Friday, July 29, 2011
- Always try to see the partial truth present in the opinion you find most repugnant.
- It's easy to compare your best argument with your opponent's worst. Try to consider how your worst compares to their best.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
First up, JOANNA, part of the spotlight on Poland, and also part of a theme I've noticed of children in the Holocaust. It's a great drama about a brave woman (the titular Joanna) in Warsaw who hides a little Jewish girl during the occupation. Little seven year old Rose is told by her mother to wait in the church, but she never returns. Joanna went in to see if there was any news about her husband who is a soldier at the front. She makes a fateful decision to help Rose, and becomes (eventually) her second mother. But no good deed goes unpunished, as she faces harassment not just by the occupying Germans but by the local resistance, who thinks a German officer is spending too much time at her place--a pretty good demonstration of how war is not full of moral absolutes but is in fact messy, complicated, and fraught with moral mistakes. Urszula Grabowska does a great job (and can truly be described as a trouper) as Joanna and Sara Knothe is absolutely adorable as little Rose.
Total Running Time: 190 minutes
My Total Minutes: 245,155
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
First up, the Centerpiece presentation of LITTLE ROSE. It's a thriller of espionage, free expression, and anti-semitism, set in late 1960's Warsaw. It's a solid spy thriller and a love triangle, centered on Kamila Sakowicz, codename "Rózyczka" ("Little Rose"). She's the girlfriend of police officer Roman Rozek, who is hunting suspected dissidents. His main target is writer and professor (and suspected Zionist) Adam Warczewski, and Kamila is the perfect bait to inform on him. She gets close to him first as a student and then as a lover. And this is when it moves from spy thriller to love triangle, as her affection for Adam genuinely grows, as does Roman's jealousy. Well acted and sexy, but I feel I know too little about the political repression in late 1967 Poland to really get into it. I guess the important thing to know is there's a constant air of repression and paranoia.
And then the emotional French tearjerker THE ROUNDUP, about the roundup of French Jews in 1942. There are some scenes of political intrigue (French officials talking about how they can turn over their foreign national Jews, but don't break up families and no French citizen Jews), and there are some good opening scenes showing Jews living non-violently but uneasily wearing the star. And then the roundup happens, and over 13,000 Jews are rounded up and sent to the Velodrome (incidentally, the Germans asked for 24,000--over 10,000 were rescued and hidden by brave Parisian heroes. We only get a bare glimpse of that.) And then the heart of the story meets--the Jewish children, the only doctor (Jewish, of course) in the entire Velodrome (played by Jean Reno) who has 100 colleagues waiting to be let in, but the Germans prevent it. And a Christian nurse (Melanie Laurent from INGLORIOUS BASTERDS) who comes to help and ends up staying, even going with them to the camps and nearly working herself to death. Laurent makes a saintly heroine (some may object that her saintliness is a little overplayed, I thought it was appropriate), and focusing on the lives of the children is a good approach. Perhaps the most insightful observation is how children use play to process their world. There's something unnerving and yet adorable about children in the camp running around playing "roundup" ("I get to be the gendarme this time!")
Total Running Time: 238
My Total Minutes: 244,965
Monday, July 25, 2011
First up, a compilations of Jews in Toons. Three of the funniest cartoons on TV today, showcasing Jewish themed episodes.
Family Guy: "When You Wish Upon a Weinstein" was controversial enough Fox didn't show it during the original run, it was a DVD extra (it has since aired on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, at least). Peter gets a Jew to help him with his money and then decides to convert and get Chris a Bar Mitzvah in Vegas so he will be smart. I really don't see the controversy, they're actually making fun of some of the most positive stereotypes of Jews (whether they're true or not is another subject). And Seth McFarlane consulted a rabbi on the episode who approved the script because "Peter learns the right lesson in the end."
South Park: "The Passion of the Jew" the infamous episode where Cartman goes all Hitler after seeing THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, while Kyle is moved to apologize and Stan and Kenny just think the movie sucks and track down batshit-crazy Mel Gibson for a refund. Like the ADL said, perhaps the sharpest critique of THE PASSION ever.
The Simpsons: "Like Father, Like Clown" was a very touching episode where the Simpsons learn Krusty is Jewish (real name, Herschel Krustofsky) and Bart and Lisa reunite him with his father (Jackie Mason). I still tear up a bit when they sing, "Oh, My Papa" at the end.
And let me say, seeing them with a big audience, roaring with laughter (particularly at the Jewish content) was quite a treat.
Then we had a talk from writer and producer Mike Reiss (The Simpsons, The Critic, Queer Duck). Despite opening by explaining he's a comedy writer, not a comedian (like the difference between real sex and phone sex), he essentially did about 20 minutes of stand-up comedy with some clips from The Simpsons, The Critic, and Queer Duck (who did a musical number about coming out at his bar mitzvah). Hilarious man.
Oh, and let me also take this opportunity to say I like the festival's trailer, starring Queer Duck.
Then the next program started with the short GRANDPA LOOKED LIKE WILLIAM POWELL. A poignant and funny animated short about the director's grandfather, set on the pages of his autograph album.
Then the feature, with previous Freedom of Expression winner Dani Levy (GO FOR ZUCKER! and MY FUHRER: THE TRULY, TRUEST TRUTH ABOUT ADOLF HITLER) back with LIFE IS TOO LONG. I shall start by saying I love Levy's previous work. But this is too self-indulgent to be interesting too anyone who isn't actually Dani Levy. He puts up an alter-ego, Alfred "Alfi" Seliger, and if that sounds suspiciously close to Woody Allen's ANNIE HALL character Alvy Singer...well, the similarities don't stop there. It's an odd choice, because I've never thought Levy was anything like Woody Allen, but his alter-ego is a total Allenesque nebbish film director (with one hit to his credit). In the beginning of the movie, he suffers a fall from a window that leaves him limping around with a crutch and his arm and foot in casts. His children hate him, his wife is having an affair, he's trying to get a comedy made about the caricatures of Mohamed (working title: MO-HA-HA-MED), which everyone takes as either a bold move or a suicide attempt. Turns out, the later is closer to reality, but during a coma from an overdose he makes an important discovery: director Dani Levy is hiding behind the scenes, directing the movie. And the rest of the film is a muddled mess of him attempting to confront the director and/or convince everyone else they're in a movie. This could be an intriguing premise (and has been in past films), but he just uses it for vague and unfocused navel-gazing. I've loved Dani Levi films in the past, and I wanted to give this a chance, but it was so idiosyncratically self-indulgent that I just couldn't get into it. Which is a shame.
On a barely related not, years ago I heard that Levy was making a film about the Ritchie Boys (Jews who escaped Germany and joined the U.S. Army as spies). I hope he's still making that movie, he could be good at that. There's just enough dark absurdity (with limited English and thick German accents, they were in as much danger of being captured and killed by Allies as by Germans) to suit his sensibilities.
Total Running Time: 160 minutes
My Total Minutes: 244,727
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Based on Poe's The Masque of the Red Death, but spiked with a huge dose of outrageousness, it's a musical revue that takes place in the mansion of Divina. While a plague sweeps the city (there's blood on the piazza), Divina invites all her beautiful, intelligent, trendy friends to her sealed mansion, where they can ride out the plague in safety. To amuse them, she has a series of colored rooms--yellow, green, white, blue, purple...but not red! There she and her staff put on a series of amusing diversions. One esteemed guest is the famed filmmaker Federico Fellatio. He has a grand dream to film real life, which to him means the plague. So to counteract the seduction of his camera, Divina's diversions get increasingly outrageous, up to sci-fi number "A Crab on Uranus (Means You're Loved)," to "Just a Lonely Little Turd," and Federico's own production of "Flesh Ballet." Oh yes, there's nudity (although maybe not quite as much as some previous shows), but mostly it's about the outrageous, hilarious music, ranging from "No-Nose Nanook" to "Song of Abdul the Camel Trainer" (A dromedary camel has one hump / While a bactrian camel has two)
A hilarious, outrageous night. I'm so glad I caught this while I could. They did tape the performance, so that might be available sometime soon, no promises. But I can say that their Shocktoberfest (#13!) is coming up in a couple of months. They'll be doing Fear Over Frisco, with plays by the Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller! I can't wait!
First up, the award winning documentary IN HEAVEN UNDERGROUND: THE WEISSENSEE JEWISH CEMETERY. Let me start with the obligatory statement: of course you wouldn't think a documentary about a cemetery would be at all interesting--but you'd be wrong. It's really about a peaceful, beautiful park that happens to have dead people buried there. And it's about the extraordinary history--the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, it sits in East Berlin, near the Polish border, and it has been constantly tended by the local Jewish community for 130 years. Yes, even during the Holocaust, it was allowed to operate. And most of all, it's about the site's relationship with the living--the caretakers, the landmark preservationists who restore the (sometimes gaudy) mausoleums, the family that lives in the old caretaker's apartment (I couldn't help but think they'll be screwed in the zombie apocalypse), and the families of the dearly departed. Really, when the dead are mentioned it's almost always in the context of 'Why should I find it creepy? They're dead, what can they do?' So it all adds up to a pleasantly surprising and surprisingly pleasant stroll through the beautiful, peaceful, wooded park--with dead people. And I'd be remiss if I didn't especially mention the music. It would be so easy to play funeral dirges, but the music was constantly peaceful, pastoral, but pleasant and life-affirming. Very nice.
Then, we had a special gala for the Freedom of Expression award, given this year to Issur Danielovitch, better known as Kirk Douglas. Actor, humanitarian, Jew, and blacklist-breaker (with his insistence on giving screenplay credit on SPARTACUS to Dalton Trumbo), he was there to say a few words. Of course, his voice is not completely back from his stroke, but he's actually very spry for a 94 year old, bounding up the steps and blowing kisses to the crowd (and getting three standing ovations). Some of the highlights:
About Freedom of Expression: It's the most important part of democracy, it's what all the people in the middle east are fighting for.
About humor: If it wasn't for laughter, we Jews wouldn't have survived.
About pronouncing Ahmedinijad: My speech therapist would be so proud!
About insisting on giving Dalton Trumbo screenwriting credit for SPARTACUS: Everyone agreed all the other scripts sucked. Dalton thanked me for giving him his name back.
Final words: I'd love to stay, but I've already seen the picture. It's good, you'll love it!
And boy was he right! I'm going to assume you don't need me to tell you about SPARTACUS and how great it is. I will say it was my first time seeing it on the big screen after many times on video, and it was event more awesome on the Castro's screen. And I had forgotten both how funny and how political it was. And I had never noticed how many times Spartacus asks people their names. Especially after the interview, it was striking how important names are in the movie. And, of course, the scene where everyone stands up to be recognized as Spartacus can still bring a tear to my eye, not to mention Varinia (Jean Simmons) showing the crucified Spartacus his free baby son. They don't make 'em like that anymore, and they might have never made 'em like that before. Truly a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
And let me end with a joke Kirk Douglas told us (I apologize if I got the details wrong, I think this is what he said): Abraham and Sarah were walking down the street when they saw a Catholic church with a sign offering $50 to convert. Sarah says, "wait here Abraham, I'm going to check this out" and she goes inside. About a half hour later she comes out and Abraham asks, "Did you get the $50?" And Sarah replies, "What, don't you Jews ever think about anything besides money?"
And that's that. I skipped CRIME AFTER CRIME because I saw it at SFIFF (if you haven't seen it, it's excellent, look for it to come to a theater near you). And I missed Eytan Fox's MARY LOU to see our homegrown drag musical, the Thrillpeddlers' Vice Palace. But that's another story...
Total Running Time: 285 minutes
My Total Minutes: 244,567
We start with comedy about fitting in, starting with the animated short DON'T TELL SANTA YOU'RE JEWISH. A little girl, at the urging of her mother, goes to the mall to get a present from Santa. "But what if he knows I'm Jewish?" "Don't be meshugana, just don't tell him!" Santa understands.
That led in to the sexy French feature comedy, THE NAMES OF LOVE. Arthur Martin is the most popular name in France, but the particular Arthur Martin is a secular half-Jew, going about his work inspecting dead waterfowl for signs of disease outbreaks. His family doesn't talk about the holocaust, or anything that could possibly bring the conversation to his grandparents, who died in Auschwitz. He feels so guilty that when he finds out in school that saying his grandparents were deported Jews gets him female attention, he quickly backpedals and claims it was just a joke.
On the opposite end is Baya Benhamoud--the only woman with that name in all of France. The daughter of an Algerian immigrant and an ultra-left-wing mother. She takes pride in her Arab roots, although with her light skin and first name that's constantly mistaken for Brazilian, she never really faced racism. In good liberal French fashion, she bemoans that she was never subjected to war or racism, but luckily she was molested by her piano teacher. Now she seduces right-wing fascists (in her world, there are a lot of fascists) and converts them. And she has her sights on Arthur.
The thing is, Arthur is actually left-wing, even voting socialist. So instead of a quick fuck and conversion, they actually hit it off and start a relationship. A relationship fraught with hilarious minefields once they actually meet each others parents. While it's definitely a comedy (and a very funny one at that), it also makes some astute points about politics, pop culture, and the lives of mixed couples. And I was particularly struck by the idea--when they have dinner with his parents and Baya trips over references to trains, and camp, and the oven--that obsessing over the past is almost as bad as forgetting it. It provides as much food for thought as food for the funny bone.
And then the late show showcased a good Jewish boy gone bad in Chicago,POLISH BAR. Reuben Horowitz (Vincent Piazza from "Boardwalk Empire") has a dream, a dream of music. And he's got the skills, although so far he can only show them in a skeezy strip club (run by Meatloaf). But during the day he works in his Uncle Sol's (Judd Hirsch) jewelry shop. Uncle Sol is the family member who defends him when everyone else says he's no good. Well, Uncle Sol is wrong, as Reuben is dealing drugs and getting into all kinds of trouble taking shortcuts to raise money to get his music career off the ground (seems like he'll do anything other than just working on his music and earning his chops). The movie takes us in many places--family (including his mom's new mensch of a boyfriend, played by Richard Belzer), sex, drugs, religion (his orthodox cousin Moises moves in with him for a while), and the stereotype of the good Jewish boy (he could never be a gangster). But Reuben isn't dumb--he knows a bit of Talmud, and he knows music theory. In fact, his flaw is that he thinks he's smart enough to fool everyone. And for a while, he does (all but his cousin Moises, that is). But you know it has to come crashing down, and when it does he'll have precious few friends to help him piece it back together. Very well done, real, raw story anchored by stellar performances from the whole cast.
Total Running Time: 202 minutes
My Total Minutes: 244,282
Saturday, July 23, 2011
Friday, July 22, 2011
Now the movie--HAROLD AND MAUDE is the perfect sendoff. I heard a rumor this was the first movie they showed, but it's appropriate thematically, too.
I will now assume any reader has already seen HAROLD AND MAUDE, so I might get spoilery below. If you haven't seen it, go see it right away. I'll wait.
There, wasn't that awesome!?
More importantly, it occurs to me that the story of aged but vivacious Maude teaching young, rich, death-obsessed Harold how to embrace life is a nice metaphor for the Red Vic closing. The Red Vic is Maude, who brings so much joy to life and teaches us to embrace, defy, and sing out. We, the audience, are Harold (except for being rich). Maybe we aren't always obsessed with death, but right now we are obsessed with the death of our beloved cinema institutions. Maybe the Red Vic, unlike Maude, didn't choose the time and manner of her death, but by approaching it with dignity and imploring us to patronize the remaining arthouse theaters, we and the Red Vic echo the scene where Harold, realizing Maude is dying, says, "But I love you!" And Maude/The Red Vic replies, "Oh, that's wonderful! Go love some more."
Also, although this is about the 5th or 6th time I've seen it, this is the first time I remembered going in that Maude is a Holocaust survivor. This is revealed in one brief scene, near the end, where we see a close up of Maude's arm with a number tattoo. This colors all her scenes in retrospect, but none more than when she's reminiscing about a garden party in the Viennese palace. She describes how fun it was, how she thought then she would marry a soldier, and then she gets quiet, tears up, and mumbles something about that being "before..." It's the first hint that as joyful as she is, she has painful memories. Clearly, these are memories of the Holocaust.
She was a little girl at the party, and given that she's turning 80 and the movie was released (and I'm presuming takes place) in 1971, that means she was born in 1891. Presumably the party she refers to took place just prior to WWI (started in 1914, when she was 23). The soldiers at the party would be Austrians or Germans, and if they survived and stayed on the side of power in Germany and progressed in rank, would be fairly high ranking Nazi officials during WWII. Perhaps at that party or some other time she even met a struggling artist in Vienna who would go on to become a decorated WWI soldier and ultimately Der Fuhrer. That's right, I went there, imagining a Maude/Hitler fan fiction romance. Now try to sleep at night!
Running Time: 91 minutes
My Total Minutes: 243,950
It started off with the opening night thanks and introductions, with the highlight being the special thanks to Executive Director Peter Stein, who is stepping down after this festival to pursue other projects. On a personal note, I'm a big fan of Stein's, and was honored to join in the standing ovation he received. This is his 8th year in charge, which is most of my tenure as an audience member. So for me SFJFF has practically always been a Peter Stein affair, and whether we've celebrated crowd-pleasers or gutted our way through controversial screenings, he has always been professional, intelligent, and the sweetest guy in the world. Here's to you, Peter, and best of luck in your endeavors.
Okay, on to the movies:
We kicked off with a stellar family drama MABUL (THE FLOOD). While 12 year old Yoni Yoshko practices for his Bar Mitzvah, his entire family is steeped in sin. His mom--a preschool teacher--is having an affair, his dad--a grounded crop-dusting pilot--is too stoned to notice, and Yoni himself is selling homework to his classmates. Enter into this already broken dynamic Topher, his older, developmentally disabled brother, and you figure things will fall apart. And they kind of do. Yoni, not yet even a man, finds himself taking care of Topher more and more often--not what he wants to do. Add to that a threat of expulsion, harassment by bullies, and young love and Yoni hardly has time to concentrate on his Torah portion. He's practicing to read the story of Noah, and Topher repeats his chanting like a parrot, and starts taking the Noah story to heart. And like the Noah and the flood story, he might just provide the right sort of cataclysmic upheaval to wash away the old sins and give everyone a new start. Solid, multi-faceted drama
And then the late show (a new thing for opening night) was an exclusive screening of the first Israeli horror film (at least that's how it's being marketed), RABIES. It starts as if we're already halfway into a horror film, with a girl trapped in a box underground and a man (we find out shortly he's her brother) trying to rescue her, failing, and running off for help. Enter a car full of young people (2 guys, 2 girls) out for some fun, who run into the frantic brother. The two guys follow him to try to rescue the sister while the two girls call for the cops. Enter two cops--one a sadistic rapist and the other two wrapped up in his failing marriage and partner loyalty to stop him. And now sit back and watch nearly everyone die in brutal, genre classic manners. And the fun of the movie is admiring it's genre chops, clearly a result of love of not just horror classics, but cult/camp classics. It's got the comedy and the gore. The story maybe tries to go too many places (when romantic jealousy trumps survival instincts it lost me momentarily), but the horror elements are always enjoyable. And without giving anything away, it ends on a comic note I loved, although it was abrupt and wrapped up nothing. It felt like walking into a good horror film about 20 minutes too late, and leaving just as early. But with this talent, I'm eager to see what director Aharon Keshales does next.
Total Running Time: 187 minutes
My Total Minutes: 243,859
Thursday, July 21, 2011
“The Undefeated” ranks as #15 in the all-time highest grossing debut category (and this includes Michael Moore’s unique hold on this category). However — and this is a mighty important however – nine of the films ranked above the Palin doc opened on more screens — in some cases, hundreds more.
On a comparative number of screens (less than 10), “The Undefeated” enjoyed the fifth highest-grossing debut in the history of political documentaries.
- He doesn't know the difference between "less than" and "less than or equal to." And...
- He doesn't know how to count to 6.
Opening on a comparative number of screens (5 to 25), “The Undefeated” enjoyed the sixth highest per-screen average in the history of political documentaries.
In the comments someone compares the per screen of “The Undefeated” to EVERY political documentary released on fewer than 10 screens, all the way down to one, two, and three screens. This is not apples-to-apples when you’re talking about a film released on ten screens. But even with that apples-to-oranges comparison, the Palin doc comes in at #11 ALL-TIME.
Had the film’s roll-out been scheduled in just a few targeted markets instead of ten, obviously this would’ve resulted in a higher per screen average.
- 6 films (all with lower per-screen average than THE UNDEFEATED) are dropped from the list.
- 25 films with higher per-screen average are added to the list.
- 39 films with lower per-screen average are added to the list.
“The Undefeated” has no cinematic hook whatsoever.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Monday, July 18, 2011
We start out with Amazing Tales from the Archives II: Kevin Brownlow tells the backstory to the Cinema Event of a Lifetime (or at least next spring)--the restoration of NAPOLEON (I have my tickets, do you?). He spins a truly amazing life story of love of this one movie, searching for every copy available, becoming persona non grata at the Cinematheque, becoming good friends with Abel Gance, and finally prevailing. And it all culminates in the only 4 shows in North America currently scheduled--and they're all in Oakland. Lucky, lucky us!
A contest by the Oakland Tribune had people write in with their strange dreams for a chance at a cash prize and having their dream turned into a movie. Mabel Nicholson had a strange dream where she went on a picnic to Marin with her husband and baby. But in San Francisco, they realize the baby basket is empty so they take the ferry back to Oakland (assuming he's still in the car). He's not just in the car, he's driving away.Damn, I was really bad at just giving away the whole film back then. Here's what I'd say today:
Anyway, that was the lead-in to the feature, SHOES (1916): A social issue drama by the amazing Lois Weber, America's first big female film director, and one of the best of either gender in any time. Although this film is strident and passionate in its social stance, its greatness comes from the humanity and drama of the characters and the story. Mary MacLaren stars as Eva Meyer, a poor shopgirl supporting her mother, siblings, and ne'er-do-well father on her measly wages. A cabaret singer with clearly impure intentions hangs around the shop, trying to get girls to come top the nightclub and see him. Eva resists, like a good moral woman (or like anyone who doesn't want a life of sexual servitude just to support herself). But her shoes are falling apart, and have been resoled so often they can't take another one. She treads through soaking rainstorms, and endures constant delays in her mother's promise to buy her shoes and her father's promise to get a job. Finally, she has to make a fateful and heartbreaking choice. As I said, the moralizing gets a bit thick, but it's still anchored by excellent drama and a performance that tugs the sympathies effortlessly. And it's a valuable window into the social issues of the day (not that they aren't still relevant in this day).
And of course, Dennis James was awesome on the mighty Wurlitzer organ.
DREAMS OF A RAREBIT FIEND (1906): Edwin S. Porter (Edison's director, and maker of THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY) creates this live-action special effects piece based on the comic strip by Winsor McKay. Rarebit being a Welsh melted cheese dish, and the "rarebit fiend" being a man who loves it, even though it always gives him strange dreams (to the consternation of his wife).
RED SPECTRE (1907): a Pathé film, in the vein of Méliès, about a demonic magician who wraps up two young women in cloth and makes them disappear in a puff of smoke. But the good spirit comes and brings them back.
THE ACROBATIC FLY (1910): If you get past the animal cruelty of it, these extreme close-up shots of flies glued down by their wings and turning objects (e.g., tiny barbells) over with their feet is really, really cool.
THE THIEVING HAND (1908): A funny piece about a disembodied, kleptomaniac arm and the armless guy who gets it as a prosthetic. He's a good guy, it's just his hand that's evil. It only pre-visioned IDLE HANDS by 91 years.
PRINCESS NICOTINE (1909): The story of the two-lensed camera invented to make this short (shooting simultaneously 180 degrees apart, and superimposing the images) is as fascinating as the result. A smoker interacts with the tiny fairy that lives in his cigar box (and sometimes in a flower).
ARTHÈME SWALLOWS HIS CLARINET (1912): A pretty funny film that's exactly what it's about. Arthème is annoying everyone with his clarinet, and so some jokers drop a piano on him. He's fine, except that his clarinet is jammed into his mouth with the mouthpiece sticking out the back of his head. Yikes!
CAMERAMAN'S REVENGE (1912): An awesome story of romantic trysts, cheating spouses, and public humiliation. Oh yeah, and it's done entirely with stop-motion animated insects. Probably my favorite of the set.
DREAMS OF A RAREBIT FIEND: THE PET (1921): Another rarebit fiend dream, this one actually animated by Winsor McKay himself (by hand, the whole thing. This didn't use cel animation). The fiend dreams that his wife brought home a cute little pet, that starts eating everything until he's as big as the entire city.
FILMSTUDIE (1926): A beautiful, bizarre piece of pure dadaism. If I knew what it was about, that would miss the point. But there sure are a lot of eyes.
LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413, A HOLLYWOOD EXTRA (1928): A humorously dark story of a man dreaming of being a star, but is instead stamped with the number 9413 and is used as an extra until he dies.
And the other side of the spectrum is THE NAIL IN THE BOOT (1931): Made as a military film, it was censored by the Soviets and it was over eight years before Mikhail Kalatozov made another film. It was, in fact, criticized that “When making THE NAIL Kalatozov did not apply the revolutionary method of dialectical materialism to his theme, but proceeded from formalistic aestheticism.” More pedestrian criticism was that the plot confused the audience, but I don't really find that credible.
Stephen Horne, of course, was masterful at both ends of the emotional spectrum.
And finally, we ended the festival with HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924): The incomparable Lon Chaney stars as Paul Beaumont, a young scientist working with the support of his friend, Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott). But on the day of his thesis, the Baron double-crosses him and presents Beaumont's work as his own. He objects, the baron calls him crazy and slaps him, eliciting howls of laughter from the normally stone-faced assembly of professors. Humiliated, he returns to the baron's estate to find his bride has left him for the baron. So he leaves the bitter life of scientific pursuits and joins the circus, becoming a highly celebrated clown. He calls himself HE, and his act involves all the other clowns slapping him--an act that has the audience in stitches. He finds his new life, and maybe even a new love in Consuelo (Norma Shearer), the bareback rider and daughter of Count Mancini (who has fallen on hard times). But Consuelo loves her costar Bezano (John Gilbert). And the baron reappears with eyes for Consuelo--a development that Count Mancini finds most favorable. But HE won't let that happen, and will do whatever it takes. For HE who laughs last, laughs best.
What a great way to end the festival. And of course, the Matti Bye Ensemble did an amazing job ending the festival on just the right note. And might I add that I was impressed with the cacophony of their circus scenes. Matti Bye is usually more reserved, letting the silence speak more. But they knew, of course, the right tone for a circus.
Total Running Time: 296 minutes
My Total Minutes: 243,574
Saturday, July 16, 2011
But first, a quick shout-out to my new breakfast spot of the festival--Orphan Andy's. All the food is delicious, the staff is friendly and hilarious. And the pancakes are soooo freakin' fluffy!
Anyway, on to the shows.
First up was a kids (and kids of all ages) program of Walt Disney's LAUGH-O-GRAMS. Before he made it big in Los Angeles, he was working in Kansas City making these cartoons out of a garage. So here we go, all of them were pretty hilarious.
NEWMAN LAUGH-O-GRAMS (1921): This was a reel he made to pitch the idea of Laugh-o-grams to local exhibitor Newman to stick into the newsreels. Some funny lightning sketches, where his hands draw advertising sketches, and then some local topical humor mocking the corruption of the streets and the police force in Kansas City.
THE FOUR MUSICIANS OF BREMEN (1922): A quartet of animals get thrown out of every venue they play, presumably for sucking. They're starving so they try to lure fish with music, but the fish are just too slippery.
CINDERELLA (1922): Pretty cool seeing the fairy godmother turning Cinderella into a flapper girl. Awesome, that was probably my favorite part of the whole series.
GOLDIE LOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS (1922): A rediscovered classic that was hiding in plain site. Once Disney became big, his early laugh-o-grams were re-released by opportunistic distributors, but the names were changed. This one was renamed THE PEROXIDE KID, and was just recently rediscovered as the supposedly lost film.
PUSS IN BOOTS (1922): The boy is trying to get the princess, and his pet cat is trying to get the royal cat, too. So they hatch a mutually beneficial plot that depends on the cat wearing boots.
JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1922): Another renamed, supposedly lost film, this one THE KO KID. Pretty funny the story Jack tells about the giants he defeated.
ALICE'S WONDERLAND (1923): Not technically a laugh-o-gram, but the precursor to Walt's Alice films. Virginia Davis, a 4 year old charmer, walks into the laugh-o-gram studios to see how cartoons are made. After witnessing the magic of Disney and his team, she goes home and dreams herself in cartoon-land. Adorable.
Most of the films were accompanied by Donald Sosin on piano, with percussionist assisting and two amazingly talented kids playing piano for Bremen and Jack the Giant Killer.
Next up was the panel discussion Variations on a Theme: Musicians on the Craft of Composing and Performing for Silent Film. But first the orphan film MUSIC FOR THE SILENT NEWSREELS (1930): Quite a departure for the festival, this was a talkie. But still appropriate. A man at a piano explains the art of Movietone music accompanying the newsreels.
And then moderator Jill Tracy started the event with 4 different interpretations of the same scene--Louise Dresser walking down the street with her Goose, a brief scene from THE GOOSE WOMAN. Donald Sosin played it upbeat. Stephen Horne played it as a dramatic chase. Dennis James played a sorrowful score on the organ. And finally the Alloy Orchestra played it as a weird surreal slapstick scene. Each one worked, and it was a pretty efficient demonstration of how music changes a scene.
- He knew when he was commissioned to do this score (and solo electric guitar was not his idea, it came from a very well respected archivist) that it would be controversial. In his words, perhaps less of a SUNRISE to his career and more of a HE WHO GETS SLAPPED.
- His score does not destroy the original score. In that way the graffiti analogy is wrong--graffiti is difficult to remove. His score has existed once so far, and may never be played again. It's incredibly easy to forget it and see SUNRISE with the original score.
- Maybe he brought some new young people in with the promise of the score, and they got exposed to SUNRISE and now want to see it with the original score as well. In that way
Now more movies, starting with the orphan THE TRIBAL LAW (1912): Really just a fragment of a film. Pretty action packed, I wish the rest existed.
Then we moved to Sweden for THE BLIZZARD (1923): Also known as the Gunnar Hedes Saga, it's a wild romantic melodrama. Growing up, little Gunnar was intrigued by the painting of his grandfather. A poor violinist, he made a fortune herding reindeer and that's how they have the grand estate they do today. But that estate is in trouble, so grown up Gunnar goes herding reindeer to raise money just like his grandfather did. But things go horribly wrong, and he's dragged for miles by a reindeer (in a really impressive, kinda traumatic scene). And although they didn't have the term at the time, he's got a bad case of post traumatic stress disorder. Every animal looks like a reindeer and scares the hell out of him (even cats and dogs). He doesn't even recognize his mother. But maybe true love, and violin music, will bring him back. Ultimately it was the perfect thing to play after the Variations on a Theme program, since it was all about the power of music to move you.
And speaking of music moving you, The Matti Bye Ensemble (quickly becoming my favorite accompanists of the festival) absolutely blew me away with their score again.
Louise Dresser stars as Marie de Nardi aka Mary Holmes aka The Goose Woman. In her youth, she was a famous and beloved opera singer. However, when her son was born she lost her voice. Missing the spotlight, she drowns her sorrows in alcohol, which makes her a pretty terrible mother to her now grown son (that and she doesn't hide the fact that she blames him for destroying her fame). But she sees an opportunity to get back in the spotlight when a murder occurs near her home and the police and the news converge on the neighborhood. She decides to become an important witness, but it turns out her story ends up implicating her son. Eventually (finally) maternal instincts do take over. A pretty wild melodrama.
The next show started with the orphan film CHUMMING WITH CHIPMUNKS (1921): Adorable footage of training chipmunks to take nuts from a string. Not much plot, but cute as a pile of cute cuties dipped in cuteness (shut up, it's late at night!)
And then the feature MR. FIX-IT (1918): Douglas Fairbanks! Fairbanks is my homie! And this is one from his pre-swashbuckling career in comedy. He plays Remington, a free-spirited university student in England. His roommate Reginald is American, but his family sent him to England because America is too democratic. Now he has a girlfriend whom he intends to marry, but his parents call him home to get married to the girl they found for him. But seeing as they haven't seen him in 15 years, Remington has a plan to fix it. He'll pretend to be Reginald and go to America, and using his powerful charisma he'll fix everything. And that's what I love about Douglas Fairbanks--he's always confident, in control, charming and athletic as hell. I love they throw in random stunts just to show off his agility (somersault into a bathtub? Jumping down a stairwell?) I love that he fixes not just his roommates dilemma, he fixes everyone's romantic dilemmas, saves a family of children, and pulls the giant stick out of Reginald's family's collective ass. He can fix anything but his own romantic life.
As if that wasn't great enough, Dennis James rocked the Mighty Wurlitzer the whole time.
She is, after all, THE WOMAN MEN YEARN FOR (1929): Henry LeBlanc just got married. Not for love, for strategic money interests (i.e., to avoid family bankruptcy). On the train to their honeymoon, he catches a glimpse of Stascha (Dietrich) through a window. She's with an older male companion, but has a look of longing that intrigues Henry. And so he pursues her, even leaving his bride and entering a world of unknown danger. Excellent precursor to noir--hell, it is silent noir. And who really cares what the plot is as long as Marlene Dietrich is the object of men's desires. Just beautiful.
Total Running Time: 378 minutes
My Total Minutes: 243,278
Friday, July 15, 2011
But first, some additional thoughts on SUNRISE with the electric guitar score. It's been the talk of the festival today, in a heated, controversial way. And I'll go on record as saying I love that it's so controversial. What I'm not so enamored with is I've been held up as an example of someone who liked that score, and I've been drawn to defend it. I thought I gave a pretty conflicted, complex account of my reaction (which was, itself, conflicted and complex). But because I said I liked my new interpretation that it's a succubus story, I've been drawn in as the "pro" side of the debate. So let me be very clear. Even without having actually heard the original score, if I had to choose between the original score and Spinelli's electric guitar score, I'd choose the original. But more importantly, that's a false choice! The existence of this score doesn't overwrite the original score and blot it from history. If actually given that choice, I'd prefer to watch SUNRISE twice back to back, once with each score, so I can accurately judge them. But I will say it's a personal tragedy that I did not hear the original score first. I have that DVD ordered now.
First up, Amazing Tales From the Archives, Program I: The Archivist as Detective. A series of archivists presented some of their work in entertaining slide shows with some short movie clips (with accompaniment by the inimitable Stephen Horne). UCLA Film and Television archivist Jan-Christopher Horak, George Eastman House's Anthony L'Abbate and The Academy Film Archive's Melissa Levesque all spoke. We learned about tracking down typeface to recreate period accurate intertitles. We got a crash course in film identification--from reading edge codes to recognizing company logos to the vagaries of changing street light styles in New York City. And we learned of the impressive number of films from Lobster Films collection that the Academy has identified...and how they did it...and how many are still unidentified. Very cool.
Before I get to the next program, I forgot to mention the "orphaned film" that played before SUNRISE last night. Before several films the festival is playing orphaned films, short films or clips where the copyright has expired or the owner is unknown. Before SUNRISE we saw a 3 minute clip of F. W. Murnau and George O'brien getting in an airplane, leaving Paris for Berlin (from 1927).
And then the feature, HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1920): A fairly faithful retelling of Mark Twain's famous story, made just a decade after his death. In fact, it's framed with an actor playing Mark Twain coming up with the idea and writing "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Great, naturalistic acting, especially by star Lewis Sargent as Huck. It's also nice to see an integrated cast, with George Reed as Jim in a time when black roles were often played by white actors in blackface. The faithfulness of the script is only betrayed at the end, when a happier Hollywood ending is tacked on. But you know what, it's still a heck of a lot of fun. Oh yeah, and the Duke and the King were excellent, too.
Donald Sosin, as always, did a fantastic job on the piano.
The next program started with another orphan film, ST. LOUIS TO CHICAGO AIRMAIL (1926), which is notable for the pilot, a then unknown Charles Lindbergh.
Stephen Horne accompanied, and for my money there's no one better if you want both flute and piano music from one guy.
Next up is my hit of the festival so far, THE GREAT WHITE SILENCE (1924): A documentary account of Captain Robert F. Scott's fateful expedition to the south pole in 1911-1912. Shot by the expedition's official photographer/cinematographer Herbert Ponting. Knowing the fateful end of that trip takes some of the suspense away, but it was still a total delight (and there was still some surprise in the very end). What's really interesting is that in the 106 minute running time, only about the last 30 minutes is spent on the race to the pole. Before that, they spent and entire winter and spring on the coast of Antarctica. But even before then we see them load the Terra Nova, steam around icebergs, break through an ice floe, and finally reach the continent. And then we get the penguins, and the seals. Lots of absolutely adorable wildlife footage. The scenes of penguins are cool, but the scenes of seals cutting the ice with their teeth to climb out of the water are totally worth the price of admission alone. And there are scenes of play, like dancing on the ship and a football (soccer) game on the ice. When the expedition actually takes off for the south pole there's a distinct change in tone. The hardships are intense, and when their ponies meet their "predestined fate" they're left hauling the sledges by themselves. Of course, they make the south pole, only to see Amundsen's Norwegian flag already planted. And on the trip back, they succumb to exhaustion and the elements. What I didn't know was they travelled 800 miles in, turned back and made it about halfway back and perished in a blizzard a scant 11 miles from the supply depot that would have saved them. Amazing movie, very moving, and absolutely beautiful cinematography.
Matti Bye Ensemble did a magnificent job accompanying the film. In fact, I'd be inclined to say their soundtrack is a huge part of making this my favorite film of the festival so far.
And finally, the night ended with IL FUOCO (1915): An Italian story of the fire of love--told in three sections: The Spark, The Blaze, and The Ashes. She's a famous poet, he's an unknown painter. They meet, and there's a spark, but pretty clearly she's in charge. She tells him that his love is like a lamp that burns slowly and faintly, but lasts a long time. But if she breaks the lamp the fire will burn bright and burn out quickly, like her love. But he's game, "Burn me! Burn me!" he implores. And boy does she. Briefly they're happy, and he paints a masterpiece of her reclining, barely clad figure. And then we learn she's not just a poet, she's a Duchess, and the Duke is coming back to town. Affair over. Early in the show, my friend Phil, knowing full well my take on SUNRISE, leaned over to me and said she's the real succubus. At the end, I turned back to him and said, "She's not a succubus, she's just a bitch."
Stephen Horne accompanied, and was excellent always. And in a last minute addition, Jill Tracy provided voice accompaniment as a Siren song. And there's no one better for that.
Total Running Time: 345 minutes
My Total Minutes: 242,900
After a few opening words about preserving the opening films from an archive in New Zealand (with help from Peter Jackson's lab), we launched right into the first program.
WHY HUSBANDS CHEAT (1918): We start with a short by Al Christie, starring Dorothy Dane and Bobby Vernon. They're newlyweds, just six months. But it's hard for him to settle down after being such a "gay boy" so he feels the call of the wild and goes out looking for a good time. Too bad he finds his wife's old college chum, and wacky hijinx ensue. Pretty funny, and not just for the anachronistic usage of "gay boy," although that did get the biggest life.
UPSTREAM (1927): William Fox's cavalcade of wacky hijinx, set in theatrical boarding house. If life is a stage, a theatrical boarding house is positively burlesque. The house is full of zany, colorful, and constantly broke characters. But the main conflict is between knife thrower Juan Rodriguez (nee Jack Rogers) and young Brashingham, latest (and least) of a famous acting family. See, they both have their eye on the same girl, Rodriguez's partner in the knife act, but she's got eyes for Brashingham. A great stroke of luck comes in the form of an agent who is specifically looking for Brashingham. See, a company in London wants
After the show, there was a big announcement by Kevin Brownlow (a superhero in the silent film world) about a fantastic upcoming screening of Abel Gance's NAPOLEAN (1927) at the Paramount in Oakland next March 24, 25, 31, and April 1 (4 shows only). Restoring this film has been Kevin Brownlow's life work, and he'll be talking about it Sunday morning in the free Amazing Tales From The Archives program at 10 am. This screening will include a full orchestra score, and is described as the Cinema Event of a Lifetime, and I wouldn't disagree. I might just try to make all 4 screenings.
And then the second show of the night was SUNRISE (1927). I've seen this before, at the SF International years ago with a live soundtrack by Lambchop. Well, this time it couldn't be more different. In fact, no one has seen it like this before. Giovanni Spinelli was commissioned to write a score...a score that would consist of him, solo, on electric guitar. Purists may leave now.
Total Running Time: 165 minutes
My Total Minutes: 242,555