What’s Screening: July 30 – August 5

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival moves out of San Francisco this week to settle in Palo Alto and Berkeley. (That’s why we’re called Wandering Jews.) And once again, I’m placing the SFJFF screenings at the end of this post.

Also, the SFFS Screen opens again Friday at the Kabuki with Alamar. Since I missed that film at the San Francisco International Film Festival this year, and didn’t have time to view it since, I’m not reviewing it below.

Cinematic Titanic: “War of the Insects”, Castro, Tuesday, 8:00. Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson, along with other MST3K veterans, will riff live on aphoto_1_full.jpg 1968 Japanese science fiction flick called War of the Insects. I’ve never seen the movie, and I’ve never seen a live Cinematic Titanic performance, but I’m an MST3K fan and am looking forward to the event.  Hodgson told me that the movie is “kind of the story of a heroin addict bomber pilot and a beautiful mad scientist who’s trying to take over the world with insects.” Sounds like typical MST3K fodder to me. For more on the event, see Joel Hodgson, Mystery Science Theater, and Cinematic Titanic.

A+ Double Bill: Casablanca & The Maltese Falcon, Castro, Sunday. What can I say? You’ve either already seen Casablanca or know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just casablancaanother entertaining propaganda movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon, had been filmed twice before, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right this time with the perfect cast and a screenplay that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett picture, the second-best directorial debut of 1941, an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made.

A Sanjuro, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. Yojimbo was such a huge hit that Kurosawa made a sequel. This time, Mifune’s masterless swordsman reluctantly sanjurohelps a group of naive young samurai clean up their clan. Of course, they insist on doing everything properly and honorably; without him, they wouldn’t last a minute. The result is an action comedy and genre parody that ties with The Hidden Fortress as Kurosawa’s lightest entertainment. The climax involves one of the greatest, and most unique, swordfights in movie history. See my Kurosawa Diary entry. Part of the PFA’s summer-long Akira Kurosawa Centennial.

A King Kong (1933 version), Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. The first effects-laden adventure film of the sound era still holds up. It’s not just Willis O’Brien’s breathtaking special effects–technically crude by today’s standards but still awe-inspiring. kingkong33It’s the intelligent script by Ruth Rose, the evocative score by Max Steiner, and the wonderful cast headed by Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong. But most of all, it’s the complex title character. Kong is the stuff of nightmares, utterly terrifying as he grinds people into the ground or bites them to death, but also confused, loving, majestic, and ultimately doomed. Pretty good for an 18-inch model covered with rabbit fur. Sure, the story is silly, but so are dreams. This screening for the summer’s Paramount Movie Classics series was postponed from an original July 9 date.

B Dead Man, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. A very different type of western. The plot, concerning a timid accountant from Cleveland (Johnny Depp) who becomes a wanted outlaw within a day of getting off the train, sounds like a Bob Hope comedy. But Dead Man was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, which by definition makes it a very weird flick. And it earns its weirdness with the quirky humor and strange occurrences we associate with Jarmusch. The supporting cast includes John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, and Robert Mitchum.

C Rosemary’s Baby, Castro, Friday, 7:00. Roman Polanski’s first American filmrosemarysbaby_pic barely works. Mia Farrow looks fidgety and nervous as a pregnant wife who slowly begins to suspect that she’s carrying the devil’s spawn, and that everyone she thought she could trust is in on it. Slow enough to let you see what’s coming a mile off, it never quite builds the sense of dread that the material, and the director, were capable of bringing to it. On a double-bill with See No Evil, another thriller starring Farrow (proving that some things are scarier than Woody Allen). Terry Castle, the daughter of Baby producer (and cult director) William Castle, will be there in person.

F Scandal, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30. After opening credits that promise a fast-paced film noir, we get a preachy, dull, and utterly predictable story about a semi-famous painter who innocently meets a beautiful, much more famous singer, only to find their names and photos splashed together by the 1949 Japanese equivalent of the National Enquirer.  Although the protagonist is a) an artist, b) rides a motorcycle, c) considers himself something of a rebel, and d) is played by Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa still manages to make him dull, lifeless, and annoyingly flawless. See my Kurosawa Diary entry. Another part of the PFA’s summer-long Akira Kurosawa Centennial.

F The Idiot, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. Kurosawa blew it badly when he adapted this Dostoyevsky novel to the screen. The dull and lifeless story concerns a man with a mental disability, his romantic prospects, and those prospects’ other romantic prospects. That sounds like a lot more fun than it actually is. Minute by minute, this is worse than Scandal, but since it runs 166 minutes instead of 104, it’s much worse. (Kurosawa’s original cut ran 265 minutes, and the studio insisted he cut it. We’ll never know if the suits destroyed a masterpiece or saved our sanity. I suspect the later.) The good news is that The Idiot, made in between Rashomon and Ikiru, was the last bad film he would make for a very long time. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry.

A Stop Making Sense, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Jonathan Demme and the Talking Heads realized that a concert film doesn’t have to be a documentary. They barely show us the audience and never the backstage; just the performance (actually compiled from three performances). But what an amazing piece of rock and roll performance art they provide! Strange dance moves, great riffs, puzzling and possibly profound lyrics, and a very big suit, all backed by a beat that makes you want to get up and dance.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

B+ Scarface (1932 version), Roda, Wednesday, August 4, 9:15. The best of the three films that started the 1930’s gangster genre, Scarface tracks the rise and demise of Tony Camonte, a violent thug who becomes a big shot by virtue of his total lack of virtue (Paul Muni 5344_scarface_00_weblg[1]acting a little over the top for my taste). When he first sees a tommy gun, he joyfully cries out “Hey, a machine gun you can carry!” (And that’s when he’s being shot at with it.) Soon he’s using one to mow down his enemies and innocent bystanders alike. But he does love his kid sister. In fact, maybe he loves her too much. Written by Ben Hecht and directed by Howard Hawks, and you can’t find a better team than that. Good as it is, I wonder if it really belongs in a Jewish film festival; even one with a retrospective of Jewish gangster films. After all, the gangster here is Italian-American; only the actor is Jewish. The festival argues that Muni was famous in the Yiddish theater before he went Hollywood, and that gave the movie a Jewish subtext in 1932. I don’t buy it.

B+ Stalin Thought of You, Roda, Thursday, August 5, 2:00, August 7, 4:00. The very idea that a satirical cartoonist could survive the Stalin years seems5272_stalinthoughtofyou_00_weblg[1]preposterous, but Boris Efimov survived throughout the entire Soviet era, and died in 2008 at the ripe age of 109. How did he manage? By aiming his poisoned pencil only at those that the powers-that-be didn’t like. Kevin McNeer’s documentary, built around interviews with the still-clear-minded-at-103 Efimov, takes the form of something like a confession. This artist stayed alive and employed throughout Stalin’s reign, and that couldn’t be done without moral compromises. His brother, a successful journalist and at one time editor-in-chief of Pravda, wasn’t so lucky. McNeer keeps the story lively with newsreel footage, illustrations, and old animations based on Efimov’s drawings.

Arab Labor: Season 2, Roda, Saturday, 2:00; Cinearts, Sunday, 8:45. I haven’t seen the new season, but I loved the first season of this controversial but hilarious Israeli sitcom, and I’m looking forward to the three new episodes the festival will be screening. Writer Sayed Kashua will be on hand for Q&A.

B Saviors in the Night, Cinearts, Saturday, July 31, 6:45. Director Ludi Boeken and his three screenwriters have made a respectable, well-made drama, based on true events, saviorsnight_thumb2about German Jews hiding from the SS, sometimes in plain sight. The movie is dramatic, suspenseful, and gives a real sense of how war and Nazi propaganda effected a tight-knit, rural, German farm community where everybody looks after everybody else. The story of people living in constant danger holds you in suspense. You very much want to see these people come out of the war okay. Especially interesting are the teenage characters, flirting and fighting, and enthusiastically embracing fascism and anti-Semitism before eagerly going off to war as if it was a grand adventure.

C- Sayed Kashua: Forever Scared, Roda, Monday, August 2, 4:00. An Israeli Arab who writes in Hebrew, Sayed Kashua is Israel’s5002_sayedkashua_00_weblg[1]leading satirist, and the creator of the 2008 Jewish Film Festival sitcom hit, Arab Labor. He’s also the winner of this year’s Freedom of Expression Award. All that  suggests a very interesting and entertaining person. But Dorit Zimbalist’s brief (only 52 minutes) and dry documentary portrait presents us with an unpleasant bore. Clearly intended for people already familiar with Kashua’s work, it shows little of his genius. Nor does it dig deep enough to work simply as a profile of a profoundly unhappy man. On the other hand, it does reveal how closely the fictitious family at the center of Arab Labor resembles Kashua’s real world.

Joel Hodgson, Mystery Science Theater, and Cinematic Titanic

Next Tuesday, Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson, along with other MST3K veterans, will invade the Castro to riff on a 1968 Japanese science fiction called War of the Insects. “It’s a great looking print, widescreen, really well made,” Hodgson told me earlier this month in a phone interview. “It’s kind of the story of a heroin addict bomber pilot and a beautiful mad scientist who’s trying to take over the world with insects.”

Sounds like typical MST3K fodder.

MST3K has been off the air for almost a decade, and it’s been nearly two decades since Hodgson severed his ties with the show he created, but he’s back to his old tricks with his old friends, adding comic commentary to bad movies (he prefers the adjective cheesy), with his current venture, Cinematic Titanic.

Although CT sells DVDs, its primary focus is live performance. “With a TV show, you’re really kind of talking to one person. When we do it now…we think in terms of what will work in a live environment. Some of the obscure references don’t make it in because you need an immediate reaction when performing live.”

That was a bit of a disappointment to me. One of my favorite aspects of MST3K were the obscure jokes that most people didn’t get. When you got one, whether it was about nitrate film, Schonberg, or Ann Rand vs. Lillian Hellman, you laughed even harder.

They no longer edit the movies for length, but they occasionally do for content. Although their audience is primarily adult, Hodgson prefers to keep it clean. “Everyone who’s coming are MST3K fans. Our tone was family oriented, and [audience members] bring that sensitivity with them. I’m proud we did that without being dirty. We kind of look at it as if its PG-13…People aren’t hungry for a dirty movie riffing experience.”

Cinematic Titanic isn’t the only MST3K spin-off on the web. Other show veterans, including Mike Nelson (who took over hosting when Hodgson left) have another one, RiffTrax. But while CT sticks to public domain movies or ones they can license, RiffTrax sells MP3 commentaries to popular pictures like Die Hard, Star Trek, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, that customers are likely to already own on DVD. I reported on a live RiffTrax event a few years ago.

I intend to report on the upcoming Cinematic Titanic one, as well.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 21: High and Low

After two detours into early Kurosawa films I couldn’t catch the first time around (see this and that), I’m finally back to the main point of what this Kurosawa Diary project: an examination of all of his films in chronological order. And what a relief that is—returning from the uneven (and often dreadful) quality of his early work to the master at the height of his power.

High and Low was the last and best or Kurosawa’s contemporary crime dramas, topping Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and The Bad Sleep Well. When a kidnapper grabs the wrong child—not the son of a wealthy industrialist but of the industrialist’s chauffer—he still insists on the outrageously-high ransom. The timing couldn’t be worse for the industrialist (Toshiro Mifune). About to lose his position in the company he’s devoted his life to, he’s mortgaged everything he owns to buy enough stock to take over the business. Now he’s being asked to forfeit his wealth and his career to save someone else’s child.

Mifune plays a good capitalist here—or at least the not-so-bad one. An artisanhighandlow who’s worked his way to up an executive position, he’s fighting for his corporate survival because he refuses to give up quality products in pursuit of quick profits. And while some of his business practices seem ruthless, they’re positively saintly compared to those of his rivals. Kurosawa and Mifune make us feel his moral dilemma acutely; in that unlikely situation, I could easily see myself behaving the same way.

The original Japanese title translates as Heaven and Hell, and Kurosawa sets the film in both locations (figuratively speaking, of course). The first 55 minutes take place in the industrialist’s expensive, mountaintop home overlooking Yokohama. Filmmakers should study this section, which never leaves the house and seldom moves out of the living room. No one else, before or since, has used the widescreen so brilliantly in a confined location.

Then, after nearly an hour of confined space, the story takes us to a speeding train for a short, fast, and suspenseful scene. The rest of the film—more than half of the total running time—takes place mostly in the hot, teeming, hellish city below, as teams of detectives track down the kidnapper. By the climax, we’ve delved into the world of cheap whores and heroin addicts.

Kurosawa always refused to let us see criminals sympathetically—to the point where their motives can become unclear. That’s the case here, where the kidnapper seems brilliant, psychotic, crazy, and just plain evil. The police are all virtuous, and talk about making sure this lunatic gets the death penalty.

But Mifune’s industrialist remains the film’s true center—a good man driven to do bad things for good reasons, suddenly faced with a lose-lose moral dilemma. That performance, combined with Kurosawa’s brilliant techniques for building and holding suspense, make High and Low a masterpiece.

Next up: Red Beard.

What’s Screening: July 23 – 29

Disclaimer: This may not be up-to-date. I’m actually writing this Monday, July 19, before going off on a vacation. Should anything change, I won’t be able to update it.

Another Hole in the Head continues through the week, and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens Saturday night. I’ve placed Jewish Film Festival screenings at the bottom of this newsletter.

A Stop Making Sense, Red Vic, Thursday (and continuing through the next Saturday). Jonathan Demme and the Talking Heads realized that a concert film doesn’t have to be a documentary. They barely show us the audience and never the backstage; just the performance (actually compiled from three performances). But what an amazing piece of rock and roll performance art they provide! Strange dance moves, great riffs, puzzling and possibly profound lyrics, and a very big suit, all backed by a beat that makes you want to get up and dance.

A Yojimbo, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. A masterless samurai (always the yojimbobest for story-telling purposes) wanders into a small town torn apart by two gangs fighting a brutal turf war. Disgusted by everyone, our hero (who else but Toshiro Mifune) uses his wits and amazing swordsmanship to play the sides against each other. In the hands of Akira Kurosawa, the result is an entertaining action flick, a parody of westerns, and a nihilistic black comedy all rolled into one. Allegedly inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, it was remade twice as Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry. Part of the PFA’s summer-long Akira Kurosawa Centennial.

A+ Rear Window, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily rearwindow_thumb[1]confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by watching his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) begin to investigate, it slowly begins to dawn on us that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory (something they don’t realize until it’s almost too late). Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, and to treat his audience to a great entertainment. On a double-bill with Harvey, which includes another great—but very different—Steward performance.

Metropolis Redux, VIZ Cinema, Saturday & Monday, 7:00. Now that you’ve had a chance to see Metropolis as it was originally meant to be seen, here’s your chance to see the wrong version (although I admit I haven’t seen it). This 1984 reissue has bright tints, subtitles instead of intertitles, and a rock soundtrack to mask the sound of Fritz Lang spinning in his grave.

One Wonderful Sunday, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. One terrible movie. A young couple who have been dating for years (and still haven’t gotten to first base) try to have a fun day on the town despite a lack of cash or, quite frankly, chemistry. Think Before Sunrise without good dialog, interesting characters, or real sexual tension. Another, less fortunate part of the PFA’s summer-long Akira Kurosawa Centennial.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Arab Labor: Season 2, Castro, Wednesday, 6:30. I haven’t seen the new season, but I loved the first season of this controversial but hilarious Israeli sitcom, and I’m looking forward to the three new episodes the festival will be screening. Also on the program: satirist and Arab Labor screenwriter Sayed Kashua will receive this year’s Freedom of Expression Award.

B+ Scarface (1932 version), Castro, Sunday, 10:00. The best of the three films that started the 1930’s gangster genre, Scarface tracks the rise and demise of Tony Camonte, a violent thug who becomes a big shot by virtue of his total lack of virtue (Paul Muni 5344_scarface_00_weblg[1]acting a little over the top for my taste). When he first sees a tommy gun, he joyfully cries out “Hey, a machine gun you can carry!” (And that’s when he’s being shot at with it.) Soon he’s using one to mow down his enemies and innocent bystanders alike. But he does love his kid sister. In fact, maybe he loves her too much. Written by Ben Hecht and directed by Howard Hawks, and you can’t find a better team than that. Good as it is, I wonder if it really belongs in a Jewish film festival; even one with a retrospective of Jewish gangster films. After all, the gangster here is Italian-American; only the actor is Jewish. The festival argues that Muni was famous in the Yiddish theater before he went Hollywood, and that gave the movie a Jewish subtext in 1932. I don’t buy it.

B Saviors in the Night, Castro, Saturday, 7:00. Director Ludi Boeken and his three screenwriters have made a respectable, well-made drama, based on true events, saviorsnight_thumb2about German Jews hiding from the SS, sometimes in plain sight. The movie is dramatic, suspenseful, and gives a real sense of how war and Nazi propaganda effected a tight-knit, rural, German farm community where everybody looks after everybody else. The story of people living in constant danger holds you in suspense. You very much want to see these people come out of the war okay. Especially interesting are the teenage characters, flirting and fighting, and enthusiastically embracing fascism and anti-Semitism before eagerly going off to war as if it was a grand adventure. The opening night show.

C-- Sayed Kashua: Forever Scared, Castro, Thursday, July 29, 3:45. An Israeli Arab who writes in Hebrew, Sayed Kashua is Israel’s5002_sayedkashua_00_weblg[1]leading satirist, and the creator of the 2008 Jewish Film Festival sitcom hit, Arab Labor. He’s also the winner of this year’s Freedom of Expression Award. All that  suggests a very interesting and entertaining person. But Dorit Zimbalist’s brief (only 52 minutes) and dry documentary portrait presents us with an unpleasant bore. Clearly intended for people already familiar with Kashua’s work, it shows little of his genius. Nor does it dig deep enough to work simply as a profile of a profoundly unhappy man. On the other hand, it does reveal how closely the fictitious family at the center of Arab Labor resembles Kashua’s real world.

C- King of the Roaring 20′s – The Story of Arnold Rothstein, Castro, Monday, July 26, 12:00 noon. This 1961 gangster biopic is as bloodless as they come—and I’m not talking about the relative lack of violence. As played by a pre-Fugitive David Janssen, Rothstein comes off as too flat and dull to be either liked or hated. His only sins are ignoring his wife and being very good at a business that happens to be illegal (gambling). If the real Rothstein’s business involved any other illegal activities—violence, prostitution, or bootleg liquor—you’d never know it from this movie. Speaking of bootleg liquor, there’s almost no sense of period here; despite the “Roaring 20’s” in the title, it could just as well have been set in 1961. Despite it’s being part of the festival’s series Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film, the movie seems reluctant to confront Rothstein’s ethnic and religious origins. His father (who only appears in two scenes), is a very religious man, but he never actually states what that religion is, even when he asks a potential daughter-in-law if she is of the same religion. Disclaimer: The DVD that the festival sent me for screening this film had a horrible, almost unwatchable transfer. I don’t think this effected my judgment, but it’s possible.

Silent Film Festival Report, Part II

I took Sunday morning off from movie-watching, and got to the Castro in time to see the last three screenings of the festival.

A- Man with a Movie Camera: I read about Dziga Vertov’s 1929 surreal documentary in college, but I didn’t see it until yesterday. The genre was actually fairly common in the late silent era: recreating a day in the life of a city through footage of actual people at work and play. But Vertov livened it up with strange and comical double exposures and visual effects, and by creating a maddenly fast pace in the editing room. 1015[1] He also made this movie something of a meta-documentary, with much of the movie following a cameraman traveling throughout the city (three actual cities were used) filming what he sees. The result is exhilarating and entertaining.

It’s also Communist propaganda. Vertov paints a picture of the Stalinist USSR as a place where people work hard, then play hard in healthy activities. They compete in sports, swim in the Black Sea, and enjoy mud baths and manicures. No starving Ukrainians here.

The Alloy Orchestra’s accompaniment seemed overbearing at first, with too much reliance on heavy percussion and an unrelenting pace. But about half-way through, they eased up a bit, and I ended up quite liking it.

B The Woman Disputed was my first Norma Talmadge movie. Now I know that she wasn’t just Buster Keaton’s sister-in-law and Joe Schenk’s wife; she was also a brilliant actress. She starts this movie, loosely based  Maupaussant’s "Boule de Suif" (also an unofficial inspiration on Stagecoach), as a prostitute. But she soon finds a better life with the 1928: Norma Talmadge (1893 - 1957) the American silent heroine, plays an Austrian girl in the film 'The Woman Disputed', directed by Henry King and Sam Taylor for United Artists.help of two men, best friends, who both adore her. But World War I comes along, the friends are on opposing sides, and her past comes back to haunt her. The climax brings her to a shattering moral dilemma, but the epilogue ties things up way too neatly.

Stephen Horne gave his usual wonderful performance (this festival has turned me into a fan) on flute, accordion, and piano. He even managed shells whizzing through the air.

A- L’Heureuse mort closed the festival closed the festival with a bang, with a story  that every artist must have fantasized. A 1017[1]struggling playwright (Nicolas Rimsky, who also wrote the film) is lost at sea and presumed dead. He’s unharmed, of course, but before he can return to his wife, he discovers that, now that he’s dead, he’s revered, respected, and bankable. This is no time to make his survival known. The story depends a little too much on intertitles (which were in French, with live, spoken English translation), but kept everyone laughing, anyway.

The Matti Bye Ensemble accompanied this final film. I’d never heard them before. The music was pleasant and supported the film well.

Silent Film Festival Report

Four days of silent films, spectacularly presented with live music at the Castro, is too much even for me. I left before last night’s screening of Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages and, as I type this, am missing Amazing Tales from the Archives: First the Bad News…then the Good! I plan to miss The Shakedown, too. I expect to be back in time for Man with a Movie Camera.

A few interesting points from Friday and Saturday.

Friday

B Amazing Tales from the Archives: Lost & Found Films included Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Peña, the two Argentinean archivists who discovered the complete Metropolis print. They showed fragments from partially-missing Argentinean films, and discussed their big find. Peña, who knew of the existence of the print 20 years before he finally got his hands on it, fumed when the international press described it as an accidental find.

C A Spray of Plum Blossoms was my first Chinese silent. An update of Two Gentlemen of Verona with a bit of robin hood mixed in, it never really got passed mildly amusement. Curiously, the intertitles were original, illustrated ones in Chinese and English. My guess is that the source print was from a Hong Kong release (the British required all films be understandable in English), but that’s only my guess. Update: I’ve since read the that English intertitles were part of the original, Chinese release.

A Rotaie was the real find—an amazing, late-silent (1929) drama from Italy. A young1003[1] couple, well-dressed but broke, yet very much in love, consider suicide. Then they acquire a large wad of cash and take up the high life. Once life is good, we can see the character flaws that left them destitute in the first place, and will leave them that way again. A surprisingly empathetic film to come out of a fascist country, although the tacked-on happy ending felt a bit like the work of government censors.

The festival screened the only known existing print of Rotaie. An English translation of the intertitles were read out loud. Stephen Horne, who’s really more of a one-man band than a pianist, contributed mightily to the atmosphere with his accompaniment.

A Metropolis was great, of course. Having already seen the new restoration, I knew that going in (see my report). What I only suspected, and now know, is the Alloy Orchestra’s score brings out the film’s overall weirdness and the third act’s metropolisexcitement better than any other Metropolis score I’ve heard. I was pleased to hear that Kino will include that score, along with the same original-score recording I heard in New York, in the upcoming DVD and Blu-ray releases. Of course, the home theater version won’t be live.

Metropolis also looked great—or at least the scenes that came from good sources looked great. That’s important to note because, in a festival that prides itself on showing great 35mm prints, this film was shown digitally. I had never before seen a classic film projected digitally onto a really huge screen with a first-class digital projector. And I can say: It was at least as good as 35mm film—maybe better.

Saturday

A The Big Business of Short, Funny Films: Saturday began with a trio of comic sorts selected by Pixar’s Pete Doctor (director of Monsters, Inc. and Up). Leonard Maltin 1006[1]interviewed Doctor before the movies, and he discussed the influence that silent films had on him. WALL-E, which he co-authored, was conceived as a silent film.  Of the three, Pass the Gravy was the real find. I don’t want to give away too much about this Max Davidson comedy—let’s just say it involves feuding fathers, young people in love, a prize chicken, and one of the funniest dinners on film. And like the screwball comedies of a decade later, it allows good-looking, sexy people to do the silliest sight gags. Dennis James accompanied, superbly as always, on the Wurlitzer.

B- In Variations on a Theme, the musicians performing at this year’s festival discussed the decisions they make when scoring a film. I was expecting a panel discussions. Instead, I got five mini-lectures with demonstrations, with only 10 minutes of Q&A at the end. And it was only during that 10-minute Q&A that the issue humming around in the background really came came to the front: traditionalists vs. experimentalists. Organist Dennis James represented the traditionalist extreme: He plays the original score if it exists, and sticks as closely as possible to the original spirit if it doesn’t. Ken Winokur of the Alloy Orchestra took the other extreme—he has no interest in even researching the original score, and described himself as the “anti-Dennis James.”

C+ The Flying Ace disappointed me, somewhat. The only surviving feature from the Norman Film Manufacturing Co.—an independent studio that made films with African-1009[1] American casts—it was a run-of-the-mill, extremely low-budget murder mystery. That would have been fine if director Richard E. Norman had bothered to find actors with talent and charisma, but, with one exception, he didn’t. That one exception was the hero’s one-legged comic-relief sidekick, who could outrun most two-legged villains and bicycle as fast as a car (and no, I’m not going to describe one-legged bicycling; you’ll have to see it, yourself). The movie redeems itself—somewhat—in the final chase.

B+  I’ve wrote enough about The Strong Man that I don’t feel the need to write about it again. (See my report on its last local screening only six months ago.) Let me just add that pianist-flutist-accordion player Stephen Horne kept things lively, and the laughter shook the house.

B+ Diary of a Lost Girl wouldn’t be well-remembered today if the previous collaboration between director G.W. Pabst and star Louise Brooks hadn’t been theDiary of a Lost Girl (Germany 1929)   aka  Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen 
Directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst
Shown center: Louise Brooks great Pandora’s Box. Brooks as a victim and reluctant prostitute just doesn’t have the emotional impact of Brooks as a femme fatale. But the wonderful Pabst imagery is still there, as is Brooks’ unparalleled sensuality.  The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s score wasn’t as outstanding as the one they played two years ago for The Freshman, but it supported the film without getting in the way.

Silent Film Festival Opening Night

Last night I attended the San Francisco Silent Film Festival opening. The movie: John Ford’s first big-budget western, The Iron Horse. I had seen it once before on television. It was much better on the Castro’s very big screen.

Ford biographer Joseph McBride introduced the film, comparing it to Jaws in the effect it had on the director’s career. Like Jaws, The Iron Horse was directed by a young man who had never been given that big a budget or responsibility before. And like the big fish picture, it went out of control and way over budget, to the point where it could easily have destroyed Ford’s career. And, like Jaws, it was a huge hit at the box office, shooting its auteur into a life as a top, easily bankable Hollywood director.

Not that The Iron Horse is anywhere near as good as Jaws. The story is trite melodrama,the characters simplistic pawns and stereotypes, and patriotismThe Iron Horse (1924) Directed by John Ford (uncredited) Shown: George O'Brien overblown, with an almost God-like view of Abraham Lincoln. But the spectacular visuals and exciting action sequences, especially the final Indian attack (yes, it’s also racist, but that’s hardly unusual for an American film of the 1920s), have an impact beyond the story and characters. They bring the mythic West alive—just as one would expect in a John Ford western. Consider it, at least from a vantage point of 86 years later, as a promise of better things to come.

Dennis James gave his usual exemplary performance on the Castro’s pipe organ. One advantage of sitting in the second row (yes, I’m crazy) was that I could see his sheet music. He was playing the original score provided to theaters when the film was in first run (I confirmed that with him after the show). Heavy on familiar tunes (Battle Hymn of the Republic was featured frequently), it added considerably to the excitement.

I don’t know how regularly I’ll be able to report on the festival, as I’m not taking my laptop with me and I’m not very good at typing into my phone. But I’ll try to keep posting, and if I fail, I’ll sum it all up for you on Monday.

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