Friday, July 15, 2011

Jason goes to Silentfest--Opening Night

The most intense 4 days for a Bay Area cinephile have begun--Silentfest, or the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, or SFSFF, or (SF)^2 Fest. Whatever you call it, I expect my eyeballs to be exhausted by the end of Sunday.

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 him his name to play Hamlet, and it doesn't matter that he's a terrible actor. But with a little help from an elder in the house, he actually does a good job and becomes a star. And is away building his fame just long enough to lose the girl and come back as a total insufferable jerk. Good story, nicely framed moral (that's an inside joke for those who know the final scene), and a wild cast of zany characters (especially Callahan and Callahan). And a great and humorous accompaniment by the Donald Sosin Ensemble.

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.

So I'm not going to recap the plot of SUNRISE. I'll assume you've seen it, and if that's not true this won't interest you much anyway. Instead my review has to be about the soundtrack experience. I will start by saying that it took at least 10-20 minutes for it to not be distracting all the time. And even then it was always eerie, highlighting the supernatural, uneasy elements of what is essentially a very simple plot about a man torn between two loves. In fact, I have to take a bit of a detour now.

I love F.W. Murnau's NOSFERATU. Always have, as long as I can remember, from well before I was generally a silent film fan. So when SFIFF played SUNRISE and called it Murnau's masterpiece, I was intrigued--I knew him as the guy who made this amazing supernatural horror movie, and this simple story about a man tempted by a sinister love before he returns to his wife is his masterpiece? I recognized the amazing cinematography and set design (which still amazes), but I liked the supernatural horror more. Well, what I realized watching and listening to Spinelli's score is this: SUNRISE is a supernatural horror film. It's not a love triangle, it's a succubus story. At least, it was with this soundtrack, and I loved that. And realizing that, it suddenly seems obvious. When ghost images of the city girl haunt the man, that's not his memory or desire metaphorically haunting him, that's a sex demon literally haunting him. It's suddenly much more meaningful to me that his full recovery from the succubus comes in a church, watching a wedding. And there are a dozen other moments that fit the succubus story. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to watch this again and not see it as supernatural horror.

I just have to end by saying that I've now seen SUNRISE twice. Both times at the Castro theater with a live score, and to purists I've never seen it the "right" way (which I'd like to do). That's weird.

Total Running Time: 165 minutes
My Total Minutes: 242,555

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