Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Jason goes to Silentfest--The Finale

6 more films on Sunday, to wrap up the best and most intense film weekend of the year (every year)

We started the day with some Ernst Lubitsch hilarity with THE DOLL (DIE PUPPE) (1919.) Set in a magical storybook, Baron von Chanterelle (Max Kronert) has no heir to leave his fortune (because, it appears he's not a fan of women. Oh yeah, this is presented as a children's storybook, but if you have a dirty mind it's a lot funnier.) So he offers his fortune to his nephew Lancelot (Hermann Thimig) if he'd only get married. But Lancelot isn't a fan of the ladies either. In fact, he runs away from several lovely wannabe brides to go join a monastery. There he and the monks hatch a plan. He'll go to the famous dollmaker Hilarius (Victor Janson) and buy a lifelike automaton doll to pretend to be his bride, so he can get his uncle's fortune and then give all the money to the monks. Hilarius' daughter, and model for his newest doll, is played by the Lubitsch muse, the delightful and mischievous Ossi Oswalda. Well, wacky hijinx ensue and Ossi has to fill in and pretend to be the doll. While Lancelot marvels at the cleverness and craftsmanship, the wedding party agrees he's chosen a wonderful bride. Very silly, and absolutely hilarious.

Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius did an excellent job with the score, kicking off the early morning with some high energy laughs.

Then it was time for a little early Cecil B. DeMille melodrama (he produced, director was Rupert Julian) with SILENCE (1926.)  Jim Warren (H.B. Warner) is in jail. He's going a little mad listening to the constant hammering. That hammering is construction of a gallows. A gallows that he will hang from. And although he has been a crook for much of his life, his lawyer is sure that he's innocent and is taking the fall for someone else. So the story is told as a flashback, unraveling a tale of love, misunderstandings, blackmail, and an unorthodox family (at least, for the times.) High melodrama, well done. Plus, it was thought lost until just last year when Cinémathèque Française discovered it in their archives. So we were the first audiences in ~90 years to see it!

And as long as we had to wait 90 years to see it, we might as well see it with the best possible accompaniment, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

The next show started with a bonus short, not in the program, FIFTY MILLION YEARS AGO (1925.) It's an animated primer on evolution, and released the same year as the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. And it was very entertaining.

But okay, as a guy with a science background, I have to address the title. In the opening lines, they claim that scientists agree that the earth is at least 50 million years old. "At least" is doing a lot of work in that sentence, because scientists now peg the age of the Earth at ~4.5 billion years, with multi-cellular life being around for about half of that time. Well, it turns out we've learned a lot in the past century. Earlier, younger estimates were largely based on the work of William Thomson, better known as Lord Kelvin, preeminent physicist and giant of thermodynamics. He had a pretty simple model--starting with an Earth-sized ball of molten lava, and knowing what we do about the transfer of heat within the Earth and from the Sun to the Earth, how long would it take to cool so that there was a crust with our current average surface temperatures. His first calculations gave him an estimate of 20-400 million years. So even at best he was "only" off by an order of magnitude. With further refinements he concluded the right answer was closer to 20 million years--i.e., he was refining his model in the wrong direction.

His conclusions were disputed, particularly by geologists who claimed that the geologic record (e.g., how long it would take certain geologic features to form.) They had a powerful ally in one Charles "Chucky-Boy*" Darwin, who used geologic principles to establish that the Earth was, in fact, old enough to give his theory of evolution enough time to work. Kelvin had a ready counter to the geologists points, though, which was, "Screw 'em, they're not really scientists!" Okay, not in those words, but essentially that the time scale of geologic processes had too much uncertainty.

Of course, the geologists turned out to be right and Kelvin was massively wrong. He missed two important points about heating inside the Earth that counteracted the cooling. One any good chef knows--convection. The other, only a few scientists at the time were discovering--radiation. Although it was well known by 1925, when the movie was made. Oh yeah, I'm supposed to be writing about movies here. Sorry for the interruption, let's carry on.

Anyway, FIFTY MILLION YEARS AGO thematically would've fit better before A LOST WORLD, but there was more room in the schedule to stick it before A MAN THERE WAS (TERJE VIGEN) (1917.) Victor Sjöström's beautiful take on Henrik Ibsen’s poem. The tinted and toned print was phenomenal, and featured one of the best examples of the technology, in a brilliant yellow and blue scene early in the film. Sjöström himself plays the hero Terje Vigen, a sailor with a lovely wife and young daughter whom he adores. But when a British blockade leaves them starving, he bravely sets out in his small dinghy to get purchase food from Denmark and save the village--and especially his family. But he is captured, and languishes in jail while his family starves. Years later he returns, is heartbroken, but soon gets a chance at revenge... A masterfully done morality tale.

And speaking of masterly, I can think of no better way to describe Mattie Bye Ensemble accompanying it.

Then one of my favorite films, THE LOST WORLD (1925.) Here's what I wrote the last time I saw it, back in 2014:
THE LOST WORLD (1925): Starring Wallace Beery, but especially starring Willis O'brien stop-motion effects (the first time stop-motion animation was used in a feature length film.)
When people ask me why I care about silent films, this is a big reason. Because this film's influence can still be seen today. Have you seen the trailer for the new JURASSIC WORLD? Doesn't it look awesome!? Remember how the second JURASSIC PARK movie was called THE LOST WORLD? You better believe Spielberg was inspired by this silent film to create his own dinosaurs.
Oh, but that's not all. Willis O'brien followed this up with a little film called KING KONG. You better believe that inspired a lot of filmmakers, most notably Peter Jackson. Maybe you loved the LORD OF THE RINGS movies like I did (maybe you also think the HOBBIT films are getting to be a bit much, but that's a different question.) And I guarantee you his movies have inspired kids who will become the master filmmakers who blow your mind 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now.
Oh, and Willis O'brien mentored Ray Harryhausen, who became the master of stop-motion animation. And it can all trace back to THE LOST WORLD.
Oh, do you like Pixar films? Perhaps you recognize the influence on UP (which kind of makes me wish UP had actually been an unofficial sequel to THE LOST WORLD and they found dinosaurs instead of weird looking birds there.) This is not a coincidence, Pixar luminaries have spoken about how they studied silent film to learn how to tell the story of WALL-E, where large stretches have no dialogue.
So this is why silent films are so great, and so important. They're the start of a century-long conversation on film, with influence that stretches beyond generations and will continue as long as film does (and maybe even carry over into whatever medium is next.)
Oh, and do you want to know what the film is actually about? I think I've written about it before.
This might be one of my favorite reviews ever, despite barely mentioning the actual film. But this time I will add that this was a glorious restoration, the best version that has been seen since 1925, and Serge Bromberg and Lobster Films deserves all the credit for that.

And, of course, equal credit goes to Alloy Orchestra for their excellent score.

So after child's storybook silliness, high melodrama, Sweden, and dinosaurs, it was time for the Russian Revolution. Or close two it, the Ukrainian civil war of 1917-1921, with TWO DAYS (Dva Dni) (1927.) Despite the big political setting, it's a very personal and apolitical story about a father and son. Aton (Ivan Zamychkovsky) is a loyal servant to his master, and stays behind to protect their property as they flee from the approaching Bolsheviks. When they arrive, he's surprised to find that his very own son Andrii (Sergei Minin) is their leader. Meanwhile, the young master of the family (Valeriy Gakkebush) was accidentally left behind in the chaos, and Anton hides him in the attic and saves his life. The Bolsheviks make a mess of the place, and make Aton's life miserable. But he remains loyal to his master, and protects their son, more than his own. Which makes it all the worse when young master accuses him of being a Bolshevik spy. An emotionally powerful movie that showcases personal misery instead of getting drawn into politics. It's interesting they showed it the same weekend as BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN. It would be blasphemy not to say that POTEMKIN is the greater movie, but TWO DAYS definitely has it's strong value as well. (Oh, and trigger warning, there is a graphic scene of a dead puppy early in the film, if that sort of thing bothers you.)

And Stephen Horne, the festival's one-man band, brought it all to life with his music.

And finally, we ended the night on a rollicking comic adventure, with Douglas Fairbanks and THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1921.) What can be said? It's a classic, D'Artagnan (Fairbanks) joining the other three musketeers (not Douglas Fairbanks, so who cares?) and with Gascon bravery he leads them on a mission to save the queen from Cardinal Richelieu's machinations. Plot isn't important, this is about swashbuckling, daring-do, adventure, loyalty, and charisma. I.e., it's all about Douglas Fairbanks. And it was a great way to end a great (and exhausting) weekend.

And the great accompaniment of Guenter Buchwald Ensemble took us to the finish line and set us out into the night as merry adventurers!

Total Running Time: 492 minutes
My Total Minutes: 429,398

*To my knowledge, no contemporary scientists ever called Charles Darwin "Chucky-Boy." Neither do scientists today. I'm trying to start this.

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