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.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

SFFILM Festival 60 Wrap-Up

The 60th SFFILM Festival recently came to a close after a 15-day orgy of movie-going magic. Personal highlights included getting to share the same air as Ethan Hawke, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, as well as seeing new works from favorite directors like Alejandro Jodorowsky and João Pedro Rodrigues. Here are some thoughts on 20 of the programs I caught at this year's memorable anniversary edition.

Casting JonBenet (USA/Australia dir. Kitty Green)
All I knew about this lurid Boulder, CO child murder case was what I gleaned from standing in supermarket check-out lines in 1997. This singular documentary recounts the whole story with zero archival footage, exclusively relying upon tapes of Boulder residents "auditioning" for a filmic study about the case. The result is an affecting portrait of how media sideshows affect those on its sidelines. This was my first time seeing a film in the astounding new Dolby Cinema on Market Street. Casting JonBenet is currently available to stream on Netflix.

A Tribute to Ethan Hawke
This conversation with one of my favorite actors – conducted by his 2000 Hamlet director Michael Almereyda – was an expected highlight of the festival. There were anecdotes aplenty about Hawke's longtime directorial collaborator Richard Linklater, all of which gave me even greater respect for the versatile Austin filmmaker. And I was especially tickled to hear that Hawke's first acting gig (as a one-line extra in Shaw's "Saint Joan") was at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, where I saw my first Shakespeare play on a school outing back in the 60's. I didn't stay to watch Hawkes' new film Maudie (it opens locally on June 23), because I didn't realize he'd be returning for a post-screening Q&A.

Leaning Into the Wind – Andy Goldsworthy (UK dir. Thomas Riedelsheimer)
While lacking some of the "wow" factor that made Rivers and Tides a surprise arthouse hit 15 years ago, this sequel will still be appreciated by admirers of that first cinematic profile of environmental artist Goldsworthy. The new film finds the artist facing issues of aging and legacy, and keeps tabs on his latest projects (some of which, such as his newfound propensity for crawling through giant hedges, seem rather silly). Local audiences will appreciate the detailed section on the creation of Tree Fall, one of four Goldsworthy pieces to be found in San Francisco's Presidio. This SFFILM Festival screening was the movie's world premiere and unsurprisingly, it immediately got snapped up for U.S. distribution (by Magnolia Pictures).

78/52 (USA dir. Alexandre O. Philippe)
This was my favorite documentary of the festival – a sort-of everything you ever wanted to know about Psycho's shower scene, but didn't know what to ask. Positing the film as Hitchcock's fuck-you to Hollywood after a decade of glossy, star-studded thrillers, this enormously fun and informative doc digs deeps into the minutiae of those world-changing three minutes of celluloid. I was particularly delighted to hear from Janet Leigh's body double, Marli Renfro, and I now know that the stabbing sound effects were achieved by plunging knives into casaba melons.

Score: A Film Music Documentary (USA dir. Matt Schrader)
Although limited by its near exclusive focus on Hollywood tent-pole composers, i.e. John Williams, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, Jerry Goldsmith, et al., there was still much to appreciate in this close-up look at the marriage of orchestral music and film. (A relationship, as the film points out, that began with 1933's King Kong). Among its film's highlights are a fly-on-the-wall look at an Abbey Road recording session and an appreciation for how different composers work with studio musicians. My favorite anecdote had composer Brian Tyler (Iron Man 3, The Fate of the Furious) describing his method for determining a score's effectiveness: he hides in toilet stalls to hear if anyone comes into the theater restroom humming his tunes. The screening was followed by a lively Q&A with director Schrader and composer John Debney (The Jungle Book).

Yourself and Yours (South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
I'd have to go back 10 years to find a Hong film I enjoyed less than this one, a surprise given the one-two knock-out punches of 2015's hilarious Hill of Freedom and 2016's deeply moving Right Now, Wrong Then. I'll admit that I fell asleep twice, which could be a problem in a film with possible twins and/or doppelgangers. Anyway, I plan to revisit it ASAP. Fortunately, I'm a SFFILM member and Yourself and Yours is one of 15 films from this year's festival available to stream for free in the organization's Screening Room.

The Lost City of Z (USA dir. James Gray)
I decided to pass up Beach Rats, a film I was dying to see, in order to catch director James Gray in person presenting his latest work. While this engaging-enough mini-epic about an early 20th century Amazonian explorer proved Gray's least interesting film to date, the director himself decidedly did not disappointment. He held the festival audience captive, regaling us with one production "war story" after the next (including how the indigenous peoples who appear in the film asked for two things in return for their participation – help constructing an irrigation system and a shipment of Lands' End cargo shorts). Out Woody-ing Woody Allen in his halting Brooklyn-ese accent, Gray also proved a master impressionist, taking on Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo as well as Benedict Cumberbatch (in a recreation of his phone call to Gray wherein he withdrew from Lost City of Z two weeks before production started).

VR Days 
The highlight of this year's virtual reality showcase was Dreams of O, a tripped-out, slightly creepy in-your-face adaptation of Cirque du Soleil's aqua-spectacular. It came as no surprise to learn that its creators, Felix & Paul Studios, were also behind Nomad: Sea Gypsies, my favorite piece from last year's VR Days (see my review here). I was also taken by Connor Hair and Alex Meader's My Brother's Keeper, in which the viewer intimately experiences the tragedy of siblings fighting on opposite sides of America's Civil War. The wistfulness of Patrick Osborne's Oscar-nominated Pearl, wherein the participant sits in a car's passenger seat and witnesses the years-long evolution of a father-daughter relationship, also made an impression.

Bill Nye: Science Guy (USA dir. David Alvarado, Jason Sussberg)
One of the big thrills of this year's fest was sitting across the aisle from bow-tied Mr. Nye as we both watched this tribute to his life and work. Shot over the course of two years, the doc pays tribute to Nye's adulation by America's schoolchildren and follows his involvement as CEO of Carl Sagan's The Planetary Society as it successfully launches a solar sail project into space. A big chunk is also devoted to his role as the public face of opposition to evolution and climate change deniers, specifically his battles with creationist theme park huckster Ken Ham and bodybuilding meteorologist Joe Bastardi. More personally, the film looks at Nye's reason for never having children – the Ataxia disease which profoundly affected his brother and sister. It pained me to skip out on the post-screening panel discussion in order to catch my next movie.

Endless Poetry (Chile/France dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky)
Latin America's master surrealist once again employs exquisite artifice and outsized emotions in the service of presenting his life story, making this my hands-down favorite film of the festival. The movie picks up where 2013's The Dance of Reality left off, with the director's family leaving tiny Tocopilla for Santiago, where he'll evolve into a celebrated young poet. Endless Poetry concludes with Jodorowsky's departure for Paris, and we can only hope that the 88-year-old filmmaker lives long enough to see this intended five-part project to its conclusion. In addition to being the film's U.S. premiere, the screening was augmented by special guest Bob Taicher, a longtime friend of Jodorowsky's who executive-produced 1973's The Holy Mountain. For those who missed it, Endless Poetry opens in Bay Area Landmark Theatres on July 21.

Asian Dub Foundation: Live Score of George Lucas' THX 1138 (USA 1971)
As a cinephile and four-decade San Francisco resident, I've always been embarrassed to admit I've never seen THX1138. I've resisted because the clips always made it look, well, kind of boring. I still can't say I've seen the film as Lucas intended, but boy did I ever have a blast watching it to the live throbbing beats of the UK's Asian Dub Foundation. I detected little of Lalo Schifrin's original score (was it even audible?) and appreciated that the film's dialogue was necessarily close-captioned. It was a kick watching the Broadway tunnel chase scene, and of course, the futuristic humanoids trudging through the same BART stations I do. Question: can anyone tell me why all the POC in the film are holograms?

The Death of Louis XIV (France dir. Albert Serra)
This intimate and atmospheric portrait of the Sun King's final days just continues to grow in my estimation. It's composed of dozens of lovely moments that revel in the royal decorum of the era. We observe as a succession of servants, family members, doctors, advisors and courtly hangers-on all come to fuss over their beloved Sire, whose gangrenous leg is slowly transporting him to the grave. At the center of it all is Jean-Pierre Léaud's exquisitely haunting performance as Louis, a venerated yet vulnerable man in a big wig, at repose in a little bed.

Brimstone & Glory (USA dir. Viktor Jakovleski)
The Castro Theatre's enormous screen was the perfect place to witness this spectacular documentary about Mexico's National Pyrotechnic Festival. Shot over the course of three years in the town of Tultepec, where virtually every inhabitant is involved in the manufacturing of fireworks (and virtually every building displays a "PELIGRO" sign), the film invites the audience to participate in the festival's incendiary insanity from the safety of a cinema seat. I was not disappointed Brimstone & Glory won the top prize in the Golden Gate Documentary Feature Competition.

Patti Cake$ (USA dir. Geremy Jasper)
This year's Centerpiece Film was a full-on crowd pleaser about the fable-esque rise of a plus-sized, put-upon, white female rapper in New Jersey. The film's boundless energy and propulsive music scenes more than made up for any script misgivings, such as an out-of-nowhere sex scene between Patti and her socially maladjusted music producer. Australian actress Danielle Macdonald gives an unforgettable performance and was on hand for a Q&A in which she talked about the difficulties of learning a NJ accent, learning to rap and learning to rap in a NJ accent.

Everything Else (Mexico dir. Natalia Almada)
It seemed like everyone but me admired this portrait of a lonely, middle-aged female government bureaucrat in Mexico City. The film even won the festival's New Directors Prize. Now I'm as much as fan of "humanism, consistency of vision and formal rigor" as the next cinephile, but sitting through this movie was a ponderously opaque chore. I thought I'd go insane if I had to watch one more scene of her pulling up or pulling down her pantyhose, one more scene of her moping around a public pool, one more scene of her riding the subway, one more scene of her writing in that mysterious ledger she kept at home, one more scene of her, well, doing almost anything.

A Tribute to Shah Rukh Khan
The personal appearance of the world's biggest movie star was, as I mightily expected, the most spectacular thing I experienced at SFFILM Festival 60. I was lucky to have a close-up view of the proceedings, first as I watched SRK's security guards spend 10 minutes hustling him from his limo to the Castro Theatre's front door while surrounded by a Day of the Locusts-sized mob. From my seat near the stage, I got to watch Khan graciously play to his shrieking fan-base and later eloquently navigate the on-stage interview. Regrettably, the conductor of that interview was Rush Hour franchise director Brett Ratner, whose rambling questions were inane and borderline self-serving. The corker was when he implied that Khan's career could be best served by starring in a movie disguised as a Caucasian. The blowback from the audience was brutal and Ratner hadn't a clue as to why. To the festival's credit, he was apparently Khan's choice, so go figure. Because Ratner initially blew off the house manager's instruction to begin the audience Q&A, there was only time for two queries from the crowd. I decided not to stick around for the screening of My Name is Khan and soon found myself on the sidewalk watching the actor wave to a swarm of fans on Castro Street from his limousine perch. For a detailed account of the evening, I recommend reading Reena Rathore' excellent piece at Indiawest.

The Stopover (France/Greece dir. Delphine & Muriel Coulin)
The titular stopover refers to a "decompression" holiday at a ritzy Cyprus beach resort taken by French soldiers traveling home from Afghanistan. For three days they endure VR-enhanced recreations of their shared war experiences, for the purpose of determining who among them is damaged enough to warrant private shrink sessions. For the female soldiers, however, this "burkas to thongs" transition only serves to remind them of the double jeopardy placed upon them by all societies. Those female soldiers are effectively played by Ariane Labed, the French-Greek actress who has become reason enough to see any movie she stars in, and French rock singer/actress Soko. This was one of my top five films of the fest, and a huge leap forward for the filmmaking Coulin sisters, whose previous film was a ludicrous story about 17 high school girlfriends all deciding to get pregnant together (17 Girls).

Canyon Cinema 50: Guy Maddin Presents The Great Blondino
I considered skipping this tribute to San Francisco's beloved experimental/avant garde distribution company when it was announced that Guy Maddin would not be on hand to personally present his curated selections. The festival nicely rebounded from his absence, however, by having an on-stage Q&A with a stand-in (National Film Preservation Foundation's executive director Jeff Lambert) reading Maddin's pithy emailed responses aloud. As for the four Canyon catalogue films screened (all in 16mm!), I was both amused and disturbed by Gary Goldberg's Mesmer, and particularly appreciated the vintage Bay Area looniness of 1967's The Great Blondino. Perhaps most impressive of all was the roster of tribute attendees. Seated in the audience was a veritable who's who of Bay Area filmmakers, programmers, exhibitors, publicists and cinema scenesters.

The Ornithologist (Portugal dir. João Pedro Rodrigues)
"There are certain things we shouldn't try to understand" is a salient line that arrives near the end of this phantasmagoric odyssey that's both a loopy St. Anthony biopic and an introspective profile of its director's psyche. Those "certain things" not to be understood include topless Amazonian huntresses who speak Latin, a forest of gigantic stuffed animals, riverside gay sex with a wilderness spirit and a pair of lost Chinese lesbian pilgrims who rescue our hero after his kayak capsizes. Even with that said, The Ornithologist is possibly Rodrigues' most accessible and fully realized vision to date and I can't wait to see it again when it opens at Landmark Theatres on July 7.

Maliglutit (Searchers) (Canada dir. Zacharias Kunuk)
My 2017 festival ended with this Inuit bride-knapping tale. While it boasts strong ethnographic interest, I found it neither as dramatically compelling or as filled with richly drawn characters as the director's masterful Atanajurant: The Fast Runner from 2001.