Monday, July 18, 2011

Jason goes to Silentfest--Closing Night

Hard to believe it's already over. It was a weekend of total, exhausting immersion, now I'm starting to climb back into real life. But first, a full program Sunday:

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!

Now on to the movies, starting with the orphan film TRIBUNE-AMERICAN DREAM PICTURE (1924), which I saw two years ago back in Niles. Here's what I wrote then:
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:

This film comes from a contest by the Oakland Tribune wherein people would write in stories of their strange dream for the chance to win money and have their dream turned into a movie. Mabel Nicholson won with this funny dream about a trip from Oakland to San Francisco and back, with a frantic search for her missing baby!

There, much better.

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.

And then we got the Wild and Weird shorts program with the amazing Alloy Orchestra. Their DVD is available from Flicker Alley, and features even more than these shorts.
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.

Between every short were lantern slides of humorous messages (e.g., "remove your hat" or "the show is half over.") and of course the Alloy Orchestra were great doing new scores (not the ones you'll get on the DVD). After I got my DVD signed by the Alloy Orchestra and David Shepard of Flicker Alley.

The next show started with the final orphan, MADISON NEWS REEL (1932): A series of extremely brief news clips that made me wonder if this was a real newsreel, or some parody. Very odd.

And then we had our Soviet program. The Soviets did some amazing silent film work, and this pair showcased opposite extremes. First CHESS FEVER (1925) was hilarious, slapstick comedy about chess. There's a major tournament, and everyone is watching with great interest, even the kids. Meanwhile at home a man is suffering from Chess Fever, playing a game against himself (Pixar used this gag as the basis of GERI'S GAME some 72 years later). Well, he's so wrapped up in his game he forgets his date with his fiance. She loves him with all her heart, but is afraid he only loves chess. And she might be right. After all he has a few dozen chess books and mini chess sets on him at all times. When he sees a chess-patterned tile floor he walks across it in 2x1 steps (like a knight), etc. Thing is, everyone else loves chess, too. But for her, even if she has thrown him out, he can quit. Very funny.

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.

The film was made to promote the message that slipshod work is a danger to the homeland (indeed, the alternate title was THE HOMELAND IS IN DANGER), and tells the story of a soldier dispatched to march to headquarters and call for aid for an armored train under siege. On the way, he's injured by a nail sticking out of the sole of his boot, and doesn't make it in time. The second half is an absolutely fascinating courtroom inquisition where although he's found guilty on his own, he makes an impassioned and convincing plea that the guilt is shared with the workers in the factory who manufactured such a faulty boot.

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.

By the way, if you want to see more of Mattie Bye, they're playing with Jilly Tracy tomorrow (Tuesday) night at Disco Volante in Oakland.

Total Running Time: 296 minutes
My Total Minutes: 243,574

No comments: