Once again an international mix of committed cineastes gathered in Pordenone in north-west Italy. There were about a thousand here for a week of film from the first thirty five years of cinema, [WebPages]. Within this crowd were a select group of ‘Donors’, who support the Festival by attending and financially. Some have been returning year after year since its earliest days in the 1980s.
All guests receive a pass and a Catalogue; the donors also receive a large and impressive set of publications; the Catalogue offers details of the titles, their provenance and some indication of the content. Donors also receive a selection of new writings on the ‘silent era’. This year there were two books from Paulo Cherchi Usai, one of the founders of the Festival. He has also recently finished his work as Senior Curator of the Moving Image Department at the George Eastman Museum. His work and research there has fed into the two books.
‘Silent Cinema A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship’, BFI 2019.
This is a revised and much expanded version of his book and which has one of the most thorough accounts of the cinematic process in the founding and development of cinema and which also addresses the issues around the transition from photo-chemical film to digital.
‘The Art of Film Projection A Beginner’s Guide’. George Eastman Museum, 2019.
This promises to be a detailed study of projection of ‘reel’ film in all its aspects. In which case the British Film Institute should buy a stack of copies and send them to the several cinemas that still have 35mm projectors but no projectionists.
‘Silver Screen to Digital A Brief History of Film Technology’ by Carlo Montanaro, Translated by Liam Mac Gabhann. John Libbey Publishing, 2019.
The book covers from the silent era up until the new computer based systems.
The volumes are pertinent. Peter Rist, who every year does his calculations, noted that there were 27 features on DCP at this year’s Festivals but only 17 on 35mm. The short film programmes were better, about 50/50. The latter were interesting as digital versions and film versions were side by side and the characteristics of each could be both compared and contrasted. So far this has confirmed my preference for the traditional technology. The opening and closing events of the Festival were digital projections. The opening night offered Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid with an accompaniment by the Orchestra San Marco conducted by Timothy Brock; an expert in music for Chaplin’s films. The digital version was fine but this was the version re-edited by Chaplin and some of us would have preferred the original version from 1921.
The closing night offered Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, A Story of London Fog (1927). On this occasion the Orchestra San Marco was conducted by Ben Palmer with a score by Neil Brand. This was a digital rendering of a tinted copy and [as is frequently the case with the format] the tinting was over-saturated, reducing the definition within the image.
The audience included the citizens of Pordenone, who also enjoy the Festival. One of their favoured events is ‘Striking a new Note’, titles accompanied by the Orchestra dell’Instituto Comprensivo Rorai Cappuccini e della Scuola Secondaria di Primo Grado di P. P. Pasolini. [a school celebrating the great film maker; I somehow doubt we have a school in Britain cerebrating Derek Jarman]. The students play recorders with a piano alongside. This year they accompanied ‘Our Gang’ in Dogs of War (1923) and ‘Baby Peggy’ in Carmen, Jr. (1923).
There were also screenings specifically dedicated to the citizens. On the final Sunday the Verdi screened Chaplin’s The Kid this time with the orchestra under the baton of Maestro Gunter Buchwald. There was also an event for the citizens of Sacile where the Festival spent many years whilst the new Verdi was constructed. The Zancanaro Theatre hosted one of the films from the Reginald Denny programme of the Festival; What Happened to Jones (1926). This is an excellent combination of slapstick and farce and enjoyed a score written and composed by Juri Dai Dan with the Zerorchestra Partitura.
Both sets of audiences are fairly well behaved, but even here at a specifically cinema event we have some ne’er-do-wells. The occasional mobile phone goes off: people actually text in the auditorium: actually light up tablets: and, whilst, one can understand using a phone as a torch in the darkness, some wave it about like a searchlight. The Festival would benefit from more frequent and more emphatic warnings; this year seen only occasionally before events.
But the staff and volunteers of the Festival are very good. One worker in the reception admitted to being worn out after registering all the guests and handling their queries. And, unfortunately, this year the staff at the Verdi had to assist when one unfortunate guest who collapsed and had to be wheeled by out by medics: he has recovered. Most of the guests are in a good condition despite the demands of a fairly heavy programme of screenings. The staff received a special thank you on the last night. Jay Weissberg [the Festival Director] admits it is not possible to list all the staff and volunteers who care for the festival-goers. So I suggested perhaps we could have a ‘photo-montage’ of staff. There is already one for the recipients of the Jean Mitry Award, a prestigious honour given annually. This photo-montage of the previous award-winners also means that every year we hear Aaron Copland’s magnificent ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’. So perhaps readers could consider an equally appropriate piece of music for a ‘Fanfare’ for the hard-working staff.
The Jean Mitry Award is one of the special events in the Festival. Past years have seen the honour awarded to some of the major luminaries of Silent Film study, preservation and presentation. This year the two recipients were Margaret parsons who has for a long period has organised the film programmes at the National Gallery in Washington DC; and Donald Crafton who wrote and taught key works on early animation.
Also this year one of the students from the David Selznick Film School presented her work for the Haghefilm Selznick Fellowship. This was a 1912 Russian Pathé film, the second part of 1812 (The Retreat From Moscow). This was a fine 18 minute 35mm print with excellent tinting. We watched Napoleon as he suffered the travails of the Russian winter and Russian resistance. Though the real suffering was reserved for the French soldiers, cut down by Cossacks, hacked down by serfs and savaged by wolves.
In between and alongside these events were a series of programmes which I shall return to discuss in greater detail. They included the early films of William S. Hart; the finest exponent of the western in early Hollywood. There was Hollywood star Reginald Denny, little seen until this year. We had early stars of French cinema and a range of short films from Weimar Cinema. And we had a series of ‘flip-books’ painstakingly transferred to photographs and animated for projections. All of these enjoyed musical accompaniments both from the orchestras and from a talented team of musicians, mainly on the piano, but supplemented by the violin, accordion and percussion and the human voice.
We also met and chatted to old friends and colleagues: wrapped up well for the start and enjoyed warmer sunshine for the end of the week; and, as space and time allowed, indulged in the excellent Italian cuisine.
The Festival remains one of the high spots in the cinematic year. I still regret that I missed the first twelve years.
This was quite a good year for new releases. The best, for me, were as follows: in the order that I saw them:
Selma USA 2014.
A model of what a biopic should be and combining intelligence with mainstream production values.
Mummy Canada 2014
The film’s intensity was increased by the use of an unusual aspect ratio.
Phoenix, Germany 2014
A great combination of noir and Kurt Weill.
Bande de Filles (Girlhood) France 2014
A pleasure to watch, but serious with it.
A Pigeon sat on a Branch and Reflected on Life (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron) Sweden, Norway 2014.
The film manages to be both droll and surreal at the same time.
Timbuktu Mauritania 2014
The first intelligent film about jihadists and the best football sequence in years.
45 Years UK 2015
Slow, elegant and very complex: the acting performances of the year.
Taxi (Taxi Teheran) Iran 2015
Subversion was rarely so witty or so much fun.
The Assassin (Nie yin Niang) China, Taiwan, Hong Kong 2015
Slow and with a tricky plot, but visually and aurally stunning.
Carol USA 2015
What other praise than this is as good as the Patricia Highsmith original novel.
Song of the Sea Eire 2014
Beautiful traditional animation: lovely dog.
White God (Fehér isten) Hungary 2014.
The largest and the most impressively led pack of dogs seen in ages.
National Gallery, France, USA, UK 2014
Frederick Wiseman’s typical and completely absorbing portrait of a British artistic institution.
Letter to the Editor of Amateur Photography, UK 2013
The pleasure of watching radical documentary form: unfortunately it has had only a limited screenings.
Best wedding on film:
Wild Tales (Relatos salvaje) Argentina 2014
The best portmanteau film of the year and my most hilarious moments in cinema.
Most impressive silent film, by a narrow margin:
Les Misérables France 1928
This screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in a fine restoration, which ran for six hours: about the time you needed to read part one of the book.
Best film accompaniment:
This was the Benshi, Ichiro Kataoka, who accompanied Chuji Tabinikki / A Diary of Chuji’s Travels (Japan, 1928) along with the Otawasa Ensemble. This was another fine restoration also screened at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.
Best early sound film:
Tell England UK 1931 screened at the British Silent Film Festival and demonstrated that how well some filmmaker used the new technology.
The film most worth waiting for:
The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana) Poland 1975.
Director Andrzej Wajda’s epic of C19th capitalism in Łódź. And the series of Polish classics, partly organised by Martin Scorsese, was excellent.
The worst films that I sat through this year – a tie between,
Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Netherlands, Mexico, Belgium, Finland, France 2015
Steve Jobs USA 2015.
Both films had proficient technical aspects but both were idiosyncratic biopics, which showed little interest in the situation of the subject.
I thought the year was less productive and interesting than 2013: however I had a lay-off of nearly two months and missed a number of new releases. The ones that really impressed me this year were:
Winter Sleep / Kis uykusa Turkey / France / Germany, 2014.
For me not just the best new film this year, but the best for several years. Nuri Bilge Ceylan and his team have produced a long, but richly complex film. One that reflects on the personal and the social. Despite comments by some critics this is a splendidly cinematic film.
Ida, Poland, Denmark / France / UK, 2013.
An absolute pleasure in black and white academy ratio. Director Pawel Pawlikowski and cinematographers Lukasz Zai and Ryszard Lenczewski have produced a visually stunning film. The cast are excellent. What also impressed me is that the film not only achieves the look 1960s Poland but also of the Polish cinema of the period.
The Patience Stone, France / Germany / UK / Afghanistan, 2012.
This film had one of the outstanding performances of the year from Golshifteh Farahani. The screenplay, from the director Ayiq Rahini’s own novel, by Jean-Claude Carriére suggests he is still the finest writer in European cinema.
Concerning Violence, Sweden / Denmark / Finland / US / Norway / Germany.
This was an outstanding documentary, which showed proper respect for the archive material that it used: something that many films do not. The structure and editing of the film by Göran Hugo Olsson and his team was exemplary. The treatment of the writings of Frantz Fanon was somewhat partial, the most serious failing in the film.
The Missing Picture, France / Kingdom of Cambodia, 2013.
This was another exceptional documentary though its politics were less fully developed than in Concerning Violence. Rithy Panh’s direction and design was powerfully evocative: and the use of models and dioramas gave the film a very distinctive form.
Set Fire to the Stars, UK.
A last minute addition: 2013 ended with a film about a sculptor, 2014 with one about a poet. Beautiful wide-screen black and white cinematography and a fine sound design and music score, (director Andy Godard, Cinematography Chris Seager, Music Gruff Rhys). It also rescues the poetry of Dylan Thomas from its rather facile treatment in Interstellar.
The 20th (and possibly the last) Bradford International Film Festival gave me the discovery of the year – a retrospective of the films of Japanese director Nomura Yoshitarō based on the writings of Kobayashi Mosahiro. I especially liked the 1958 Stakeout (Harikomi) with my favourite Takamine Hideko in a leading role.
The Festival also provided a welcome retrospective of British director Sally Potter.
The 28th Leeds International Film Festival provided the best UK retrospective of the year – five films by the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman in 35mm prints. Included were his masterpiece Persona (1966) and the equally fine Through a Glass Darkly / Såsom I en spegel, 1961.
The Festival also provided the most challenging screening of the year – an immaculate print from the Netherlands Film Museum of Max Ophuls’ 1936 The Trouble With Money. Unfortunately the print had no English subtitles: it says something for Ophuls skill as a director that I could follow most of the plot.
Il Cinema Ritrovato 28th edition offered a film that I have waited long to see in its full format. As part of The Golden 50s: India’s Endangered Classics the Festival screened, in a black and white 35mm CinemaScope print, Kaagaz Ke Phool / Paper Flowers, 1959. One of Guru Dutt’s memorable melodramas with very fine cinematography by V. K. Murthy and music by S. ED. Burman.
The Festival also screened the best digital restoration and screening I saw this year, a 4K version of John Ford’s classic My Darling Clementine, 1946. The ample Arlecchino cinema was packed for the occasion.
The best offering from the silent era was at [predictably] the 33rd Le Giornate del Cinema Muto – The Silent Comedies of Yakov Protazanov unfortunately listed as Russian Laughter rather than the correct Soviet Laughter. I especially enjoyed The Trial Concerning Three Million / Protsess o Trekh Millionakh, 1926.
The nadir of 2014 was February, which saw the release of The Wolf of Wall Street, US. I can understand it being the most plagiarised film of the year but found it unaccountable that it was in the Sight & Sound ‘top listings’. There have been recurring traces of misogyny in the films of Martin Scorsese and this seems to me to be the worse example.
Then it was joined by The Book Thief, US / UK, 2013. Markus Zusak’s novel is an exhilarating and formally audacious piece of writing. The film version reduced it to the worse sort of mainstream conventions.
Finally, notable centenaries. The Hyde Park Picture House passed one hundred years – November 1914. The team still manages a pretty varied programme of films and also we enjoy fairly frequent 35mm screenings.
And then this was the anniversary year of Charlie Chaplin, first appearing in February 1914. I saw a considerable number of Chaplin films during the year, the one I most enjoyed revisiting was Modern Times, 1936. The screening at the National Media Museum was enhanced by a clip from the delightful Cuban film For the First Time / Por primera vez, 1967.