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.

The A+ List: The Last Laugh (also Brazil & Casablanca)

I can’t always be alphabetical as I write about the movies on my list of A+ films–the near-perfect masterpieces that I’ve loved for decades.

For instance, the next film on my list is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. But rather than write about it all over again, I’ll just point you to my Blu-ray Review.

And after that, comes Casablanca. I wrote an essay.

Alphabetically, the next film on the list that I haven’t written about is 8 ½ (which I alphabetize as Eight and a Half). But I just saw an old favorite at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and decided it deserved a full A+. And so I’m jumping out of chronological order.

The Last Laugh

If the clothes make the man, what happens to the man when his clothes are taken away? Does he loses his self-esteem? Or the love and respect of his friends and family? That’s what happens in the 1924 German masterpiece, The Last Laugh, written by Carl Mayer and directed by F.W. Murnau.

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 enjoys a special status.

Then one morning he arrives at the hotel to see another doorman in his place. The manager, noting the trouble the doorman had carrying a big trunk, has decided that he’s too old for the job. He’s given a new job: washroom attendant. He’s so ashamed he steals his old uniform, and wears it home. He can’t even tell his family.

Silent films didn’t get any more silent 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 (more on that below). Occasionally Mayer and Murnau help the story along with an official document or a written, cake decoration, but I don’t think that happens more than three times in the movie. Everything else is told by visuals and pantomime.

You don’t miss intertitles any more than you would miss dialog.

A lot of the credit for that visual storytelling has to go to cinematographer Karl Freund. His amazing moving camera shots, in-camera special effects, and work with glass and mirrors tell the story as well as the acting and the magnificent, expressionistic sets.

Although The Last Laugh is set in a big, German city, and was shot in Berlin, you never see the real Berlin in the movie. Every shot in the picture was made in the UFA studios.

And let’s not forget Jannings’ contribution. Arguably the greatest film actor of his time (he would later win the first Best Actor Oscar), he plays the role oversized–that was German expressionism–but emotionally real. He takes the unnamed lead character’s journey from egotistical fool to broken object of pity–rejected by even his own family. A very sad ending, indeed.

Which brings us to that epilogue. Warning: Mild spoiler below. You may want to skip to below the photo.

The studio heads didn’t like the original ending. It was too depressing. So the director added a ridiculous, funny, unbelievable, happy-in-the-extreme ending. And to make sure that everyone understood his intent, he separated the main story from the ending with the film’s only intertitle–which basically acknowledges that this ending is tacked on and absurd.

It’s a brilliant way to end this essentially tragic film. You understand that life is hard and will grind you down, and that the happy ending is there only for commercial purposes. You get to laugh a lot in those last few minutes, and by and large you’re laughing with the main character. And even though you know it’s absurd, it still leaves you with a smile.

Okay, you can safely continue reading:

I first saw The Last Laugh on PBS in the early 1970s, when I was a teenager, newly besotted with my love of silent films. I knew it was fantastic even then.

I saw it again a few years ago, on DVD. I still loved it.

Last Friday, I finally saw it on the big screen, with live accompaniment and a large audience. That did it. Better able to appreciate the expressionistic sets, and sharing the film’s emotions and laughs with hundreds of other people, I finally realized that this isn’t just a great film, but a rare one.

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.

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."

Cinema’s past and cinema’s future: Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

Yesterday was a very strange day for me at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I didn’t see a single, complete film. But it was still worthwhile.

Mel Novikoff Award: Lenny Borger

The Novikoff Award goes to someone who who "has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema." Sometimes it goes to someone famous, such as Roger Ebert. This year it went to Lenny Borger, whom I had never heard of before the award was announced.

imageIn her introduction, Director of Programming Rachel Rosen described him as a "film writer, translator, scholar, and something of a film sleuth." An American who’s lived much of his life in Paris, he writes English subtitles for French films. The event included the North American restoration premier of Monte-Cristo, a 1929 French silent epic directed by Henri Fescourt that Borger was instrumental in restoring.

This was Borger’s first visit to San Francisco. He was interviewed on stage by Variety reviewer Scott Foundas (Borger was once Variety’s Paris correspondent). Borger came off as shy, and not comfortable talking to an audience.

A few highlights from the interview:

  • When searching European archives, "Being in Variety helped me open the door. Archivists are very secretive people–except for the ones I know who are here."
  • About Monte-Cristo: "What you’re going to see now is what I call the full monty. You have to leave a margin for some shots that are missing. If any of you have reels of film, get in touch with me."
  • "Monte Cristo has no reputation at all. I spent a lot of time trying to convince people to see it."
  • He called Brussels "the best archive in the world. The French are always the last to recognize their own films."
  • On translating dialog into subtitles: In the beginning, it was just information. If you look at old subtitles, they’re often very comic." He described a French subtitle in Sam Peckinpah’s war movie, Cross of Iron, where the word tanks was translated to merci.
  • A single subtitle can’t be longer than 70 characters. "Less than a tweet."
  • About his experiences with Godard: “The first film was a wonderful experience. The next film a little less good because he started cutting titles. Film Socialism was a nightmare."
  • "I worked on Children of Paradise two or three times. I’ve never been satisfied with it."

Then they screened the movie. I knew going in that I wouldn’t be able to see all of it–I had a 3:00 appointment to interview Douglas Trumbull. But I wanted to see as much as possible.

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What I saw was wonderful. Beautifully photographed and acted, it pulled me into its epic tale of an innocent man framed and arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, set in the post-Napoleonic period.

The music, though recorded, was excellent. The intertitles were in the original French, with Borger reading his translation live.

And then, a little less than an hour into the movie, I reluctantly got up and left. That was difficult.

I hope to see the full movie someday. Or maybe I should just read the book. It’s my son’s favorite novel.

Douglas Trumbull interview

Douglas Trumbull didn’t remember me, but I could hardly expect that he would. Last time we met, I was a movie-obsessed teenager. My stepfather, John H. (Hans) Newman cut the sound effects on Silent Running, and I spent a day hanging around the studio where Trumbull and his team were creating special effects.

We talked briefly about Hans’ work on the film, then went to the main subject. Trumbull wants to be "directing movies at 120 frames per second."

imageTrumbull has been a major player in special effects for almost half a century. 2001: A Space Odyssey made his name. He also worked on Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He has written and directed two features–Silent Running and Brainstorm. He developed Showscan, a special immersive format that ran 70mm film at 60 frames per second (fps).

Breaking away from 24fps–the standard frame rate since the talkie revolution–is clearly a major obsession with him. With digital cameras and projection, it’s become practical. "I started experimenting. I realized there’s another thing we can do here. They have projectors that could run at 144 frames. Let’s try it."

(I should mention that I have never seen a motion picture projected at a fast frame rate. I have to take other people’s words for the quality.)

"I made this kind of discovery, doing some experiments at 120 frames. One of the first things I noticed: You can use any shutter opening you wanted. With a 360 shutter, you can blend frames together. You can get back to a 24-frame conventional release. It looks exactly like 24."

Trumbull decided to use 120fps rather than the maximum 144, because 120 is evenly divisible by both 24 and 60–the American television standard.

I had to bring up The Hobbit, the only Hollywood feature (well, actually a trilogy) shot in a fast frame rate. Even people who liked the movie hated the unusual look created by 3D at 48fps. According to Trumbull, Peter Jackson was "shooting at 48, but projecting at 98," producing a problematic flicker. He described Jackson’s decision to shoot at 48fps "heroic but mistaken."

Trumbull wants to build a 3D camera that will alternate between the left and right lenses, simulating the way most projectors handle 3D sequentially. Shooting each eye at 60fps, this should take care of that flicker problem.

"’You can make a standard DCP. It’s off the shelf in tens of thousands of theaters."

His brand name: Magi.

But he wants more than just a faster frame rate. Looking back at the glory days of Cinerama and other immersive formats, he wants theaters that bring back showmanship–with curtains that open up on huge, deeply-curved screens.

But will today’s 3D movies work on a giant screen? Even on modest screens, they’re too dim. "If you could get the brightness back, you can increase the field of view. Then you’ve got something that’s better than anything."

Trumbull’s solution: Torus screens, a far-from-new technology which would "triple perceived light." These specially-built curved screens "compensate for what you lose [in 3D projection]. And there’s no cross reflection." Cross reflection is a problem specific to curved screens.

image"It’s time to redefine what a movie theater is. People don’t see any value to the movie-going experience, so we got to make a better movie-going experience. If you increase the size of the screen, people will see it."

His solution: Magi Pods. These are small, 40-seat pre-fabricated theaters. He wants to bring these to museums, amusement parks, and anywhere else where you can set them up. 

Like Trumbull, I’m a fan of immersive cinema. I don’t know if his Magi is the solution, but I hope there is one.

State of the Cinema Address: Douglas Trumbull

But Douglas Trumbull didn’t come to the San Francisco International Film Festival to talk to me. He came to talk to anyone who attended his State of the Cinema Address.

I hate to say it, but after the private interview–which I totally enjoyed–I found the public talk disappointing.

Playing clips off his laptop as he talked, he spent much of his allotted 90 minutes covering his own autobiography. He talked about his birth during World War II, and the excitement he found as a child with Cinerama and other immersive film technologies. He talked about his work on 2001, and how he learned to direct on the job with Silent Running.

When he discussed his second directorial feature, Brainstorm, he implied that Paramount closed and shelved the film after Natalie Wood’s death. But MGM, not Paramount, financed the film, and it was completed and released. I remember that well; I saw it in 70mm.

Eventually he got to his main point, that the Hollywood system isn’t interested in improving the movie-going experience. The studios are "betting the farm on big sequels," while the theaters "give you better seats because they can’t change what’s on the screen."

Much of what we covered was also in my interview, so I’ll just add some highlights:

  • Projecting Cinerama "was a nightmare.” Fifty percent of the box office take went to technical overhead in the theater.
  • "When you change the medium, you have to change how you direct, how you act."
  • "Today we see some of the same issues with 3D [as we had with Cinerama]. 3D cameras are very difficult to use."
  • "Disneyland was virtual reality."
  • "The state of cinema is led by directors pushing into new territories."

His talk covered the full 90 minutes. There was no time left for Q&A.

Silent Film Festival announced

With live music, great movies, knowledgeable guests, and enthusiastic audiences, and all set in the beautiful Castro Theater, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is easily one of the best movie-going experiences that the Bay Area has to offer.

And this intense, silent movie immersion experience is getting longer. This year, the festival is expanding to five days, May 28 through June 1. That means it opens Thursday night, then plays all day Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. If you have a conventional day job, you’ll have to take two days off.

As usual, the Festival has put together a compelling collection of acknowledged classics, newly restored discoveries, and movies few people have ever heard of. And then they bring together some of the best musicians working in silent accompaniment. This year, the accompanists include familiar favorites such as The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Donald Sosin, Stephen Horne, and the The Matti Bye Ensemble. Newcomers–at least to my experience–include Frank Bockius, Guenter Buchwald, Earplay, and The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, which to an East Bay citizen like me looks like a misspelling (it isn’t).

Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

The most exciting event this year is the newly discovered and restored Sherlock Holmes, starring William Gillette. In 1899, Gillette became the first playwright to adopt the Holmes stories to a dramatic medium, and the first actor to play the part. The film, made 17 years later, was Gillette’s only motion picture, and it was thought lost for almost a century. Of course I have no idea if it’s any good, but I’m hoping. The Donald Sosin Ensemble will provide the music for the Sunday, 7:00 screening.

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Believe it or not, they’re screening talkies this year…sort of and without the original sound. The Festival opens with 1930’s Oscar winner All Quiet On The Western Front. We generally think of that as a talkie, but a silent version was prepared for theaters that had not yet converted and for foreign release–and that’s the version we’ll see.

Then, on Saturday afternoon, we have The Donovan Affair–Frank Capra’s first talkie (from 1929). The film has survived, but the soundtrack is lost. So a group of actors, called The Gower Gulch Players, will lip-synch the dialog.

Some other promising shows on the schedule:

  • Speedy: Harold Lloyd’s last silent film, shot in New York. It’s not one of my favorite Lloyds, but as I haven’t seen it theatrically, that may change soon.
  • Cave of the Spider Women: A fantasy from China.
  • Amazing Charley Bowers: I’ve only seen a couple of this mostly-forgotten comedian’s two reelers, and those only on DVD. His unique, special effects-laden work has a surreal silliness not to be missed.
  • The Last Laugh: One of the major works of German impressionism. Like Speedy, I’ve only seen it on TV.
  • The Deadlier Sex: Come on, how can you resist that title.
  • Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ: The festival closes with MGM’s first big epic and first big hit. And yes, the one with Charlton Heston was a remake.
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