sixteenth century this rigid formula was softened with frescoing on all the façades, which must have made a walk down its tunnel like the reading of film spools unrolling on either side. Some dim traces of earlier frescoing are still visible, including (in a side street) the large female nudes of a “Judgment of Paris.”

On another side street the Teatro Verdi, a 1922 art-deco “movie palace,” holds the two viewing rooms for the festival—most 35mm films are shown in the main auditorium, and the 16mm ones in the basement called “Little Verdi” (Ridotto del Verdi). This year the festival began one of its most ambitious projects, a complete retrospective of all the discovered or discoverable films in which D.W. Griffith acted, or which he directed, scripted, or superintended. The retrospective began with over ninety of the one-reelers Griffith made in 1908 alone (at the outset more as an actor than as director). Scholars long ago saw through the fake claim that Griffith “invented” every film technique from the close-up to cross-cutting. But they also know that, even as early as 1908, his first year as a director, he developed a distinctive narrative style.

Tom Gunning, of the University of Chicago, a festival stalwart who wrote some of the brief but learned comments on the films in this year’s program, concentrated on the years 1908 and 1909 in his immensely influential book D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film (1991). At Pordenone people could test his claims for Griffith’s power in “parallel editing”—the flicking back and forth that does not dissipate but concentrates the impact of simultaneous actions. In The Fatal Hour, for example, insistent shots of a ticking clock anticipate later uses of this device (as in High Noon) to make ever more urgent the convergence of separate efforts toward a doomed encounter.

These would be lost films except for the fact that the companies wanting to protect their products submitted “paper prints” on bromide paper to the Library of Congress (movies were not covered by copyright before 1912, but still “photographs”—even hundred-foot-long ones—were). These ancient rolls were almost thrown out in 1940, but Archibald MacLeish, then the Librarian of Congress, recognized their importance. In the 1950s the images were transferred to 16mm film (intertitles were not included in the “photographs”).

David Robinson, the British film scholar who became director of the festival this year, told me he would have delayed the retrospective if he had taken over earlier because better transfers of the prints to 35mm film are currently being made. Watching a hundred fuzzy prints in a week, with no intertitles to explain some of the action, can try even a scholar’s concentration.

We always wanted the festival to be fun,” Robinson says, and he scheduled a showing of Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, with full orchestral accompaniment, to remind people of the glories that lay ahead in Griffith’s career. The movie’s racism makes full-scale screenings of it subject to protest. “If we can get away with it anywhere, it is here,” Robinson said—and even so there were two discrete boos (it sounded like the same voice) when, at the end of the show, Griffith’s portrait was flashed on the screen. John Lanchbery, the composer and conductor who led the orchestra, composed for the closing night’s party a satirical song to Griffith called “We Are the Men of the K.K.K.”

Lanchbery was recruited to reshape the original score for The Birth of a Nation by David Gill, who used to dance in the Sadlers Wells ballet company when Lanchbery was its music director. Gill is best known as a great restorer of silent films in collaboration with Kevin Brownlow. Their most famous achievement was the discovery and reassembling of scattered footage from Abel Gance’s masterpiece, Napoleon (1927). Lanchbery, Gill, and Brownlow recently completed a restoration of an orchestrally accompanied and properly tinted print of John Ford’s The Iron Horse, made in 1924. Since Lanchbery was coming to Pordenone for The Birth of a Nation, Gill had the idea of closing the festival with a live orchestra playing Lanchbery’s music for The Iron Horse under his direction. But enough money could not be scraped together to hold the orchestra in town for a whole week. By the time Robinson and Gill, by energetic begging (from Italy’s radio and television companies RAI, and the Guggenheim Museum, among other places), came up with the money, the orchestra had signed a contract to go elsewhere.

The whole festival was overshadowed by the death, just before it opened this year, of Gill, who had long been a part of it. Kevin Brownlow gave a moving testimonial to his partner, and Lanchbery promised to come back next year and screen The Iron Horse as they had wanted to do this year. The 1997 Griffithiana already was printing Gill’s article on the restoration of The Birth of a Nation, and a box of appreciation of him and his work was added to it.

History has favored the festival through the opening up of vaults long sealed to most of the world. When the Iron Curtain came down, scholars who thought of Russian cinema as coming to life in the Soviet period, of Eisenstein and others, discovered that there had been a flourishing film industry under the tsars. When East Berlin opened up, the festival showed important work made before the time of the well-known expressionists (Lang and Murnau). This year, China sent a large sampling of its film genre—silent films were still being made until the mid-1930s in China, years after the rest of the world had changed to “talkies.”

The real discovery of the Chinese films is the stunning actress Ruan Lingyu, who committed suicide when she was twenty-five, after making twenty-nine movies in nine years. She has the glow of Carole Lombard, an infectious smile, a hurt tenderness. With her slender figure and cropped hair, she seemed meant to play a flapper of the late Twenties and early Thirties; but the Communist Party was taking over the Shanghai arts scene at just this time, and she was doomed to suffer in plots that show how misguided is the yearning for urbanism, Western styles, and glamour. This creates an unintended pathos in her performances as we watch this bird of paradise flutter in didactic cages.

In National Style (1935), for instance, Ruan and her sister (played by an earthier beauty, Li Lili) leave their village for university training to become teachers. When Lili, corrupted by city life, goes back to her village without Ruan, she has stolen her sister’s boyfriend. Only at the end does Ruan return and reclaim her lover. The separation of the sisters means that Ruan, the star, is missing throughout the movie’s last half—her return uses shots of an earlier meeting with the lover. If she did not commit suicide while the film was being made, her mental breakdown obviously took her off the set—a parallel with Jean Harlow’s disappearance from later scenes of Saratoga (1937).

The Griffith shorts were almost all shown in the Ridotto, leaving the main auditorium open for the contributions of other countries. Germany sent treasures from the Munich film archives, especially the work of Robert Reinert (the allegories Opium and Nernes). Britain sent the little-known silent work of Maurice Elvey, who would become the most prolific moviemaker in English history (over 300 features and countless shorts by 1957). His The Flag Lieutenant (1926), Hindle Wakes (1927), and Palais de Danse (1928) show that Hitchcock drew on influences other than the German expressionists (which get so much credit for his early style). Palais de Danse ends with a chase over the roof of the dance hall with the hero and villain crashing through a skylight to dangle above a kaleidoscopically scurrying crowd—anticipating Hitchcock’s many acrophobic climaxes.

The air of discovery that Pordenone specializes in was illustrated again with a showing of Elvey’s The Story of David Lloyd George (1918), which was never released and was considered lost until 1994, when a print of it was found in the possession of Lloyd George’s grandson, confirming the suspicion that Lloyd George himself suppressed the movie as too hagiographic to be helpful to him. When the film seemed gone beyond recovery, Elvey called it his greatest work. It is hardly that, but it is interesting as a study in World War I propaganda, and Norman Page (who looks eerily like Richard Dreyfuss) gives an impassioned performance as the prime minister. The actress who plays his daughter, Alma Reville, later became Hitchcock’s wife.

Yugoslav Cinema sent a partial print of No Resurrection Without a Death, the story of the Montenegrin revolution on whose script D’Annunzio collaborated. America sent (among other things) films turned up in the 1990s at Sulphur Springs, Texas. These were made in Philadelphia by Sigmund Lubin, who pirated other films’ stories for cheap remakes, which he marketed inventively in the first years of this century. His larcenous imagination can be seen in The Life of an American Fireman (1905), which mixes footage of fire engines in action from an earlier Lubin film with plot details stolen from E.S. Porter’s famous The Life of an American Fireman (1903).

The riches constantly coming up for new viewing are apparently endless, either discovered or restored. This year there were works by Oscar Micheaux (the African-American silent filmmaker), Alberto Cavalcanti (Jean Renoir’s friend and, later, rival), plus Edison “actualities” (stunning ones of the moving sidewalk at the Paris Exposition of 1899), Meliès’s fantasies, animated silent commercials, a collection of the earliest boxing films.

It all leaves one a bit sated by the end of the week. But a British film historian said he could not get enough of it. When he was a young scholar, there were so few remains of the early years to study that he treasures each Edison and Meliès added to the score. “When I travel, I normally turn on the TV when I get back to my hotel, but not here. I want to remember when movies didn’t chatter at you.”

Many who attend are unwilling to break the spell cast by the films. These are people convinced that silent film was not a cinema manqué. It was a separate art form, with essential music (all films here are accompanied, usually by pianists from around the world who play at various film centers). Most silent films were tinted expressively—red for literal fire or figurative anger, blue for night, peach for exteriors, dim brown or green for interiors. In these movies the sense of time is surreally extended or contrasted, the body is used as an expressive instrument in ways that approach ballet. It is wrong to say these films did not speak. They spoke a different language all their own—visual, aural, emotive. They were more interior to the spectator by the very lack of certain kinds of realism. They passed straight into the viewer’s dreamlife.

The shared love of film suspends the critical animosities that some of those present have expressed toward each other in print. A family spirit prevails, helped along by the regional foods and wines of Friuli. My wife and I stayed at the hotel built around the seventeenth-century Villa Ottoboni (which has the best of Pordenone’s excellent restaurants). The Villa was the ancestral home of the Ottoboni pope, Alexander VIII (ruled 1689-1691).

The sense of community at Pordenone can be seen in nostalgic reminiscences over high points from earlier festivals, in the in-jokes and the gossip about actors long dead, but most of all in this: at the beginning of each session, the colored logo of the festival (a silhouette of the reclining Buster Keaton) is flashed on the screen, and the viewers vigorously applaud it. They are clapping for themselves. Appropriately.

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