Posts tagged ‘san francisco silent film festival’
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.
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.
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.
It’s been a crazy past couple of months so I haven’t had time to update my posts recently, but I’ve finally got a bit of down time, so following are some highlights from some notable film festivals here in Cali.
Down the I-5 I stopped in for a couple screenings at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, which is one of my favorite jams of the year. I was only in the Southland for about 72 hours but I managed to see an outstanding double-bill of two recent Asian genre films at the CGV Cinema in Koreatown, one of the best movie-going venues in LA. CGV is part of a Seoul-based theater chain and its LA outpost usually screens a combination of South Korean movies with English subs and Hollywood movies with Korean subs in its three big state-of-the-art digital theaters. Add to that the cinema’s close proximity to the best of K-town’s nightlife, including dozens of noraebangs, soon dobu houses, Korean fried chicken joints, and soju bars and it all equals a great time in central LA.
First up was Once Upon A Time In Vietnam (2013), directed, written by, and starring Dustin Nguyen, most famously seen in the U.S. opposite a very young Johnny Depp in the classic late-80s cop show 21 Jump Street. A Western/martial arts/steampunk mashup, OUATIV looks pretty, but ultimately is pretty clichéd. Dustin Nguyen gives himself the leading role as Dao, a mystery man who rides into to town (on a souped-up motorbike instead of a palamino) and stirs up the village’s heretofore placid existence, unearthing a past romance with the kindly local baker’s pretty wife Anh (Thanh Van Ngo) and continuing his vendetta with the gang of toughs who are tailing him. Although Nguyen’s Dao is a cool dude, the most truly badass character is Long, the ostensible villain, who is Dao’s archnemesis and romantic rival, played by veteran stuntman Roger Yuan. Despite the film’s good-looking cinematography, the movie is still a bit choppy and rough, with inconsistent art direction that showed its flaws on CGV’s thirty-foot tall, crystal-clear digital screen. The movie’s many gratuitous ass shots and Thanh Van Ngo’s peek-a-booby fighting costume were also pretty silly, though I’m sure some of the film’s target demographic appreciated them.
The second half of the double-bill was the hit Hong Kong action flick Firestorm (2013), starring the evergreen Andy Lau as a conflicted cop hunting down bad guys in the streets of Central. The movie subscribes to the tenet of bigger, faster, and louder, with more explosions, more gunfire, and more bleeding head wounds, and harkens back to the fine old tradition of Hong Kong movie excess, where anything worth doing is worth doing ten times as much. As with any action blockbuster it’s probably better not to be too critical of the gaping plot holes and odd character motivations and just go along for the ride, which is pretty spectacular by the end of the movie. Interestingly, the film’s most harrowing moments are not during the high-powered CGI explosions at the story’s climax but during a quieter though no less tension-filled moment earlier on. The sight of a small child trembling with terror as she tries to silence her screams provides a much more visceral impact than the many later shots of breaking glass and rupturing concrete. Owing a debt to Dante Lam’s emotionally shattered characters and John Woo’s angsty adversaries, first-time director Alan Yuan works in a bit more psychological complexity than the genre demands, which adds to the overall impact of the film. But the movie is also about things blowing up, which it does splendidly, and which I completely enjoyed seeing on the big screen at CGV.
Back home in the Bay I caught a few shows at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Peter Chan’s latest Hong Kong/China co-production, American Dreams in China, was one of the biggest box office hits in the PRC in 2013. The comedy, which follows three friends across the span of several years and two continents, is a slick and engaging rags to riches tale that includes an underlying social commentary about the lives of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. and their tenuous relationship with the American Dream. Tong Dawei, Huang Xiaoming, and Deng Chao play school buddies whose lives and careers entwine as they struggle to make their fortune. All three pull off great performances, convincingly aging from their early twenties to mid-forties, and the interplay between them is authentic and believable, with coverboy Huang Xiaoming hiding his essential hotness behind several pairs of nerd-chic glasses. The movie also includes beautiful cinematography by Christopher Doyle, though it’s much more naturalistic and less self-consciously flashy than his renowned work with Wong Kar-wai, and the movie’s snappy editing keeps the story moving along briskly. Although the climax of the film is a strange paean to copyright infringement and intellectual property theft which perhaps reveals something about the state of China’s hypercompetitive market-based economy, director Chan overall makes astute observations about the characters’ relationship to each other and to the rapidly shifting state of Chinese culture in the PRC and the U.S. Especially revealing is a passage in which one of the characters, then a Chinese grad student in a U.S. college, is reduced to a humiliating, low-status job in a campus lab. The film thus belies the myth of the American dream that lures so many immigrants to the U.S.
Tamako In Moratorium, an extremely droll and low-key Japanese comedy, is anchored by lead actress Atsuko Maeda as the titular character, a recent college graduate who’s moved back in with her divorced dad somewhere in a sleepy city in Japan. Dad runs a modest sporting goods store. Tamako spends most of her time sleeping, eating, and procrastinating, although this description makes it seem like she engages in activity, which mostly she doesn’t. Instead she eats microwaved vegetables from a plastic tub, grunts nonverbally at her dad’s attempts at conversation, and sleeps into the afternoon on her disheveled futon in her cluttered childhood bedroom. The film’s freeze frame moments capture the three seasons that Tamako aimlessly passes in her dad’s small house. The movie’s very slight and subtle dramatic tension is a nice antidote to the bombast of much commercial narrative cinema and, as the brilliant Maggie Lee at Variety points out, the movie’s style owes a lot to the great Yasujiro Ozu in its gentle, non-judgmental look at family dynamics.
I also witnessed the four-hour Filipino opus Norte: The End of History, by long-form specialist Lav Diaz (his 2004 film Evolution of a Filipino Family was 10 hours long). Advance reviews called the film a masterpiece, which I think is a bit of an overstatement, but it held my attention for most of its running time. As I’ve noted in the past, most movies over 90 minutes long put me to sleep unless Hrithik Roshan is singing and dancing in them, but this once kept my interest, aided in no small part by its excellent wide-screen digital cinematography and an episodic structure that allows the narrative to unwind unhurriedly. This is not to say that the movie is slow, although much of it is shot in single master shots. But the action within the frame is always dynamic and, although the film opens with a ten-minute static shot of a group of armchair revolutionaries discussing morality, ethics, and politics, the movie becomes much more cinematic and less chatty as it goes along.
As Noel Vera notes in Film Comment, Norte is a continuation of director Diaz’s interest in themes and motifs from Dostoevsky, and the film has some of the epic feel of a Russian novel. The story revolves around several individuals involved in a murder case, including the actual killer, the man framed for the deed, the patsy’s wife, and their assorted friends and relatives. Like Dostoevsky’s work, the film touches on themes of fate and free will, the moral and ethical responsibilities of the individual, and injustice within a stratified social system. The performances are uniformly strong, including Sid Lucero as an unbalanced intellectual, Archie Alemania as the man wrongly accused of murder, and Angeli Bayani (who played the stoic maid in Ilo Ilo) as his longsuffering wife. Diaz’s use of long takes that incrementally zoom in or pan across the action allow the viewer to perceive the startlingly close relationship between cruelty and kindness. Although most of the film’s violence feels appropriate to the narrative, I was a bit bothered that the killing of a dog got at least twice as much screen time as a violent and disturbing rape.
Lastly, I saw Dragnet Girl, an early Yasujiro Ozu joint, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I saw my very first Ozu film, Woman of Tokyo, (also a silent gangster movie) a couple years ago at the Port Townsend Film Festival. That movie set me off on an Ozu kick and I spent the better part of early 2013 watching every Ozu movie I could get my hands on, almost all on DVD. It was a treat for me, then, to see Dragnet Girl on the big screen with live accompaniment at the Silent Film Festival. Although the film’s title implies gats, dames, and rat-a-tat action, the movie is more of a character study in line with Ozu’s later and more famous oeuvre, with long stretches of the film devoted to character relationships rather than shootouts. Guns do make an appearance, however, as well as heists, boxing rings, and small-time gangsters, along with the titular character, a secretary/gangster’s moll played by legendary actress and film director (and Kenji Mizoguchi muse) Kinuyo Tanaka. It was great to see the movie as it was meant to be viewed, on the big screen at the Castro Theater, and once again the Silent Film Festival proved its status as one of the premiere film fests in the Bay Area.
It’s July, the fog has swamped the city, and the Silent Film Festival (SFF) returns this week to San Francisco. Spanning an action-packed four days, the lineup includes classics, gems, and newly restored discoveries from locales around the world including Bali, Japan, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, England, Russia, and the United States. This year’s festival features legendary stars such as Louise Brooks (Prix de Beaute), Greta Garbo (The Joyless Street), Harold Lloyd (Safety Last!) and Douglas Fairbanks (The Half-Breed) and famed directors including G.W. Pabst and Yasujiro Ozu.
In contrast to the high-tone glamor found in the movies above, The House on Trubnaya Square is a sprightly little Soviet comedy that follows the misadventures of a cleaning lady in Moscow. As the cleaning lady rises through the ranks of the workers’ movement, the film satirically exposes the foibles of feudalism, capitalism, and socialism alike. As to be expected from the land of Eisenstein, the movie features great editing, along with excellent camerawork, choreography, and story structure, as well as a cheeky performance by Vera Maretskaya as the cleaning lady swept up in the social movements of the time.
Another notable program is the premiere of the recent restoration of The Last Edition, an entertaining yarn shot in San Francisco in 1924. The movie looks at corruption in the newspaper publishing business, in which an unscrupulous publisher takes advantage of an overly trusting pressman. The populist film sides with the workingman against the corrupt bosses, reflecting the sentiments of the Wobblies and other early 20th-century labor organizations. The movie is especially fun for its local flava, as much of it is shot at the Chronicle Building at 5th and Mission Street and concludes with an exciting chase through the streets of San Francisco, passing by recognizable landmarks including the newly rebuilt City Hall. The film also features huge mechanical presses, typesetting trays, switchboards and rotary phones, and other industrial age machinery that will gun the engines of your inner steampunk.
Also part of the festival is a presentation by John Canemaker on well-known newspaper cartoonist Winsor McKay that includes of illustrations from Canemaker’s bio on McKay as well as a screening of several of McKay’s brilliant animated films. Best known for his long-running comic strip Little Nemo, McKay’s animations are masterful, deft, and magical, ranging from the whimsical Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur through the dramatic, realistic Sinking of the Lusitania. My personal favorite is How A Mosquito Operates, in which a prodigious bug repeatedly sinks its very sharp stinger into a sleeping man’s nose, its protuberant abdomen swelling with blood after each bite.
The Silent Film Festival is a rare opportunity to see these movies in all their big-screen glory, and it’s markedly more fun than watching DVDs by yourself at home. As per usual, all SFF screenings (at the gloriously appropriate Castro Theater) include live accompaniment.
July 18-21, 2013
429 Castro Street (near the intersection of Castro and Market Street)
San Francisco, CA 94114
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.
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.”
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.
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.