Friday, July 15, 2011

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 2

For the first time ever, I took a day off to see everything on Friday. So this will actually be my first time seeing absolutely everything at SFSFF (as if it wasn't exhausting enough already). Here we go with Friday.

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.

Okay, on to Friday's programs.

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).

Before the next program, there were two very short films:
MRS HARDING, "CAMERAMAN?" (1922), and COOLIDGE TRAPSHOOTING (1928), both of which are exactly what they sound like.

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.

Then the feature, I WAS BORN, BUT… (1932): Ozu's adorable story of Japanese children. A family has moved into town, and the two brothers are the target of bullies. What unfolds is not so much a linear story as a slice of life movie. It touches on bullying, brotherhood, school, social status, and fatherhood. In fact, it does more than touch on it, it delves deeply into all of those subjects and more with a careful eye and affection for his characters (even the dog).

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 last program started with the orphan ORIGIN OF BEETHOVEN'S "MOONLIGHT SONATA" (1909): Edison's recreation (complete with a cheesy backdrop of a painted Vienna street) of the story behind Beethoven's composition. That he did it for a blind friend, to let her see the beauty of the moonlight. Sweet, and Beethoven was cool, but as I mentioned the sets were pretty cheesy.

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

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