Sunday, July 18, 2010

SFSFF 2010: Diary of a Silent Film Junkie

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival continues to chug away, giving audiences so many once-in-a-lifetime experiences that they hardly have time to update their damn blogs. I'll be publishing a more coherent festival overview for Moving Pictures Magazines, but here are some random tidbits about festival goings on.

The "Metropolis" restoration has been playing across the country for a couple months now. Hell, it's even played in Salt Lake City. And yet it packed the theater—many people were turned away. I myself thought I wouldn't really have seen the new version until SFSFF. Why watch it at some sterile screening with a recorded score when you could see a living, breathing version at the Castro Theatre? The oft-praised, oft-derided Alloy Orchestra played the new version of its score, a pouncing, driving piece that married with the image to create an enthralling experience, especially at the end of the second "Intermezzo" act, with its fever dream of debauchery and betrayal. Kino has decided to include the score as an alternative to the original score, and having seen the restoration with both options, I anticipate using the Alloy Orchestra track more often.

In less favorable Kino news, they've only been distributing the film digitally, and inexplicably this limitation was extended to SFSFF. Prints for other films were obtained from archives that never lend out prints, yet we couldn't see the restored "Metropolis" in its original format. Incredible. Fortunately Alloy still made the screening unforgettable.

The film screened Friday night, and the heroes of the evening were the Argentineans who discovered the nearly complete version of the film, Fernando Peña and Paula Félix-Didier from Buenos Aires. Much of the media coverage of the discovery and restoration didn't give them the credit they deserved, perhaps because it filtered through press releases by the F.W. Murnau Siftung in Germany, where the film was restored.

The discovery was no fluke—Peña first suspected that the national film archive had a print of the full film 20 years before he got his hands on it. He was refused access for years, until Félix-Didier took over that film museum and they finally examined the print and promptly confirmed that it was what he suspected.

It started when Peña spoke with a man who recalled holding his finger in the projector for an entire screening of "Metropolis," pressuring the gate to stop the image from flickering. "I held it for two and a half hours," the man told him.

"Are you sure it was that long? I don't think I've ever seen a version of 'Metropolis' that long" Peña asked him.

"Yes, I will never forget how my finger felt."

Peña then started researching. He discovered Argentina was the only country besides Germany that showed the original cut of the film, because the Argentinean distributor bought it soon after its completion. It appeared that a silent collector bought a print in the 1930s, and then left it to the country's public film archive after his death.

It's a bit overwhelming to consider the number of iconic cinema scenarios Fritz Lang crammed into "Metropolis." There are stunning futuristic skylines, a mad scientist bringing his invention to life in his laboratory, a suspenseful disaster escape, a slick and sinister badass henchman, a horrific chase through the catacombs, the list goes on. Of course these setups all existed in the silent era, but to see so many pop culture mainstays so skillfully produced in one movie is astonishing.

The festival opened Thursday night with John Ford's "The Iron Horse," an epic western about the building of the transcontinental railroad. It was a stately opener, with sweeping landscape photography, suspenseful chases and just enough political intrigue to add conflict to the story. In 1924, the period setting wasn't that distant, and Ford was able to create a very authentic, at times documentary-like feel. The film itself was a struggle to make, and the conditions its crew faced—sometimes in harsh snow—weren't that different for those endured in the mad quest to build the railroad. (They even had a brothel!) Accompanist Dennis James was in great form, boiling the film's drama and suspense along with the Castro Theatre's lovely built-in organ.

The party that followed in the building of sponsor McCroskey Mattress Company was full of light-hearted fun, including an old-timey band, a "Metropolis" photo booth and some slapstick stunts attempted by yours truly. ("They said it was OK to jump on the mattresses," James said).

At the party, Stephen Horne downplayed his upcoming performances. He told me he was a bit nervous about his upcoming performances, because none of the features he's accompanying, "Rotaie," "The Woman Disputed" and "The "Strong Man," lend themselves to the bold, bravura performances that have accompanied films like "Jujiro." "It's more like what I do back at home" (England), he said. "I hope people aren't expecting me to do it because it wouldn't be right for the films."

Of course, after all that, he completely killed in his performance of "Rotaie" the next evening. Horne has the ability to bring out the best in a film, to distill all its emotional twists and turns and help it float along with the audience. Playing flute, accordion and piano (sometimes simultaneously), he created an utterly unique soundscape. The film itself is a beautifully photographed expressionistic fable by Mario Camerini, about a poor, desperate couple in search of an escape from its problems. Camerini is largely known for his routine, unchallenging work throughout Italy's fascist regime, but in this film he's clearly inspired, injecting desperate foreboding into every shot and studying the divide between the classes.

The print came from an archive in Milan that doesn't lend it out very often. As with so many of the SFSFF selections, we were lucky to see it.

1 comment:

Ken Winokur said...

Hi Chris and Jeremy,

Thanks for your kind words about our (Alloy Orchestra) score to Metropolis.

I do feel that I should defend the decision that Kino made to release the film in digital formats instead of film.

Since the restoration was done in Digital (which is why it looks so great now - scratches removed, contrast and sharpness perfected), that's now the native format of the film. To print back to 35mm from digital is so expensive that it's just not feasible. Last time I checked it cost about $40,000 to make one print!

I was talking to Anita Monga, the artistic director of the SF Silent Festival, and we both agreed that the BluRay projection looked amazing. There is so much detail and so little artifacts to the new technology that I honestly believe that we've turned a corner where digital projection rivals film.

And I must say, that Alloy Orchestra has always championed 35mm prints and tried to resist digital. When done right (as it was in SF) HD looks fantastic.

Keep up the good work!

Ken Winokur / Alloy Orchestra