3 Views of America: What I saw in theaters this weekend

I saw three movies in theaters this weekend.

Free State of Jones at the Elmwood

Being a history buff, and particularly one interested in the Civil War and reconstruction, I couldn’t help rushing out to see Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones. I caught it at the Elmwood.

Matthew McConaughey stars as an actual historical figure, Newton Knight, a Confederate Army deserter who led a band of escaped slaves and other discontents. They fought the Confederacy and successfully held considerable land. After the war, he supported reconstruction and tried to help the freedmen gain their rightful place in society.

It’s an interesting piece of history, and one that Americans should know something about. What’s more, it makes for an exciting movie. (I don’t know to what degree the movie is historically accurate. I suspect not much.) It can’t help being something of a white savior movie, but that flaw really couldn’t be avoided in a story that really needed to be told.

I give it a B.

I’ve been to the Elmwood many times, but always for something showing in the theater’s big, downstairs auditorium. This time, Jones played in one of the two small, upstairs auditoriums. It was horrible. The front row was way too far back, and there was no way to get close enough to the screen.

Even worse, a low wall in front of the front row was much too close for comfort. I had to tuck my legs under the seat. My back was sore at the end of the movie. Some low chairs, or even bing bang chairs, in the front would help.

Next time something I want to see is at the Elmwood, I’ll make sure it’s screening downstairs before I go.

Scarlet Letter at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

Sunday was the last day of the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, and the 1926 version of The Scarlet Letter was the final movie of the day. I introduced the film, explaining how star Lillian Gish pushed to get the film made despite censorship issues.

In case you don’t remember reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel in High School, it’s set in 17th century Puritan Massachusetts. Hester Prynne, whose husband disappeared years ago, has a baby out of wedlock and suffers from religious intolerance.

The film, which is very much the MGM version, emphasizes the romance between Hester and her lover, the church minister Arthur Dimmesdale. But unlike the universally reviled Demi Moore version, MGM kept the tragic ending. It’s a powerful story, well-told. I give it an A-.

The 16mm print screened was washed out and fuzzy. As I have never seen a good print of this film; I suspect that nothing better is available.

Bruce Loeb did a wonderful job on piano. His music enhanced the emotions onscreen and deepened the story.

The Lusty Men at the Pacific Film Archive

Nicholas Ray examines masculinity in this modern western drama set in the world of the rodeo. The lusty men of the title are irresponsible, bad with money, and courageous to the point of stupidity. The women who love them suffer for it.

The Lusty Men is not, as I had assumed, about a love triangle. At least not in the traditional sense. Yes, it’s about two men and one woman, but the men don’t compete for the woman. It’s the wife who must compete against her husband’s new bromance.

Robert Mitchum stars as Jeff McCloud, a former star of the rodeo circuit with one too many injuries. He latches onto the happily-married Wes and Louise (Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward). Wes is a cowhand, working for someone else, and badly wanting enough to buy his own place. The rodeo promises quick, easy, yet dangerous cash, and Jeff offers to mender him. Wes eagerly jumps into the world of constant travel, heavy drinking, poker, bar fights, and the adrenaline rush of riding a wild horse or (much worse) bull. Louise is pulled into it far more reluctantly.

The rodeo industry clearly approved of this film’s production–although I can’t help wondering if they had read the script. The film contains a good deal of actual rodeo footage. Much of this footage, accompanied by on- and off-screen announcers, celebrate the real cowboys on the real horses and bulls we’re looking at. One problem: This real-live footage didn’t match well with the footage shot for the film. It was grainier and slightly out of focus.

I give The Lusty Men an A-.

The PFA screened a brand-new 35mm print (I’m delighted to know that Warner Brothers is still making them). For the most part, it was beautiful, and did service to Lee Garmes’ moody black and white photography. The occasional scratches were, I assume, from the source material.

Spellbound with music: Surviving and enjoying the 2016 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Nothing really beats the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. For three days (plus an opening night), you’re immersed in an art form that was born, matured, reached extraordinary heights, and then suddenly died–all within the space of 20 to 40 years (depending on how to you define its birth and death). All told, this year’s festival presented 15 feature films, three collections of shorts, a program of lectures, a lot of live music, some fascinating introductions, and an opening-night party.

Only one of those three days had a break long enough for a comfortable restaurant dinner.

This year’s marathon included two French comedies by René Clair, the restoration of a long-fractured Laurel and Hardy comedy, two films shot in the frozen arctic, a double bill on cross-dressing, an Ozu crime thriller that’s also a family story, an African-American response to Birth of a Nation, a selection of colorized shorts, and one of Douglas Fairbanks’ pre-swashbuckler comedies.

The live music was, almost without exception, magnificent–both as cinematic accompaniment and live concert in its own right. The musicians provided not only tunes and emotional heft, but also some surprising sound effects. Even the squeak of pen on paper could be heard at one point.

The major musical newcomer this year was Michael Morgan, conducting a subsection of the Oakland Symphony–complete with chorus–in Adolphus Hailstork’s score for Within Our Gates. I had mixed feelings about Hailstork’s score. While it was powerful and dramatic, it failed to calm down for the quiet moments. And sometimes the music just stopped at seemingly random places, leaving the movie in silence.

Following the modern trend in silent film presentation, the foreign films were shown with their original German, Japanese, French, or Swedish intertitles, with digital English subtitles appearing at the bottom of the screen. When the films were projected in 35mm (which was most of them), the subtitles came from the Castro’s digital projector.

It seemed as if every third film was restored by the Festival itself (usually in collaboration with other organizations). Although all of these movies had been restored digitally in either 2K or 4K, they were projected in 35mm. I’m all for returning a digital restoration back to film for archival purposes, but these movies would all have looked better off of DCPs.

Serge Bromberg couldn’t make it this year, which is a pity. He’s always worth listening to. And the number of costumed festival goers was surprisingly small. I did, however, catch this happy couple:

But what about the movies I saw? Here are my favorite screenings from this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival:

Varieté

Emil Jannings proves himself a great actor in this powerful, sexy, and spectacular tragedy set in the world of vaudeville and the circus. He plays a trapeze artist who leaves his wife for a younger woman…with predictably disastrous results. The trapeze sequences are breathtaking, even while you can clearly see that Jannings is being doubled. And the sense of foretold doom covers the tale.

The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra‘s score matched both the film’s emotional heft and its many dancing sequences. This was all the more remarkable because it was such a group effort. Several students of a film-scoring class worked together, and passed the piton from one to another during the performance.

A Woman of the World

Pola Negri gives a fine comic performance as an Italian countess who comes to small-town America to recover from a broken heart. She smokes (a sign of an independent woman in the 1920s), has a tattoo, and is otherwise unacceptable to the local gossips and worse, to the blue-nosed district attorney. Directed by former Buster Keaton collaborator Malcolm St. Clair.

The Italian Straw Hat

A man on his way to be married runs into trouble when his horse eats a woman’s hat. If she comes home without her hat, her husband will suspect that she has a lover. She does have a lover–a short-tempered army officer who insists that our hero find an identical hat immediately. The story is ridiculous, but who cares when the movie is this funny.

The New Buster Keaton Shorts Collection on Blu-ray

How can anyone describe the beauty, grace, and breathtaking hilarity of Buster Keaton in his silent film prime? An actor, an acrobat, and a brilliant filmmaker, he spent the 1920s making some of the funniest and technically sophisticated comedies ever preserved on film.

Since I can’t describe him, here’s a highlight reel of some of his best gags. But remember, they’re funnier in context—and with better music and clearer image quality.

On Tuesday, Kino released the new Buster Keaton Shorts Collection Blu-ray set, put together by Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg–one of the world’s heroes in silent film restoration and preservation. It contains new restorations and 13 shorts that have never before been available on Blu-ray.

I reviewed a previous Buster Keaton Shorts collection back in 2011.

The 13 newly-added shorts are not, strictly speaking, Buster Keaton movies. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle directed and starred in these two-reel comedies. Keaton was just part of the team. While not in Keaton’s league, Arbuckle was an astonishingly agile performer for a man of his girth. He took graceful pratfalls, jumped over fences with ease, and could juggle like a demon. Put him behind a kitchen counter with cups and knives, and he’s brilliant.

But he’s not reliably brilliant. His early shorts, such as His Wedding Night, get dull. And Keaton rarely takes the center of the screen. But he got better as he made these shorts–or perhaps he just learned to depend on Keaton. As the shorts progress, they get funnier, and Keaton becomes more prevalent.

One strange thing about the Arbuckle-Keaton films: Keaton smiles in them. That always strikes me as wrong.

The 19 shorts that Keaton made as auteur and star don’t show that sort of slow growth. By his second short, One Week (actually the first released), he’s brilliant—way above Arbuckle at his best. Even the lesser works, such as The High Sign, The Scarecrow, and The Paleface, provide amazing stunts, imaginative filmmaking, and plenty of laughs. The greats, which include Cops, The Boat, and my personal favorite, The Goat, can reasonably be called masterpieces.

One warning: Like a lot of silent comedies, these movies occasionally use racist gags that are shocking by today’s standards. Consider them troubling artifacts of their time.

This set contains five discs—two of Arbuckle films and three of Keaton’s. The five discs fit into one slim package.

Reconstructions & Rediscoveries

Lobster Films spent considerable time and money reconstructing these films. Many a problematic jump cut has been filled in with found footage.

Disc Five contains French and American versions of Keaton’s The Blacksmith. The American version starts with a parody of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Village Blacksmith—gags that would be lost on non-English speakers. The French version has a risqué silhouette scene.

My Wife’s Relations, also a Keaton short, has an alternative ending, shown on a split screen side-by-side with the one shown for decades. I prefer the newly-discovered one.

And then there’s the original ending of Coney Island, separated from the rest of the movie because of an extremely racist gag. A new title card tells us that “The original ending of Coney Island was removed from the film by the 1920s, probably because it was considered racially offensive,” and goes on to say that “it should not be included in contemporary presentations of the film.”

That’s an odd statement. Very few people with influence objected to racist humor in those days. And there are many equally racist gags throughout the collection and elsewhere. In fact, the same gag turns up in Keaton’s Seven Chances.

How It Looks

Before opening the box, I imagined digitally-repaired, pristine images. I was disappointed. Most of these films are damaged beyond help…or beyond Lobster’s budget.

I compared a few scenes in this new release to their counterparts in the previous Keaton Shorts collection. I saw only a few significant improvements. My Wife’s Relations looks particularly good, with at least one big scratch in the old version that wasn’t in the new one.

How It Sounds

For this collection, Kino and Lobster used the talents of some of today’s major silent film accompaniment stars. These include Robert Israel, Donald Sosin, Stephen Horne, Timothy Brock, and the Monte Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

The music is presented in two-track stereo uncompressed PCM. So far (I haven’t watched all of the Keaton’s yet), I haven’t heard anything I didn’t like.

The musical credits come at the end of each film. Some movies have an alternative piano score. This pianist isn’t credited.

And the Extras

In addition to the five discs, the package contains a 28-page booklet. Here you’ll find essays on the Arbuckle-Keaton collaboration and on Keaton’s solo work. Also included: a description and credits of each movie, and an article by Serge Bromberg’s article on the various versions of The Blacksmith.

About the Restoration: 7 minutes. Serge Bromberg talks very fast in French, making it difficult to follow the subtitles while looking at what he’s describing. By the second or third time you watch it, you’ll be able to learn something.

Life with Buster Keaton: 3 minutes. This short film of Keaton’s Cleopatra dance routine (also performed in the Arbuckle film, The Cook) was made in 1951 for international markets. Yes, it’s very funny.

What’s missing? The previous release contained 15 video essays—almost one for every short in the package. Most of them were entertaining and informative. But they’re not included in this version–a real shame.

Live Music for the Undead: Monday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I only went to one San Francisco International Film Festival event on Monday, and that was Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1932 classic, Vampyre, with musical accompaniment by Mercury Rev and Simon Raymonde. It was at the Castro.

Vampyre belongs on any list of great horror films. Todd Brown’s Dracula, made the previous year, is stagy and dull by comparison. And simplistic. In Vampyre, you’re not always sure who is a vampire and who isn’t. They aren’t sure themselves.

The story isn’t much, but the individual sequences are amazing. There’s the young woman attacked by a vampire who–in an extreme closeup–seems to look just a bit hungry as she watches her friend. And the funeral procession and burial, viewed from the point of view of the corpse–who is also the film’s hero and is still alive and walking about.

Most early talkies don’t get much beyond photographing people talking. But Vampyre feels very much like an expressionistic silent film, telling its story in pantomime, camera movement, special effects, and the written word. The dialog is scarce.

In Monday night’s presentation, we heard no dialog at all. The soundtrack was off, so as to not interfere with the musical accompaniment. The print (which I’m pretty sure was digital) had English subtitles, so we still knew what people were saying in the rare moments when they were saying anything.

But these subtitles didn’t describe sound effects. When the hero asks a man if he heard a dog barking, and the man claims not to have heard it, we tend to agree with the man, because we haven’t heard it either.

Mercury Rev’s score was loud, driving, powerful, percussion-heavy art rock. But it lacked subtlety and variety. Loving it at first, I found it boring by the end. Not every scene calls for thumping drums.

The experience made me want to see Vampyre again, this time with its original soundtrack. That shouldn’t be difficult. There are at least two streams of it on Youtube, and another on Hulu.

Note: I have altered the article, correcting some typos.

Silent Film Fest Preview

Wednesday evening, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival announced its 2016 schedule. And as fans have come to expect, it will be an intense experience. In the course of three full days plus an opening night, they will screen 19 different programs, all with live music. (There’s also an opening night party.)

Nine different musical groups will perform, including many we’ve come to know and love over the years, including Donald Sosin, The Matti Bye Ensemble, and my favorites, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Among the newcomers is the Oakland Symphony’s Michael Morgan, conducting musicians and singers from his orchestra.

Michael Morgan

Michael Morgan

You’ll need a lot of stamina to catch everything. Consider Saturday’s schedule. The first program of the day, The Battle of the Century and Other Comedy Restorations, starts at 10:00AM. The last, The Last Warning, starts (not ends, but starts) at 10:00PM. Friday will be a bit easier; the last film (Behind the Door) starts at an almost reasonable 9:30.

My stamina isn’t what it used to be. The Last Warning and Behind the Door are the only two films I’m planning to miss.

This year’s festival has a definite feminist vibe. Mothers of Men or Every Woman’s Problem is a suffragette drama from 1917. The program Girls Will Be Boys will present two short comedies about women dressing up as men (think Some Like it Hot reversed, only made first).

Mothers of Men or Every Womans Problem

I’ve only seen three of the features the festival will be screening, including the opening night film, Beggars of Life, which the Festival screened back in 2007. When I saw it back then, I wrote that this story of hobos “almost vibrates with romantic realism.” It stars Louise Brooks as a woman on the run (she killed her would-be rapist in self-defense) and Wallace Beery as a hobo king.

I’ve also seen Within Our Gates, but only on television. Oscar Micheaux’s answer to The Birth of a Nation is a daring and important film. Unfortunately, Micheaux let his message get in the way of his storytelling, causing the movie to jump around making various points. But at times it’s brilliant.

The third feature I’ve seen is Nanook of the North. Often called the first feature-length documentary (it isn’t), Nanook brings us into an Inuit culture that was disappearing as the film was being made. Shot over a period of years, it’s an amazing document, and a unique portrait of a family. In 1973, I had the pleasure of watching Nanook on an original, nitrate, 35mm print–the only silent I’ve ever seen on nitrate.

The Battle of the Century

But I don’t think anything on the program excites me like The Battle of the Century and Other Comedy Restorations. The Battle of the Century is a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler that–until very recently–was missing the entire second reel. To make matters worse, that missing reel contained what many believe is the biggest and best pie fight ever filmed. The reel has been found and the movie restored. It will screen along with other recently-restored comic shorts, including two of Buster Keaton’s.

Also of interest: Varieté and The Italian Straw Hat–two European classics that I have not yet seen. With my fascination with old film technologies, I can’t wait for Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema.

Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema

And this year’s free Amazing Tales from the Archives program will discuss yet another restoration of Napoleon, this time apparently without Kevin Brownlow’s involvement.

Friday at the PFA

Friday night, I finally got around to visiting the Pacific Film Archive‘s new theater in downtown Berkeley. I’ve been busy.

The theater is lovely, with the raised seats common in new multiplexes. The screen, I would guess, about the same size as in the previous theater.

The acoustics sounded very good, but since the first film was a silent with non-amplified piano accompaniment, and the second was in mono, I didn’t really get a chance to experience the new Meyer Sound system at its best.

Now, onto the movies:

Le lion des Mogols

This was the last screening in a series on the films of Jean Epstein. I’m not familiar with his work, and Le lion des Mogols only impressed me occasionally.

This 1924 French silent starts like an exotic epic, in the visual style of Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Bagdad (also from 1924). An intertitle tells us we’re in Tibet, but it looks like an Art Director’s fever dream of the exotic East around 1000 AD.

The heroic prince (Ivan Mozzhukhin) saves a virgin about to be deflowered by the evil Grand Khan, and then has to run for his life. I wasn’t quite sure if this early part was meant to be funny.

Our hero has to run for his life, and he runs right into the 20th century and a romance with a movie star.

As you can probably guess, the story is a real mess–a melodrama that sometimes feels like a comedy, that gets most of its laughs at moments that I wasn’t sure were intentional.

But the movie had moments of brilliance and daring in the camera work and editing. Its best moment happens in a scene where the hero drinks in excess in a nightclub. In one shot, half the screen was in focus and other half wasn’t. suggesting hero was too drunk to focus his eyes properly.

But a few good scenes, one great scene, and a lot of bad scenes don’t completely add up. I give it a C+.

The archival 35mm print looked a bit washed out and showed nitrate decomposition. Without a very expensive digital restoration, I doubt it will ever look better than this. The print had French intertitles, and the PFA digitally projected English subtitles below them.

Judith Rosenberg did her usual excellent job on the piano.

Our Man in Havana

This was a popular film, and the theater was nearly full.

There’s a good reason. Our Man in Havana is one of the best espionage comedies to come out of the cold war.

Like Ninochka, this 1960 movie was out of date before it was released. An opening title card tells us that it’s set in the recent past, “before the recent revolution.”

Alec Guinness stars as Wormold (no one calls him by his first name), an English shopkeeper in Havana, trying desperately to make ends meet–a difficult task with his shopaholic teenage daughter. When he’s offered a very lucrative job by British secret intelligence, he takes it strictly for the money.

He’s supposed to recruit and oversee a team of spies, but he has no idea how to do it. He joins a country club and tries to make contact with possible recruits, but his attempts come off as homosexual advances. Then, on the advice of his best friend (Burl Ives), he starts making things up. He creates a fictitious team and starts reporting bogus information.

Of course his bosses back in London (led by a very funny Ralph Richardson) believe everything he reports. They’re all idiots.

The film was shot in that very short period between Castro’s revolution and Cuba’s isolation from the West. The new rulers must have approved of Graham Greene’s script (based on his novel). It shows the previous government as cruel, corrupt, and evil. The great TV comedian Ernie Kovacs plays a high-ranking police officer known to torture people in between attempts to woo Wormold’s daughter.

Looking at it today, Our Man in Havana seems to predict the Cuban missile crisis. Wormold’s biggest lie involves alleged secret weapons in the Cuban hills, spotted by an airplane pilot.

The movie isn’t all laughs. The serious moments include the death of a major character. But it’s usually funny and always a good story. I give it a B+.

Our Man in Havana, made by Columbia Pictures, was shot in Cinemascope, at a time when every studio except Twentieth Century-Fox was switching over the Panavision. Sony has just restored the film in 4K. The PFA screened it off a DCP, and it looked and sounded terrific.

A+ List: The Kid Brother (also Jaws)

When people talk about the masterpieces of silent comedy, they usually name The Gold Rush, The General, and City Lights. If they bring up Harold Lloyd at all, they’ll praise Safety Last
or The Freshman.

To my mind, Lloyd’s The Kid Brother belongs with the best. It earns that right by its irresistible story, its beautiful cinematography, its rousing finish, and its nostalgic and yet not entirely positive view of rural America. But most of all, it earns that level of respect by containing several of the funniest extended comedy sequences ever committed to film.

For these reasons, I put this relatively obscure 1927 comedy on my A+ list. This list contains the near-perfect films that I fell in love with years (preferably decades) ago and still love today.

But first, let me draw your attention to another movie on the list: Jaws. I’m not writing about that one now because I’ve written about it before. You can read my Blu-ray review and my Book vs. Movie article.

Okay, back to The Kid Brother.

Harold (Lloyd’s characters were always named Harold; only the last names changed) is the youngest son of Sheriff Hickory–the most powerful and respected man in Hickoryville. Harold’s father and two older brothers are big, strong, manly men. Harold, who does the housework while the men in the family clear the forest and carry logs, idolizes them. They don’t think much of him.

The arrival of a medicine show, made up of two evil men and one innocent young woman (Jobyna Ralston) jumpstarts the plot. Harold, barely recognized as a grownup by his family, will have to vanquish the villains, win the lady fair, and save his father from a lynching.

And of course he can do it. What no one seems to notice is that Harold Hickory is by far the smartest person in Hickoryville. He’s built contraptions to help him with his chores. He regularly outwits the large bully next door. When his much stronger brothers set out to beat him up, he tricks them into attacking their even stronger father. Even Harold doesn’t know how smart he is.

A note on authorship: Harold Lloyd produced and starred in his films. He never took director credit. (The Kid Brother was officially directed by Ted Wilde and J.A. Howe.) I consider Lloyd the auteur of his films.

No one could build an extended comedy scene like Lloyd and his team of collaborators. The Kid Brother has at least four great extended comedy scenes, each astonishing in its creativity, meticulous construction, and laugh delivery. In my favorite, Harold takes the girl home, where his brothers are waiting to beat him up. Needless to say, there are no beatings. I won’t go into details.

We don’t only laugh at Harold; we cheer for him. He’s an underdog whose considerable gifts are overlooked by everyone (except the girl, of course). This is Lloyd at his most sympathetic. In Safety Last, he tricked people so he could lie to his girlfriend. In The Freshman, he wants to be the most popular kid on the campus. But in The Kid Brother, he’s avoiding a whipping and, in the last act, fighting with a known murderer.

Lloyd knew when to turn down the laughs and let the story take hold. That final fight is truly suspenseful, and scary. But Lloyd added brilliant comic pieces to it as a sort of leavening.

He does much the same thing with romantic scenes. He comforts the girl, who has just lost everything she owns. She’s resting her head on his shoulder. He feels drops of water on his hand, and he looks up. No rain. He realizes she’s crying. He hold her tighter. The drops on his hand turn into a torrent. Now he’s really worried about her. And yes, it’s raining.

For all its feuds and backwardness, Hickoryville looks like a beautiful place to live. The Kid Brother is easily Lloyd’s most visually pleasing film, with sunlight streaming through the trees and glistening on the water. Walter Lundin’s photography here rivals that of Bert Haines and Dev Jennings in Keaton’s The General.

A confession: I have some personal history that may affect my love of The Kid Brother. It was the first silent feature I ever saw, and the first silent I saw properly–in a theater with live music. In the last years of his life, Lloyd screened his films at schools in the Los Angeles area. In my first year at Hollywood High School (1969-70), he came with The Kid Brother. The school auditorium had a pipe organ, and Gaylord Carter played the accompaniment. That was the beginning of my love of silent film.

Also, like Harold Hickory, I’m the youngest of three sons. I know something about avoiding confrontation with bigger and stronger siblings.

But I don’t think these issues effect my opinion all that much. I’ve seen The Kid Brother theatrically at least four times. I know the reactions it gets from an audience. Believe me; it’s a masterpiece.