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The Inadvertent Telluride Silent Film Festival

The Inadvertent Telluride Silent Film Festival

Film festival buffs know that every attendee has their own festival. Even in the famously intimate Telluride Film Festival (aka the Show), where you’ll run into seemingly everyone you know beating it up and down Colorado Avenue from the Palm to the Werner Herzog Theatre, the briefest conversation will reveal that you’re on different paths.

There’s an entire showbiz-and-art documentary track that I could happily follow, spending my entire day in the Backlot. Oscar Nostradami obsessively parse the possibilities of mainstream movies — and non-mainstream; shortly before the festival, “Ixcanul” was chosen as Guatemala’s first-ever submission for the foreign Oscar.

Every year Telluride features a silent film with live musical accompaniment, usually sourced from the annual Pordenone Silent Film Festival, and a must in my schedule. But this year I found that there was dazzling silent film content on a daily basis — and I was a moth to its flame. Or “Flamme,” as in Serge Bromberg of Lobster Film’s dazzling and delightful program, “Retour de Flamme,” in which he presents restorations and rarities of early cinema.

Day One of Telluride and I was tucked into the five-and-a-half-hour “Die Nibelungen” (Fritz Lang, 1925), the first program of the day. Festival director Tom Luddy had urged me to choose “Die Nibelungen” over anything else. “I’ve seen it, you know,” I said to him and another Telluride dust, film deity Pierre Rissient. “No you haven’t,” they both said.

I also apologized to Tom: I said I’d be leaving the screening a half or three-quarters of an hour early, in order to see Todd Haynes’ “Carol,” screening as part of a tribute to Rooney Mara, complete with clip show and an onstage interview with Mara — at the Palm, at the other end of Telluride.

“You won’t be able to leave,” Tom said. And he was right.

The intertwined love stories of Siegfried and Kriemhild, and her treacherous brother and his wife, famously inspired Wagner’s four-opera “Ring Cycle.” The Thea von Harbou adaptation verges on the soap-operatic, but it’s the glorious sets and costumes — a seductive mashup of medieval, gothic, Secessionist, and Pre-Raphaelite tropes — that gleam in this gorgeous restoration, introduced by Paolo Cherchi Usai, co-founder of the famed Pordenone silent film orgy, and German producer Eberhard Junkersdorf.


There was an intermission, midway, which featured a free groaning board of bratwursts, rolls, mustard, and sauerkraut, as well as tangy beer to wash it all down.

Afterwards the stately pace of the first half was replaced by an increasingly frenzied rout of blood lust and revenge — impossible, as Tom had predicted, to tear oneself away — especially as accompanied by a wonderful recording of the original propulsive orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz.

Day after day, as Tellurideans asked me what my favorite movie was, I couldn’t help but tell them about “Die Nibelungen,” which was, happily for those who missed it, repeated on Labor Day — but in a much smaller and less well-equipped theater. The Herzog is state-of-the-art, with superb sightlines and an impressive Meyer Sound system — especially impressive, as it can be un-installed to reveal a winter hockey rink.

Day Two commenced with a delirious, obsessive presentation by Georges Mourier about the latest work restoring Abel Gance’s 1927 “Napoleon,” following earlier efforts by Henri Langlois and Marie Epstein in 1953-1959; Kevin Brownlow, who started his work in 1969, showing a version in Telluride in 1979 (with the 90-year-old Gance in attendance), which subsequently toured the US under the auspices of Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope, with a pastiche score by Carmine Coppola; and then a longer version (five-and-a-half hours) overseen by Brownlow which played in 2012 under the auspices of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival with a pastiche score by Carl Davis.

In the early ’90s a film scholar with the improbable name of Bambi Ballard uncovered new material and began piecing it together, with the assistance of Mourier.

The basis for Mourier’s present work is Gance’s recently discovered paper archive, including extensive notes, and 400 boxes of previously unseen film, gathered from the Cinematheque Francaise and a number of other archives around the world. It seems that in addition to the four-hour commercial version that debuted in April of 1927 — aka the “Opera” version, for a run of four days, May 8-11, 1927 — a version of nine-and-a-half hours was screened (aka the “Apollo” version). For professionals only!

Mourier showed samples of several different versions — four at a time, in different corners of the screen — demonstrating missing shots and scenes and different angles. The Langlois/Epstein and the (many) Kevin Brownlow versions mix material from both the Opera and Apollo versions. It seems that in a few years an even longer “Napoleon” will debut — possibly at Telluride. It was moving to see Mourier — who said this was his first-ever presentation in English — be himself moved by the fact that he was standing on the same stage of the 1913-vintage Sheridan Opera House, where Abel Gance stood.

Directly after the “Restoring Napoleon” presentation, the ebullient showman Serge Bromberg presented his “Retour de Flamme” program at the Sheridan. One of Bromberg’s stage tricks is to set a short length of nitrate film aflame, and Tom Luddy suggested me as the stage stooge who holds the 35mm metal film reel that Serge drops the flaming nitrate into. I quickly declined the honor and volunteered Kent Jones, the director of programming for the New York Film Festival, in Telluride to present his new documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” both for his height and his deadpan wit, and it proved a winning combination.

As were the trilogy of beautifully-restored shorts that Bromberg introduced and accompanied on the piano: Charlie Chaplin’s “The Bank,” 1915, put together from four different elements; Buster Keaton’s 1922 “Day Dreams,” in which I recognized Joe Keaton, Buster’s father, but not Renee Adoree as the love interest (I just thought the girl was wonderful-looking!); and the cherry on the sundae, the hotly-awaited world premiere of one of the holy grails of silent film comedy, the complete version of Laurel and Hardy’s “Battle of the Century,” long only glimpsed in a compilation film called “The Golden Age of Comedy,” its epic pie fight lost until recently rediscovered when Jon Mirsalis found it in his purchase of the Berkhoff collection of silent film. Bromberg’s shows always sell out, and many Telluride attendees were disappointed that a second showing of “Retour de Flamme” never materialized.

On Day Three, Bromberg introduced Lobster Films’ dazzling restoration of the dizzying 1924 “The Inhuman Woman,” about a successful Parisian opera diva (the art deco hood ornament Georgette Leblanc), who toys with the affection of powerful men, including a boyish blond scientist whose laboratory must have thrilled the steampunk avant-la-lettre Alloy Orchestra when they saw the film: it seemed to be designed with their trademark heavily metallic orchestration in mind. As did the surroundings of the Galaxy, whose decorations include large neon mad-scientist machines flanking the screen, usually turned off during screenings, but appropriately gleaming during “L’Inhumaine.” Director Marcel L’Herbier was ably served by his cadre of designers and artists, including Robert Mallet-Stephens, Alberto Cavalcanti, Claude Autant-Lara, Paul Poiret, and Fernand Leger. “L’Inhumaine” came second only to “Die Nibelungen” in my affections as a peak cinematic experience.

Day Four also held a final silent film: The director of the George Eastman House, Paolo Cherchi Usai’s experimental feature, “Picture,” which combined the familiar count-down picture leader; calligraphy hand-written directly on 35mm blank film stock by Brody Neuenschwander, Peter Greenaway’s house draughtsman; glimpses of a female Tasmanian drummer playing to a recorded Alloy Orchestra score; shots of a relentless metronome; and a live Alloy Orchestra score, resulting in a determinedly challenging and theoretical whole. The resulting 68 minutes were occasionally transcendent, occasionally mind-numbing.

But the inadvertent Telluride Silent Film Festival that I created for myself was transcendent indeed. I yearn to see “Die Nibelungen” again; I anticipate George Mourier’s “Napoleon” reconstruction with pleasure; I’ll buy the “L’Inhumaine” DVD. In Telluride, over a long weekend, all of these elements rubbing up against each other were greater than the sum of their (already great) parts.

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