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.

Revisiting Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By

Anyone who cares about silent films has to read Kevin Brownlow’s mammoth oral history survey, The Parade’s Gone By. Not a history book in the usual sense, it describes early Hollywood primarily through the recollections of people who were there. Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Louise Brooks, and William Wellman were among the many filmmakers who Brownlow interviewed.

imageI first read The Parade’s Gone By in 1972, and wrote a book report on it for a film history class. The book was only four years old at that time, and the American silent era had been dead for 42 years. And now, 42 years after my first reading, I’ve re-read it.

We have far better access to silent films, and I suspect have far more silent film enthusiasts, than we did when I first read this book–or when Brownlow wrote it. Brownlow complains frequently about washed-out prints projected at the wrong speed–the most common way silents were screened in those days, if they were screened at all. Today, thanks to restorations, digital technology, film festivals, and especially thanks to Kevin Brownlow, that’s no longer the case. When I first read this book, I’d seen maybe six silent features in theaters and classrooms–two with live music–and maybe another five on broadcast TV. Now, there are weekends when I see more than that.

One example of how things have changed: When I first read Parade, I fell instantly in love with Louise Brooks. I would have to wait ten more years to actually see her in a film. Now she’s readily available everywhere.

Although the creations of the era are now readily available, the people who created them are long gone. And its these people that Brownlow had access to in the 1960s. Here we have Gloria Swanson describing the time Cecil B. De Mille filmed her with a real lion on her back for Male and Female. "Then they cracked their whips till he roared. It felt like thousands of vibrators. Every hair on my body was standing straight up. I had to close my eyes. The last thing I saw was Mr. De Mille with a gun."

Some of what they say is shocking by today’s standard–and even by the standards of image1968. Mary Pickford, recalling a fight with the American Legion over bringing Ernst Lubitsch to America, quotes a speech she planned but never had a chance to say, which including the argument "I’m white, twenty-one, and an American citizen." By then an old woman, she doesn’t seem to realize how offensive the statement sounds. Curiously, Brownlow put Pickford’s chapter in the section on directors, even though she never was one. She was a star, a producer, and ran a studio, but she never directed.

Decades-old recollections are notoriously inaccurate, but enough of them, well edited, can create a vivid view of the world they recall. I doubt that every incident described in The Parade’s Gone By happened exactly as written. But the general sense of a technical gimmick maturing into a major industry and a magnificent art form, then suddenly dying just as it reaches its peak, comes through. So does the sense of pioneers building something new. Those following today’s tech revolutions would do well to read this book.

Brownlow doesn’t stick entirely to his interviews. He has chapters on Griffith and DeMille, neither of whom lived long enough to be interviewed for this book. It includes chapters on art direction, editing, tinting, and, of course, the talkie revolution that killed one art form to create another. He also devotes two chapters to specific films: Douglas Fairbanks’ version of Robin Hood, and the original Ben Hur.

Although the first chapter is called The Primitive Years and the last one The Talking Picture, Brownlow doesn’t attempt a chronological history. He’s more interested in the flavor of the period, and the day-to-day work. He assumes, for instance, that you already know that Griffith was a beginning of cinema as an art form (an opinion that isn’t as widely held today as it was in 1968).

The British Brownlow focuses his book almost entirely on America, but he turns to Europe for two chapters near the end. The second of these chapters, and by far the longest chapter in the book, covers his hero, Abel Gance. In almost worshipful terms, using both Gance’s words and his own, Brownlow describes Gance as the French Griffith, and the greatest filmmaker of all time. He goes into great detail about the man’s life, and the making of his three most important films. He bemoans the fact that Napoleon (in Brownlow’s eyes the greatest film ever made) no longer exists in anything like its original form.

That was 1968. Today, Napoleon has been beautifully restored. We have Kevin Brownlow to thank for that. And not just for Napoleon. The current access to silent films that we all enjoy is, to a large extent, the result of Brownlow’s life work. And The Parade’s Gone By was the beginning.

There’s a new silent movie venue in town

"The 21st century is no place to watch early 20th-century movies."

That’s the claim of the Excelsior Moveable Movie Palace, which will have its first public screening in Berkeley this coming Sunday night. The idea is to recreate the experience of watching these films when they were new. "When you see the world through the eyes of say, 1913 (great year for a lot of things), you’re watching a new 1913 movie, hearing new 1913 songs, inhabiting the 1913 world as a familiar place, as your own time. At our shows it’s not D.W. Griffith WAS, or Mary Pickford WAS, or Rudolph Valentino WAS; Griffith IS, Pickford IS, Valentino IS."

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Of course, in 1913, Valentine IS a struggling unknown, but you get the point.

How will they recreate the time? Everything will be projected from film. The people working there will be appropriately dressed and, I assume, will be acting the parts. The creative force behind the project, Annie Lore, is a veteran of the Dickens and Renaissance Faires, and she understands that sort of living history immersive theater.

Which brings me to a disclaimer: I’m also a veteran of those fairs (or faires; it’s complicated). I’ve known Annie for a very long time. I also know accompanist Ellen Hoffman from those crazy days. Ellen is an excellent pianist, who recently accompanied Rita Moreno at a local concert.

This Sunday, they’ll be playing at the Art House Gallery in Berkeley. The year will be 1929, and they’ll show a selection of comedy shorts–mostly from the the Hal Roach studio. The stars include Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chase, and Harry Langdon.

Actually, several of the shorts would have been pretty old in ’29; the only one I’ve seen, It’s a Gift, was six years old by then. But it’s a very funny Snub Pollard vehicle and worth seeing.

Perhaps the strangest entry is The Sheik’s Physique from 1925, described as "Rudolph Valentino’s only comedy short."

Although the Art House Gallery will be their more-or-less permanent home, Excelsior is designed as a traveling show. "Excelsior comes to you, with your own film festival
for a few friends– or a few hundred, at your home or school, or library or church or museum or community center or rented hall or club, or you name it. This doesn’t mean that there are no public showings; we can be booked at events or performance venues like any act."

Kind of like vaudeville. And remember, the movies started in vaudeville.

Four surprising facts from early film history

Historical reality has a way of conflicting with the what we all assume. Here are four totally surprising, unintuitive facts about the early days of cinema.

Animation preceded live action

The first moving images weren’t photographed. They were drawn. Parlor toys such as Zoetropethe Zoetrope used multiple illustrations to create the illusion of movement–as cartoons would decades later–to create the illusion of movement.

The Zoetrope wasn’t the first toy to use Persistence of Vision. The far cruder Thaumatrope had been invented (we’re not really sure by who) by 1824. The Zoetrope came a decade later.

It would take nearly another 40 years before Eadweard James Muybridge used multiple cameras to photograph a running horse, and thus creating the first live action moving image.

Silent movies grew out of sound movies

If any one individual can be called the inventor of motion pictures, it’s Thomas Edison employee William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. Realistically, no one man created the technology, but Dickson was the first (as far as I can determine) to punch sprocket holes in George Eastman’s new photographic film so that it could move in a reliable stop-and-go motion through a camera or projector. He created the 35mm, four-perf pull-down standard that is only dying now with the digital revolution.

And according to his own account, as quoted in Terry Ramsaye’s A Million and One Nights, he was given the task "to combine Mr. Edison’s phonograph with a practical zoetropic moving figure device." Dickson also claimed that he showed Edison a talking picture in 1989.

Did this happen? Ramsaye, along with later historians, doubted it. A few years later, Edison released the Kinetoscope without sound.

But we do know that Dickson, still working for Edison, successfully created a way to record and show sound movies in the mid-1990’s. that was just around the time that Lumiere, in France, began to project motion pictures onto a screen in front of paying customers for the first time.image

Narrative cinema grew out of special effects

Today, you can prove your maturity by complaining about blockbusters where the story appears to be nothing but an excuse for the special effects. I’ve even done it myself. And yet, historically speaking, that’s pretty much how it happened.

It’s difficult to say who first started telling fictional stories on film. If you film a scene from a stage play, is that a narrative or merely a recording (especially if there’s no dialog)? Does it count if you film a man watering a lawn, and a mischievous teenager disrupts the chore.

But a real story, taking ten or more minutes? Arguably, the true inventor of narrative cinema was also the inventor of special effects, Georges Méliès. A professional magician, he started making movies because he could do effects in them that were impossible on the live stage. Eventually, he expanded his "trick films," providing stories such as A Trip to the Moon to provide a bigger canvas for his effects.

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Colorization preceded real color

You don’t need digital technology to colorize a black and white movie. It was done from almost the beginning of cinema.

The early ways to add color were many. Tinting gave one color to the whole frame, with the color standing out most in the light parts of the image. Toning also colored the entire frame, except that the color stood out in the dark areas. Combined together, tinting and toning could create a vivid two-color effect.

They also hand-painted prints in those days, which must have cost a fortune.

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All of these were available in the 1890s. The first commercially successful system using what was then called "natural color" (in other words, the colors were recorded in the camera), was Kinemacolor. In came out in 1908,

Valentino, Keaton, Caligari, Laurel and Hardy: My report on Silent Autumn

I could think of few better ways to spend a day then the way I spent last Saturday, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival‘s first Silent Autumn event. Over the course of the day, we were treated to three features, two collections of shorts, and a lot of great music.

Let’s take the day in order.

Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts

It’s amazing how easily Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made the transition from silent movies to sound. Adding voices barely changed their characters or comedy style.

The festival screened three of their two-reel silents–Should Married Men Go Home?, Two Tars, and Big Business. To show us how they evolved, the movies were screened in chronological order. That didn’t quite work; their characters and style seemed fully developed from the start of the show.

On the other hand, they did work, simply because all three were extremely funny.

Laurel and Hardy’s onscreen personas were probably the dumbest reoccurring characters in the history of the movies. Stan appears incapable of having a thought or remembering an instruction. Oli knows that Stan is an idiot, and thus, insists on taking charge. What neither of them seems to realize is that Oli is even dumber than Stan.

They’re also extremely vengeful and destructive–do something to get them angry, and you’ll be sorry. And yet, they’re eternally loveable. Looking and behaving like overgrown children, they wander into a placid and calm environment and, because of their presence, all hell breaks loose. Soon everyone is throwing mud, kicking shins, and tearing apart automobiles.

Laurel and Hardy slowed down the pace of silent comedy–which may be one of the reasons they did so well in talkies. They just stand there and watch while their antagonist–say, James Finlayson–rips off their headlight and throws it into their windshield. Then he just stands there and watches as they destroy his front door.

While the sound transition didn’t effect them much, they had a bigger problem moving from shorts to features. A real  plot inevitably got in the way of their style of comedy. But in short subjects, few geniuses were funnier.

Music: Donald Sosin accompanied these shorts on a grand piano. All three films opened with the MGM lion, and Sosin managed to recreate the roar on the piano (except for the last film, when he invited the audience to roar). His lively music helped keep the laughs coming.

Projection: The Festival screened archival prints from the Library of Congress and the UCLA Film Archive. Aside from some bad titles in Should Married Men Go Home?, they looked excellent.

The Son of the Sheik

You can’t discuss Rudolph Valentino’s last and most famous movie without confronting how attitudes about romance and sex have changed considerably in the last 90 years. Here’s a movie designed to feed women’s sexual fantasies, and judging from its commercial success and the audience that flocked to see it, it did its job.

Yet this is a film where the hero rapes the heroine. Of course he does it because he’s been lied to, and he feels bad about it afterwards. But still, the hero rapes the heroine.

In 1926, women found this movie very sexy. And judging from the women I talked to in the theater after the screening, a lot of them still do. Of course, then and now, no woman wants to be raped. But on a movie screen, with the gorgeous Valentino, it’s a safe fantasy.

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The story is silly and hokey, the cast is full of white actors in swarthy makeup, and there’s a comic sidekick bad guy who I just found annoying. But it was a lot of fun.

Music: The Alloy Orchestra (actually a trio with a wide range of instruments) premiered their new score for The Son of the Sheik on Saturday. It was lush and romantic, with a hint of the "Orient" without using the common, clichéd music.I loved it.

Projection: The festival screened this newly-restored classic digitally. The source material was clearly in bad condition, and probably several generations away from the original camera negative. The image quality was acceptable, but not great.

The shape of the frame was very narrow, with a little bit of the image sliced off on the left side. How did that happen? My guess: The source print, made after the silent era, came with recorded music. Because the soundtrack takes up room on the film, part of the image was lost.

A Night at the Cinema in 1914

Feature-length films came into fashion just about a hundred years ago. But it didn’t happen overnight. In 1914, more often than not, a night at the movies involved only a collection of shorts.

The British Film Institute has put together a selection of 14 such shorts to help recreate the movie-going experience in the year World War I started. Each of the shorts was preceded by a new title card putting it into a historical perspective.

Not that all of these particular shorts would have likely been on the same bill in 1914. One newsreel of the Austrian-Hungarian royal family, taken before Ferdinand’s assassination but screened after it, refers to the killing as a "tragedy." They didn’t know just how tragic it would be. Within weeks, those tragic Austrian royals were the enemy. Later newsreels in the program concentrated on the war.

Among the narrative offerings were two from America–a chapter from the serial The Perils of Pauline and an early Keystone Chaplin comedy called A Film Johnnie, where the tramp wanders into the Keystone studio. But the funniest selection in the show was British, Daisy Doodad’s Dial, about woman with a gift for making outrageous faces.

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Another highlight: The Rollicking Rajah was actually a sound film, using a film/phonograph system similar to the Vitaphone. Clearly a music hall act, enhanced with the ability to easily change settings, The Rollicking Rajah was a risqué musical act starring a male singer accompanied by flirtatious female dancers. Unfortunately, the phonograph record is lost, but the sheet music survives, which brings us to…

Music: In addition to playing the song, The Rollicking Rajah, on the grand piano, Donald Sosin sang the lyrics with the verve of a music hall performer. His words didn’t match the lips on screen perfecting, but they worked. He did a fine job on the rest of the show, as well.

Projection: I have nothing to complain about with this digital presentation. Some of the sources were pretty bad, and not much could be done to repair them. But overall, it looked very good.

The General

One of these days, I’m going to have to write a full article about Buster Keaton’s civil war masterpiece. So for now, I’ll keep it brief:

Based loosely on an actual event, The General puts a comic character at the center of a heroic epic, and he proves more than up to the task. The film is visually beautiful, and gives us the sweep of armies and locomotives moving through a land at war. In the climactic battle, soldiers actually die.

But it’s also a love story between a man and a train (there’s a girl in it, too). It’s made up almost entirely of two train chases. Keaton, a child of vaudeville who grew up largely on trains, wrings every gag possible (and some impossible) out of these wood-burning steam engine locomotives.

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The General belongs near the top of any must-see movie list. And like all good comedies, it’s best scene with an audience.

Music: The Alloy Orchestra provided a percussion-heavy score that emphasized the unstoppable forward motion of a fast-moving train. A couple of times it felt monotonous, but not for long. Comic sound effects, not overdone, added to the fun.

Projection: The festival screened an excellent 35mm print from Raymond Rohauer’s collection.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The story is very conventional–at least until the end. But no one remembers The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for its story. Visually speaking, this has to be one of the weirdest commercial films ever made.

The painted backdrops–including painted light and shadow–make no attempt to look realistic. Doors are angular and misshaped. Bureaucratic authority figures sit on very high stools, and crouch over high yet small desks. The sweet and innocent ingénue is dressed and made up to look like a darker and more depressing version of Morticia Addams.

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This is, apparently, the filmmakers’ view of small-town Germany in 1919, reeling from defeat.

Into this world, a showman named Dr. Caligari arrives with an act built around a somnambulist who never wakes up but can see the future. Then people start getting murdered.

The story takes some very wild turns in the last third. Best not to go too much into detail.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an easier film to admire than to like. It’s expressionistic visuals and way over-the-top acting keeps the audience at an arms-length. The constant intensity can be exhausting. But the atmosphere can also have a powerful hold. And the film’s story and strangeness can say a lot about the society that made it, although what exactly it says is a matter of controversy.

Music: Donald Sosin eschewed the grand piano for a smaller, electric one for Caligari. I heard a violin, a harp, and other instruments in the score; presumably the piano had MIDI capabilities. The score was appropriately weird and kept the story moving.

Projection: For as long as I’ve been watching old movies, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meant bad, soft, scratchy prints. But the film has recently gone through a thorough 4K digital restoration, and most of it looks great. And even when it doesn’t look great, it’s still presentable and a big improvement.

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