Sunday, July 21, 2013

Jason goes to SilentFest--Day 3

A huge marathon Saturday, with 6 shows and very quick turnarounds between them all.

First up a was a program on the life and art of Winsor McCay, particularly his animated films. Partially a lecture on the man and his amazing pioneering animation work (although he would brag about inventing animated film, he didn't quite do that, but he did quite a lot in terms of meticulous attention to detail of movement.) The lecture and slideshow were  by John Canemaker (author of this amazing book) and it segued easily into 4 of McCay's surviving films.

LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND (1911): The character of Little Nemo, based on Winsor McCay's son Robert, was already a huge hit in the comics before McCay made this his first experiment in animation. I had seen the animation before, but this time it was framed with live action showing Winsor bragging how he could bring Little Nemo to life in 4,000 hand-drawn frames, his colleagues at the studio betting he can't, and him showing them wrong. Pretty cool.

HOW A MOSQUITO OPERATES (1912): Excellent motion in this humorous piece about a mosquito bothering a sleeping man, gradually sucking more and more blood until she pops (yeah, it's not in the movie, but only the female mosquito sucks blood.)

GERTIE THE DINOSAUR (1914): This is the classic, and I had seen it before as the vaudeville act where a dinosaur trainer (originally Winsor McCay himself played the role on stage) with a bullwhip coaxes Gertie out, trains her, then ducks behind the screen only to appear in the movie and ride off on Gertie. This time John Canemaker explained the premise and the whole audience played the role of coaxing Gertie into action. Very fun.

SINKING OF THE LUSITANIA (1918): And finally a mature, ahead-of-its time animation of a tragedy. The sinking of the Lusitania was the 9/11 of its time. There were no cameras, so McCay worked with the reporter who collected survivors' accounts and recreated in stunning detail the incident. Unfortunately, it was too unsettling for people of the time (I can understand a cartoon of 9/11 would still be shocking now) but looking back it was some amazing work.

All the films were brilliantly accompanied by Stephen Horne


THE HALF-BREED (1916): Next up was an early Douglas Fairbanks feature, directed by Alan Dwan (who directed Fairbanks in many films, most famously ROBIN HOOD.) Fairbanks plays the orphaned son of a Native American woman and  a white man who left her alone and pregnant. When he was just an infant, his mother left him with a kindly naturist to raise as a white man. Cut to him as an adult acting very Indian-like, first seen from behind in nothing but a loincloth (which I'm sure pleased the members of the audience who like that sort of thing.) After his caregiver passes away, he has to try to get along in the white man's racist world. Things do not go well. He catches the eye of the pastor's daughter (who has caught the eye of practically every man in town) and that just leads to gossip, slander, attempted murder, the forest burned down, etc. What it doesn't have is Fairbanks being his usual effervescent, charismatic self. Instead he plays his role as a stoic Indian with arms crossed. As a result, it was kind of a box office failure. But for my money, I like seeing him try something new. 

Speaking of something new, G√ľnter Buchwald accompanied on the Wurlitzer organ and violin (yes, he played both, he's giving Stephen a run for his money as the resident one-man-band of the festival) and he did a great job. 

But that does bring me to a sensitive subject. This was the first SF Silent Film Fest screening I've seen where someone other than Dennis James played the Wurlitzer. I love Dennis James and I've heard various stories/rumors/theories about why he's not playing in this festival. And I won't repeat them here because that's not what this blog is about. But I'll just say that I hope they patch up their differences and Dennis is back soon.

By the way, for all you local Douglas Fairbanks fans out there, next weekend the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum will be playing THE BLACK PIRATE (1926.) I don't know if it will be the Technicolor version or the black and white print, but either way it's a heck of a good swashbuckler.

LEGONG: DANCE OF THE VIRGINS (1935): Speaking of Technicolor, this was a real treat. A simple love triangle story (there have been a lot of those this festival) set in Bali. Shot in Bali (hence silent well after the talkie change-over--they didn't want to bring all the sound equipment.) Using all real natives as actors and actresses. In their native dress. Which means a whole lot of exposed titties! Can I take a moment and say I don't think I'll ever get tired of looking at boobs. They are two of my favorite things. Even if they're not displayed for erotic purposes, they are simply aesthetically wonderful features. And the lead actress had some very nice ones. Anyway, back to the story. It opens with some text bemoaning the fate of any maiden of Bali who falls in love, for if her love isn't requited the Gods will be angry and sorrow will follow her. So that, of course, is exactly what happens. Anyway, back to the boobies. This restoration was pieced together from three heavily edited prints--an American one, British one, and Canadian one. Interestingly, they were each edited differently. The British one took out all the violence, while the American one took out all the nudity...which must have made it about a 10 minute short. I just want to lodge a formal complaint with the Universe on behalf of America--how come we get the violence but not the titties!?

Seriously, this was actually a beautiful film that provides a brilliant Technicolor look at Bali of nearly 80 years ago. And it was magnificently accompanied by The Club Foot Orchestra and Gamelan Sekar Jaya (a local group of traditional Balinese musicians,) making possibly the largest accompanying group in the history of the SF Silent Film Festival (at least their festival proper, other events like NAPOLEON had full orchestras)

GRIBICHE (196): And then an odd piece of social class drama from France. Gribiche is a nice kid, son of a war widow. Such a nice, polite boy that when he sees a high-class woman drop her purse in a store, he picks it up, chases her to her car, and returns it to her. Even refuses a reward. Later, the woman tracks him down and volunteers to adopt him so he can get a good education. Not that his real mother was doing a bad job, but he overheard her talking to her boyfriend about how he complicates plans for them to get married. So he goes off and lives with this woman, who makes him her showcase specimen of the poor unfortunate whom she saved (how her story of meeting him changes is one of the film's funniest moments.) Of course, he's miserable, and her whole effort to rescue him fails. Cute kid, and well shot, but the story was kind of blah. I don't know, it just really didn't do it for me. 

But at least the Mont Alto Orchestra was brilliant as always. 

THE HOUSE ON TRUBNAYA SQUARE (1928): Now you want to talk about oddities, how about a Soviet comedy? Okay, I know intellectually they must have had comedies, but I always think of Soviet cinema as serious, ponderously intellectual work. Director Boris Barnet is sometimes called the father of Soviet cinematic comedy, and he employs a plethora of clever camera moves in telling the funny story of a simple country girl who goes to Moscow with her pet duck, gets work as a maid in a housing project, and works her freakin' ass off. I thought there were a lot of great set pieces and hilarious sequences (the bit near the beginning where she's asking for directions all over Moscow is awesome) but the story doesn't quite fit together. Or at least, I had trouble following what the heck was going on. Maybe it's just a different time and different place, but I was confused. Especially with the major question I heard everyone asking afterwards--what the heck happened to the duck?

Stephen Horne accompanied on the piano, accordion, and I don't know what else. 

THE JOYLESS STREET (1925): And finally, we ended the night with the movie that put G. W. Pabst on the map. So you know it's gonna be dark and depressing. In fact, it shocked post WWI audiences with it's stark depictions of the struggles of the poor and opulence of the rich. While the lecherous butcher trades meat for sex, the rich plot to rig the price of coal to make millions. Caught in the middle, a bank clerk desperately trying to win his way into rich society gets framed for murder. Poor women have to sell themselves as "showgirls" at a club...who are we kidding, they become prostitutes. And two American Red Cross volunteers are shocked by it all. Lots of powerful scenes, but overall the movie was too damn long. At two and a half hours, as the last movie of the night, when I had been watching movies since 10:00 am...it was just too much. Especially to end the night with something so depressing. Maybe if it was two and a half hours of laughs...

Anyway, The Matti Bye Ensemble--the go to guys for the dark and serious films--did a fantastic job as always. 

And that was the big Saturday at the Silent Film Fest. One more day, 5 more shows to go!

Total Running Time: 518 minutes
My Total Minutes: 334,373
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