Archive for Pordenone Festival of Silent Film

It’s Chinatown

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 7, 2020 by dcairns

WHERE THE LIGHTS ARE LOW (1921), screened at Pordenone Silent Film Fest, was enjoyable tosh — Sessue Hayakawa leads a mostly Japanese-American cast playing Chinese in an exciting melodrama.

Hayakawa is a high-born Chinese gent who wants to marry for love, so his evil uncle has his beloved sold into slavery. Our hero traces her to San Francisco but his efforts to buy her freedom are thwarted by the evil uncle again… It all builds to a really gripping conclusion, a colossal punch-up and then a dark twist that had me on the edge of my Ikea lounge chair.

The movie was rediscovered in Croatia complete with Croatian intertitles. The accretion of speckles and scratches only seems to have added to its wonderful texture — lots of embroidered costumes and decaying surfaces. Colin Campbell, director, serves up nifty compositions throughout, with San Francisco playing both itself and China. Also, a cinematic auto-translation, when Sessue finds a message written on a murder weapon —

Dissolve from Chinese original (not sure if it’s GOOD Chinese — to English translation.


Pordenone, having rendered all its streaming videos invisible to frame-grabbing — like trying to photograph a vampire — has now made the subtitles invisible too. I swear they’re watching my every move. But I promise that if you buy a pass, you will be able to see everything.

These images were photographed off my laptop, with resulting colour distortions.

Next up — Italian adventure-comedy THE STORM IN THE SKULL, a 1921 version of Fincher’s THE GAME, also anticipating the twist of SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, and featuring perhaps cinema’s first Zoom call…

Custom Made

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 6, 2020 by dcairns

GUO FENG or GUOFENG or NATIONAL CUSTOMS (1934) is one of the tiny number of silent films still extant. The rarity of these films, and the resulting work they have to do in representing a whole culture’s cinema output, makes them a little tricky to assess. It’s right that festivals like Pordenone and the Hippodrome are showcasing these movies as they become available, and it’s understandable that their programme notes accentuate the positive — they want people to see them, after all, and people SHOULD see them.

This is still the one to watch.

All the Chinese silents I’ve seen — four of them, by my count, which is more than most of us, I reckon — are heavily flawed by unsubtle propaganda content. Even THE GODDESS, which is rated a masterpiece by many, has a fair bit of crude, disfiguring material which goes beyond the didactic into the finger-wagging. THE RED HEROINE is the film least guilty of this, but THE RED HEROINE is a largely ludicrous movie, though of definite interest. All the Chinese silents I’ve seen are made watchable by their visual invention.

GUOFENG, as Pordenone has decided to call it, consists of about 75% civics lesson/propaganda — a prolonged attack on western-style modernisation, women wearing makeup, men wearing ill-fitting suits — to 25% story. The film-making is extremely deft, but at the service of fairly dumb and rigid content.

The acting is of interest, because it avoids anything resembling the erroneous standard idea of silent movie performance, but falls into another trap: it’s extremely reminiscent of modern soap opera acting. The gestures and expressions used to telegraph “concern,” “anger” or “distress” are sort of subtle, in that they’re not HUGE, but they’re all from stock. Each character has only one characteristic, and none of them really develop. so the combination of one-dimensional figures repeating tired gestures in a simplistic storyline which makes the same point over and over is not exactly rich.

There are lots of snazzy transitions and smart storytelling devices. Still, I don’t think it’s quite right of festival director Jay Weissberg to praise the “fluidity” of the camerawork. What most people will notice is the clunkiness of all the movements. The filmmakers obviously didn’t have the benefit of a smooth dolly and a geared head for the camera. But they tried anyway — the praiseworthy quality here is not fluidity but ambition and creativity. The camera is a busy and active part of the narrative, indeed it’s by far the more appealing character.

I could be wrong about all of this — perhaps I’m applying the wrong standards to the films, acting like some fellow who has only seen, say, modern American cinema, and is suddenly confronted with RASHOMON or METROPOLIS and can’t cope with the differences of performance and technique. But I don’t THINK so. With so few Chinese silents in existence, it would be really staggering if what was left was all masterpieces. If you reduced Hollywood’s silent era down to a few titles, choosing at random, you’d be unlikely to end up with SEVENTH HEAVEN or SUNRISE on your list of survivors. So it’s impressive that China can give us FEN DOU, which displays the clear influence of Borzage’s stairwell shots in 7TH H.

There are so few Chinese films left, we can’t generalize and say propagandistic elements dominated the industry — maybe it’s these elements of social content that helped determine which films survived, or which are being made available? All we can say is that by our own standards of sophisticated storytelling, it’s arguable that the films we’ve seen so far tend to be lumbered with crude patriotic messages.

I’m not running a film festival so I can say what I like: GUOFENG is a terrible film. But fascinating, and worthy of study.

Streets Behind

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on October 5, 2020 by dcairns

In Pordeone Silent Film Fest’s first shorts collection, we saw travel films of foreign parts, including Krakow. And now locations wizard John Bengston has matched three of the views to their contemporary equivalents.

Hmm, Poland needs more trees. Well, we all do.

Yes, 1929 versus 2020, it’s all about the trees.

John’s current project deserves your attention: there’s an alleyway in LA with a curious and romantic history. This alleyway deserves a name to match its incredible cinematic heritage. I’ll let John explain:

John writes more about silent movie locations here.

Also enjoyed at Pordenone: the amazing 65mm Bioscope films, whose large-format clarity astonishes. I hope these will become more widely available, they are the closest thing to time travel you can have without a tachyon drive.