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New Babylon Revisited
The 30th Annual Pordenone Festival of Silent Film
|Article Copyright © 2012 by Lokke Heiss. All Rights Reserved.
He was not really disappointed to find Paris was so empty. But the stillness in the Ritz bar was strange and portentous. It was not an American bar any more — he felt polite in it, and not as if he owned it. It had gone back into France. — F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Babylon Revisited”
For those of us who consider a small town in Italy home for one week every October, returning for another festival can produce a combination of awe and excitement, tinged with a little fear. As you step out of the train station and walk the few blocks to the city center, it feels like the start of a new adventure; for a week you will be a participant to sights and sounds that no one may ever experience again. But in the back of your mind a little part of you is worried that this year’s festival may not be able to match the memories of previous programs. Like the character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, you come back clear-eyed, but a little nervous.
The Pordenone Silent Film Festival is 30 years old. My first visit was the “Forgotten Laughter” year of 1994, and in the 17 years since my first visit I’ve seen it gradually transform from its origins as a ‘film collectors’ festival to a more academically rigorous examination of the art and aesthetics of silent film. As always, there is something gained and something lost in these transitions. For years the festival was held in the cavernous ‘outdated-if-film-friendly’ Verdi Theater. Eventually this building was replaced by the new Verdi, a modern, but problematic, concert hall venue. While I’ve finally adjusted to the sight-line issues, the largest problem continues to be safety — the unlighted, uneven steps almost invite slips and tumbles. (I’d feel safer searching for Erik the Phantom in the catacombs under the Paris Opera than to try to leave this theater after the lights go down.) But by now, most of us have learned the ‘Verdi shuffle,’ a process of locomotion in which you never lift your feet, but instead slowly slide them forward, holding a banister or fixed object nearby just in case. There was only one bad fall I was present for, but one fall a week is one too many.
The fiscal uncertainty of Europe, particularly Italy, left its mark on the festival. As a cost-saving move, a second, smaller theater next to the Verdi, which in the past has screened documentaries and other silent-film related projects, has been dark the last two years. Another loss is the absence of the Film Fair, a large hall where one could buy film books and memorabilia. More important than just a place to buy merchandise, this hall was an excellent place to meet new friends and escape from the noise and bustle of the theater. Finally, there has been a severe curtailment of sponsored evening programs that often featured free wine and food. The days of festival participants boasting they could go a week without paying for dinner are long gone.
This year’s program featured a collection of underappreciated Russian films, in particular a special screening of a film scored by one of the masters of 20th century classical music, composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Other features of this year’s festival include an exploration of Georgian cinema, a survey of Michael Curtiz’s work in Europe before he immigrated to America, a look at Walt Disney’s early animation, and the continuation of “the canon revisited,” an exploration of classic silent films that have typically never been screened at the festival.
Shostakovich and FEKS
The Russian Civil War caused widespread famine and economic collapse, but with these depravations came opportunity; after the end of the fighting, young filmmakers seized their chance to express themselves in ways unencumbered by a stodgy old guard view epitomized by the recently-deposed Czarist regime. This heady climate produced what film historian Denise Youngblood describes as the ‘-ists’ Stankists, Suprematists, nonobjectivists, futurists, immanentists, expressionists, futurists and cinema constructivists. While these groups squabbled among each other over the proper path for the relatively new art of film, there were other Russians interested in applying these new ways of thinking to the more traditional art of theater. In 1922, a collective was formed with the name of the Workshop of the Eccentric Actor. The group — more commonly known by the Russian acronym of their name — FEKS, published a manifesto, “Eccentrism,” detailing the virtues of their attitude of acting and the theater, which placed the author as more of an inventor-builder and admiring the vulgarity of American cinema. A famous line from a member of this group declares that “Chaplin’s bottom is dearer to us than the hand of Eleonora Duse.” Although ostensibly a theater group, FEKS showed its interest in films by staging a production of Gogol’s Marriage that had interludes featuring Chaplin comedy shorts. The result produced a local scandal, which of course is exactly what the group wanted.
Two key players in this acting troupe, Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, found themselves drawn more to filmmaking than to theater. Kozintsev had some prior film experience, working with the ‘agitprop trains’ a propaganda tool in the Civil War, in which boxcars were converted into facilities for projecting and developing film (these cars became a way to disseminate information to distant villages detailing the government’s position on a variety of issues). Recruiting actors and other collaborators from FEKS, they produced and directed a series of films, including The Devil’s Wheel, The Overcoat, and their last film, New Babylon.
Chyortovo koleso [The Devil’s Wheel] (1926) is a story of a sailor, Shorin (Pyotr Sobolievsky) who while on shore leave at an amusement park, meets a girl, Valya (Liudmila Semyonova). Together they ride a roller coaster named the Devil’s Wheel. Choosing to be with Valya, Shorin deserts his ship and finds himself living with criminals in the demimonde world of Petrograd. The story shifts to crime melodrama as Shorin becomes involved with the criminal underworld, but he eventually chooses to expose the head criminal, a stage magician called “The Question Man,” and he returns to his ship to face trial for his desertion. The Devil’s Wheel was originally an ambitious two-hour spy story with locations shifting around Europe. The film was soon reedited by censors, dropping the spy story and reducing the running time of the film from two hours to one. The opening scenes are wonderfully compelling, with dramatic photography of the sailors enjoying the amusement park. Unfortunately, the heavy editing by the censors becomes quickly apparent after the sailor decides to leave his ship with the story increasingly confusing until the climax becomes a confused muddle of unconnected scenes. Sadly, in its current condition The Devil’s Wheel is more a story about ‘what could have been’ than ‘what is.’ Still, perhaps the first twenty minutes, a violent clash of editing styles alternating between the humanity of the crowd pitted against the nightmarish carnival, speaks to the essence of what FEKS was trying to do — use maximum contrast in order to shock and to surprise the viewer.
A more successful, or at least more complete film is S.V.D. Soyuz veligovo dela (The Club of the Great Deed) (1927), the story of a platoon of soldiers caught up in the Decembrist uprising of 1825. The film does an excellent job of following the precarious situation of these soldiers, who are faced with the dilemma of whether or not to declare allegiance to the new Tsar, Nicholas I. The highlight of the film takes place when a young revolutionary officer must flee for his life and takes refuge in a circus. The officer hides among the clowns and acrobats — their whimsical life a stark contrast to his desperate situation, and for a few wonderful minutes the filmmakers are able to combine their interest in politics and the carnivalesque, at least briefly connecting this film to the large number of circus films made across the world in the late 1920s.
Next was a FEKS production of the famous story by Gogol, Shinel’ [The Overcoat] (1926). The pedigree of this production was high, with elements of other stories such as “Nevsky Prospect” brought in to expand some of the themes. In this production of The Overcoat, a poor scrivener Akakiy Bashmachkin (Andrei Kostrichkin) finds that his overcoat is so threadbare that his tailor cannot repair it. In abject poverty, he is forced to scrap and save even more. Focusing on this goal above all else, he finally is able to purchase a new coat, but it is quickly stolen, sending him to despair and eventual death. Kozintsev explained the principles employed in making his version of The Overcoat: “From the cameraman’s viewpoint we were interested in obtaining an extremely pictorial photography. We wanted to get away as far as possible from the external form of the costume; we wanted to convey to the audience the atmosphere of the epoch.” Perhaps he should have been asked, “Which epoch?” because to modern eyes the film looks not like Tsarist Russia, but more like textbook 1920s German Expressionism, with stylized acting, set design and lighting. The filmmakers rejected claims that Shinel was derivative of Expressionism (“they held Caligari in great distaste”), but its influence is so obvious in this film that one must conclude that Expressionism was casting long shadows over a multitude of art movements in 1926. Whatever the intent, the result of this imposed style, along with a certain disdain regarding the lead characters, produces a film that is a cold, formalistic exercise, lacking the humanistic aspect that has made Gogol’s The Overcoat into one of the most anthologized of all stories.
Kozintsev and Trauberg clearly were more comfortable in working with larger-than-life characters and stories with an epic sweep, and they would get their chance with Novyi Vavilon [New Babylon] (1929), a film described by film critic Jay Leyda as “the glittering climax of Soviet silent cinema.” The story begins in Paris, just before the start of the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, where the locals ignore the approaching conflict and continue to party. In the midst of the carnival atmosphere, a romance blossoms between a soldier, Jean (Pyotr Sobolievsky) and Louise, a shop-girl, (Yelena Kuzmina). The war begins, and the French forces are quickly defeated and forced to sign a preliminary peace treaty, Paris becoming an occupied city. The working-class Parisians, feeling their government has betrayed them, rally and form what would become the Paris Commune. After Louise joins their ranks, Jean must choose between their radical politics and his duty as a soldier, a duty that becomes increasingly questionable since he is now essentially serving an occupying force that had been his enemy.
The Paris Commune was a favorite subject of Soviet filmmakers. It allowed them to do a historical drama with an unquestioned socialist connection, since Marx and his followers considered this uprising the first clear step towards the Communist movement. Kozintsev and Trauberg traveled to Paris for location shooting and their research included learning about the famous Le Bon Marché located on Rue de Babylone. This department store had been written about by Zola and would be the subject itself of a visually stunning French film, Au bonheur des dames in 1930 (the back-to-back screening of Au bonheur des dames and New Babylon would make for an eye-popping double-feature). In their search for talented collaborators, Kozintsev and Trauberg asked a 24-year-old, relatively unknown composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, if he wanted to score their film. Working as a movie theater pianist to pay for his room and board (he wasn’t just any accompanist, he used the gigs to work on passages of his First Symphony) Shostakovich eagerly took on the assignment.
As often happened in projects of this nature, ambition overtook practicality, and with last-minute cuts to both the film and the music not quite finalized, the film opened to an uncomprehending public. Shostakovich’s original score was quickly shelved, and only recently have audiences been able to see the film together with the music in the way it was originally intended. I am a firm believer that in the world of silent film, there cannot be two masters, and the music should always serve the film — otherwise you have the tail wagging the dog. But not every score is written by someone with the talent of Shostakovich. My sense of watching this performance of New Babylon was that images and music blended together perfectly to form an experience different from either the movie theater or the concert hall. As David Robinson explains in the festival program, the filmmakers achieved an “inseparable integration of music and image, a neo-operatic medium never paralleled, unique to this work.” After watching New Babylon on the festival’s opening night — a rousing performance followed by multiple standing ovations, I thought: Where else could I see something like this?
In other words, this is why you come to Pordenone.
While the formal association of FEKS ended with New Babylon, both Kozintsev and Trauberg would go on to have long careers in Soviet Russia’s sound era, which included controversial films made during the Stalin regime. Shostakovich would go on to work with many different directors and write scores for more than 40 films, and in its tribute to one of the most important composers of the 20th century, the festival screened some of his films made in sound era. One such piece was a delightful ‘cartoon-opera’ titled Skazka o glupom myshonke [The Story of the Silly Little Mouse] (1940), directed by Mikhail Tsekhanovsky and based on a story by Samuil Marshak, one of the most popular of Russian children’s writers. In this fairy tale, a mother mouse asks for help from the neighboring animals to get her child to sleep. Despite the efforts of a progression of animals, including a goose, a pig, a horse, a toad, and even a trout from the nearby pond, the ‘silly little mouse’ refuses to go to sleep. Finally, in desperation the animals turn to a gypsy cat, who, using her feline guile, succeeds in putting the mouse to bed. But the next morning the mother mouse is horrified to find her child is gone and the animals start a desperate search for her baby before it becomes breakfast for the cat. Shostakovich’s catchy score — essentially a striking and wistful lullaby — beautifully complements the animation. The Story of the Silly Little Mouse has a universal appeal (similar to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf) and deserves to be better known.
Georgia on Our Mind
The size of West Virginia, and surrounded by Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Black Sea, Georgia is a crossroads between Eastern and Western cultures, and has a long and rich cultural film history. Italian film director Federico Fellini was an admirer, stating “Georgian film is a completely unique phenomenon, vivid, philosophically inspiring, very wise, childlike. There is everything that can make me cry and I ought to say that it (my crying) is not an easy thing.” Despite all this, the world of Georgian film is terra incognita to all but a few film specialists. When George Valentin’s character escapes from Georgia in the contemporary silent film The Artist, this scene may be as close as most of us have gotten to a silent film that has even the remotest connection with this country.
Time constraints forced the festival to focus on films made in the late silent era by directors who, like the FEKS directors, would go on to have long careers in the Soviet Union. One such director was Lev Push, who filmed Gantsirulni [The Doomed] in 1930. Continuing the theme of Soviet films set in France, this film details the plight of a Russian expeditionary force that found itself on the wrong side of lines after the Russian Revolution of October 1917. After assuming power, the new Soviet state was faced with a vexing problem; there were large numbers of troops scattered across Europe with loyalties to the old regime. These troops were potential enemies, and along with the large number of émigrés who left after the revolution, their unification into a military force was clearly a threat to the state. Even though many of the soldiers might have been sympathetic to the new regime, because of their location, they have had no chance to make a personal decision in the matter and through no fault of their own, they had become men without a country. The Doomed charts the fate of this expeditionary force, who even though they declare their allegiance to the new Communist state, must endure a complex series of crosses and double-crosses. In the end, the political realties are painfully clear to all the soldiers: they are now a liability, a problem that everyone wishes would just go away, and they must take action on their own if there is to be a solution. The Doomed is an artful combination of propaganda, romantic melodrama and compilation documentary, however the film did not receive favor in the Soviet press, one critic complaining that the film was “a simple pretext to construct a cheap adventure drama with emasculated socio-political content.” Probably what really bothered the critics was that The Doomed takes place in a morally ambiguous world in which the ‘right’ course of action is hardly clear to anyone. With its setting and atmosphere, and with Lev Push’s ‘light touch’ seen throughout, this film reminded me of Renoir’s Grand Illusion, a film that seven years later would revisit some of the same ethical dilemmas between the prisoners of war and their captives.
Push also collaborated with Shalva Khuskivadze in filming a romantic comedy, Mzago da Gela [Mzago and Gela] (1934, although made in 1930). We first see a happy newlywed couple, Mzago and Gela, whose lives change dramatically when tourists visit their remote village, and bring with them a radio. The villagers are amazed at this device that can transmit words from worlds that they have never seen. Mzago wants to learn more about these distant places and leaves her husband for the big city. Gela is more reluctant to leave his family and friends, but finally decides to join her, and leaves in a quest to find his wife. Faster than you can say “Crocodile Dundee,” Gela is making a spectacle of himself by wandering around the capitol city of Tbilisi in native dress and a spear in his hand. Eventually, he finds Mzago and the couple decide to make a home for themselves in the brave new world of Soviet Georgia. The real purpose of the film is of an ethnographic nature: To introduce the audience to the costumes and traditions of the Khevsurs, a tribe of highlanders who live in the mountains of Northern Georgia, and to explore the clash of cultures when Modernity collides with tradition. The romance is rather routine and indeed almost forgotten as Mzago and Gela explore their new life in the city. More interesting are the sequences filmed in the mountains — when Mzago first watches the live radio transmission, she dreams of the distant places where the radio signals originate. In short montage sequences, we see what she’s thinking, and with these stylized images, we can follow her thoughts and fantasies in ways only the world of silent film can take us.
Cowboys and Cossacks:
The ‘Georgian Western’ Eliso
Every year the festival delights in showcasing great films that for various reasons are hidden in obscurity, and this year the ‘discovery’ is Eliso (1928), my pick for the best film of the festival. A national epic, Eliso was hailed on its release as an ‘instant classic’ by audiences and critics. Today the film is rarely mentioned — even by scholars — in a discussion of Soviet cinema. I hope this is only because of its lack of availability — to see Eliso is to understand why some people consider it one of the greatest films of its era.
A tragic aftermath of the Caucasus War of the 1860s was the mass deportation of the Muslim Chechens to what was then the Ottoman Empire. When a decision is made to deport an entire village for the approaching Kazakhs, a young man from a nearby village, Vajia (Kokhta Karalashvili) offers to help with the negotiations. Vajia is in love with a Moslem girl, Eliso (Kira Andronikashvili) and seeing that the process is being handled in a cruel and illegal manner, tries to stop the deportation. His efforts fail and the Chechens burn the village rather than let it fall into enemy hands. The villagers leave their home and, in a ‘trail of tears,’ start the long walk to Turkey. They have to stop as one of their women dies in childbirth, but just as all seems lost, the village elder starts a song. The villagers join in and soon everyone takes part in a communal folk dance. The villagers may have lost their homes and their possessions, but they still have their culture. They will survive.
What struck me most about the film is the way the story uses the genre of the American Western to achieve its goals. I would love to know if this is just an accidental similarity — from the consequence of having similar issues (the expansionist Russian Empire taking the place of the United States government) or if there was a deliberate attempt to emulate films they had seen. Failing that, I can just start bringing up the comparisons. This film follows the same path as the ‘sympathetic-to-Indians’ Western: A white man (often a tracker or scout, thus with special knowledge and skills) tries to solve a conflict between the government and a tribe. When this white man — described by film historian Richard Slotkin as “the man who knows Indians” — falls in love with an Indian girl (she’s usually the daughter of the tribal chief), their romance becomes a means where the two cultures can find a path that shows them their common humanity. The core of this story has roots all the way back to the Pocahontas myth of Colonial America, and is seen in different iterations through films such as Broken Arrow and Dances with Wolves.
The American version of this story often ends up in a Utopian solution where the lovers forge a bond that allows peaceful coexistence for all parties, but this is not always the case — sometimes the Indian maiden sacrifices herself to insure peace for her tribe, or, depending on the era of when the myth is explored, sometimes the couple fails in their quest for peaceful coexistence. Eliso follows all of these traditional plot points, with the further complication of a religious difference between the two peoples — the Chechens are Moslem and the Cossacks Christian. Alone one evening, Eliso runs her hand lovingly over a coat given to her by Vajia. But as she does so, her hand encounters a Christian cross stitched to the material. With a sad and curious look on her face, her fingers probe over its raised surface, as if by the sense of touch she could understand how this symbol could separate her from her lover and one people from another. This beautiful scene describes for us — in a way words could never express — the mystery of why things happen the way they do. Eliso is a joy from start to finish and I hope it will soon be available to silent film enthusiasts around the world.
Kertész Before Curtiz
Because he worked in so many genres and was so prolific, Michael Curtiz is often considered more of a ‘gun for hire’ than as a real artist, and as such his reputation has suffered compared to his contemporaries, such as Howard Hawks or John Ford. A festival like this — where we can see his films in a chronological order — can help answer the question: Is Michael Curtiz one of the great directors of his time, or was he just a skilled craftsman able to take full advantage of the studio system?
Those of us who know Curtiz from his films at Warner Brothers (Casablanca and Mildred Pierce to name just two) may be surprised that by the time this Hungarian-born director arrived in Hollywood in 1926, he had already made more than 60 films. Born in Budapest in 1886, Kertész ran away to join the circus at age 17. He later attended the Royal Academy of Theater and Art, and by the age of 25 was part of the National Theater. Hired as an actor for the first feature film made in Hungary, Ma és holnap [Today and Tomorrow] (1912), when the director withdrew from the project, Kertész stepped in, soon becoming the most active and important director in the country. In a two-year span during and after World War I he made 19 films! When the Hungarian economy finally collapsed at the conclusion of the war, he made films in Austria and Germany, each move increasing his reputation until his final move to America. A screening of his surviving European films might be an entire festival itself — instead the program featured a survey of his work starting with A tolonc [The Undesirable] (1915), filmed in Transylvania, and then continuing with films directed in Hungary, such as Az utolsó hajnal [The Last Dawn] in 1917.
After his move to Austria, Kertész was able to command higher budgets for his films, the most spectacular being Die Sklavenkönigin [Moon of Israel] (1924), the story of Jewish slave-girl Merapi (María Corda) who falls in love with an Egyptian, Prince Seti (Adelqui Millar), just as Moses is preparing to lead his people out of Egypt. Filmed in 1924, with interest from the newly discovered King Tut’s tomb at its peak, this Austrian ‘Superproduktion’ is of special interest to H. Rider Haggard fans, being an adaptation of one of his most highly regarded novels. Overshadowed by She and King Solomon’s Mines (his ‘lost race’ stories), Moon of Israel approaches the ‘Exodus’ story from a different angle, with Moses a supporting player rather than the main subject. This film covers much of the same ground as DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (they both have the parting of the Red Sea) but the spectacle and presentation reminded me more of Lubitsch’s The Loves of Pharaoh filmed two years earlier. In many ways Moon of Israel is a better film, with less histrionics and a more believable love story. Unfortunately, it falls victim to the common problem of trying to shoehorn an epic novel into a standard-length feature film, producing a story so schematic that in the last few reels the characters seem out of breath in their effort to run from one plot point to the next. I understand the advantage of having characters beside Moses involved in the drama of the flight of Israelites from Egypt, but when you have such a powerful character lurking around the edges of the plot, one wonders why at some point Merapi just doesn’t throw up her hands and say, “You handle all this, big guy.”
The Loves of Pharaoh and Moon of Israel were arguably both more important as demonstrations that Lubitsch and Kertész could handle assignments of large budgets than for the merits of the films themselves. Essentially they became million-dollar calling cards to Hollywood, and soon both men would be joining the growing exodus of European talent to America. In 1926, Kertész made what would be his last film in Europe, Fiaker Nr. 13 [Cab No. 13]. The story is about a coachman who adopts a baby girl after he finds her in his horse-drawn carriage, not knowing she is the heiress to a fortune. When this secret is discovered many years later by a handsome and scheming conman, he meets the girl, now a beautiful young woman (Lily Damita), and Lilian has to decide if her new life will estrange her from the man who loved her when she was merely a coachman’s daughter. While shooting locations in Paris for this film, Kertész met with Harry Warner (of Warner Brother’s fame) who was in Europe looking for talent, and their meeting was the start of an association that would last over four decades.
So after a week of watching Curtiz movies — when he was still Kertész — what is my opinion regarding the talents of this director? My first thought was that his working method was to find and bring out what was good in a project rather than import his own interests and agendas. This only made sense considering how many films he directed, but it does open the door to criticism of being a ‘director for hire.’ It also tended to make his films as good or bad as the material he had to work with, which did nothing to help his overall reputation. Also clear to me is that his talents did not spring fully formed, but were achieved in a gradual honing of skills. His early Hungarian films suffer from a staginess and a slow pace, at least partly due to the fact this was the prevalent style at the time and also secondary to the meager budgets available to him. These defects gradually slip away as one film follows another, and by Moon of Israel, he is in much more command of how to use space and movement to create visual interest. My next observation is that Curtiz, a former actor himself, allows his actors carry the burden of advancing the story, rather than relying on editing techniques. Directors who first trained in the theater understand the advantage of giving actors those extra few moments so they can inhabit the character they are playing. Finally, by the time of his last European film, Fiaker Nr. 13, I see the first signs of what would become Curtiz’s greatest talent, one that would eventually put him in the first rank of directors of his generation — an ability to know exactly where to place the camera to maximize the potential drama from each scene. Twenty years of Hollywood films would make him a master at this skill — next time you watch Casablanca, pay attention to how perfectly he places the camera in relation to the actors and watch how he subtly dollies in for close-ups at just the right moments. This ‘invisible’ attention to detail is why ten different actors were nominated for Oscars from his films. Using the skills learned from his European ‘education’: let actors act, let the story speak for itself, and above all, no showboating, his career for Warner Brothers would help define the meaning of the expression: classical Hollywood film.
Before Mickey, before the Alice comedies, there were the Laugh-O-grams. In 1920, Walt Disney was a 19 year-old commercial artist working in Kansas City, with an ambition to be a newspaper and magazine illustrator like Winsor McCay or Paul Terry. Then he was bitten by the film bug and decided his future lay in animation. Working in a shed behind his house (yes, Disney Corporation was a true ‘garage startup’ company), he produced a series of short cartoons. The first were satiric ads for the local movie theater, and then Disney switched to making modernized fairy tales in an effort for wider distribution.
Recent biographies, such as Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, present Walt Disney’s early animated cartoons as crude, rudimentary efforts, clearly inferior to other cartoons of their day. Since many of these films were missing, it was hard for Gabler, or any biographer, to have a definitive opinion about them. However, thanks to the efforts of film collectors from around the world, many of these animated cartoons have been recovered and restored, and were screened for us this week in Pordenone. The first film, released in 1921, a “Newman Laugh-O-Gram” is of special interest because it is one of the few surviving films animated solely by Disney himself, using a ‘lightning sketch’ technique pioneered by artists such as J. Stuart Blackton. This technique allows the advantage of using illustration to achieve cartoon-like images without the laborious need to produce hundreds (or thousands) of individual drawings. The film opens with Disney at his desk, surrounded by piles of paper, and this is followed by a series of sketches, and finally we have a moment of true animation, as a character walks into a building.
Interior of Walt Disney’s animation studio in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photograph: The Walt Disney Company:
courtesy Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
Disney himself disparaged his talents as an artist, but his first film reveals he has command of a quick and confident ‘pen line’ that most artists not yet 20 years old would be thrilled to possess. As an animator, his characters have a solid, but not displeasing ‘magazine illustration’ look to them, which is no surprise since that’s what he did for his day job. The gags are clear and vivid, with often a rather puckish, voyeuristic quality, such as when a woman’s legs are sketched out, only to be revealed as the legs of a mannequin in a store window. The short does suggest to me that Disney’s drawing skills might have better suited to a Sunday newspaper cartoon strip, where weight and volume are emphasized over the ‘squash and stretch’ elasticity of figures typically used in animation.
Even with time saving tricks like ‘lightning animation,’ producing a series of shorts was an impossible task for one person, and Disney hired his friends to help with the work. His Laugh-O-grams, made for local consumption, would eventually evolve into modernized fairy tales, such as 1922’s Little Red Riding Hood, an easy to follow cartoon with a simple plot and lots of sight gags. By the time Disney released The Four Musicians of Bremen (1922) the increased sophistication is appreciable. Even in this silent era, Disney is already making a connection between music and images, such as when the fish from a pond start interacting with the visual representation of notes coming from the musician’s instruments. By the time we get to Puss in Boots (1922) the animation is relatively smooth and is loaded with gags from start to finish. Disney would soon go on to his Alice Comedies, combining live action with animation, and this would lead to his move to California, where fame and fortune were still many years in the future.
While attending the University of Southern California film school, I remember Professor Gene Coe lecturing to us on our first day of advanced animation class. As he dutifully warned us of the problems of cell animation, and how it required massive time commitments for even the smallest project, our thoughts drifted away to Oscar night and whom to thank when our name was called. After all, we were bursting with talent and ideas, and wasn’t USC the best film school in the world? Four months was plenty of time to create something on the level of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but more cutting-edge. None of us had a clue what we were in for. Soon our grandiose hopes dissolved, to be replaced by frustration, hair pulling and despondency. As the end of the semester drew near, and as the dream of completing an award-winning animated subject faded, we moved through the emotions of denial, anger, bargaining, and then acceptance. By the end of the semester not a single ‘cell animation’ project was even close to being finished. With this experience behind me, I look at Disney’s first Laugh-O-Gram and think, “This is brilliant!” More to the point is that the art is completely successful in what it needs to do, which is to tell a story. What many critics don’t understand about these cartoons is the need to look beyond their artistic limitations and focus on their ability to communicate — South Park should teach us all we need to know about the importance of content vs. technique. From almost the start, these Laugh-O-Gram films are able to engage us with ideas that are clear and hold your interest. The biggest testimony to Disney’s early skill is that these cartoons, produced in a wooden shed by a gang of teenagers almost one hundred years ago, are still fun to watch.
Restorations and Rediscoveries
The big story this year was the unveiling of the restoration of the color version of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902). The granddaddy of all epic films, and one of the cultural milestones in the history of movies, versions of this film were originally been released in color. This was done by hand, working on each film, applying dyes by using stencils and brushes to color individual frames and sequences. No one had ever been able to locate a color version of this film, so when a partly decomposed color copy was found in Spain, the race was on to try and preserve what was left of the rapidly decomposing print. The reel was gently pried apart and a frame-by-frame salvage operation was started. Serge Bromberg, of Lobster films, delighted the audience explaining how he persuaded different labs to come on board in the efforts. The issues of curation vs. restoration were in full force in this project, since only part of the Spanish version survived, leaving much guesswork in the process of colorization. Even more difficult was the question of how much one should ‘clean up’ and add color to the areas of damage — with the problem that these digitalized sequences might not match the frames of the original print. But the larger question persisted throughout the project: How can the intent of the filmmakers be best addressed in the restoration efforts? The problem can best be understood by ‘the flag’ question: To everyone’s surprise, the opening scene in this recovered film showed a woman waving a yellow and red Spanish flag. Anyone familiar with A Trip to the Moon knows that whatever flag they are flying, it is certainly not Spanish! The answer to this mystery is that the colorists must have taken the trouble to color the flag for whatever location they were sending a print. A Spanish print was thus given a Spanish flag. This created a dilemma for Bromberg: Should he go back to a tricolor French flag, which would have been the color of the original print, or should he keep it Spanish? The answer to this question strikes to the heart of what the project was all about. In the end, he kept it a Spanish flag — after all, this film was found in Spain, and he must respect the artistic decision of a forever-nameless colorist working more than a century ago.
Other restorations and new releases included The Lady of the Dug-Out (1918) starring Al Jennings, who plays a bank robber on the run who turns Robin Hood to help a woman and her child in distress. This portrayal of a ‘good bad man’ was amazingly close to the truth — Jennings was a frontier lawyer who turned outlaw when one of his brothers was killed. Captured, he served time, was pardoned by Teddy Roosevelt, turned evangelist, then drifted to California and started making movies with his brother. In this film he essentially plays himself, and when we meet the Lady (Corinne Grant), she is living not in (the expected) clean, well-lit cabin, but is instead essentially in a hole in the ground, with barely a roof over her head. These details give the film a real authenticity, which is further accentuated by Jennings himself, whose weathered, lived-in face makes his character believable in a way that central-casting could never achieve. With this film we have a rare opportunity to see a Western not as myth but as a realistic depiction of what life must have been like for many poor farmers and cowboys who were just able to eek out a living. One watches with fascination at the documentary-like presentation of this film, which almost uniquely shows what life must have looked like from the point of view of the people who were really there — as such this film is one of the last efforts to recreate the West by those who had lived the reality, not the myth.
Petticoat Camp (1912) is a cheerful proto-feminist comedy about a camping holiday that goes awry when the wives get tired of doing all the chores and decide to strike. It isn’t long before the men realize how much they are taking the women for granted and ask for forgiveness.
Released in 1911, the three-reel David Copperfield is a striking example of the problems of adapting a work of fiction for the screen. Instead of linking one scene to the next by a narrative or editing device, the film instead presents a series of visual images that almost work as tableaus. Rather than seeing a film that tells the story of David Copperfield, one has the sense of watching someone flip through the pages of a very large book, an effect clearly intended, since each scenes is carefully designed to simulate the original illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne (more commonly known by his pen name of Phiz). The filmmakers felt no need in trying to tell the story, relying on the audience’s knowledge of the plot. By giving up the impossible task of telling such a long, complex story in such a short time, the film has its own charm, relying on the memory of the audience to connect the scenes to produce a coherent story. Film professor Charles Musser describes this method as the use of “audience foreknowledge,” to tell a story. This approach to filmmaking is still used in a modified fashion with genre fiction, which assumes an audience’s familiarity with certain conventions, which allows the story to proceed at a faster pace.
Stories of two women in love with the same man are a staple of melodrama, but the complications of a romantic triangle takes on a further dimension in the Civil War film, Their One Love (1915) when the two women also happen to be identical twins. Highlighting the film is a dramatic battle scene shot ‘night for night,’ with torches being used as principle source of light. The other unusual aspect of this film was that real-life twins, Marion and Madeline Fairbanks, played the twins of the story. In the early 1900s, these two sisters cornered the market on twin roles, playing them in the theater and movies for most of their careers.
Under the ‘More Sizzle than Substance’ category was the premiere of The White Shadow, a British film directed by Graham Cutts in 1923. After an incomplete print of this film was found in New Zealand in 2011, the word quickly spread that a previously lost Alfred Hitchcock film had just been found. The fact that Hitchcock is listed as being only responsible for the scenario (his other contributions, if any, are uncertain) did little to reduce the press reports that a lost Hitchcock movie had been found. With all the hype involved in these claims, I half-expected to see the film start with Hitch’s profile on the screen and the orchestra playing Charles Gounod’s Funeral March of the Marionette. Instead we had Betty Compson playing twins — one good, the other “without a soul.” As often happens in the world of melodrama, which functions under laws of probability different from the rest of the universe, fate forces one twin to take the place of the other, causing romantic complications for all involved (lacking a twin sister, Betty had to shoot the film the old-fashioned way, using doubles and split-screen double exposures). With only three reels surviving and with any semblance of continuity quickly disappearing, the plot — already confusing — becomes hopeless, and as an audience, all we can do is watch the film fizzle out to its incomplete end. Hitchcock hype aside, this is a really a Graham Cutts film and the real interest of this fragment is to help us better understand the role Cutts had in the development of British film in the late silent film era. Hitchcock’s star would eventually outshine Cutts’ but that would be many years after this film was released.
The Canon Revisited
A recent addition to the festival’s programming has been the screening of films so important that they are considered essential viewing for those seeking an understanding of the art of silent film. This has been a welcome addition to the festival since it guarantees a program of excellent or notable films that can be appreciated under almost ideal conditions and more importantly, these films are often not available, especially for viewing with an audience. For all my years of watching silent films, I had not seen previously a single film listed in this year’s program of “The Canon Revisited,” and in talking to the audience, I had plenty of company.
On top of my list of films to see were two films from Germany, Backstairs and Asphalt. Die Hintertreppe [Backstairs] (1921) is a drama about a crippled postman (Fritz Kortner) who is secretly in love with a maid (Henny Porten). She is having a romance with a handsome but simple laborer, who without notice, breaks off contact with her. Anxious for her happiness, the postman (a darker, more desperate incarnation of Cyrano de Bergerac) forges a letter and gives it to her, under the guise that it is from the laborer. At first she is thrilled at the letter’s declaration of love, but when she discovers that it was really from the postman, she at first surprised, and then sympathetic as she realizes he has tried to ease her pain. Just at this point, the laborer returns to the city, making an already confusing situation impossible for all involved. Blending elements of both Expressionism (shadowed ominous stairways, and dramatic, high-contrast lighting) and Kammerspiel (chamber dramas focusing more on ordinary people’s lives), Backstairs shows how stylized lighting, sets, and acting can be used effectively to express the world as seen from the eyes of the crippled postman, a character type that Lon Chaney would make famous as the decade progressed.
Made only eight years later, Joe May’s Asphalt (1929) seems to come not only from a different era but a different universe. In that short time, German film had largely thrown off a world-view involving inward directed, weary, shoulder-sagging characters for bright, up-tempo films that celebrated youth and the physical world. In Asphalt, a young policeman is seduced by a beautiful jewel thief who he has caught in a robbery, but when the policeman then kills her accomplice in a fight, the woman must decide whether or not to plead guilty in the robbery in order to explain that the policeman killed in self-defense. While not tackling any profound subjects, this is a slick, fast paced production and is a good example of how technically proficient silent films had become just as the transition to sound was beginning.
Sneaking into the Canon Revisited program was yet another Soviet film, Fridrikh Ermler’s Oblomok imperii [A Fragment of an Empire] (1929). In this Russian Rip Van Winkle story, a shell-shocked soldier (Fedor Nikitin) loses his memory at the end of WWI, and when he regains it ten years later, is stunned at how much the country has changed. In his attempt to fit back into society, the soldier is befriended by a man whose life he had saved in the war, and he makes the slow painful transition into a new world. What most impressed me about this film was how Ermler was able to push past the usual Soviet ideology of celebrating the state over the individual, and instead focus on the humanity behind the politics. While sticking to the party line (if not, clearly this film would never have been made) Ermler makes the point that while wars and battles may be necessary, it comes at great cost, both in lives lost and in psychic trauma to both the individual and the nation itself. A Fragment of an Empire is a powerful, haunting testament to the personal impact of these larger conflicts.
The Rin Tin Tin Awards
Every year I give a special award for this festival’s best ‘animal actor.’ There were a lot of animal actors this year: dogs, cats, rabbits and even frogs and fish — it’s just this year all the animals were in animated cartoons!
Take for example, Disney’s Oswald the Rabbit film, Oh Teacher (1927). Oswald may be a rabbit, but he behaves more like a schoolboy in this film: riding a bike, plucking pedals off a flower, and encountering a bully in a playground. But beneath these gags, the more carefully designed stories that Disney would become famous for are already in evidence, such as extended sequence when the rabbit saves his girlfriend from drowning, only to find that a rival claims to have been the hero. What is also clear is that by this stage in his career, Disney has hit on the goldmine idea of presenting the story from a young person’s point of view (a view that includes a high level of power and autonomy), which must have been immensely gratifying to the thousands of children who enjoyed these cartoons. Disney would soon lose the copyright to Oswald but turning a setback into opportunity, he would hit the big time by retooling his character into Mickey Mouse.
There were several programs of early Japanese animation, of great interest to anime fans, since these films were produced long before the days of the ‘father of manga’ artist Osamu Tezuka, whose influence, starting in the 1950s, was so dominating that virtually all modern animated Japanese cartoons use his ‘large eyes’ style. One of my favorite cartoons from this program was Urashima Taro (1918), based on a folktale about a fisherman who saves a turtle and ends up visiting the undersea world of the Emperor of the Sea. Silhouette animation was used to make Kanimanji Engi (1924), an eerie and disturbing fable about crabs that rescue a girl from a snake. Futatsu no Sekai (1929) is a Grasshopper and Ant story, giving moral guidance to children who learn that insects who work hard are rewarded while the lazy ones suffer and fall into poverty. The number of animal actors hits its peak with Oira no yakyû (1930), a cartoon about a baseball game played between rabbits and badgers, with a whole stadium of animals cheering them on. Even a frog gets into the action when he swallows a ball hit out of bounds. This film satirizes the Japanese craze for baseball, which had been introduced to the country in 1878 and was becoming hugely popular in the 1920s.
And the winner is: (did you think I was really going to give this award to a cartoon?) Uggie — the dog that stole Oscar’s heart in the contemporary silent film, The Artist. While the film was not screened this week at the festival, it was there in spirit, and was talked about more than many of the films that were screened. His performance is a perfect example of why dogs make such great silent film actors. Congratulations Uggie, this one’s for you.
The Canadian vs. The Wind
The farm film is a genre that has appeared sporadically over the years. This story usually starts with farmer who suddenly finds himself living in the same house with a woman he barely knows. Sometimes this is the result of him advertising for a mail-order bride; sometimes a woman is forced by circumstances to accept his offer for marriage. Any early hopes that the arrangement will work out happily are dashed by the uncouth nature of the husband, or the miserable conditions imposed by the location of the farm. Just as the couple is in the process of breaking up, a crisis (such as the crop being threatened by bad weather) forces them to work together, making them reevaluate their feelings for each other. Examples of this story include F.W. Murnau’s underappreciated City Girl (1930), The Purchase Price (starring Barbara Stanwyck), and more recently, Heartland (with Rip Torn). This year, the festival screened two farm films on consecutive nights: The Canadian (1926) and The Wind (1928).
The Canadian, directed by William Beaudine, starts with a city girl, Nora Marsh (Mona Palma), who has been living in London, but is forced by financial reasons to move in with her brother, a married Alberta farmer. Raised with a silver spoon in her mouth, Nora has a hard time adjusting to her brother’s crowded house, and after an argument with her sister-in-law, accepts a marriage proposal from a nearby farmer, Frank Taylor (Thomas Meighan). Soon, both Nora and Frank see how mismatched she is in the role of a farmer’s wife, and the couple start to fight. At this point, the film closely follows the plot of a more famous film, The Wind (1928), directed by Victor Sjöström and starring Lillian Gish: a rejection of the husband, an (attempted) rape, a crisis where the couple must work together, and a final resolution in which the wife must choose to leave the farm or stay married. The two films are so similar that after the screenings it provoked the obvious joke, “The Canadian is The Wind without the wind.”
As great as The Wind is, and I think it easily qualifies as one of ‘the essentials,’ it is still very much a one-note film. The wind starts to blow in the very first scene, as Letty (Lillian Gish) is riding on the train and stays with us almost the entire film. While this is done on purpose as it insures our discomfort along with Letty’s, it does introduce a certain monotony, and after you make the obvious connection that the wind represents a force of nature reacting against Letty’s severely repressed character, there is not much more to consider as the story unfolds. Also, since the characters are types rather than real people, there is a certain abstraction to the affair. On the other hand, The Canadian is full of nuance and variety. The opening scenes are especially well handled — one can feel for Nora, who has been plunked down in a house where manners and politeness are a foreign language, but at the same time we also empathize with the farm hands who see before them a woman who is a snob, and worse, completely ignorant in the simplest household duties. Which of the two films is better? The Wind is certainly the obvious showpiece, a film that can be screened as a big event, with an orchestra given full license to go with a nonstop gale force approach. But full of surprises and having complex ‘real’ characters, The Canadian is in many ways the more interesting film — hopefully after this screening it will become more accessible to the general public.
It wasn’t mentioned in the program notes, but an unofficial title to this year’s program might well have been, “Great Soviet films You Haven’t Seen.” Clearly, we are doing a disservice to history and Eastern European culture by only trotting out the usual suspects when discussing Soviet film. Potemkin, Strike, Earth and Man with the Movie Camera may all be great artistic achievements, but Soviet filmmakers such as Ermler, Room and Trauberg produced movies just as good but in serious need for more exposure, and at least two films, A Fragment of an Empire and Eliso should rank as two of the greatest films from the Soviet era. These next generation Soviet filmmakers, at least in the films screened this week, still adhered to the doctrines imposed by politics, but found ways of showing humanity in their stories. This approach, less cold and clinical, produced films that still preached principles but never lost sight of the people behind the rules.
As the festival looks ahead toward its 31st year, a natural question becomes: How many more films are out there? And the festival had an answer: There are 50,000 silent films held in archives around the world and Pordenone has screened 6658 of them, so in 30 years, about 14 percent of the available films have been shown. But the much harder question is: how many of the remaining 43,000 films are worth watching vs. ones that have been screened years or decades ago? That will be the persistent question each future director of the festival will have to face, but it’s a good problem to have. Programming a festival is always a delicate balancing act, and I support its current policy of primarily showing new films but always interspersing them with more familiar titles (such as the Canon Revisited program). Also important is that there be no pressure to rigidly hold to this policy, so that old favorites can be rescreened for special performances.
After the festival was over, I packed my bags and left my hotel. The streets were empty, except for the locals and a few wandering ghosts. I’ll leave the rest to F. Scott Fitzgerald: Outside, the fire-red, gas-blue, ghost-green signs shone smokily through the tranquil rain. It was late afternoon and the streets were in movement; the bistros gleamed . . . Charlie felt the sudden provincial quality of the Left Bank . . . he thought, “I spoiled this city for myself. I didn’t realize it, but the days came along one after another, and then two years were gone, and everything was gone, and I was gone.”
The festival took place on 1-8 October 2011 in Pordenone, Italy.