Tuesday, June 10, 2014

SF Silent Film Festival: Day 3

I started my 3rd day at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival with delightfully exuberant film collector Serge Bromberg, who bounded on stage as if he just couldn't wait to start sharing his discoveries with us. He demonstrated one reason why there are so many lost films by setting a strip of celluloid on fire, creating a spectacular flame.
He presented 2 newly restored shorts by Charlie Chaplin & Fatty Arbuckle & then was joined by famed Argentine film collector Fernando Peña, who told the story of how he discovered a previously unknown alternate version of Keaton's The Blacksmith, which we then saw. Amusingly, this version was once in Mr. Bromberg's own collection, but he never noticed it. Mr. Bromberg ended the presentation with the almost unbelievable story of how he recently purchased a lost film by animation pioneer Emile Cohl off eBay for $7. We got to be the 1st public audience to see this surreal, 3-minute film from 1908. Mr. Bromberg accompanied all the films himself, playing cheery jazz & ragtime tunes on the piano. The entire show was great fun.

I stayed for the following film, The Epic of Everest, a 1924 documentary recording the ill-fated Everest expedition that killed climbers George Mallory & Andrew Irvine. The film contains majestic, tinted shots of the Himalayas as well as tantalizing glimpses of the Tibetan people. Footage of tiny figures hiking up the desolate landscape, shot with telescopic lenses, highlight the inhuman scale of the mountain. Despite the ominous intertitles, the film is narratively dry. Pianist Stephen Horne & percussionist Frank Bockius created an eerie, minimalist soundscape to match the aridity of the images. We heard gong, flute, a Tibetan singing bowl, accordion &, in one spooky scene, the sound of slow breathing.

Immediately before the screening, Bryony Dixon, Senior Curator of Silent Film at the BFI, received the SF Silent Fim Festival Award on behalf of the BFI Nation Archive. Noting the avid festival audience, she told us that the enthusiasm of Americans is our greatest contribution to world culture.

I was back at the festival for the late night showing of The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, a Soviet comedy satirizing both anti-Soviet propaganda & Hollywood films. The American Mr. West, looking suspiciously like Harold Lloyd, comes to the USSR, accompanied by his cowboy bodyguard. Mr. West is immediately ensnared by a gang of thieves, & slapstick adventures ensue. The film is frankly weird & employs a deliberately artificial acting style that is acrobatic & cartoony. Four members of the Matti Bye Ensemble accompanied on various instruments, including, piano, cello, balalaika, percussion & electronics. They vamped on a handful of hypnotically repeating themes. Their spacey, dream-like music drained energy from the madcap spirit of the movie.

§ San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2014
Saturday, May 31, 2014
Castro Theatre

Serge Bromberg’s Treasure Trove

2:00 pm
The Epic of Everest
John Noel, UK, 1924 • 87 minutes
Accompanied by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius

10:00 pm
The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks
(Neobychaynyye Priklyucheniya Mistera Vesta v Strane Bol’shevikov)

Lev Kuleshov, USSR. 1924 • 74 minutes
Accompanied by Matti Bye Ensemble

Preceded by German-language trailer for Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (Ottol-Film, 1927)
No musical accompaniment

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