Wednesday, July 28, 2010

SFSFF 2010: A Festival There Was

The Shakedown

Having haunted, amused and moved its audience with established classics and unknown treasures, The San Francisco Silent Film Festival came to a close Sunday, July 18. I published my definitive recap in Moving Pictures Magazine, and you may or may not also be inclined to explore my first and second sets of rambling on this very blog. My interviews with various festival guests and attendees will be featured in an upcoming podcast soon. Until then, here are some final thoughts on a great weekend.

Brownlow (aka God)
At Saturday's screening of "The Strong Man," the festival honored Patrick Stanbury and Kevin Brownlow of England's Photoplay Productions, which provided the lovely, restored 35-mm print of Frank Capra's classic, starring Harry Langdon. Brownlow also introduced Henry King and Sam Taylor's "The Woman Disputed," a 1928 melodrama starring Norma Talmage as a woman saved from a life of prostitution and caught in a love triangle with the two men who saved her. Both Photoplay films were accompanied by England's own Stephen Horne, whom—and you may have picked up on this if you've been playing close attention—I adore. While my favorite Horne accompaniment of the festival remained "Rotaie," he was effective conveying both Langdon's gentle humor and the emotional turmoil of a woman scorned by a hypocritical society.

Brownlow, 72, has dedicated his life to preserving and advocating silent film. Fernando Peña, the Argentinean archivist who discovered the missing footage from "Metropolis," put it best during his introduction to "Metropolis." He simply said, "We would not be here if it weren't for Kevin Brownlow."

Brownlow would still be a forever-important cinema historian if he had quit in 1968 after writing the essential book The Parade's Gone By, which recorded first-hand accounts from filmmakers and actors who defined the silent era, before their stories were lost to time. He went on to direct a collection of definitive documentary series about the silent era, including studies of the Hollywood and European film industries and biographies of D.W. Griffith and the three best-known silent clowns.

He not only championed Abel Gance's "Napoleon," he devoted his life to the quest of compiling the most complete version of the film. I spoke with Stanbury told me that he no longer thinks it impossible for Photoplay's "Napoleon" restoration to screen in the United States. The film has been mired in rights issues—Francis Ford Coppola purchased the US rights to the film and in 1981 released an edited, sped-up version of the film; while Brownlow commissioned a score by Carl Davis that accompanied the full film at the time. He continued to add and upgrade footage, while the USA releases stagnated. Now, however, Stanbury thinks its possible to bring the current, most complete restoration to the USA. "We just need someone with a big checkbook," he said. "And I hope you're that person."

The 15th festival was the first that Brownlow attended, and he was especially impressed with the festival program. The text in the festival booklet is not your typical plot synopses, but meticulously researched essays about the films and the personalities behind them. Slideshows in the auditorium before each film augment the presentation further with archival photos and anecdotes. Individual writers take on each film, and no film gets neglected in favor of the big names.

The Big Guns
The big titles included Dziga Vertov's experimental Russian classic "Man with a Movie Camera." The Alloy Orchestra's score, based Vertov's notes on how he felt the film should be accompanied, is very well known and has been released on DVD. But it reached new, pounding heights as the film chugged toward its rapid-fire visual climax. Even comedian Ron Lynch ("Home Movies"), the usually deadpan voice of SFSFF, was still a bit stunned when he made his post-movie announcement.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra only accompanied one film this year, but it was a good one: G.W. Pabst's "Diary of a Lost Girl. The Orchestra used its usual blend of historically accurate, artistically dead-on cues to give voice to what may be Brooks's most emotionally moving performance.

Diary of a Lost Girl

The Musicians
Part of the joy of SFSFF is the many different types of accompaniment offered.

SFSFF's first ever panel discussion illustrated how different the approaches to silent film music can be. During the discussion, even Dennis James and Rodney Sauer of the Mont Alto Motion Picture orchestra had disagreements, and they were arguably the two most philosophically aligned musicians present. Throughout the discussion, James stood out as the firmest set in his opinions. His disagreement with Sauer was based around comments that most silent movies didn't have one uniform score, as accompanists compiled scores from their own libraries and only used the cue sheets for reference, rather than as a rule. Sure some films had scores commissioned for their premieres, but they usually didn't travel too far. But James countered that if a film has an existing score, it should indeed be used as accompaniment.

My own opinion is one of "whatever works." I love to see the historically accurate work of James and Mont Alto—it's a tradition that needs to be carried on by future generations. But I never hesitate to delve into the kind of stuff that purists cry fowl over. Ultimately, it comes down to connection. If music with more modern flavor helps an audience connect to a film in a way that they could never connect to a 1930s sound film, more power to the musicians. Anything that keeps the films living and breathing, and is made with careful attention to what's on screen, is fine by me.

The, Uh…Smaller Guns
Of the festival's lesser-known entries, "The Flying Ace" was the weakest. The 1926 film is most interesting as an example of a film with an all-black cast. And that cast is, in fact, absolutely charming. Unfortunately, it can't prop up writer/director Richard E. Norman detective story, which plays like a half-baked Encyclopedia Brown story. On top of the poorly structured non-story, Norman lacked any innovation or imagination to get around his low budget, making for some painfully rigid action.

Bu Wancang's 1931 film "The Spray of Plum Blossoms was a fun showcase of one of China's great stars, Lingyu Ruan. The Two Gentlemen of Verona-inspired plot flies off the rails and goes all Robin Hood in the third act, but remained highly entertaining. The film's best bit of humor comes when the new Robin Hood figures explains to his band of thieves the new principals they must live by. Everyone is down for taking from the rich and giving to the poor and all that, but he starts to lose them with the concept of not raping women.

The Spray of Plum Blossoms

While by nature a B boxing picture, William Wyler's second (and youngest surviving) non-Western film "The Shakedown" is a remarkably made, thoroughly entertaining tale of a man being reformed by a cute kid and a good woman. (Although I'm not sure how well-received a man who takes a young boy into his home would be in our modern world.) Pianist Donald Sosin offered his best accompaniment of the festival, quickly maneuvering through the movie's light-hearted flight and melodramatic overtures.

Even the most hard-core of silent film buffs hadn't seen the festival's closing film, "L'heureuse mort," a 1924 French film by Russian Immigrants, directed by Serge Nadejdine. But many were singing it's praises at the end of the festival. The amusing farce builds around the old concept that artists (in this case a playwright) become more appreciated after their death. I found the film well-made, but idiotic in its plotting, which would have worked better spread across a shorter timeline. To be honest, don't think I've ever seen a silent French comedy that completely wowed me. Maybe I just don't have the suspension of disbelief to enjoy the idiot plots that so many of the films rely on.

At the closing screening of L'heureuse mort," Leonard Maltin recalled the life of the late great film archivist and writer William K. Everson, whose eclectic programs often contained films that nobody had heard of. Yet despite their obscurity, they drew large crowds because people trusted Everson to show them fascinating films. He'd built that kind of relationship. Maltin said that the bodies that packed the Castro Theatre that night were evidence SFSFF had built a similar relationship with its loyal attendees. Most people in the theater hadn't heard of "L'heureuse mort." It's not a film school staple like "Metropolis"—it isn't on DVD and before the festival it didn't even have five votes on IMDb. No name directors or stars were promised. But the old movie palace still filled with eager movie lovers, ready for one more fix of dreamlike cinematography, virtuoso filmmaking and magical music that brings each frame to life as it flutters through the projector.

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