Silent Film Festival Report

Four days of silent films, spectacularly presented with live music at the Castro, is too much even for me. I left before last night’s screening of Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages and, as I type this, am missing Amazing Tales from the Archives: First the Bad News…then the Good! I plan to miss The Shakedown, too. I expect to be back in time for Man with a Movie Camera.

A few interesting points from Friday and Saturday.

Friday

B Amazing Tales from the Archives: Lost & Found Films included Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Peña, the two Argentinean archivists who discovered the complete Metropolis print. They showed fragments from partially-missing Argentinean films, and discussed their big find. Peña, who knew of the existence of the print 20 years before he finally got his hands on it, fumed when the international press described it as an accidental find.

C A Spray of Plum Blossoms was my first Chinese silent. An update of Two Gentlemen of Verona with a bit of robin hood mixed in, it never really got passed mildly amusement. Curiously, the intertitles were original, illustrated ones in Chinese and English. My guess is that the source print was from a Hong Kong release (the British required all films be understandable in English), but that’s only my guess. Update: I’ve since read the that English intertitles were part of the original, Chinese release.

A Rotaie was the real find—an amazing, late-silent (1929) drama from Italy. A young1003[1] couple, well-dressed but broke, yet very much in love, consider suicide. Then they acquire a large wad of cash and take up the high life. Once life is good, we can see the character flaws that left them destitute in the first place, and will leave them that way again. A surprisingly empathetic film to come out of a fascist country, although the tacked-on happy ending felt a bit like the work of government censors.

The festival screened the only known existing print of Rotaie. An English translation of the intertitles were read out loud. Stephen Horne, who’s really more of a one-man band than a pianist, contributed mightily to the atmosphere with his accompaniment.

A Metropolis was great, of course. Having already seen the new restoration, I knew that going in (see my report). What I only suspected, and now know, is the Alloy Orchestra’s score brings out the film’s overall weirdness and the third act’s metropolisexcitement better than any other Metropolis score I’ve heard. I was pleased to hear that Kino will include that score, along with the same original-score recording I heard in New York, in the upcoming DVD and Blu-ray releases. Of course, the home theater version won’t be live.

Metropolis also looked great—or at least the scenes that came from good sources looked great. That’s important to note because, in a festival that prides itself on showing great 35mm prints, this film was shown digitally. I had never before seen a classic film projected digitally onto a really huge screen with a first-class digital projector. And I can say: It was at least as good as 35mm film—maybe better.

Saturday

A The Big Business of Short, Funny Films: Saturday began with a trio of comic sorts selected by Pixar’s Pete Doctor (director of Monsters, Inc. and Up). Leonard Maltin 1006[1]interviewed Doctor before the movies, and he discussed the influence that silent films had on him. WALL-E, which he co-authored, was conceived as a silent film.  Of the three, Pass the Gravy was the real find. I don’t want to give away too much about this Max Davidson comedy—let’s just say it involves feuding fathers, young people in love, a prize chicken, and one of the funniest dinners on film. And like the screwball comedies of a decade later, it allows good-looking, sexy people to do the silliest sight gags. Dennis James accompanied, superbly as always, on the Wurlitzer.

B- In Variations on a Theme, the musicians performing at this year’s festival discussed the decisions they make when scoring a film. I was expecting a panel discussions. Instead, I got five mini-lectures with demonstrations, with only 10 minutes of Q&A at the end. And it was only during that 10-minute Q&A that the issue humming around in the background really came came to the front: traditionalists vs. experimentalists. Organist Dennis James represented the traditionalist extreme: He plays the original score if it exists, and sticks as closely as possible to the original spirit if it doesn’t. Ken Winokur of the Alloy Orchestra took the other extreme—he has no interest in even researching the original score, and described himself as the “anti-Dennis James.”

C+ The Flying Ace disappointed me, somewhat. The only surviving feature from the Norman Film Manufacturing Co.—an independent studio that made films with African-1009[1] American casts—it was a run-of-the-mill, extremely low-budget murder mystery. That would have been fine if director Richard E. Norman had bothered to find actors with talent and charisma, but, with one exception, he didn’t. That one exception was the hero’s one-legged comic-relief sidekick, who could outrun most two-legged villains and bicycle as fast as a car (and no, I’m not going to describe one-legged bicycling; you’ll have to see it, yourself). The movie redeems itself—somewhat—in the final chase.

B+  I’ve wrote enough about The Strong Man that I don’t feel the need to write about it again. (See my report on its last local screening only six months ago.) Let me just add that pianist-flutist-accordion player Stephen Horne kept things lively, and the laughter shook the house.

B+ Diary of a Lost Girl wouldn’t be well-remembered today if the previous collaboration between director G.W. Pabst and star Louise Brooks hadn’t been theDiary of a Lost Girl (Germany 1929)   aka  Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen 
Directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst
Shown center: Louise Brooks great Pandora’s Box. Brooks as a victim and reluctant prostitute just doesn’t have the emotional impact of Brooks as a femme fatale. But the wonderful Pabst imagery is still there, as is Brooks’ unparalleled sensuality.  The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s score wasn’t as outstanding as the one they played two years ago for The Freshman, but it supported the film without getting in the way.

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