Wednesday, December 09, 2009

SFSFF—Michael Hawley Previews the 2009 Winter Event

In a stroke of fortune for Bay Area movie lovers, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) supplements its summertime fest with yet another extraordinary one-day line-up of classic silent cinema. SFSFF's Fifth Annual 2009 Winter Event takes place this Saturday, December 12 at the Castro Theater. For the uninitiated, SFSFF is the Western Hemisphere's premiere showcase for silent film exhibition, featuring the best available 35mm prints, live musical accompaniments, program notes, special guests and savvy film intros. The four films comprising this Saturday's line-up—all of which I'll be seeing for the first time—sound like a diverse and rewarding lot.

Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927), 11:30AM—Six years before they unleashed King Kong upon the world, directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack made this melodramatic docu-drama about a Siamese farming family and their struggle against the creatures of the jungle. Shot under rough conditions near the Thai border with Laos, Chang followed other successful silent ethnographic films such as Nanook of the North (1922) and the directors' own Grass (1925), which documented the migration of Bakhtiari herdsmen in present day Turkey and Iran. It's said that three crew members were bitten by pythons during the Chang shoot, and Schoedsack himself battled malaria and sunstroke in the 115 degree heat.

In contrast to the corniness of the film's staged drama (complete with cute inter-titles and a rascally pet monkey), there's the sobering sight of numerous wild animals being slaughtered on camera. The animal kingdom gets its revenge, however, in the film's climactic, village-flattening elephant stampede. At the first Academy Awards in 1927, Chang was one of three films nominated for the first-and-last Unique and Artistic Production Award (the others were King Vidor's The Crowd and winner F.W. Murnau's Sunrise). Introducing the film on Saturday will be Mark Vaz, author of Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper. Returning SFSFF virtuoso Donald Sosin will accompany Chang with an original piano score.

J'accuse (1928), 2:00PM—This 1919 anti-war film from Abel Gance is the movie most SFSFF-heads I know are itching to see. It's only been available in severely truncated editions, which is why this U.S. premiere of a new 162-minute version—painstakingly assembled and restored by the Netherlands Filmmuseum and France's Lobster Films—is such a big deal. Gance, who is sometimes referred to as Europe's D.W. Griffith, is best known for his 1927 epic Napoléon, which is the only Gance I've ever seen, back at a glorious 1981 (?) screening at Oakland's Paramount Theater, with Carmine Coppola conducting a symphony orchestra and the film's famous three-screen triptych battle scenes (an early stab at something akin to Cinemascope) fully restored.

J'accuse tells the story of a romantic triangle against the backdrop of WWI. Gance returned to active military duty in 1918 (as part of France's Section Cinématographique) to film parts of J'accuse, including the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. During a lull in fighting, he shot the celebrated "March of the Dead" sequence employing 2,000 soldiers—80 percent of whom would later die in battle. This eerie 20-minute sequence, along with Gance's expressionistic camerawork and rapid-cut editing, are reasons why J'accuse is remembered today. Although it was a commercial success in France, Pathé Films couldn't get U.S. distribution until Gance himself arranged a gala New York screening for D.W. Griffith in 1921. Griffith released the film through his recently formed United Artists, but it failed to find an American audience. Film preservationist Robert Byrne will introduce J'accuse, and Robert Israel will perform his original orchestral score adapted to play on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer.

Sherlock Jr. (1924), 7:00PM—After a two-hour dinner break, during which time there'll be a special SFSFF party in the Castro mezzanine, the Winter Event continues with this 1924 Buster Keaton classic. Considered "one of the great movies of all time about the movies" and "a brilliant meditation on the nature of cinema," Sherlock Jr. follows Our Hospitality—which SFSFF just screened in February—within Keaton's filmography. Here he plays a movie projectionist who longs to be a celebrated detective. After being framed by a romantic rival for stealing his sweetheart's father's watch, he falls asleep in his projection booth and enters a cinematic dream world where his super-sleuthing skills are put to good use.

Expect plenty of Keaton genius—both in his hilarious sight gags and his primitive, but seamless special effects. This is also the film in which Keaton famously fractured his neck performing a stunt (the water tower scene). Because Sherlock Jr. runs only 45 minutes, it's being paired with his 1921 short The Goat, which some consider his best. This time he's pursued by cops who mistake him for an escaped killer. Look for the iconic scene of Keaton riding a train's cowcatcher. Keaton's granddaughter Melissa Cox will be a special guest at this program, where she'll be interviewed by SFSFF board member Frank Buxton (who once acted with Keaton in summer stock). Dennis James will accompany the films on the Mighty Wurlitzer, with the help of Mark Goldstein's special sound effects.

West of Zanzibar (1928), 9:15PM—The SFSFF days ends, as it has several times in the recent past, with a creepy collaboration between director Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks) and actor Lon Chaney. We've been shown Chaney as a larcenous ventriloquist in drag (The Unholy Three, SFSFF 2006) and an armless knife-thrower lusting to touch Joan Crawford (The Unknown, SFSFF 2008). Here he's Phrosos, a cuckolded, crippled magician who becomes an African ivory trader in order to extract truly twisted, simmering-for-18-years revenge. Boiling in the film's salacious pot are drug addiction, prostitution, voodoo, cannibalism and really un-PC dancing "natives." Unsurprisingly, the folks at Midnites For Maniacs are co-sponsoring the screening, and Dennis James will be back to thrill us on the Mighty Wurlitzer. Program notes for this one have been researched and written by Hell On Frisco Bay's Brian Darr.

Of related interest: Brian Darr has given us a glimpse of some of his research on West of Zanzibar in his
HOFB November 18 entry (scroll down midway). Dennis Harvey writes the event up at SF360. Coverage from our friends at SIFFBLOG is also in full swing, kicking off with Anne M. Hockens' essay "A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen", followed by David Jeffers on the Keaton double-bill, and West of Zanzibar. And, of course, there's SFSFF's own blog.

Cross-published on
film-415 and Twitch.

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