This is where it gets exhausting, 11:00 am to near midnight in the amazing Castro Theatre with precious little time for a break. In fact, I never even exited the theater (although I did spend a good bit of time in the VIP lounge drinking some free wine and beer and noshing on some free food. It's good to be the press!)
Anyway, the morning started with their traditional Amazing Tales From The Archives program. This is where archivists/restorers give a little talk and show some clips of their work. This year we had Andrea Kalas from Paramount talking about the work to restore WINGS (oh yeah, I forgot to mention that opening night featured the gorgeous new restoration available now on DVD and Blu-Ray) and Grover Crisp from Sony (formerly Columbia) talking about the recent restoration of DR. STRANGELOVE and the upcoming work on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. The big theme of this year--which is different from previous years--is the digital aspect of the restoration work and how often the end product is a DCP (Digital Cinema Package, sometimes called a Digital Cinema Print) instead of or as well as the 35 mm film. For the record, Thursday night we saw WINGS in DCP, and actually I didn't even pay attention to the format until they brought it up today. And artistic director Anita Monga pointed out that they had the option of a somewhat scratched 35 mm film print or the DCP, and they chose the DCP because it looked better. For my money, it looked excellent.
But digital can be a tricky subject in the cinephilia world, especially with an audience like they have at this festival where pretty much everyone loves film--real film. And there were some questions/comments from the audience about how talking about a "digital print" or "digital film" is an oxymoron. So I suppose I should give my opinions on the digital vs. film.
First off, a pristine film print vs. a good DCP (and a good digital projector)--I think in general there's no difference. I know already that's controversial, and I don't care. I also think there are exceptions where some movies look better on film and some look better on DCP. I also liked a comment that Grover Crisp made about the jitter in film projection that we've trained our eyes to see around, to the point where when a DCP is shown and it's perfectly stable it looks weird because we're used to the jitter. Well, your eyes can be quickly trained to see that as normal, and judging by the fact that I didn't even notice WINGS was a DCP, I'm already there.
More important, I think, is what happens when the projection is not perfect, either because of a bad print/low-res DCP or because of some projection error. My friend Lincoln Spector at Bayflicks is fond of saying that you're still at the mercy of the projectionist. A bad projectionist will screw up the viewing experience of a DCP, but he'll damage an actual film print. And that's all true, but I have a different/additional take on the differences between sub-perfect film and DCP viewing experiences. In film, print/projection errors--dust, scratches, (God forbid) a film jamming and burning through all remind me of the physical nature of the media--the actual film running through a projector. In digital, the issues--poor resolution, digital sampling artifacts, (God forbid) a dead pixel in the projector all remind me of the inherently artificial nature of what I'm watching. It reminds me that underneath it all I'm really seeing a very cleverly arranged and translated series of 1's and 0's. And that bugs me...a little bit (actually, dead pixels bug me a lot, because they'll always be there in the same spot no matter what movie is shown until the projector is fixed or replaced.) Given the choice between a sub-optimal film screening and an equivalently sub-optimal digital projection (whatever that means) I'd take the film artifacts over the digital ones.
As an aside, I also thought this program was interesting because it dealt with taking film elements that were still "pretty good" (eminently watchable, at least) and cleaning them up to make them as near-to-perfect as possible. This is a bit of a break from previous years, when this program often dealt more with the challenges of taking badly damaged films and make them watchable again, or putting together the best elements from several prints to make the best version possible.
Okay, enough of that, now on to the actual movies of the day, starting with the Chinese film LITTLE TOYS (1933).
I think there's an interesting aspect to mid-30's foreign (especially Asian) silent films, since they're after the time that American studios all transferred over to making talkies. See, from the beginning to the end of the 20's the story of the silent film industry was a story of constant progress, both technically and artistically in terms of the sophistication of the stories. And then the progress abruptly ended in America when everyone stopped making silent films. But in Asia (and Shanghai in particular) this is just when the silent era took off. Before, they simply couldn't compete with the Americans, who were making something like 80% of all silent films by the mid-to-late 20's (and it was trivial to cut out the English intertitles and put in Chinese ones.) But when Americans started making talkies the Chinese audience couldn't understand them, and so they went to the movies they could understand--the Chinese made silent films. And they kept progressing where the American silents left off--maybe not in terms of big budgets and special effects, but in terms of sophistication of story-telling. There's a language to silent film that was not done growing, and while it was cut down in its prime in America, it had a chance to progress further in Asia.
Anyway, enough of the generalities and theory, how about the actual movie. First, it was made by Linhua studios, the biggest studio in Shanghai at the time, directed by Sun Yu and starring the beautiful Ruan Lingyu. She plays Sister Ye, a clever and popular toymaker in her generally peaceful village. But her business is threatened by the mass-produced toys, which happen to typically be military themed. Hint: they're a metaphor for Japanese imperialism! Anyway, Sister Ye moves to Shanghai with her daughter after her husband dies of an illness and her little son is kidnapped right out from under her nose (as she's attending to her husband who has collapsed in the street. Talk about a double whammy!) Well, in Shanghai she builds up the business again, but the new life she pieces together is threatened again--this time by actual invaders.
Now an aside, the Nationalist government at the time was officially pro-Japan (or at least anti-pissing off Japan,) so censors would not allow them to say the enemy was Japanese. They simply referred to invading forces as "the enemy" and reference "imperialism" (it could be British or American imperialism, it doesn't have to be Japanese!) .... Everyone knew it meant the Japanese...except for the censors, I guess.
Anyway, there's a good decades worth of suffering there, and without giving away too much of a spoiler it eventually drives her mad. It's kind of a heart-wrenching film, so it's hard to say it was really "fun" to watch, but it was very well made and Ruan Lingyu is a beautiful heroine. Incidentally, she's an icon of Chinese cinema, although she had her own tragic life story (Short version: suicide at age 24. Slightly longer version: apparently there's a cult around her like Elvis where people claim she faked her death and report seeing her in the strangest places.)
And of course I would be remiss if I didn't commend Donald Sosin for his fantastic score on the piano.
Next up was an epic that was actually a surprisingly simple love triangle. Or maybe it was a simple love triangle tragedy masquerading as a costume epic. Whatever it was, it was THE LOVES OF PHARAOH (1922) and it introduced itself as an epic in 6 parts.
What can I say, Ernst Lubitsch directed, so it's brilliant, weird, and funny in the not-quite-sure-if-I-should-be-laughing sort of way. Emil Jannings plays the Pharaoh Amenes. Paul Wegener (best known for THE GOLEM) plays Ethiopian king Samlak. Samlak intends to sign a peace pact with Egypt, and offers his daughter the princess to be Amenes' wife. But instead Amenes has eyes for Theonis (Dagny Servaes) the princess' Greek slave who was previously stolen by the Egyptian soldier Sothis (Albert Basserman.) Theonis loves Sothis, but can't disobey the Pharaoh. Meanwhile Samlak is pretty pissed off that A) the Pharaoh rejected his daughter, and more importantly B) the Pharaoh won't give back his slave Theonis. So the Pharaoh goes to war with Ethiopia over his love for Theonis, even though Theonis won't even put out for him because she's in love with Sothis (who has been sentenced to hard labor in the quarries.) Whew! Confused yet? Extra confusing (without giving away too many more spoilers) is how it almost has a happy, even triumphant ending, but then there's the sixth part of the epic that kind of doesn't make sense (I'm trying not to be spoilery, but someone who was supposed to be dead ends up alive) and makes it all end tragically.
But the important this is that Dennis James absolutely rocked the Mighty Wurlitzer, and somehow made the whole thing work!
I do have one additional comment. This was a new restoration, and some bits were missing (filled in with text and still frames.) It was also shown as a DCP instead of film, but I still thought it looked good (for what it's worth, I did notice right away it was digital, not film. I'm not sure if that's because they mentioned it earlier in the day or the DCP just wasn't as high-quality as WINGS was opening night.) But that's neither here nor there. What I really wanted to comment on was the intertitles. Because they didn't have any surviving English intertitles, they had to translate them from German with the help of the script and contemporary accounts of the day. That's all fine, but they chose to put them in a very distracting blocky neon blue font, nothing like the intertitles of the day. Now I know there's a school of thought then when you're repairing/replacing a missing element you should make it clear it's a replacement and not the original. To make it look exactly like an intertitle from the day could be seen as fraudulent and more importantly convince people that you already have the original intertitles and there's no reason to keep searching for them. I just think you can do it in a way that isn't so jarring--copy the style of the day but leave something small in the corner or edges to let people know who constructed these intertitles and when. They way it was, the intertitles kept dragging me into the modern day so there was a constant sort of whiplash jumping between 1922 and 2012. Anyway, just my two cents as an audience member.
The next show started with an excerpt from a film that's kind of near and dear to my heart, TWIN PEAKS TUNNEL (1917.) It was restored by my good friends at The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum (a great place to watch silent films every Saturday night the 51 weeks of the year when this festival isn't going on) and shows the beginning of construction of the Twin Peaks Tunnel in San Francisco, the eastern end of which is at the corner of Castro and Market Streets, right across the street from the Theater where we watched it. A really remarkable look at the steam shovels, motor cars, and two-horse carts that started the tunnel on both ends (the middle had to be dug by hand.)
And then the next feature, MANTRAP (1926.) The last three features of the day all showcased the comedy and tragedy of obsessing over a woman, and this middle one kept it firmly in the realm of comedy and featured the woman I'd be most likely to obsess over, Clara Bow, super-flirt. Giant woodsman Joe Easter (Ernest Torrence, best known as Steamboat Bill, Sr. in Buster Keaton's STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.) travels from his quiet home on the Mantrap river in Canada to Minneapolis, remembering the wild time in his youth when he saw a woman's ankle there. Well, he meets lovely and bubbly manicurist Alverna (Bow) and next thing you know he's bringing her back home as his bride. Thing is, Mantrap is a little too quiet for her, and she likes to hold loud parties with the local trappers. Enter into the picture two friends--Ralph Prescott and E. Wesson Woodbury (Percy Marmont and Eugene Pallette) out for a bit of peace and quiet and communing with nature. Ralph, in particular, is a divorce lawyer and needs a break from the women who constantly hound him. Too bad they're not good campers and soon enough Joe has to separate them, and brings Ralph home to finish out his vacation with himself and Alverna. Ralph plays up the comic foil as the unlikely character of a man who can resist Clara Bow's charm for a very, very long time. A long time...but not forever. Director Victor Fleming (who had a very well-known affair with Clara Bow, starting with this movie) does an excellent job but Bow really steals the whole thing with her over-the-top bubbly flirtiness. In fact, it gets to the point where maybe it's a little too much, but without giving too much away let me just say the final line of the film redeems her character and allows the audience--who desperately wants to love her--to love her without guilt or fear.
And, of course, the master Stephen Horne did a wonderful job accompanying on the piano...and flute (often holding a conversation between Clara Bow as the flute and Ernest Torrence as the piano)...and accordion.
And finally the last film of the night was the traditional Director's Pick, and this year the director was San Francisco legend Philip Kaufman, and the pick was THE WONDERFUL LIE OF NINA PETROVNA (1929.) This time the woman who is the object of the men's desire is Brigitte Helm (METROPOLIS) as the title character. She is a kept woman of wealthy Colonel Beranoff (Warwick Ward) but has a wandering eye, and her first lie (the title is sometimes translated and THE WONDERFUL LIES OF NINA PETROVNA) involves a young, naive Lieutenant Michael Rostof (Francisc Lederer) she makes eyes at in the club. She tells the Colonel that he's an old childhood friend of hers (at this point there was some trouble with the subtitles, but fortunately Philip Kaufman had already revealed that plot element in his introductory remarks.) He laughs at her wonderful lie, but when she invites the Lieutenant over for a secret nighttime tryst (although he's so naive that nothing actually happens) he's a little less amused. She insists she loves Michael, so the Colonel sends her out of his villa--without his fancy furs or jewels. But she is content to live a much less lavish lifestyle, as long as she can be with Michael (why, beyond his naive good looks, is kind of a mystery. Especially given their one frustratingly chaste night together.) Well, without giving too much away eventually comedy gives way to tragedy. The Colonel's scheme to win Nina back works...up to a point. And we were all treated to a surprisingly powerful nearly forgotten film.
And, perhaps most importantly, we were treated to another excellent score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
And as one final note, since I mentioned problems with the subtitles before, I feel I should comment more. I want to make it very clear that I think the projectionist at the Castro does a wonderful job. And last night he had the additional job of projecting the subtitles digitally on top of the film print. And it seems the subtitles just didn't want to cooperate. Although he eventually got it to work, it seemed like it was something of a heroic struggle in the booth to do so. Some subtitles were missing, others were shown a bit too early or included a distracting horizontal line near the top of the frame. In any case, although it was noticeable it did not ruin the movie, and I just wanted to thank the projectionist for what must have been an incredibly stressful and difficult job.
And that's Friday at the SFSFF. Two more days of equal intensity coming up. Here's hoping I survive!
Total Running Time: 421 minutes
My Total Minutes: 290,708