Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 3

A full day on Saturday, from 10 am to almost midnight I didn't leave the Castro theater. That might sound crazy, but that's pretty typical for the Silent Film Festival. The long weekend is as exhausting as any other 2+ weeks festival I've ever done.

We started with an orphaned film, a clip of footage of Market Street after the earthquake in 1906.
And then the feature, THE GOOD BAD MAN (1916): Douglas Fairbanks stars in the first film he helped write (he conceived of the story, but didn't have the patience to pen the actual screenplay.) He plays an outlaw "Passin' Through" a sort of old-west Robin Hood (he would later team up with the same director, Allan Dwan, to make ROBIN HOOD.) There's a particular focus on fatherless children. Passin' Through is an orphan, and he uses his stolen loot to help either orphans or single mothers and their children (Fairbanks himself was raised by a single mother when his father left them when he was 5.) As an outlaw, he does fall in with a local gang of thieves, but immediately takes a disliking to their leader, The Wolf (Sam De Grasse.) At first it's about their rivalry for the affections of Amy (Bessie Love) but later it's over the revelation that The Wolf is actually the man who killed his father. A fun, exciting story with plenty of Douglas Fairbanks flash and charm.

And showing plenty of flash and charm himself, Donald Sosin did a great job accompanying on the piano.

Next up was Serge Bromberg's (of Lobster Films) Treasure Trove. I had heard of Serge before, but never witnessed the humor and showmanship of the man himself. And he does not disappoint, as he did his famous show of burning a little strip of silver nitrate film on stage. He also accompanied his films himself on the piano, as he spoke about and showed 3 well known (or at least, I thought they were well known) silent comedies.

A NIGHT AT THE SHOW (1915): One of Chaplin's Essanay shorts, where he plays dual roles (including a gag where his character in the balcony pours a drink on his character down below.) A pretty funny short, but this was from a newly found print that was struck from the original camera negative. So the picture (except for the degraded bits) is of a quality that hasn't been seen since it was first released. The restoration of this film is a work in progress.
THE WAITERS' BALL (1916): Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle and Al St. John are cook and a waiter in a restaurant. They work together and battle each other in typical Keystone slapstick style, culminating in a showdown with Fatty in drag at the titular Waiter's Ball. Very funny.... I've written those exact words before. And they're still true. But this film was originally a two-reeler and has existed in several different edited-down one-reel versions for decades. This version was pieced together from all the prints Lobster Films could get their hands on to reconstruct (as close to) the original two-reel version as possible. 
THE BLACKSMITH (1922): Actually, this is the alternate version of the Keaton short. In the version available everywhere, Keaton never actually leaves the blacksmith shop. But in this one, he goes for a drive, has trouble with a disconnected steering wheel, gets into a chase with Joe Roberts, and more antics. This version was discovered on a 9.5 mm film (a home movie format) by Fernando Pena, who is famous for finding the lost version of METROPOLIS. He brought that to the attention of Serge Bromberg, who searched for it in French archives (since 9.5 mm was a French format) and lo and behold, he found that he already owned a 35 mm copy of it (with an extra scene cut out of the 9.5 mm version for featuring a slightly racy silhouette.)

And that was supposed to be it, but Serge had one more trick up his sleeve. To demonstrate how eBay has become the film archivist/preservationist/collector's best friend, he showed us something he had just picked up for seven buck. FANTASMAGORIE (1908) [Correction: LE CAUCHEMAR DU FANTOCHE (1908): thank you to Brian Darr for correcting me] by Emile Cohl. In one of the earliest filmed animated cartoon ever, line drawings morph into different shapes. Very cool.

THE EPIC OF EVEREST (1924): Next up was the official documentary record of the third British expedition to attempt to reach the summit of Chomolungma (as the native Tibetans call Everest.) Shot by Captain John Noel, we start with some interesting looks at the natives. Fascinating characters, and some of the earliest recorded images of the Tibetan people (although there is a bit of a dig at their music.) Rongbuk monastery is beautiful, and then we get the first looks at the mountain. Gorgeous views of the daunting peak and its treacherous glaciers. Eventually, the camera can go no further, so the action of the climbers (spoiler alert, they don't make it) is captured with a specially made extreme telephoto lens. Which is a limitation of the time, but frankly makes the action kind of uninteresting. Instead of seeing them struggle on the mountain, we see dots doing...we don't know what. And we see people back at camp wonder and worry about them. Which is unfortunate. But it's still a fascinating movie with beautiful scenes of Everest and a fascinating look into the age of explorers (and a post WWI look at a hopeful time when men could strive to achieve great things instead of just killing each other.)

Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius provided excellent accompaniment, of course.

UNDERGROUND (1928): Returning from the Himalayas, we next went to jolly ol' England--London, specifically, for a not-so-jolly story. Set in London's Underground (that is, the subway, not the seedy criminal netherworld,) it starts off as a pretty standard love story, but shot quite well. Nice guy Bill (Brian Aherne) is a porter in the subway, stationed by the escalators, and is sweet on Nell (Elissa Landi,) a pretty shopgirl who takes the subway to and from work every day. Bert (Cyril McLaglen) is a muscular power station worker who catches sight of Nell and falls for her right away. But she doesn't reciprocate, as much as he tries. So he hatches a plot with his seamstress neighbor Kate (Norah Baring) to frame Bill and get him out of the picture. But things go horribly, horribly wrong and what starts as a light love triangle story has a tragic finish. Excellent picture that makes great use of the subway setting.

Stephen Horne was excellent as always as the one man band accompaniment.

But now I have to take a moment to bring up something that has been bugging me. There is an undead pixel in the Castro's digital projector. A bright red dot in the lower left corner of the screen. Technically the correct term is "stuck" pixel. I was calling them "dead" pixels until my friend Lincoln corrected me (it's not dead, it's stuck on, not off.) That's when I coined the term "undead" pixel and then promptly forgot about it until I read it on his website. This bright red dot is present in all digital projections at the Castro and will be until the projector is fixed/replaced (this requires replacement of a very expensive piece of the projector, so it might be worth it to get a new projector instead, perhaps upgrade from 2K to 4K.) It's actually less of a problem with silent/classic films due to the aspect ratio, which puts it far in the corner of the picture. In a newer widescreen picture that dot is still in the same spot on the screen, but that spot is further into the picture, where more action is likely to take place. It's also more (or only) visible when that part of the screen is dark. Which is why I bring it up now, because UNDERGROUND features many scenes in relative darkness.

Anyway, unlike many of my cinephile friends, I am not an enemy of digital. In fact, it was a screening of INTOLERANCE last year at the Castro that made me declare that digital can be just as good as film. But this is something sorely missing in the debate. The debate is generally cast as film purists like Tarantino claiming cinema is dead vs. fans of digital pointing to how it allows for so much more independent film-making and (importantly) that (good) digital projection looks just as good if not better than film. Digital fans might also mock the film purists as reminding them of how sound or color was supposed to be the death of cinema (I could write another angry screed about that comparison, particularly sound.) But nobody talks about the scourge of undead pixels, which I see popping up in more and more places and never get fixed quickly or easily. I can't think of anything analogous in film. Something that ruins (no matter how slightly) every film that will be played on that project, and which is so expensive to replace. I have no direct knowledge of this, but I've been told by a filmmaker friend (who is also a bit of tech geek) that typically the warranty for a digital projector won't cover replacing them until there are six stuck pixels. That seems, frankly...horrible. I'm enough of a glutton that I will continue watching movies even when there's a stuck pixel (obviously I endured it through all of the Silent Film Festival, even though about half the movies were projected digitally) but I will not be happy about it. So I rescind what I previously said about digitally being as good as film. Digital projection will not have truly arrived until they can fix the stuck pixel issue.

UNDER THE LANTERN (1928): Then we go to Germany, for the most depressing film in the festival and also my favorite (well, co-favorite, but we'll get to that the next day.) Else Riedel (Lissy Arna) just wants to go out dancing with her boyfriend Hans (Mathias Wieman,) especially to that popular tune of the day, "Drink, Fellow, Drink!" But her father forbids her. When she sneaks out anyway he locks her out until morning. So she goes and lives with Hans and his roommate/best friend Max (Paul Heidemann.) To avoid a scandal, they claim to be brother and sister, which works only up until Max develops feelings for her and their lie has to be revealed. But that's not the problem, the problem is her father sending the police out after her to round her up and bring her home. Which means she can't work (they had a very popular act at the local vaudeville house where Hans and Max played a horse and she was the stable mistress training him.) Well, things go on from there, the escalating shittiness of her life is kind of reminiscent of PANDORA'S BOX. Until ultimately she ends up under the lantern (a euphemism for working as a prostitute.) And things keep getting worse. This has something like 9 acts (if I recall correctly) and there were several parts where it could have ended (and many in the audience started grumbling) but the story follows through to the bitter end and is perfect. An earlier ending would have worked, but the ultimate ending is just perfect--perfectly depressing, but a masterpiece.

The Donald Sosin Ensemble (Donald, G√ľnter BuchwaldFrank Bockius, and Sascha Jacobsen) provided the accompaniment, and I have to take a moment to say that collaborations between musicians is a big new thing at this year's festival and I really dig it!

THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF MR WEST IN THE LAND OF THE BOLSHEVIKS (1924): And finally, the ending was another Soviet oddity, and easily the best title in the festival. Porfiri Podobed plays the titular J. West, an American stereotype in Harold Lloyd glasses who is traveling to Moscow on business with the YMCA. He has read up on the horrible, savage Bolsheviks and so he brings along his faithful sidekick Jeddy the cowboy (Boris Barnet.) Arriving in a big fur coat and waving a little American flag, he's a broad satire of an American stereotype, and quickly falls prey to the local criminal element while Jeddy gets lost following the wrong car (in a classic 9 vs. 6 upside-down license plate gag.) Playing off his fear of Bolsheviks one gang pretends to be Bolsheviks while the other helpfully rescues Mr. West (for a fee, of course.) Eventually he's rescued by real Bolsheviks, and we all learn a lesson about stereotypes. But what I'll really remember is that the Countess' attempts at seduction are the stuff of nightmares.

The Matti Bye Ensemble provided the accompaniment, and were of course magnificent.

And that was the exhausting Saturday at Silentfest. Just one more day (and six more movies) to go.

Total Running Time: 518 minutes
My Total Minutes: 364,271

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