Saturday, February 28, 2009

SF Silent Film Festival Winter Event 2009

The weather outside was frightening. An overdue winter storm was pounding the Bay Area – and inside the unheated, cavernous Castro Theater, the temperature might have been a few degrees warmer than outdoors. But that hardly mattered to those celebrating the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's (SFSFF) 4th Annual Winter Event. We were movie lovers spending our entire Valentine's Day in the chilly bosom of our favorite silent movie palace.

The SFSFF Winter Event started four years ago as in interim fix for silent film junkies – a bonbon to tide us over until the main festival in July. This year's affair packed plenty into one day: four outstanding features, a tribute to a pioneering female director, live musical accompaniments, an informative and well-researched program guide, pithy on-stage introductions and last but not least, door prizes!

The program began with the first of four shorts by Alice Guy Blaché, the world's first female director. Between 1886 and 1920, Guy Blaché directed over 300 films – first for Gaumont in France and then for her own studio, Solax (the largest pre-Hollywood film studio in the U.S.). In the first short, The Detective and His Dog, we saw an example of the "Dog Rescue" film, an allegedly popular genre of the era. It contained some pretty sophisticated cross-cutting for 1912, and might also be the first film in which someone is tied up to a rapidly approaching buzz saw. Three other Guy Blaché shorts were screened throughout the day and evening, including Matrimony's Speed Limit (1913), Falling Leaves (1912) and a fragment from The Pit and the Pendulum (1913). It's worth mentioning here that The Detective and His Dog (and the entire afternoon's program) was accompanied on piano by the talented Philip Carli. This was his SFSFF debut, and everyone agreed he's a great addition to the festival's rotating line-up of musicians.

At 12 noon there was a packed house for Buster Keaton's first "real" feature, 1923's Our Hospitality. The film got a heartfelt introduction by SFSFF Board Member Frank Buxton, who showed the audience a 1949 publicity still from a summer stock production of Three Men on a Horse. The photo depicts two men; a bartender and his customer. The latter is obviously Keaton, "and the young man on the left is me, at age 19," the now 79-year-old Buxton reminisced.

Our Hospitality is pure Keaton genius. Set in 1830, it's the story of a man who returns home to claim an inheritance, oblivious to the fact he's at the center of a Hatfield-McCoy type family feud. Among its highlights are an outrageous stunt at the edge of a raging waterfall, and hilarious (but historically accurate) depictions of the earliest bicycles and passenger trains. One gag in particular encapsulates Keaton's imaginative powers for me. When his character first learns of his inheritance, the image of a grand antebellum mansion appears in something akin to a thought bubble above his head. A half hour later, a disappointed Keaton is seen standing in front of his real inheritance – a rickety old shack. The mansion appears above his head once again, and we see it get blown to smithereens! A brilliant cinematic moment in 1923 or any other year. Finally, it was a joy to hear howls of laughter coming from the kids in the Castro audience. After 86 years, these images still have the power to delight a new generation.

Up next was A Kiss From Mary Pickford, a Russian comedy from 1927 with an interesting history. In 1920, Pickford married Douglas Fairbanks and took off on a European honeymoon. They had become so insanely popular that in London, Pickford was dragged from her car and trampled by a riotous mob that tore at her hair and clothes. A few years later the couple visited Moscow – where they were equally the rage – and during a film studio tour Pickford was encouraged to plant a kiss on actor/comedian Igor Ilyinsky (
Aelita: Queen of Mars). That simple moment was captured on camera and became the nucleus for director Sergei Komorov's film.

In A Kiss From Mary Pickford, Illynsky plays a klutzy movie theater usher with an aloof, Douglas Fairbanks-obsessed girlfriend. He becomes a film stuntman, and Pickford's ill-fated smooch results in him also becoming an object of deranged idolatry. The film is a madcap satire of celebrity worship, and it was interesting to see 1927 Muscovites portrayed not as dour proletariats, but as full participants in the Jazz Age. Illynsky is an adept physical comedian, and Komorov packs his film with some great sight gags. My favorite occurred when a fed-up Illlynsky wipes Pickford's lip prints off his cheek, and a mob of eyewitnesses simultaneously faints to the ground in disbelief. Full disclosure – I slept through the entire mid-section of this film and missed all the archival footage of Pickford and Fairbanks' visit to Moscow (including the titular kiss). As a result, however, I was fully rested and alert for F.W. Murnau's Sunrise.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) is one of several iconic films that have eluded me over the years. It's considered the supreme representation of silent film art and I always hear gasps of incredulity whenever I admit to never having seen it. Thanks to the SFSFF, I can finally count myself among its fervent devotees. Its storyline is uncomplicated. A wicked City Woman convinces a Simple Farmer to murder his Adoring Wife by drowning her en route to an outing in the Big City. But instead, the excursion rekindles his love, and a sea storm on the return journey becomes the ultimate test of his devotion.

Volumes have been written about this film's greatness (this Wikipedia entry is as good a place to start as any), so there's really little to add. But indulge me while I recall some of the things that transfixed me as I watched from my seat in the Castro: The revolutionary fluid camera movements. The heartrending lead performances by George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor (winner of the very first Academy Award for Best Actress). The moody and iridescent cinematography in the nocturnal marsh sequence. The stunning dissolves and superimposition of images. The imaginative and vaguely futuristic art direction in the Big City carnival sequence. The drunk pig chase. And best of all, the scene where they walk arm-in-arm into a tangle of street traffic – oblivious to everything in the world but each other. This screening was greatly enhanced by Brian Darr's program notes and Dennis James' spirited accompaniment on Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer.

The SFSFF Winter Event came to a wonderfully comic/horrific close with Paul Leni's 1927 The Cat and the Canary. After a rousing introduction by Midnight for Maniacs' Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, we set off to experience Leni's German Expressionist version of a haunted house movie. The Cat and the Canary is credited for setting the template for this kind of film, in which a group of strangers are forced, for one reason or another, to spend the night in a spooky mansion. It was always my favorite kind of movie as a kid, with films such as James Whale's The Old Dark House, William Castle's House on Haunted Hill and Robert Wise's The Haunting.

In this early rendering, we encounter many tropes of the genre: a maniac on the loose, bookcases that move and lead to other rooms, a gallery of suspicious characters and an austere, malevolent housekeeper (here amusingly named Mammy Pleasant). I was intrigued to see an archetypal gay "sissy" character amongst the houseguests, particularly one who ultimately reveals himself to be the bravest of the bunch. This film was also vigorously accompanied by Dennis James on the Wurlitzer, along with Mark Goldstein's live sound effects. We heard creaking doors, gushing winds, ticking clocks and lots of eerie, theremin-ish musical accents. I found it a bit overdone; a classic case where less might have been more. But it was scarcely enough to ruin the experience. And at the end I rushed out onto Castro Street, where after 11 hours indoors, a real dark and stormy night laid in wait.

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Another highly anticipated event for Bay Area silent film lovers is the SF International Film Festival's annual pairing of live rock music and a renowned silent film at the Castro. Past combinations have included Deerhoof and Harry Smith's Heaven and Earth Magic, Lambchop and Murnau's Sunrise, and Yo La Tengo with the nature films of Jean Painlevé. This year, however, festival programmer Sean Uyehara has truly outdone himself. On Tuesday, May 5, Bay Area club favorites Dengue Fever will world-premiere their newly composed score for Harry Hoyt's 1925 dinosaur epic The Lost World. Based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the film stars Bessie Love, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone and Lloyd Hughes. But most famously, it features the stop-motion animated creatures of Willis O'Brien, the man who gave the world King Kong in 1933.

Dengue Fever are a Southern California band best known for their cover versions of Cambodian garage rock classics from the 60's and 70's. They first came on my radar with a Khmer-language version of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," which appeared on the soundtrack for Matt Dillon's directorial debut City of Ghosts. In recent years they've expanded their sound to include surf, psych-rock, klezmer, funk and Ethiopian jazz. I've seen them perform live several times, and can only imagine what they've concocted for The Lost World score. The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival takes place from April 23 to May 7. Tickets for this one-time experience are currently on sale to SF Film Society Members, and General Public tickets will go on sale April 2.


Anonymous said...

Michael, Frako here. About the malevolent housekeeper Mammy Pleasant in Cat and the Canary--it's probable she was named after Mary Ellen "Mammy" Pleasant, a notorious San Francisco character from the 1880s whose suspected involvement in the murder of a prominent businessman, ownership of a big piece of property at Octavia and Buchanan and enormous fortune overshadowed her work as a civil rights pioneer.

By the way, your photo is VERY CUTE!

Michael Hawley said...

You're probably right about that, Frako, as the original 1922 THE CAT AND THE CANARY stage play was written by San Francisco native John Willard (according to Margarita Landazuri's SFSFF program notes).

I checked out the link you provided and there was something vaguely familiar about the photo of her memorial plaque. Then I realized the plaque came at the end of a Pacific Heights walking Ghost Tour I took two years ago. It stands outside the site of her former mansion at Octavia and Bush Streets. A seamy 1935 accounting of her years in San Francisco can be found here: