The problem with writing daily updates for a film festival such as Il Cinema Ritrovato is that you never find time to do it! The screenings start from 9 in the morning and continue ceaselessly till the evening, and then you can go for the outdoor projection which starts at 10 pm, and if it is something like the restored version of Roman Polanski's Tess, then the end of screening would be on the following day.
To begin, let’s start with a cinephile, rather than the films: Olaf Möller is a hard-to-miss cinephile who dresses in black (but his beard distinguished him from Johnny Cash), and when he talks about Mosfilm director, Ivan Pyr’ev whose retrospective Möller curated, it looks as if he discovered Solomon's mines. Olaf’s aim is to go beyond the officially acknowledged names in the Soviet Union cinema. In the technical mastery of Pyr’ev, he sees a “versatile genre stylist with a fine sense of entrepreneurship who also had the political savvy to be able to make even his grandest visions come true.”
If you want to see the poetic, and not necessarily symbolic, possibilities of montage you should watch Pyr’ev’s The Civil Servant (1931). Pyr’ev, masterfully uses the basic concepts of Soviet Union montage to achieve a rhythm which becomes what makes the story fascinating, without turning it to the abstraction of an Eisenstein silent. It seems as if Pyr’ev has combined Eisenstein’s ideas with the technique of Fats Waller to give life to the lifeless. Like Eisenstein, and sometimes better than him, he can even go that far to eroticize machines, specifically the way he shows men working on assembling a new locomotive.
The Persian poet, Rumi, believes that all the great things we hear as music or see as visual arts we have seen before our descent to the earth, and the process of understanding and enjoying art is nothing but “remembering” what we already have seen or heard which still exist in our unconscious. In this regard, we can imagine that Martin Scorsese’s opening sequence of Casino is the remembrance of the breathtaking opening sequence in The Civil Servant in which shots of coins and notes in circulation is treated like a Berkeley number. Ironically, the film went on screen at the Scorsese theatre, which is one of the five screening places at Il Cinema Ritrovato.
We all love the shot of Henry Fonda on his house’s doorstep in The Wrong Man, when two passing policemen in Hitchcock’s devilishly flawless composition give a powerful sense of imprisonment, and in a way predict Fonda's fate. We are also very fond of Kim Novak’s reflection in the window of the flower shop of Vertigo. But what if you see both shots and many more similar narrative devices in Henrik Galeen’s After the Verdict (1929)? Shocking, but not if we consider that the scriptwriter of the film is Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife and collaborator. Has the master of suspense consulted his wife at the dinner table or was it Hitch who taught Alma how to combine suspense and ambiguity in the early years?
The story of After the Verdict is quite predictable, but the editing that shows the influences from avant-garde elevates the film. The long dissolves between the close up of the actors and written texts (many letters exchanged in the film) seem like an early practice of Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma.
If you are able to fall in love with ghosts, then you probably are a good cinephile. But even someone with no particular interest in the art of cinema can be haunted by two minutes of footage of writer photographer Ella Maillart (1903-97) who in 1926 went in front of Jean Grémillon’s camera for some sort of audition. If poetic iconography (emphasized by Neil Brand’s delicate touch on grand piano) and unusual angles be considered, one can mistake this for the work of Alexander Sokurov. Also that same year Grémillon edited some shots taken by Maillart for an unfinished documentary project, and put the images of the sea and boats together with vivacity of a pointillist painter. It is called Essais au bord de la mer and it only lasts three minutes. Both mentioned films were shown at the festival.
The cinema after the 1929 Wall Street crash is the theme of a program curated by Peter Von Bagh, and so far two outstanding films from Depression years have caught my attention: Julien Duvivier’s first talking picture, David Golder (1931), a powerful adaptation of Irene Nemirovsky’s novel, starring the untouchable Harry Baur, and Frank Borzage’s Chagalesque masterpiece, Man’s Castle (1933), starring Spenser Tracy and Loretta Young.
David Golder, with its particular mood and tempo which reminds me of Balzac, captures the world at the verge of a crisis than can deeply affect any viewer. The final scene with the dying Harry Baur on-board a ship sailing from Russia and passengers singing a song in Hebrew is one of the quintessential scenes in Duvivier’s career.
You can add one more item to the long list of contributions made by Dave Kehr to the film culture by his recent persuasion of MoMA to make a new print of the Wild Girl (1932), a Raoul Walsh mini-masterpiece which almost looks like it has been shot in 3D (photographed with an amazing depth by Norbert Brodine who later created some great noir images in the 1940s). Another striking point is the way Walsh has handled the compositions in both horizontal and vertical directions, rather than the usual horizontal arrangement of the action in the western genre. Cinephilia needs a strong campaign to have this nostalgic comedy/western on DVD.
Sunday night was the time for the unique event of Italy vs. England vs. Lola (Jacques Demy, 1961). At the beautiful Piazza Maggiore, a majestic piece of architecture from 13th century, the recently restored Lola was shown, and while hundreds of people were mesmerized by bittersweet tale of love and loneliness in Nantes (including Demy’s children who were accompanying Agnès Varda at the Piazza), the soccer match between Italy and England reached its climax when the penalty began. Enthusiasm for Lola was mixed with passionate support of Italians for their team and after each goal shouts and cries were dominating Michel Legrand’s unforgettable score for some minutes.
Finally, at the evening discussion between Ian Christie and Jim Hoberman about Anglo-American film criticism and cinephilia (watch here), Hoberman brought up the overtly neglected issue of “reforgotten films,” which can be said about the old films discovered in many film festivals around the world, acknowledged as masterpieces or landmarks of the cinema that after some years have returned to their corner of obscurity. The question is how can we keep the discoveries and rediscoveries alive and give them a permanent place that they deserve in the cinema history? How can celebrating these newly unearthed films can go beyond festival reports and reviews to avoid the second silence of the films?
I firmly believe, now, more than the act of discovery, the hard task of keeping the discovered a fundamental part of our filmic memory (including film history and also the issue of availability) is what that matters.