Le Giornate del Cinema Muto presented in 2001 a formidable programme with difficult and ambitious retrospectives.
The Festival took place for the third time in Sacile, a town north of Venice full of beauty and short of hotel rooms. Most visitors spent their nights in the original festival site Pordenone. The festival office's successful efforts with transport and schedules made shuttling easier than during the last two years, but it was still tough for any ambitious visitor without accommodation in Sacile. Many of us suffered from fatigue. I needed a week to recover.
The programmes of 1999 and 2000 were the most abundant ever, with a generous share of audience-pleasing and easily digested films to keep an upbeat mood. 2001, too, had its share of immediately gratifying highlights, but as a whole it was much more hard work: more difficult and arduous. All the major retrospectives this year – Japan, Black America, Griffith Part Five – had to a large extent a fragmentary character and actually required extensive study of literature to really understand what was going on. The festival organizers and the curators of the retrospectives had done a tremendous work of reconstruction, but in addition, each viewer had to do his/her own mental reconstruction for him/herself.
To sum up: it was hard but awesome.
Tusalava (GB 1929). Celebrating the Len Lye centenary, his first experimental film was shown with live music by Neil Brand and John Sweetey. ****
Finis Terrae (FR 1929), D: Jean Epstein, featuring: inhabitants of the Ile d'Ouessant. Musical accompaniment by Breton artists Kristen Noguès (Celtic harp), Jacques Pellen (guitars), Patrick Molard (Uillean pipe, Kozh bagpipe, Scottish bagpipes), Jacky Molard (violin). Restored in 2001 by la Cinémathèque française. The first film of Epstein's Breton cycle, facing the sublime of the elements. The unique musical accompaniment would deserve to be made available on a permanent basis. ****
THE GRIFFITH PROJECT V – FILMS PRODUCED IN 1911
The first complete D.W. Griffith retrospective ever presented a year which is surprisingly "a terra incognita" (Paolo Cherchi Usai) in the maestro's career. DWG had quickly developed to a master in 1909-1910. In 1911 he continued to produce brilliant short films for Biograph in the states of California and New York. He honed his cross-cutting skill in thrillers like The Lonedale Operator, developed magnificently his sense of landscape and action in Civil War films (The Battle) and Westerns (Fighting Blood, The Last Drop of Water), and had a keen eye on contemporary New York street life (Bobby the Coward). He replaced the lost "old" Biograph stock company of actors with newcomers such as Blanche Sweet and Robert Harron. He continued to excel directing children in films like The Sunbeam. The Biblical paradigm reigns in many scripts; DWG's Biblical ethos was at its most moving in films like A String of Pearls.
(Because of train trouble I missed a particularly interesting show with A Country Cupid, The Ruling Passion, The Rose of Kentucky, and Swords and Hearts.)
Although almost all Griffith's films survive and even many original negatives exist, of the 73 DWG films of 1911 only 52 were shown. 3 are lost, and of 18 no viewing print is available. Print quality has been a problem of the project from the start, but it is surprising that so many 1911 titles were missing because there is no viewing copy at all though masters exist. Most prints shown were horribly disfigured 16mm; a few were too dark or light, bordering on the invisible. The films originally famous for their tinting and toning were almost invariably seen in black and white prints. As the original intertitles have been lost, at best they have been reconstructed, in many cases they were missing. Some films were seen in unassembled workprints, which were interesting to study but whose plot and montage and flow of movement were impossible to follow. Of the few beautiful 35mm prints shown we could guess what we were missing from the others.
To put it in another way: we are looking forward to see them, too, as they should be seen. Which really means: we are looking forward to actually see them. Good prints should be made available of all DWG films of which good masters exist! Let's hope it takes place during our lifetime.
An excellent companion to the retrospective is The Griffith Project series of books, edited by Paolo Cherchi Usai, with a top team of writers. It is becoming a model for this kind of work.
* marks my favorites, + other interesting ones.
Fisher Folks 16mm, unassembled, intertitles missing (DWG 320)
His Daughter (DWG 321)
Conscience 16mm (DWG 323)
Was He a Coward? (DWG 324)
Teaching Dad to Like Her 16mm (DWG 325)
The Lonedale Operator (DWG 326) *
The Spanish Gypsy 16mm (DWG 327)
The Broken Cross 16mm, intertitles missing (DWG 328)
The Chief's Daughter 16mm, unassembled workprint (DWG 329)
A Knight of the Road 16mm (DWG 330)
His Mother's Scarf 16mm (DWG 332)
The Two Sides 16mm, intertitles missing (DWG 334)
In the Days of '49 16mm (DWG 335)
Enoch Arden Part 1 16mm, intertitles missing (DWG 336)
Enoch Arden Part 2 16mm, intertitles missing (DWG 337)
Enoch Arden (1915), D: Christy Cabanne, Sup: DWG, featuring Lillian Gish, second reel. A fascinating occasion to comparison.
The New Dress 16mm (DWG 338)
A Romany Tragedy (DWG 340)
The Crooked Road 16mm (DWG 341)
The Primal Call 16mm (DWG 343)
The Indian Brothers 16mm (DWG 345)
The Blind Princess and the Poet (DWG 348)
Fighting Blood GEH 2001 (DWG 349) *
The Last Drop of Water (DWG 350) *
Bobby, the Coward (DWG 351) *
The Squaw's Love (DWG 360)
The Eternal Mother 16mm (DWG 362) *
The Making of a Man 16mm (DWG 365)
Her Awakening 16mm (DWG 366)
The Adventures of Billy 16mm (DWG 368)
The Long Road 16mm, intertitles missing (DWG 369)
The Battle (DWG 370) *
Love in the Hills 16mm (DWG 371)
Through Darkened Vales 16mm, intertitles missing (DWG 373)
A Woman Scorned (DWG 374)
The Miser's Heart intertitles missing (DWG 375)
The Failure intertitles missing (DWG 376)
As In a Looking Glass unassembled print, intertitles missing (DWG 378) +
A Terrible Discovery 16mm, unassembled reversal print, intertitles missing (DWG 380)
The Baby and the Stork 16mm, intertitles missing (DWG 382) +
The Voice of the Child (DWG 383)
For His Son 16mm (DWG 384) +
The Old Bookkeeper 16mm, intertitles missing (DWG 385)
Billy's Stratagem Dutch intertitles (DWG 387) +
A Blot in the 'Scutcheon 16mm (DWG 388)
The Transformation of Mike 16mm, shown both in an unassembled print with missing intertitles and an assembled print with reconstructed intertitles. An impressive demonstration. (DWG 389) +
The Root of Evil 16mm (DWG 390) +
The Sunbeam 16mm (DWG 391) *
A String of Pearls 16mm, intertitles missing (DWG 392) *
The most ambitious attempt ever to screen Japanese silent cinema was showcased in Sacile 2001, curated by Hiroshi Komatsu and Tomonori Saiki. Only 1–5% of Japanese silent cinema survives. The retrospective was to an exceptionally high degree a jigsaw puzzle. Many films were extremely fragmentary, and print quality was often awful. However, we are looking forward to a continuation of this retrospective, as many important films were not shown. I saw less than a half of the retrospective. Special thanks to many fine translations in this retrospective.
Kurutta ippeiji (A Page of Madness, 1926), D: Teinosuke Kinugasa. This legendary film has lost none of its power to shock. Its audacious montage and furious dance patterns feel contemporary in the techno age. Teho Teardo's live electronic music accompaniment was bold and successful. ****
Orochi (The Monster, 1925), D: Bunaro Futagawa. 16mm, benshi commentary: Miss Midori Sawato, music: Coloured Monotone. One of the oldest jidai geki to have survived complete and in good condition. Furious action among the samurai and the yakuza. ***
BETWEEN FICTION AND NON-FICTION
Une rue à Tokyo I (FR/JP 1898) Lumière, PH: Tsunekichi Shibata
Une rue à Tokyo II (FR/JP 1898) Lumière, PH: Tsunekichi Shibata
Une avenue à Tokyo (FR/JP 1898) Lumière, PH: Tsunekichi Shibata
Une place publique à Tokyo (FR/JP 1898) Lumière, PH: Tsunekichi Shibata
Station de chemin de fer de Tokyo (FR/JP 1898) Lumière, PH: Tsunekichi Shibata
Five precious views of city life. ****
Momijigari (Maple Viewing, 1899) PH: Tsunekichi Shibata, featuring the famous Kabuki actors Danjuro IX and Kikugoro V. 16mm, no translation. Of great value as a record of the Kabuki theatre.
Taikoki judanme (The Tenth Act of Taikoki, 1908). Kabuki style in a fiction film.
Nippon nankyoku tanken (Japanese Expedition to Antarctica, 1912)
Sendaihagi (JP 1916) fragment of a part of a Kabuki play.
Sesshonomiya denka katsudo shashin tenrankai gotairan jikkyo (The Prince Regent's Visit to the Motion Picture Exhibition, 1921)
Shigeki nanko ketsubetsu (The Historical Drama, the Farewell Scenes of Kusunoki Masahige and His Son, 1921)
The Prince Regent, the future Emperor Hirohito, visited a motion picture exhibition. Both his visit and a Kabuki performance for him were filmed.
JIDAI GEKI (HISTORICAL DRAMA)
In the film production in the Kansai Region after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, the small independents contributed especially to the genre of jidai geki - films set in the feudal period, before the Meiji Restoration of 1868.
Keyamura rokusuke (Rokusuke of Keya Village, 1926), D: Tamizo Ishida. Too fast at 24 fps. A furious swordplay film.
Tekketsudan (Iron Blood Gang, 1928), D: Ryota Kawanami. Very physical action film, beautifully toned, excellent wrestling scenes.
Roningai daiichiwa (Ronin Street I, 1928), D: Masahiro Makino. Fragmentary, too fast at 24 fps, no translation.
Roningai dainiwa (Ronin Street II, 1929), D: Masahiro Makino. Fine action scenes in parts I-II of the samurai story. Part III has not survived.
Kokushi muso (Peerless Patriot, 1932), D: Mansaku Itami. Fragments restored from an abridged 9,5mm Pathé-Baby version, from an evidently stylish film, with fine humoristic scenes and comic fights.
GENDAI GEKI (MODERN DRAMA)
After the 1923 earthquake the Shinpa play became anachronistic, at least in the motion picture. The tragic destiny of young people no longer suited the mood of contemporary life. Now the audience demanded more plausible content in motion picture drama. The mood and taste of the times transformed Shinpa into gendai geki (modern drama). (HK)
Nasake no hikari (Lights of Sympathy, 1926), D: Henry Kotani. Beautiful print of a story of social education: poor boy helps sick mother while father is in jail. Fine cinematography influenced Japanese film production.
Nippon (DE 1932) – German compilation by Carl Koch incorporating material from: Tempei jidai-kaito Samimaro (JP 1928, The Time of the Tempei Shamimaro, D: Eichi Koishi), Kagaribi (JP 1928, Torches, D: Tetsuroku Hoshi), Daitokai rodoshahen (JP 1930, The Great Metropolis: Chapter on Labour, D: Kiyohiko Ushihara). Beautiful sonorized 16mm print from Cinémathèque française of a compilation combining jidai geki and gendai geki, bringing us from historical Japan to the present. Spectacular scenes from three lost films.
Furusato no uta (The Song of Home, 1925), D: Kenji Mizoguchi. The earliest surviving film by KM in a beautiful print. The story of a young boy who rejects the frivolous company of the city people and chooses to become a farmer, instead. KM's first socially conscious "message film" shows a direct but naively digested influence of Tolstoy. The strength: the joy of light. Music would be necessary to this silent film, which is apparently inspired by a song. **
Chokon (1926), D: Daisuke Ito. Only the last reel of the eight-reel feature survives, but it is the brilliant climactic swordfight with virtuoso montage, subjective camera, and breathtaking action as the protagonist enters his final battle.
Chuji tabi nikki (A Diary of Chuji's Travels, 1927), II: Shinshu kessho hen (Bloody Laughter in Shinshu), III: Goyo hen (In the Name of the Law), D: Daisuke Ito. Of the original 6540 meters of the legendary masterpiece, 1800 meters survive. Beautiful calligraphy of the intertitles. The shocking trajectory of the protagonist from the invincible samurai to the paralysed body on the stretcher.
Jujiro (Crossroads / Im Schatten des Yoshiwara, 1928), D: Teinosuke Kinugasa. English version. For decades virtually the only Japanese silent film known in the West. Visual brio and grotesque stylization in an exposé of the empty seductions of Yoshiwara. ***
Akeyuku sora (The Dawning Sky, 1929), D: Torajiro Saito. A bad 16mm print. A woman's film, a melancholy modern story of a woman who has to leave her baby with her husband's parents. Emotionally powerful. ***
Ishikawa Goemon no hoji (A Buddhist Mass for Goemon Iskikawa, 1930), D: Torajiro Saito. A blow-up from 9,5mm Pathé Baby. A ghost comedy.
Kuma no deru kaikonchi (The Reclaimed Land Where Bears Live, 1932), D: Shigeyoshi Suzuki. A not-brilliant print of a film with apparent epic grandeur. Using the sweeping landscapes of Hokkaido the saga depicts the revenge of two generations of farmers. ***
OSCAR MICHEAUX & HIS CIRCLE: AFRICAN-AMERICAN FILMMAKING AND RACE CINEMA OF THE SILENT ERA
Pearl Bowser, Jane M. Gaines and Charles Musser have compiled an ambitious seven-part touring show covering the little known early decades of African-American cinema. Most of the early African-American films have been lost, and the rest survives often in disfigured prints. The book to the tour by Bowser, Gaines, and Musser, Oscar Micheaux & His Circle, meets the highest standards, and is an inspiring basis for all future research. I saw only two samples. Within Our Gates and Black and Tan I had seen previously.
Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux and the Story of Race Movies (1993, D: Pearl Bowser, Bestor Cam). Video projection. A fine introduction to early African-American cinema with lots of excerpts. ***
Body and Soul (1925, D: Oscar Micheaux). The young Paul Robeson is stunning in the starring double role: electrifying presence and great versatility as a heavy, as a preacher, and as a regular guy. We know his voice; here he impresses in a silent film. Charles Musser's essay in the book reveals the surprising background to the film and the reason why Robeson never mentioned this film (his best?). ***
Mitä on tekeillä sirkus Beelyssä? (Was ist los in Zirkus Beely?, DE 1926), D+starring: Harry Piel, based on two novels by Max Bauer. Harry Piel had an amazingly successful career as the "German Fairbanks", and this is one of his most extravagant adventure films. The ambitious musical accompaniment by the double bass virtuoso Nicola Perricone and his orchestra had the unfortunate side effect of putting the audience to sleep due to the heavy use of the double-bass. **?
Nykyajan Babylon (East Side, West Side, US 1927) D: Allan Dwan, starring George O'Brien. A great contemporary spectacle of metropolitan life, including a Titanic episode. Great-looking and a bit superficial. Wonderful music by Donald Sosin and his orchestra. Brilliant MoMA restoration. **
SAVING THE SILENTS
A Western Girl (US 1911), D: Gaston Méliès, starring Francis Ford. GEH restoration. OK Western is a love story in a mining camp.
West of Hot Dog (US 1924), UCLA restoration starring Stan Laurel as an "Eastern tenderfoot adrift in a rough-and-tumble Wild West town" (Charles Hopkins).
Hands Up (US 1918), D: James W. Horne, starring Ruth Roland, Louis Gasnier. Promotional special trailer for a lost serial.
Yhteiskunnan vihollinen (The Penalty, US 1920), D: Wallace Worsley, starring Lon Chaney. Brilliant GEH restoration 2001 from camera negative. The incredible melodrama of the revenge of the crippled king of the underworld of San Francisco. Full of weird observations. ***
Maldone (FR 1928), D: Jean Grémillon, DP: Georges Périnal, AD: André Barsacq. One of the great discoveries of the Festival was this Grémillon Centenary special, a picaresque story of a rambling man called Maldone. A masterpiece of the same class as Gardiens de phare. ****
MITCHELL AND KENYON
The British Film Institute's Peter Worden Collection of Mitchell and Kenyon Films (GB 1899-1913) consists of some 780 nitrate negatives. The ambitious preservation and restoration project is now starting to be showcased. Brilliant pictorial quality, but for a foreigner somewhat boring and repetitious subject matter.
(Mitchell and Kenyon 49: Fish's Waterfall Mill, Blackburn) 1900?
(Mitchell and Kenyon 6: Haslam's Ltd. Colne, 29.1.1900)
(Mitchell and Kenyon 28: Lumb and Sons, Huddersfield) 1900?
(Mitchell and Kenyon 24: Pilkington Glass Works, St. Helen's 3.10.1900)
(Mitchell and Kenyon 25: Pilkington Glass Works, St. Helen's 3.10.1900)
(Mitchell and Kenyon 26: Pilkington Glass Works, St. Helen's 3.10.1900)
(Mitchell and Kenyon 39: Ormerod's Mill, Great Moor Street, Bolton) 1900?
(Mitchell and Kenyon 43: Brooks & Doxey, 7/1901)
(Mitchell and Kenyon 35: Armstrong's Elswick Works, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne) 1900?
(Mitchell and Kenyon 109: Newcastle United Vs. Liverpool No. 1) 1900?
(Mitchell and Kenyon 110: Newcastle United Vs. Liverpool No. 2) 1900?
L'eruzione dell'Etna (IT 1909), PC: Ambrosio. Tinted and toned, Lobster Films
Tremblement de terre en Italie (? 1905), Lobster Films
Chomón (ES 2001), D: M. Dolors Genovès. One of the best documentaries on silent cinema ever, a fascinating story of Segundo de Chomón, one of cinema's first masters of animation, cinematography, special effects, pyrotechnics, and fantasy. Covers film history from Pathé to Napoléon with lots of juicy excerpts. ****
The most ambitious event in the Festival's history was a fitting way to celebrate its 20 glorious years.
Napoléon vu par Abel Gance (FR 1927). Restored by Kevin Brownlow / Photoplay, music compiled, composed and directed by Carl Davis. The latest restored print was shown for the first time as a special all day spectacle in Teatro Nuovo Giovanni da Udine. What was new in it? Better pictorial quality, and especially better tinting. And real polyvision via three projectors. A steam train took the audience from Sacile to Udine and back. Departure: at 12.25 pm. Return: at 1.00 am.
This was the best experience I have had of the film. The fine-editing of the film brings new charms to it. The extremely difficult tinting is uniquely successful (tinting nowadays almost always fails, which is why I prefer straight black-and-white to most modern tinting). I belong to the defenders of Carl Davis: lifting bodily large chunks from Beethoven is absolutely justified in this film. Beethoven is evidently the Napoleon composer, and why settle for anything less? Most importantly, all the efforts in restoration and music serves to bring Abel Gance's vision alive for modern audiences. It's still one of the most breathtaking films of all times, a magnificent combination of epic and intimacy, of terror and comedy. It's almost impossible to make a successful film (or novel, or play) of a great modern historical figure as the protagonist. Abel Gance succeeded in showing the bravado, the vision, the weakness and the vulnerability of Napoleon. ****