Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 4

Which would be the first time ever anyone has been to a fourth day of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. They've expanded, as if they aren't exhausting enough already.

Anyway, I was there bright and early for Amazing Tales from the Archives, a lecture/presentation by Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress (Happy 50th, Mike!) And Annette Melville of the National Film Preservation Foundation. First Mike bummed us out by telling the bad news--less than 25% of silent features survive, mostly due to early studios having no sense of preservation (or no sense, period). Although they all now have better stewardship of their legacy, the only one to have a preservation ethos early on was MGM, due to a direct project by Louis Mayer. Mike talked about various reasons films were destroyed or never saved, and then Annette gave us the good news. Many films survive and new ones are found all the time. Often overseas, at the end of their run when it was cheaper to leave them than to ship them back to the studio (where often the silver nitrate films were melted down to recover the silver). And there's a treasure trove of films currently being restored and repatriated from New Zealand.

And now, more movies. Once again, the next show started with a Georges Méliès short, this time THE PROLIFIC MAGIC EGG (1902). An egg becomes a larger egg, becomes a woman's head, and clones itself many times.

That was the lead-in to THE SHAKEDOWN (1929) starring James Murray and directed by William Wyler (BEN HUR). And, as an extra treat, Wyler's three daughters were there to talk a bit about their dad. Then the movie is a rousing, feel-good story of a con man turned good. Murray comes to town, gets a reputation as a tough guy, and then a travelling prize fighter rolls in taking all comers. The town puts up their hero, and enough people bet on him that when he takes a dive in the second round, the whole group escapes with a bundle. But in the latest town, he meets a little orphaned ragamuffin and a beautiful girl who both steal his heart and make him turn legit. Only problem is, now he can only get the prize money by beating the pro fighter. Good, solid crowd-pleasing fun, and of course excellently aided by Donald Sosin on piano.

Next show started with the most famous Georges Méliès short, A VOYAGE TO THE MOON (1902). Scientists go to the moon, fight moon men, and return. But the great treat in this presentation was the live narration (originally written by Méliès) read by David Shepard. Not coincidentally, David Shepard compiled what is undoubtedly the most complete Méliès DVD collection ever, and they have a supplemental disc out this year. Also, keep an eye out next year for a new preservation of this movie with the original tinting.

Well, that was the lead-in to the strangest movie in the festival, the Russian film THE MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1929). All I can say with any certainty is this movie featured a man with a movie camera. He runs around and films all sorts of things (especially motion--train, cars, people, etc.) I suppose the rest of the film is things he shot, but really it all plays as a massive hallucination. He plays with camera tricks--fast motion, slow motion, freeze frame, double exposure, etc. Oh, and I haven't seen INCEPTION yet, but there are double-exposure (or mirror exposure) scenes of a city folding in on itself that made me think of scenes in the trailer. Perhaps Chris Nolan was referencing this film? In any case, it was sort of amazing to be there as a 1,000+ crowd at the Castro experienced a shared hallucination. And while the film provided the visual hallucination, The Alloy Orchestra provided the auditory hallucination.

All right, I'm down to the second-to-last show, and again it started with Georges Méliès, this time with THE ECLIPSE: THE COURTSHIP OF THE SUN AND THE MOON. An astronomer gets so excited watching the Sun do the Moon from behind, he falls out of his tower (although that last scene wasn't in the print we saw). Perhaps my favorite Méliès.

And then the feature, THE WOMAN DISPUTED (1928), starring the beautiful Norma Talmadge as a turn-of-the-century prostitute Mary Ann Wagner. But, of course, she has a heart of gold and after a bit of a tense opening incident she catches the eyes of two men--an Austrian soldier Paul (Gilbert Roland) and his Russian soldier friend Nika (Arnold Kent). They get her respectable work, and call on her frequently. Of course, the war interrupts all this, but the real wedge is her engagement to Paul, just as she's shipped off to war, mere minutes before Nika could ask her (as he's also shipped off to war). And when Nika leads the Russian army triumphantly into town, he gives her an indecent proposal to save the lives of the townspeople. Many scenes strain credibility, especially the final hero's welcome, but as a solid melodrama, it succeeds beautifully. And equally beautiful was the accompaniment by Stephen Horne on piano.

And finally we come to the closing film, staring with Georges Méliès and THE KINGDOM OF THE FAIRIES. One of his more epic story films, it's about a princess kidnapped by demons/witches, the king who braves numerous dangers to rescue her (including a bit of action at the bottom of the sea), and the fairy who helps him (mostly by keeping the witch out of the way).

Well, the sea also plays an importan role in L'HEUREUSE MORT (1924), a french film made by Russian immigrants (the title means THE HAPPY DEATH). Nikolas Rimsky plays Theodore Larue, a french playwright who is more often a playwrong. His latest play closes after one performance. In fact, it closes before it's premiere is even finished, as a chorus of jeers brings the curtain down. But his loving wife encourages him to spend some time at the sea to clear his mind and find his genius again. There he meets an old school chum who is now a sea captain and takes him out on his yacht. They set out on a cruise to Denmark despite Larue suffering from terrible seasickness. So terrible, in fact, that he falls overboard and is presumed dead. And his death is the talk of the French theatre scene. Suddenly instead of a hack he's a genius lost in his prime. So great are the accolades that when he returns safe and sound he and his wife conspire to hide the fact so that he can bask in his posthumous fame (and write his posthumous works). He impersonates his brother, who is off in Africa (interesting side note, he marries an African girl and it is not the shock I'd expect from the time. Everyone takes it in stride as if it's nothing unusual, which is petty cool). Well, without giving more away, of course wacky hi-jinx ensue, and it's still hilarious some 86 years (and who knows how many repetitions of the main premise) later. And the Matti Bye Ensemble did another great job with the accompaniment, showing they're equally adept at screwball comedy as the moody atmospherics of HAXAN. Let me be yet another one to thank them for coming and I hope they enjoyed their debut at SFSFF as much as the audience did.

And that's the end of the most exhausting and intense weekend on the always exhausting and intense San Francisco Bay Area film festival calendar.

Total Running Time: 331 minutes
My Total Minutes: 190,097
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