Wednesday, May 07, 2014

SFIFF: Stephin Merritt with The Unknown

Tuesday night I saw the silent film The Unknown, starring Lon Chaney & Joan Crawford, with live musical accompaniment by Stephin Merritt & Daniel Handler. This was one of the live events presented at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It was good to see The Unknown, which I'd never seen before. The creepy love story features Chaney as a supposedly armless circus performer & Crawford as the love interest. The festival projected a clean 35mm print.

Stephin Merritt, sitting at the corner of the stage, accompanied the movie with a continuous ukulele solo, which seemed an odd choice. The ukulele does not have much dynamic range, & his tuneless vamping sounded more or less the same for every scene. I thought it a weak response to the movie, which is lurid & gratifyingly sadistic. Local author Daniel Handler sat on the opposite side of the stage watching the movie, though he did contribute some notes on the accordion to punctuate the movie's climactic final scene. Mr. Merritt came on and off stage without acknowledging the audience, which I found rude.

The Unknown was preceded by Guy Maddin's Sissy-Boy Slap-Party, a very silly black & white short which has been perfectly described elsewhere as "Jean Genet meets the Three Stooges." Mr. Merritt played the bongos to accompany it, & I liked the distinctively gruff voice he used to supply the film's dialogue. He instructed us, "When you see a slap, clap!" The festival audience was impressively good at doing so.

SF International Film FestivalThere was a good turnout at the Castro Theatre, & the audience was in a good mood for both films. I wish I'd arrived earlier to hear more of David Hegarty on the Castro's organ before the show.

§ The Unknown
Director: Tod Browning
USA, 1927, 63 mins.
Accompanied by Stephin Merritt & Daniel Handler

§ Sissy-Boy Slap-Party
Director: Guy Maddin
Canada, 2004, 6 mins.

§ The 57th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival
Stephin Merritt With The Unknown
Tuesday, May 6, 8:00pm
Castro Theatre


Civic Center said...

Jesus Christ, a solo ukelele for an entire feature film? That would have probably driven me mad. Why doesn''t the SFIFF check out the Silent Film Festival to see how it's done right, I wonder.

Axel Feldheim said...

I have to admit it was wearying after a while. I believe that the Silent Film Festival was a co-presenter of the event, & Mr. Merritt has accompanied silents for SFIFF before, so I assume they knew what they were getting.

Unknown said...

It is doubtful that one could do better than hearing a silent film accompanied by the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer; it is dismaying that both the Silent Film Festival and the SFIFF have consistently made other choices in recent years. Not sure what the strategy is here--other than unconvincing.
And yes: The Unknown is at least as creepy as Browning's Freaks.

Axel Feldheim said...

Stephin Merritt was probably chosen on the likelihood that he would draw a different sort of audience demographic to a SFIFF event, & I think he probably did do that. I am with you about the Silent Film Festival, for sure. They don't seem to be using the Castro's theater organ for a single program in their up-coming festival.