Tuesday, July 13, 2010

SFSFF 2010—Michael Hawley Previews the Lineup

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) is the biggest and most prestigious event of its kind in the Americas—and it's going to be even bigger for its 15th anniversary edition which begins Thursday. This year the fest expands from three days to four and will feature a massive 18 programs from seven countries. The line-up includes works by well known directors (Fritz Lang, Frank Capra, G.W. Pabst) and stars (Laurel and Hardy, Louise Brooks, Norma Talmadge), as well as rarities like The Flying Ace, a 1926 film that features an all African-American cast. And as a special treat, David Shepard and Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films have curated a selection of shorts by George Méliès (the French fantasist best known for 1902's A Trip to the Moon), which will play throughout the festival.

If you've been to the SFSFF before, you don't need me to tell you what a fabulous, class act it is and why it's become a "destination festival" for silent film enthusiasts around the world. The programming is eclectic and fun, the best available 35mm prints are used, the cream of silent film accompanists are hired to do their thing and best of all, it all goes down in our beloved 1922 movie palace, the Castro Theater. As the SFSFF says in its mission statement, "Silent filmmakers produced masterpieces and crowd-thrilling entertainments. Remarkable for their artistry and their inestimable value as historical documents, silent films show us how our ancestors thought, spoke, dressed and lived. It is through these films that the world first came to love movies." And it's through the SFSFF that I've come to love silent movies. Here's a cursory walk through the 2010 line-up.

Thursday, July 15

7:00 P.M. The Iron Horse (1924, USA, dir. John Ford)—In response to the success of Paramount's The Covered Wagon in 1923, Fox studios made this idealized epic about the building of America's trans-continental railroad. Filmed mostly in Arizona with a cast and crew of over 6,000 people, it was Hollywood's first big-scale western and is sometimes referred to as "the silent How the West Was Won." Cattle drives, Indian attacks, saloon brawls—things which later became clichés of the western genre—are said to have had their origins here. George O'Brien, now best known for F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, stars as a railroad surveyor whose childhood sweetheart marries the man who killed his father. The film culminates with the 1869 driving of the golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah, and Wild Bill Hickcok, Buffalo Bill and Abraham Lincoln all make fictionalized appearances. Dennis James, who owns the only existing 35mm print of the American version of The Iron Horse, will accompany it on the Mighty Wurlitzer.

Friday, July 16

11:30 A.M. Amazing Tales from the Archives: Lost & Found Films—One benefit of having an extra day in the festival is that we get two "Amazing Tales" programs. This first one features presentations by Joe Linder from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, plus Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Peña of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. The latter duo are now superheroes to silent film lovers everywhere, having discovered a 16mm dupe negative of Fritz Lang's Metropolis that was 25 minutes longer than any previously known version (the restoration of which will be shown at the festival later in the evening.) Donald Sosin accompanies. FREE ADMISSION!

2:00 P.M. A Spray of Plum Blossoms (1931, China, dir. Bu Wancang)—This film is one of several collaborations between its prolific director and China's favorite on-screen couple of the silent era, Ruan Ling-yu and Jin Yan (tragically, Ruan would kill herself at age 24). Loosely based on Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona, this adaptation is set in the Chinese army circa 1930 and follows two old friends who become rivals for the same young woman. "Like any Shakespeare comedy, Plum Blossoms is replete with star-crossed lovers, mistaken identity and a satisfying happy ending." Donald Sosin accompanies.

6:00 P.M. Rotaie (1929, Italy, dir. Mario Camerini)—Virtually unknown to American audiences, this late-era Italian silent is noted for its German expressionist influence. Two down-on-their-luck young lovers plan suicide, until they find a lost wallet on a train. They're lured to a seaside resort by a high society sleazeball, who then tries to seduce the girl while her lover gambles away their money at the roulette wheel. A sound version of this film would be released two years later. There will be a live English translation of the original Italian intertitles. Stephen Horne accompanies.

8:15 P.M. Metropolis (1927, Germany, dir. Fritz Lang)—If there's a "star" of this year's SFSFF, it's undoubtedly the new "complete" version of Lang's expressionist masterpiece of futuristic dystopianism. The last Metropolis restoration occurred in 2001 and it screened at the SF International Film Festival with the fest's former artistic director Peter Scarlett translating the German intertitles. At the time, it was believed the world would never see a more complete version. As I mentioned above, a 16mm print of Metropolis with 25 additional minutes was discovered in Buenos Aires in 2008—and those minutes are said to contain not just scene trims, but entire subplots. Just as importantly, the Argentine discovery reinstates Lang's original editing, which in previous restorations has been a matter of conjecture.

The digital restoration of the new material, still clearly identifiable due to the ravages of time, took one year and 600,000€ to complete. This will be the only film at the SFSFF to be screened digitally, which for better or worse is the only format that distributor Kino International is releasing. Argentine archivists Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Peña will be on hand to do an introduction, and the incomparable Alloy Orchestra will perform their celebrated original score which has been expanded to accommodate the new material. And don't forget to check out the festival's Metropolis Photo Booth, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Museum. Metropolis is now on "rush" status, which means tickets are only obtainable by purchasing a Festival Pass, or by making a Patron or Grand Patron donation to the festival—or by waiting in the "rush" line and hoping for the best.

Saturday, July 17

10:00 A.M. The Big Business of Short Funny Films—A few years back the SFSFF instituted a Director's Pick program and the pickers have included Terry Zwigoff and Guy Maddin. This year's selection is by Pete Docter, the Oscar-winning director of Pixar's Monsters, Inc. and Up, who has chosen to screen three comedy shorts. Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle directs himself and Buster Keaton as a cook and waiter respectively in 1918's The Cook. Inducted into the National Film Registry in 1998 is the Hal Roach-produced Pass the Gravy, a 1928 yarn about a prize rooster and feuding neighbors. Then in the 1929's Big Business, Laurel and Hardy play California Xmas tree salesmen whose argument with a customer escalates into all-out war. Pete Docter will be interviewed by Leonard Maltin and Dennis James will be this program's accompanist.

12:00 P.M. Variations on a Theme: Musicians on the Craft of Composing and Performing for Silent Film—The title says it all. The panelists in this special program comprise a who's who of silent film composers and accompanists, including pianists Donald Sosin and Stephen Horne, organist Dennis James, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the Alloy Orchestra, and Swedish musician and composer Matti Bye. Chloe Veltman, Bay Area culture correspondent for The New York Times and producer and host of NPR's VoiceBox, will moderate.

2:00 P.M. The Flying Ace (1926, USA, dir. Richard E. Norman)—Between 1920 and 1928, white film producer/director Richard E. Norman made six feature films that sought an alternative to the demeaning portrayal of African-Americans found in silent cinema. His production company turned out everything from westerns to comedies to gangster flicks, but unfortunately, The Flying Ace is the only one that survives today. In this film, a WWI fighter pilot returns home a hero, only to become embroiled in a battle against railroad thieves. Introducing the film will be Rita Reagan from the Norman Studios Film Museum in Jacksonville, Florida. Donald Sosin provides accompaniment.

4:00 P.M. The Strong Man (1926, USA, dir. Frank Capra)—This slapstick comedy was Capra's second feature, and it stars Harry Langdon as a Belgian soldier who comes to America in search of the female pen pal he corresponded with during the war. He's accompanied by German strongman performer Zandow the Great, whom 98 lb. weakling Langdon must replace when the great one becomes incapacitated. This will be my first Langdon film and from what I read, his wide-eyed, man-child persona is an acquired taste. Those who love him rank Langdon with the greats like Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, and many consider The Strong Man his best film. Prior to the screening, the 2010 Silent Film Festival Award will be presented to Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury. Their company Photoplay Productions specializes in restorations of silent era films, many of which have graced the SFSFF over the years. Stephen Horne accompanies this one.

6:30 P.M. Diary of a Lost Girl (1929, Germany, dir. G.W. Pabst)—After obtaining incendiary results with Pandora's Box, Pabst and leading lady Louise Brooks collaborated once more on this story of a girl's ruination and a young woman's regeneration. After getting pregnant by her pharmacist father's lecherous assistant, Brooks' character is sent packing to a hellish girl's reform school. She manages to escape, then dabbles in prostitution en route to becoming a countess. The restoration being screened at the festival was made by the Cineteca di Bologna and includes seven minutes of previously censored footage. I only experienced Pandora's Box for the first time several nights ago, courtesy of Netflix' Watch Instantly, so now I'm really hot to catch this follow-up on the big screen. This SFSFF Centerpiece Film is also the Founders Pick, chosen by the festival's originators Stephen Salmons and Melissa Chittick. The film will be introduced by actor/writer/director and SFSFF board member Frank Buxton, and the fantastic Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will provide the accompaniment.

9:30 P.M. Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922, Denmark/Sweden, dir Benjamin Christensen)—In the early 1980s, there was a Bay Area cable station that only screened public domain movies, and it screened the same ones repeatedly. That's where I first caught late-night bits and pieces of this seven-chapter, reverie-disturbing "documentary" exploring "the scientific hypothesis that the witches of the Middle Ages suffered the same hysteria as turn-of-the-century psychiatric patients." Reportedly the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made, it was banned in the US for depictions of torture, nudity, satanic worship, sacrilege and sexual perversion. Come for the comprehensive tour of medieval torture devices; stay for the flying witches kissing the ass of Satan (portrayed, as is a brief appearance by Jesus, by the director himself). Making their SFSFF debut accompanying Häxan is Sweden's Matti Bye Ensemble.

Sunday, July 18

10:00 A.M. Amazing Tales from the Archives: First the Bad News…then the Good!—In this second set of Amazing Tales, clips and slides will be used to discuss various silent film preservation issues. First up is the Library of Congress' Mike Mashon, who will talk about the "fascinating and devastating reality of American silent film survival rates." He'll be followed by Annette Melville from the National Film Preservation Foundation, who will "present a way to bring back some of this history via a major international repatriation project." More good news—the presentation will include a newly preserved print of the 1920 Mutt and Jeff cartoon, On Strike! FREE ADMISSION!

12:00 P.M. The Shakedown (1929, USA, dir. William Wyler)—The great William Wyler directs James Murray (King Vidor's The Crowd) as a boxer who travels from town to town staging rigged fights, until he meets up with an orphan and a benevolent waitress who inspire him to mend his ways. Leonard Maltin will be on hand to interview the Wyler children about their father, and Donald Sosin will accompany the film.

2:30 P.M. The Man with a Movie Camera (1929, USSR, dir. Dziga Vertov)—I recently watched this avant-garde masterpiece for the first time in 30-plus years on Netflix' Watch Instantly, accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra's rip-roaring, magisterial score. It unequivocally Blew. Me. Away.—and I can scarcely believe I'll be seeing it on the gigantic Castro screen with the awesome Alloys performing live! If you got shut out of seeing them perform with the sold-out Metropolis, this ought to make for one helluva consolation prize. Hell on Frisco Bay's Brian Darr has done the program notes for this, which I anxiously anticipate reading.

4:30 P.M. The Woman Disputed (1928, USA, dir. Henry King, Sam Taylor)—Norma Talmadge makes her final silent film appearance in this tale of a prostitute who's unable to escape her past. Set in Austria during WWI, her character is coveted by an Austrian and a Russian officer, and she must spend "a night of passion" with the latter in order to save the townspeople who've scorned her. Based on a story by Guy de Maupassant, the film co-stars Talmadge's off-screen lover, Gilbert Roland. Stephen Horne provides accompaniment.

7:30 P.M. L'heureuse mort (1924, France, dir. Serge Nadejdine)—The 2010 SFSFF closes with a French comedy that captivated the festival's staff at last year's Pordenone Silent Film Festival. Théodore is a failed Parisian playwright who falls off a boat while on holiday and is presumed drowned. When he returns home and learns that that his plays are now all the rage, he impersonates his own brother in order to perpetuate the posthumous acclaim that eluded him while "alive." Director Nadejdine was previously a ballet master in Russia, a job he'd take up again after moving to the US. The character of Théodore is played by Nicolas Rimsky, who also wrote the screenplay from a novel by Countess Baillehache. Leonard Maltin will introduce the film and the Matti Bye Ensemble will accompany it.

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film-415 and Twitch.