Thursday, June 15, 2017

Frameline 41 Festival Preview

The 41st Frameline Film Festival starts his week, running June 15-25 at the Castro, Roxie & Victoria Theatres, as well the Elmwood in Berkeley & the Piedmond in Oakland. Last month, I attended the festival's convivial launch party, as a friend's plus-one. Frances Wallace, Executive Director, announced that this year's festival has 147 films, 40% of them by women directors. Ms. Wallace & programmers Peter Stein, Des Buford, Harry Vaughn & Kevin Schaub were joyful as they presented a quick run-through of some festival highlights.

Opening night is the new documentary The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, with Mr. Maupin in attendance. Closing night is the drama After Louie, starring Alan Cumming, who will be present to receive the festival's Frameline Award. The centerpiece film in world cinema is I Dream in Another Language (Sueño en Otrea Idioma), an art film about a linguist who tracks down the last 2 speakers of a dying language, only to find that they won't talk to each other. I was intrigued by mention of Apricot Groves, a film in Armenian & Farsi, about a young Armenian-Iranian man, raised in the US, who travels to Armenia to make a marriage proposal.

One of the programmers was genuinely enthusiastic about My Friend Dahmer, a movie portrait of the teenage Jeffrey Dahmer. Ross Lynch, who portrays Dahmer, is expected to attend the screening. The programmers also touted the festival's Episodic category, comprising multi-part series originally intended for on-line or TV viewing.

The event attendees were a friendly crowd, & I enjoyed learning about Gay Days at Disneyland & chatting briefly with one of the programmers, who discussed the trickiness of making selections for a San Francisco audience.

§ Frameline 41 Festival Launch Party 
Tuesday, May 23, 5:30PM
The Oasis

§ Frameline 41
San Francisco International
LGBTQ Film Festival
June 15-25, 2017
Castro Theatre, Roxie Theater, Victoria Theatre
Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, Landmark Theatres Piedmond

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

SF Silent Film Festival - Day 3 - Continued

The afternoon of the 3rd day of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, I stuck around for Tod Browning's 1920 Outside the Law, a film noir with a touch of domestic comedy. The demotic Eddie Muller, a last-minute replacement for Leonard Maltin, introduced the program. He expressed his admiration for the film's female lead, Priscilla Dean. Called "The Queen of Crookdom", she was supposedly as tough in real life as on-screen. The story is set in San Francisco's Chinatown, & Mr. Muller speculated that Dashiell Hammett must have seen it.

The suspenseful plot involves double-crossing mobsters & changes of heart, & I was easily caught up in the story. Ms. Dean's gutsy character comes across vividly, as does a scene-stealing child who remains irresistibly cute whether bawling his eyes out or toting an ax. Even though the Chinese are the good guys, I did not appreciate seeing white actors in yellowface, especially Lon Chaney grotesquely made up as a slit-eyed Chinaman. It was fun to spot Old St. Mary's in an exterior shot. It's a pity that the film image is badly deteriorated in the climactic fight sequence.

Pianist Stephen Horne & percussionist Frank Bockius accompanied with music that evoked the period & underscored the action. I enjoyed the sultry jazz theme they played for Ms. Dean's character. The duo resorted to oriental motifs & a gong for the Chinatown scenes. Somehow Mr. Horne also played the zither, flute or accordion at the same time as the piano. The audience laughed at an intertitle referring to San Francisco's "Knob Hill."

I came back at night for A Page of Madness, a 1926 avant-garde film from Japan that I'd been wanting to see for years. It is famously set in a madhouse & infamously lacks intertitles & a definitive scenario. The film has also not survived complete. Serge Bromberg got us in the mood for bafflement by beginning his introduction to the film in French. He admitted that he's seen it many times but never understands anything.

The director Teinosuke Kinugasa makes dazzling use of multiple exposure, rapid-fire montage & tracking shots, & every shot forms a striking composition. The actors are intense without being overly hysterical. I was impressed by the staging of the mob scenes. The movie triggered a lot of primal emotions, & I was especially freaked out by a scene in which the inmates put on masks.

The show was accompanied by the three-man Alloy Orchestra, playing electronic instruments and a large array of percussion. They made creepy use of harp, clarinet & theremin. The score was often loud & punishing & matched the movie's atmosphere of frenzy & menace.

During the breaks it was fun to catch up with Patrick, who I believe saw all 6 programs that day, & to see The Civic Center, who was a man on the go.

§ Outside the Law
Directed by Tod Browning | 1920 | USA | 76 min
Live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne & Frank Bockius
San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2017
Saturday, June 3, 5:00pm
Castro Theatre

§ A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ichipeiji)
Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa | 1926 | Japan | 70 min
Live musical accompaniment by Alloy Orchestra
San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2017
Saturday, June 3, 9:30pm
Castro Theatre

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

SF Silent Film Festival - Day 3

I started my 3rd day at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival at a program of shorts, dedicated to the memory of film preservationist David Shepard, who died this year. Festival board member Russell Merritt offered us personal remembrances of Mr. Shepard, & we saw a sweet home movie from 1942, in color, showing Mr. Shepard as a curious toddler.

Serge Bromberg, a friend & business associate of Mr. Shepard, selected the program of 10 shorts & introduced each with anecdotes & bits of movie history. The films were mostly from the 1st decade of the 20th century, & an ebullient Mr. Bromberg evoked the novelty & playfulness of early cinema. There was a lot of laughter. I especially enjoyed seeing Pathé's 1907 First Prize for Cello Playing, which parodies concert audiences in a neat 2 minutes, & Émile Cohl's discombobulating 1908 Fantasmagorie, considered to be the 1st animated cartoon. A few of the films had stenciled or hand-painted color & were lovely to watch.

The Dancing Pig records a disconcerting vaudeville act featuring a performer in an enormous pig costume & was a hit with tweeting festival-goers. Mr. Bromberg provided a live narration to Méliès's 1906 The Witch, as would have been done back in the day, though the original narrators were presumably a lot less cheeky than Mr. Bromberg. Pianist Donald Sosin & percussionist Frank Bockius played bounding, jazzy accompaniments to the films.

After lunch, I attended the showing of Filibus, an unashamedly silly Italian crime caper from 1915. At the screening, board president Robert Byrne presented the Festival Award to  archivists Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi & Frank Roumen of the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. Mr. Roumen complimented the festival's keen audiences, & Ms. Rongen-Kaynakçi introduced the film. The title character of Filibus travels around in a sort of stealth airship, & Ms. Rongen-Kaynakçi posited a connection between early cinema & aviation. As a prelude, she presented a brief documentary film about the launching of a balloon. She admitted that she knew almost nothing about it, other than that it likely records a Germany military operation. She has yet to discover the meaning of the initials DAZD, which can be barely glimpsed on the balloon.

The festival audience got into the spirit of the cat-and-mouse high jinks of Filibus & clearly approved when the cross-dressing villainess's male persona seems to court another female character. They also applauded a rescue scene in which she is hoisted out of a window & into the sky. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, consisting of piano, violin, cello, trumpet & clarinet, provided a pleasant accompaniment to the film, vamping on a series of light, often waltzing, themes.

§ Magic and Mirth
Those Awful Hats | USA | 1909 | D.W. Griffith
Cartoon Factory | USA | 1924 | Fleischer Studios
The Masquerader | USA | 1914 | Charlie Chaplin
First Prize For Cello Playing | France | 1907 | Pathé Frères
Fantasmagorie | France | 1908 | Émile Cohl
Tit For Tat | France | 1906 | Gaston Velle
When The Devil Drives | UK | 1907 | Walter Booth
Down In The Deep | France | 1906 | Ferdinand Zecca
The Dancing Pig | France | 1907 | Pathé Frères
The Witch | France | 1906 | Georges Méliès

Presented by Serge Bromberg
Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius
San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2017
Saturday, June 3, 10:00am
Castro Theatre

§ Filibus
Directed by Mario Roncoroni | Italy | 1915 | 71 m.
Live musical accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2017
Saturday, June 3, 2:30pm
Castro Theatre

Monday, June 05, 2017

SF Silent Film Festival Day 2

The afternoon of the 2nd day of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, I attended the screening of The Dumb Girl of Portici, an historical epic from 1915, directed by Lois Weber. The movie is derived from Auber's opera La muette de Portici & is notable for the casting of Anna Pavlova. Shelley Stamp, author of a book on Lois Weber, provided us with some background to the film's production & told us to watch for the use of camera movement. George Willevan, who participated in the film's restoration, related how footage for the film's ending was initially overlooked & told us that he had yet to see the movie on a big screen.

Pavlova dances in the opening & closing scenes, & she moves as if electrified & stretching every part of her body as far as possible. I felt like I got some idea of the intensity of her stage presence, but her acting did not fit well with the brash Hollywood style of the movie. Lois Weber was clearly given a lot of resources for costumes, locations & extras. I wondered where a scene showing an enormous domed building in the background was shot. There is a great deal of carnage in the mob scenes. At one point, Pavlova's character confronts severed heads on pikes. The plot is sometimes laborious, & a man in the row in front of me gently snored through the middle portion of the show.

Pianist Donald Sosin & percussionist Frank Bockius performed an improvisatory accompaniment with repeated riffs & a much forward momentum. They matched the pacing & mood of each scene & played continuously for nearly 2 hours without tiring. Despite the weekday afternoon show time, attendance was large. The musicians received an approving ovation.

I returned in the evening to see Body and Soul, a 1925 film starring Paul Robeson. Anita Monga, the festival's artistic director, introduced the evening's accompanist, DJ Spooky & highlighted his many collaborations. DJ Spooky praised director Oscar Micheaux's independence & was proud that his own DVD release of Body and Soul was self-financed. He described his score for the the film as an "art mix" of jazz & blues.

The film itself has low production values, but it is interesting to see Paul Robeson's boldly charismatic presence as well as the director's cynical view of the church. The film makes frequent use of flashbacks, & I was struck by how the rape of Isabelle is depicted through close-ups of the Reverend's footsteps.

DJ Spooky's live mix for the screening was eerie & slow-paced, using a lot of piano, saxophone & percussion tracks. Guenter Buchwald on the violin added to the harmonies with drawn-out notes & double-stops. The relationship between the images and the music was never clear to me, & I ended up feeling distanced from the story. The sound system belched jarringly a couple of times during the show. The audience gave the musicians an eager & respectful ovation.

§ The Dumb Girl of Portici
dir. Lois Weber | 1912 | USA | 112 min
Music by Donald Sosin & Frank Bockius

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2017
Friday June 2 2017, 3:30p
Castro Theatre

§ Body and Soul
dir.  Oscar Micheaux | 1925 | USA | 93 min
Music by DJ Spooky & Guenter Buchwald

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2017
Friday June 2 2017, 7p
Castro Theatre

Saturday, June 03, 2017

SF Silent Film Festival: Tales from the Archives

Jack's Joke. 1913.
Edison Kinetophone.
I started my 2nd day at the SF Silent Film Festival with Amazing Tales from the Archives, a free program of highly informative presentations by film preservationists. A chipper George Willeman, from the Library of Congress, talked us through one of his pet projects: resurrecting Edison Kinetophone films. The technology involved synchronizing phonograph cylinders with projectors via a mechanical cable & pulley system. Mr. Willeman summed it up as "too damned complicated," & it failed in the market. He showed us his discovery of the 1st microphone accidentally appearing in a shot, & we saw absurd single-take films of singing blacksmiths & shouty actors.

Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, of EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, gave a slide lecture about the life of Jean Desmet, an early 20th century serial entrepreneur & film exhibitor, whose archive of films, movie posters, photographs & documents form the EYE's Desmet Collection. Ms. Rongen-Kaynakçi is especially interested in his business correspondence, which provides details like the cost of a Bechstein piano for his cinema. She is also interested in his investment in a patented "cloud projector," which would have projected giant ads onto clouds, in the manner of the Bat-Signal.

Lastly, Heather Linville, of the Academy Film Archive, told us the astonishing story of Idris Welsh, who, as a 6-foot tall teenager, joined up with a certain Captain Wanderwell in 1922, adopted the moniker Aloha Wanderwell, & led a fleet of Model T's on a round-the-world tour. Along the way, she shot, edited & appeared in a series of travel films & eventually ending up in Hollywood. The Captain himself was charged with the enslavement of a minor, which he resolved by marrying Aloha. She went on to continue shooting travelogues & presenting her films to audiences in person. I could not understand why I had never heard of her & why no one has yet made her biopic. She even had a pet monkey called Chango.

Ms. Linville ran many excerpts of the travel films as she spoke. One alarming clip showed a motorcade of Model T's driving straight up the stairs of the Great Wall of China. Pianist Donald Sosin provided gentle, unobtrusive accompaniment to the films. Even though this was weekday morning, there was an impressive audience turnout.

§ Amazing Tales from the Archives
George Willeman, Library of Congress
Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, EYE Filmmuseum
Heather Linville, Academy Film Archive
Music by Donald Sosin, piano

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2017
Friday June 2 2017, 10a
Castro Theatre

Friday, June 02, 2017

Opening Night of SF Silent Film Festival

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival had a packed house for their opening night on Thursday. The event started about 10 minutes late due to ticket holders still waiting to get into the Castro Theatre. The program featured the 12-piece Berklee Silent Film Orchestra performing their original score for The Freshman, Harold Lloyd's effortlessly endearing comedy about social humiliation.

Festival President Robert Byrne thanked sponsors & introduced Suzanne Lloyd, Harold Lloyd's granddaughter, & Sheldon Mirowitz of the Berklee School of Music. Ms. Lloyd expressed her excitement to hear the new music, & Mr. Mirowitz explained that the score was composed by 7 of his students, who were each assigned one reel of the film to orchestrate. He individually introduced the student composers, who come from the United States, Switzerland & Mexico.

The score begins boldly, with a peppy march that recurs throughout. The music generally sounds 19th century classical, plus marches & jazz dances that evoke the film's period. It's synchronized with the on-screen action tightly, & every musical mood is stated clearly. The band was amplified, & I sometimes felt bullied by the score. The musicians were technically very secure, & all gave strong, boldhearted performances that fit the fearlessly optimistic personality of Lloyd's character.

The opening night audience was enthused, even applauding the restoration credits preceding the film. I'd never seen The Freshman before, & I found it simply plotted & thoroughly enjoyable. Intertitles sometimes carry the jokes, & I wish I knew what was meant by calling someone a "radio liar." I was impressed by the performances of 2 cats & by the string of gags involving Lloyd in a disintegrating dinner jacket at the Fall Frolic. The audience applauded the smooth choreography of a scene in which Lloyd takes advantage of temporarily having 3 arms. The show ended with a long & happy standing ovation for the composers & musicians. For those just getting started, there was an opening night party at the McRoskey Mattress Company down the street, apparently with more live music.

§ The Freshman
dirs. Fred C. Newmeyer &  Sam Taylor | 1925 | USA | 76 min
Live musical accompaniment by Berklee Silent Film Orchestra

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2017
Thursday June 1 2017, 7p
Castro Threatre