Back from mi viaggio in Italia, with a report on the Pordenone Silent Film Festival

It's been exactly a week since Cindi and I returned from our ten day trip to Pordenone for the annual Giornate del Cinema Muto aka Silent Film Festival. Located an hour northeast from Venice, this is the mecca for silent film enthusiasts the world over.

While screenings were held from 9AM to midnight every day, to be honest I didn't see a lot of films, about one a day. Cindi fared better with about 2-3 per day. I was more preoccupied with finishing up my New York Film Festival reviews, working on a script, and putting in my long runs as Marathon Day creeps closer.

We both skipped the opening night screening of D.W. Griffith's Orphans of the Storm and the closing night of G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (at 15 Euros a pop we'd figure to spend our feeble American cash elsewhere). I had already seen many of the shorts included in the Ladislas Starewitch tribute, and I guess Cindi was pretty burned out from her work on The Griffith Project 11 (1921-1924). We also missed the retro of Dutch actress Annie Bos which constituted the 60th anniversary celebration of the Nederlands FilmMuseum. It's amazing just how much silent cinema is out there to be discovered, which is why the festival is still strong after more than a quarter century.

One highlight we certainly did not miss, and was probably my favorite event of the festival, was the entertainingly erudite presentation by scholar and Oscar-winning filmmaker John Canemaker (who is also this year's recipient of the festival's Jean Mitry Award given to outstanding work in preserving silent cinema). His lecture, "The Art and Life of Winsor McCay" was a passionately delivered slideshow offering many insights on the pioneering illustrator and animator. Seeing panels from Little Nemo in Slumberland blown up to the size of a movie-screen made for an awesome spectacle. Canemaker got to channel some of McCay's vaudevillian talents when he did a live re-enactment of a Gertie the Dinosaur stage show, interacting with a screen projection of Gertie as McCay would have done during his celebrated Broadway revues.

The marquee program of the festival was "The Other Weimar," about 15 rarely-screened features from post-WWI Germany. The only one I was able to catch was Der Mädchenhirt, the first feature by proto-realist Karl Grune, about a young man's short unhappy life as a pimp. the other major program was a complete retro of the silent works of René Clair. Sadly I didn't see any of the lesser-known works, but I was treated to pristeen prints of two films I'd previously seen on less-than stellar video. Paris qui dort / The Crazy Ray is a work of madcap brilliance, seamlessly blending together surrealism and French farce through Clair's remarkable gifts for visual comedy. Un chapeau de paille d'Italie / The Italian Straw Hat suffers in the middle from its sitcom trappings, but for the most part it is an ingeniously executed mega-farce that pokes a lot of fun at bourgeois pride and the need to keep up respectable appearances at any cost. Perhaps much of this vein had already been mined successfully by Louis Feuillade in his Séraphin ou les jambes nues, which screened with Paris qui dort. Like The Italian Straw Hat, many hijinks ensue over a piece of despoiled clothing, in this case a pair of trousers - though Feuillade seems even bolder than Clair to take matters into outright bawdiness.

The Hungarian National Film Archive celebrated its 50th anniversary with a couple of screenings. A Pál -utcai fúk / The Paul Street Boys (1929, Bela Balogh) was a suprisingly affecting story of a young boy's patriotic sacrifice as part of a juvenile gang that repeatedly abuses him; the subversive subtext towards nationalism seemed years ahead of its time. Csak egy kislány van a világon / Only One Girl in the World (1930, Bela Gaal) was Hungary's first sound film, and like The Jazz Singer it earns its distinction with a generous helping of music, thanks in no small part to the debut performance of cosmopolitan actress / singer Márta Eggerth. Following the screening the festival called the home of Eggerth, now 95 years old but as spry as a teenager. The phone interview climaxed with her offering a song over the line that reverberated through the theater.

Yet another highlight was All At Sea, a recently discovered reel of 16mm footage shot by Alistair Cooke on a 1933 boat tour to the Catalina Islands with Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Godard.  Another treasure was a program of films saluting the career of Mabel Normand, who was at one time Hollywood's most celebrated comic actress before a series of scandals, substance abuse and illness ended her life at 35.  Mabel's Dramatic Career (1913) is a remarkably self-reflexive film by Normand's one-time lover Mack Sennett that makes much merriment of Normand's aw-shucks demeanor.  Head Over Heels (1922) stands in contrast as a more dramatic turn for Norman, who by this point has been made over as a romantic lead caught in a love triangle.  But the best of the lot is sadly one of her final performances, Should Men Walk Home? (1927).  Helped largely by the dynamic comic direction of Leo McCarey, Normand stars opposite Creighton Hale as two bandits who infiltrate a high class party in search of loot.  The timing of many of the gags (which include Eugene Palette and a pre-Laurel Oliver Hardy) are impeccable, making this a minor comic gem that, like its heroine, is in need of rediscovery.

The last film we caught was the 1927 silent version of Chicago, directed by Frank Urson with "supervision" by Cecil B. DeMille.  There is some contestation as to the extent of DeMille's involvement; personally I see his stamp all over this film with its effectively crafted sensationalism, atmospheric lighting, and mix of sexual titillation reigned in at the last minute by DeMille's moralistic streak.  In any event, it's much more fun than the overcooked 2002 musical version. 

Thanks to Cindi's birthday present we have immortalized our trip with many photos, which I have uploaded to Picasa.  This is actually the first online photo album I have uploaded.  Compared to the many many online albums out there (Kodak, Snapfish, Flickr, etc.) I like Picasa because it's linked to my gmail account, and it has a cool mapping function that locates your photos on a Google Map.  Check it out. Or just watch the embedded version here:

I'll just take a moment to mention a couple of highlights from Venice.  Our favorite meal of the whole trip, courtesy of La Zucca: pumpkin flan (YUM!), fennel with olives, tagliatelle with cauliflower and a half liter of Tocai.

And this shot of the Grand Canal, which to me captures the romance of the city (tourists be damned)

And last but not least, my favorite food in Italy - I tried an average of two flavors a day! (favorite was "Viennese Cream" - chocolate with candied orange pieces)