Friday, June 27, 2014

Jason Goes to Docfest--Day 7

More catching up. This is from June 11.

First up we take a look at urban farming with URBAN FRUIT. Exploring the lives and passions of a handful of urban farmers in Los Angeles, it explores the health benefits and positive community it creates. It also explores the sometimes bizarre and ridiculous zoning laws that forbid it (thankfully, as a coda to the movie, much of this is changing.) An interesting and ultimately positive experience about reclaiming a connection with the land where you live. Good stuff.

And then we take a bizarre journey with BRONX OBAMA. Louis Ortiz lives in the Bronx, is a liberal Democrat like most of his neighbors, and during the 2008 election had friends tell him that he kind of looked like Obama with a goatee. So he shaved off his goatee and...he's the spitting image of the man! So on election night, just by walking around looking like the new President-elect, he was bought several drinks. And his new career started. We see his impersonation career grow from just standing on the corner with a sign offering to get your picture taken with the President to a full-on political comedy tour in 2012 with a Romney impersonator and a Bill Clinton impersonator (the veteran, who knows the racket and bemoans that fact that Clinton has gone vegan, lost a lot of weight, and made looking like him so much harder.) Well, that tour gets to be something of a nightmare, as the organizer is right-winger who books them at a bunch of Tea Party events and forces him to make disparaging jokes about a guy he still supports. It's a true American Dream story--realize you have a marketable skill (or at least the look of a lifetime) and cash in on it, only to realize you have to compromise a hell of a lot of what's important to you just to make a living. Still, it's a heck of a funny story.

Total Running Time: 162 minutes
My Total Minutes: 366,092

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 6

Ugh (not a commentary on the movies, but my blogging)...getting caught up after a couple of weeks of falling behind. This is from way back on...June 10th.

We started with NO MORE ROAD TRIPS, which is more an experience than a movie. Rick Prelinger of the Prelinger Archive presented an interactive, silent expedition (well, at least no recorded sound) across the country via collected home videos. The soundtrack is made up of observations from Rick and the audience. Some people (e.g., me) making smart-aleck comments a la Bad Movie Night, while others pointing out interesting things from places where they grew up, lived in for a while, or just visited. Inspired by the thought that with the price of gas, pace or life, and relative ease of air travel (please don't laugh) people don't take road trips anymore, it becomes an exploration of what used to be classic bit of mid-20th century Americana. I certainly remember road trips with my family as a kid (mainly up and down the west coast, from Bellingham, WA to visit relatives in southern CA.) But I just don't do that anymore (the latest thing that came close was driving from the SF Bay Area to Oregon for my sister's graduation.) So maybe this is a thing of the past that isn't really done anymore. And my response to that is...well, it's that I don't need to, because I just saw a movie about it (but that certainly says more about me than America.)

And then it was time for a little porn, with BACK ISSUES: THE HUSTLER MAGAZINE STORY. Director Michael Lee Nirenberg has a bit of an "in" with the magazine, his father is William Nirenberg, the former creative director for Hustler Magazine in the late 70s/early 80s. The movie takes an insider account and a historical interview, capturing the controversy over "showing pink" (while blurring it out in the movie) and contrasts Larry Flynt with his most famous rival, the late Al Goldstein (of Screw magazine.) Perhaps the most interesting part is how Goldstein was in it for the provocation and the politics, while Flynt is first and foremost a businessman. No surprise, then, that Goldstein died practically penniless while Flynt has expanded his business and stays a force in the industry even in a time when the idea of masturbating to a magazine is ridiculously outdated.

The Q&A was pretty funny, I got a vintage pack of Hustler trading cards, and...instead of implicating anyone in particular let's just say that one of the filmmaking team was very excited that he bought a joint on the street just outside and passed it around to anyone who wanted a hit in the first couple of rows. So at this point Docfest was an oddly drug-fueled affair, with one guest asking me where to score coke and another offering me a puff of marijuana. For the record, I won't say whether or not I took him up on the offer. (I totally did)

Total Running Time: 177 minutes
My Total Minutes: 365,931

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 5

Another day, another two films at Docfest. Here's last Monday.

First up was the shorts program, Don't Call it Frisco. All local Bay Area shorts.

AHH...SAN FRANCISCO: The poem of the legendary Herb Caen (as spoken by the nearly-as-legendary Peter Coyote) set to matching footage of modern San Francisco, showing not so much how nothing has changed, but how well Herb captured what is so essentially San Franciscan that it will never change.
DEMOLITION: TROLL: I had never even known about the Bay Bridge Troll, a steel figure that kept the old Bay Bridge safe from earthquakes. But with the construction of the new Bay Bridge the old troll had to come out of hiding and find a new home.
DRIVING BART: A 14 year old student films a ride-along with a BART driver, learning they do a lot more than just sit up front and let the computer drive the trains. Especially important when everyone seems to be mad at the "overpaid" BART employees.
JACKIE JONES AND HER DANCING CAT: 83 year old Jackie Jones is a musician and artist performing at the Alemany Farmers Market. To add some interesting visuals to her show (as she says, nobody wants to look at her) she has a wooden dancing cat named Effigy.
LAST STOP SANTA ROSA: A look at Bright Haven pet hospice in Santa Rosa, where an elderly couple cares for dying pets as an alternative to euthanasia.
METHEL ISLAND: On the delta 45 minutes east of San Francisco, there's an island where pretty much everyone is on meth (the name is actually Bethel island, the title is a pun on it.) Here we see some of the residents speak incredibly candidly about their addictions.
PIANO HEIGHTS: This also played at Indiefest, so it's kind of weird to see it repeated. Up at the top of Bernal Heights someone gifted the community a piano. So the plan was a twilight concert up there...until the piano was taken away at about 3-4 pm. So a mad scramble to get a new piano, and a filmmaker who randomly showed up that day makes a perfect, only-in-San Francisco, serendipitous documentary.
PISTOLS AND PORN: From the same director of METHEL ISLAND, we get a brief look at the history and current use of the San Francisco Armory Building, which is now home to kink.com (sorry, no link since I'm writing this at work and I'm pretty sure testing that link would get me fired.)
RULES OF THE HOUSE: BURNING MAN GIFT CULTURE: Part of a series on ways different cultures determine value, well-being, and happiness. Here we take a look at the Burning Man culture of gifting, although they get it wrong right away when they say you get gifted coffee--coffee/drinks and ice are the only things you can buy at Burning Man (and there's more if you count the black market in drugs.) Probably interesting to a BM outsider, but kinda reinforces my opinion that there just isn't any good Burning Man documentary--at least not any that portray anything even close to my Burning Man experiences.
SUNNYDALE KIDS: In on of SF's largest housing projects, poor kids live with not a lot of hope or security. And while Ian Glover and Tim Gras admit they don't have any solutions, at least the can give the kids a good time by taking them out surfing.
THE HIGH FIVE: A repeat of a film I saw as SFIFF, the origins of the high five and a brief look at the story of Glenn Burke, the man who (with Dusty Baker) invented (or at least popularized) the gesture. A gay ballplayer who was semi-out to his teammates but not to the public, whose career was cut short by homophobia and whose life was cut short by AIDS. Poignant moment, on his death bed the man who invented the high-five couldn't even raise his arm.

And then to something truly depressing, a pair of films about dying in prison. First the longish (40 minutes) short, PRISON TERMINAL: THE LAST DAYS OF PRIVATE JACK HILL. Jack Hill was a WWII hero, who came home and nursed a pretty bad drinking problem, and the ensuing violence led to him killing a dope dealer who he regarded as responsible for his sons death. He was sentenced to life in prison, and like so many inmates, is approaching the end of his life sentence. And the Iowa State Penitentiary has a unique program of hospice care, paid for privately and staffed by volunteer inmates that allows Jack to spend his last days in some modicum of comfort, surrounded by what friends he has, and his surviving son. A touching story, and I have to say it's pretty ridiculous to see a prisoner who is physically unable to walk being handcuffed (or actually, leg-cuffed) to a hospital bed.

And then the shortish (54 minutes) feature, KILLING TIME, about a whole different form of dying in prison. Elroy Chester is doomed to become Texas' 499th execution. He's guilty as charged, and he admits it. He raped two girls, and then murdered their uncle. Although his friends and family don't believe it (they believe it was consensual sex which quickly turned to a false rape claim when their uncle walked in on them, and in the ensuing fight Elroy killed him in self-defense) but that's almost beside the point here. Elroy admits it in his final statement, and the story is more about the morality of capital punishment. The filmmakers back off and take a somewhat verite approach. There are no big statistics or fancy arguments from politicians, pundits, and other talking heads. The characters are all directly involved. Either Elroy, his victims, or friends and family of either side. While I think it's pretty obvious that the filmmakers are against capital punishment, the movie is more about facing the reality of what it is, taking it out of the realm of political/social theory and placing it directly in the realm of the personal. And that makes it fascinating and important, if not exactly entertaining and pleasant to watch.

Total Running Time: 180 minutes
My Total Minutes: 365,754

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 4

4 movies Sunday, on what turns out to be the only day of the festival I could really go all out (I'll be out of town next weekend.)

We started out on the border, with a short and feature pairing. First the short, LIFE ON THE LINE, about a family torn apart by the U.S.-Mexico border. Teenager Kimberly Torrez has an American father and a Mexican mother who was living in the U.S. undocumented. When she went back to visit her dying mother, she couldn't return to her family. So they live on the border in Nogales, waiting for her visa, while Kimberly crosses the border twice each day to go to school.

Then the feature again shows life on the border through the eyes of children. OF KITES AND BORDERS shows the work and play of children in Tijuana. The young man who is a guide for illegally crossing the border (because you can get caught a handful of times when you're a minor and it doesn't go on your record, they just send you back to Mexico.) There are the two awesome young boys who wrestle for coins at the border--they dream of being professional luchadores and I'm rooting for them. And there's the little girl who searches for scrap metal in the trash with her father, probably the saddest story. If I recall correctly, she's the one who inspires the title when she talks about flying kites, and how there are no borders in the sky. In between, there are several "slice of life" scenes of children, adults, and kites. The one scene that struck me the most was a teacher talking to a small group of children about the U.S. They all offered up the bad things--the U.S. drops bombs, starts wars, doesn't want them there, etc. Then when asked who wants to go to the U.S., all the hands shot up. That's a weird dichotomy that feels key to understanding what the U.S. means to our neighbors (and, I suspect, to the world.)

Next up was one of the best shorts programs I've ever seen: Art, Activism, and Awe
AMANDA F***KING PALMER ON THE ROCKS: A quick backstage look at the punk-cabaret star, her connection to her fans, her open marriage to Neil Gaiman (they're both too busy to be around often enough,) he kickstarter campaign and the ensuing backlash. All while she's preparing for a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater.
FRANK'S UGLY ART: So named by his uncle, Frank proudly makes some (actually pretty awesome) art on such a shoestring budget he uses cardboard boxes as his canvas. Of all the films in this program, this is the only one I wish was a little longer so I could get more of a sense of who his is and what his art is all about.
INTO THE BLACK: Some fantastic nighttime astro-photography, and the people who shoot it. Absolutely breathtaking.
MOTHER TONGUE: THE ART OF MARK HOSFORD: A look at the introverted screen-print artist of Sugarboy Press and his compelling, disturbing work. The best/worst moment is when he admits a lot of it is autobiographical.
OBEY THE ARTIST: A look at the work and creative process of Shepard Fairey, of Obey Giant and the Obama Hope street art campaigns. Cool guy, cool art.
OVERPASS LIGHT BRIGADE: A look at the Overpass Light Brigade of Milwaukee, WI (I don't recall if that's in the movie, I just Googled it.) A performance art/activism group that spells out messages with bright, lighted letters on the overpasses. Very cool.
THE CROSSMAKER: Michael B. Tantaros is an orthodox Christian and a somewhat obsessive artist who makes intricate crosses out of found materials. Examples here.
JESSICA'S STORY: Her story is one of slavery and sex trafficking, right in the U.S.A. (Los Angeles, to be precise.) A survivor and friend of street-artist Lydiaemily, who paints an enormous mural in her honor (on a corner frequented by drug dealers, who don't like that she's disrupting business.) Inspiring and emotional.

Then it wouldn't really be Docfest without a good pot documentary, and this year that's ONE GOOD YEAR. This isn't really about the question of legalization or medical benefits. It's kind of taken as a given that pot will, eventually, be legal everywhere. Even the police officer featured in the film knows it's inevitable and would rather it be sooner than later. Instead, this is about the growers in (in)famous Humboldt county. The real organic, outdoors, back-to-nature aging hippie growers. And their fears about big commercial growers coming in and ruining the industry (with help from favorable laws written in Sacramento.) But really, the fears of big growers, and the fears of the DEA (operation Green Sweep is still fresh in their memory,) while always there sort of disappear into the background of the movie. Instead the focus is more on the hard, honest work of growing quality marijuana. Fungus ends up being a more pressing villain than the local police, and their struggles are easily the same as any other small, family farmers.

And finally, I ended the night with LOVE ME, a look at the "mail-order" bride industry. As we follow a handful of white, Western men looking for love online on the other end of the world, for the first 50 minutes or so it felt like kind of a creepy advertisement for the service. So it sounds bad to say it, but I was actually pretty happy when some of their encounters turn out to be fruitless, or a scam (to be fair, two did end in marriages, but one really doesn't seem like it should work.) Still, even as the story became more realistic about the results I was bothered by the lack of the women's point of view. We meet them, and we question their motives without really delving into it beyond 'In Ukraine, it's expected that you will be married in your twenties, so a thirty year old unmarried Ukrainian women is desperate.' And that's just not a very satisfying answer. So if you see it, just be aware it's going to be told almost exclusively from the men's point of view.

Total Running Time: 343 minutes
My Total Minutes: 365,574

Monday, June 9, 2014

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 3

The first Saturday at Docfest. Normally weekends are packed with as many movies as possible, but this time I was in Niles most of the day for Charlie Chaplin Days. I did catch two more shows Saturday evening

First up was TRUE SON, an inspirational documentary about Michael Tubbs. He was raised in south Stockton, which is considered one of the worst, most crime-ridden cities in America (the crime rate is on par with Afghanistan.) Tubbs attended Stanford, then returned to make a difference in his hometown by running for city council. Stockton has a quirky system where the city council members, though representing a distinct district, are elected by voters across the city at large. That generally leads to the wealthier residents of the gated neighborhoods in north Stockton dominating local politics and the minority residents of the poorest neighborhoods being under represented. That's just one of many issues Tubbs faces in the campaign against the well-financed, white incumbent. Did I mention he's also only 22 and this is his first campaign? The movie is only about his campaign, a grass-roots effort of an eternal optimist, learning the ropes from his more cynical campaign manager and struggling with the discomfort of fundraising. The thing is, campaign rhetoric repeated over and over again gets pretty boring and a little aggravating. Somehow I knew he was going to win (I won't consider that a spoiler since a quick Googling would reveal just that) and I wanted to see the rhetoric of Reinvent Stockton and get rid of the "bankrupt leadership" turn in to actual positive steps. Fortunately they put a little of that in the closing credits (e.g., the crime rate has fallen sharply) and even more fortunately Michael was there to talk in the Q&A afterwards. He acknowledged that governance is a different beast than campaigning, and that there's only so much he can do as one council member. But he could still rattle off a quick list of his initiatives that have improved the community. So it's good to see a smart young man who seems to be making a real, positive difference.

And then for the next show Docfestgot punk, starting with the short SOUTH BAY HARDCORE, a cool look at Sad Boy Sinister, the South Bay hardcore punk band that's been around for a few decades now, and are still pretty damn hardcore. Even if what's hardcore changes as you grow up and have kids, get on the wagon (and fall back off...I just have to mention that one of them asked me where to score some coke during the Q&A.)

And then the feature, THE BLANK GENERATION. Docfest/Indiefest creator and impresario Jeff Ross played this 1976 film off laserdisc (yes, the Roxie has an old laserdisc player.) It's an odd, frustrating, compelling, punk anti-film concert film. There are no credits. There is no context. No band is introduced. The sound is not synchronized to the images (there's an image of one person playing and another song is on the soundtrack.) You're just dropped into CBGB’s and left to fend for yourself. Which, per my understanding, is the right way to do it. But as someone who literally knows fuck-all about music, that was pretty much a nice little nap (hey, I can listen to music with my eyes closed.) At least I had some beer to help me through it.

Total Running Time: 156 minutes
My Total Minutes: 365,231

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 2

Two more movies on Friday

First up was IVORY TOWER, a hard look at the state of American higher education. It first focuses on how we got to the state where college is so expensive. Short answer--what started as mainly philanthropic endeavors have become market-driven, treating students as customers and competing on fancy amenities rather than education  And since student loan debt was always considered to be "good" debt (I'm near the last class where that was still generally true) students are encouraged to go deeply in debt as an investment in their future earning potential. But student loan debt is turning out to be horrible--high interest, no bankruptcy protection, etc. (this is a horrible oversimplification, but it will work for this post.)

It then tackles the much harder problem of what to do about it. Here we find no easy answers. The free college model is...difficult. Famed Cooper Union, which for decades funded free education (paid for based on owning the ground beneath the Chrysler Building) now has to charge tuition after exorbitant construction costs coupled with losing a fortune in hedge funds. Online classes seem promising...until the results come in (locally, in fact, from SJSU) and incoming students who took the online remedial math classes failed in high percentages. The UnCollege movement has high hopes for "hacking" your education (they call it "hackademics.") But it seems to work for some students and not others. The fact is, on average students who go to real, live, in-person 4-year colleges and get their degree do much better than their non-degree-having peers (at least, in terms of lifetime earnings. Whether that's a good metric for "doing better" can be subjected to a lot of debate.)

I don't know any easy answers, and the movie presents a lot of ideas but likewise has no silver bullet. But the discussion does remind me of something I heard once about the word "philanthropy." Literally, it means "love of humanity." Which is really a very tricky concept. What does it mean to love humanity if everyone knows a great many individual people whom they don't love (or even outright hate?) And certainly love of humanity doesn't make you blind to the many, many faults of the human race in general. Well, it means a love for the potential of humanity. And the only way for humanity to reach that potential is through universal education. So you can only really call yourself a philanthropist if your charity goes to education--the building or improving of schools. If you build a hospital, shelter the homeless, feed the starving, etc. you can call yourself a humanitarian. But only if you build schools can you call yourself a philanthropist.


Next up was a short and feature about marginalized people, perhaps self-marginalized. LIFE UNDER THE BRIDGE is a brief look at Ron 'Pepper' Brown. Artist, homeless, HIV-positive. He lives under the 6th Street Bridge in Los Angeles, and gives us a brief view of his life and the small band of friends and supporters who help him survive.

And then the feature, FREELOAD, about honest-to-God modern day hobos riding the rails. Ponyboy, his girlfriend Rachel, Blackbird, and the brothers Skrappe and Christmas, feeling that irresistible draw for travel and no-budget adventure. Director Daniel Skaggs (who certainly has a bit of the hobo vibe himself) joined them for travels for about a year, IIRC. And he presents a fairly romantic take on a lifestyle that I, myself, could never appreciate. Pretty fascinating, but my favorite part was afterwards when Skaggs was imploring people to vote for the audience award and vote #1 for him. I had to explain that the voting is "number of stars" so 1 is worst and 5 is best. So in jest he said he'll have to make me an associate producer of the film. At least, I assume it was in jest. If this shows up later with Jason Wiener listed as associate producer, just know that explaining how to vote at Docfest is the entirety of my contribution.

Total Running Time: 171 minutes
My Total Minutes: 365,075

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Jason goes to Docfest--Opening Night

SF Indiefest's Docfest started up last Thursday, starting with a little pre-party get together at the Brava Theater featuring wine from Dark Horse and Spicy Wines. So that gave me a good little buzz going into the opening night feature

ACTRESS is the story of Brandy Burre, a once-promising actress on THE WIRE, who quit acting to raise a family in upstate New York. There her neighbor happened to be documentary filmmaker Robert Greene, who made a movie about his fascinating, maddening neighbor. Intentionally playing with the form of cinema verite, he makes it obvious that while what you see is true, it's also performed. The thing is, she's not a very likeable person. She cheats, she gets falling down drunk, and she's horribly self-absorbed. So it ended up being more interesting for how it played with the documentary form, because I was not at all interested in the subject.

The Q&A was much better than the movie. Robert Greene is getting a Vanguard award in the festival, and on Saturday there was a retrospective of his work (which I'm sorry I missed, I was busy in Niles) but I've confirmed from a few friends that pretty consistently his Q&A's are more fun than his movies.

Then there was a big after party with Lagunitas beer and...other drinks. But I was drinking Lagunitas up until I had to catch the BART home. And that's how Docfest 2014 started.

Running Time: 82 minutes
My Total Minutes: 364,904

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

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 3

A full day on Saturday, from 10 am to almost midnight I didn't leave the Castro theater. That might sound crazy, but that's pretty typical for the Silent Film Festival. The long weekend is as exhausting as any other 2+ weeks festival I've ever done.

We started with an orphaned film, a clip of footage of Market Street after the earthquake in 1906.
And then the feature, THE GOOD BAD MAN (1916): Douglas Fairbanks stars in the first film he helped write (he conceived of the story, but didn't have the patience to pen the actual screenplay.) He plays an outlaw "Passin' Through" a sort of old-west Robin Hood (he would later team up with the same director, Allan Dwan, to make ROBIN HOOD.) There's a particular focus on fatherless children. Passin' Through is an orphan, and he uses his stolen loot to help either orphans or single mothers and their children (Fairbanks himself was raised by a single mother when his father left them when he was 5.) As an outlaw, he does fall in with a local gang of thieves, but immediately takes a disliking to their leader, The Wolf (Sam De Grasse.) At first it's about their rivalry for the affections of Amy (Bessie Love) but later it's over the revelation that The Wolf is actually the man who killed his father. A fun, exciting story with plenty of Douglas Fairbanks flash and charm.

And showing plenty of flash and charm himself, Donald Sosin did a great job accompanying on the piano.

Next up was Serge Bromberg's (of Lobster Films) Treasure Trove. I had heard of Serge before, but never witnessed the humor and showmanship of the man himself. And he does not disappoint, as he did his famous show of burning a little strip of silver nitrate film on stage. He also accompanied his films himself on the piano, as he spoke about and showed 3 well known (or at least, I thought they were well known) silent comedies.

A NIGHT AT THE SHOW (1915): One of Chaplin's Essanay shorts, where he plays dual roles (including a gag where his character in the balcony pours a drink on his character down below.) A pretty funny short, but this was from a newly found print that was struck from the original camera negative. So the picture (except for the degraded bits) is of a quality that hasn't been seen since it was first released. The restoration of this film is a work in progress.
THE WAITERS' BALL (1916): Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle and Al St. John are cook and a waiter in a restaurant. They work together and battle each other in typical Keystone slapstick style, culminating in a showdown with Fatty in drag at the titular Waiter's Ball. Very funny.... I've written those exact words before. And they're still true. But this film was originally a two-reeler and has existed in several different edited-down one-reel versions for decades. This version was pieced together from all the prints Lobster Films could get their hands on to reconstruct (as close to) the original two-reel version as possible. 
THE BLACKSMITH (1922): Actually, this is the alternate version of the Keaton short. In the version available everywhere, Keaton never actually leaves the blacksmith shop. But in this one, he goes for a drive, has trouble with a disconnected steering wheel, gets into a chase with Joe Roberts, and more antics. This version was discovered on a 9.5 mm film (a home movie format) by Fernando Pena, who is famous for finding the lost version of METROPOLIS. He brought that to the attention of Serge Bromberg, who searched for it in French archives (since 9.5 mm was a French format) and lo and behold, he found that he already owned a 35 mm copy of it (with an extra scene cut out of the 9.5 mm version for featuring a slightly racy silhouette.)

And that was supposed to be it, but Serge had one more trick up his sleeve. To demonstrate how eBay has become the film archivist/preservationist/collector's best friend, he showed us something he had just picked up for seven buck. FANTASMAGORIE (1908) [Correction: LE CAUCHEMAR DU FANTOCHE (1908): thank you to Brian Darr for correcting me] by Emile Cohl. In one of the earliest filmed animated cartoon ever, line drawings morph into different shapes. Very cool.

THE EPIC OF EVEREST (1924): Next up was the official documentary record of the third British expedition to attempt to reach the summit of Chomolungma (as the native Tibetans call Everest.) Shot by Captain John Noel, we start with some interesting looks at the natives. Fascinating characters, and some of the earliest recorded images of the Tibetan people (although there is a bit of a dig at their music.) Rongbuk monastery is beautiful, and then we get the first looks at the mountain. Gorgeous views of the daunting peak and its treacherous glaciers. Eventually, the camera can go no further, so the action of the climbers (spoiler alert, they don't make it) is captured with a specially made extreme telephoto lens. Which is a limitation of the time, but frankly makes the action kind of uninteresting. Instead of seeing them struggle on the mountain, we see dots doing...we don't know what. And we see people back at camp wonder and worry about them. Which is unfortunate. But it's still a fascinating movie with beautiful scenes of Everest and a fascinating look into the age of explorers (and a post WWI look at a hopeful time when men could strive to achieve great things instead of just killing each other.)

Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius provided excellent accompaniment, of course.

UNDERGROUND (1928): Returning from the Himalayas, we next went to jolly ol' England--London, specifically, for a not-so-jolly story. Set in London's Underground (that is, the subway, not the seedy criminal netherworld,) it starts off as a pretty standard love story, but shot quite well. Nice guy Bill (Brian Aherne) is a porter in the subway, stationed by the escalators, and is sweet on Nell (Elissa Landi,) a pretty shopgirl who takes the subway to and from work every day. Bert (Cyril McLaglen) is a muscular power station worker who catches sight of Nell and falls for her right away. But she doesn't reciprocate, as much as he tries. So he hatches a plot with his seamstress neighbor Kate (Norah Baring) to frame Bill and get him out of the picture. But things go horribly, horribly wrong and what starts as a light love triangle story has a tragic finish. Excellent picture that makes great use of the subway setting.

Stephen Horne was excellent as always as the one man band accompaniment.

But now I have to take a moment to bring up something that has been bugging me. There is an undead pixel in the Castro's digital projector. A bright red dot in the lower left corner of the screen. Technically the correct term is "stuck" pixel. I was calling them "dead" pixels until my friend Lincoln corrected me (it's not dead, it's stuck on, not off.) That's when I coined the term "undead" pixel and then promptly forgot about it until I read it on his website. This bright red dot is present in all digital projections at the Castro and will be until the projector is fixed/replaced (this requires replacement of a very expensive piece of the projector, so it might be worth it to get a new projector instead, perhaps upgrade from 2K to 4K.) It's actually less of a problem with silent/classic films due to the aspect ratio, which puts it far in the corner of the picture. In a newer widescreen picture that dot is still in the same spot on the screen, but that spot is further into the picture, where more action is likely to take place. It's also more (or only) visible when that part of the screen is dark. Which is why I bring it up now, because UNDERGROUND features many scenes in relative darkness.

Anyway, unlike many of my cinephile friends, I am not an enemy of digital. In fact, it was a screening of INTOLERANCE last year at the Castro that made me declare that digital can be just as good as film. But this is something sorely missing in the debate. The debate is generally cast as film purists like Tarantino claiming cinema is dead vs. fans of digital pointing to how it allows for so much more independent film-making and (importantly) that (good) digital projection looks just as good if not better than film. Digital fans might also mock the film purists as reminding them of how sound or color was supposed to be the death of cinema (I could write another angry screed about that comparison, particularly sound.) But nobody talks about the scourge of undead pixels, which I see popping up in more and more places and never get fixed quickly or easily. I can't think of anything analogous in film. Something that ruins (no matter how slightly) every film that will be played on that project, and which is so expensive to replace. I have no direct knowledge of this, but I've been told by a filmmaker friend (who is also a bit of tech geek) that typically the warranty for a digital projector won't cover replacing them until there are six stuck pixels. That seems, frankly...horrible. I'm enough of a glutton that I will continue watching movies even when there's a stuck pixel (obviously I endured it through all of the Silent Film Festival, even though about half the movies were projected digitally) but I will not be happy about it. So I rescind what I previously said about digitally being as good as film. Digital projection will not have truly arrived until they can fix the stuck pixel issue.

UNDER THE LANTERN (1928): Then we go to Germany, for the most depressing film in the festival and also my favorite (well, co-favorite, but we'll get to that the next day.) Else Riedel (Lissy Arna) just wants to go out dancing with her boyfriend Hans (Mathias Wieman,) especially to that popular tune of the day, "Drink, Fellow, Drink!" But her father forbids her. When she sneaks out anyway he locks her out until morning. So she goes and lives with Hans and his roommate/best friend Max (Paul Heidemann.) To avoid a scandal, they claim to be brother and sister, which works only up until Max develops feelings for her and their lie has to be revealed. But that's not the problem, the problem is her father sending the police out after her to round her up and bring her home. Which means she can't work (they had a very popular act at the local vaudeville house where Hans and Max played a horse and she was the stable mistress training him.) Well, things go on from there, the escalating shittiness of her life is kind of reminiscent of PANDORA'S BOX. Until ultimately she ends up under the lantern (a euphemism for working as a prostitute.) And things keep getting worse. This has something like 9 acts (if I recall correctly) and there were several parts where it could have ended (and many in the audience started grumbling) but the story follows through to the bitter end and is perfect. An earlier ending would have worked, but the ultimate ending is just perfect--perfectly depressing, but a masterpiece.

The Donald Sosin Ensemble (Donald, Günter BuchwaldFrank Bockius, and Sascha Jacobsen) provided the accompaniment, and I have to take a moment to say that collaborations between musicians is a big new thing at this year's festival and I really dig it!

THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF MR WEST IN THE LAND OF THE BOLSHEVIKS (1924): And finally, the ending was another Soviet oddity, and easily the best title in the festival. Porfiri Podobed plays the titular J. West, an American stereotype in Harold Lloyd glasses who is traveling to Moscow on business with the YMCA. He has read up on the horrible, savage Bolsheviks and so he brings along his faithful sidekick Jeddy the cowboy (Boris Barnet.) Arriving in a big fur coat and waving a little American flag, he's a broad satire of an American stereotype, and quickly falls prey to the local criminal element while Jeddy gets lost following the wrong car (in a classic 9 vs. 6 upside-down license plate gag.) Playing off his fear of Bolsheviks one gang pretends to be Bolsheviks while the other helpfully rescues Mr. West (for a fee, of course.) Eventually he's rescued by real Bolsheviks, and we all learn a lesson about stereotypes. But what I'll really remember is that the Countess' attempts at seduction are the stuff of nightmares.

The Matti Bye Ensemble provided the accompaniment, and were of course magnificent.

And that was the exhausting Saturday at Silentfest. Just one more day (and six more movies) to go.

Total Running Time: 518 minutes
My Total Minutes: 364,271

Monday, June 2, 2014

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 2

Due to a bit of a screw-up over the weekend, I'm left with 15 shows from the weekend to write up prior to Docfest, so let's get to it.

I slipped out of work early last Friday to catch THE PARSON'S WIDOW (1920), a romantic comedy by Carl Dreyer. Let me pause and then say that again.... Carl Dreyer...of THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and VAMPYR did a romantic comedy!? And it's great. A young man seeks a position as a parson in a small town, so he can marry his sweetheart. But to get the job...and live in the parsonage...he has to marry the previous parson's widow. A little schnapps and a (not really) enchanted herring convinces him to marry the old crone, and immediately he realizes his dilemma. His fiance moves in under the ruse of being his sister, but the watchful eyes of the widow and her servants keep him from misbehaving, with hilariously wacky results. Then...I won't spoil it but there's a bit of a gut-punch near the end that makes for a drastic shift in tone (and gasps from the audience.) But it is a comedy, and things do work out in the end.

Matti Bye (going solo, without his ensemble) was brilliant as always accompanying on the piano.

RAMONA (1928): Dolores del Rio is gorgeous! And there was a story, but before I get to that let me reiterate--Dolores del Rio is gorgeous (and I say "is" not "was" because once your image is on film, that's you forever.)

Okay, story (based on Helen Hunt Jackson’s popular 1884 novel.) Del Rio plays the titular Ramona, the adopted daughter of Señora Moreno (Vera Lewis) who dominates a small section of California with her sheep ranch. Ramona plays with her brother Felipe (Roland Drew.) When their hijinx get them in trouble with mother, Felipe always gets off lightly while Ramona bears the brunt of the punishment. Felipe knows she's just an adopted sister so has some other thoughts about her. But she just loves him as a brother. She actually has eyes for Allesandro (Warner Baxter,) the head of the band of natives hired to shear the sheep. But Señora Moreno will have none of that, because she's just blatantly racist against Indians. Ramona, however, is defiant (especially when she learns that she, in fact, is of native descent) and runs off to marry Allesandro and live a life of a native woman--complete with the abuses that marauding gangs of white criminals visit on their village. The story--starting with the novel--is intended to highlight the plight of the Native Americans (director Edwin Carewe was part Chickasaw.) And that's certainly there, so I feel a little guilty just focusing on on the beauty of the female lead. But have I mentioned that Dolores del Rio is gorgeous?

The Mont Alto Orchestra's accompaniment was as beautiful as the picture, and even started us off with a sing-a- long

And then it was time for some late night weirdness, courtesy of the traditional filmmaker's pick, this year going to local nutball Craig Baldwin, whose introduction alone was worth the price of admission (note: as a member of the press my admission was free)

But before the feature there was an "orphaned" short, NIEMEYER PIJPTABAK (1923): A weird Dutch Tobacco commercial featuring rip-offs of Felix the Cat and Koko the Clown.

And then the feature, COSMIC VOYAGE (1936): The Soviets made some outstanding silent films, and they also made some incredibly weird ones. This one is in the latter category. Partially animated, and only partially adhering to the laws of logic and reality, this was pulled from circulation by censors shortly after it was released. Ostensibly a child's film, it's the adventures of Professor Sedikh (Sergey Komarov) as he leads the first mission to the moon, over the objections of his colleagues (who present a dead rabbit as evidence that you cannot survive space travel.) But with his assistant Marina (yes, a female astronaut, played by Kseniya Moskalenko,) a boy scout Andryusha Orlov (Vassili Gaponenko) and a kitty they go on a bizarre, funny, and fast paced adventure to the moon and back (and even the kitty survived!) All with ingenuity, animated acrobatics, and the help of the "frozen remnants of the moon's atmosphere" to fuel the trip back (I did say it only partially adhered to the laws of logic and reality.) Soviet rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky actually served as a technical adviser to the film, and...well, if he had a sense of humor I like to think he would have been proud of it.

The Silent Movie Music Company (aka, Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius) kept the musical accompaniment brisk like the film, and Frank Buxton translated the Russian intertitles in real-time.

Total Running Time: 258 minutes
My Total Minutes: 363,754