Posts tagged ‘buster keaton’

Starlit Night: 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Favorite, An Inn In Tokyo, 1935


I think it’s safe to say that Yasujirō Ozu is one of my favorite film directors. At one point some years back I binged on all the Ozu films I could find, focusing mostly on his midcentury classics, but I really love almost all of his movies that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. So it’s nice to see that this year’s edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is including one of his later black-and-white silents, An Inn In Tokyo (1935), as part of its lineup.

The film follows a down on his luck widower and his two young sons as the father tries to find a job in prewar Tokyo. With the paltry income they scrape together catching stray dogs the trio has a daily choice of sleeping in an inn or eating, while the father searches in vain for employment. In their travails they cross paths with a young mother and her daughter who are in similar dire straits.

Geometric, An Inn In Tokyo, 1935

Although relatively early on in Ozu’s career the film still has many of the hallmarks of his aesthetic including a deeply humanistic and empathetic worldview, focusing on the gentle and deep bonding among family members. Severel of Ozu’s formal tics are already in evidence as well including his geometric compositions and his use of full-face camera address. The film utilizes more camera movement than his later movies, primarily using a gliding pan that follows the action of his characters through the landscape.

Ozu also draws out sympathetic, effective performances from his cast, from both the adult and child actors, and captures several beautiful interplays between them. A particularly nice scene early on in the film features the food-deprived father and sons miming eating and drinking their favorite dishes and beverages, including sake, in the middle of the field. The playful longing in their actions coupled with the sweetness of their family bonding creates a charming and sad moment.

Queen, The Saga Of Gösta Berling, 1924

In addition to the Ozu, as usual this year’s Silent Film Festival includes several other gems. These include another Japanese silent film that sounds very different from An Inn In Tokyo, Tomu Uchida’s crime film Policeman (1933), Piel Jutzi’s Mother Krause’s Journey To Happiness (1929), which looks at life in a seedy Weimar Republic- tenement, and the epic 200-minute long The Saga Of Gösta Berling (1924, dir. Mauritz Stiller), which was queen Greta Garbo’s first starring role. As usual all screenings include live musical accompaniment.

Brilliant, Battling Butler, 1926

Closing out the festival on June 3 is Battling Butler (1926), by another one of my favorite directors, Buster Keaton. The film features The Great Stoneface’s brilliant physical comedy combined with his typical underdog fish-out-of-water lead character. Seeing Keaton on the big screen is always a treat so this one is not to be missed.

23rd San Francisco Silent Film Festival

May 30-June 3, 2018

Castro Theater

San Francisco CA 94114

 

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June 1, 2018 at 6:53 am Leave a comment

Ruffneck: Keaton, Laurel, and Hardy at the SF Silent Film Festival

A boy and his log, The General, 1926

A boy and his log, The General, 1926

Buster Keaton’s The General is one of those movies that are on every cinephile’s best-of list, and with good reason. Elegantly structured, coolly executed, and funny as hell, the film was Keaton’s own favorite, although it was the movie that almost ruined his reputation when it first came out. It took a long time to shoot, was prohibitively expensive, and absolutely did not make bank when it was released—Keaton’s rep as a comedic star took a big hit and his studio reined him in after The General‘s box office failure. The movie was anything but well-received when it was released in 1926, although it’s now considered a classic.

The storyline follows a railroad engineer and wannabe Confederate soldier during the Civil War (nimbly played by the diminutive Keaton) who traces the theft of his beloved railroad engine, named The General, behind Union lines. The movie features some of the most beautifully choreographed stunts of the silent era, involving huge piles of rolling logs, steam engines on collision course, and the spectacular demise of a full-size locomotive. The sight of an actual train engine falling many dozens of feet from a bridge to a riverbed is still amazingly impressive, even in this age of CGI and digitally created special effects. The film is Keaton at his best, with its stripped down, symmetrically structured narrative, its large-scale, dangerous, and perfectly executed stunts, and its underdog hero struggling within a vastly unsympathetic world.

Tearing it up, Two Tars, 1926

Tearing it up, Two Tars, 1926

Silent film comedy of an entirely different sort are the Laurel and Hardy two-reeler short films, Two Tars (1928) and Big Business (1929). Two Tars follows a day in the life of a couple of sailors on leave in Los Angeles as they go joy-riding among the California chaparral with a couple of dames. Although Stan and Ollie play sailors, all of the action in the twenty-minute movie takes place on a pair of landlocked Southern California roadways. Featuring Laurel and Hardy’s signature physicality and escalation of destruction, the short also includes some very suggestive digital manipulation of a gumball machine as well as several excellent Stan Laurel pratfalls. The short concludes with an epic traffic jam that would make Godard proud that illustrates the primal allure of large-vehicle destruction, the weaponization of cow pies and rotten tomatoes, and a gal getting a faceful of black ink.

Up at the plate, Big Business, 1929

Up at the plate, Big Business, 1929

Big Business is even more of a felon’s wet dream, as a small misunderstanding rapidly escalates into complete mayhem, resulting in an entire house vandalized down to its spinet piano and brick chimney. L&H play door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen plying their wares in the sunny, overexposed 1920s Southern California suburbs, which were about as sparsely populated as the high desert at the time. The two get into a scrap with a feisty homeowner and soon the axes are out and windows, doors, and a Model T fall victim to the OTT belligerence of the battling adversaries. The humor derives from the extreme reactions of both Stan and Ollie as well as their antagonist, played with righteous fury by L&H regular James Finlayson.

All three of these comedy classics are screening as part of Silent Autumn, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s one-day event on Sept. 20 at the glorious Castro Theater. Also notable are screenings of new restorations of The Son of the Sheik, starring the beautiful Rudolph Valentino, and the German expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. As per usual with all SFSFF events, each program includes live accompaniment, by silent film score maestro Donald Sosin as well as the always innovative Alloy Orchestra. Go here for complete schedule and ticket info.

September 16, 2014 at 4:39 pm Leave a comment

Wonderwall: 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Come hither, Clara Bow, Mantrap, 1926

I love a good film festival and this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival was one of the best. Held at the legendary Castro Theater, the festival showcased several brand new or recently restored prints of classic and obscure films from Germany, China, the U.S., Sweden, and beyond. Probably due to the popularity of The Artist, winner of last year’s Best Picture Oscar, the festival was packed morning, noon, and night.

In this age of DVDs and online streaming the SFSFF understands the need to offer a value-added film viewing experience. All of the shows at the fest had live accompaniment, ranging from glorious piano and Wurlitzer stylings to full-on ensemble performances from crack film orchestras. Wings, the opening night film, was screened not only with live music but with a live foley setup providing sound effects in the theater as the film unspooled. The screening of Georges Melies’ classic short, A Trip To The Moon (recently featured in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo), included live narration by Paul McCann from the director’s notes on the film, adding a droll note to the whimsical film.

Ruan Lingyu, flowery, Little Toys, 1933

I started my long weekend o’ film viewing with Little Toys (1933), starring the legendary Chinese performer Ruan Lingyu, who died by her own hand at the tender age of 24. Between 1927 to her death in 1934 Ruan appeared in nearly 30 films during the golden age of Chinese filmmaking, famously playing lovelorn prostitutes, and other down-and-out characters. In Little Toys she’s a toymaker in rural China who is swept up by the events of the day, including the Sino-Japanese War, the advent of capitalism, and the urbanization of China. The film, by left-leaning director Sun Yu (who ironically was later denounced by Mao Zedong), is an interesting critique of the inhumanity of war and the ways in which ordinary people are harmed by violent political conflict.

The festival also included films featuring two very different silent era actresses. Mantrap (1926), starring the awesome Clara Bow, screened with impeccable live accompaniment by Stephen Horne on piano, flute and accordion. I’d never seen Clara Bow in action before and, as directed by her then-inamorato Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz; Gone With The Wind) she’s fun and charismatic, with darting eyes and a sly, impish grin. The pre-code storyline of a notorious flirt who dazzles her husband and his friend, as well as most of the other men in the movie, is refreshingly non-judgmental—as Michael Sragow observes in the program notes, “the film doesn’t punish the character for her sexual independence, it salutes her for it.”

Louise Brooks schwag, San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Saturday night’s centerpiece film featured another silent-screen goddess, the ever-stunning Louise Brooks starring in Pandora’s Box. The festival screened a gorgeous new restoration that confirmed director G.W. Pabst’s mastery of light and shadow, emphasizing the moody chiaroscuro that makes this film a classic. We’d meant to attend the 10pm show of The Overcoat immediately following Pandora’s Box, with music by the surprise-a-minute Alloy Orchestra, but delays in loading in the Mattie Bye Orchestra for the Pabst film pushed The Overcoat’s start time past 11pm. With plans to see the 10am show the next day we regretfully took a pass on the Russian expressionist movie and headed for home.

Sunday morning bright and early, less than ten hours after the late-night screening of The Overcoat, a full house turned out to see Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro (1920), as the mild-mannered Don Diego who turns into the sexy crime-fighting Zorro. As noted by Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance, Zorro’s underground hideout, his dual identity, and his form-fitting all-black outfit, cape and mask were a clear influence on Batman creator Bob Kane. In Zorro, Fairbanks of course flaunts his toned booty, fencing chops and parkour skills—more surprising are his well-honed comic chops as the foppish Don Diego. The film isn’t very cinematically innovative but once Fairbanks gets going the movie picks up steam. The climatic chase scene, with Fairbanks running, jumping and climbing his way across the scenery, is a lot of fun.

Sidecar, Buster Keaton, The Cameraman, 1928

Capping the weekend’s screenings was Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), his last great feature film and his first as an MGM contract player. As a UCLA undergrad I was crazy for Buster Keaton, seeing all of his independent features and several shorts. I even watched The Navigator on a flatbed at the UCLA film archives since, back then at the dawn of time, Keaton’s movies weren’t available on home video. I’d never seen The Cameraman, though, so I was happy to that it was part of this year’s festival. Although MGM’s dictatorial studio brass was already on its way to fatally hampering his career, Keaton turned out a near-perfect movie in The Cameraman, which follows a callow young photographer in his attempts to break into the newsreel business. Along the way he woos a pretty girl, shatters many windows, leaps effortlessly onto moving vehicles, and gets caught in the middle of a full-scale tong war. Unlike many movies from the era, the film’s portrayal of Chinatown and its habitués is fairly unsensational, though I wonder if the tongs really would have had several full-on machine guns to go with their machetes and six-shooters.

All in all the festival was quite fun and invigorating. It’s always a treat when vintage movies get the royal treatment, and the SFSFF displays the utmost care and sensitivity in presenting its programs. In an age when media is often made to be watched on a cell phone, it’s great to see films produced for and projected on the all-mighty big screen.

July 18, 2012 at 5:41 am 1 comment


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