Monday, June 1, 2015

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 4

A big six-film Sunday. And it's still not over!

First some business, correcting a past oversight. Many (most?) of the films played with a short clip of footage from the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. I haven't been saying anything about them. And I still won't say much, beyond that they're kind of cool, and a neat look into what life was like 100 years ago. Also, since I've been recording the running time with a stopwatch (silent film "running times" are notoriously suspect, as it depends on the projection speed) I have included the time of these clips in the total time.

Okay, so the first show of the day, bright and early at 10 am, was a tribute to The Amazing Charley Bowers. I had actually never heard of Charley Bowers, so Serge Bromberg's introduction was invaluable. Bowers (known as "Bricolo" in France) was a genius of the absurd, and created some truly bizarre outside-the-mainstream comic pieces, often mixing stop-motion animation with live action.
A WILD ROOMER (1926): Often Bowers stars as a mad inventor, and in this case he's invented a machine that controls every action in every room of the house, from entertaining babies to shaving adults to cleaning the stove. And to get his inheritance, he has to show off his invention to his greedy uncle.
NOW YOU TELL ONE (1926): At the liars club, nobody has a good enough lie to win. Until they meet Bricolo, who has a fantastic tale of a formula he invented to graft anything on to anything else...and how it has ruined his life.
MANY A SLIP (1927): Charley's inventing services are needed again, this time to solve an epidemic sweeping the nation and invent a non-slip banana peel. After many failed attempts, he discovers the slippery germ that causes banana accidents.
THERE IT IS (1928): When the Frisbie family is flummoxed by the Fuzz-Faced Phantom (bushy-bearded Buster Brodie) Charley MacNeesha (Bowers) of Scotland Yard (actually, a pen of Scotsmen) is called in to save the day.

Serge Bromberg didn't just introduce the films, he also accompanied them on piano. This guy can do anything!

Then since Charley Bowers was surreal enough, we went to Avant-Garde Paris for a double bill.
EMAK-BAKIA (1927): Man Ray created this stunning array of seemingly unconnected images. Swirling lights, eyeballs, double exposures, a really freaky trip.

Earplay made it's SFSFF debut with a screeching, discordant score that was perfect for this avante-garde piece.

MÉNILMONTANT (1926): This one had a little more of a storyline, but was still difficult to follow in any conventional sense. In the opening, we see a couple brutally murdered by a madman. Then we follow the lives of their two orphaned daughters (cheating: I had to look up the description online to know that) when they grow up, both fall for the same man, who is a thug. Perhaps it was sheer exhaustion, but I didn't get a lot out of this one. Too bad, it's Pauline Kael's favorite film.

Stephen Horne, of course, did a fantastic job with the accompaniment.

WHY BE GOOD? (1929): Then it was time for a little fun that didn't make me think too hard and featured the beautiful and vivacious Coleen Moore as the aptly-named Pert Kelly. By day, she's a shop girl, and by night she's a hard-partying flapper who wins dance contests. But she is a good girl, no matter how much debauchery is going on behind her (including an infamous cut scene in the Boiler Club where go-go girls are shown simulated roasting on spits.) Neil Hamilton (who later became Commissioner Gordon on the Batman TV series) plays the wealthy son of the shop owner, out on the town for one last night of fun before he starts his very serious job as head of the Personnel Dept. the next day. he falls for Pert, not knowing she's an employee. So when she's 15 minutes late the next day, and he has to discipline her, it gets a bit awkward. And when his father fires her, it gets even worse. The plot revolves around mistrust of each other's character, and Pert having to prove she's a "good girl" (i.e., virgin) so they can get married. But there's also a strong streak of female empowerment running throughout, particularly in Pert's relationship with her mother (Bodil Rosing) who I see as the real hero of the movie.

Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra did a great job keeping it as light and fun as the movie.

NORRTULLSLIGAN (1923): Then this Swedish comedy about four female office workers--Pegg, Baby, Eva, and Emmy--living together and dealing with a man's world, solidarity, worker's rights, love, life, etc. The title translates as Norrtull Gang (or North Gate Gang/League) after the neighborhood where they live. As much as they try to avoid men, their love lives become central to the story, with the "notary" who is always stopping by and bothering them, especially Baby. And Pegg's boss is a bachelor who enjoys the company of a beautiful, happy young woman (or what he mistakes Pegg for, as she was actually suicidal at the time.) Working conditions in the office lead to talk of a strike, which leads to a crackdown from the bosses and prompt firings of anyone who was agitating for a strike. This puts a big dent in the girls' finances, and leads to some desperation, just as Christmas is around the corner. Luckily a Christmas miracle might be in the cards. It was a strange, but fun film.

Of course, because the film was from Sweden we had to have The Matti Bye Ensemble provide the score, and they were brilliant.

SHERLOCK HOLMES (1916): And then this was the advertised highlight of the festival, a recently discovered print of the long-thought-lost first ever feature length film of a Sherlock Holmes story. And starring the legendary William Gillette, who originated the role on stage. This was an Essanay film (so hooray for our local connection!) and was shot in the Chicago studio. But half the cast was actually from Gillette's stage company and the other half (particularly Moriarty and his gang) were from the Essanay cast. And it's pretty clear who knows the material better (Gillette.) In fact, more than a few times I cringed at how comically bad Moriarty's "genius" plans were, and Holmes thwarts him pretty easily. And the feature film had actually been cut into 4 parts and released as a serial in France. This is the version that was discovered and shown last night, and I couldn't help but believe that the original feature version had to be edited a little more fluidly than this. But it was still a good production and it was a treat not just to watch the first Sherlock Holmes feature but a true master of the part playing Holmes.

The Donald Sosin Ensemble (Donald, Günter Buchwald, Frank Bockius, and Sascha Jacobsen) did a great job with the accompaniment.

THE SWALLOW AND THE TITMOUSE (1920): And finally we ended the film with what might just be my favorite of the festival (and this surprised me.) The title refers to the Hirondelle and the Mésange, two barges bringing supplies from Antwerp to places devastated by WWI. It's a tranquil, serene view of life on the river with a husband Pierre Van Groot (restrain yourself from making an I Am Groot joke!) his wife Griet, and her little sister Marthe. In Antwerp they take on a new pilot, Michel. They also take on a little contraband...nothing serious, but a little extra money on the side. This becomes the source of the dramatic conclusion, but that's almost unimportant. I loved that it would show beautiful, tranquil shots of the countryside going by from the boat. Or slow, quiet moments when Michel and Marthe look like they might be falling for each other. In 1920, the acting style was typically more broad pantomime than the beautifully naturalistic acting here. That and the natural, location shooting confused distributors into thinking it looked too much like a documentary, and they refused to play it. It wasn't until 63 years later that this film was rediscovered--all six hours plus of rushes, and cut down to it's lean 79 minute story by editor Henri Colpi. And the end result is a beautiful film that was a few years before its time--and finally shown several decades after its time.

Stephen Horne on piano, accordion, and flute and Diana Rowan on harp provided a score that was as beautiful, natural, and perfect as the movie.

And that was Sunday at SFSFF. But there's more. For the first time they've expanded the program to Monday, and now it's time for me to leave to that.

Total Running Time: 506 minutes
My Total Minutes: 398,486

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