Wednesday, May 31, 2017

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2017

A pair of films by trailblazing women directors, a quartet of movies spotlighting the year 1925, plus Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul starring Paul Robeson (with live accompaniment by DJ Spooky!) are among the anticipated highlights of the 22nd San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF). This year's edition takes in 18 programs, and according to the indispensable Film on Film Foundation Bay Area Calendar, fully half contain some element of 35mm presentation. What's especially remarkable about the festival, however, is that all 15 feature films are SFSFF debuts. That includes warhorses like Harold Lloyd's The Freshman, which opens the event on Thursday, June 1, straight through Sunday evening's closer, The Three Musketeers with Douglas Fairbanks.

If I could only choose one film to see at SFSFF22, it would be the reconstruction of Harry Hoyt's 1925 dinosaur epic The Lost World. Based Arthur Conan Doyle's oft-filmed novel, this adventure yarn about an Amazonian land-that-time-forgot co-stars Wallace Beery, Bessie Love and Lewis Stone. But the movie's true stars are the crudely magnificent stop-motion animated dinosaur sequences by Willis O'Brien, the man who would give the world King Kong eight years later. I last saw The Lost World at the SF International Film Festival in 2009, with an explosive live score by Cambodian-flavored rock band Dengue Fever. (For my money, the most successful of that festival's many alt-rock and silent cinema pairings thus far). Accompanying the film this Sunday afternoon will be the peerless Alloy Orchestra, who I'm certain are up to the task. Lobster Films' Serge Bromberg will introduce the program and hopefully speak about the film's reconstruction from 11 different source materials.

As a prelude to The Lost World, the festival presents the short, Fifty Million Years Ago prior to the screening of Victor Sjöstrom's A Man There Was earlier Sunday afternoon. This seven-minute, 1925 film was created to exploit the country's interest in the subject of evolution – this being the year of America's infamous Scopes "Monkey" Trial – as well as to pique interest in the release of The Lost World.

In addition to The Lost World, The Freshman and Body and Soul, the fourth element of the festival's spotlight on 1925 is none other than Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. It's almost impossible to believe SFSFF carried on for more than two decades without having screened this revolutionary masterpiece, but there you have it. My first Potemkin exposure was in a university film theory class where the professor ran the Odessa Steps sequence forward and backward through the projector until the film broke. More recently, I caught it at the Castro Theatre in 2011 in a definitive version that placed all 1,374 shots in correct order, re-instated the original inter-titles and re-worked Edmund Meisel's original score. That's the version we'll presumably be seeing on Saturday evening, but with live accompaniment performed by the Matti Bye Ensemble. Bye's ethereal-sounding music seems an odd choice to accompany Potemkin's propulsive dynamism, so it'll be interesting to hear how they pull this off. Those with an interest in Soviet silent cinema might also want to check out Heorhii Stabovyi's Two Days, which is set during the Ukraine's 1917-21 civil war and screens Sunday night.

The festival is giving its two women-directed films back-to-back showings on Friday afternoon. First up will be Dorothy Arzner's Get Your Man from 1927. The bewitching Clara Bow stars as a woman who gets trapped in a Paris wax museum overnight with an aristocrat, played by Charles "Buddy" Rogers (of all people). This new Library of Congress reconstruction fills out missing sections with production stills and expository intertitles. As an added bonus to the program, the festival is premiering a 23-minute fragment from Now We're in the Air! Footage from this long-lost 1927 comedy starring Louise Brooks and Wallace Beery was recently discovered in the Czech Republic's National Film Archive and subsequently restored by the festival's president, Rob Byrne.

The afternoon's celebration of pioneering female filmmakers continues with another important restoration, Lois Weber's The Dumb Girl of Portici. The 1916 film stars legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and it's believed to be her only screen appearance. Pavlova produced and choreographed this tale of a mute fisher-girl who sparks a revolution in 17th century Spanish-occupied Naples. It was Universal Pictures most expensive production to date and was only one of ten feature films that the ultra-prolific Weber directed in 1916 alone.

As a major fan of both Tod Browning and Ernst Lubitsch, I was delighted to find relatively little known selections from their early filmographies in the line-up. Browning is represented by Outside the Law, a 1920 crime thriller set in San Francisco's Chinatown. Frequent Browning collaborator Lon Chaney appears in dual roles as a sleazy criminal mastermind and a Chinese Confucian philosophy student. Anna May Wong also pops up in a bit part, marking her third screen performance (albeit uncredited). The Lubitsch film is 1919's The Doll, a comic fantasy said to be one of the director's personal favorites from his pre-Hollywood career. The main draw for me is actress Ossi Oswalda, who was such a hoot in Lubitsch's cross-dressing comedy Girls Will Be Boys, which the fest screened last year.

One of the most intriguing-sounding titles at SFIFF22 is surely Mario Roncoroni's Filibius. This 1915 Italian movie stars Cristina Ruspoli as a crime-committing baroness who stages her capers from the safety of a technologically-advanced zeppelin manned by subservient male acolytes. I'm especially looking forward to hearing what the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra has concocted in the way of a score for this. Filibus was recently restored by the Netherlands' EYE Filmmuseum, whose chief silent film curator Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi will be on hand to receive this year's (long-overdue!) San Francisco Silent Film Festival Award at the screening.

Amongst the remaining programs, I'm probably most looking forward to A Page of Madness, Teinosuke Kinugasa's 1926 Japanese avant-garde masterpiece that's entirely set in an insane asylum. Appropriately enough, the Alloy Orchestra will be accompanying that one. I also don't want to miss Magic and Mirth: A Collection of Enchanting Short Films, 1906-1924. Curated by Lobster Films' Serge Bromberg, the program will include works by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and George Méliès. The free-admission Amazing Tales from the Archives program is always a fun and informative look at the latest in silent cinema preservation. Rounding out SFSFF22's roster are a trio of dramas: Irish revolutionary tale The Informer, a Cecil B. DeMille adaptation of the Broadway stage play Silence, and the Polish thriller A Strong Man. The latter apparently contains elements of film noir, given that it's to be introduced by Eddie Muller.

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