Holiday hats on everyone. The sun is out in Pordenone. And although it can be a struggle to choose the dark of the cinema over basking in the Italian heat, there are compensations. Even if, this afternoon, the heavens opened in the Verdi with a screening of Joris Ivens’ splashy art film Regen (1929), part of the strand celebrating 90 years of the Venice Film Festival.
Yet more extreme conditions could be found in a long unseen Jean Epstein film, 1923’s La montaña traidora, a short documentary on the eruption of Mount Etna. Epstein had a gift for discovering the spark of photogénie in unlikely places: “One of cinema’s greatest powers is its animism. On screen there is no still life. Objects have attitudes. Trees gesture. Mountains … signify.” And so here we had the drama of a volcanic eruption and the destruction of the surrounding area, revealed in the barely perceptible movement of rock, the slow but deadly lava flow that inched downhill, cratered and steaming and utterly unstoppable. Mountains signify indeed. There was music to calm the savage lava, and very fine music too, from Frank Bockius and one John Sweeney. More of him anon.
If any actor could be considered sunshine in a bottle, then perhaps dimple-cheeked Norma Talmadge would qualify. She is radiance itself and it’s a joy to watch her fall in love in early Hollywood romances, decked out in ruffles and flounces and accompanied by the sweet accompaniment of Neil Brand. Well mostly. I pride myself on having a head for the heights of melodrama and I managed to stave off vertigo in this morning’s Vitagraph one- and two-reeler double-bill.
In Memories in Men’s Souls (Van Dyke Brooke, 1914) she is the great love of a successful businessman’s life, but ah, the one that got away. She handled the romance and grief quite nicely, but the ageing makeup did not convince. Norma has a natural youthful bounce – I thought she had just gone bottle-blonde.
Elsa’s Brother (Van Dyke Brooke, 1915) relied shamelessly on contrivance, coincidence and convention and what do you know? It was fun. Norma’s ne’er-do-well sibling goes west to make a man of himself (we never learn exactly what this might entail, but I presume it means embracing capitalism in some meaningful way), but unfortunately gets in a fight with a more respectable type, who accidentally shoots him. Assuming the feckless brother won’t make it, Mr Respectable goes east to escape the shame and GUESS WHO he meets and falls in love with? Well, it turns out that sometimes getting shot can really make a man evaluate his life choices, so all may well be well in the end… Van Dyke Brooke, who was Norma’s boyfriend in the last film, plays her grandfather in this. Even Lillian Gish would get whiplash.
Suddenly, the air grew thin and the ground rose up to meet me, however, when it came to the feature, The Forbidden City (Sidney A. Franklin, 1918). Norma is a young Chinese woman, who falls in love with an American diplomat in this yellow-face saga. Faster than you can say Madame Butterfly, it all starts to take a tragic turn, which will only be revealed a generation later, on said diplomat’s deathbed. Let’s draw a veil over this one, except for Talmadge’s gorgeous silk two-pieces, which were up to the highest stands of Norma-core fashion, a delightful mode of dress to which we are happily becoming accustomed.
More gorgeous gowns were worn, and torn, in the evening’s feature presentation: Abel Gance’s torrid yet highbrow La Dixième symphonie (1918). This is the kind of film that opens with a smoking gun and then just builds from there. In this passionate melodrama, rich with symbolism, art and astonishing cinematography by Léonce-Henri Burel, a woman (an elegantly distraught Emmy Lynn) tries to escape from an entanglement with a terrible man who lured her into his ‘perverted world’ to take advantage of her youth and beauty, and inheritance. Even when remarried to a ‘famous composer’ (Séverin-Mars), with an adolescent stepdaughter and a new life, Fred a very unappealing (Jean Toulout) is hard to shake… This film was ambitious in all points of the compass. There was even effective comic relief in the form of the stepdaughter’s persistent and consistently unimpressive suitor, played by André Lefaur.
As you’d imagine, all this pain has to lead somewhere … and it does. There is a conclusion to the plot, but the suffering of said stepmother and stepdaughter leads to the suffering of said composer, who manages to channel his angst into a phenomenal symphony. As he sits down to play it to a small group, he channels his hero and is literally ‘transfigurated’ into Beethoven himself. And intercut with his performance are scenes of Ariane Hugon dancing in a woodland glade via superimposition, in a letterbox bordered by stencil-coloured classical imagery. It was strange at first and then strangely moving.
The film was originally released with a score by Michel-Maurice Lévy – the first composer to be credited on a film, apparently. That music has been lost to time, I think. However, tonight we were lucky enough to have John Sweeney on the piano. His performance was a tour de force – the recital sequence alone brought the house down. Music that rose to the occasion, and much more. trust Mr Sweeney to tread delicately over the scenes of high emotion, but to provide the perfect swell of angst in the symphony itself.
I was in the balcony, so I must ask. Did anyone in the stalls peek into the orchestra pit to check whether a transfiguration took place? Was Ariane Hugon dancing across the top of his piano in a chiffon veil? I would believe it. Bravo.
Intertitle of the Day
“If that’s your brother, I killed him!’ Elsa’s Brother. Just the facts, ma’am, indeed, but somehow so much more, also.
- Euphemism of the day. Oh yes, my stepmother is waiting for me in a tea room too. Sure. We learned that ruse from La Dixième symphonie.
- Wow moment of the day. I was thrilled to see the magnificent new restoration of Stella F. Simons Hände (1929) as I love that odd film. But it was when watching 1910’s Billeder Fra Morokko, from The Hans Berge Collection in the Norwegian National Library, that I truly gasped. ‘Look at the texture of that… mud!’
- Read all my Pordenone posts in one place.
- You can read more about the festival, and all of the films, on the Giornate website.
- Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.