The first screening of the 2020 Giornate del Cinema Muto was an enchanting series of short travelogues, each offering a unique opportunity to travel beyond our lockdown walls to visit destinations far and wide.
As festival director Jay Weissberg notes in the festival programme, “the urge to travel isn’t just the pull of new sights and sounds, it’s about returning to places we know and love. For the practiced traveller, this means more than simply admiring famed tourist destinations; it’s feeling places not our own and allowing ourselves the belief that we can also somehow belong”. For those who have been able to travel to Pordenone and experience the festival in person, you will no doubt recognise that feeling in your memories of it. I was lucky enough to be part of the Collegium during last year’s festival, and it is heart-wrenching not to be able to be there this October as a mentor. However, before the films have even begun, it is wonderful to see Jay in front of the Teatro Verdi, reminding us that happier times will surely come again.
Un Voyage Abracabrant (FR 1919)
First up is a charming French animation that packs a lot of adventuring into a runtime of less than two minutes. It’s unclear whether Un Voyage Abracadabrant (1919) is its original title or simply the first intertitle which survives with the film, and yet more mystery surrounds animator Henri Monier; he worked at Pathé since at least 1912, but a confusing patchwork of records is the extent of what else is known about his life and career.
The voyage of Vendebout and his friend Courandair takes place in a flying house of their own invention – reminiscent of Pixar’s Up some 90 years before that film’s release – which carries them into encounters with a lion, a tangle of sea creatures, and some very unhappy storm clouds. It appears to have been part of a series of short films featuring Vendebout, released between 1920 and 1921.
[New-York] (SE 1911)
Our next destination is New York in 1911, and our first glimpse of the city is of the Statue of Liberty, as it would have been for the many millions who sought a new life in the United States -including a multitude of the biggest stars, producers and moguls of the American film industry. We approach by boat, surrounded by shadowy figures silhouetted against the city skyline, anonymous but hugely evocative of New York in the early 20th century.
As the programme notes observe, the New York depicted here is “a thoroughly modern city in a moment of change: we can see it in the mix of horse carts and motor cars, the rise of new skyscrapers…and the variety of women’s clothing, reflecting not simply class but also a forward-looking embrace of fashion versus a purposefully entrenched conservatism”. It’s incredible to see – in such high definition – the city of more than a hundred years ago, on the cusp of such marked social and cultural transformation.
Planty Krakowskie (PL 1929)
In the summer of 1929, the city of Poznan hosted the Polish General Exhibition, celebrating national achievements in the decade since the restoration of the country’s independence. This film – part of a trio which director Szczęsny Mysłowicz produced about Krakow – was commissioned by the city council, and takes us on a delightful trip around its historic sites and tree-lined avenues. Buildings peer out from behind overgrown bushes, suggesting a city full of little secrets waiting to reveal themselves to the keen-eyed traveller.
I particularly loved the moment shown above; the man on the left has walked into shot with the child he’s holding the hand of. They turn, and the man points to the camera, as if saying “look! Let’s get in shot – it’ll be a good story for later, and maybe we’ll get to see ourselves on film” – I doubt they imagined that they’d be seen so many years later by people across the globe. I love these little moments of human connection – remaining despite the separation of so much time and space – which appear throughout the films in this strand.
Un Voyage Au Caire (FR 1928)
This extraordinary film, described as “the classic tourist’s Orientalized view of Egypt, with the added attraction of being a fashion film”, shows stars of the Comédie-Française Robinne and Alexandre taking a trip to Cairo, including a whirlwind visit to the pyramids and the Sphinx, ending with a camel ride. There is something enjoyably ridiculous in the way our subjects pull right up to the pyramids in a large town car, dressed to attend a dinner party somewhere in Northern Europe, rather than a trek through the desert.
With regards to the colouring, the use of which lends a slightly surreal quality to the film, equal interest is paid to both the environment and what the people on screen are wearing, and the section with Robinne posing in front of the camel in her shockingly green ensemble was a highlight for me.
Tiedemann’s Naturfilm: Over Besseggen På Motorcykkel (NO 1932)
What sets this travelogue apart from the others shown here is that it also doubles as an ad for Tiedemann’s cigarettes, part of a series they made between 1929 and 1937. On first viewing I didn’t realise this was an ad for cigarettes, and thought instead it was an advertisement for motorcycles, so the hard cut to two people heartily enjoying a cigarette, after seeing all that beautiful Norwegian scenery (and fresh air!) got a big laugh from me – although I’m not sure that was the intention of the director!
On second viewing, I’m not sure how I missed it; our motorcycling hero does stop midway through his journey through the mountains (which looks like an exceeding bumpy and uncomfortable way to travel!) to enjoy a stimulating Tiedemann’s cigarette with a scenic view, and then again to share with his friends. The film closes out with the proclamation that “the time you spend with a Tiedemann’s is the best you can have”.
La Belgique Pittoresque (BE 1922-23?)
Part of a series of shorts made by the Service Cinématographique de l’Armée belge to demonstrate both the beauties of Belgium and the success of their post-war recovery, we travel from city to coast in this beautifully tinted print. People move busily in and out of shot, with varying degrees of awareness of the camera, but it’s the boy we see at the very beginning – seizing his moment of stardom and dancing with wild abandon – who sets the tone for the film. It’s warm, inviting, and full of friendly faces.
We relocate to the coast of Belgium, where there is so much for the armchair traveller to enjoy: the obvious joy of the two female bathers frolicking in the sea, the children busy digging in the sand, while their mothers sit adjacent, making no concessions whatsoever to the concept of beachwear.
Next we’re in Bruges, drifting dreamily along the canal in a rowboat. The sunlight streams through the leaves, and the effect of being transported to another place is so vivid that you almost want to duck to miss the branches trailing overhead.
Svatojánské Proudy (CS 1912)
The winner of the gold medal at the first International Cinematographic Exhibition – held in Vienna in October 1912 – takes us sailing along the Vltava River. Again the sense of motion is paramount, as we find ourselves moving along at the considerable clip of the Austrian rapids. The tinting in this copy of the film is absolutely beautiful, with striking purple used to illustrate the last rays of evening sunshine.
(Trieste, Estate) (IT 1939)
Beginning as a picturesque trip along the Italian coastal road towards Trieste, we soon find ourselves amidst the revels of a swimming pool on a hot summer day. Then “like a needle scratch across a vinyl record, we’re disturbed to note two portraits at the side of the pool of Benito Mussolini next to the Nazi sports emblem…its inclusion here is designed as a deliberately jarring note in the programme, a reminder of the dangers of nostalgia unaccompanied by historical memory”.
There is surely a marked difference between how contemporary and current audiences perceive this film; in contemporary terms, it celebrates the area as a desirable destination, but for modern viewers it is difficult to escape the shadow of what we know of Italy in 1939. The contrast between the enjoyment of the swimmers and the Nazi/Facist imagery is sharp.
Tavlor Från London (Londonerbilleder) (SE 1922)
Comprised of 13 vignettes, hung in their ornate frames like pictures on a wall, this is a delightful glimpse at London in 1922. People and architecture alike loom out of the fog, which is caused both by the weather during filming, and by the degradation of the film itself over time.
Similar to the film from New York, the sense of old struggling against new is obvious, and again shows itself most clearly in traffic and fashion. When seen together, these films demonstrate just how, in the early 20th century, cities across the world were at a point of tremendous societal change.
In the post-screening discussion, Professor Jennifer Lynn Peterson noted that contemporary reviewers of these films celebrated them as being more democratic, making travel available to those original audiences who weren’t otherwise able to afford it. A century later, those viewing them are in just as much need of a break from the monotony of daily life, and this hour of shorts certainly provided that.
Festival passes for the Giornate are available on their website.