Monday, July 19, 2010

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 3

Or SFSFF, or (SF)^2Fest. I dunno, I still like Silentfest.

I feel like my review of METROPOLIS yesterday was missing something. Lost in all the details was the simple joy and awe of seeing the most complete version since 1928. The Castro was packed, and I could swear but for 3-4 moments of applause, we all held our breath until we exploded in applause at the end. The only downside is I had to run out as quick as possible to catch the BART home.

Anyway, huge day last Saturday, so let's jump right in.

First, bright and early at 10:00 am (meaning catch the BART in Fremont at 8:10), we started with The Big Business of Short, Funny Films. It's the director's selection, by guest Pete Docter of Pixar. To start, he talked a bit with Leonard Maltin, about silent comedies, their influence on the Tex Avery and Chuck Jones cartoons he watched as a kid, and finally their influence on Pixar. Then to the classics, all of which I've seen before.

THE COOK (1918) Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle and Buster Keaton team up, Arbuckle as a cook and Keaton as a waiter in a restaurant, and of course crazy hi-jinx ensue.

PASS THE GRAVY (1928) This is a Thanksgiving tradition down in Niles. Max Davidson (mostly forgotten because his comedy was usually a badly racist Jewish stereotype) stars in the screwball comedy of warring families brought together by marriage and torn apart by an unfortunate chicken dinner.

BIG BUSINESS (1929) Laurel and Hardy tear apart Jim Finlayson's house, while he wrecks their car. There's a story (that I've heard people swear is either completely true or completely apocryphal) that on the day of shooting they accidentally went to the wrong house and the owners were gone, so producer Hal Roach had to pay to rebuild the house.

All the films were accompanied by Dennis James on the mighty Wurlitzer, who did as fantastic a job as always (I've actually seen him accompany BIG BUSINESS before).

And that led into a panel discussion, Variations on a Theme: Musicians on the Craft of Composing and Performing for Silent Film, Moderated by Chloe Veltman (NY Times contributor and host of public radio's VoiceBox). All the musicians were there (although the groups--Mont Alto, Alloy Orchestra, and Matti Bye Ensemble--had one representative, not the whole group). Donald Sosin kicked it off with a short film he put together on his process. Stephen Horne talked about the art of improvisation and a unique solution he found when playing for a mostly silent film that had a talkie section, but the talkie soundtrack had been lost. Dennis James spoke as a historian and researcher--his goal is to preserve the art of the theater organ and to perform the original score written by the filmmakers (although he conceded that certain pieces, e.g. The William Tell Overture, were ruined for modern audiences so he might have to substitute other stock chase music). Oddly enough, while the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra is the closest to James in performing/preserving the original scores, they ended up having the most heated exchange debating what exactly that means. On the opposite end, The Alloy Orchestra are something of the "bad boys" of silent film music, creating all new scores but still trying (and to my ear, succeeding) in complementing the film well. And Matti Bye is the new guy to the festival...and honestly I don't remember what he had to say. Sorry. I think he echoed everyone else in saying that it was critical that the music complemented and didn't distract from the movie.

Definitely the most interesting question was from the audience, asking about the practice of various artists and film festivals presenting silent films with contemporary pop/rock commissioned soundtracks. Of course, Dennis James was on one side, the fundamentalist about "the original soundtrack." For the most part everyone agreed with Stephen Horne that as long as it works, it's okay (by the way, Another Hole in the Head will be playing the 1984 rock music version of METROPOLIS in the coming weeks. I'm kind of dreading making that comparison). I will say that I definitely appreciate Dennis James' take, and want to hear the original soundtrack if at all possible. But I can also appreciate different takes on a movie. The first time I actually saw THE GENERAL on the big screen, Alloy Orchestra did the soundtrack and I loved it. SF International Film Festival has done silent films with live music for as long as I've gone, and even when they've tried something different (e.g., THE LOST WORLD with Dengue Fever) I've usually liked it. However, this year had a big exception, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA with Stephin Merrit. It was a ridiculous, distracting, abysmal (no pun intended) failure. I might have been more pissed off then I've ever been after seeing a movie. So while I give a lot of leeway to experimentation, and I'm always up for a new experience, remember the advice of Stephen Horne--it's just gotta work (and that means complementing the movie, not distracting from it).

Back to more movies. Most shows have started with a short by Georges Méliès, and this show was no exception. I forget the title, but in the short an inventor has a nightmare about a flying machine and wakes up and immediately destroys his plans.

The shorts, of course, were chosen to complement the features, and this feature was THE FLYING ACE (1926). It's a "race" movie, by which I mean it stars an all black cast, not that there's a race in the film. The only surviving film by Richard Norman, who was famous for a time for making movies with "coloreds" (to use the language of the times) in positive roles. It's the story of a WWI flying ace, returning home and immediately taking up his old job as a railroad detective. Seems someone has stolen the payroll, and he tracks the bad guys down and, of course, gets the girl. Ironically, the only scenes that don't work are the flying scenes, obviously fake even by the standards of the day. The great rescue (from one plane to another by rope ladder) is simply laughable. But the rest of the story was great, as was Donald Sosin accompanying on the piano.

The next show started with another Méliès short, AN IMPOSSIBLE BALANCING FEAT (1902). How impossible? He balances 3 copies of himself, upside down. One on his head, and one in either hand.

And that led into THE STRONG MAN (1926), starring oft-forgotten (and honestly, oft for good reason, although this is one of his better ones) Harry Langdon. It starts rather oddly in WWII, where Langdon is a Belgian soldier, and after a bit of hijinx (in which he's distracted by a letter from his American sweetheart pen-pal) he's captured by a German soldier. After the war, that German is famous strongman Zandow the Great, and Langdon is his assistant. They're setting off for his American tour, and Langdon uses the opportunity to find his girlfriend and get into lots of trouble (interestingly, I think what makes it work for me is that Langdon is an active participant instead of a passive reactor, although he's put into plenty of situations against his will). Pretty funny, and is also an early work of famous director (and my fellow Caltech alum) Frank Capra. Unfortunately, their collaboration fizzled after their next film, which flopped. Under Capra's directing, Langdon could have lived up to his brief reputation as the fourth great silent comedy star (after Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, of course). And of course Stephen Horne kept everything rolling along on the piano

Another show, another Méliès short, this one THE BUTTERFLY AND THE SPIDER. Both of which, incidentally, are played by beautiful girls.

And speaking of beauty, DIARY OF A LOST GIRL (1929) stars the fabulous Louise Brooks in a film by G.W. Pabst (their previous collaboration was PANDORA'S BOX). Brooks is the daughter of a wealthy family (at least, they own a apothecary), but when she has a baby by the co-owner, and they don't choose marriage, she's sent to a home for wayward girls (and her daughter is taken from her). The home is run with strict, sadistic cruelty, and when she and a friend make a break for it, the only place they can stay is the local house of ill repute. A perfect place, too, for her ne'er-do-well boyfreind (penniless, although he is a count). But of course, she will have her victory in the end. An excellent drama showcasing Brooks as not just glamour and beauty, but a telented actor. And the wonderful Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra did a great job with the live accompaniment.

The last Méliès of the night, THE INFERNAL CAULDRON. Demons throw helpless girls into a cauldron, trying to summon spirits (which they do).

And that led into HAXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES (1922). Essentially an extended lecture on the history of witchcraft. Told in seven parts, the visuals are amazing. As much of a story as there is comes in the middle, where they go through the steps of a witchcraft trial--the accusation, torture, and confession leading to new accusations. In the end, it looks at "modern" conditions, comparing psychiatric patients suffering from hysteria to ancient witches. And then it gets horribly repetitive, re-using the same footage over and over. The Matti Bye Ensemble made their SFSFF debut with an appropriately atmospheric, somewhat minimalist score.

My only real complaint would have to be the starting time. Due to starting nearly 45 minutes late (and if I'm right, slowing down the film so that a 1:46 film took 2:05), it was over just after the last BART ran. So thank you very much to my friend Phil who let me crash in his hotel room. I got a shower, but no change of clothes, so it made for a slightly stinky Sunday, but better than multiple buses and almost no sleep.

Total Running Time: 426 minutes (using the HAXAN running time from the program, not what I believe was the real running time)
My Total Minutes: 189,766
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