Sunday, July 31, 2011

2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (Part 2 of 2)

My favorite film from the 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival was The Great White Silence, a documentary by Herbert Ponting chronicling the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition to Antarctica from 1910 to 1913. Less well known than Ernest Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic expedition and Roald Amundsen's discovery of the geographic South Pole, Robert Falcon Scott's Terra Nova Expedition was more tragic than Shackleton and had cinematic documentation which Amundsen lacked.

More than a decade before his famous stranding on Antarctica, Shackleton served under Scott on a previous attempt to reach the South Pole. The Terra Nova Expedition was a race against Amundsen to reach the South Pole. Scott lost the race by 33 days. More importantly, Scott lost his life on the return trip.

Ponting served as the official photographer and cinematographer on the Terra Nova Expedition. Ponting's The Great White Silence was part of the official record of the expedition.

It is amazing that Ponting was able to get his cameras to film under the extreme conditions. The images he captured are spectacular. There was one sequence showing penguins incubating their eggs. It reminded me of March of the Penguins except it predated it by 90 years and didn't have the voice of God narrating it. I have admit that Morgan Freeman's authoritative but soothing voice added immeasurably to March of the Penguins. However, The Great White Silence benefited greatly from the live accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble. They struck just the right chords to convey the desperation and haunting aspects of living on the most isolated place in the world.

I thought the film would have been better without the cutesy penguin and seal (or were they sea lion?) scenes but in 1913, these animals must have seemed exotic as motion pictures. The long shots and sweeping panoramas were breathtaking. Ponting filmed scenes from up high of dog sleds venturing onto barren and white landscapes. The mens's bodies made tiny by the distance from the camera but also as a metaphor of how tiny men are when compared to the vast forces of nature.

The combination of Ponting's establishing shots and the Matti Bye Ensemble's disquieting score elevated The Great White Silence to a masterpiece which is still spectacular 90 years later. The film was tinted so the still photo below is accurate.

The Great White Silence


The next film I was interested in was Yasujirō Ozu's I Was Born, But... With its translated title's rigorous adherence to the rules of punctuation, but improperly being cited as the original version of Ozu's later Good Morning (1959), I had high hopes for I Was Born, But...

I cannot recall who introduced I Was Born, But..., but he claimed this was the film where "Ozu became Ozu." This statement is open to interpretation but based on it, I was expecting static camera shot and a focus on family dynamics. I noticed more camera movement than Ozu's postwar films but the interactions between the Yoshi family members is the primary story being told. The most obvious difference from Ozu's later films is that the two young boys and their viewpoints occupy much of I Was Born, But... In his later films, children are present and serve to contrast the actions of adults but in I Was Born, But..., the plot incorporates much of the boys' activities and opinions.

Keiji Yoshi and his younger brother Ryoichi have moved into a new neighborhood. Quickly, they encounter bullies from school which cause them to be truant. Much of the film focuses on the plight of the boys and how they eventually overcome their tormentors. This part of the film is handled with a light comedic touch.

The boys make friends with Taro who is their father's boss. The fathers seem to work at film processing company. Ignorant of the pecking order in the workplace, Keiji & Ryoichi are shocked to see their father play the buffoon on some film shot by Taro's father. By extension, the boys figure their father is subservient to Taro's father which is the opposite of the social order among the boys. Disappointed in their father and society at large, the boys throw a temper tantrum and go on a hunger strike. The next day, the father is able to reconcile with the boys and even catch a ride with Taro's father on the way to work. However, the ending has a melancholy tone as Taro's rise and the boy's harsh introduction to reality seem inevitable.

If the introduction was meant to imply Ozu became a film master with I Was Born, But..., I'd be hesitant to agree. I thought the film portends great things from Ozu since I have seen several of his later works. However, I thought the focus on the children distracted from the seriousness of the plot. As the program notes mentioned, this may be because Japanese censors wanted films to avoid classism and social inequities. Ozu used humor and social commentary masquerading as a children's story to get past the censors. The boys' criticism of their father were accurate and stinging as well as naïve and cruel.

I also thought Ozu gained a valuable tools with the advent of talkies. Because of his static camera, dialog took on an important role in Ozu's film. In his silent films, that is lost in the intertitles and perhaps the translation. I Was Born, But... was an exceptional film but this is Ozu afterall. My expectations were not quite met but nonetheless I'm glad I took the afternoon off from work to watch it. I also noticed Ozu had not yet embraced his elliptical storytelling technique as of I Was Born, But...

Tomio Aoki who plays Keiji gave up acting for many years as an adult. He returned to the screen in a supporting role in Kon Ichikawa's The Burmese Harp (1956).

Accompanist Stephen Horne played the piano for the soundtrack but broke out the flute for several key scenes. Although he played a traditional flute, the tone reminded me of many Japanese films featuring what I refer to as a Japanese flute or shakuhachi.


Through the Silent Film Festival, I've become a big fan of Lon Chaney. Over the past few years, they have screened The Unholy Three and The Unknown; both of which I greatly enjoyed. So it was no surprise when I saw He Who Gets Slapped on the program. The role seems tailor made for Chaney. A scientist, who had a his research and wife stolen by a wealthy baron, hides from society & himself as a clown in the circus. The clown persona is He Who Gets Slapped. The act consists of He being slapped and otherwise humiliated by the other clowns which serves a constant reminder of his treatment by his wife and the baron.

He is having modest success at the circus and has his emotions in check until a beautiful horse rider starts at the circus. Consuelo (Norma Shearer) is the daughter of an impoverished count who puts his daughter to work at the circus. A beautiful woman is frequently the cause of trouble in cinema and Shearer's character may well have been named Paris. Immediately, He is drawn to Consuelo who considers him "just friends." Consuelo is more interested in her partner in the horse riding act (John Gilbert). Consuelo's father has other plans as he is essentially pimping his daughter's hand in marriage to...none other than the baron who wronged He.

The reappearance of the baron and his interest in another woman He loves upsets He's fragile psyche with tragic consequences for all involved. I won't recount the ending but it involves a lion and I wonder if the actors and the lion were filmed at the same time. He Who Gets Slapped was an MGM production and marked the first time a lion graced the MGM logo at the opening of the film.

Although Gilbert and Shearer received high billing, Marc McDermott as the baron and Tully Marshall as the count get more screen time and leave a greater impression. Both characters are contemptible whether they are cheating each other or transacting Shearer's maidenhood.

He Who Gets Slapped was very entertaining and a good choice to close the festival.


The Nail in the Boot was an example of Soviet cinema in the 1930s. Unabashedly jingoistic and employing state-of-the-art propaganda techniques, The Nail in the Boot tells the story of a soldier who cannot deliver a key message during war games because his boots were shoddily made. Sentenced to death for his transgression, the soldier calls out the workers at the boot factory where his substandard footwear was produced.

The film was well made (certain scenes evoked Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin) and well scored by Stephen Horne but it felt more like I was watching a historical Communist artifact than an actual film.

My lack of enthusiasm for The Nail in the Boot was made up for by Chess Fever, a delightful romp into a society gone mad with its obsession with chess and a woman who loves her boyfriend but not the impact chess is having one him. Breezy and laugh-out-loud at moments, I loved Chess Fever.


Marlene Dietrich graced the cover of the 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival program book. Czar of noir gave the most impassioned introduction of the festival when he introduced Dietrich's What Men Yearn For. He even expanded my vocabulary by quoting a passage by director Kurt Bernhardt where he described Dietrich as an intrigante. I willingly admit there is something terrible sexy about Dietrich. With all that going for her, I am sad to say What Men Yearn For disappointed me.

Prior to introducing He Who Gets Slapped, director Alexander Payne (Election and Sideways) said he preferred Norma Shearer before she started talking. In other words, he preferred Shearer as a silent film actress. This opinion drew a few hisses from the crowd.

I could say the opposite of Dietrich. I greatly prefer Dietrich when she spoke. Dietrich has two things going for her which don't exist in the silent films. First, she has that husky voice. It sounded like a lion purring while deciding whether to go in for the kill. Dietrich was sexy and dangerous. Second and perhaps wedded to the tone of her voice is her German accent while speaking English. Again, when Dietrich spoke English it sounded exotic and ominous. She was a like a sex Nazi. Her voice was irresistible and makes you feel she was wicked but yet you (at least me) couldn't resist. You know she is a maneater and you should give her a wide berth, but like a moth drawn to the flame...

All this is alluded to in What Men Yearn For and her perverse and tragic charisma reels in a poor newlywed to their mutual doom. What Men Yearn For is not so much a love triangle as a debauched ménage à trois which was probably passé to Berlin audiences during the Weimar Republic. The film only hinted at the nature of the three sided relationship whereas Berliners had first hand experience if history books and Cabaret are to believed.

Fritz Kortner shines as more jaded third of the triangle opposite Dietrich and Uno Henning. Porcine and sleazy with an aristocratic élan, Kortner is almost the equal of Dietrich.

Marlene Dietrich is a captive of my fetish which unfortunately centers around her voice.


My favorite short film was The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra. Borrowing from German expressionism and mise-en-scène techniques, 9413 was nightmarish experimental film propelled by the Alloy Orchestra's fevered score. The film reminded a little of Dementia (1955) which I saw at this year's I Wake Up Dcreaming program at the Roxie.

9413 was about the dehumanizing and assembly line nature of Hollywood filmmaking. Undoubtedly avante-garde upon its production, the film still seems original and provocative 83 years later.


The Blizzard, The Goose Woman and Mr. Fix-It all had enjoyable or even awe inspiring aspects but left me mild. The Blizzard has this incredible scene with a reindeer stampede and a man being dragged by a reindeer in the snow. The Goose Woman features the incredible transformation of Louise Dresser from an uncouth and filthy wretch to a sophisticated society matron. Mr. Fix-It features the comedic and athletic talents of Douglas Fairbanks which seem wasted on a comedy about false identities and orphans. Douglas Fairbanks was an action star and Mr. Fix-It wasn't an action movie.

Upstream was interesting in that it played with movie conventions. Typically, when a lead character acts like a lout (in this case becomes too big a star to associate with his old friends), the character's success is reversed and s/he learns a valuable lesson about loyalty before being forgiven by those s/he has wronged. In Upstream, the lout high hats his old colleagues during a wedding reception. He is literally tossed out the door onto the street. End of film. The ending was abrupt but I often complain that Hollywood films are predictable.

Il Fuoco featured Pina Menichelli (great name), a wild-eyed Italian diva. Diva has a specific meaning in this context. In Italy in the 1910s, certain actresses reached the stratosphere in adulation which has yet to be equaled. Paid enormous sums and the object of unyielding public interest, the Italian cinema divas eclipsed their Hollywood counterparts. Pina Menichelli was one of the these divas and her sexually aggressive role Il Fuoco catapulted her to the highest echelons of Italian society including a marriage to an Italian baron.

In Il Fuoco, Menichelli prances around with a maniacal look on her face and what appears to be a court jester hat on her head. It may have sexy and shocking in 1915 but in 2011, it looked ridiculous. I could not "transcend time." Instead of English intertitles, Frank Buxton was the reader. I don't like readers or more accurately, I haven't encountered a skilled reader. Buxton read the lines as if the film was high camp. Perhaps with intertitles or a better reader, I could have "transcended time." Free advice to SFSFF, if you are going to bring in world-class musicians to score the film, can't you bring in experienced film readers?

Huckleberry Finn - I couldn't quite get into Huck & Tom's adventure. Admittedly, I dozed off for part of it.

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