Early DeMille and early Tarkovsky: Saturday at the movies

I saw two different movies at two very different theaters on Saturday.

The Cheat at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

I not only attended this screening. I was part of it. I introduced this 1915 Cecil B. DeMille melodrama at the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival.

Among major American auteurs, DeMille stands alone as something of a punchline. Although his films were almost always commercially successful, they seldom got good reviews about most of them today have not aged well–unless you count their unintended camp value.

But DeMille deserves considerable credit as a pioneer. As much as any individual, he can be called the inventor of Hollywood. Not only was he one of the first filmmakers to build a studio in that particular Los Angeles neighborhood, but he was a genius at that very commercial mix of sex, sin, violence, and Christian morality–all washed down with lurid melodrama.

His early works were often brilliant, and none so much as The Cheat. James Card called it “a towering masterpiece of 1915.” The film stands out with its remarkable use of atmospheric lighting, creating a sense of the exotic, the foreign, and the dangerous. The film also makes brilliant use of Japanese screens, especially in its one truly violent scene.

The Cheat also made a star out of Sessue Hayakawa–it also made him into a matinee idol. At a time of extreme racism in America, women–including white women–swooned over this handsome Japanese immigrant.

It wasn’t just about looks. Hayakawa easily gave an best performance in this film. In 1915, actors were still figuring out the differences between film and stage acting. While his co-stars, Fanny Ward and Jack Dean, appear to be playing for the last row in the balcony, Hayakawa played for the camera.

Make no mistake, The Cheat is a racist film. Hayakawa plays the villain, a Japanese trader who has wormed his way into respectable society. Outward, he’s a polished and proper aristocrat. But he nurses a dangerous, uncontrollable lust for white women, and he lashes out cruelly when he doesn’t get his way with them.

But when you consider that The Cheat came out the same year as The Birth of a Nation, it doesn’t seem so bad.

Although The Cheat was made and released in 1915, all existing prints (to my knowledge) come from a 1918 re-release. By 1918, the USA and Japan were allies in World War I, so Paramount changed the intertitles, making Hayakawa’s character Burmese. (You could do that sort of thing very easily in a silent film.)

The feature was preceded by The Doll House Mystery, an entertaining two-reeler.

The 16mm prints screened for both films were serviceable but not exceptional. There were no tints and some shots looked washed out.

Judith Rosenberg, as usual, did an excellent job accompanying both films on piano.

Ivan’s Childhood at the Pacific Film Archive

Last night, the Pacific Film Archive opened the series The Poetry of Time: Andrei Tarkovsky with his first feature, Ivan’s Childhood. When I first read about this series, I felt it was an opportunity to finally dive into the great Russian director’s work.

And no, Ivan’s Childhood is not a prequel to Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.

The point of Ivan’s Childhood is that Ivan never really gets to have a childhood–or at least not an adolescence. When we first meet him, he’s happy, innocent, and loved by his mother. Then he wakes up from that dream to a far more horrible reality. It’s World War II, and the Germans have killed his family. Only 12 years old, he has joined up with a group of partisans fighting the occupiers.

The soldiers, most of whom love and care for Ivan, want to send him east to safety. But he refuses. His young heart burns only for revenge.

Is Ivan’s Childhood an anti-war film? Hard to say. It doesn’t shrink from the horrors of war, although it represents them entirely as the horrors of Nazi occupation. When the film was made in 1962, the memories of those horrors will still fresh for most Russians; films like this were catharsis, not escapism. And while Ivan’s single-mindedness comes off as strange and sad, it’s also completely understandable. The Nazis made his life impossible, and controlled anger is all he has left.

The film’s black-and-white visuals–mostly of swamp, denuded forests, and ruined buildings–create a sense of loss and sadness that matches the story. It’s a beautiful, haunting tale.

Those images were well supported by the excellent 35mm print screened Saturday night. It was from the PFA’s own collection.

Before the screening, Stanford’s Nariman Skakov introduced both this film and, to a greater extent, Tarkovsky’s general esthetic. He concentrated on the director’s love of very long takes, which was odd, since there are no such takes in Ivan’s Childhood. When he opened the floor up for questions after his talk, he didn’t get many. He should have done the Q&A after the film.

SF Jewish Film Festival: 35th edition

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which claims to be “the first and largest festival of its kind,” turns 35 this summer. The 17-day collection of screenings and other events will take place all around the Bay Area.

Whether it really is the first or largest, it is certainly my favorite of what I call ethnic film festivals–those that concentrate on a certain type of person. But my reason is totally subjective: I’m Jewish, so this festival concentrates on people like me.

Nevertheless, I missed Tuesday’s press conference. I had a good excuse. I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail–or at least a very tiny bit of it.

The festival runs from July 23 through August 9 in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Palo Alto and San Rafael.

As near as I can tell, I have not yet seen anything screening in this year’s festival. But here are a few films and events that sound promising.

  • Dough: The opening-night dramedy followed the growing professional relationship between an aging kosher baker and his young Muslim assistant. When the assistant accidentally spills pot into the challah dough…well, I haven’t seen the movie and can’t go beyond that.
  • The Armor of Light: This documentary follows Rob Schenck, an ethnically Jewish evangelical minister and anti-abortion activist who begins to feel a certain contradiction between being pro-gun and pro-life.
  • Freedom of Expression Award: Lee Grant & Tell Me a Riddle: This year’s award goes to actress Lee Grant, who was blacklisted in the 1950s for refusing the cooperate with the anti-Communist witch hunt. Grant directed Tell Me a Riddle, which was screened at the very first San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
  • A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did: Every year, I say I want a Holocaust-free Jewish Film Festival. And yet, every year, there’s at least one worthwhile film about the Shoah. This British documentary, about the sons of two Nazi executions, just might be it this year.

I’ll try to view some of these films before the festival, and will let you know what I think about them.

The Best of this years’ San Francisco Silent Film Festival

I planned to report on every day and every screening I attended at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. But that was just too much. So this year, I’m waiting to the end and discussing the highlights.

But first, one serious lowlight. When it comes to reserving seats, the Silent Festival is getting almost as bad as the San Francisco International Film Festival. A huge block of rows–comprising the center of the house where most people prefer to sit–was blocked off with Reserved signs. For Sherlock Holmes, they extended the Reserved section so far forward that even the fifth row was out of bounds for most ticket buyers and pass holders.

Okay, now on the good parts.

Few festivals are as fun as this one between the movies. If you have a pass or a ticket to the next show, you’re welcome to hang out, shop for books and DVDs on the mezzanine, or just talk to people.

And the people you can talk to are pretty amazing. When I came in Friday morning, Kevin Brownlow, Serge Bromberg, and Grover Crisp were within about six feet of each other. A collapsing chunk of ceiling would have set back the cause of film preservation for decades.

Another example: A friend of mine, at the festival for the first time, talked about a silent movie he remembered fondly–The Way of All Flesh. He wondered how he could see it again. As he was talking, who should walk by but Serge Bromberg, who joined in the conversation. Bromberg explained that, aside from one reel, the film is believed lost. (He also mentioned a Charley Chase short comedy made soon afterwards called The Way of All Pants.)

The talks–introductions, Q&A, the Amazing Tales from the Archives show–contained a lot of talk about preservation and restoration. We heard multiple stories about reassembly and re-translating intertitles (a lot of American silents exist through foreign, non-English prints). We viewed recently discovered early Technicolor from Hearst’s Castle. And Serge Bromberg–who seemed to be everywhere this year–told us a long and funny story about acquiring the large collection of a family of total jerks.

One running gag ran throughout the festival. Anyone on stage soon learned they could get applause by saying “35mm,” “nitrate,” or, for a really big reaction, “35mm nitrate.”

So much for atmosphere. Here are my favorite films and presentations at this year’s Festival:

Visages d’enfants (Faces of Children; AKA Mother)

I had never heard of this film before I read the program, so I was in a good place to be blown away. It sounded interesting, but I didn’t know until it started that I was watching a masterpiece.

Set in a small town high in the Alps, in what appears to be the last 19th century, Visages d’enfants follows the difficulties of what is now called a blended family–and–as is so often this case, it wasn’t blended very well. A widower with a son and daughter marries a widow with a daughter. Bullying, anger, and complicated emotions result.

I don’t believe I have ever seen such good child performances. The kids come off has real kids, with their own joys, angers, and issues. I grew up in a poorly-blended family myself, and this film hit every nerve.

One major flaw: The movie climaxes with not one but two nail-biting cliffhangers. That works for Harold Lloyd, but for a realistic story like this one, that was one too many.

Stephen Horne provided accompaniment on piano, flute, and I’m not sure what else.

The Last Laugh

This was my third time seeing F.W. Murnau’s 1924 masterpiece, and my first time seeing it theatrically. I loved it from the first, but this time around, with a big screen, a full audience, and great, live music, I realized that this is A+ material.

An aging hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) loves his job. He gets to wear a fancy uniform with big, brass buttons. He’s a member of the working class, but he dresses up, looks smart, and commands respect. And at the end of the workday, he comes home to his tenement apartment, still in his uniform, and everyone respects him. Then he’s demoted to washroom attendant. He’s so ashamed he can’t even tell his family.

Silent films didn’t get any purer than The Last Laugh. It tells almost everything visually, without benefit of language. The film has only one intertitle, separating the main story from the epilogue.

The music came from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra–an undergraduate program in film scoring at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Several students worked on composing this score, and they took turns at the baton. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it was anything but.

There was one problem with the music. From where I was sitting, the conductor’s head blocked the bottom of the screen, and thus the subtitles. On the other hand, you’d find few foreign films with less need for subtitles.

Sherlock Holmes

This was, of course, the movie we were all waiting for–newly found and restored after sitting in a French vault for almost a century. It’s the only filmed performance by the great stage actor William Gillette–the first playwright and actor to make the famous detective his own.

By the time Gillette shot Sherlock Holmes in 1916, he’d been playing the part onstage on and off for some 17 years. And even without hearing his voice, you can see that he was a great Holmes. He brings an insolence and an air of sarcasm to the role, making him a very modern hero.

The film’s faults come primarily from the stage play, and from its adaptation to the screen (or lack thereof). It appears that the filmmakers simply filmed the play, then added a few intertitles. Much of the time, you’re watching people talk, without any hint of what they’re saying.

And the play has its own problems. For instance, Holmes falls in love, and presumably is heading towards marriage at the final curtain (or fade out). I’m sorry, but Sherlock Holmes does not fall in love.

The Donald Sousin Ensemble provided excellent accompaniment.

Speedy

Harold Lloyd’s silent features tend to fall into two categories: Very funny, and really good stories that are also very funny. I prefer the second category. Lloyd’s last silent film falls into the merely very funny group, and was thus never one of my favorites. The story is weak and meandering, and Lloyd’s character is an absent-minded failure who can’t hold a job. But seeing it for the first time on the big screen, with an audience around me, I realized just how funny Speedy is. And believe me–it’s extremely funny.

Much of it was shot in New York City, and Lloyd’s team had a lot of fun with the locations. There’s a long sequence at Coney Island that makes me want to visit the place–or at least visit the Coney Island of 1928. Babe Ruth has a cameo as himself. And the final chase is one of Lloyd’s best.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, amongst my favorite accompanists, kept the story hopping.

The Donovan Affair

This had to be the weirdest thing at the festival. For one thing, it’s not really a silent movie. At best, it’s an “accidental silent,” as Bruce Goldstein described in his introduction.

It was made as a talkie (Frank Capra’s first). We have the picture, but the soundtrack is lost. So it was screened with live actors lip-synching–usually accurately–the dialog onscreen. Oddly enough, after a few minutes getting used to the experience, it worked. There was also piano accompaniment and sound effects.

The movie is a very silly murder mystery–I believe the laughs were intentional. I don’t think this type of presentation would work with a serious film.

Silent Film Festival opens with All Quiet on the Western Front

Most people think of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)–the Oscar-winning movie that opened this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival last night, as a talkie–and they’re right. But in the early days of talkies, it was common to make an alternative silent version for theaters that had not yet converted, and for the foreign market. This was not unlike the flat versions of today’s 3D movies.

I had seen the talkie version twice before, on Laserdisc and Blu-ray. Last night I saw the silent version. It was also my first time seeing any version on the big screen.

It was a very crowded house at the Castro. Surprisingly, the show started on time with Festival Board President Robert Byrne noting that this was the festival’s 20th year. He thanked a number of people and organizations, including “the projectionists and people in the booth…the unseen who bring us the light.”

Universal Studios, which made All Quiet 85 years ago, sponsored last night’s screening, so Byrne introduced a Universal executive (I didn’t catch his name) who announced a major restoration initiative to save “significant films from every decade of Universal. Over the next four years, we will restore 15 silent films from Universal’s silent days.”

That’s wonderful news. Some 60 years ago, Universal thought so little of its silents that it didn’t bother renewing their copyrights. They’re all in the public domain.

Next up, Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress and author of the Now See Hear blog. “All Quiet on the Western Front was conceived, written, shot, edited as a sound film. What we’re witnessing tonight is a glorious anomaly…This print, which is 35mm [big applause from audience], was preserved by Library of Congress from the original negative.”

The movie started 13 minutes after the scheduled time. Not bad.

Whether silent or talkie, All Quiet makes a powerful antiwar statement. It focuses on one young German man (Lew Ayres) convinced by his professor to serve his country. Not everything is dark; he makes close friends and manages some fun pranks. But all that is overshadowed by hunger, the horror of war, and the deaths of one friend after another.

Is it better as a song film or a silent? Hard to say. In the silent version, the main characters come off somewhat as archetypes. With sound, they’re more like real, specific people. Both approaches are valid, and I give both of them an A.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra gave their usual a magnificent performance. Following in their own footsteps from their Wings performance of three years ago, they’ve added a typewriter and other gadgets for sound effects. In a war movie, even a silent one, effects can be as important as music. Occasionally, for dramatic effect, they went entirely silent.

Altogether it was a worthy way to open the Festival.

The Green Film Festival and Bikes vs. Cars

I’m not going to attend this year’s Green Film Festival. It runs simultaneously with the biggest and best cinematic orgy of the year–the Silent Film Festival. True, Green runs for an additional two days after Silent, but I won’t be in movie-going shape by then.

Besides, I’m a bit off-put by what I call advocacy film festivals. I really don’t want to be lectured to by every film in a festival, even if I agree with the lecture.

But as someone who never drives a car when I can ride a bicycle, I thought I would preview the opening film, Bikes vs. Cars. The documentary isn’t perfect, but the subject is very close to my heart. I give a B.

 

Director Fredrik Gertten follows various bicycle advocates in various cities around the world, concentrating on two large, horribly auto-centric metropolitan areas–Sao Paulo and my native town, Los Angeles. The activists talk both on camera and off, discussing congestion, pollution, bad urban design, and the economic/political forces that emphasize automobiles over common sense. We also visit exceptionally bike-friendly cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

Gertten makes good use of small, HD video cameras that can be mounted on helmets and handlebars.

Although I wouldn’t call this an unbiased film, Gertten gives pro-car people a chance to offer their side of the story. A cab driver complains traffic problems caused by bikes (would he be happier if all of those cyclists were driving cars?). The most colorful car promoter in the film is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who removed bike lanes and tore up streetcar tracks in his efforts to heat up the planet. Oddly, no one mentions his crack cocaine issues.

But the film concentrates on its pro-bike heroes. It gets repetitious in the second half, as you hear the same arguments over and over again. Things pick up a bit for the optimistic ending.

Bikes vs. Cars screens at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on Thursday, May 28, at 6:00–opening night of the festival.

Experimenter and Closing Night at the San Francisco International Film Festival

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival closed Thursday night with the local premiere of Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter–a biopic about social psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose controversial experiments examined how we react when our empathy conflicts with our obedience to authority.

Speaking of authority figures, when we entered the Castro Theatre, we found almost all of the seats had "Reserved" signs on them, as they had on opening night. Only a few rows at the front and back of the theater were available for regular people.

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The opening talks lasted a little under half an hour. Festival Executive Director Noah Cowan, Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, and the film’s writer/director, Michael Almereyda, came up in turns and thanked companies, organizations, and people. And then the movie began.

Experimenter is slated for a theatrical release, so I can only give you a paragraph about the movie.

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In the early ’60s, Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) ran tests that tricked subjects into thinking they were torturing someone. He wanted to see how many would stop when ordered to keep going. His methods were extremely controversial. Almereyda, who clearly sides with Milgram in the controversy, finds unique and entertaining ways to tell the story, such ashaving Sarsgaard talk directly to the camera, and occasionally using obviously fake backgrounds. The acting is mostly excellent, and the subject matter is just plain fascinating. Winona Ryder plays Milgram’s wife.

I’m giving it an A-.

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After the movie, Rosen lead a Q&A with Almereyda, Ryder, and Alan Elms, a researcher who worked with Milgram on his experiments (Harley Ware plays him in the movie). Some highlights:

  • On how Milgram’s book insired Almereyda to make the movie: "The dialog [in the book] was complicated and profound. As you read it, you realize the depth of his interest."
  • Almereyda admitted that Elms "corrected some really stupid mistakes" in the script, including having to remind the auteur that Milgram didn’t smoke.
  • On his unusual narration technique: "The whole idea of talking to the camera didn’t come from House of Cards, but from [Milgram’s] own movies."
  • Ryder, when asked about playing someone who is still alive: "It was important for this particular story and Michael’s vision [that we] get approval. i was quite nervous, but as soon as I met her she has such an incredible grace."
  • I asked about two scenes where, for no apparent reason, an elephant walked behind Sarsgaard as he talked to the camera. Almereyda  and Ryder told us the elephant’s name, and that she made every one on the set happy. But they didn’t give me a serious answer.
  • "We had 20 days to shoot this movie. we didn’t have time for fooling around."

After the Q&A, I went to the Closing Night Party at the Mezzanine. The music was enjoyable and loud, but not too loud. I could wander comfortably and talk to people. I had a good time.

War and music: The Kronos Quartet at the San Francisco International Film Festival

Wednesday night, San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet came to the San Francisco International Film Festival to present their music-and-moving-image piece, Kronos Quartet Beyond Zero: 1914-1918. I was in the audience.

This was not the usual silent movie presentation. The Quartet commissioned Aleksandra Vrebalov to write the music. Then they commissioned Bill Morrison to create a new film, made up of old footage, to match the score.

The theme is World War I. The work is intended to be an anti-war piece.

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Since this was first and foremost a concert, let me start with the music. It was beautiful and haunting. Appropriately for the subject matter, it had a sad and tragic feel to it. But not all of it was live. It started with an old recording–Bartok playing one of his own pieces (no, I didn’t recognize it; I was told). Occasionally, we could barely hear voices, and instruments not played by the Quartet.

Bill Morrison’s montage seemed less about the horrors of war and more about the horrors of nitrate decomposition. The images came from contemporary newsreels and cinematic propaganda–rolls of film people haven’t looked at nearly a century. They ranged from bad condition to barely watchable. Yet Morrison seemed to revel in every blob of jellied nitrate, finding a strange beauty in the disintegration.

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But when you looked through the rotting film to the original images, they just weren’t that interesting. Soldiers marching. Soldiers eating. An occasional dead body. The result was more of a lightshow than an anti-war statement.

But the lightshow and the haunting music worked well together. I give this presentation (I can’t quite call it a film) a B+.

After the presentation, the quartet returned to the stage for Q&A. Neither Vrebalov nor Morrison was with them, but Drew Cameron–a papermaker whose work added to Morrison’s imagery–joined in. Some highlights:

  • On the process of creation: "It began with our relationship with Vrebalov. She’s written some wonderful pieces for us. And we began to realize that it’s been 100 years since the outbreak of World War I.
  • "When you think of it, the recording of music was very new at that time, and people were just beginning to have music in their homes."
  • "This was the first time we’ve played this at a film festival. The smell of popcorn was just great. We should have that at concerts."
  • "Sometimes as I play I feel that I’m really in the trenches and I can’t get out."
  • "A lot of times when war is portrayed in a visual way you see a lot of blood and gore. Here it’s in the film itself…that the film is decaying."
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