Sunday, July 29, 2012

2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (Part 1 of 2)

I saw 13 films at the 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival from July 12 to 16 at the Castro Theater.  That's one more than I saw last year.  According to my notes, the festival screened 18 programs last year but only 17 this year.  Considering how much they slipped the schedule, that was a blessing in disguise.  More on that later.

The 13 films I watched were:

Wings starring Buddy Rogers & Clara Bow; with Gary Cooper; directed by William A. Wellman; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; (1927)
Little Toys starring Ruan Lingyu; directed by Sun Yu; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Donald Sosin; (1933)
The Loves of Pharaoh starring Emil Jannings; directed by Ernst Lubitsch; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Dennis James; (1922)
Mantrap starring Clara Bow; directed by Victor Fleming; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Stephen Horne; (1926)
The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna starring Brigitte Helm & Francis Lederer; directed by Hanns Schwarz; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; (1929)
The Spanish Dancer starring Pola Negri & Antonio Moreno; with Wallace Beery & Adolphe Menjou; directed by Herbert Brenon; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Donald Sosin with Jim Washburn and Greg Smith on guitar; (1923)
The Canadian starring Thomas Meighan & Mona Palma; directed by William Beaudine; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Stephen Horne; (1926)
Pandora's Box starring Louise Brooks; with Francis Lederer; directed by G.W. Pabst; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Matti Bye Ensemble; (1929)
The Overcoat starring Andrei Kostrichkin; directed by Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Alloy Orchestra; (1926)
The Docks of New York starring George Bancroft & Betty Compson; with Olga Baclanova; directed by Josef von Sternberg; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Donald Sosin; (1928)
Erotikon starring Anders de Wahl; directed by Mauritz Stiller; silent with Swedish intertitles; live reading by Frank Buxton; live accompaniment by Matti Bye Ensemble; (1920)
Stella Dallas starring Belle Bennett & Alice Joyce; with Ronald Colman & Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; directed by Henry King; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Stephen Horne; (1925)
The Cameraman starring Buster Keaton & Marceline Day; directed by Edward Sedgwick & Keaton; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; (1928)

Wings was preceded by a portion of a Clara Bow short called Red Hair which was in color and showed off Bow's red hair.  Apparently, her hair was beyond titian; closer I Love Lucy.  Red Hair was a 1928 feature film but is considered lost.  The only known portion of the film to exist is the technicolor segment which was shown.  The entire clip last two minutes at most.

Prior to Mantrap, they screened Twin Peaks Tunnel (1917).  The film is a documentary of the excavation of the Twin Peaks Tunnel which opened to the public in 1918.  I cannot recall who narrated the film.

For those unfamiliar with the public transit system in San Francisco, the Twin Peaks are two prominent hills in San Francisco.  They form a natural barrier that divides the City.  In 1918, the MTA (or its predecessor) opened a railway tunnel under Twin Peaks.  The Forest Hill and West Portal Muni Metro Stations resulted from the Twin Peaks Tunnel.  Forest Hill Station was originally called Laguna Honda Station as can be seen from carved lettering on the facade of the station.

There was also a Eureka Valley Station near the present day Castro Station.  That station closed in the early 1970s as the Muni Metro Tunnel under Market St was constructed.  The Muni Metro Tunnel merged with the Twin Peaks Tunnel so that the tunnel entrance is no longer visible from the street level.  The main clues regarding the existence of the Twin Peaks Tunnel is that as you are going outbound from Castro Station, the tracks veer up and to the right.  The Eureka Valley Station platform is also visible from the train when you are in the tunnel although I've never been able to see it.  I don't take the Metro past Castro Station very often though.  Also, near Market and Eureka streets, one can see the remnants of the stairs leading from the sidewalk to the Eureka Valley Station.

In addition to my other interests, I'm a bit of a railroad history enthusiast.  Speaking of old railway tunnels, there will be a test of Muni's E-Line which will run from 4th St. & King in SoMa to Jones and Beach on August 26 and 27.  Muni is trying to put the line into service in time for next year's America's Cup,  However, the more exciting aspect of the project is a second phase which would make use of an abandoned railway tunnel and extend the E-Line to Ft. Mason Center.  If you keep taking Beach St. until it ends near Aquatic Park, you will see the railroad leads to a tunnel which is blocked by large metal door.  This railway was used in the construction and operation of the 1915 Pan Pacific International Exposition which developed the area from Ft. Mason to the Palace of Fine Arts.  Also used extensively during WWII when Ft. Mason was a military embarkation point, I believe the tunnel was in use until the 1970s.  In Dirty Harry, there is a scene where Harry is being run all over town to get to payphones in time to receive a kidnapper's call.  I believe he is running through the Ft. Mason Tunnel when he is confronted by two toughs looking to take the ransom money.

Back to the 2012 SFSFF.  Before The Cameraman, they screened a digitally restored version of Georges Méliès' A Trip to The Moon (1902).  It was narrated by Paul McGann.


Before I write about the films, I have severe criticism of the festival.  Pandora's Box was close to 90 minutes before starting.  I had seen noon & 2:30 PM screening that day (Saturday) which started more or less on time.  The SF Silent Film Festival must have the worst on-time record of any festival in the Bay Area...and that's before this year's issues.  I skipped the 5 PM screening (South) to have dinner with a friend whom I had invited to see Pandora's Box.  We arrived about 6:30 PM  for a 7 PM showtime.  The line already wrapped the corner to 17th Street and turned the corner again onto Hartford Street.  We took our place at the end of the line...and waited...and waited.  Eventually, a volunteer came out saying a "crashed soundboard" was the cause of the delay but had no estimate as to when the theater would open.

As the delay approached an hour, many in the crowd (including my companion) groused about the delay.  It didn't help matters that it was getting cold and windy.  There was no explanation as to why a "crashed soundboard" kept people outside.  Complaints arose as some people in line knew that there were people from the previous show in the theater.

In my opinion, Pandora's Box was a net failure despite being my favorite film of this year's festival.  Although the restoration looked great and the Matti Bye Ensemble's soundtrack was fantastic, the late start was more than most in the line could forgive.  To make matters worse, instead of cutting down the pre-film speeches; Anita Monga blithely shrugged off the delay and had the team behind the restoration speak.  Sometimes (frequently?) the festival planners and cineastes are too insular.  The average attendee wasn't interested in the restoration and was more anxious to see the film.  Although they appreciated the musical accompaniment, I don't think it made up for the 60+ minute delay.  If my companion was any indication, I think the average attendee will be leery of planning an evening around a silent film with live musical accompaniment in the future.

One of the major goals of the festival is to introduce people to the world of silent films and allow them to see the films as they were meant to be seen - in a theater with a live musicians.  I don't think delaying the showtime by 90 minutes was part of the original silent film experience.

Having gone to the festival for many years, I know that delays are part of the package.  I don't recall such a long delay in the past but could empathize.  This year, I lost empathy.  The day after Pandora's Box, I skipped the first screening at 10 AM and showed up for the noon screening of The Docks of New York. The festival had already slipped the schedule by about 30 minutes!

I don't know what the cause was on Sunday but I hunkered down for the whole day because I was afraid to leave the theater.  I later heard or read (I cannot recall or find the source) that the 10 AM screening (The Mark of Zorro) was run at a slower frame rate than originally intended.  Regardless of the reason, they never caught up with the schedule  The rest of the films on that Sunday started about 30 minutes late.

The SF Silent Film Festival needs to schedule more time between screenings so they can recover from the seemingly inevitable delays.  They cram in too many screenings per day. Given their history of late starts due to technical problems, I have to wonder if they are giving average patrons the impression that silent films screenings are fussy and prone to delays.

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