Monday, July 11, 2005

10th San Francisco Silent Film Festival

[Jul. 11th, 2005|08:58 am]
[ music | the waltz from "The Side Show" ]
7/So, instead of a blow-by-blow account of the 10th San Francisco Silent Film Festival (, I thought I would just do a single recap, seeing as there were only 9 programs over the three days. (Even at that, I slept through two of them, so this will be even shorter!)

Opening night: First, the crowd for this was pretty unbelievable! The showtime was 8 p.m., I got in line at 7 p.m. and it went down Castro, turned the corner at 17th and then turned the NEXT corner at Hartford Street (in front of Darren and Allen's house)! Thankfully SueJean (film society 'film slut') was volunteering that night and had saved seats for the rest of our little film slut circle! We spent the weekend pretty huddled together. There is a different 'element' that voraciously attends a silent film festival it seems. They were either in the original audiences, wished they were in the original audiences or believed they were there now. Mind you, I'm not complaining about seniors going to the movies. However, the festival organizers might want to consider creating a separate line for them, so that they won't be trampled by the rest of us. As for the 'dressing up' crowd, they do lend a festive atmosphere to the proceedings, however unnerving it might be if you think about it too much. The really creepy crowd is the 'wished they were there' group who are way too up on their silent film trivia, including the archivists and restorers. However, I guess it's an avid, if not commendable hobby. It is just a bit odd listening to these highly animated discussions about Lillian Gish's resume or the missing reels from a Fleischer Brothers cartoon while standing in line for the men's room. I guess guys do that sort of statistical banter at baseball games, too?

One of the more interesting things about this festival is the amount of background given during the introductions. There is a host for the entire festival, whose name escapes me, however he has a fabulous broadcast voice and handles the crowd quite well. The programmer responsible for the print is introduced, who will give us the background of the actual production. And then a guest is brought up, who is responsible for the restoration of the print, at which time we are given (sometimes EXHAUSTIVE) details about the restoration process.(By the way, the prints at this festival are all in near perfect condition!) There were also Special Guests who were, basically, family members of the subject at hand. On Opening Night, Harold Lloyd's grand-daughter was present and served double duty, having been responsible for the restoration and archiving of his films, as well as giving us stories about what it was like living with Harold Lloyd. (She was raised by her grandparents.) This was an entertaining little interview (there are NO audience Q&A's, thankfully!), and I unfortunately missed the juicy part at the very end (pre-emptive bathroom strike!), where she was asked about his hobby as an erotic photographer! (See "Tura! Tura! Tura!")After those interviews are over, the accompanist is introduced, who usually has a few words to say about the score he is about to play. AFTER ALL OF THAT IS DONE, we finally get to the film!

Now, I don't know how much I will go on about the actual films, as the experience as a whole is what makes the fest for me, more than the films themselves. Of the nine programs presented over the weekend:

"Stage Struck" (dir. Allan Dwan, US, 1925, 120 mins.), piano accompaniment by Michael Mortilla. Starring Gloria Swanson, this was by far the favorite piece presented! You can see why she was such a phenomena then, as she was stylistically ahead of her time. "Stage Struck" is a comedy, bordering on madcap (Gloria Swanson in a boxing ring?!), and she played it perfectly - on that edge of deadpan and clowning! I loved it! Plus the opening sequence of designed by Erte' is not to be missed!

"For Heaven's Sake" (dir. Sam Taylor, USA, 1926, 105 mins.), accompaniment on the Wurlitzer by Chris Elliott. Starring Harold Lloyd, this was the feature for Opening Night. Featuring some great bits, it is a fun little flick! I am a Buster Keaton fan myself, however it was noted that what made Lloyd stand out amongst the 'clowns' (Keaton, Chaplin, etc.) is that he was physically against type: he was stylish and handsome enough that his were romantic comedies, in which he always got the girl. It features an impressive chase scene, however, I do think he pales in comparison to Keaton, as far as inventiveness is concerned.

"The Side Show" (dir. Erle C. Kenton, US, 1928, 105 mins.), piano accompaniment by Jon Mirsalis. This was the surprise of the weekend! Starring 'Little' Billy Rhodes, the synopsis read like it was an early "Freaks" (dir. Todd Browning). However, if anything, Billy Rhodes' (whose only memorable role was that of the Barrister in 'The Wizard of Oz') performance is really good! In fact, the film itself reminded me more of HBO's "Carnivale" than anything else. There was a sincere amount of drama and a fabulously suspenseful climax, which was brilliantly accompanied by Mr. Mirsalis' score! In fact, this featured my favorite score of the weekend, which apparently, was 'improvised/composed' by Mr. Mirsalis. I would love to contact him to see if he has any recordings/dvds/etc.

"It" (dir. Clarence Badger, US, 1927, 100 mins.) accompanied on the Wurlitzer by Clark Wilson. This was the closing night feature, and starred Clara Bow, in her trademark role as the 'It Girl'! She truly was a screen wonder! In fact, she nearly overwhelms the rest of the cast and production. I'm sure this is available on video, so it is more than worth the effort to track it down! Also, whatever format you find it in, I can probably guarantee you that it will have a better score than the one that Clark Wilson put together for it. There is no existing score, so he unapologetically thought that a medley of songs from the period might work best. eh. It's a BIG organ! It should be playing something more than the Top 20 of the '20s! ack.

"Animation Rarities" (var. directors, 1926-1928) piano accompaniment by Michael Mortilla. This was the Saturday Afternoon collection of cartoons, featuring Felix the Cat, Koko the Clown, Oswald the Rabbit and an 'Alice cartoon' from Disney. Overall, the program was pleasant enough. There just isn't anything that really sticks out in my mind.

"The Big Parade" (dir. King Vidor, US, 1925, 180 mins.) accompaniment on the Wurlitzer by Chris Elliott. This starred John Gilbert and was the 'centerpiece' of the festival. Running 3 hours, and including a literal panel of guests (King Vidor's daughter, John Gilbert's daughter and grandson, and the archivist from George Eastman House), as well as an intermission, it was sort of a long evening. Vidor's daughter was quite well spoken and charming. Gilbert's daughter gave the REAL dish on why John Gilbert was blackballed in the 30's. (It wasn't his speaking voice that knocked him out of the talkies, it was that he knocked Louis B. Mayer out at a wedding!) The archivist gave us some cool trivia about the film and the mutations it suffered after it initial run. It was the biggest moneymaker until "Gone With The Wind" taking in $25 million! Eventually, the film would be hacked down from it's original 3 hours, which made restoring it quite the challenge. The score was the complete original score for the 1925 print. After all of that was said, the film itself was... ok. I'm sure it was quite a landmark, and possibly controversial, to present an anti-war film only 10 years after WWI. However, it is really long. In fact, it plays like two separate films: Part One is recruitment and the time spent in France waiting to be deployed. The actual deployment scene, which is the climax of Part One, was really haunting and wonderfully shot and scored. It could have ended there! Part Two is the actual battle. It's not spectacularly overdone. In fact, it is awkwardly staged, as lines of soldiers unflinchingly march into machine gun fire. On one hand, I think Vidor was trying to be 'personal and real'. On the other, it came off looking even more symbolic and false. John Gilbert does return home, but a very changed man, and unable to readjust to his life there. This performance is really the most redeemable aspect of the film, in my opinion anyway.

"The Scarlet Letter" (dir. Victor Sjöström, US, 1926, 130 mins.) accompanied on the Wurlitzer by Clark Wilson. This was another long one in which the sole redeeming feature was the star turn, this time by Lillian Gish. In fact, she was the ONLY reason I was able to get through it. What the woman could register facially really was astounding! However, her co-star, Lars Hanson as the ineffectual Puritan pastor with whom she has the affair, was truly awful, and reached nearly unbearable levels of annoyance for me! I just wanted to see him get slapped! But, instead, he as an unremarkable death scene, in which he continued to display the one emotion he apparently was capable of. He really ruined this film for me. The film was not assisted by Clark Wilson's score, either. It was another piecemeal score of puritan hymns and '20s love ballads. yawn.

These last two features, "Sangue Mineiro" (dir. Humberto Maura, Brazil, 1929, 90 mins.) accompanied with an original ensemble score by Maura Correa; and "Prem Sanyas" (dir. Franz Osten, Himansu Rai, India, 1925, 110 mins.) accompanied with a 'tabla ensemble' led by Ben Kunin on satir and Debopriyo Sarkar. These both played in the unenviable position of 1:00 p.m., aka naptime, on Saturday and Sunday. The Brazilian feature was so confusing, I simply gave up and went to sleep, only to be validated by those around me who were awake for it all and still couldn't explain what was happening. The India feature was gorgeous, but so was the music! In fact, the music was so enchanting and lulling, that I went completely out during the film. I was not alone in our clutch to do so, either, so I felt sort of validated by that, too! Thankfully, the plot was so simplistic (the history of Buddha), that I was able to catch up whenever I woke up.

This was the first time that I was able to do the festival. (Usually, this is when I would be in Altanta/South Carolina.) markosf was able to join for a couple (Stage Struck and It), and the 'film sluts' (SueJean, Netta and Mike, Carole and Marvin) were there for the entirety, ravenously protecting our seats! SueJean was particularly wound up over the weekend. ;-)

There is rumor that the new Operations Manager of the Silent Film Festival would like to move it to a different theatre. (She was a manager at the Castro and part of the management shake-up there this year.) I hope the Board of the Festival help her get over her grievance with the owners of the Castro and keep it there in the future.

That's it for MY Festival season! I'm a bit burnt out to be able to go to the Jewish Film Festival next week. (Plus my sister will be visiting from Denver, and I don't think she's come out here to sit in the dark for a week!) The next possible fest for me MIGHT be the Mill Valley Film Festival in September/October, though it is a bit of a hassle, logistically... Of course, I'd love to go to Toronto in the second week of September, but... sigh, that is not to be, yet...

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