What’s Screening: July 27 – August 2

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is finished with the Castro, but it reopens Saturday at the JCCSF, the Roda, and the Cinearts at Palo Alto Square. The festival screenings are at the bottom of this newsletter.

A The Maltese Falcon, Castro, Wednesday and Thursday. Dashiell Hammett’s novel maltesefalconhad been filmed twice before, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right 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 (after Citizen Kane), an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made. On a double bill with The Asphalt Jungle.

B- Blazing Saddles, Castro, Friday, 9:25. The most beloved western comedy of all time doesn’t do all that much for me. Sure, it has moments of great laughter as it lampoons everything from the clichés of the genre to institutional racism to the clichés of every other genre. But for every joke that hits home, two are killed by Mel Brooks’ over-the-top, beat-the-audience-over-the-head directing style. If you’re looking for western laughs, Paleface, Son of Paleface, Support Your Local Sherriff, and Shanghai Noon all beat Blazing Saddles. On a double bill with Brooks’ Spaceballs, which I’ve never seen (and which starts at 7:30).

B+ Fight Club, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:00. This is one strange and disturbing flick. Edward Norton wants to be Brad Pitt. Who wouldn’t? Pitt’s a free-spirited kind of guyfight_club and a real man. Besides, he’s shagging Helena Bonham Carter (who plays an American, and would therefore never use the verb shag). On the other hand, he just might be a fascist. Or maybe…better not give away the strangest plot twist this side of Psycho and Bambi, even if it strains credibility more than a Glenn Beck conspiracy theory. And Bonham Carter gets to say the most shocking and hilariously obscene line in Hollywood history. Part of the series Cool World.

A- Live Theater on the Big Screen: Frankenstein, Cerrito, Monday and Wednesday. Finally, something directed by Danny Boyle that I actually liked! Playwright Nick Dear starts his adaptation with the monster’s lonely birth, putting the focus on the creature. This poor child-man’s journey, and his inevitable clash with his arrogant creator, make up the heart of the play. A lot of philosophy and religion get discussed, but it never feels forced. In some screenings, Jonny Lee Miller plays the monster and Benedict Cumberbatch plays Frankenstein. In others, they switch roles (I saw it with Cumberbatch as the monster). For more on this, see Live Theater on the Big Screen and Frankenstein.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

A Hava Nagila (The Movie), Cinearts at Palo Alto Square, Sunday, 6:45; Roda Theatre, Wednesday, 6:25. Hava Nagila, a documentary about the famous tune, doesn’t take itself too seriously. hava_nagilaEven the titles that introduce interview subjects make casual jokes. This  fun and joyful movie about a fun and joyful song still manages to inform audiences as well as any serious doc. The tune was born in Chasidic Eastern Europe as a nigun (a wordless song used in prayer), and the happy lyrics were added by early an Zionist–although which early Zionist is a matter of debate. Hava Nagila never lost its Jewish identity, even as it became a major hit for Harry Belafonte and a tune known all around the world. This rare documentary will have you laughing, clapping, and tapping your feet, and give you new appreciation of a tune you’ve heard all of your life. Read my full report.

B+ The Law In These Parts, Roda Theatre, Saturday, 2:20. Dense and filled with legalese  (which usually makes my eyes glaze over), this Israeli documentary isn’t easy to follow. But if you give it your all, it becomes impossible to the_law_in_these_partsturn away. Comprised entirely of interviews with retired military judges who once administered “justice” in the West Bank and Gaza, it examines the legal structure of a temporary military occupation that became permanent. The old men interviewed discuss the legal justifications (excuses, really) they found to hold people indefinitely without trial, hand Palestinian land over to Israeli settlers, and allow those settlers to get away with pretty much anything they wanted. Director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz asks probing questions that reveal these men’s complicity in oppression.

B+ Under African Skies, Roda Theatre, Saturday, 12:00 noon. You can find plenty of political music documentaries, but few that examine both sides of a difficult controversy. This doc, which examines the making of Paul Simon’s hit album Graceland, and the controversy over Simon’s breaking Under_African_Skiesthe South African cultural boycott of the time, is the exception. Structured around a friendly 2011 chat between Simon and Artists Against Apartheid Founder Dali Tambo, it asks whether it was right for Simon to have recorded music in South Africa when he did, and doesn’t come down with an easy answer. It mixes the politics vs. art issues with more conventional making-of footage–jam sessions, mixing, and so on. But it left me, like so many other such documentaries do, wishing they had included more concert footage; you seldom get to hear a song from beginning to end.

B Arab Labor Season 3, Cinearts at Palo Alto Square, Monday, 6:35 , Roda Theatre, Tuesday, 6:25. I loved the first season of this hit Israeli sitcom, as well as the three episodes I saw of season 2. But I didn’t enjoy this year’s subset of season 3 anywhere near as much. The humor and satire hit home, Arab_Labor3but rarely with the intensity of earlier episodes. As usual, Arab-Israeli journalist Amjad tries desperately to fit into a society that rejects him. This time, he ends up on a reality TV show and becomes a celebrity. But the nature of his celebrity keeps changing. One day he’ll be a hero to the Jews and a pariah for the Arabs, and the next day the other way around. With much of the satire aimed at the obvious target of celebrity culture, the bite gets lessoned. It’s still funny, and still gives us a flavor of the Arab-Israeli experience, but the show seems to be running out of steam.

C+ The Day I Saw Your Heart, Cinearts at Palo Alto Square, Saturday, 6:10. Justine, an X-Ray technician and aspiring artist, doesn’t much care for her sixtyish father. He’s critical, cruel, and so emotionally distant that he can’t get excited by hisThe Day I Saw Your Heart much younger third wife’s pregnancy. Neither can Justine, who doesn’t want another child raised by that monster. He also has a habit of befriending her ex-boyfriends as soon as she breaks up with them. Then, in the course of her work, she discovers that he’s got a heart condition.The Day I Saw Your Heart starts as comedy and ends as drama, but works only moderately well as either. Justine herself is a reasonably interesting character, and well played by Mélanie Laurent, but everyone else seems only a foil for her reactions.

Note: I have corrected this post.

SF Film Society Cinema to Close

Bad news. The San Francisco Film Society Cinema will close at the end of August.

I first heard about this, as a rumor, at the Silent Film Festival. But a Society spokesperson confirmed the rumor, and so I’m posting this announcement.

I don’t know what will happen to the theater, which is located in the basement of the New People building across the street from Japantown, Although a bit on the small side, the theater boasts excellent projection and sound equipment, and very comfortable chairs. I hope someone makes good use of it.

What can you see there before it closes? It’s currently showing A Burning Hot Summer. Coming up, along with other obscure current films (none of which I’ve seen), they’ve got some revivals, including Antonioni’s Love in the City, James and the Giant Peach, and a new 35mm print of  Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably.

The theater’s run (or at least it’s run as the SFFS’s year-round home) will end–appropriately enough, with a couple of disasters. On August 28, they’ll screen a global pandemic double bill of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and Elia Kazan’s  Panic in the Streets.

Hava Nagila & Opening Night of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Opening night of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival got off to a slow start, but when the movie finally started–nearly 45 minutes late–it was worth the wait.

No, there weren’t crowd or (as far as I know) technical problems. The show started on time. It was just that the first part of the show was irritating and boring.

The Pre-Show

Actually, it started pretty well, with a montage of SFJFF trailers from past years, in chronological order. The old trailers were a lot of fun, but last year’s and this year’s pale by comparison, so the montage ended on a low note.

Then the talks began. Program Director Jay Rosenblatt came onstage and gave a long and dull speech. Then Executive Director Lexi Leban came up and gave a worse one. Reading from sheets of paper, pausing frequently mid-sentence to find her place, she bored everyone to tears. She knew it, too, but she just kept plodding along.

Finally, when it was past 7:35, she introduced the film’s director, Roberta Grossman, who immediately won the audience with a joke about long speeches. She spoke briefly and with wit. Then the movie (and the fun) began.

The Movie

A Hava Nagila, a documentary about the famous tune, doesn’t take itself to seriously. Even the titles that introduce interview subjects make casual jokes. Where you expect to read, under the person’s name, something like "Professor of Musicology hava_nagilaat Such and Such University," you instead get "He has a PhD." This is a fun and joyful movie about a fun and joyful song. And yet, the film informs as well as any serious doc. The tune was born in Chasidic Eastern Europe as a nigun (a wordless song used in prayer), and the happy lyrics written by early Zionists–although which early Zionists is a matter of debate. Hava Nagila never lost its Jewish identity, even as it became a major hit for Harry Belafonte and a tune known all around the world. This rare documentary will have you laughing, clapping, and tapping your feet, and give you new appreciation of a tune you’ve heard all of your life.

Last night’s screening was the film’s world premiere.

You have three more chances to see Hava Nagila before the festival closes:

Q&A with the Filmmakers

After the movie, director Roberta Grossman and her team stepped onto the Castro’s stage for Q&A. Some highlights:

  • Grossman: The director doesn’t make the film. The director is just the greediest  person on it.
  • Grossman, again, on choosing the subject: Our daughter said "Please make a happy film, next time."
  • Screenwriter Sophie Sartain on writing for documentaries: it came together very slowly. You rewrite it many, many times. You write what you hope the people to be interviewed will say. Then they say something better. The final draft is in the editing room.
  • They haven’t asked permission to screen the documentary’s many movie and TV clips. They believe that fair use will protect them.
  • Did they get sick of listening to that song? "Yes, we got sick of the song, and we tried to cut it so that you wouldn’t get sick of the song."
  • They hope to get limited theatrical releases in New York and LA. The rest of us will have to wait for the DVD. You can track the movie’s status at. havanagilamovie.com.

My Interview with Director Grossman

Late this morning, I was able to interview director Roberta Grossman. What follows is a rough transcript, edited for readability:

Where did those comic titles ("He has a PHD," "Pretty good for 94") come from?

It was one of those wacky ideas that pops into your head. I don’t remember who thought of it. We were trying to play with the conventions of the documentary.

The song is both a fun party song and a deep,Chasidic nigun. We wanted the film to reflect that.

The movie ends with the song Celebrate. Why not end with the song the movie is about?

We wanted to make a loving nod to all that bad Jewish dancing and the spirit of celebration., we thought it would be real fun.

Celebrate is now part of the Jewish-American experience.

Following up on the writing question from last night’s Q&A: Why do you start writing a documentary before interviewing people?

The writing starts on day one. You’re telling a story. You have to have some sense of a beginning, middle, and end. I always write a script before I begin shooting.

It’s also part of the process of writing proposals for foundations. They need to know that you can tell them a story.

The image quality of most of the clips looked pretty bad (Exodus was the exception). Where did the clips come from?

It’s complicated. Two of the movie clips will be better the next time.

Because we’re using fair use, we’re not asking the studios for sources. We’re at the mercy of the quality of the clips that are available. They came from many sources, including YouTube, old VHS copies, and DVDs.

What’s Screening: July 20 – 26

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival continues through the week. I’ve placed my Festival capsules below the Goyish ones.

A- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Bridge, Thursday, 7:00. Corrupt political bosses appoint a naive, young idealist (James Stewart) senator because they think he’s mr_smith_goes_to_washingtonstupid. The second and best film in Frank Capra’s common-man trilogy, Mr. Smith creeks a bit with patriotic corniness today, and seems almost as naive as its protagonist. But it has moments–Stewart’s speech about how “history is too important to be left in school books,” for instance–that can still bring a lump to your throat. And it’s just plain entertaining. Admission only 30 cents to celebrate Bridge Theater’s 73rd anniversary.

A Airplane!, Castro, Friday. They’re flying on instruments, blowing the autopilot, and possibly enjoying gladiator movies. So win one for the Zipper, but whatever you do, don’t call him "Shirley." Airplane! throws jokes like confetti–carelessly tossing out vast quantities of them so that some might hit their target. There’s no logical reason why a movie this silly can be so satisfying, but then logic never was part of the Airplane! formula. I’d be hard-pressed to name another post-silent feature-length comedy with such a high laugh-to-minute ratio. On a double bill with Zero Hour!, the action movie that inspired the funny one.

A Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Lumiere, starts Friday. Bump your coconuts and prepare the Holy Hand Grenade, but watch out for montygrailthe Killer Rabbit (not to mention the Trojan one). The humor is silly and often in very bad taste, and the picture has nothing of substance to say beyond ridiculing the romantic view of medieval Europe. But the Pythons’ first feature with an actual story (well, sort of) keeps you laughing from beginning to end. After Airplane!, the funniest film of the 1970s—and the 1070s. With a new short subject, “Terry Gilliam’s Lost Animations.” New digital restoration.

A+ Notorious, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday.  One of Hitchcock’s best. In order to prove her patriotism, scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman seduces, beds, and marries Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist, while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Grant sent her on this deadly and humiliating mission, and she literally sleeps with the enemy on his orders. He reacts with blind jealousy. The Nazi, on the other hand, appears to truly love her. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. I discuss the film more deeply in my Blu-ray Review (although it’s much more fun on the big screen at the Stanford).  On a double bill with Indiscreet.

B Cabaret, Kabuki, Wednesday, Back in the spring of 1973, I was angry (but not surprised) when the obviously commercial Godfather beat Bob Fosse’s Weimar-era musical for the Best Picture Oscar. Time proved me wrong, and while I wouldn’t today put Cabaret in the same class as The Godfather, it’s still a dazzling piece of style.

B The Host, SFMOMA, Thursday, 7:00.  A barely-functional family fights an uncaring government and a giant mutant carnivore, and it’s hard to say which is the scarier threat.  I didn’t find this quite the masterpiece others saw–the political points are obvious, the third act gets confusing, and the big finale fails to satisfy. But director/co-writer Joon-ho Bong succeeds where it counts: He makes you care about the characters and scares you out of your seat. Much of the credit goes to the talented computer animators at San Francisco’s own The Orphanage, who brought the monster to life.

B+ Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, Roxie, Friday through Tuesday. I’ve never seen the point of performance art (as opposed to the performing arts, which Marina AbramovicI love), but Matthew Akers’ documentary on this particular performing artist won me over. It follows Abramovic’s preparations and presentation of a major show at MOMA, with sidelines into her past life and work. She’s a fascinating person, filled with life, devoted to her work, humane, empathetic, and sexy as all hell (at 63). For her art, she puts herself through more physical torture than a ballerina or a stunt double. For this show, she sat for many hours a day, not saying a word and barely moving, as museum patrons sat down across from her and looked into her eyes for a few minutes. Often, they ended up crying.

B Farewell, My Queen, Albany, Aquarius, opens Friday. What was Versailles like in the final days of the French monarchy? Was the court panicked? In farewell_my_queendenial? Did anyone realize that they would soon lose their heads? Benoît Jacquot creates an answer to these questions in this small yet visually impressive drama set in the French court in July of 1789. Although seriously marred by an uninteresting central character, Farewell, My Queen gives us a peak into a different world–a beautiful palace in which the realities of normal people seldom intrude. But it is utterly dependent on a bigger world that it thinks it controls, and it can’t last forever. I wish this picture had run longer. Read my full review.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

B+ Under African Skies, Castro, Saturday, 2:05. You can find plenty of political music documentaries, but few that examine both sides of a difficult controversy. This doc, which examines the making of Paul Simon’s hit Graceland, and the controversy over Simon’s breaking Under_African_Skiesthe South African cultural boycott of the time, is the exception. Structured around a friendly 2011 chat between Simon and Artists Against Apartheid Founder Dali Tambo, it asks whether it was right for Simon to have recorded music in South Africa when he did, and doesn’t come down with an easy answer. It mixes the politics vs. art issues with more conventional making-of footage–jam sessions, mixing, and so on. But it left me, like so many political musical documentaries do, wishing they had included more concert footage; you seldom get to hear a song from beginning to end.

B Arab Labor Season 3, Castro, Sunday, 6:45. I loved the first season of this hit Israeli sitcom, as well as the three episodes I’ve seen from season 2. But I can’t be quite as enthusiastic about this year’s subset of season 3. The humor and satire hit home, Arab_Labor3but rarely with the intensity of earlier episodes. As usual, Arab-Israeli journalist Amjad tries desperately to fit into a society that rejects him. This time, he ends up on a reality TV show and becomes a celebrity. But the nature of his celebrity keeps changing. One day he’ll be a hero to the Jews and a pariah for the Arabs, and the next day the other way around. With much of the satire aimed at the obvious target of celebrity culture, the bite gets lessoned. It’s still funny, and still gives us a flavor of the Arab-Israeli experience, but the show seems to be running out of steam.

C+ The Day I Saw Your Heart, Castro, Saturday, 6:55. Justine, an X-Ray technician and aspiring artist, hates her sixtyish father. He’s critical, cruel, and so emotionally distant that he can’t get excited by hisThe Day I Saw Your Heart much younger third wife’s pregnancy. Neither can Justine, who doesn’t want another child raised by that monster. He also has a habit of befriending her boyfriends as soon as she breaks up with them. Then, in the course of her work, she discovers that he’s got a heart condition.The Day I Saw Your Heart starts as comedy and ends as drama, but works only moderately as either. Justine herself is a reasonably interesting character, and well played by Mélanie Laurent, but everyone else seems only a foil for her reactions.

SF Silent Film Festival Report, Day 4

The Mark of Zorro
Big fun. I don't think I've seen this theatrically before, and certainly never with so big and enthusiastic a crowd. People cheered, hissed, and laughed on cue. Dennis James kept things lively on the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ, and Fairbanks' antics and stunts were stunning.

One thing I noticed about the story: Zorro is, inherently, a left-wing character. He's all about protecting the oppressed lower classes, even though he is himself an aristocrat. But this version made a big deal about how only those of “good blood” can stop the oppression.

The Docks of New York
My first experience with a silent Josef Von Sternberg. And guess what! It was the best Josef Von Sternberg I'd ever seen. His strength has always been his visual style, but silence gave that style a free range, and Docks has a stronger story than any other film of his I've seen (and I think I've seen all of his major talkies).

That story is like the seamy underbelly of On the Town. A stoker on shore leave, with only one night to enjoy himself, saves and then marries a suicidal prostitute on a whim. Full of atmosphere, eroticism, and a lead character whose motivations are never clear, but whose surprising actions always believable.

Donald Sosin kept the piano dark and moody, even with happy tunes like “Ain't We Got Fun.” The best film I've seen for the first time at this festival.

A Note Between Movies
I think the festival has tried to squeeze in too many movies a day this year. The result is that everything is late. The very first movie of the day, Mark of Zorro, ended when the second one was supposed to begin.

I'm writing this at 2:41, waiting for a picture that was supposed to start at 2:00.

I've just been told that today's problems came from incorrect information on Mark of Zorro's frame rate.

But frankly, I think they crammed too many shows into the festival this year. I can't find last year's schedule as I write this, but I don't think they were doing six programs a day like they did this year on Friday and Saturday (five today). There's no time to go for a walk or a restaurant meal. It wears you down.

On the other hand, I'd hate to have to decide what to cut.

Eroticon
I doubt that any genre is less suited for silent film than the comedy of manners. How do you adopt a stage play that consists of people standing around saying witty dialog to a non-verbal medium?

Did this Swedish version succeed in making the difficult transition? I'm not sure. I succumbed to festival exhaustion and slept through most if it. Judging from the laughter around me, I think it was a success.

I can't tell you if the Matti Bye Ensemble's score helped the film, but it did cause pleasant dreams.

Stella Dallas
“Ronald Colman in Stella Dallas” sounds like very daring casting. What it is, of course, is top billing going to the famous star in a supporting role. Belle Bennett is the real star–and gives a usually brilliant (but occasionally over-the-top) performance.

This is the first time I've seen any version of Stella Dallas, so I can't compare it to anything. But it's a heart tugger, even if I kept thinking of easier ways for these people to solve their problems. The famous ending had me, if not sobbing, at least mysty-eyed.

Stephen Horne's accompaniment was restrained and served the picture, without showing off.

The Cameraman
Buster Keaton's first film at MGM, his first without creative control, and his penultimate silent, comes close to being among his best. This story of a tintype photographer trying to break into the movie newsreel business provides plentiful opportunities for befuddlement, extended comic routines, and Keaton's patented pratfalls. The picture is filled with gags, and every one hit home with the festival audience.

Yet this is different from the Keaton-controlled film. There's a cute little monkey, and a running gag involving a confused cop (Harry Gribbon)–both bits that Keaton wouldn't have done. The most obvious change is one that's arguably for the better. The ingenue is actually intelligent, thoughtful, and helpful. You don't find much of that in Keaton's work.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanied The Cameraman in their usual splendid style. Their music carried the movie's emotions, helped the gags without overpunching them, and even knew when to be quiet for dramatic effect.

The movie, and the festival, ended at about 9:30. Now it's time to get back to real life.

 

SF Silent Film Festival, Day 3

The Irrepressible Felix the Cat
This may have been the first theatrical, 35mm presentation of multiple Felix the Cat cartoons ever. The shorts were wild, crazy, bizarre, surreal, and hilarious. The accompaniment added much to the festivities. Donald Soosan and a drummer who's name I didn't get accompanied some of the shorts. Toychestra–a sextet playing toy instruments and a synthesizer–did the rest. They took turns, with Sosin and the drummer doing one cartoon, and Toychestra doing the next. Everyone joined in for the last one, involving a trip to Mars. There was singing from Toychestra, snoring sounds from Sosin, and monkey sounds, clapping, and laughter from the audience. The only disappointment was that it ended.

The Spanish Dancer
I've never been a fan of Pola Negri, the star of The Spanish Dancer. Her acting strikes me as stilted, and she usually played a annoyingly sexless seductress. But she's somewhat more acceptable here, as a gypsy dancer ingenue. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this swashbuckler.

That had everything to do with the leading man, Antonio Moreno. He plays the joyful, devil-may-care swashbuckling hereo with the optimism of Fairbanks and the energy of Flynn. I'll have to find out more about him.

Donald Sosin once again supplied the music. This time, in addition to the grand piano, he was accompanied by two guitarists, and used a synthisizer as well as his usual grand piano. He had a laptop open, as well.

The Canadian
Not everything is a pleasant surprise. This drama about an Englishwomen who moves to her brother's farm in Alberta and marries a farmhand is only moderately interesting. Mona Palma at first plays the Englishwoman with so much snobbery that she fails to be either believable or sympathetic. She wins some sympathy as her problems build up–especially in one effective, shocking scene–but after that moment the movie slides into predictability. Thomas Meighan gets top billing as the new husband.

Stephen Horne's accompaniment, on piano and accordian, was better than the movie.

South
The good:

  • The whole Shackleton story of spectacular failure turning into spectacular success, is just so amazing and incredible.
  • The fact that there is a cinemagraphic record of this voyage is even more amazing.
  • Stephen Horne's musical score on piano and other instruments.
  • Actor Paul McGann's dramatic readings from Shackleton's diary.

The bad:

  • Nowhere near enough of McGann's dramatic readings from Shackleton's diary.
  • The movie is horribly padded with “cute” animal photography.
  • It was projected off a very bad digital source. My guess: A heavily-compressed DVD.
  • Although the screening started on time, it ended very late. That contributed to the biggest problem of he day. Read on:

Pandora's Box
We had to wait. South ended, with a pretty full house, only half an hour before Pandora's Box (which was sold out) was scheduled to open. Other delays inside (I don't know the details) delayed things further. The show finally started at 8:00.

I've loved this film for 20 or more years, but I've never experienced it like I did tonight.

First, there's the restoration: Previous screenings showed a film that was literally in black and white, without shades of gray. The new Pandora's Box showed the full monochrome range, and a great deal more detail. I could appreciate the lighting, the photography, and the acting better than ever. The bridal bedroom scene felt like the dark corners of the soul. And I wasn't so sure of Louise Brook's Lulu's naive innocence. There were times when I felt that she understood the destructive consequences of her behavior…maybe. That made her all the more interesting and, oddly, her tragedy all the sadder.

Then there was the music by Matti Bye Ensemble. Heavy on drums and strings, it created a sense of relentless motion and doom. This was, thanks to Matti Bye, the darkest Pandora's Box I've ever experienced. I loved it.

Because of the delay, I didn't stay for The Overcoat.

 

SF Silent Film Festival, Day 2

Amazing Tales From the Vault
This year’s technical talk concentrated on digital restorations and distribution by major studios, with experts from Paramount and Sony (Columbia). I didn’t take notes, so I’ll just give you a quick overview:

  • Wings was projected off a DCP Friday night. Paramount has made a 35mm negative and prints of the new digital restoration, but the Festival decided to show the DCP because they were more confident of the quality.
  • The restoration cost about $700,000, and will probably lose money. Since Paramount is a for-profit company, this bodes ill for other silent restorations.
  • We were treated to a back-and-forth comparison of the first reel of Dr. Strangelove in 35mm and DCP. DCP looked better.
  • If you sit close enough to the screen, 4K projection looks better. They showed a single frame from Lawrence of Arabia in 2K and 4K. The difference, from my seat in the third row, was amazing.

Little Toys
I had mixed feelings about this late silent from Shanghai. At times, I felt the lack of sound as a flaw, something I rarely experience in a silent film. Other times, this tale of a brilliant toymaker and her tribulations in a world of war, touched me. Ruan Lingyu gave a brilliant performance as the lead, but at times it felt like it was going on too long.

The 35mm print looked washed out and badly scratched–probably a problem with the source and not this particular print. The Chinese intertitles had badly-translated, often grammatically strange, English subtitles.

Donald Sosin was, as usual, brilliant on the piano.

The Loves of Pharaoh
This is the sort of big, epic, costume melodrama that Hollywood loved in the 1950s–except it was made in Germany in the 1920s. The plot involved an evil yet love-sick pharaoh, a slavegirl, her lover, barbarian Ethiopians, and…well, you get the idea. Silly, but utterly entertaining.

Recently restored from two incomplete tinted prints, the movie is still not complete. Missing scenes were filled in with intertitles (“Pharaoh walks to the window”) and occasional stills.

The DCP presentation was acceptable, but not as crisp as Wings. One annoyance: The bulk of the intertitles used light blue letters, which was very distracting and anachronistic. Only the ones filling in for missing footage used the conventional white letters. It would have been better the other way around.

Dennis James provided fine music on the Castro’s mammoth pipe organ. There was no subtlety to the score, but that was appropriate, as there was no subtlety to the movie.

Mantrap
No surprises here. I own this romantic comedy–the perfect Clara Bow vehicle–on the Treasures 5 DVD box set. And I’ve even seen it once before at the Castro, with live music. But that didn’t keep me from enjoying the movie. After all, comedy is always better with a large and enthusiastic audience, and Stephen Horne’s score (mostly piano but also with some accordian and flute) sounds better live. A tale of a flirt who marries a hick, with a New York divorce lawyer thrown in as a reluctant piece of the triangle, is very much a work of its time. But in many ways, it’s timeless.

Physically, the film hasn’t aged well. The 35mm print from the Library of Congress came from a source that was scratched and lacked detail. Seeing this the day after Wings brought home the difference between preservation and restoration. No one will likely spend $700,000 to make Mantrap look new. So it has only been restored; the best existing print was copied to a more stable film stock.

I decided to skip the last movie of the evening, The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna. I didn’t think I could stay awake for it. To paraphrase Lloyd Bridges in Airplane!, “I knew this was the wrong week to give up caffeine.”

But I did buy the Wings Blu-ray before I left.

Note: I corrected a factual error in the original post.

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