Wednesday, June 11, 2014

SF Silent Film Festival: Day 4

The morning of the last day of the SF Silent Film Festival, I saw the Max Linder comedies Max Wants a Divorce & Seven Years Bad Luck. I'd never seen a complete Linder film before. He's handsome, scampish & fun to watch. It was interesting to see how he develops each gag into its own complete episode. Though Linder was never popular in the US, he was an influence on Chaplin. Watching Linder, I easily imagined him playing the wealthy drunk in City Lights.

Pianist Donald Sosin & percussionist Frank Bockius performed a lively, jazzy accompaniment that fit the films' joyful mood. When the characters in Seven Years Bad Luck danced to a record of Hawaiian music, we heard an old recording of Hawaiian music coming from the screen. Serge Bromberg introduced the films & breezily reminded the audience of the decidedly unfunny real lives of Linder & his co-star Martha Mansfield.

In the afternoon I saw The Sign of the Four, a Sherlock Holmes movie from 1923. Film historian Russell Merritt introduced the program & told us about the film's star, Eille Norwood, who, though rarely seen by US audiences, has been in more Sherlock Holmes films than any other actor & was admired by Conan Doyle himself. The Sign of the Four was his last film, & Prof. Merritt accurately described his screen presence as "the great stone face."

It's standard adventure fare, & the plot is only loosely tied to the original story. A climactic boat race on the Thames is an opportunity to exhibit proud views of famous London landmarks. Donald Sosin on piano & Günter Buchwald on violin provided an improvised accompaniment. Mr. Sosin's playing was very chordal, & he was particularly effective in the movie's chase scenes. The duo warmed up with Beethoven sonatas before the movie started, & Mr. Buchwald played a few notes of Humorseque in the closing moments of the film.

Later that night, the final show of the festival had a packed house. There was a lengthy delay, & at 20 minutes past the scheduled start time the audience began rhythmic clapping, & there was a shout of "Let's get this show on the road!" Ron Lynch, the Voice of the Festival, uncharacteristically introduced the program from the podium. Buster Keaton's granddaughter was pointed out in the audience, the winner of the festival's raffle was selected, & Fred Buxton & Leonard Maltin gave a brief appreciation of Buster Keaton.

We first saw an animated short for children by the Soviet book illustrator Mikhail Tsekhanovskiy. The film uses a wide variety of animation techniques & is strikingly formalist at times, but running for almost 20 minutes it probably outstayed its welcome. Günter Buchwald provided a fittingly pointillistic & modernist-sounding accompaniment on the piano.

The main feature was Buster Keaton's The Navigator, with the Matti Bye Ensemble accompanying on piano, cello, banjo, electronics & percussion. They vamped on a handful of spooky, trance-like themes that dampened the urgency of Keaton's nimble & surprising comedy. The percussionist punctuated the action with sound effects, though these were inconsistently applied. The appreciative festival audience gave the musicians a standing ovation.

§ San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2014
Sunday, June 1, 2014
Castro Theatre

10:00 am
Seven Years Bad Luck
Max Linder, USA, 1921 • 62 minutes
Accompanied by Donald Sosin on piano and Frank Bockius on percussion
Introduced by Serge Bromberg

5:00 pm
The Sign of Four
Maurice Elvey, UK, 1923 • 83 minutes
Accompanied by Donald Sosin on piano with Günter Buchwald on violin
Introduced by Russell Merritt

9:00 pm
The Navigator
Buster Keaton, Donald Crisp, USA, 1924 • 60 minutes
Accompanied by Matti Bye Ensemble
Introduced by Frank Buxton & Leonard Maltin

Preceded by POCHTA
Mikhail Tsekhanovskiy, USSR, 1929 • 18 minutes
Accompanied by Günter Buchwald on piano

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