Silent Film Festival Report

I spent all day yesterday at the Castro, attending the Silent Film Festival Winter Event. Could you think of a better way to spend a rainy day?

(Okay, I can think of a better way to spend a rainy day, but my wife was unavailable for such things.)

The festival got off to a slow start, not opening the doors until about 11:15. But they soon caught up and everything ran on schedule. The breaks between films ran from 45 minutes to two hours, giving you plenty of time to schmooze with other filmgoers, browse the books on sale on the mezzanine, or go out and buy something to eat.

I love the social life around this festival—as I do with most film festivals. It’s easy to break the ice and start a conversation, and occasionally the person you talk to turns out to be a filmmaker or a historian. If I watched four movies at home in the course of one day, I’d probably get depressed. With a festival, thanks in large part to the crowds of like-minded individuals, I feel revitalized.

So, on with the details:

11:30: Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness
I’d seen Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s ethnographic drama once or twice at the UC Theater (of blessed memory) in the early 90s. I enjoyed returning to it after all these years. The thin story concerns a native family struggling to survive in the Siam jungle. It doesn’t really examine the Siamese culture in much depth, but it provides plenty of cute animals (everyone seems to have a pet monkey), scary animals (tigers and leopards are a constant threat), and animal slaughter (when you come right down to it,the humans are more of a threat to the tigers and leopards than the other way around). The result is fun and thrilling, although it’s marred by some horrible intertitles, including some that have the animals saying cute and cloying things.

Merian C. Cooper biographer Mark Vaz introduced Chang, providing background on what led Cooper and Schoedsack to Siam (now Thailand), the dangers involved in the shoot, and how Chang influenced their later masterpiece, King Kong. Donald Sosin accompanied the movie on piano and laptop. Yes, you read that right. He used the laptop for sounds outside what the piano could do. I don’t know the details, but I was sitting close enough to see him move his hand from the traditional keyboard to the modern one to create drums, flutes, and bells.

2:00: J’accuse
The major event of the day, in my opinion. This epic deserves its own post, so I’ll fill in the details later. (Added 12/15: The post is here.)

5:15: Dinner Break
No, this wasn’t a movie. It was the biggest break of the day. Festival staff, VIPS, press, and those who bought the right ticket were invited to the mezzanine for food, libations, live music (one person with an accordion), and more schmoozing. The food wasn’t substantial enough to count as dinner, so I went out and bought a sandwich. Good schmoozing, though.

7:00: Sherlock Jr. & The Goat
Buster Keaton still sells tickets. I don’t know if this screening sold out, but I saw no empty seats. “The Goat” is my favorite Keaton short, with some of the best gags of his career, and a story (such as it is) not only verging on paranoia but falling whole-heartedly into it. Sherlock Jr. isn’t among my favorite Keaton features, but it has some great scenes—and not only the special effects miracle  of the movie within the movie. It has positively the funniest billiards sequence in movie history.

Dennis James accompanied on the Castro’s Wurlitzer pipe organ, with foley artist Todd Manley adding sound effects with a number of objects (including his own nose). James did his usual excellent job, but I’m of two minds about Manley’s contributions. Sometimes they enhanced the movies and made them even funnier. But other times they were distracting and just got in the way.

9:15: West of Zanzibar
Like Kurosawa and Mifune, director Tod Browning and star Lon Chaney complimented each other perfectly and made great movies together. I’d seen this particular collaboration once before, a couple of years ago on Turner Classic Movies. But I’d never seen it properly until last night. By properly, I mean a 35mm print (although a pretty beat-up one—actually, I suspect that it’s not so much beat up as made from an older beat up print), on a giant screen, with Dennis James again on the Wurlitzer.

This is one strange and nightmarish movie—a gem for those who love either silent movies or weird cult films. Set mostly in a remote jungle trading post, plays a cripple bent on destroying the man who stole his wife and broke his back (Lionel Barrymore—and it is odd to watch a standing Barrymore talk to someone else in a wheelchair). There are no innocents in West of Zanzibar, but there are human beings caught, often by their own devising, in a wretched and evil life.

on BART on the way home, I got into a discussion with a young man who had his first silent film/live accompaniment with West of Zanzibar that night. I recommended other films to catch and places to see them. It’s good to pass this passion on to new generations.

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