Thursday, July 16, 2009

San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 2009 - Recapping the GREAT ones!

The 14th Annual Silent Film Festival
July 10-12, 2009, at the Historic Castro Theater.

Of the seemingly DOZENS of film festivals that are home in the Bay Area, every summer, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes three short days to produce one of the finest events of the year. No, there are not any large gift bags at opening night, nor an overwhelming buffet or party, but it does produce a program listing that is worthy of being compared to any publication you might receive at the opera, and they bring in some of the worlds top film accompanying artists, historians and restoration authorities, to showcase the film in an environment as close to possible to its premiere. In some of the most extreme cases, even the original film scores have been restored and scored by the performers, or the score is improvised, as it was for the short subjects. In several cases the scores are a modern interpretation that remains remarkably true to the visual and dramatic style of the film screened. An exceptional minority of the audience even take the effort to dress for the period through out the weekend. The visiting authors and historians are available in the mezzanine lobby after the screenings for signings and in depth Q&As that may not have been answered during their unusually thorough introductions to the films. One top of all that, the fest is probably one of the best values in the area for only $140 for an all access pass, featuring the 12 performances. Just to hear the musicians themselves for a weekend, is worth twice that!

Anyway, moving on to a selection of those mind blowing moments when the live, the image and the ghosts all congregated for a magical few hours.

THE WIND (dir. Victor Sjostrom, USA, 1928, 110 mins.) Ironically, THE WIND would appear to have been so many decades ahead of its time in style and story, that this visual and sonic freudian nightmare was a financial flop when released after the sound recorded variety act of THE JAZZ SINGER, which premiered earlier in the year. Lillian Gish's performance of impending dread, which turns to outright terror, is well measured and paced, as well as being transparent to technique. It is a marvel to observe, considering the physical circumstances of performing into jet propelled sand storms, which she had stated was her most physically demanding role. Director Sjostrom's pacing of the unraveling of her mind, as she is faced with the aspect of living in the isolated, dry plains of Texas, with her (overly affectionate) brother, her hardened and jealous sister-in-law, their children and a pair of lonely male settlers. There is also the periodic reappearance of a traveling salesman, who provokes each level of her disintegration.

Leonard Maltin presented the film with some historical background as to the financial impact it had on Warner Brothers and the place that Lillian Gish held at the time in the profession. However, due to the financial failure of the film, it would be Gish's last film with Warners and she would return to the stage for the majority of her career, as would director Sjostrom. Maltin also introduced the fabulous Dennis James, aka My Wurlitzer Daddy! Ever since hearing him accompany FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE a dozen years ago, I have deified the man! He is a MONSTER on the instrument! He was aided by a pair of wind machines, one performed by Mark Goldstein who provided additional sound effects. The score built and whirled and perfectly reflected the psychic nightmare that Gish's character fell into. It was as effective an experience as some of the best psychological horror that Alfred Hitchcock or Stephen King has ever produced.

Previous to THE WIND, my second remarkable experience was with UNDERWORLD (dir. Josef von Sternberg, US, 1927, 90 mins.) Written by Robert N. Lee, based on a story by Ben Hecht, the film was introduced by Eddie Muller, the "godfather of film noir" here in San Francisco, if not the country. Though his introduction debated the status of UNDERWORLD as being the first film noir, he did give credit and several anecdotes about Ben Hecht's writing style and influence. The film was photographed by Bert Glennon, who provided a series of close ups that were breathtaking at times. The chemistry that may or may not have existed between Clive Brook and Evelyn Brent, was given undeniable HEAT through Glennon's closeups between the two of them. Clive Brook KNEW what look to give straight into the camera to just ignite it. Brent teased the camera with her looks of danger and sensuality. This passion was rarely allowed to be caught within the same frame, which was a fascinating choice, yet reflects Josef von Sternberg's propensity to capture "stars" and not ensembles, as it would climax with his work with Dietrich. The film itself is a gangland romantic triangle that is never consummated by any of the parties, as there is no room for love in the midst of crime, as is the pattern of film noir. Their lives are too harsh to love while "at work" and it isn't until after the resolution that there is a hint that a couple my actually fall in love, but only by a sacrifice by the third wheel.

The film was accompanied by pianist and flautist Stephen Horne, whose score would go into the world of jazz fusion as the film reached its climax. It was an exceptionally rich score coming from a piano and not the organ. As the violence and passion continued to deepen, so did Horne's score until it was nearly an impressionistic storm of music. It was a fabulous afternoon, and I'll never forget that one heart stopping close up of Clive Brook, when Evelyn Brent asks him if he loves women...

Next on my favorites of the weekend would have to be SO'S YOUR OLD MAN (dir. Gregory La Cava, US, 1926, 80 mins.), a star vehicle for the irascible W.C. Fields. Guess what? He plays the town oddball inventor who would rather drink a jug of cleaning fluid than whiskey. How he works into the plot some ultra-classic bits involving a visiting princess, a golf course and a pony is best left to a screening, but it had me laughing out loud! Even the intertitles were perfectly edited in for comic effect. It was the lightest and most enjoyable of the entries I saw during the weekend. The piano accompaniment was provided by Philip Carli, however, not even live music could upstage Mr. Fields, and certainly NOT Terry Zwigoff who introduced the film with his trademark deadpan, if not, distance.

Maxxxxx says
re SF Silent Film Festival: "......"

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1 comment:

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