SIFF 2017: The Dumb Girl of Portici (Lois Weber, 1916)

Anna_Pavlova_in_The_Dumb_Girl_of_Portici

Few things wipe the sleep away from bleary festival eyes quite like a retrospective screening which, regardless of provenance or even quality, helps to restore the cinematic senses. Lois Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici is not exactly a forgotten masterpiece awaiting rediscovery, but even in the context of revival screenings it’s a bit of rarity: pre-20s cinema mostly lives on the small screen these days. See Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers blu ray set for a recent and relevant example of the curatorial work being done in the home video format, even as streaming continues its march towards total domination. Lois Weber is well-represented in that set, and by programming The Dumb Girl of Portici (which Flicker Alley did not include) SIFF takes part in the same push to move women’s contributions to early cinema from the historical footnotes, where they’ve frequently been resigned, and into the mainstream canon. If it accomplishes nothing else, The Dumb Girl of Portici at least testifies to the clout and studio resources Weber had accrued by the mid-teens, less than a full decade into her career.

Though more than studio scale (it was something of a mega-production), it’s Weber’s stylistic coups that count. The film opens with a little cinema-of-attractions amuse bouche: ballerina turned temporary movie star Anna Pavlova floats onto the screen in dissolve, dancing against the void. Abstraction soon gives way to rather banal plotting. Something about a nobleman donning oppressed peasant clothing and making nice with the eponymous mute. I imagine this felt as rote in 1916 as it does today, though Weber finds flourishes: choreographed dances that prefigure, in primitive form, the geometric patterns of golden age musicals or the cascade of energy unleashed when the vox populi storm the castle perched above their beachside hovels. These crowd scenes in particular serve Weber’s skills well; she has a proto-Langian eye for the way that mobs move as if controlled by a single nervous system and the late film revolt ignites her visual sense. She hacks away at the proscenium staging by hurtling her camera down diagonal axes, typically against the movement of the players. The effect, coming so suddenly after an hour of flat planes, is practically three dimensional. Another dance closes the film, again manipulated with optical printing, though instead of a black vacuum Weber superimposes Pavlova dancing over a series of backlit clouds, Maya Deren’s spirit born a few decades early. As a whole it’s inarguably minor. As festival fatigue sets in, the buried treasures contained within are more than enough.

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