Wednesday, August 4, 2010

2010 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The 2010 San Francisco Silent Film Festival ran from July 15 to 18 at the Castro Theater.

I saw all 12 feature length programs and only missed two programs (excluding the two free Amazing Tales from the Archives).

2010 SF Silent Film Festival - Feature Films
The Iron Horse starring George O'Brien; directed by John Ford; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Dennis James; (1924)
A Spray of Plum Blossoms starring Ruan Lingyu; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Donald Sosin; (1931)
Rotaie; silent with Italian intertitles and reader; accompanied by Stephen Horne; (1928)
Metropolis directed by Fritz Lang; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Alloy Orchestra; (1927)
The Flying Ace; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Donald Sosin; (1926)
The Strong Man starring Harry Langdon; directed by Frank Capra; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Stephen Horne; (1926)
Diary of a Lost Girl starring Louise Brooks; directed by G.W. Pabst; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; (1929)
Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages directed by Benjamin Christensen; silent with Swedish intertitles and reader (Stephen Salmons); accompanied by Matti Bye Ensemble; (1922)
The Shakedown directed by William Wyler; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Donald Sosin; (1929)
Man With a Movie Camera directed by Dziga Vertov; silent; accompanied by Alloy Orchestra; (1929)
The Woman Disputed starring Norma Talmadge & Gilbert Roland; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Stephen Horne; (1928)
L'Heureuse Mort; silent with French intertitles and reader; accompanied by Matti Bye Ensemble; (1924)

Before most of the features, they screened a George Méliès short.

George Méliès Short Films
A Crazy Composer (1905); with A Spray of Plum Blossoms
Panorama from Top of a Moving Train (1898); with Rotaie
The Inventor Crazybrains and his Wonderful Airship (1907); with The Flying Ace
An Impossible Balancing Feat (1898); with The Strong Man
The Spider and the Butterfly (1909); with Diary of a Lost Girl
The Infernal Cauldron (1903); with Häxan
The Prolific Magical Egg (1902); with The Shakedown
A Trip to the Moon (1902); with Man With a Movie Camera
The Eclipse, or the Courtship of the Sun and the Moon (1907); with The Woman Disputed
The Kingdom of Fairies (1903); with L’Heureuse Mort

The programs I missed were a program called The Big Business of Short, Funny Films which consisted of Fatty Arbuckle, Laurel & Hardy and Max Davidson shorts and Variations on a Theme: Musicians on the Craft of Composing and Performing for Silent Films during which the festival's accompanists performed and discussed their craft.


Before I speak about the films, a few notes about the festival itself.

The (SF)^2 Festival is becoming notorious for starting the films late. Metropolis started over an hour late and Häxan must have been close to an hour late. I'm not sure what causes the delays but the festival needs to do a better job. I don't think they budget enough time to clear the house and allow the musicians to do a sound check between films. Eddie Muller who interviewed the Argentinian duo responsible for finding the Metropolis footage made a joke of the tardiness. He said something to the extent, "If you have waited 83 years, what's another 75 minutes?" I stayed in the theater between screenings so I was able to read in relative comfort. However, if I had been standing in line outside the theater, I may not have been so amused.

In fact, when I entered the theater for Rotaie at around 5:30 PM, there were two women in line. I kindly informed them that they had already opened the theater for Rotaie. They replied that they were there for Metropolis which was scheduled to start at 8:15 PM. I don't think they opened the house for Metropolis until after 9 PM. Those poor women stood outside for approximately 3.5 hours.

Stephen Salmons and Melissa Chittick were honored for their founding of the festival. Salmons even reprised some of his emcee duties when he announced the winner of the raffle. I miss the admittedly silly banter between Salmons and announcer Ron Lynch. It served as a nice distraction during the time between the films.

In between films, workers (or maybe volunteers) sold panini sandwiches from Poesia Oesteria Italiana. I don't see paninis on their restaurant menu but the ones they sold in the theater were delicious. My favorite was the caprese whose main ingredients are tomatoes and mozzarella.


The centerpiece of the festival was undoubtedly the screening of the restored version of Metropolis. The version screened at the festival restores the film to its original cut (150 minutes). I saw a version (at the Castro) a few years ago which clocked in around 2 hours if I recall. I enjoyed that version quite a bit. The version they screened at the festival didn't reveal too much. Most of the cuts seem to be to transition scenes or shortening some of the action scenes. It was easy to recognize the restored portions because they were grainy 16 mm whereas the rest of the film was in amazingly crisp 35 mm. However, the Alloy Orchestra provided a muscular and rhythmic score which enhanced the film immeasurably. Their beating of drums literally resonated through the floor and up my legs.

I think this was the fourth time I've seen Metropolis and I'm always impressed. The wanton dancing by Brigitte Helm as the robot caught my attention this time. The overt references to Christian iconography and large set pieces always catch my attention.

The fully restored version of Metropolis which screened at the festival is screening at the Castro Theater from August 13 to 15.

A recurrent theme throughout the festival seemed to be the sexual exploitation of women or prostitution. In Rotaie, a poor couple on the verge of mutual suicide find a wallet full of money. They vacation at a posh resort where the boyfriend loses everything (and then some) at the roulette table. A wealthy womanizer offer to pay off his gambling debts in exchange for one night with this girlfriend.

In Diary of a Lost Girl, Louise Brooks becomes pregnant. After giving the baby up for adoption, she is sent to a school for wayward girls. She escapes and becomes a high-end prostitute. In The Disputed Woman, Norma Talmadge (playing a French woman) whores herself to a jilted Russian suitor in order to save the life of a spy and save her country.

Other thumbnails:

While in the men’s room between screenings, I go to the urinal and think the man next to me looks familiar. After a few seconds, I realize it’s Leonard Maltin. I didn’t say anything but it seems odd to see people that I associate with television in real-life. It’s almost as if I view them as fictional characters who reside inside my television and then to see them at a place I go to so frequently is disjointing.

Dziga Vertov’s Man with Movie Camera was a dizzying documentary about Soviet life in the 1920’s. The film is filled with quick cut edits, geometric patterns and exhilirating images. When I read the synopsis, I didn’t think I would enjoy it but decided to give it a shot. Once again, the Alloy Orchestra comes through. Their fevered and rambunctious score perfectly complemented the film. Vertov’s techniques were ahead-of-their-time as they looked like modern editing.

Louise Brooks, resplendent with her black bob, lived up to her reputation in Diary of a Lost Girl. In the film, she transforms from innocent, frightened, courageous and decadent while never losing her charm. Truly a movie star, Brooks moves through the film like no one else can. Also noteworthy were Fritz Rasp as the slimy assistant who seduces and impregnates Brooks’ Thymian and Andrews Engelmann and Valeska Gert as the couple who run the facility Brooks is banished to. Engelmann is a hulking presence while Gert’s character seems to become sexually aroused by the girls’ physical torment.

I previously saw a 1968 re-release of Häxan which was narrated by William S. Burroughs. Honestly, I enjoyed that version more. Voice-over narration is well suited for describing various books and diagrams which is the first part of the Häxan. The Matti Bye Ensemble’s score was well suited to the film but given the late start time and late hour, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to fully enjoy the film. The film seemed to drag for long stretches but I will same some of the scenes with the devil (portrayed by director Benjamin Christensen) were still disturbing.

I notice that acting styles in Chinese films are frequently more demonstrative than what Western audiences are accustomed to. A Spray of Plum Blossoms fits that mold. The villain (Wang Cilong) does some thumb-to-nose gesture (as opposed to twirling his mustache) that is absurd. Actually, his whole performance seems to be a caricature. The plot was forgetful but what I found interesting is the film was originally released with both Chinese & English intertitles reflecting the targetted audience of Shanghai films in the early 1930s.

The Strong Man and The Shakedown were entertaining comedies from Frank Capra and William Wyler, respectively. I didn't find anything particularly noteworthy about them. The Strong Man starred Harry Langdon, a screen comedian who was briefly considered an equal of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. The backstory about Capra and Landgon's falling-out seemed more interesting than The Strong Man.

The Flying Ace was notable for its all African American cast and that it was shot in Jacksonville, Florida which for period rivaled Hollywood in terms movie making. I found the comedy tedious and dozed off for a bit.

L'Heureuse Mort was a French comedy made by Russian expatriates. It seems like I've seen it before although I don't see how that is possible. The premise has been frequently re-used but there were scenes where the setting and landscape invoked deja vu. I found the film amusing although a strange pick for the closing night film. The plot involves a failed playwright who is presumed drowned at sea. His death prompts a cavalcade of praise and interest in his work. Wanting to capitalize on his posthumous notoriety, the man allows the charade of his demise to continue and assumes the identity of his brother who is conveniently located in Senegal...that is until he decides to return to France to pay his respects to his late brother.

That only leaves The Iron Horse to discuss. Certainly epic in nature, I was underwhelmed by the bloated film. Director John Ford probably could have edited 30 minutes out of the film to good effect. Rather than make pointless suggestions, I will say that the cattle drive is emblematic of the shortcomings of the film. Throughout the film, there are cutaway shots of this (modestly sized) herd of cattle being driven on the open range past various scenic landscapes. The sole and belated purpose of the herd seems to be to placate some Italians on the railway gang who refuse to support their Irish co-workers unless they are paid and fed. Fortunately, the cattle drive arrives just in time and the newly unified Irish-Italian horde descends on and massacres some Indians.

Chock full of racial stereotypes that don't seem as amusing and quaint as I remembered from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or Fort Apache, The Iron Horse looked older than its 86 years in terms of what entertained movie audiences back in the day.

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