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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 11:57AM   |  8 comments
Silent Film Star Yeva Milyutina

Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive

The first thing you do when you get to Pordenone, Italy, a provincial capital northeast of Venice, is walk a lot. The town is small enough to promenade around in half an hour. Invariably you meet colleagues on the street, because everyone is walking to and from various hotels. I first started going to the Giornate del cinema muto in 1988, when I was curator at George Eastman House. I mention this because I realized, how many people I know at the Festival. There are the many archivists, who show their latest preservation work or come to look at other restorations; there are the American and European academics, who specialize in silent film historiography; and there are the cinephiles, who come faithfully every year at their own expense, just to see rare silent films. This year’s program is focused on canonical films, the French company Albatross, divas, and Sherlock Holmes.  

The Albatross films turned out to be somewhat of a mixed bag. Albatross was founded in Paris by a bunch of Russian exiles in the very early 1920s. Unfortunately, previous festivals have shown some of the best films from the company, films by Rene Clair, L’Herbier, and the actor Moujoukine. By the mid 1920, Albatross was supporting a lot of experimental work, but the films shown so far are from the early 1920s by people like the second-tiered Viktor Tourjansky, who had an incredibly long and undistinguished career in pre-revolutionary Russia, France, Nazi Germany, and word and sandal epics in Italy in the 1950s.

In the divas program, we saw some previously lost film fragments from Asta Nielsen (Europe’s greatest film star in 1914) and Francesca Bertini, and Italian diva who started making films around 1912 and was as popular in Italy as Pickford was in America. I’ve really liked the Bertini films, especially one we saw tonight where she kills her rival in her dressing room, then proceeds on stage to die (as a title tells us, blood gushing from her mouth, due to consumption).

So far the only real masterpiece was a Soviet film from 1928, Boris Barnet’s THE HOUSE IN TRUBNOI STREET, a slapstick comedy that was a scream. I was also impressed with a German comedy from 1926, THE LITTLE GIRL FROM THE VARIETY SHOW by Hanns Schwarz, starring Ossi Oswalda, who became famous as Lubitsch’s star in a series of comedies in the late teens.

Finally, I discovered ROTAIE (RAILS) (1929), a film by Mario Camerini. The film begins with an abborted double suicide of a young couple, who then find a wallet filled with money and head by train to Monaco. Despite this seeming fantasy narrative, the film has many realistic scenes, and only a few sparse intertitles, the rest of the narrative conveyed solely in images.     

Another great feature of the Giornate is a the Collegium, which brings graduate film studies students to discuss films and discuss other issues with prominent scholars in the field. I attended a session dedicated to canon formation. Ian Christie, formerly of the BFI and Paolo Cherchi Usai, now at the Haghefilm Foundation, lead the very interesting discussion about how film canons developed, why they have changed so little over the years, and how they do change. The consensus was that even when films are rediscovered though new restorations, - as happens so often at the Giornate - it still takes a very long time for those discoveries to filter into the canon.

A second Collegium session featured a lecture by Giovanna Fosetti, the preservationist at the Amsterdam Nederlands Filmmuseum, who has just published a book on film preservation: From Grain to Pixel. The Archival Life of Film in Transition (Amsterdam University Press). As mentio0ned in previous posts, the digital is completely changing the paradigm of film restoration and archiving and this book is a first attempt to get a handle on those changes.

Finally, I attended a lecture by former Eastman House students, Daniela Currò & Uli Ruedel, who discussed scientific studies they have been doing at Haghefilm on color restoration. Taking the same piece of film, a 1912 Alfred Machin film that was tinted and toned, they copied onto Kodak b& w stock, Kodak color negative, Fuji color negative, using the Desmet method of flashing, and doing what they called a digital Desmet restoration. The digital looked the absolute worst, the Desmet was the best, but not really great.

Again, we see there are limits to digital restoration technologies.




Thanks for this terrific and thorough update on what was screened and discused at Pordenone this year. How exciting to mine and explore all of these works.

A question: what were some of the issues that arose during the panel on the film canon? Curious how the professional archive world views the question of canons, which I have tended to associate with the teaching of introductory film studies classes....and there, it is a volatile issue indeed.

Any trends you saw emering at Pordenone in these debates?


Great piece on this festival that I've always hoped to attend one day.

I'm also curious to know about the content of the discussion of the panel on canons, particularly the questions posed by the audience. Has there been much discussion of "silent" film outside of Europe/North America/East Asia? Does colonial film enter into these discussions ever?

Interestingly, the Collegium discussion on canons had only a handful of academics present, despite the many academics attenting the festival.

One of the big issues was, where canons actually come from. It was agreed that they developed as early as the late silent period, when people like Paul Rotha wrote his book, FILM TILLL NOW. He, like Georges Sadoul, also divied films and filmmakers into national cinemas, creating another level of canonization.

As noted in my blog, much of the discussion was about why the canon is so slow to change, e.g. when Festivals like POrdenone introduce new work, and people write about that work, but the canon is still slow to follow.

There was also some discussion about "best lists," e.g. the survey the BFI has done each decade on the greatest films of all time. That list has changed substantially, since the 1950s, because critical fashions have influenced people's tastes on the one hand, while older titles, e.g. from the silent era, seem to just be forgotten with age.

Some of the students wanted to know how a canon is established in the first place, leading to discussions of "ten best lists."

There have been programs in the past of colonial films, especially those from Dutch East India (Indonesia). However, colonial cinema in Africa has been underrepresentesd.


Very interesting post on Pordenone, a place I am really looking forward to getting to some point soon as well. Do you know about how many Collegium students attend, and where there is more information on applying?

I was also curious if outside of the Collegium if there are many discussions or debates following the screenings with scholars/historians, etc?



I think there are usually about 10 grad students, but you can write to the Giornate del Cinema muto (see website) and find out more.

There are lots of other discussions, both formal and informal (at the bar across the street).


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Your article is very interesting. Thank you for the information.

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