Monday, May 6, 2019

Jason goes to Silentfest: Day 4

Finally, I got the full experience, from 10 am to nearly 11 pm, with six shows and very little in the way of breaks.

But first, I just had to have my traditional breakfast at Orphan Andy's, a Castro institution. Fully fueled from that, I was ready for some movies!

THE LIGHTS OF OLD BROADWAY (1925): We started it off with a showcase of Marion Davies. Two twin orphaned infants on a ship to America. One is adopted by a wealthy family, heavily invested in gas. The other adopted by poor Irish immigrants, heavily invested in throwing bricks at the rich landlords trying to evict them from their slum. Each grows up according to her environment, and each is played by Marion Davies as an adult. Fely, the rambunctious poor Irish lass, is definitely the starring role, as she is discovered first by a theater manager who puts her on stage where she's a hit. And then by Dirk de Rhonde (Conrad Nagel), the son of a wealthy family...heavily invested in gas...who is smitten because...she reminds him of his adopted sister, Anne? Okay, that's kind of creepy. Their romance challenges his family loyalty, as his father is trying to evict her family from their slum, and her father beaned his father with a brick. Only one thing can save them--an all out fight and the advent of electric lights, which brilliantly turn everything from black and white to color, and change fortunes overnight. Excellent fun, a great way to start a long day of movies.

And moving it all along was the excellent accompaniment by Philip Carli on the grand piano.
Marion Davies, stealing the show
BROWNIE'S LITTLE VENUS (1921): The next show started with this adorable Baby Peggy short. Let's see what I wrote about it back in 2012:
One of Baby Peggy's earliest co-stars was Brownie the dog, and with her rediscovery he's getting a renewed career, too (although he has to appreciate it from doggie heaven.) As adorable as Baby Peggy is, Brownie's really the star here, helping her get dressed (even tightening her corset) for a big day, then helping her foil a robbery.
Okay, I'd add to that he's not just Brownie the dog, he's Brownie the Wonder Dog! And I'd be remiss not to give credit also to Peggy's parents, Bud Jamison and Lillian Biron.

HELL BENT (1918): Then it was time for a John Ford / Harry Carey collaboration, a team who took westerns to new heights of popularity. Carey practically perfected the iconic character of the "good bad man" that had been previously explored by William S. Hart and of course Niles' own Broncho Billy Anderson. Here he plays a card sharp with a heart of gold. He befriends Cimmaron Bill (Duke Lee) in typical cowboy fashion--by getting into an all-out brawl with him that ends with them singing. He also falls for Bess Thurston (Neva Gerber), who works in a dance hall because her lazy, good-for-nothing brother Jack (Vester Pegg) is...lazy and good for nothing. Jack ends up joining a gang led by Beau Ross (Joseph Harris) so Harry has to do the right thing and foil their robbery and save Bess. Full of rousing action, good humor, tension, and sweeping John Ford vistas. Good fun.

Philip Carli again provided the accompaniment, and was excellent.
Harry Carey, at his Harry Carey-est

GOONA GOONA (1931): Then it was time for a trip to Bali for this amazing cultural artifact. Shot on location, and framed as a story told to an anthropologist, a Balinese legend is brought to life by Balinese locals. A prince comes home from studying in Europe, and brings with him dangerous European ideals. Like, it's okay to marry outside your caste, or to marry for love, or when that doesn't work out, just go ahead and have an affair with your servant's wife. Okay, these ideas don't exactly work out well, but it's an engaging story well told, with plenty of local flavor and traditional dress...meaning the women are often topless.

I know, we westerners have an obsession with tits, sorry, that's the culture I grew up in. And it's not just me. The title (which is supposed to be a sort of love potion powder) ended up becoming a generic term for southeast and far east Asian exploitation flicks, particularly one in which the women are topless...for ethnographic authenticity, a la National Geographic. I guess that's Bali for you.

But let's not obsess over that, instead obsess over the amazing score by Club Foot Gamelan, the combination of Club Foot Orchestra and Gamelan Sekar Jaya.
An authentic (as far as I know) Balinese ceremony.

L'HOMME DU LARGE (MAN OF THE OPEN SEAS) (1920): Then it was time for some high melodrama of the sea, based on a story by Balzac. We begin with Nolff (Roger Karl), a fisherman taking a vow of silence for the rest of his life. We then flash backwards to what led up to his sorry state. A loving wife, a young daughter, and a newborn son. He lets his wife raise the daughter, and he raises the son with a plan for him to love the sea. But that doesn't go as planned, and the grown-up son is a ne'er-do-well who hates the sea to spite his father. He loves the village...the excitement there...although he has run up some debts. This ruins the family, and through tragedy upon tragedy leads to Nolff's vow that opens the film. Beautifully shot and acted, it's high melodrama at its highest, and a bit of a tribute to the power and beauty of the see, particularly on the Brittany coast.

Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius provide the excellent score, and instead of obscuring the beautifully crafted French intertitles, translations were narrated live by actor Paul McGann

THE WEDDING MARCH (1928): Melodrama was the order of the day, and what could be more melodramatic than Erich von Stroheim directing and starring is a romance. Opposite both Fay Wray (in her first featured role) and Zasu Pitts, no less. Stroheim plays Nicki, a prince of Vienna whose full name is a kilometer long, who gives up his skirt-chasing ways as soon as he lays eyes on Mitzi (Fay Wray.) Trouble is, the royal family needs money, and she is a commoner. His parents want him to marry into money, and that would be Cecilia (Zasu Pitts), the limping daughter of a local tycoon of corn plasters. But Nicki wants Mitzi, even if that raises the hackles of local butcher (and ironically, a pig) Schani. Raises them to possibly murderous levels. It's again high, high melodrama, and with an ending that's...well, that's a Stroheim kind of ending (hint: not happy.)

The whole affair was beautifully accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Fay Wray and Erich von Stroheim, in love.

L'INFERNO (1911): And finally the long, long day ended with this lavish Italian interpretation of Dante's Inferno. It's been about a decade since I read it, but from what I remember it's a fairly faithful adaptation. Virgil, at the behest of Beatrice, leads Dante through the 9 levels of hell. The visuals are lavish and actually pretty creepy. Like many early movies it suffers from a very staged, static style, which makes it a pretty long slog even at just 66 minutes. Or maybe that was just my exhaustion. Anyway, great special effects (especially with the guy condemned to carry his own severed head around) but they were still figuring out pacing. But at least the visuals were beautifully gruesome and macabre. Oh, and most of the tortured souls are nearly naked in hell. But I guess that's Italy for you.

And for the macabre and weird, of course the Matti Bye Ensemble needed to provide the accompaniment, with Paul McGann again providing narration for the intertitles.
There's a lot of nudity in Hell, but not the kind you want to see. Kind of like Burning Man.
Total Running Time: 470 minutes
My Total Minutes: 504,876

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Jason goes to Silentfest: Day 3

Two more movies on Friday. Again my day job kept me away from the early shows, but I got to see a couple of great ones, and I checked into my weekend home, Beck's Motor Lodge.

THE LOVE OF JEANNE NEY (DIE LIEBE DER JEANNE NEY) (1927): Set in Crimea after the Soviet Revolution, where Bolsheviks and Cossacks are fighting. Jeanne (Édith Jéhanne) is the daughter of French diplomat André Ney (Eugen Jensen) and lover of Andreas Labov (Uno Henning). A scheming, lecherous opportunist Khalibiev (Fritz Rasp) sells André a list of Bolshevik agents--a list that includes Jeanne's lover Andreas. That leads to a confrontation that kills her father, wounds Andreas, and leads to Jeanne fleeing to Paris. She is followed, more dangerous encounters ensue, and Brigitte Helm (most famous, of course, for METROPOLIS) has a supporting role as a blind girl who is the target of more of Khalibiev's schemes. And my head is kind of left spinning by the plot but marveling at the camerawork, pacing, and editing.

Guenter Buchwald Ensemble (Guenter, Frank Bockius, and Sascha Jacobsen)
Jeanne and Andreas

WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928): And we ended the night with a co-presentation by Midnites for Maniacs, introduced by the head Maniac himself, Jess Hawthorne Ficks.

It's a Todd Browning (DRACULA, FREAKS) and Lon Chaney (the original Man of 1,000 faces) collaboration, one of the greatest partnerships in the entire silent film era, at least for classic genre fans. Chaney is a stage magician, Phroso, with a beautiful wife and assistant Anna (Jacqueline Gadsdon). But she's been cheating on him with Crane (Lionel Barrymore) and Crane attacks him, leaving him crippled and running off with Anna. A year later, a broken Phroso learns that Anna has returned. He finds her dead in a church with a baby girl--the proof of her infidelity--by her side. So he plots revenge. It takes 18 years, in Africa, where Crane has become an ivory merchant. But he gets in good with the natives, using his magic to lead them with his cadre of helpers, he is now known just as "Dead Legs." The plot and visuals are somewhat shocking, even today, and the revenge scheme is grotesque. And of course, because it's from the master of the macabre, things don't go quite according to plan. An absolutely dark treat, and a great film to just try to sleep after (I didn't, I stayed up and halfway caught up on my blog.)

Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius again (he's been busy this festival!) kept the tight, tense, and macabre plot churning ahead with their score, and it was all a lot of fun.
Dead Legs keeping the co-conspirators in his revenge plot in line.


Total Running Time: 170 minutes
My Total Minutes: 504,406

Jason goes to Silentfest: Day 2

I worked my day job so missed the matinee shows on Thursday, but I was there for two evening shows, and they were both amazing.

THE SIGNAL TOWER (1924): This train picture climaxes with one of the most tense and thrilling scenes I've ever seen. But first, we meet Dave (Rockcliffe Fellowes) who runs the signal tower remote in the Mendocino Mountains. He has an important job, making sure the tracks are cleared so the trains can get through. He lives there was his wife Sally (the beautiful Virginia Valli), their son (Frankie Darro), and his aging colleague and friend, Old Bill (James Barrows.) But the railroad has pensioned Bill and sent him into retirement with a vacation in New York. So a new night shift signal man comes in, Joe, played by Wallace Beery at his oiliest. Dave and Sally could use rent money, so the bring him into their home. And at first it looks like there might be a romance between him and cousin Gertie (Dot Farley.) But he has his eyes on Sally, instead. It gets super creepy, and then super dangerous when a train breaks on a stormy night and the back half starts barreling down the track and must be derailed before it crashes into the Express. That's the super-tense scene I alluded to in the beginning. It all plays out with the dual tension of the train and Joe's assault on Sally, but there's also plenty of room for humor and well-fleshed out characters.

Keeping things alternately tense and humorous was the charging score of Stephen Horne on piano and Frank Bockius on percussion.
Virginia Valli doing her best to resist Wallace Beery


OPIUM (1919): And then the late show was a trip as hallucinatory as the title would suggest. Directed by Robert Reinert, it's the story of Dr Gesellius (Eduard von Winterstein), who has studied the terrible effects of opium and set up a sanitarium to treat addicts. But he himself falls under its spell, and the whole movie takes a wild turn. It's a sprawling tale, from China to England to India, and the costumes and makeup reflect the unfortunate racism of the time (the scheming Chinese opium dealer shows up repeatedly to torment the good doctor.) But there's a very full story (I was surprised to look back at the notes and see it's only 91 minutes long) and takes you on a trip around the world and through the mind of a hallucinating opium fiend (including more topless scenes than you usually see in a movie of that time, but I guess that's Germany for you.)

And Guenter Buchwald's amazing score kept the hallucinations flowing freely.
Dr Gesellius feeling guilty about his patient, since he kind of caused his injury


Total Running Time: 175 minutes
My Total Minutes: 504,235

Jason goes to Silentfest: Opening Night

The most amazing, intense, extended weekend of the year kicked off Wednesday night, and of course I was there.

The film of the night was Buster Keaton's THE CAMERAMAN (1928): Let's look back on what I said about it back when it was the closing night film in 2012:
What can I say, this is Buster Keaton being a comic genius. It's also the first film he made for MGM, and the start of him losing control over his own films--something he later called his worst mistake in his life. But he's still great in this as a humble tin-type photographer who sees a pretty girl (Marceline Day,) finds out she works at an MGM newsreel office, and decides to clear out his savings account to buy movie camera, get the great footage, and really impress her. He just has a bit of a learning curve. But with his stone-faced gumption and a very clever monkey, he saves the day. It also includes a hilarious public pool sequence that is surprisingly risque for the time. Hilarious, and I just had to wonder how the cameramen on the movie felt about the scene showing a monkey could do their job.
Yup, I still stand by all of that. I'll just add a comment about the hilarious running scene where the girl of his dreams calls him up and he runs to her building before she can even hang up the phone. And, of course, I have to give credit to the brilliant musical accompaniment by Timothy Brock conducting students of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Credits where credit is due, with a cameo by my fingertip!


Then a little after party at McRoskey Mattress Company, the festival's longtime sponsor. A few drinks, catching up with my one-weekend-out-of-the year friends, and then it was time for a little sleep so I could work and then be at the festival again the next night.

Running Time: 72 minutes
My Total Minutes: 504,060

Jason goes to SFFILM: Closing Night

My final three movies of the festival. The fest continued for a couple more days, and I had tickets but my day job kept me from using them. But let's not worry about that, instead enjoy the films I did get to see.

I started the day with the documentary SHOW ME THE PICTURE: THE STORY OF JIM MARSHALL. Even if you don't know the name, if you've ever seen a picture of a musician you probably know the work of Jim Marshall. Chock full of archival footage and dazzling candid photographs, you get a sense of a master photographer, a man who loved music and the whole lifestyle, and whose lifestyle led to his ruin. Drugs and an obsession with guns ended up ruining him, and even his best friends and lovers couldn't sugar-coat it. But he certainly left a legacy, and this excellent documentary will ensure his legacy lives on.

Probably Jim's most famous photograph. The audience gleefully reproduced it.

Next up was THE HARVESTERS, a challenging film from South Africa. Janno is a sensitive boy living in a deeply religious, white Afrikaner family in Free State. His mother takes in a tough, troubled street kid named Pietr, and tells Janno to treat him like a brother. And Janno is a good kid, so he tries. But Pietr has a sort of charisma that seems dangerous. I'm sure if I knew more of the history and culture of South Africa, I could read a lot more into the parallels of family and post-Apartheid culture wars. But as it is, I confess I was a bit bored. So I'll leave it as "challenging." I could tell there was a great deal of skill and care taken in making the movie, but it's just not my cup of tea.

And then I ended the night with the closing night film, OFFICIAL SECRETS, the latest from Gavin Hood (TSOTSI, EYE IN THE SKY,...we won't speak of his attempts at a more commercial studio blockbuster). This time he takes on the true story of Katharine Gun (who was there for the screening!), played by Keira Knightley. She worked for UK intelligence, and was disturbed by an e-mail that went around urging them to dig up dirt on leaders of foreign countries as leverage for them to go to war with Iraq over...let's say "flimsy" evidence at best. For doing that, she was charged with treason and put on trial, then the charges were dropped because the government refused to present their evidence. The question of "Why?" has still never been answered. The movie is political, of course, but at it's core it's a story of the relationship between a journalist. In this case, Martin Bright of the Observer (Matt Smith) who carefully checked and corroborated every detail he could. All in all, a rousing and important film with which to end the festival.

Total Running Time: 308 minutes
My Total Minutes: 503,989

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Jason goes to SFFILM: Saturday, April 20

My third and longest day of the festival--a whole 4 movies! (My regular readers will know how weak that is for me.)

First up at the Roxie was THE LITTLE COMRADE, a funny Estonian film about the Soviet era resistance and a six year old girl who doesn't understand all of what her parents are into and instead is happy with the recognition she gets being a good little comrade and singing the anthem of the Young Pioneers. So when her mother is taken away to a prison camp (which her father covers by saying she's going off to be treated for a medical condition) she only understands her instructions to be a good little girl, and she thinks that means to be a good, respected comrade. It's a movie about authoritarianism, but through the lens of how confusing it can be for a child, when everyone is an authority to you. It might make one wonder about today, and how authoritarianism creeps into the minds of children--and those with childish minds.

Next up was DEBT, a Turkish slice-of-life about a dutiful husband, father, and upstanding community member Tufan. He works in a print shop, but they're struggling. When his elderly neighbor is sick, he takes her in. But as economic hardships set in, and his houseguest strains his marriage (and her daughter is no help at all) the strain starts to get to him. It's not just about monetary debts, it's about the debts we owe to each other as human beings--kindness, charity, respect, tolerance, forgiveness. Sometimes it feels like he's falling behind because he's the only one paying those kinds of debts, while everyone else is just out for themselves. In that regard, he certainly makes for an engaging and sympathetic hero.

And then it was time to HAIL SATAN? Penny Lane (NUTS!, Festival 2016) is one of my favorite filmmakers. She brings comedic insight into her documentaries and is never boring. And she has a ripe subject here. First you have to understand the difference between The Satanic Temple and The Church of Satan, Aleister Crowley's hedonistic cult from San Francisco. The Satanic Temple is the more publicly engaged, politically active, and comedically inclined church (yes, this happened after the movie was made, but they're now officially recognized as a church). Most of them don't literally believe in Satan, they're atheists or non-theists who believe in Satan as a useful (albeit loaded) metaphor for principled and reasoned opposition to an overbearing power. After all, the Bible calls upon us to serve God without question. Another word for servitude is slavery. So they're calling on people to reject slavery for themselves and others.

They're the ones who, for example, when a statue of the Ten Commandments went up in front of a courthouse in Oklahoma City, they sued to put a Baphomet statue next to it. (And when the Ten Commandments was taken down, they removed their Baphomet statue because it didn't work out of the context of religious plurality). The movie follows the leadership as they pick their battles, advance their strategy (working within the system), and deal with some of the growing pains of becoming a large, international organization. There's an interesting episode with their Detroit chapter, whose leader is way more radical than the rest of them. Eventually they do have to sort of...excommunicate her? I don't know what to call it. It's not that they object to her radicalism, even with the parts of her shows where she calls for assassinating the President. But it doesn't help their strategy if she's doing that in their name. So they can let her keep doing it (because unlike most religions they want to let people do their thing, even if it's following a different religion) and she gets to talk about how she's so radical she was kicked out of The Satanic Temple. The movie also gets into the more mundane activities--adopting a highway or beach clean-up. For many of them civic duty is a part of their faith, and that's a good thing. And I'd be remiss not to mention the Seven Tenets, none of which I can find objectionable. All in all, a very entertaining movie that might just open some eyes, but at least never bores you.

And finally, that wasn't weird enough so I ended the night with MONOS, a war movie unlike any other. With absolutely no context, we are introduced to young soldiers (nearly child soldiers) fighting for "The Organization." They have a hostage, "Doctora" whom they must keep alive and keep from escaping. And they have a cow, a gift from their higher-ups as thanks for their great work. And they train, and they goof around and fires their guns randomly. If it weren't for the occasional battle scenes, you might think it was a group of crazy kids in the wilderness playing war (which, come to think of it, is a pretty good description of most wars.) This is another movie--sort of a hallmark of this festival--that I loved while watching it and then find incredibly difficult to describe afterward. It's surreal, hallucinatory, frightening, and hilarious. Events veer radically out of control, and I don't even remember how it ended, but I know I loved it.

Total Running Time: 388 minutes
My Total Minutes: 503,680

Jason goes to SFFILM: Saturday, April 14th

For my second day of the festival, I spent the full day in the amazing Dolby Labs. Seriously, next year when they open up again, you all have to see at least one film there.

First up was a documentary MIDNIGHT FAMILY. Mexico City is woefully understaffed by public ambulances--and that's an understatement. In place of a public system, an informal, largely unlicensed network of private ambulances serve the population. This is an extended ride-along with one of them, and it's the family business with everyone chipping in. They race other ambulances to scenes of accidents, they get abused by corrupt cops who need bribes or they might be run in for running an unlicensed ambulance business. They advise their "customers" whether to try to get help at a public hospital or actually get helped (if they can afford it) at private ones. Oh, and occasionally their customers can actually pay, and they eat something a little better than saltines and canned tuna. It veers wildly from tragedy to comedy (just like life) and is never ever boring (unlike life.) A hell of a ride.

Then a movie that really made use of the beyond-state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos format,THE SOUND OF SILENCE. Peter Sarsgaard stars as Peter Lucien, a "house tuner" in New York. The idea, vastly simplified, is that you might be having trouble sleeping not just because your old radiator is noisy, but because it's out of tune with your refrigerator, or the whole neighborhood. He's got quite an ear, and quite a wild theory. There's something orchestrating our lives. If not exactly controlling our every movement, it at least helps the denizens of New York City go about their lives without tripping over each other. And he thinks it's sound. Every neighborhood, every block has it's one chord. E.g., the Financial District has a fast-paced, frantic chord, while Central Park has a more relaxing one (I don't know enough music theory to even confirm this makes sense.) Anyway, that's his theory, and his house tuning business is a perfect way to collect data on that. But his theory runs into an anomaly--a woman whose troubles aren't fixed with a simple house tuning. The movie teeters on the edge of rom-com territory, as he becomes obsessed and maybe infatuated with her and how she just doesn't conform to his model of the world. She challenges him, and as he seeks recognition of his theory from the scientific community, it might just break him. A fascinating story that sounded amazing inside Dolby Labs. It'll be interesting when it comes out (in the Fall, I believe) how well it will play at the local multiplex. 

And finally I ended the night with AQUARELA, the newest from Victor Kossakovsky (¡VIVAN LAS ANTIPODAS!, San Francisco Film Festival 2012). He takes his vibrant camera work and observational style to the world of water. From rescuers on not-frozen-over-enough Lake Baikal to hurricanes in Miami and everywhere in between. Water is life, but water can also be a deadly instrument of nature's fury. There's little to no narrative here, so it's difficult to describe in words. But it's beautiful, thrilling, sometimes terrifying. And again, in Dolby's amazing theater lab, I just sat back and let it wash over me (pun intended). Fantastic.

Total Running Time: 258 minutes
My Total Minutes: 503,291