Sunday, June 4, 2017

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 3

Saturday started bright an early, after a little breakfast at Orphan Andy's, with MAGIC AND MIRTH: A Collection of Enchanting Short Films, 1906–1924
But first, a one minute home movie from 1942 of David Shepard as a toddler. The whole festival--but especially this program--is dedicated to the memory of the great David Shepard. And this program, curated by his friend and colleague Serge Bromberg, featured many of David's favorites.
THOSE AWFUL HATS (1909): An early D. W. Griffith short, which would be played at the beginning of programs to remind women to take off their gigantic feathery hats. Very funny.
CARTOON FACTORY (1924): Koko the Clown out of the inkwell and causing his typical amount of trouble, this time with an army of Fleischer soldiers.
THE MASQUERADER (1914): An early Charlie Chaplin at Keystone Studios, and taking place in...Keystone Studios. First he causes a bit of a ruckus in the dressing room, fighting with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Then he causes chaos all over the studio until he's kicked out. Then he sneaks back in very convincingly disguised as a lady. Very funny.
FIRST PRIZE FOR CELLO PLAYING (1907): One of the funnies things I've seen, and one of the shortest films in the program. A man sets up in an alley and starts playing cello...badly. Very badly. Badly enough that the neighborhood pelts him with anything they can find.
FANTASMAGORIE (1908): Possibly the earliest example of animation on film, simple line drawings change shape in a sort of dream state.
TIT FOR TAT (1906): A gloriously colorful hand-painted (stenciled) film. An entomologist goes hunting insects. But the insects get their revenge, before he learns a lesson and they all get along in peace. Wonderfully inventive and a bit surreal.
WHEN THE DEVIL DRIVES (1907): Like the title suggests, the devil takes control, first of a coach and then of a train, and takes the passengers on a wild, wild ride.
DOWN IN THE DEEP (1906): Another beautifully hand colored film, this time taking us on an adventure under the sea.
THE DANCING PIG (1907): One of my favorite hilarious nightmare-inducers. A grotesque pig tries to get a girl to dance with him, then she embarrasses him by stripping him naked (why was the pig wearing a suit anyway?) and makes him dance. Later he dances in a lady's dress. Bizarre, especially the tongue and the googly eyes.
THE WITCH (1906): And we ended with a little Melies. And for extra verisimilitude, just like they had back in the day, we had live narration provided by Serge Bromberg. A hero gets his fortune read by a witch, who tells him of a beautiful maiden who is in love with him but held captive in a dungeon. The hero goes to save her, but he doesn't pay the witch enough, so she chases after him and tries to thwart him for revenge. 

Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius provided an excellent accompaniment on piano and percussion (and Donald's voice providing the screech of the cello)

Next up was the proto-noir, A STRONG MAN (1929) introduced to the Czar of Noir and world's premiere noir-cheologist, Eddie Muller. A Polish film about a powerful man who believes the rules don't apply to him and he can get away with murder. Henryk Bielecki (Grzegorz Chmara) is a failed writer. His friend Jerzy Górski (Artur Socha) comes to him with a manuscript for "A Strong Man." Henryk steals the book and drives Jerzy to kill himself. When the book becomes a best-seller, Henryk becomes the toast of the town and king of the world. Even more so when it gets adapted to a stage play. But a suspicious girlfriend and a guilty conscience brings the comeuppance to him. I'll confess I had trouble staying awake at the beginning, which made much of the later part a bit hard to follow. But it was still pretty fantastic, and I could see the influence of Russian films, especially in the layered mise-en-scene.

Guenter Buchwald and Sascha Jacobsen provided a perfect musical accompaniment.


The next show started with the festival award presentation to EYE Filmmuseum for its commitment to the preservation and presentation of silent cinema.

The movie started with an aerial theme, with a short unidentified documentary footage of the launch of a weather balloon.

Then it was time for a little girl power and air pirates with the serial adventure FILIBUS (1915.) Filibus is the name of the leader of a daring gang of thieves who travel by zeppelin and drop in from the sky to rob banks, steal jewels, etc. Revealed early to the audience, but unknown to most characters in the film, Filibus happens to be a lady (Cristina Ruspoli.) In fact, not just any lady, but the glamourous Baroness Troixmonde (when she's not disguised in drag as Count de la Brive.)  Detective Hardy is on the case to track down Filibus, but she's always one step ahead. Getting away with the crime while framing...none other than Detective Hardy. Soon enough she has him questioning his own sanity, thinking perhaps he's actually Filibus when he's asleep and sleep-walking. A wonderful, funny, and pretty bizarre serial. With enough loose ends left at the end for it to continue indefinitely. But then...it's been over a century, I don't think anyone is going to pick up the reins on that one.

Providing the perfect accompaniment was the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (with help from Stephen Horne for the short.)

Then a little more proto-noir with OUTSIDE THE LAW (1920,) once again introduced by Eddie Muller (as a last minute replacement for Leonard Maltin, who couldn't make it.) A Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaboration, but one with Chaney taking dual supporting roles as villainous Black Mike Sylva and Chinaman Ah Wing. Wing is the assistant to Confucian master Chang Lo (E. Alyn Warren,) who is teaching San Francisco crime boss Silent Madden to go straight and lead a better life. His daughter Molly 'Silky Moll' Madden (Priscilla Dean, the real star of the film) isn't quite on board with this, and so when a setup gang fight (orchestrated by Black Mike to frame Silent Madden for the murder of a cop) sends her dad to prison, she falls back into crime. But Dapper Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman, married to Priscilla Dean at the time) knows that the caper they're planning is a plot to frame her and get away with the loot, so he tells her, and they double-cross Black Mike. Confusing enough yet? How about we throw in an adorable little kid? How about we put that little kid in shockingly dangerous situations? (Oh yeah, Lon Chaney in yellow-face isn't the most outdated non-PC element in the film.) Crazy gangster antics, with a bloody, violent ending. What fun.

And Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius added to the fun with an excellent score.

And then a highlight, the rock-star of silent cinema, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925.) I had puzzled earlier in the day whether I had only seen clips of this film or if I had seen the whole thing in a class in college. I believe the answer is the former. In any case, if it had played in front of me I had never truly "seen" it until tonight. It truly is the masterpiece by Sergei Eisenstein, the man who pretty much invented the language of cinema (that is, the language of montage and editing.) A battleship crew is pushed to their limits by their cruel admiral who insists wormy, rotten meat is good to eat and anyone who thinks differently will be executed. So they mutiny, raise the red communist flag (hand painted on the film) and steam into Odessa, where their cause garners popular support but also vicious repression by the Cossacks--leading up to the famous scene on the Odessa Steps. The film was made for the 20th anniversary of the failed 1905 revolution, and premiered at the famous Bolshoi Theatre (the first film to play there) and no matter your politics, it revolutionized cinema. More importantly, it reinvigorated my night. I felt more awake after than I had all day. And again, no matter your politics, it's always good to have a little revolutionary zeal in you (depending on your politics, especially now.)

The Matti Bye Ensemble did a fantastic job accompanying, and breathing some of that revolutionary zeal into the soundtrack.

Then finally, we ended the night in a Japanese insane asylum, with A PAGE OF MADNESS (KURUTTA ICHIPEIJI) (1926.) The program notes give a synopsis: "A retired sailor volunteers to work odd jobs at the asylum where his wife has been confined since her attempt to drown their infant son many years before." I didn't get that from watching it. I got: "we're in an asylum, and it appears the inmates have taken over and made a movie." Perhaps it was that exhaustion creeping in, perhaps it was the lack of intertitles (on purpose, not just that there was no translation, this film was made without intertitles, leading to speculation that it was supposed to be accompanied with a live narration.) But there's a lot of frenetic action, rapid editing, and crazy visuals. It's not a film to understand, it's a film that you let wash over you and don't know how to feel afterwards. In other words, it was the perfect kind of weirdness for the bad boys of silent film accompaniment, The Alloy Orchestra. And they did a tremendous job. 

Total Running Time: 431 minutes
My Total Minutes: 428,906
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