John M. Stahl's The Song of Life
Following the retrospective dedicated to the sound films of American director John M. Stahl (1886 – 1950) at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna earlier this year, I decided to also attend for the first time Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, because the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, as it is known in English, was presenting a series of silent films from this master of melodrama. Best known for his Technicolor noir, Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Stahl's silent films have been long forgotten, but are now back in discussion after receiving much-deserved attention.
The festival was a major discovery for me. It has only one cinema venue, with 35mm screenings from morning to night, and a packed and devoted audience full of appetite for discoveries and re-discoveries. Its wild cinephilic spirit and the unbeatable program composed of rarities and canonical classics prove that the Pordenone Silent Film Festival is an essential film festival in the world today. It is a true miracle of cinephilia.
During the festival, we sat down with its Artistic Director, Jay Weissberg, to discuss the year's program.
NOTEBOOK: Could you please introduce the festival?
JAY WEISSBERG: This is the 37th edition of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. It was founded in conjunction with Cineteca del Friuli, which is the cinematheque in northeastern Italy. The idea from the very start was to revitalize silent film screenings, always with live music. So, from 9 in the morning until midnight, for a full week, Saturday to Saturday, all screenings have live music—which can be anything from a single piano to piano and drums or a chamber orchestra or full orchestra, which we always have at the opening and closing. We are the biggest of the silent film festivals and really the oldest at this point.
NOTEBOOK: What is your philosophy as its artistic director?
WEISSBERG: My philosophy with the festival is varied. I come to it because I’ve been passionate about silent cinema since I was a child. I’m very much somebody who started off as a fan. I mean, in the university rather than sometimes studying I would find 1920s movie magazines and just sit in the library and go page after page after page and get excited about Vilma Bánky’s wedding to Rod La Rocque, I know that sounds really nerdy, but it’s true. So I really came to it from the point of being a fan and then developed a scholarly side to it, but my belief is that you always have to keep that idea of being a passionate fan, otherwise it becomes very dry. That is important!
I don’t want to shy away from, let’s say, focusing on an actor or actress who we love because in academic circles it tends to be frowned upon: Why are we looking at an actor? They are just a vessel for the director and I’m very anti-auteur theory. I think it is too reductionist and it tends to also be quite misogynistic, because all the authors are men. We always do program, we have Sjöström, we have Ozu, we have Dreyer, we have Griffith—some of the big names, but in order for really to have an understanding of the period and to have an understanding of the art form you need much more balance. It’s not always the greats, and sometimes the people who we think of as good can make a great film. I think Captain Salvation [John S. Robertson, 1927] is a perfect example of that for me. John S. Robertson is somebody who is not well known at all anymore. Even though, in 1939, when Alfred Hitchcock made his list of the ten best films ever made, two of those films are by Robertson but he is forgotten—and yet, Captain Salvation is such an extraordinary film. I very much believe that we need to be looking at the totality, and one of the things I love about the festival is that is full immersion. From 9 in the morning until midnight you are completely immersed in it and it is not like reading or going to a class, where all you are doing is studying Griffith and Stroheim. That is not really going to tell you what the period is. That is going to tell you about two exceptional figures who made wonderful movies but if you are really trying to have an understanding that’s not going to give it to you.
Another part of my philosophy is making bridges between past and present. I’m always wanting to reinforce that. Yes, it’s the past, but the past isn’t so faraway. Last year, I did a big program on the effects on war looking at Word War I actualities and news reels. Looking at starvation, child disease, refugees, all of these things, and I deliberately made parallels of what is happening today. For example, what is happening in Yemen or what is happening in Iraq. For me, what is also important to underline is that we haven’t learnt anything—of course, we know we haven’t, but we constantly have to remember that—so I try also to make these kind of bridges. Also last year, we had the "Nasty Women" section, which was taken off from Hillary Clinton being called a “nasty woman,” and so that became a feminist cry and we also had films on strong women. Those are the sorts of things I want to keep doing to make other people also realize that this [silent cinema] isn’t something that is dead, this isn’t something that is arcane.
Finally, one of the most important parts of the festival for us is the catalogue, because it is a scholarly work, it is something that you keep on your shelf. We really do try to get the last word on each film, do quite a lot of research to make the credits are right. Talk about the print quality and all of that sort of thing.
NOTEBOOK: Who is the festival’s audience?
WEISSBERG: Our audience is always international, so we have people from everywhere in the world. A lot of archivists, a lot of restorers, a lot of preservationists, a lot of scholars and also film lovers, which is great because we don’t want to be very academic. There is certainly a large American contingent. I think this year there is even more because of the John M. Stahl retrospective. That has brought more people and even more Americans than usual. I don’t have the numbers, but we might be 50% Americans, but I don’t think we are more than that. But there’s always been a major group, I think because Americans for so long were also pushing silent films studies. I am British, so there’s a heavy proportion actually of British people that we have here, both film lovers and film scholars like Kevin Brownlow, of course.
NOTEBOOK: The festival played an important role in getting new prints for the John M. Stahl’s films, I imagine.
WEISSBERG: Yes, definitely. For the Stahls, I’d say it’s been a year and a half, maybe more, since when we first start talking to some of the archives about that and the Library of Congress in particular is the one that has really been terrific in being behind the project and making sure that there were prints ready in time. They really work incredibly hard. Also, Packard Humanities Campus in California, who is working with UCLA, because they helped us with Smouldering Fires [Clarence Brown, 1925] and Captain Salvation. They did great jobs as well. Often, what happens is that somebody will come to me with a proposal and then say “Can you go to the archives and see if they can do something?” or if the idea is mine, than I go to the archives and see if I can do something and what can be ready in time. Sometimes it is something very simple, like the print of the archive only has flash titles and the archive will spend the time to put full intertitles back into the film—but if it needs more work that can be a problem. So the earlier you can program the better.
NOTEBOOK: Why do you think that Stahl's films have remained unknown or under-appreciated for so long?
WEISSBERG: I keep on going back and forth in my head with an answer to that question. I think the standard response would be that because he was pigeonholed as a women’s film director. That, therefore, he had less value. He was considered less important. I think that there has to be some truth to that, I do think that that’s true. At the same time, you can say that George Cukor was also considered a women’s film director and why is his name still much higher than Stahl’s? I wonder if part of it has to do with the longevity of Cukor and the stars that he was working with later on in his career. Whereas with Stahl people like Irene Dunne, she is kind of falling out of favor. The later films of his tend to be less well-known. It’s arguable but critically there was a kind of falling off, maybe, of his work.
This retrospective started in Bologna, when Charles Barr and Bruce Babington, who are the editors of the book [The Call of the Heart: John M. Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama] that has just come out, they first came to me two years ago and asked me if I would do a Stahl silent series and I said, “That’s fantastic! Let me talk to Bologna and see if they are willing to do the sound as well,”—so that is how our collaboration started and we do plan on doing more things like that together [with Il Cinema Ritrovato], because we should be working together. But why Stahl’s critical reputation… It’s a double answer, really. Because not only is the critical reputation kind of falling off, yet films like Leave Her to Heaven are so celebrated. The films that Douglas Sirk made based on the John M. Stahl films also tend to be more celebrated, which is a shame because many people I think feel that, for example, the Stahl version of Imitation of Life  is better than Sirk’s—maybe better is the wrong word but is going in more interesting directions sometimes. I think that Stahl, as much as Sirk, is looking at melodrama in a different way—not with irony. One of the scholars yesterday was talking about it very well when she was saying with whom you are emotionally investing in the Stahl movies, and it’s always the women—so that is very interesting, too.
What I don’t understand and still don’t understand but, well, maybe a little bit, is again why have his silent films been so completely forgotten and completely unrecognized. There, I do think very much it’s a question of who are the stars that he is working with, because silent films tend to be for the most part anyway kind of pushed aside and then on top of that, if you are getting stars like Mollie King and Anita Stewart who were fairly important at that time and nobody’s heard of them anymore, that gives archives less incentive to restore them and to do anything with them. That is definitely a problem but then, when you’re looking through the contemporary journals at the time, the trade magazines, the fan magazines, all of that, Stahl is already a big deal around 1922. People are talking about him as a director who is making a particular kind of film, that has a signature style and signature themes. You’ve already got somebody whose name is being broadcasted as a selling point to his films in the silent era.
Why is it that he has been forgotten? I do think it is because the prints have been unavailable. But why are the prints unavailable and why the archives are not working on it? Because stars drive restorations just as much as directors do.
NOTEBOOK: What changed for Stahl with sound cinema?
WEISSBERG: I think he was already known as an important director of so called women’s pictures and melodramas. What I think it’s interesting is how his themes tend to shift. Is it really once the Production Code hits and he is not longer maybe able to go in that kind of sexual politics than he was before? The parallels that we have been making in the last week between Lubitsch and Stahl I think are really illuminating. That Lubitsch has a more knowing sexuality to him than Stahl does but it is there, it is definitely in the Stahl films. Sowing the Wind  I thought was amazing, when in the opening sequence, which is basically in a high class brothel, the intertitle saying something like “The fathers don’t let their daughters in this place, but they want other men’s daughters there instead.” That’s an amazing line! And there were also lines in Husbands and Lovers  as well, that… Wow!
I think it was [critic] Imogen Sara Smith who was talking yesterday about who do you emotionally invest in. It is not always a question of whether the woman being punished at the end. I think we are too focused on that and are constantly making expectations that somehow cinema is going to be outside of its time. I’m always arguing I’m never asking a film from 1917 to be anything but a film from 1917. Maybe I want it to be from 1918, but you can’t put the same values that they are putting in films now for them. The much more interesting question I think is, who you are emotionally invested in? That, I think is a far stronger argument than, who is being punished? Because with Stahl, is always the women—there’s no question.
NOTEBOOK: Do you expect the re-discovery of Stahl silent films to reverberate?
JAY WEISSBERG: I think it will, definitely. There are so many people that have been talking about it and writing about it, starting from Bologna and then continuing through here that I think that other archives and cinematheques are also going to want to do programs of him. The book will also help. Next month, in November, there is the Pordenone in Paris which I selected from a range of the program but I’m showing three of the Stahls there too. It is just great that he is back in being discussed in a serious way. The San Sebastián retrospective in 1999 was great and they published a really terrific catalogue for that, but there were no silents in there and they were saying the prints weren’t available—and I guess they weren’t for the most part—but it left this big gap and it is a big amount of time also, between 1999 and now to see somebody’s critical fortunes dip again and then raise.
At the same time, I like making parallels between different art forms. If you’ve got an exhibition of old master paintings and you’ve got one Caravaggio, that’s the name you put on the title of the poster of the exhibition because everybody knows Caravaggio, everybody knows Titian, everybody knows Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. But if you try to advertise an artist I love named Cima da Conegliano—he is from just a few towns away from here—but who was painting in a way very much like Bernini, nobody is gonna come or very few people are gonna come because they haven’t heard of Cima. The same thing is true in cinema. If it is not Orson Welles, if it is not George Cukor...they tend to be pushed aside, which again that’s why I am against auteur theory because it tends to push everybody else out of the way and it forgets that there are great directors who we don’t know or good directors who made some great films—and not everybody is a genius.
NOTEBOOK: Further exploring the program, you have a focus on Scandinavian cinema this year. Could you tell me more about this choice?
WEISSBERG: With Scandinavia, that started last year. This is a two-year cycle and it is just two years; I’m not going to be doing another one next year. The idea started when two scholars, one from Stockholm, one from Copenhagen, came to me and suggested that there were so many wonderful films from what is called the golden age of Scandinavian cinema, that are apart of the canon. So, local directors who were influenced by Victor Sjöström or Mauritz Stiller and in both last year and this year we included one film each and this year we also have a film by Dreyer, but there are so many other wonderful films that aren’t so well known. I went to Stockholm two years ago and I watched twelve really wonderful films. It was heaven to be able to see so many.
Another thing very important the festival does is rediscover areas that we didn’t really know well before. I think the two best examples of this festival before my time: it was here that free revolutionary Russian film was rediscovered and that had a lasting impact on how everybody viewed Russian films since, people like Yevgeni Bauer. The same thing is true of what is called Wilhelmine Cinema, which is German cinema before WWI. Everybody always talk about Weimar Cinema and somehow it is as if it invented itself, you know, suddenly, the war is over and we got this new cinema but of course there were roots much earlier and that is another thing that this festival did, quite a few years ago. Trying to find those sorts of things is also another goal. There is so much to be discovered. Two years ago, I did a section on Polish silent cinema. Nobody looks at Polish silent cinema and when I was reading about it, the Polish scholars themselves were completely dismissive. “We didn’t make anything good until the 1950s." That is bullshit! So many of the films don’t exist and Polish film history suffers more than most because so much was destroyed during the WWII, even more than anywhere else I think in terms of archive but they made so many great films and it is wonderful to be able to reintroduce this.
The Home Maker
NOTEBOOK: What about areas of cinema that you are not so familiar with?
WEISSBERG: Another thing that we need to do more often, is looking more outside of Europe and the United States. We need to look more at other films from Japan. We have to go back and look at China, because the last time we did a major Chinese retrospective was in 2000 or maybe 1999 and that was the first time really that a huge number of Chinese silent films were finally seen outside of China. We haven’t really look at Indian silent cinema for a very long time. I think it’s been more than twenty years, so that’s another thing that needs to be done, but then the festival did a series of silent films in Thailand which nobody knows and very little of it survived.
We’ve shown a fair amount of Mexican films in the last few years. In 2019, I’ve been promising this for a while and I really will do it: a number of Argentinian films, and I’d love to bring some Brazilians as well. The problem is some of the archives aren’t that well organized but is also a question of, do they have the funds to restore films? Because a lot of the times they’ve got prints that can’t be projected. They don’t have safety prints, they don’t have distribution prints, so that’s another issue, and often times there are not terribly well catalogued. Sometimes, it also depends on what the archives themselves are able to provide and how good are the prints because that’s another problem is, if the prints aren’t good I get a lot of complaints as well. This afternoon, The Home Maker [King Baggot, 1925] was not a great print. It is unfortunate because is a terrific film. That happens too sometimes but I need to try to make sure that this doesn’t happen too much and that is a another issue to think about.
NOTEBOOK: Have you visited these archives or do you work with consultants?
WEISSBERG: It works in two ways. A lot of the times, either programmers or archivists come to me and say, “I’ve got a film that I would like you to see.” Sometimes, they can be sent to me and sometimes it means that I have to go to the archive itself. If it is a bigger program, then I prefer to go to the archives myself and take a look at these films—that doesn’t always happen. It depends on where the archive is and who the scholar or archivist or researcher or… What the proposal is? “Okay, I can trust this person. He will come up with a good selection of films.” Because, at the end of the day, you wanna show rarities but you want to show good films. If you are sitting through twelve hours a day and you are not seeing things that are speaking to you but are just interesting from an academic point of view then, it is dull. I’m constantly thinking, “Is there enough comedy?”, “Are we laughing enough?” At the same time, you want, you know, some dramas to cry at as well. So a mix is important but also you want just films that are good.
NOTEBOOK: What do you think about digital restorations?
WEISSBERG: I always try to privilege 35mm. At the same time, more and more restorations are being done only digitally and it is because they can get more information out of the digital. The question is, “Are they doing good digital restorations?” There are so many digital restorations that are just dead. Some people argue that if you put it back on 35mm you're losing some of the quality that you’ve got on the digital. Of course, my concern is the preservation of the digital. That’s my biggest concern, because we all know that unless you migrate the data every 3 to 5 years, you lose something. Archives still haven't quite worked out how to preserve digital in the long term. Whereas with celluloid you really can preserve it for centuries in the right conditions - not nitrate, but celluloid. I try and we’ve always tried to privilege 35mm, but it is depending on which is the format available. If there is a better restoration available on digital, rather than on print, I will go with the better restoration. I’m not somebody who fetishizes the print. I want the film to look good. Another thing, I’m constantly troubled by how many younger people have lost the ability or never had the ability to distinguish between the two.
NOTEBOOK: How is the festival concerned with engaging younger audiences for the coming years?
WEISSBERG: That’s a good question. That began being addressed by my predecessor, David Robinson. He started something called the Collegium, which is the idea that every year 12 people under 30 are invited from all over the world to come and to participate in these daily sessions of dialogues. The idea is to do not so much presentations but more conversations. David’s thought behind the whole thing was to attract the young audience by eliminating the sense of intimidation that a younger person might have in the face of Kevin Brownlow or other major scholars. To make it much more easy to communicate. That has done a really great job in bringing younger people in because often what happens is that, once they come they kind of feel addicted and they keep coming back and that’s great!
But it is tough, it is really hard to get people to realize that this isn’t something that is arcane, that it’s not something that is sweet. I’m constantly concerned that there are lots of silent films that are being screened at so called regular film festivals nowadays but they put with it a terrible soundtrack, with terrible music, even if it is live music. So the film becomes more at the service of the music, rather than something organic combination of the two that makes the film feel modern. I don’t want to watch a silent film where I’m thinking the film is really old but the music is really new. That for me doesn’t work and that doesn’t, I think, help to attract a younger audience. It becomes a younger audience coming to hear the music or a younger audience coming to see an event? What are they getting out of it—and are they going to come back? My argument is, probably no.
The Berlinale, for example, for the last few years, they get ARTE to pay for new scores of new restorations, like Das alte Gesetz [E. A. Dupont, 1923] that was here this year. They are terrible scores. They have no sensitivity to the what’s on the screen. At all! They are dissonant. They are atonal. They can sometimes make it very kitschy. Just because somebody drops a plate in a movie, it doesn’t mean that we need to hear the china cracking on the soundtrack either. We don’t need that, we see it. You have a good musician you can replicate that in music just with one touch of the key. That’s far more powerful than hearing the plate crash. So it’s something I’m constantly rallying against. I think that lots of festivals are going about in the wrong way. I don’t think they are attracting the audiences. They are in a way making the films look even older. But how to combat that? I don’t know the answer. Exposure is how do you get them to sit through these films to begin with.
One of the things I argue too is that, when I was a child I had maybe ten television stations. So you’re limited by what you have. On Saturday morning, you are flipping through the channels and I was watching the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy because there wasn’t anything else on for me to watch and then I fell in love with them—that is how I felt in love with silent films. That was when I was ten years old. I saw a series of silent films on television. Now, children don’t even flip through the channels because they’ve got Cartoon Network. They are not exposed anymore in the way that we were earlier. Forced to be exposed, you can say, but that’s what turns you on, really, and that gives you far more of a choice. Even though, we have more choice now. In a sense, I think we are limiting ourselves more than we did when we had less choice.