Saturday, July 16, 2011

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 3

This is the big, packed Saturday of the festival

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.

And then the conversation began. Like last year, the big contentious issue is new compositions vs. Dennis James' purist historical sentiment that if it's available he'll play the original score and anything else is a departure from that. It's not a question that playing the original score or composing a new score is a stylistic choice. They aren't on the same level--really it should be the choice to play the original score or many different stylistic choices of departure from that. Dennis made the analogy of graffiti. People will talk about the "art" of graffiti, and oftentimes that is completely legitimate art. But they're no longer talking about the building. In the same way (if I understood his analogy correctly), a new score when the original is available isn't an enhancement to the filmmaker's vision--it's a violation and departure from the original vision, and that's true no matter how artistic that is. If you want new silent film scores so badly, why don't you just make new silent films? (To which I answer, I'd love to see new silent films made, and played at this festival. After all it's a silent film festival, not an antique film festival)

The counterpoint is essentially that doing whatever you want with the score is valid, so long as it complements instead of distracting from the film. In honesty, that's my opinion, and I still count myself as one of Dennis James' biggest fans. (By the way, every other Friday at the Stanford Theatre this summer you can see him accompanying Buster Keaton double features.)

It wasn't too surprising to see the discussion between James and Ken Winokur from Alloy Orchestra get heated. That happened last year, too, but was even more tense this year. What was surprising to see Dennis James and Giovanni Spinelli get along so well. Spinelli, of course, did the electric guitar soundtrack to SUNRISE on Thursday, and I don't even have to ask James to know he hated it. But Spinelli made several good points:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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
Spinelli nailed it. And by giving James respect, he got respect back. You could've made millions betting on Dennis James + Giovanni Spinelli as the love connection of the festival.

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.

Next up was THE GOOSE WOMAN (1925), which I realized a few minutes in I had scene before at Niles. Here's what I said at the time:
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.
Well, that's all true. But there's something missing in that. Like the comedy of the reporters, cops, and prosecutor. Or her son's love interest and how the victim was after the same woman. Or how great Stephen Horne's accompaniment was. Okay, that last one is new to this experience, and it was great.

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.

And finally, the last show of the night, starting with Czar of Noir Eddie Mueller's introduction. He had a lot to say about the star of the last film, Marlene Dietrich. But I'll just leave it at the new word he learned and taught us all--'intrigante.' Meaning one (with the e at the end, specifically a woman) who intrigues. As opposed to a femme fatale who knowingly and intentionally uses her sexuality to destroy men, an intrigante is alluring whether she wants to be or not. And that's Marlene Dietrich...or would be, if her allure wasn't pretty intentional her whole life.
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.

And beautiful as well was the score by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Ochestra.

And that was Saturday. I entered the Castro Theater at about 9:30 in the morning, and didn't leave until 10:30 at night. Not even briefly stepping outside. Instead I was in the mezzanine shopping. And if you're around for the final day of the festival, you should be in the mezzanine shopping, too!

Total Running Time: 378 minutes
My Total Minutes: 243,278

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