Archive for Pordenone Festival of Silent Film

The Sunday Intertitle: The Melting World

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on October 9, 2022 by dcairns

Pordenone Silent Film Fest’s screening of Frank Borzage’s THE LADY — which was wonderful — was accompanied by JAPAN I FEST, an actualité/travelogue film from 1914-1916, an incredibly rare glimpse of a period in Japan from which precious little film survives. And the rarity value was visually marked by the signs of decay creeping into the footage.

The scenes depicted are a series of festivals. The passage of time means that the unusual costumes and customs of the participants are of no greater interest (to me, anyway) than the faces of the regular people watching.

The Norwegian intertitles are occasionally a little patronising, but to be honest I was kind of thinking the same thing. Despite the patina of damage which sometimes reaches right into the image and distorts it like a liquid reflection, the faces have an incredible presence and immediacy.

Interesting moment bottom left when the intertitle writer cedes authority to Lou Reed.

Edward Brophy – yes or no?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2022 by dcairns

Prime Brophy

Edward Brophy — young! svelte! with hair! That’s the main attraction of YES AND NO? (1920), screened for unknown reasons at Le Giornate de Cinema Muto — Pordenone Festival of Silent Film. The story of Brophy’s rise — a rag’s-to-better-rags tale of being discovered as production manager on THE CAMERAMAN and given as small part as the irate swimpool customer Buster Keaton shares a changing room with — needs revising. Brophy’s early career as AD and location manager ran in parallel with his acting career, with the tubby supporting player changing hats and going where the work was.

In THE CAMERAMAN he’s fully himself, the scowling schlub familiar to us from THE THIN MAN, YOU CAN’T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN, the voice of Timothy Q. Mouse in DUMBO. Here, he’s momentarily unrecognizable. What we see is, at first, a reasonable facsimile of a human, until we notice the tiny ears, mere pasta shells, and the huge mouth. Edward Brophy’s mouth, somehow crammed into a vaguely normal, plus-sized head, and apparently trying to chew its way to freedom.

Even without words, Brophy’s sour aggressive manner comes seeping from the celluloid (or streaming pixels). Lowell Sherman, also appearing, seems to lose everything without his dulcet tones, though I’ve seen him in other silents where his suavity carried the day. The problem is, this Norma Talmadge vehicle (personally signed by the actor) is completely uninteresting on a dramatic level.

Norma plays two women, one rich, one poor. Both have hardworking husbands who neglect them. The rich wife says “yes” to an affair, and her life is destroyed. The poor wife says “no” to an affair (really, more like a rape attempt) and her husband invents the washing machine and they go to live in the Long Island suburbs. That’s it — the first movie based not on a scenario but a diagram. Of course, with any tale, what matters is the telling. The movie tells this tale at far greater length than I’ve just done.

Of the cast, only Brophy’s obnoxious brother-in-law and Natalie Talmadge (soon to marry Buster Keaton) as an acerbic, pre-code type sister, have any character. Nat is much cuter and spikier than in OUR HOSPITALITY, though the intertitles are doing a lot of the work for her. Beautiful titles, I wish I could framegrab them.

All the story’s discoveries and implications are predecided on obtuse moral lines, and intercutting two versions of the same story just makes everything take twice as long to happen. The variations are uninteresting (only Keaton’s extreme inventiveness and the greater variety of the settings allows him to pull off a comparable stunt in THE THREE AGES). There are some nice, if strange, gowns. At one point wealthy Talmadge wears paniers.

I kept thinking I knew Rockliffe Fellowes, the name and the face. He plays the inventor of the washing machine. And – of course! – the “good” bootlegger in the Marx Bros. MONKEY BUSINESS, where he’s pretty dreadful. And I saw him in last year’s Pordenone offering, PENROD AND SAM, where he was OK.

Tempting to blame Norma for this one. Certainly, someone who doesn’t know anything about stories was sold a pup — a high-concept, low-yield pictograph masquerading as a screenplay. “And you get to play two roles!”

As in THE GREAT DICTATOR, nobody notices that the unrelated Talmadges resemble one another. Nat, sister to one, maid to the other, is supposed to be smart, but she’s notably unobservant.

The director is Roy William Neill, who we like here at Shadowplay. The Sherlock Holmes series, BLACK ANGEL, etc. I’ve seen an earlier one of his, VIVE LA FRANCE! (1918), in which I felt his punchy compositional style was evident. This one looks just like any well-made Hollywood product of the period. I can’t blame him for feeling uninspired by the material, though.

As part of a Talmadge season, this would be somewhat useful, I suppose. Plucked from that context and fired at unsuspecting subscribers, it’s rather a waste of time, a narrative dead-end that wouldn’t be uselessly explored again until Fox made CRACK IN THE MIRROR in 1960. That Hollywood trap, the False Good Idea.

The Sunday Intertitle: The Ruritanian-Silestrian Border

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on October 2, 2022 by dcairns

This year’s Pordenone Festival of Silent Film has a Ruritanian theme — but in Italy, the name for it is, or was at the time of 1912’s SUI GRADINI DEL TRONO (ON THE STEPS OF THE THRONE), Silestria.

My ability to frame-grab from the Fest’s streaming site lasted one short film, a newsreel/actualité about Montenegro, and then I just get black screens, so I have to tell you there is for instance an intertitle (in Dutch) saying “HIS EXCELLENCY BACKINE, REGENT OF SILISTRIA,” and you’ll have to take my word for it, unless you want to buy a ticket, which I would recommend, but you’ll have to hurry, the film will be vanishing soon.

I did manage to get images from the newsreel —

The reference to Prince Danilo was explained by fest director Jay Weissberg in his intro — the connection with Maurice Chevalier’s character in THE MERRY WIDOW appears not to be coincidental — the real Danilo certainly took that view, because he sued MGM over his portrayal as a charming, happy-go-lucky playboy. We should all be so libelled.

SUI GRADINI is a fascinating artefact from the days of tableau staging, before America had even started making feature films. The performances are strikingly natural: sometimes the actors just seem to be chatting. Even the villains keep their Italianate gesticulations on the low-down. Director Ubaldo Maria del Colle, near the outset of a forty-year career and stuck with the one-shot-per-scene aesthetic, animates the frame with cunning background action (villains creeping about behind love scenes) to create dramatic irony in visual form. Segundo de Chomon’s purpose-built dolly has not trundled in this direction.

The plot is pure ZENDA, with switcheroos here and there.

The sets tend to the windowless, giving Silistria an air of low-budget claustrophobia, but the astonishing array of military headgear raises the production values considerably. A combination of Serbian and Hungarian influences, JW tells us. The sunlit exteriors add glamour.

When the hero is exiled to Paris, a performance by dancer/seductress Thais, surrounded by mirrors, prompts both a flurry of different colour filters, and a single axial cut to bring subject and camera closer together. A revolution!

Performances largely eschew the Keystone expositional mime, but there are moments of what the late Dudley Sutton referred to, in my presence, as “telegraphing” — the actor doesn’t just think, he makes his thoughts known, by expression or gesture, to the camera, tacitly acknowledging the absence of the fourth wall, the presence of a recording apparatus, an audience. Amusing moment when the doppelganger (Alberto Capozzi, louche in a bolero hat) of the prince (Alberto Capozzi, uptight in Stroheimian uniform) is first discovered: the villain steps back in amazement, hands raised, and the double glances at us, inviting us, his chums, to share his surprise at this odd character.

(End title from the Newsreel, with live-action logo-figure, a la Leo the Lion)

I’m not really into this period of film, unless we’re in the hands of a restless innovator or genius, but probably I just need to see more of it. So this was a nice opportunity.

PS. Best moment: in the hall of mirrors, Capozzi #1 bids farewell to Thais, and exists screen right. The shot continues a moment, and Capozzi #2 enters, screen left. The actor has switched hats and pasted on a couple of sideburns. Who needs special effects? (On closer examination, Thais freezes to permit a jump-cut — I’d loved this even more if it were purely a lightning costume change.)