Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

Giornate del Cinema Muto 1994 Pordenone

Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

Giornate del Cinema Muto 1994 Pordenone

Article excerpt

Despite fears that the Pordenone Silent Film Festival would be up-ended by a combination of financial debts, the threatened loss of the Verdi Theatre, and an endless struggle for hotel rooms occupied by Nato Troops flying missions over Bosnia, this year's Giornate del Cinema Muto (8-15 October) once again sent film historians, archivists and collectors home with happy faces. Everyone had made personal discoveries and engaged in the kind of discussion and reevaluation of film history for which this festival is justifiably famous. And while the momentous rediscoveries of other years (pre-Caligari, pre-Revolutionary Russia) were absent, outright flops like the disastrous John CaIe performance were also few and far between.

This year's main theme was dedicated to " Forgotten Laughter ", unknown American silent film comedians, including Billy Armstrong, Billy Bevan, Charley Bowers, Chester Conklin, James Finlayson, Louise Fazenda, Oliver Hardy, Lupino Lane, Hank Mann, Al St. John, Snub Pollard, Sid Smith, Ben Turpin, and Billy West. Certainly this program was an important opportunity to re-evaluate the second string comedians who almost never made it beyond the nether regions of short film program fillers for third run houses, but there was much discussion about their ultimate importance in relation to the comedy saints Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd. As the round-table discussion at festival's end made clear, a few historians felt that these comedians had been unjustly forgotten and ignored by the likes of James Agee, while others (including this writer) felt that given the lack of aesthetic quality, these comedians were hardly ripe for canonization. Indeed, watching these short comedies en masse, rather than as shorts before a feature, as originally screened, tended to accentuate weaknesses, rather than strengths. Endless repetitions of gags, overuse of vaudeville clichés and mindless slapstick seemingly ruled the day, whereas character development and plotting were only rarely in evidence.

Furthermore, the euphoria of discovery displayed by some European viewers contrasted with the more subdued view of some American collectors long exposed to the Blackhawk Library of p.d. reissues. Most agreed that these comedies are rich in socio-political and cultural content, revealing much about the nature of humour and the typography of 1920s Los Angeles. Finally, everyone acknowledged the greatness of Max Davidson in Pass the Gravy (1928), which won the festival's comedy film poll, and was one of only a handful of comedy discoveries.

The second major retrospective, dedicated to Indian silent cinema, also had its detractors and defenders. As curated by Prof. Suresh Chabria, the director of the National Film Archive of India, " The Light of Asia " certainly demonstrated that the so-called Third World cinema did not begin with the discovery of Satyajit Ray by 1950s western art cinemas, but could look back on a long tradition reaching well back into the silent era. While most of the films survive only in fragmentary, mutilated form, due as much to tropical climate conditions accelerating film decomposition as to colonialist cultural policies, a proudly nationalist cinema rich in history, myth, spectacle, and religious pageantry nevertheless emerged. The musical accompaniment by a group of Indian musicians living in Europe was uniformly excellent, adding the right touch of local colour to the presentations. For Western eyes the early documentaries of British tourists taking in the glorious sights of the Imperial Raj proved an easy entry point.

The three fiction features directed by Bavarian expatriate Franz Osten were also accessible, given their narrative structure and visual style, perfected in Munich and Berlin rather than in Bombay. Die Leuchte Asiens / Light of Asia (1926), produced by the German Emelka, retold the story of the young Siddhartha and featured - like its Ufa-financed successors - a broad canvas of characters, spectacular Indian locations, realistic acting, and an accomplished, even breath-taking mise en scène. …

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