Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Jason goes to SilentFest--The End

It seems like it just started, did 5 days go by that quickly? Just kidding, I'm exhausted!

But not too exhausted to still get breakfast at Orphan Andy's (pretty much the only place I've gotten a real meal since Wednesday) and be in the front row in time for Serge Bromberg Presents...

Serge Bromberg is a longtime friend if the festival, an excellent historian, archivist, preservationist, restorer, and most importantly for today, showman.
This man is in your Castro Theater, narrating your 3D films. Image courtesy of the SF Silent Film Festival.
He started off with one of his classic demonstrations of why so many old films are lost. I.e., he burned little silver nitrate film on stage. This always tickles my evil side, knowing he's doing that in front of a full audience of silent film fans. Anyway, it burns really well.

ROBINSON CRUSOE (1902): Before we got the the 3-D extravaganza, Serge debuted this recently discovered and restored Georges Méliès film. What some people don't know about very early silent films--before the innovation of intertitles--is that they were intended to be shown with a live narrator. The lack of narration often makes these films hard to understand. But there was no such trouble with Serge doing the narration himself. In fact, with Serge you don't just get the story, you get weird asides and jokes, too. Oh yeah, anyway, the film. It's a beautiful, hand-tinted, very familiar story of Robinson Crusoe.

MOTOR RHYTHM (1939): An animated Chrysler Motors show reel, with the component parts of an automobile coming together. A cute treat, which was re-released in the 50's during the 3-D craze back then. At the time it was sometimes incorrectly called the first 3D film. This is, of course, incorrect, as Serge went on to demonstrate in many ways.

First up, he showed us the happy accident of 3D films by Georges Méliès. Méliès never intentionally made a 3D film. What he did do was invent a dual-film camera for shooting two copies of a film at the same time, one for release in Europe and one for release in America. This was an anti-piracy measure, after his VOYAGE TO THE MOON was copied and released as VOYAGE TO MARS by Lubin. Another thing Méliès did was succumb to the financial pressures of continued piracy, and in a fit of depression burned the negatives of all his films. So...surviving Méliès films are all due to collectors, and of course restoration houses will attempt to piece together films from multiple sources to try to recreate the best version of the film. This is what Serge was doing with THE INFERNAL CAULDRON (1906) when he noticed that every time he switched from a European source to an American source the film would jump slightly. It never lined up quite right. And that's when he figured out that Méliès's dual-film camera had a parallax between the two films, and about 100 years after the fact...the 3D versions of a few of these films were created. At least, if both a European and American print exist.
THE ORACLE OF DELPHI (1903): A thief tries to steal from the famous oracle, when a spirit guarding the tomb appears. He makes statues come to life and gives the thief a monkey's head.
THE INFERNAL CAULDRON (1906): The one that started this 3D adventure. Demons throw captives into a cauldron, where they disappear in puffs of smoke. Now, an interesting thing with these 3-D films is often only parts of one print exist. So for some time it's 2D (because one lens in the stereoscopic glasses is blank) and suddenly jumps into 3D. In this one, that happens to occur right at one of these puffs of smoke, making for some extra accidental magic. Méliès would be pleased, I'm sure!
THE MYSTERIOUS RETORT (1906): An alchemist asleep in his lab. Suddenly strange emanations come from his vessel, either a nightmare or a miracle of the mystic sciences.

Well then we got to see a few of the Lumière Brothers stereoscopic selection from 1935. Note, the Lumières, credited with the invention of the film camera/projection system, had a very short career. They were more inventors than filmmakers (and allegedly thought this whole "moving pictures as entertainment" was a fad that would soon pass. So after moving on in ~1905, they did return with a new moving picture invention in 1935, a stereoscopic camera which they used to recreate their famed TRAIN PULLING INTO A STATION (1896), this time in 3D. Confusion over the 2D and 3D versions of this film probably led to a probably apocryphal story of audiences reacting in fright at the original screening. It makes more sense that they would do that for the 3D screening. Although I gotta say, it's bulling into the station well to the side of the screen, so not that frightening. There was also 3D footage of a woman and her baby (if I heard correctly, that was Louise Lumière's daughter?) And some scenes of a beach and harbor. Unfortunately, their 3D projector did not fit easily into most projection booths (well, it fit...sideways) so while they were great inventors, they weren't very successful businessmen.

Then we got a stereoscopic demonstration from 1900. Not originally on film, but on paper, in stereoscopic flipbook form, at 4 frames per second. But scanned and projected a good century later. And being French...it comes within a few frames of revealing a pornographic scene!

And finally, we ended on THE MERRY FROLICS OF SATAN (1906): This is the brand new, newest accidental 3D Méliès, literally hot off the presses. In fact, the first time in front of an audience and since his spot on stage doing the narration didn't give him a good view for the 3D, we got to see it in 3D before Serge did. So much fun, as a couple of inventors are tricked by Satan. They get to travel the world--and the stars--but are tormented by the devil and his minions all along the way.

And the opposite of tormenting all along the way was the wonderful accompaniment by Donald Sosin.


A THROW OF DICE (PRAPANCHA PASH) (1929): Then we took a little trip to India, where Sohat and Ranjit are cousins, who rule neighboring kingdoms. They're going on a nice little hunting trip together, but Sohat's henchman "accidentally" shoots Ranjit with a poisoned arrow. Oh well, he'll die soon, and Sohat will have to take over his kingdom. But wait, there's a hermit doctor who just happens to live right there, and he can cure King Ranjit, no problem! Extra bonus, he has a beautiful daughter, who may become Ranjit's Queen. Oh, but her father forbids it, as he clearly has a gambling problem, and the wise old man knows that will cause him great suffering. It's a fun movie, with a painfully naive hero, a comically evil villain, and a ridiculous plot. But most importantly, it has beautiful cinematography, direct from India (where it was shot on location.)

And even more important, it had the brilliant Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius accompanying it.
Kings fighting. Still courtesy of...the Internet.

THE ANCIENT LAW (DAS ALTE GESETZ) (1923): Then from India we headed to Austria, for a good Jewish tale that's pretty clearly an inspiration for THE JAZZ SINGER. We start in a poor shtetl where Rabbi Mayer is a studious and popular leader. His son Baruch is equally studious, and has the eye of the lovely Esther.  On Purim, he creates a bit of a stir by playing the king in the traditional play--a rabbi's son, engaging in such frivolous antics? Worse yet, he catches the acting bug, and wants to leave to try his hand at acting professionally. This is something that his friend, the travelling beggar Ruben Pick, sees as a good thing. But his father forbids it. So he just has to run away. And thus begins his multiple struggles to obey the ancient talmudic law, while also learning the ancient law of the theater, and running into the ancient court law of etiquette. A great story, well told, of a family fractured and then redeemed. Also pretty cool to see a Wiemar German film from the time that showed Jews and their traditions in a positive light. And it features one of the coolest parallel action scenes I've seen in a long time, showing the crowd awaiting the opening night of Baruch starring in Hamlet while back in the shtetl everyone arrives at the synagogue for Yom Kippur services.

And it was all brought home with the brilliant music of the Donald Sosin Ensemble (Donald, Sascha Jacobsen, and David Short of Mont Alto) along with special guest violinist Alicia Svigals, whom Donald credited with composing the main theme. 
Baruch Mayer hamming it up in the Purim play. Still courtesy of Deutsche Kinemathek

FRAGMENT OF AN EMPIRE (OBLOMOK IMPERII) (1929): Well it was quite the world tour on Sunday. After France, India, and Germany/Austria, what could be next? How about Soviet Russia, and a brilliant restoration of this film. Fridrikh Ermler should be in the conversation with Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov when talking about great Russian silent film auteurs. The film opens with the horrors of war during the Revolution, including a pretty shocking surreal scene of Jesus on the cross in a gas mask (needless to say, in most markets censors cut that out.) Filimonov is shell-shocked and can't remember a thing. Nonetheless he manages to save a soldier who is on death's door (and thirsty enough to suckle on a dog, in another shocking scene.) 10 years later, a bit of his memory returns. Like...enough to remember he's a soldier, and he has a wife back home. So he travels home to St. Petersburg to find her. And he learns about the Soviet revolution, and the new system, and the fact that they have no masters anymore, because everyone is their own master in this Communist utopia.

Except I beg to differ. Ermler is the master. And so were the masterful Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius, providing the accompaniment. By the way, everyone who gave this a standing ovation at the end--myself included--automatically became a member of the Communist Party. Good job, comrades!
Holy shit, that's Jesus in a gas mask! This movie is intense. Still courtesy of SFSFF

BATTLING BUTLER (1926): So finally we returned home to the good old U.S. of A. for a nice, light comedy. Although not topping anyone's list of best Keaton films nowadays, this was a big hit at the time, both critically and at the box office (It was much more successful than his follow-up, some train flick called THE GENERAL.) Keaton plays Alfred Butler, a wealthy dandy and a weakling whose valet (Snitz Edwards) does all the work for him, including shaking the ash off his cigarette and putting it back in his mouth. His father thinks a camping trip will do him good to toughen him up. Well, it doesn't quite do that but it does introduce him to a beautiful mountain girl (Sally O'Neil) and soon he is planning to marry her. In fact, he's so serious...he asks his valet to arrange it. The thing is, her family can't stand any weaklings. No problem for the fast-thinking valet, who just noticed in the paper that a prize-fighter who is challenging the champ also is named Alfred Butler (and goes by the name "Battling Butler.") So he can claim Buster is the prize-fighter, and when the champ knocks out the real Battling Butler as expected, he can "retire" to obscurity. The only way this can go wrong is if Butler actually pulls it off. Well...guess what happens. Of course, more wacky hijinx ensue as Buster has to impersonate a boxer and gets into many shenanigans as a result. And of course, true love will give him the strength to fight eventually. Lots of fun, and after a 5 days of silent film, this was a true feel-good way to end it.

And helping out with the feel-good spirit was the magnificent Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Fun fact: what Buster is doing here is technically considered boxing. Still courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection

And that, finally, was SF SilentFest, 2018 edition!

Total Running Time: 443 minutes
My Total Minutes: 482,106
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