Saturday, June 9, 2018

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 9

Two more films on Friday, starting with ROLLER DREAMS, a look at the roller dancing scene on Venice beach from the late 70s all the way up to...whatever it is today. But focusing on the 70s and 80s, when it was good. When it was an oasis of freedom, and a way to have good fun and not get into trouble in the 'hood. A place where you could be yourself, learn some moves, and have a good time with good music. Oh yeah, and it was a black thing. Not the whitewashed version that made it to Hollywood, most famously in XANADU. On Venice beach itself, the stars were people of color, like Mad, the leader of the group. Or Sally Piano, the leading lady. Or Terrell, the kid. Or Superion Duval. Or Crazy Legs Larry Pitts and Buck Wild Jimmy Rich. These were all beautiful, vibrant personalities (a few of them were there for the screening, and the Q&A was awesome!) Unfortunately, with the 90s and gentrification came noise complaints (which were bullshit, it was really "too many black people having fun in public" complaints) and time restrictions. Eventually the cops realized that for the first time in decades, they needed that particular strip of pavement for emergency access to the beach. And their "fair" solution--move to a smaller, more secluded section where nobody will see them. It's ridiculous that something as innocent as roller skating became political, but that's the world we live in. I don't know how to end this on a positive note, because it is really a positive movie. It's just, even in the most positive stories, some parts of the world still suck.
Sally Piano showing off some moves
And then I stuck around for FREAKS AND GEEKS: THE DOCUMENTARY. I might have been the only person in the theater who hasn't seen the TV show, and it didn't really matter (although I want to binge it at my next opportunity...which won't be until after the festival is over.) Directed by Brent Hodge (PISTOL SHRIMPS, Docfest 2016) the documentary is about way more than the cult show that launched the careers of Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, James Franco and Linda Cardellini, Busy Phillips, John Francis Daley, and many more.) It's also about the risk-taking dramedy that would never be on network TV today, and probably shouldn't have been back in 1999. Nowadays, there would be all sorts of other outlets--cable channels, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.--where a small, daring, quirky show would be a hit. And give some credit to NBC for giving it a shot--after all the other networks turned it down. Also give them plenty of scorn for cancelling it after less than a full season. And, in fact, give the documentary a hell of a lot of credit for interviewing the executive who made that decision. Because it wasn't a critical flop--it was a hit with the credits and a lot of executives really personally liked the show. It's easy to cancel something shitty with bad ratings. It's hard to cancel something that's good--and you know it's good--but it still has shitty ratings. But for the creators Judd Apatow and Paul Feig, success is the best revenge. Especially for Apatow, who has made it something of his own personal vendetta to make sure everyone on that show became a star, just to show NBC execs what they missed.
Great doc, about a show that I guess it's way past time for me to binge

Total Running Time: 154 minutes
My Total Minutes: 483,025

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 8

A night of music docs, which has always been an Indiefest/Docfest thing.

First up was a completely packed screening of GODFATHERS OF HARDCORE. A portrait of a seminal New York hardcore punk band, Agnostic Front. It's full of great archival footage, but the real treat is the modern stuff--interviews really getting to know the guys, and footage of the concerts they still do all the time. Vinnie Stigma is a total live wire. A vibrant, crazy personality who is full of stories from the old days and humorously rail against the gentrification of his neighborhood. The complete opposite is Roger Miret (who was there for the screening) who is a control freak, planning everything, and admits he doesn't know how to relax (and is the subject of a pretty drastic health scare.) The movie takes an engaging and interesting tour through their stage shows, their home lives, and their legacy. Although it's weird to talk about "legacy" when they're still rocking hard today, into their 60's.
Vintage footage of Agnostic Front, who are still rockin' today

Then the next show started with a way-too-long short, SAN FRANCISCO'S FIRST AND ONLY ROCK N' ROLL MOVIE: CRIME 1978. Vintage footage of a shitty local band in the 70s. I was bored, except by the comments of the venue's emcee (we learned afterward that those comments weren't originally between the songs, but at the end of the show, as he was trying to get everyone to leave.) There's a potentially great avant-garde movie to be made just out of the comments from that emcee, you just need to get rid of everything featuring the band (or as they like to advertise, the "banned.")
Crime--ironically dressed as police

And that was the lead-in to the way-too-long feature, ICEPICK TO THE MOON. It starts with the mythical Rev. Dr. Fred Lane, a "stripmine crooner" with dadaist roots. The swinging, jazzy music is the backing for the ridiculous lyrics. And his legend grew in large part due to his record covers, which included fictional covers of his "other" records (in fact, he only released 2.) The first 20-30 minutes of the documentary covers this urban legend aspect--is Fred Lane even real? Then it pretty unceremoniously answers it. His real name is Tim Reed, he lives in Tuscaloosa, he;s a dadaist artist from way back, and he now makes whirligigs and sells them at art fairs. And he's an all-around cool weirdo, as we find in this exhausting film, which takes us to the early days and his equally bizarre dadaist friends, who form the collective Raudelunas and explore pataphysical science. He's a fun guy, the whole group is fun. They just deserved a better documentary, one that was perhaps more judicious in the editing and less repetitive in their desire to use every bit of Fred Lane footage they could possibly find.
Fred Lane, being Fred Lane
Total Running Time: 234 minutes
My Total Minutes: 482,871

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 7

Two more shows on Wednesday, starting with Shorts 2: Women. Hooray for films about kick-ass women!
FEAR US WOMEN: Hanna Bohman, kicking ass by joining up with the YPJ, an all-female Kurdish army. Bonus, ISIS members believe that if a woman kills you, you automatically go to hell.
Hanna Bohman in Syria, killing ISIS
EXIT: Heidi and Sara, kicking ass by leaving the ultra-orthodox community and fighting for women's rights.
The orthodox community Heidi and Sara are exiting from
NELLIE BLY MAKES THE NEWS: Nellie Bly, kicking ass as a muck-racking undercover "stunt" journalist, starting with an exposé on the terrible conditions in a mental asylum, culminating in a race around the world (where she broke Phileas Fogg's fictional record of 80 days...and enjoyed tea with Jules Verne along the way.) From Vanguard award winner Penny Lane (NUTS! and THE PAIN OF OTHERS.)
An overview of Nellie Bly's work.
NO MORE:Two assault survivors, kicking ass by working on Doug Jones' campaign and defeating Roy Moore. Shot entirely on the day of the Alabama Senate special election, as they hustle to get out the vote, then watch tensely as results come in. I forgot how much of the night Moore was ahead until the later precincts came in.
Celebrating Doug Jones' victory (and more importantly, Roy Moore's defeat)

Then the late show started with the short SWEET LOVE. Alvin Bojar lives in a retirement community in Florida. His neighbors don't know that among his many former pursuits, he was a movie producer, and produced a cult soft-core porn comedy called Fongaluli. It's the wild story of a scientist who is trying to make inter-species love work, and the mysterious weed that turns animals into beautiful naked women. Surreal absurdity, as explained by a nice old man.
Alvin Bojar, in his retirement community--waiting.
And finally the feature THE BILL MURRAY STORIES: LIFE LESSONS FROM A MYTHICAL MAN. It seems every few weeks a different Bill Murray story pops up on the Internet. He showed up to a college dorm party and stayed to do the dishes afterward. He joined a kickball game for a while. He photo-bombed a newly wed couple. He sang karaoke, or tended bar, or played tambourine, or anything wacky and cool with regular folks. Director Tommy Avallone starts out a bit incredulous, and the movie starts as an exploration of whether these stories are really true. He meets a lot of people with stories, and they all swear they're true. That's cool. He then sets about trying to interview Bill Murray himself. Interestingly, Bill doesn't have an agent. He has a 1-800 number, that is a semi-carefully guarded secret, and you can call and leave a message. Eventually Bill will read it, but it's very unlikely he'll respond. Instead, he appears to love the spontaneous moments. The "Yes, and..." of his background in improv. There's arguably a zen approach to all of this, and the movie even explores how his movies play with this "live in the moment" philosophy. The film ends up being a portrait of a man who knows how to say "Yes, and..." to life. How to be lost and happy about it, meeting the locals and making--if just for a brief moment--a connection that people will remember and recount for the rest of their lives. Probably a greater gift than any of his movies. And one that we can actually all give each other. We actually don't need Bill Murray to do this.
The Man, the Myth, the all-around pretty good guy
Total Running Time: 186 minutes
My Total Minutes: 482,637

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 6

A couple more films Tuesday night, a night of politics and social justice.

COMPLICIT is the story of migrant workers in China, leaving their impoverished country farms looking for a better life in the factories of the big cities. Instead they find unsafe working conditions, toxic chemicals, leukemia, nervous system damage, and death. But hey, at least we get cheap cell phones, right? least Apple gets to make more profit on their cell phones, right?

Okay, there wasn't much in this film that I didn't kinda know already. Some of the dirty shenanigans I didn't know all the details, like technically none of Apple's or Samsung's suppliers use the offending toxic chemicals--but of course their subcontractors do (Apple and Samsung, of course, could take responsibility for their entire supply chain, not just the first tier.) Mostly it's putting a human face on the suffering that has a strong impact. But the film does get kind of repetitive (confession, I dozed off for a bit, but was assured by my friends that I didn't miss much. And, for what it's worth, it's not just a Chinese problem, there's exposure to toxic chemicals in the U.S., too. (I happen to know way too much about some E&HS issues at a certain...let's leave it unnamed, but say it's a State University right here in San Francisco)

Most importantly, right after the movie I got right onto my smart phone and Googled ethically sourced cell phones. The top of the list, Fairphone, is so far only available in Europe. But I also found a handy ethical comparison guide that revealed my phone--the Google Pixel--to be the absolute worst. Worse than the iPhone or Samsung. Way to not be evil, Google motherfuckers!
A migrant worker, who didn't get the better life she was looking for

And then the next program started with a short, THE END OF WEED. A meditation from a simple country farmer, about his worries that his simple business won't be able to survive as the big companies move in and turn "growin' weed" into "cannabusiness."

That was the lead-in to the feature, MY COUNTRY NO MORE. This explores the oil boom in North Dakota from the point of view of locals--focusing on the Rider family--who are concerned about the refinery that the oil companies want to put right in town, next to the train tracks. Not cool, since they've lived of the land there for their entire lives, and have a strong connection to the landscape. It's a lyrical story of activism, preservation, and land use zoning laws. The oil boom, powered by fracking, has undoubtedly been an economic miracle for North Dakota. But there are multiple layers of importance at play here, and the environmental, social, and possible even existential layers are at odds with the financial benefits of unchecked "progress." This is captured in personal stories and breathtaking, beautiful cinematography.
Kalie Rider, trying to keep an oil refinery out of her neighborhood. In one of about a thousand beautifully composed shots in this film.
Total Running Time: 176 minutes
My Total Minutes: 482,451

Jason his to Docfest--Day 5

I of course missed days 2 through 4 with the silent film extravaganza, but now I'm at Docfest full time until the end. Here's last Monday

I started with COBBY: THE OTHER SIDE OF CUTE. Director Donna McRae makes herself a very personal character in this story, as it starts with her memories of being a lonely single child in Adelaide, Australia, and watching a funny black-and-white chimp show every day after school. Cobby's Hobbies, and it's silly theme song, was her constant friend, and has come back into her memory decades later. She interviews friends who also grew up in Adelaide, and there's a recurring theme of the show being very popular among lonely single children. So she sets off trying to find more about the show, and about its star. Well, although she comes across as hopelessly naive, the movie unsurprisingly exposes a lot of the dark side of animal performers--starting from the moment as babies when their parents are killed and they're raised in captivity. She interviews people who worked on the show, zookeepers, and animal rights activists. Everyone seems to have stories about animals that suffered at the hands of humans. In fact, most of the cute animal entertainers ended up as laboratory animals, suffering even more inhumane treatment. Cobby, however, avoided that. In fact, he's living in the San Francisco Zoo to this day, one of the oldest chimpanzees in captivity. Sure, he doesn't have his freedom--and he wouldn't be able to survive in the wild--but he has the most comfortable captivity possible.
Cobby during his show business days. 
Cobby enjoying his retirement. He seems much happier now. Image courtesy of

And then next up was SICKIES MAKING FILMS. Coming from the Silent Film Festival, this was kind of a cool way to transition from old films to today's films. It's an abbreviated history of the films, focusing on the issue of censorship--exclusively censorship in America, and focusing on the last censorship board that existed in Maryland. Of course, that board, led by Mary Avara, was John Waters' infamous nemesis, and one he gleefully mocked in his movies. He's also highly featured in this film, where he's a little more mature and nuanced, and actually speaks with pity for the board. But I was more interested in the earlier history, where there are tidbits about early censorship (actually, going back to Roman times where the "censor" was the one running the census, who determined if individuals were decent enough to be considered Citizens.) Police were initially given powers to enforce local community standards (leading to some films, in some places, being censored for for mocking the police.) Then rulings that censors could only go after obscenity, not political or plot content (you wonder why sexual content get stricter ratings than violence--this is part of it.) Then talkies, and the added complication of censoring words, not just images. Then, of course, the Hays code, eventually replaced with the MPAA rating system. But still, a few censorship boards--especially Maryland's--stuck around way past their point of usefulness (a separate debate of whether they were ever useful is...interesting.) Anyway, it was a fun film, and a great way to bring my mind from the movies of 100 years ago up to today.
Censors censoring. Fuck 'em
Total Running Time: 169 minutes
My Total Minutes: 482,275

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Jason goes to SilentFest--The End

It seems like it just started, did 5 days go by that quickly? Just kidding, I'm exhausted!

But not too exhausted to still get breakfast at Orphan Andy's (pretty much the only place I've gotten a real meal since Wednesday) and be in the front row in time for Serge Bromberg Presents...

Serge Bromberg is a longtime friend if the festival, an excellent historian, archivist, preservationist, restorer, and most importantly for today, showman.
This man is in your Castro Theater, narrating your 3D films. Image courtesy of the SF Silent Film Festival.
He started off with one of his classic demonstrations of why so many old films are lost. I.e., he burned little silver nitrate film on stage. This always tickles my evil side, knowing he's doing that in front of a full audience of silent film fans. Anyway, it burns really well.

ROBINSON CRUSOE (1902): Before we got the the 3-D extravaganza, Serge debuted this recently discovered and restored Georges Méliès film. What some people don't know about very early silent films--before the innovation of intertitles--is that they were intended to be shown with a live narrator. The lack of narration often makes these films hard to understand. But there was no such trouble with Serge doing the narration himself. In fact, with Serge you don't just get the story, you get weird asides and jokes, too. Oh yeah, anyway, the film. It's a beautiful, hand-tinted, very familiar story of Robinson Crusoe.

MOTOR RHYTHM (1939): An animated Chrysler Motors show reel, with the component parts of an automobile coming together. A cute treat, which was re-released in the 50's during the 3-D craze back then. At the time it was sometimes incorrectly called the first 3D film. This is, of course, incorrect, as Serge went on to demonstrate in many ways.

First up, he showed us the happy accident of 3D films by Georges Méliès. Méliès never intentionally made a 3D film. What he did do was invent a dual-film camera for shooting two copies of a film at the same time, one for release in Europe and one for release in America. This was an anti-piracy measure, after his VOYAGE TO THE MOON was copied and released as VOYAGE TO MARS by Lubin. Another thing Méliès did was succumb to the financial pressures of continued piracy, and in a fit of depression burned the negatives of all his films. So...surviving Méliès films are all due to collectors, and of course restoration houses will attempt to piece together films from multiple sources to try to recreate the best version of the film. This is what Serge was doing with THE INFERNAL CAULDRON (1906) when he noticed that every time he switched from a European source to an American source the film would jump slightly. It never lined up quite right. And that's when he figured out that Méliès's dual-film camera had a parallax between the two films, and about 100 years after the fact...the 3D versions of a few of these films were created. At least, if both a European and American print exist.
THE ORACLE OF DELPHI (1903): A thief tries to steal from the famous oracle, when a spirit guarding the tomb appears. He makes statues come to life and gives the thief a monkey's head.
THE INFERNAL CAULDRON (1906): The one that started this 3D adventure. Demons throw captives into a cauldron, where they disappear in puffs of smoke. Now, an interesting thing with these 3-D films is often only parts of one print exist. So for some time it's 2D (because one lens in the stereoscopic glasses is blank) and suddenly jumps into 3D. In this one, that happens to occur right at one of these puffs of smoke, making for some extra accidental magic. Méliès would be pleased, I'm sure!
THE MYSTERIOUS RETORT (1906): An alchemist asleep in his lab. Suddenly strange emanations come from his vessel, either a nightmare or a miracle of the mystic sciences.

Well then we got to see a few of the Lumière Brothers stereoscopic selection from 1935. Note, the Lumières, credited with the invention of the film camera/projection system, had a very short career. They were more inventors than filmmakers (and allegedly thought this whole "moving pictures as entertainment" was a fad that would soon pass. So after moving on in ~1905, they did return with a new moving picture invention in 1935, a stereoscopic camera which they used to recreate their famed TRAIN PULLING INTO A STATION (1896), this time in 3D. Confusion over the 2D and 3D versions of this film probably led to a probably apocryphal story of audiences reacting in fright at the original screening. It makes more sense that they would do that for the 3D screening. Although I gotta say, it's bulling into the station well to the side of the screen, so not that frightening. There was also 3D footage of a woman and her baby (if I heard correctly, that was Louise Lumière's daughter?) And some scenes of a beach and harbor. Unfortunately, their 3D projector did not fit easily into most projection booths (well, it fit...sideways) so while they were great inventors, they weren't very successful businessmen.

Then we got a stereoscopic demonstration from 1900. Not originally on film, but on paper, in stereoscopic flipbook form, at 4 frames per second. But scanned and projected a good century later. And being comes within a few frames of revealing a pornographic scene!

And finally, we ended on THE MERRY FROLICS OF SATAN (1906): This is the brand new, newest accidental 3D Méliès, literally hot off the presses. In fact, the first time in front of an audience and since his spot on stage doing the narration didn't give him a good view for the 3D, we got to see it in 3D before Serge did. So much fun, as a couple of inventors are tricked by Satan. They get to travel the world--and the stars--but are tormented by the devil and his minions all along the way.

And the opposite of tormenting all along the way was the wonderful accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

A THROW OF DICE (PRAPANCHA PASH) (1929): Then we took a little trip to India, where Sohat and Ranjit are cousins, who rule neighboring kingdoms. They're going on a nice little hunting trip together, but Sohat's henchman "accidentally" shoots Ranjit with a poisoned arrow. Oh well, he'll die soon, and Sohat will have to take over his kingdom. But wait, there's a hermit doctor who just happens to live right there, and he can cure King Ranjit, no problem! Extra bonus, he has a beautiful daughter, who may become Ranjit's Queen. Oh, but her father forbids it, as he clearly has a gambling problem, and the wise old man knows that will cause him great suffering. It's a fun movie, with a painfully naive hero, a comically evil villain, and a ridiculous plot. But most importantly, it has beautiful cinematography, direct from India (where it was shot on location.)

And even more important, it had the brilliant Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius accompanying it.
Kings fighting. Still courtesy of...the Internet.

THE ANCIENT LAW (DAS ALTE GESETZ) (1923): Then from India we headed to Austria, for a good Jewish tale that's pretty clearly an inspiration for THE JAZZ SINGER. We start in a poor shtetl where Rabbi Mayer is a studious and popular leader. His son Baruch is equally studious, and has the eye of the lovely Esther.  On Purim, he creates a bit of a stir by playing the king in the traditional play--a rabbi's son, engaging in such frivolous antics? Worse yet, he catches the acting bug, and wants to leave to try his hand at acting professionally. This is something that his friend, the travelling beggar Ruben Pick, sees as a good thing. But his father forbids it. So he just has to run away. And thus begins his multiple struggles to obey the ancient talmudic law, while also learning the ancient law of the theater, and running into the ancient court law of etiquette. A great story, well told, of a family fractured and then redeemed. Also pretty cool to see a Wiemar German film from the time that showed Jews and their traditions in a positive light. And it features one of the coolest parallel action scenes I've seen in a long time, showing the crowd awaiting the opening night of Baruch starring in Hamlet while back in the shtetl everyone arrives at the synagogue for Yom Kippur services.

And it was all brought home with the brilliant music of the Donald Sosin Ensemble (Donald, Sascha Jacobsen, and David Short of Mont Alto) along with special guest violinist Alicia Svigals, whom Donald credited with composing the main theme. 
Baruch Mayer hamming it up in the Purim play. Still courtesy of Deutsche Kinemathek

FRAGMENT OF AN EMPIRE (OBLOMOK IMPERII) (1929): Well it was quite the world tour on Sunday. After France, India, and Germany/Austria, what could be next? How about Soviet Russia, and a brilliant restoration of this film. Fridrikh Ermler should be in the conversation with Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov when talking about great Russian silent film auteurs. The film opens with the horrors of war during the Revolution, including a pretty shocking surreal scene of Jesus on the cross in a gas mask (needless to say, in most markets censors cut that out.) Filimonov is shell-shocked and can't remember a thing. Nonetheless he manages to save a soldier who is on death's door (and thirsty enough to suckle on a dog, in another shocking scene.) 10 years later, a bit of his memory returns. Like...enough to remember he's a soldier, and he has a wife back home. So he travels home to St. Petersburg to find her. And he learns about the Soviet revolution, and the new system, and the fact that they have no masters anymore, because everyone is their own master in this Communist utopia.

Except I beg to differ. Ermler is the master. And so were the masterful Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius, providing the accompaniment. By the way, everyone who gave this a standing ovation at the end--myself included--automatically became a member of the Communist Party. Good job, comrades!
Holy shit, that's Jesus in a gas mask! This movie is intense. Still courtesy of SFSFF

BATTLING BUTLER (1926): So finally we returned home to the good old U.S. of A. for a nice, light comedy. Although not topping anyone's list of best Keaton films nowadays, this was a big hit at the time, both critically and at the box office (It was much more successful than his follow-up, some train flick called THE GENERAL.) Keaton plays Alfred Butler, a wealthy dandy and a weakling whose valet (Snitz Edwards) does all the work for him, including shaking the ash off his cigarette and putting it back in his mouth. His father thinks a camping trip will do him good to toughen him up. Well, it doesn't quite do that but it does introduce him to a beautiful mountain girl (Sally O'Neil) and soon he is planning to marry her. In fact, he's so serious...he asks his valet to arrange it. The thing is, her family can't stand any weaklings. No problem for the fast-thinking valet, who just noticed in the paper that a prize-fighter who is challenging the champ also is named Alfred Butler (and goes by the name "Battling Butler.") So he can claim Buster is the prize-fighter, and when the champ knocks out the real Battling Butler as expected, he can "retire" to obscurity. The only way this can go wrong is if Butler actually pulls it off. Well...guess what happens. Of course, more wacky hijinx ensue as Buster has to impersonate a boxer and gets into many shenanigans as a result. And of course, true love will give him the strength to fight eventually. Lots of fun, and after a 5 days of silent film, this was a true feel-good way to end it.

And helping out with the feel-good spirit was the magnificent Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Fun fact: what Buster is doing here is technically considered boxing. Still courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection

And that, finally, was SF SilentFest, 2018 edition!

Total Running Time: 443 minutes
My Total Minutes: 482,106

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Jason goes to SilentFest--Day 4

Another full, full day of films, starting with NO MAN'S GOLD (1926) starring Tom Mix and, of course, Tony the Wonder Horse! As part of the Niles gang, my heart will always be with Broncho Billy, but I totally understand how Tom Mix surpassed him in popularity (hey, when you're the first, no one can take that away. When you're the best, someone will always eventually come along and surpass you.) Fast paced action with adventure and comedy. A man is shot while riding back home to stake his claim. He's found a huge vein of gold, and in his dying words he gives three parts of his map to the three men who find him. Little does he know one of them is the villain who shot him, Frank Healy (Frank Campeau.) The others are hobo Lefty Logan (Harry Gripp, basically playing the same character he played in Mix's GREAT K&A TRAIN ROBBERY in the same year,) and of course Tom Mix as "Tom Stone." Eva Novak joins the cast as the love interest who can also ride a horse, and Micky Moore (who went on to have a great career as a second unit director, including the silent-serial inspired Indiana Jones movies) as Jimmy Rogers, the young son of the miner who was shot. Anyway, non-stop action ensues, and it's a great pick-me-up for the bleary-eyed 10 a.m. audience.

Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius kept things humming along briskly, including opening it in appropriate Saturday morning style, with a sing-a-long of the movie's theme song...written just minutes before by Donald Sosin. Awesome!

Tom Mix puts Mickey Moore to bed. He will sneak out and join in the adventures, of course. Still courtesy of SFSFF

MARE NOSTRUM (1926): Next up was a melodrama of seafaring and WWI, directed by Rex Ingram (THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE) and starring Antonio Moreno as the Spanish sea captain Ulysses Ferragut. In the opening scene, young Ulysses is pulled between his uncle Triton--who encourages him to continue the family tradition of seafaring and find the mystical sea goddess Amphitrite--and his father, who wants him to abandon the sea like he did, and become a lawyer. I guess I already revealed that the sea wins out. But more importantly, although he becomes a captain and husband and father, he falls for a woman he meets in Italy, Freya Talberg (Alice Terry.) She happens to look just like his uncle's old painting of Amphritite. But she also happens to be a German spy, and she (and her network) convinces the otherwise neutral Spaniard to help refuel a German U-boat. Terrible consequences ensue, of course. Loosely based on the Mata Hari case, it's a gripping and exciting action-drama.

And Stephen Horne performed brilliantly again in accompaniment, assisted and once again Frank Bockius on percussion.
A breech of a U-Boat's hull. Still courtesy of Photoplay

The next show started with the 9 minutes that probably had the most local anticipation SAN FRANCISCO AFTER THE EARTHQUAKE (1906): Recently rediscovered and restored, I saw the digital restoration in Niles just a month and a half ago. Well, this was the 35 mm premiere, which is basically the same footage, but on an order-of-magnitude larger screen, and with the final sequence tinted red. There's basically a reprise of A TRIP DOWN MARKET STREET, showing a similar hustle-and-bustle but now with destroyed buildings and people hustling to rebuild. Then there's footage of refugees leaving from the ferry building to rebuild elsewhere (or at least, stay elsewhere until they can return.) And finally there are scenes of them dynamiting the remaining precarious structures so they can rebuild. I guess rebuilding is the theme. Still amazingly cool.

TRAPPOLA (1922): And then the feature was a fast-paced comedy from Italy. Italian diva Leda Gys stars as Leda Bardi, a young lady living in an orphanage run by nuns, and getting into all sorts of trouble. Effervescent doesn't begin to describe her, as she goes from orphan to runaway, to accused thief, to hero, to movie extra, to movie star, to avenger of her friend (whose betrothed turned her away in favor of a film diva,) to traitor to her friend, back to friend when she realizes the guy she fell for was a completely different Claudio. All in a light 62 minutes. Whew!

And the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra kept pace with their score, and Amanda Salazar had probably the toughest job reading all the Italian intertitles in English without falling behind.
Leda Gys praying to the Madonna to get her the heck out of the Catholic orphanage. Still courtesy of Cineteca Milano

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (DER HUND VON BASKERVILLE) (1929): Then a little something for the Sherlockians in the audience, a recent restoration of the last silent Sherlock Holmes film. Long thought lost, then found in the basement of a Polish church, this was pretty exciting.  Carlyle Blackwell stars as Sherlock Holmes, and  George Seroff co-stars as Dr. Watson, in pretty much the first film that treated Watson as more than part of the set dressing. The story is familiar to any Sherlockian, and to my poor memory this adaptation is more or less faithful. It's definitely got the German influence (including, inexplicably, never getting that Baskerville doesn't have an S at the end.) But it's got action, humor, mystery, and of course Sherlock Holmes being brilliant. Oh, and it's got a scary looking hound. Cool.

The brilliant accompaniment was courtesy of the Guenter Buchwald Ensemble, consisting of Guenter Buchwald, Sascha Jacobsen, and again Frank Bockius--who just had to work all day today!
Holmes and Watson wrap up the case. Still courtesy of Deutsches Filminstitut
THE SAGA OF GÖSTA BERLING (GÖSTA BERLINGS SAGA) (1924): And finally, we ended the day with a bit of a Swedish epic (complete with a half-hour intermission.) An incredibly playful epic, while still being dramatic and moving. Lars Hanson stars as Gösta Berling, who is introduced as a cavalier (may I say, that term is a little distracting during the NBA finals, as our local team is playing the Cleveland Cavaliers) leading a band of carousing cavaliers. In the opening sequence they're enjoying their Christmas feast when Gösta announces a toast to the 13th partier, which confuses them since there's only 12 of them. Soon enough, Satan himself barges in, ranting about how their beloved mistress keeps her riches by promising the soul of one cavalier every year! He is, of course, soon revealed to be the inn-keeper playing a joke. That's the sort of playful epic this is, even at times when it gets awfully dark. Anyway, we learn Gösta's entire saga, from when he was a priest who liked the drink a little too much and was defrocked. To his time as a tutor--and how that was a weird inheritance plot by the madam of the house. Up to his time as a cavalier and the strange, soap-opera-ish entanglements that ensue. Including with the lovely Elizabeth Dohna, wife of the son of the house who will someday inherit it all. Oh yeah, she's played by Greta Garbo, in her first starring role. Despite the playful nature of the meta-narrative, there's enough drama, deceit, and cruelty that you never know until the end if it will all turn out alright. It's an epic melodrama of human weakness and human forgiveness.

This is the movie that not only brought Garbo to Hollywood, but also director Mauritz Stiller--although his stint in Hollywood was nowhere near as successful. Mostly, he's known as the guy who discovered Greta Garbo, and allegedly came up with her new name (Greta Gustafsson just didn't work as a screen name.)

And the Matti Bye Ensemble accompanied brilliantly, of course. They're representing Sweden, too!
It would make more sense to show Lars Hanson as Gösta Berling, but how can you not show Greta Garbo in her first co-starring role? Still courtesy of the Swedish Film Institute

Total Running Time: 498 minutes
My Total Minutes: 481,663

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Jason goes to SilentFest--Day 3

Another full day of silent film in the Castro, starting bright and early at 10:00 am.

GOOD REFERENCES (1920): Constance Talmadge stars as a young lady in the city, looking for work, but not finding any because she doesn't have any references. She happens to run into a lady with impeccable references (from the Vanderbilts, no less!) but who happens to fall ill. So, it's a shame to let those references go to waste. Wacky hijinx ensue in this light comedy, including Vincent Coleman as her employer's college dropout son (who hasn't exactly revealed he's a dropout) and his equally disreputable buddy played by Ned Sparks. A comedy of high society vs. illegal underground boxing ensues.

And Donald Sosin was there at the piano to help the comedy along brilliantly.
A boxer passes himself off as a gentleman at a society ball. Still courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

THE OTHER WOMAN'S STORY (1925): From Preferred Pictures--don't let the name fool you, this was a lower-end studio. Pretty much the only starring role for Helen Lee Worthing, who plays the titular "other woman." Seems her lover is on trial for killing the lawyer who was serving him with divorce papers. And it's a pretty airtight case. One witness after another gets up, and through flashbacks from their testimony, we see a story play out. Jean Prentiss (Worthing) was business partners with Colman Colby (Robert Frazer,) and allegedly there are pictures proving they were more than that. Scandalous, since Colby is married. Also, powerful evidence in divorce proceedings, which is why lawyer Robert Marshall (Mahlon Hamilton) was holding on to them (allegedly.) One night Colby goes to visit him. The next morning Marshall is dead. And Colby's coat is still there. And the maid didn't see/remember anything. Except maybe there were two knocks on the door that night. Well, despite the overwhelming--but circumstantial--evidence, Jean is convinced Colby is innocent. And even after it goes to the jury she still investigates to (hopefully) prove it. A cool whodunit, which I like.

Stephen Horne accompanied, and I won't even attempt to remember/guess at all the instruments he played. But he was, of course, fantastic.
Helen Lee Worthing protests Colby's innocence. Still courtesy of SFSFF

Then time for a real treat, with Silent Avant-Garde Cinema, introduced by someone who is not just an local Avant-Garde artist, but an Avant-Garde experience, Craig Baldwin. I couldn't begin to describe these all...but I'll try.
ANÉMIC CINÉMA (1924-26, Marcel Duchamp): Spirals and puns--unfortunately, in French, and I don't speak French. But there's no better way to start than with the master Dadaist, Duchamp.
PAS DE DEUX (from the Looney Lens series from Fox Movietone, 1924): A couple of guys goofing around, dancing, mugging for the camera. All in a funhouse-mirror lens.
Then a series of Slavko Vorkapich montages. Easily the best part of the series, these montages were all Vorkapich, and used as parts of feature films. I need to learn more about this Vorkapich guy!
SKYLINE DANCE (1928): A montage of buildings, shadows, and dancing. Part of an otherwise lost film called MANHATTAN COCKTAIL
THE MONEY MACHINE (1929): A brilliant composite shot, used in the 1929 film called THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (not the 2013 Scorsese one)
PROHIBITION (1929): An expressionistic history of the roaring 20s and the sudden imposition of Prohibition, part of the 1928 Emil Jannings film SINS OF THE FATHERS.
THE FURIES (1934): White cloaked demon women break glass and kill lovers, in part of CRIME WITHOUT PASSION (1934)
A BRONX MORNING (1931, Jay Leyda): Exactly what it sounds like, a fly-on-the-wall observational look at a morning in the Bronx.
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413–A HOLLYWOOD EXTRA (1927, Robert Florey, with Slavko Vorkapich once again!): A brilliant and biting satire of Hol-ly-Wood, where the extra is nothing more than a number, and the star is given kudos for wearing standard masks. Heaven forbid the extra actually be a better actor than the star.
HÄNDE (1927, Mikos Bandy and Stella F. Simon): Dancing hands. For 13 minutes. It was fun for about 5.
1931 Mexican footage by Sergei Eisenstein: To be honest, I dozed off in part of this, but I could see it was some excellent footage of Day of the Dead celebrations. I wish I had snoozed more during the dancing hands instead of during Eisenstein.

And of course, when the Silent Film Festival brings the weird and avant-garde, they have to bring the Matti Bye Ensemble, who were brilliant as always!
The Furies are going to get you. GIF courtesy of...the Internet

ROSITA (1923): Mary Pickford directed by Ernst Lubitsch, it's gotta be great, right!? Well, it wasn't Pickford's favorite of her films (although accounts that she wanted it destroyed are almost certainly false.) She plays a street singer in Seville. Carnival is her jam, but the king (Holbrook Blinn) interrupts her singing and costs her a day's profit. Ironic, since the king was there to make sure the depravity didn't get out of hand, even though he's the most lecherous one in the kingdom (the queen put him up to it.) And when he raises taxes on top of it, she eviscerates him in song. Well, his soldiers arrest her, but gallant Don Diego (George Walsh) comes to her defense. Which is unfortunate, because he ends up killing a soldier and they both end up in prison. Of course, she's pretty enough to catch the eye of the lecherous king, so she's safe, but Don Diego is kinda fucked. That is, until wacky hijinxe ensue. I don't care if Mary Pickford didn't really like her own work here, I think it's pretty hilarious and kinda great.

And you know who is more than kinda great? The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, who accompanied this film.
Mary Pickford side-eyeing...something offscreen. She should be side-eyeing the king, but that's dangerous. Still courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Collection 

MOTHER KRAUSE'S JOURNEY TO HAPPINESS (MUTTER KRAUSENS FAHRT INS GLÜCK) (1929): Well, then it was getting into the evening, so time for some darker films. A Weimar German film, set in the Wedding district of Berlin--a poorer neighborhood, full of struggle and suffering, and communist sympathies. Mother Krause (Alexandra Schmitt) lives in a tenement building with her grown son, grown daughter, a lodger, his prostitute girlfriend, and her child. She makes ends meet by selling newspapers, but that leaves no margin for error. Her daughter meets a nice man named Max at the fair. Perhaps he'll be a good husband for her? Certainly he understands Marx and how feminism is a part of the worker's struggle. The movie moves at...let's say a "deliberate" pace (IMDb puts it at just over 2 hours. I thought it was longer, although it was brilliant and engaging all the way through.) Eventually the plot revolves around her son Paul spending some of the newspaper money on beer, and her not having enough to cover her costs. Mother Krause has precious little time to come up with the difference before she's fired from the newspaper and sent to prison for theft. Rest assured, there is NOT a happy ending. I mean, the film is a masterpiece, it's just a super-depressing masterpiece. One that watching once is enough.

And Sascha Jacobsen and the Musical Art Quintet were masterful in accompanying this masterpiece.
The entire house sitting down to dinner. Still courtesy of the Munich Film Museum

POLICEMAN (KEISATSUKAN) (1933): And finally, we ended the night with a Japanese masterpiece. You know a film is good when Eddie Mueller introduces it (except when he admits it's bad, but that wasn't the case tonight.) I mentioned yesterday in my write-up of AN INN IN TOKYO how it's so cool that because Japan didn't switch over to talkies immediately the way the U.S. did, they continued to get more sophisticated with silent film. I'm not sure if Hollywood would've gotten this sophisticated if the silent era lasted another 50 years. It's a super-stylish crime drama--proto-noir, if you will (and you will!) Itami (Isamu Kosugi) is a police officer, and a good one. He is beloved in his community for the little things (like helping kids with their stuck kite.) His old school chum Tetsuo (Eiji Nakano) has come back to town, and they catch up over tea, food, and sake (although Itami resists, since he is, after all, a policeman.) Then there's a bank robbery. One of the criminals is caught, but one gets away--but is injured in the leg in the melee. Shortly thereafter, Itami notices that Tetsuo is walking with a limp. Could he be the masked criminal who got away? Anyway, he's trying to catch the criminal (who also put the chief of police in the hospital during the getaway) but his loyalty to his old friend is maybe keeping him from investigating too hard. It's a brilliant little cat and mouse game, and a moral dilemma, and a final act that is as brilliant as just about anything I've ever seen on film.

And it was all brought home by the brilliant accompaniment of Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius. Because we finally found a film that required so much that Stephen Horne couldn't play all the instruments himself. He needed a master percussionist, too.
Policemen, being policemen, in POLICEMAN. Hey, it's late and I'm tired, okay? Still courtesy of the National Film Archive of Japan
Man, it was a long, long day. But every minute of it was worth it.

Total Running Time: 549 minutes
My Total Minutes: 481,165

Friday, June 1, 2018

Jason goes to Docfest--Opening Night

This was my important conflict that kept me away from the Silent Film Festival for one night. But I just can't resist a film called BREWMASTER. It's a wide-ranging exploration of serious brewing, from the established professionals to those looking to break into the business. The "beer famous" celebrities include Jim Koch of Samuel Adams and Vaclav Berka of Pilsner Urquell. On the "trying to be beer famous" side are Drew, a lawyer who really wants to be a brewer, his plan for "Drew's Brews" "Droo's Broos" ([sigh] can we knock it off with the "clever" spellings already?) Drew is an accomplished and passionate homebrewer, who is a fan of home brew cocktails, putting melon, cardamom spice, cucumber & mint, or jalapenos in his brew. ([sigh] can we knock it off with the fancy crap in beer already?) And then there is Brian, who is dedicating himself to passing the "Master Cicerone" test, which he narrowly missed the previous year. Oh yeah, the cicerone program is probably the most interesting part of the movie. You know how wine has sommeliers (a fancy word for wine stewards?) Well, there's a fledgling program to do the same for beer, and they are called Cicerones. And Master Cicerone is the highest level. In fact, at the start of the film there are only 11 Master Cicerones in the world (spoiler alert...there are more now.) That part was fascinating. There could be another documentary just on the Cicerone program.
Brian, studying at home for his Master Cicerone test
And actually, there was another part of the movie that was hilarious but brief--a montage of brewers and beer enthusiasts talking about their first taste of beer. Absolutely nobody likes their first taste, even future brewmasters. But a lot of people learn to like it, and I'm one of them.

Other than that, while the movie had a lot of fun scenes and interesting people, by casting such a wide net (and exclusively male net, to the point of making a joke about how a beard is a prerequisite for being a craft brewer) the movie becomes a little stretched and unfocused. But it was still pretty fun.

And then there was a mini beerfest afterwards in the lobby, with brews from several local breweries. Unfortunately, much of it was IPA, and while I used to love IPAs I've grown tired of them. A few years ago I would've said that American craft brewing needs to learn there are other flavors than hops. But it looks like that's turned the corner, too.

Running Time: 93 minutes
My Total Minutes: 480,616

Jason goes to SilentFest--Day 2

We started Thursday bright and early (10:00 am) with Amazing Tales from the Archives, always one of the best programs in the festival, if you can make it.

First up we had Cynthia Walk and Martin Koerber from Deutsche Kinemathek talking about their new restoration of THE ANCIENT LAW, which will be playing Sunday, so I'll hold off writing about the film until then. There interesting part is how it's an update of a 1984 restoration, and how after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Cynthia found the original censor card which contained every intertitle in the film, and realized there were some inconsistencies in the 1984 version. Eventually, when the Kinemathek decided to do a new reconstruction, they worked with her on the most complete and authentic reconstruction known. Can't wait to see it!

Then from Germany we went to Italy, with Davide Pozzi, head of L'Immagine Ritrovata film restoration laboratory. He spoke about the challenges of restoring Kinemacolor films. This was an early color technique, where the film was shot at 32 fps through alternating red and green filters, and projected through the same filters, making for a color film at 16 fps (albeit with fringing of the colors if the action is moving too fast.) Well, beyond the difficulties of physical damage and deterioration of the films, there's also the problem that simply tinting alternating frames red and green doesn't really work for a digital restoration. And Davide talked about how they overcame that, and then showed some examples of their restored films. Fascinating.

And finally, another sneak peek of an upcoming film, Saturday's presentation of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. Russell Merritt spoke about the history of this German film, the last silent Sherlock Holmes picture, the first version of The Hound of the Baskervilles that was more or less faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's story, and the first movie that really got the Holmes/Watson friendship. Then Elzbieta Wysocka of Poland's National Film Archive told the story of how a 35 mm print of this thought-lost film was found in a collection of a Polish church, and how before even publicly announcing the restoration a private collector offered up a 9.5 mm print. And finally Robert Byrnes talked about the physical process of restoring it, the challenges of different versions and melding then seamlessly, hiding the 9.5 mm perforations (which are center if the frameline, instead of on the sides out of frame,) etc. And, of course, the most important part of the process...showing it to an audience! Can't wait to see it!

All of the clips (and some of the technical difficulties) were beautifully accompanied by Donald Sosin

Next up was a bit of comedy, starting with a Stan Laurel (before he was teamed with Oliver Hardy) short, DETAINED (1924): Laurel is an ordinary guy, mugged by an escaped criminal who steals his clothes and leaves him in prison stripes. So naturally, the cops pick him up and throw him back into prison without a trial. Wacky hijinx ensue in prison, including an attempted escape and chase that leads him resting for a bit in the electric chair.

SOFT SHOES (1925): And then the feature, starring Harry Carey as a small town sheriff and all around decent guy. But his girl doesn't want to marry him unless he has money. Well, an inheritance solves that, but to collect he has to go to a very dangerous city--San Francisco! A series of wacky hijinx ensue, with a stolen brooch, a failed attempt to return it, being mistaken for a criminal, impersonating a criminal, and getting into a hell of a lot of trouble. Pretty exciting and funny.

Harry Carey in trouble. Still courtesy of SFSFF
Both films were again beautifully accompanied by Donald Sosin.

MASTER OF THE HOUSE (DU SKAL ÆRE DIN HUSTRU) (1925): Carl Theodor Dreyer, most famous for PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928), shows off his comedic directing chops in this film. A domestic comedy, it starts with a father and husband (Johannes Meyer) having one of his lately typical "bad days." He complains about everything--where are his slippers, why was he not served coffee first, why is there no butter on his bread, what of his wife's stupid birds, why is his old nanny coming to help with the household again today, etc.? Well, his wife (Astrid Holm) has always taken it with a sweet nature, but it's getting to be too much. So perhaps the nanny (Mathilde Nielsen) will have to teach him a lesson. Soon his wife is whisked away to her mother's for some well-needed rest, and the nanny takes over her household duties. But she doesn't take any shit from the alleged master of the house. Soon he is like a child again, remembering when she was his nanny and gave him a good thrashing when he misbehaved. Her remedy plays with the balance between fair and cruel, but there's never a doubt that he will come through it in the end a better man, more ready and willing to appreciate and help his wife with the household chores. Very funny, with an incredibly wry wit that maintains the stately manner Dreyer is famous for but allows for a breath of near-slapstick comedy in it.

The master, wife, and Nana fighting over the birds. Still courtesy of Janus Films
Accompanying it all was the marvelous Stephen Horne on piano...and xylophone...and flute...and accordion...and I'm sure I've forgotten or missed some other instruments. Anyway, the festival's own one-man-band was brilliant again.

AN INN IN TOKYO (TÔKYÔ NO YADO) (1935): And then some Yasujirô Ozu beauty. One of the things I love about foreign silent films is the countries that continued with silent films for years after the U.S. switched to talkies. Japan is chief among them, and the silent films from the mid-30s are marvelous. The art form had more places to go, and was cut short with talkies, but the sophistication of mid-30s silents is unrivaled. Here Ozu brings a poetic beauty to working class struggles on the outskirts of Tokyo. Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto) and his two sons are struggling to survive. He's looking for work, but not much luck so far. They meet Otaka (Yoshiko Okada) and her young daughter, Kimiko, who are also struggling for work. Kihachi's old friend, Otsune (Choko Iida) helps Kihachi find work and lets him rent a room in his inn. Otaka eventually gets work, as a sake-house waitress (which, I assume, includes more..."unsavory"...tasks.) Kihachi doesn't like this, and fights with her. And resorts to drastic measures to try to help her.

But you know, the plot is kind of secondary to the beauty that Ozu finds in the mundane. Empty wire spools, factories, telephone poles. I don't think anyone could photograph them the same we he did. The story is depressing, but the photography is beautiful, and it's finding that beauty that is the genius of the film.

One of Kahachi's sons, in front of beautifully photographed factory smokestacks. Still courtesy of Janus Films
Adding to the beauty and the genius were accompanists Guenter Buchwald on piano and Frank Bockius on percussion.

I then had to skip out on the evening shows (sorry) because I had an important conflicting appointment.

Total Running Time: 300 minutes
My Total Minutes: 480,523