Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 4

And the end, with another full day on Sunday.

We start with a short and a feature starring the hilarious Max Linder (we'll ignore the unpleasant details of his death, but Wikipedia has the basic details.)

MAX WANTS A DIVORCE (1917): Already a star in his native France, this was one of the first he made in America when he was hired by Essanay (hoping to compensate for having lost Charlie Chaplin the previous year.) This did poorly at the box office at the time, but is very funny. Max has just married his sweetheart when he gets a telegram from a lawyer stating his uncle left him a fortune but only on the condition that he not be married. So wacky hijinx ensue as he first convinces his wife to divorce him and then they set about framing him for infidelity (as no-fault divorce wasn't an option.)

SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK (1921): Then the feature, which is famous for originating the human mirror gag (there are claims that it's not actually the first, but I don't know what is. It certainly did popularize it, leading to many imitations, most famously in DUCK SOUP.) Well, the broken mirror leads superstitious Max to fear for his bad luck, causing bad decisions actually leading to bad luck (I'm always reminded of the line from Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA: Bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.) For example, when his fiance's palm-reading maid suggests a dog will be his downfall, he mistreats her dog in a (frankly puzzling) way that causes her to dump him. Later he sneaks onto a train (he's wealthy, but his wallet was stolen) for some time in the country to recuperate. But he has to hide from the conductor and gets into all sorts of trouble. He even ends up running from the cops and hiding out in a lions' cage. Luckily he's cool with lions, they only hate cops. It's kind of an easily meandering story, jumping from gag to gag with not a lot of narrative logic tying it together (like a lot of comedies of the time...for that matter, like a lot of comedies today.) And it's a lot of fun, and a great look at this "lost" comedian (well, lost to most, but not to silent film fans.)

Donald Sosin kept things lively with the piano, and all in all a great way to start another long day at the movies.

DRAGNET GIRL (1933): Next up was one of the films I was most excited to see. Yasujiro Ozu making an oddly American (signs, posters, etc. are American) Japanese proto-noir film. Unfortunately, this was also the point where exhaustion got to be too much for me, and I kind of drifted in and out of consciousness throughout the film. I could tell there was a gangster, his girlfriend, and the innocent girl he meets and falls for. I think her brother was also in the gang, or looking to join, and the good girl was pleading with the gangster to keep her brother out of the gang. And I could tell it was stylishly shot, an homage to American gangster films. But ultimately, this is one I'm going to have to revisit, because I'm afraid I missed something pretty great.

Guenter Buchwald once again provided the accompaniment.

THE GIRL IN TAILS (aka FLICKAN I FRACK) (1926): Next up we went to Sweden for this gender-bending comedy. In my previous post I mentioned that UNDER THE LANTERN was my co-favorite film of the festival. Well this is my other, and they belong in a pairing together. They both feature the plight of a woman treated unfairly by the patriarchy. But in this case, it's a little less severe. Katja Kock (Magda Holm) is a young girl studying for final exams and helping her classmate Count Ludwig von Battwhyl (Einar Axelsson) study as well. He's a real count, and also a real dullard. But when he passes (because she took the test for him) everyone is surprised and he's so happy that he throws a big party for the whole town. But Katja doesn't have a fancy dress to wear. It's not her fault that her father, a struggling inventor (Nils Aréhn) doesn't have a lot of money. And that wouldn't bother her except for how he always seems to have enough for her brother Curry (Erik Zetterström) to have a nice new suit. So in a sign of protest, she shows up to the party in drag, wearing his suit. And she causes quite a scandal--even with the support of the retiring headmaster she still cannot return home. So she lives in Count Ludwig's estate, which has been taken over by a "horde of wild, learned women" (my favorite phrase in the entire festival.) While UNDER THE LANTERN showed a bleak, depressing story of a poorly treated woman with no options falling into desperation, this is a comedy and ultimately provides a happy ending for poor Katja. No surprise that it was directed by a woman, Karin Swanström (who also played stern village matriarch Widow Hyltenius, whose approval is ultimately needed to put the whole sordid affair in the past.)

The Mont Alto Orchestra accompanied, and were of course fantastic.

THE SIGN OF FOUR (1923): Then off to England, and 221B Baker Street, London. It's a Sherlock Holemes flick, starring the man who played the master sleuth in more movies than anyone, Eille Norwood (who was a personal favorite of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself.) And he does an excellent job, playing not just with the iconic props (the pipe, the magnifying glass) but with his subtle, deeply intelligent eyes (most people underestimate how great the great silent actors were at subtle gestures.) The story, of course, follows the Sherlock Holmes story about a group of four treasure hunters--two criminals, a prison warden, and a prison doctor--who form a pact to split the treasure. And now it appears that one of them is killing off the others to get his hands on the treasure all alone. The movie was criticized in its time for using a contemporary (1920's) setting instead of a period (1890's) setting, but that allowed them to have an exciting speedboat chase on the Thames, and it's impressive enough that it's totally worth putting Holmes in a little different time.

Donald Sosin and Guenter Buchwald provided the accompaniment, in yet another of the collaborations I've been digging so much in this festival.

HARBOR DRIFT (1929): Next we were over to Germany for a story of poverty, debauchery, and desperation all around a pearl necklace. The story is framed by a man reading a story in the newspaper. A story about an old man found dead in the harbor under suspicious circumstances. We learn that the old man was a beggar, living with a young sailor. One day a rich woman drops a pearl necklace near him. He picks it up, offers it back to her, but she refuses. Hurrying home with the treasure that can change his life, he agrees to share it with the sailor. Just wait until everyone forgets about it, and then sell it and split the cash. The problem is, a local woman-of-ill-repute witnessed all of this and followed him home. She hatches a plan to seduce the sailor, steal the necklace, and sell it to a local fence. But of course, things go horribly wrong. A bleak story, but excellently acted and edited with a grace, fluidity, and tempo that makes it sometimes feel more like a dance than a movie.

And Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius provided the music for that dance.

POCHTA (1929): The last program started with another "orphaned" film, we get some really clever Russian animation about a letter that makes its way around the whole world. Very funny.

THE NAVIGATOR (1924): And finally, we ended with a Buster Keaton classic. Buster is a rich man who wakes up one day and decides he wants to get married. All he needs is a bride. But she says no, so he decides to go on his honeymoon alone. And rather than wake up at the early hour of 10 am, he decides to board the ship the night before. But he gets the wrong one--the titular Navigator. Which happens to have been sold to one side (I forget which) in the WWI effort, and spies have hatched a plot to set it loose to drift and crash on the rocks. So the next morning he wakes up alone, save for the daughter of the ship's seller. And so wacky hijinx necessarily ensue, including a famous scene of Keaton underwater in a diving suit and a rather unfortunately outdated and racist plot about coming across an island of savage cannibals. But overlooking that bit of discomfort it was pretty hilarious. 

And the Matti Bye Ensemble provided the accompaniment, and did a great job bringing the festival to a satisfying conclusion.

Already looking forward to next year!

Total Running Time: 551 minutes
My Total Minutes: 364,822
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