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

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