Spellbound in Darkness: Thursday and Friday at the Silent Film Festival

I can’t possibly cover the San Francisco Silent Film Festival the way I do the San Francisco International Fest, reporting every morning on what I saw the previous day. SFSFF is too compact and concentrated for that. Most days, it starts at 10:00am and ends around 11:00pm. Breaks can be short. I have a long BART commute. There’s no time to write up the previous day’s screenings.

But now that the festival is over, I have a chance to turn my notes into cohesive sentences. But if I just wrote about every program I attended, this would be an uncomfortably-long article. So I’m breaking my report into three separate blog posts, and covering only the movies that really interested me – for better or for worse.

This first article covers opening night (Thursday) and Friday.

The Freshman
(opening night)

I came in knowing that I love this movie, and my opinion didn’t’ change. It’s a great comedy, one Harold Lloyd’s best, and almost as good as The Kid Brother. For more, read my Blu-ray review.

The DCP came from the same digital restoration as the Blu-ray, and almost always looks terrific.

What was new for me was Berklee Silent Film Orchestra‘s amazing score – composed by seven students in a class on silent film accompaniment. The seven composers took turns conducting, and yet I never noticed them passing the baton. Their lush sound evoked popular songs of the 1920s, and their judicious use of sound effects added to the merriment.

Friday: The First Full Day

Amazing Tales From the Archives

I’m as much a technology and history geek as I am a film lover, so I never miss the Friday morning free presentation. It started this time with George Willeman, of The Library of Congress, talking about Edison Kinetophones. These were talking movies from 1912-14, from a technology too difficult to last. Willeman has restored a number of these short films, and showed us two of them. Fascinating.

Rongen-Kaynakçi of the Netherland’s EYE Filmmuseum told us about Jean Desmet, an early Dutch exhibitor and collector. This was by far the weakest of the three presentations.

The Academy Film Archive’s Heather Linville blew us all away with rarely seen footage of globetrotting filmmaker adventuress Aloha Wanderwell. Before Friday morning, I’d never heard of her; now I’m a fan.

Donald Sosin provided what little accompaniment was needed.

Get Your Man

Dorothy Arzner, one of the few American women directors of the silent era, helmed this delightful Clara Bow vehicle. She plays an American in France who falls in love with an aristocrat about to step into an arranged marriage. She uses her wit and wiles to get her man. It’s entertaining, sexy, and fun.

Unfortunately, it’s also incomplete. An important sequence – where they fall in love trapped in a wax museum – is missing. This restoration used stills and intertitles to let us know what was happening. But that doesn’t really make up for what was probably a very funny sequence.

Until that missing scene is found, I give it a B.

Stephen Horne gave an excellent accompaniment on piano and other instruments.

Body and Soul

I first saw this important piece of early African-American cinema on TCM years ago, and I remembered not liking it all that much. But this time, as I watched it on the big screen with DJ Spooky‘s awesome score, I found myself wondering what I had against it.

Then we got to the ending, and I remembered. This may have the worst ending of any commercial feature, period.

One of the few surviving films by African-American independent filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, Body and Soul suffers from more than a low budget and a bad ending. The story is hackneyed and melodramatic, even though it provides food for thought on issues of demagoguery – especially when coming from the clergy.

Paul Robeson stars, and he’s a powerful presence, even without his voice. He plays two roles, the villain, and a meek, nice guy who’s too weak to be called a hero. But Robeson’s villain is worth watching.

I give the movie a C.

This was my first silent film with rap hip-hop accompaniment. Spooky mixed samples from pre-recorded music, mostly jazz and blues. A live violinist added what wasn’t pre-recorded. It didn’t sound like rap hip-hop to me. But it fit the film perfectly. [My thanks to Brian for schooling me on the difference between rap and hip-hop.]

2 thoughts on “Spellbound in Darkness: Thursday and Friday at the Silent Film Festival

  1. I missed Body & Soul but yours is the first comment on it that calls it a “rap accompaniment”. Rap is a vocal style, not a musical style. Was there vocalizing in DJ Spooky’s accompaniment? If not, it’s likely much more accurate to call this a “hip-hop accompaniment”, hip-hop being the musical style most closely associated with rap vocals, but not dependent on them (I’ve heard other DJ Spooky music that qualifies as hip-hop but not as rap, which is why I suggest this; I don’t mean to assume he used a hip-hop style Friday night. At some point I hope to check out the recent Kino DVD of this movie, that includes a recording of DJ Spooky’s music for it).

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