Monday, July 16, 2012

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 3

I was up bright and early again Saturday for a 10:00 am show. And we start with one of my favorites, Felix the Cat. Yay Saturday morning cartoons! Here's the lineup:
FELIX LOSES OUT (1924): Felix competes for the hand (paw) of Miss Kitty, against a rival who has a motor scooter.
FELIX THE CAT TRIPS THRU TOYLAND (1925): Felix rescues a doll from a doggy, and the doll takes him on a trip to Toyland where he has to rescue her from a villainous clown.
FELIX THE CAT IN BLUNDERLAND (1926): Felix searches for Wonderland, but a cop gives him confusing directions and he ends up in Blunderland. Wacky hijinx ensue.
FELIX THE CAT WEATHERS THE WEATHER (1926): Felix takes the wife and kitties out for a picnic but the rapidly changing weather ruins everything. So he has to conquer the weatherman and take control of the weather himself. You know, everyone complains about the weather but Felix actually did something about it! Complete with audience participation as the meowing kittens and making wind noises.
JUNGLE BUNGLES (1928): Felix sees a show of African jungle films and decides to shoot some jungle scenes himself. Lots of fun with the audience participation for animal noises. I don't mean to toot my own horn, but I'm kinda proud of my monkey screeches (I learned from the best--my daddy!)
ESKIMOTIVE (1928): Felix and his son take a trip via bubble to the great white north where they face Eskimos, darkness, a polar bear, and seals.
FELIX THE CAT FLIRTS WITH FATE (1926): Felix searches for true love, and finally finds it...on Mars. Then he teaches the Martians how to do the Charleston.

But you know, those one line descriptions don't do justice to the clever, surreal lunacy of Felix. He lives in a world where Felix's tail is removable for all sorts of schemes, where question marks appear over his head and then become physical objects for his manipulation. And it's a world where bubbles are a means of transportation. It's not yet a world where he carries a magic bag of tricks (that was an invention of his 1960's television resurgence) but it's pretty darn close.

Many thanks to the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Library of Congress, and George Eastman House for the beautiful 35 mm prints. And thanks to Donald Sosin and Toychestra (making their SF Silent Film Festival debut) for the accompaniment.

Next up was THE SPANISH DANCER (1923,) which so far has been my surprise hit of the festival [note: "so far" was written write after I saw it. Since I didn't post this until the end of the festival, I can tell you that it held up to the end as my surprise hit.] Apparently for years it had been unfairly derided as a lousy film that somehow mysteriously did well when it first came out but since had been seen as a stuffy costume melodrama with side plots that go nowhere. But, as described in the introduction by Rob Byrne, nobody had really seen the full version since it was first released. It had been badly cut up and only cut, degraded, and censored version had been seen. Now it has finally been restored to its former glory, and the most remarkable thing I can report is how funny it is. That's not surprising with Wallace Beery playing the King of Spain, but of course the star (and title character) is Pola Negri. She plays a gypsy singer, dancer, and fortune teller. She reads the fortune--and catches the eye--of Don Cesar de Bazan (Antonio Moreno, in a role originally written for Rudolph Valentino, but he plays it closer to a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler.) He's a nobleman but he hasn't been too smart with his money, and soon his creditors will leave him a penniless beggar. But there are three things he will always fight for--The Cross, The Crown, and the Heart. Well, through a wacky series of adventures (including an absolutely priceless execution sequence,) he ends up fighting for his heart against the crown. This is another in the festival theme of movies about women who inspire obsession in men--and this time both Don Cesar and King Philip become obsessed with her. And it all gets wrapped up in a court blackmail intrigue revolving around a treaty with France (where Queen Isabella is from.) Very funny (especially Wallace Beery in the final act) and exciting. 

And once again, Donald Sosin did an excellent job accompanying on the piano, this time with Jim Washburn and Greg Smith on guitar.

Next up was an interesting little film from our neighbors to the north, the uninterestingly titled THE CANADIAN (1926.) In a plot that's reminiscent of THE WIND (1928) but precedes it by two years, it's a story of Nora Marsh (Mona Palma,) a lady of London who out of financial desperation goes to live on her brother Ed's (Wyndham Standing) farm in Canada. She doesn't fit in at all, and especially clashes with Ed's wife Gertie (Dale Fuller.) In fact, they get into a confrontation so traumatic for her that she can't stand to live under the same roof anymore and offers to marry hired hand Frank Taylor (Thomas Meighan) just to move out. Now, the important thing about that deal is that Frank was talking at dinner about how he just wanted a wife to cook, clean, and sew...he doesn't mention anything else. But after a few months of co-habitation (with different bedrooms) he at least wants a little kiss. And this is where things get a little weird. There's an implied rape, and the next morning things are different...but over the harsh winter they actually grow to love each other, so much so that even when the crops fail she decides to stay with him out of love. I guess he had his way with her just the way she liked it? It's really a very simple story, but one that still left me scratching my head a bit.

Of course, one thing that was beyond doubt was how great Stephen Horne was accompanying on the grand piano/flute/accordion. 

Next up was SOUTH (1919), a documentary on the ill-fated yet heroic expedition of Ernest Shackleton. His expedition was shortly after Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to the South Pole and Robert Scott made it to the pole [only to find Amundsen's flag already planted there] but didn't survive the journey back (the subject of THE GREAT WHITE SILENCE (1924) which was my favorite film of the festival last year.) The only amazing Antarctic triumph left was to cross the southern continent from sea to sea, and Shackleon set out to do just that in 1914, with a crew that included filmmaker Frank Hurley. Unfortunately, their ship The Endurance got trapped in the ice and the crew had to survive over a year on Elephant Island while Shackleton made an 800-mile journey by lifeboat to get to civilization and rescue them. Miraculously (and through Shackleton's leadership and courage) every last man in the expedition survived! There is some great cinematography of the Endurance breaking its way through the ice as far as it can, and the extreme efforts of the men to push on. Then, of course, Frank Hurley didn't accompany Shackleton on his amazing lifeboat journey so there's no footage of that journey but to pass the time he filmed the wildlife and made a pretty remarkable nature documentary of the penguins, seals, etc. who live there.

I probably would have liked the movie better if it hadn't been for two things. First, I had been blown away by THE GREAT WHITE SILENCE (1924) last year, and it's still the superior Antarctic exploration movie. Second they projected it digitally and it just wasn't a pristine, high-resolution digital copy. It looked just okay, for the most part it wasn't too distracting but there were definitely digital artifacts that were noticeable (especially aliasing artifacts very noticeable in the rigging of the ship.) I certainly preferred that projection to not being able to see it at all. I know the festival is committed to showing the best possible version of the movie they can, so I'm sure there's a reason they didn't get either a film print or a better digital version. But I would be remiss if I didn't hold them to their own standards.

And once again, Stephen Horne did a great job accompanying, this time with the help of Paul McGann reading from Shackleton's actual writings. I wish I had written down the exact line he used at the end--something along the lines of "For speed and accuracy no one beats Amundsen, for bravery there's Robert Scott, but for rescue in the face of certain death, give me Shackleton!" 

So the next film was the masterpiece PANDORA'S BOX (1929) in an absolutely pristine print only seen by a couple of audiences before. This new restoration was funded by cinephile and Louise Brooks fan Hugh Hefner and overseen by David Ferguson, Angela Holm, and Vincent Pirozzi. The latter three were there to introduce the film, and they talked about the painstaking frame-by-frame digital reconstruction, since no negatives exist and most elements were the product of sub-par duplications. But they didn't go into too much detail because by that time we were already about an hour behind (not to go into details, but ironically the hardest thing about a silent film festival is managing the sound system.)

Anyway, it's a tour de force for Louise Brooks, for German expressionism, and for the art of film in general. It's a film that can make you wonder why people kept making movies after 1929. Couldn't they have just said, "Okay, that's a wrap, this art form has been perfected! Nobody needs to film anything else, we can just keep watching PANDORA'S BOX over and over again!"

It's the story of Lulu, a young showgirl in the infamously debauched Berlin of the 20's. And it's the story of the men (and one woman, the first explicitly lesbian character in film!) who are drawn to her. Expecially Dr. Schön, the editor of the paper who promotes her. But he couldn't possibly let their affair become public knowledge as it would be career suicide. Oops, it becomes knowledge anyway and now he has to marry her. But then he threatens her with a gun and in the struggle she shoots him. The trial is a sensation, and the plot to smuggle her out of the courtroom is both funny and an excellent example of the devotion she inspires. She goes on the lam with her coterie of admirers, and without laboring the plot I'll just say she ends up impoverished in London at just the time when a famous ripper is roaming the streets. Marvelous, just marvelous. Honestly I'm at a loss because anything I say can't live up to the film, so I'll just give up and say you have to see it yourself. (I couldn't find any news on if/when this restoration will be on DVD or Blu-Ray, but the previous Criterion release is pretty great, too.)

The Matti Bye Ensemble did an amazing job with a new score. In fact, while this restoration had only been seen a few times before, this was the world premiere of their new score, and it blew me away.

Meanwhile, while this is a little off topic, my beloved San Jose Earthquakes were opening a Pandora's Box of whoop-ass over Real Salt Lake. As a season ticket holder, I had a hard choice before the festival to see the game or see the movies today. It looks like I would've won either way, but I'm very happy with the choice I made.

And finally, we ended the night with the Russian oddity THE OVERCOAT (1926). I have to say I feel a little sorry for the Alloy Orchestra, who accompanied it. First, this is the only film they're accompanying in the festival. Second, the festival was running over an hour late for what was supposed to already be the late show, so only the die-hard film addicts like myself stayed. And third, they had to follow PANDORA'S BOX, which is a daunting challenge in itself. But given that, I think we got the perfect sort of weirdness that wouldn't compete in my mind with PANDORA'S BOX, but would find an entirely new an never-before-used part of my brain to live in. It's a bit hard to follow and it employs that exaggerated Russian style that would make the German expressionists say, "Dude, take it down a notch!" But the basic story is of a good and clever clerk who is deceived by conspirators with the help of An Unimportant Personage. As a result, his career never progresses and we find him an old man bent over with age still working as a clerk and with no friends. His overcoat is worn to rags, and that can mean his death in the frost of St. Petersburg. So he saves up his money until he can afford a brand new overcoat (150 rubles) and when he finally has enough it's the happiest day of his life. But he still has no friends, and within a day he is accosted and his overcoat is stolen. The local magistrate--an Important Person who used to be an Unimportant Personage is indifferent and throws him out for not going through his secretary. And soon enough, he dies and is buried in a plain pine coffin (he couldn't afford oak.) The end. It's grotesque, bizarre, tragic, social, and political. And I still don't know what to make of it. But damn if I didn't love the weirdness of it all.

Of course, as I said before The Alloy Orchestra accompanied, and did a fantastic job (unfortunately, for only a half full house, but those who stayed had a story to tell)

Total Running Time: 509 minutes
My Total Minutes: 291,216

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