Sunday, May 31, 2015

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 3

As promised, a huge day of films on Saturday. Five in a row, with minimal breaks in between for drinking, eating, and blogging (in that order.)

SPEEDY (1928): We started bright and early at 10 am with Harold Lloyd's last silent film. This time Harold Lloyd is in New York (nearly all of his films were shot--and set--in southern California.) But the formula is familiar--Harold has trouble holding a job, and that's his big obstacle for getting the girl (Ann Christy.) Her father owns the last horse-drawn rail line in the city, and other intra-city railroad tycoons are trying to buy him out. Or, failing that, force him out. Harold has to romance the girl, save the day, and oh, by the way, get Babe Ruth (really him, in a cameo) to Yankee Stadium on time. Lloyd's comic timing is at it's usual best, and he's clearly having a great time shooting on location in--and all over--New York.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra did another typically fantastic job accompanying. (and I realize I forgot to put links to the musicians in my previous posts. I suppose a professional would go back and fix that...)

VISAGES D'ENFANTS (1925): Next up was this Jacques Feyder masterpiece from France, introduced by Serge Bromberg (who did his famous burning nitrate demonstration.) 11 year old Jean is the emotional heart of the film, and Jean Forest does a great job as a child actor. His mother has just passed away, and he is distraught. His little sister Pierette doesn't understand, and plays around before asking where mommy has gone. While Jean is still dealing with his grief, his father remarries, so now he has a new mother and a new sister Arlette. Jean does not like this. He gets into fights with both his stepmom and his stepsister, and the emotional turmoil of a child dealing with the grief of his lost mother is brilliantly depicted. It all comes to a head in back-to-back life and death scenes, and eventually there is a positive resolution. In fact, it all wraps up maybe a little too neatly. But up until that point, it's a startling portrayal of child emotions that still rings true today, and has rarely been put on screen so well.

The amazing Stephen Horne did a great job accompanying.

THE DONOVAN AFFAIR (1929): This was a bit of a departure for the Silent Film Festival--a Frank Capra talkie...kind of. This comic murder mystery was shot entirely as a talkie, with the soundtrack on discs. But all copies of those discs are lost, so it's an "accidental" silent. Problem is that means no intertitles. And it's a very dialogue heavy film--no way you could understand it without the words. No problem, Bruce Goldstein and the Gower Gulch Players stepped in and reconstructed the script via such sources as unreliable censor's transcripts, lip-reading, and guesswork. And then the entire script--including sound effects and music--was performed live. The end result is pretty wacky, mostly because the original material is wacky. Notorious gambler Jack Donovan is killed at a dinner party. Pretty much everyone had a reason--he owed gambling debts to one, he was blackmailing another, he had stolen a mysterious glowing ring from a third...the list goes on. So it's up to Inspector Jack Killian and his numbskull cop Carney to crack the case. Which they eventually do, but not before another guest gets bumped off. If I wasn't told, I wouldn't have guessed this was a Frank Capra movie. This is screwier and more half-baked than most of his work. But it's interesting to see what he created when he first started playing with sound. He got much more sophisticated, of course. But this still has its charm.

FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1926): Then we saw the classic that turned Greta Garbo into a star and kicked off her romance with John Gilbert. And while Garbo is a force of nature (or maybe even supernatural) in this movie, the story is really a love story between two men--friends since childhood Leo and Ulrich (Gilbert and Lars Hanson.) They're in the service together, cover for each other, get punished together, go home on leave together. Ulrich's little sister has the hots for Leo, and hopes they'll get married someday. But his eyes fall on Felicitas (Garbo) and from that moment he's doomed. Oh sure, they have a nice little affair...until her husband comes home. This leads to a duel, which leads to Leo killing the husband, which leads to him having to leave overseas for a few years. Trusting Ulrich, he asks him to take care of Felicitas while he's gone. Well, Ulrich does more than that, he marries her! And then things get really interesting. If there's anything that can break up a long time friendship between two guys, it's a girl. And when that girl isn't just any girl but Greta Garbo at her vampiest best, then there's no hope. After all, if the devil can't get to you through the spirit, he'll get to you through the flesh.

Since both Garbo and Hanson were Swedish imports, we had our own favorite Swedes, The Matti Bye Ensemble, accompany. And of course they were brilliant.

PAN (1922): And then we ended the night with a Norwegian oddity, more mood poem than narrative, and based on Nobel Prize-winning author Knut Hamsun’s novel of the same name. Ex-soldier Lieutenant Thomas Glahn lives alone in a forest hut with his dog Cora. He narrates the story of his previous dog, Aesop, to her. At least, that's the framing device of the film. But it's really the story of his bewildering romance with Edvarda. When they first meet, there's a strong attraction. But they don't understand each other, and things quickly fall apart. Trying to understand the narrative is nearly pointless. But appreciating the atmosphere, in all its bizarreness, is...also a challenge. But a rewarding one...I think. It's just a very strange film, about as strange as you can get without being purely avante-garde experimental. Also (spoiler alert) with the epilogue it might also be one of the first films told first-person by a living narrator who ends up dead at the end. I'm sure there are other examples, but it's still pretty weird how it was done.

And Guenter Buchwald was our excellent musical guide through the Norwegian (anti-) romantic weirdness--even when it took us all the way to Algeria.

[Update: PAN was easily the most talked about film the next day, and since my little not-very-serious theory had been getting traction, I want to put it out here to take some credit/ridicule. So the perplexing/fascinating thing about the story is that the actions seem almost completely disconnected from motivation. I didn't get into details about that, but things like Glahn stealing Edvarda's shoe and tossing it into the water. Well, you have to remember it's a story that he's telling to his dog. So either he's not elaborating on motivations because a dog just wouldn't get it, or (and this is the theory that intrigues me enough to watch it again to see how well it holds up) the whole story is being filtered through a dog's understanding. I.e., the entire movie (up to the epilogue) is what a dog is trying to understand as his human is telling a story. Enjoy!]

Total Running Time: 490 minutes
My Total Minutes: 397,980
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