Friday, June 12, 2015

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2015 Day #04: Charlie Bowers, "Emak-Bakia", "Ménilmontant", Why Be Good?, Norrtullsligan, Sherlock Holmes (1916), and The Swallow and the Titmouse

Sherlock Holmes Day!!!!

That's roughly what my social media output looked like Sunday morning, as the interest that had been there since the discovery was announced and built up slowly as I convinced myself to go to the festival, regressing a bit when moving expenses and stuff came up, and then saw a steady increase as I actually got there, finally exploded into "holy crap, I'm going to see a performance I've read about ever since I first discovered Sherlock Holmes in elementary school, this is a huge deal!!!!"

SFSFF allows you to camp out, so even if I wasn't going to be getting the most I could from my pass, I would have shown up at 10am for the Charlie Bowers program anyway. You almost had to if you wanted a good seat - with the front row blocked off so the tech crew and musicians could have the front of the auditorium to themselves (often giving a tantalizing view of the organ underneath the stage that strangely never got used during the weekend), and an extra four or five rows marked as being reserved after 6pm on top of the six rows in the center of the orchestra section that had been reserved all weekend, you had to claim space early. I grabbed a second/third row center seat and declared it mine just as soon as I was done with the delicious stuffed french toast at Orphan Andy's around the corner.

First up was the Charlie Bowers program, which is some pretty astonishing live-action cartoon stuff, both in terms of how accomplished and how incredibly broad it is; we always talk about how the silent masters were doing their thing without CGI and the like, but Bowers was blending live action, animation, and visual effects in the same way much later filmmakers would, creating some of the weirdest and funniest silent shorts you'll see. Many were lost and only some have been rediscovered, and though made in Hollywood, Serge Bromberg felt it appropriate to present them in French with subtitles, as that is where "Bricolo" re-emerged and found some appreciation later on.

We stayed in France, more or less, for an "Avant-Garde Paris" program after that, and, man, if I were the break-taking type, that would have been the time, because the sound checks between programs hinted at just how painful the first short ("Emak-Bakia") and its accompanying music by Earplay was. Mainline a whole festival, and the odds are that something will disagree with you, but that was a rough one. Liked "Ménilmontant" a fair bit, though.

I went for lunch after that, but I had the sort of paralysis that comes with too many options, walking around Castro street until the Sliders burger shop became the best choice time-wise. Not a bad one - I respect any restaurant that has a great big charcoal grill right out where you can watch your burger get cooked - but I tend ty Yo over-think this sort of thing a lot when you're in an area with a lot of places to eat with only so many meal slots to visit them. It's a real peril when trying to vacation spontaneously.

I did make sure that something was left in my seat, so it was still waiting for me when I got back for Why Be Good?, which wound up forming something of a prototype female-empowerment double feature with the one that followed, Norrtullsligan (it's from Sweden). Both are darn entertaining movies, although there were times when the cheering in the middle came less from a well-executed joke than by women in the 1920s calling men on their exist double-standard crap. Of course, it being the 1920s, there was a bit of a limit to how progressive these movies were going to be - where the former seems to get to the right ending for the wrong reasons, the latter is just puzzling. I guess you just have to cheer baby steps in the past while working for big strides in the present and future.

That brings us to the main event, when stuff like this started showing up on screen:

Was I getting excited? You bet. I'm not the most serious Sherlock Holmes fan you'll find by a long shot, I've read about Gillette's tremendous popularity and influence on the public image of this character, along with the popular exchange of Gillette asking Arthur Conan Doyle if he could have Homes get married, to which Doyle replied he could kill Holmes for all he cared, from early on, and to be to actually see it... It's a big deal.

Because its such a big deal, I'm not sure I can assess the quality of the film with any degree of accuracy. It's pretty good, maybe great, certainly seldom disappointing, enough so that is starts to blend in with the buzzy feeling of seeing something precious thought lost. Maybe I'll be better able to render judgment with a few more viewings (I've got the Blu-ray on pre-order and hold out hope for screenings in Boston and maybe at Fantasia), but that can wait.

Knowing that it's hitting home video in October, though, does mean people are going to be able to take it for granted that it exists very quickly, especially if they're among the large folks who come to fandom via the recent explosion of new Sherlock Holmes material and adaptations. That's especially relevant given that the producers of the BBC'S Sherlock are prominently acknowledged in the credits for the restoration. It's also a good thing, I wager; as intriguing as lost art is, it's much better to have the thing than to not have it and be able to look down at those one deems ungrateful.

As expected, the film got a lot of applause from the audience, probably nearly as much from those who are silent fans as the Sherlock Holmes people. All of us, after all, enjoy the discovery of something previously hidden.

And, finally, The Swallow and the Titmouse, serving as something of an encore. That one has an interesting story as well; it was made in 1920 but put on the shelf by its studio, who apparently found its hyper-realistic style too unusual; when it was rediscovered sixty-two years later, the edit had to be recreated from six hours of raw footage. The result is impressive, even if, like the feature the occupied the 10pm slot the night before, it's material for an audience that enjoys both silent and art-house films.

Sometime during the evening, I got an email from United saying that my flight had been canceled to switch airplanes, which put a hitch into Monday which would have been more frustrating if the Red Sox game I was now not going to be able to make hadn't been postponed (that I didn't make it anyway, because getting Wednesday afternoon off just wasn't happening, is kind of neutral itself. If I were smart, I'd have taken advantage of the situation and done some touristy stuff Monday morning and caught The Deadlier Sex and Bert Williams's Lime Kiln Club Field Day (arguably a far more important rediscovery and presentation than Sherlock Holmes as one of the few silents made with a black cast) and then did what I could to sleep on the flight home, but I was wisely or sadly thinking in terms of being able to get into Boston before the T shut down. A missed opportunity, for sure.

I've got to say, though, if you like silent film, you owe yourself a trip to San Francisco some year. It probably won't become a part of my regular routine, unless something else grabs m my attention like Sherlock Holmes, but it's a great event in a cool location, relaxed in knowing it's a niche without becoming snobbish. It's jumping right up to the same "favorite, even if I can seldom go" level as New York Asian.

"A Wild Roomer"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival: The Amazing Charley Bowers, 35mm (?))

The first of the four Charley Bowers shorts to play Sunday morning can't exactly be called conventional, but you can sort of fit it into a type (the highly-mechanized house) if you're of a mind to. At first, it doesn't necessarily seem like a particularly brilliant example; it goes from a few disappearance effects of escalating complexity to something of a dragged-out plot where "Bricolo" (as writer/director/star/animator Bowers's character was known in France, the source of the print) must demonstrate a home-automation invention successfully in the forty-eight hours to inherit a great deal of money.

The jokes are of a type, but the execution isn't; Bowers creates a mechanism that can do anything with its dozens of buttons and then has it do so with stop-motion good enough to occasionally pass as puppetry. It's after that when things truly get anarchic, as Bricolo climbs on this thing and starts tooling around like it's a locomotive, smashing through anything in his way after teasing the audience with hints of Buster Keaton-like precision.

In many ways, this resembles a Keaton short (specifically "The Electric House"), but Bowers isn't Buster - he's not quite a natural performer, and his particular skill is not as immediately visible as the great silent comedians. It doesn't stop him from making a pretty funny movie, though.

"Now You Tell One"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival: The Amazing Charley Bowers, 35mm (?))

Charley Bowers spent most of his career doing cartoons, both on paper and film, and I wouldn't be surprised if "Now You Tell One" is his best job of merging that medium with that of silent comedy . It's an extremely funny short, even as it's thoroughly crazy.

It starts with a local liars' club and tales that involve, among other things, elephants in the capitol, but those lies are too pedestrian. One finds Charley "Bricolo" Bowers with his head in a cannon, and while that doesn't get explained, we learn about his miracle grafting formula, which he proposes to use to help a pretty girl rid her farm of a very aggressive mouse infestation.

How aggressive? Sorry, that's one of the short's funniest visual gags and there's no way I'm ruining that for anybody. I laughed hard, though, at the sheer cartoony goofiness of the joke and how impressively Bowers and company animated it. Throughout the movie, Bowers (and co-conspirators Harold L. Muller & Ted Sears) set up and knock down a lot of jokes like that, creating an obvious punchline and then a spiffy visual denouement. It's a constant stream of good gags, at just the right spot between animated cartoons and deadpan silent comedy to excel at both.

"Many a Slip"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival: The Amazing Charley Bowers, 35mm (?))

Banana peels, we're told with all seriousness near the start of "Many a Slip", are responsible for over seventeen thousand broken legs every year. This may well be true for people living in a world of slapstick comedy, as is the idea that "inventor" of Rube Goldberg contraptions can be an entirely reasonable job description for one like Charley Bowers's "Bricolo" character. Put them together, and you see him hired to create a high-friction banana.

It's goofy as heck, but Bowers and his usual cohorts squeeze a fair number of gags out of it, both with large-scale gadget humor and animations of the "slipperiness germs" (Bowers's science may have been a bit fanciful). Bowers plays off Corinne Powers as his understanding wife quite well, and while the ultimate revelation is a bit of a cliché, there is something pretty clever about winking at the audience about how this slapstick bit has become a standard and then making the opposite of the usual gag even funnier.

"There It Is"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival: The Amazing Charley Bowers, 35mm (?))

It's a bit odd to see Charley Bowers, after three other shorts where he is basically playing "Charley" (or "Bricolo" in France) playing such a speciic character, in this case "Charley MacNeesha", a kilted detective from Scotland Yard who has come to America to figure out what is going on in an old house, specifically as regards "The Fuzz-Faced Phantom" (Buster Brodie).

That Phantom is right out of a 1920s comic strip - I've seen dozens of characters with his short stature, bald head, and busy facial hair flipping through collections of old comic strips - and, wow, does he look weird transplanted that directly to live action. He's in the middle of a bunch of absurd slapstick that makes almost no sense (think the characters who pop out of every door or window in a cartoon), but which gives things a frantic absurdity. That's matched by Bowers playing MacNeesha as a fairly exaggerated Scot, blunt and cheap as well as tending toward traditional dress. Oh, and he's got an animated insect sidekick named MacGregor.

Even more than Bowers's "Bircolo" films, this movie is a constant stream of gags with little to no set-up - presenter Serge Bromberg compared it to a live-action Tex Avery cartoon, and while Avery isn't necessarily my favorite of the classic cartoon directors - deadpan Droopy is my favorite creation of his, and I kind of liked the more straight-faced Bowers films a bit more than this. That's a relative statement, though - there are a lot of funny moments in "There It Is", and Bowers can still make a twenty-minute film zip like one that only runs ten. That's a great skill to have, and it's a shame that Bowers is one of the more forgotten silent comedy geniuses.


* * (out of four)
Seen 31 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 35mm (?))

I'm afraid I don't have much to say about this "cinepoème" by artist Man Ray; it's got a lot of nicely photographed images, but, boy, do they seem random on first blush. Many of them are spinning or fairly extreme close-ups, which makes discerning any sort of meaning or idea from them much harder.

It might have been more bearable if not for the discordant music provided by Earplay. Sitting in the theater between shows, I was hoping that they were all just warming up individually so that it sounded weird together, but, no, that's how it was meant to hit your ears. It's probably somewhat in the spirit of what Man Ray was trying to do but in the middle of everything else, I found it extremely grating.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 35mm (?))

I was dealing with some serious film-festival fatigue by the time "Ménilmontant" played, but even if that had me a little reluctant to love the film whole-heartedly, or fully connect all the dots of the story (I initially thought it was a flash-forward/catch-up thing, and it's hard to get out of that mindset), but there's no denying that Dmitri Kirsanoff made an exceptional short film, really mastering the tools of cinema (silent and otherwise) in telling his story.

Take the opening sequence, a picture of desperate, shocking violence that immediately grips the viewer and then lets him or her imagine the worst. It's a horrifying bit of crime that shocks all the more because Kirsanoff doesn't add much in the way of context; it's just assumed that this is common. Then it moves to the country, and two small girls whose life seems like an idyllic contrast until we see them visit their parents' graves. Then they are older, back in the city, but soon pulled down to the same sort of sad circumstances as their murdered parents.

Kirsanoff produces, writes, shoots, directs, and edits, and in some ways it is the last that is the most impressive as he fits two decades into a 38-minute short, ruthlessly picking out the defining moments and sharply jumping between them. Despite that, he also finds time to explore those moments fully, building human drama around the two young women rather than simply showing them as part of the urban underbelly that grinds through people with no care for them as individuals.

That leaves Nadia Sibirskaia and Yolande Beaulieu doing the only things Kirsanoff can't directly handle himself in bringing these characters to life, and while they aren't doing the most complex acting job, the deliver the heightened emotion needed without overdoing it, both in their individual stories and as they re-encounter each other toward the end. They become the final pieces needed to make the film heartbreaking rather than clinical, even if it may not necessarily be completely tragic.

"Ménilmontant" is an impressive small film, and I half-suspect that the places where it seems to fall short may be more on me than the material. I hope to see it again under different circumstances to see if it just clicks then.

Why Be Good?

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 35mm)

A modem viewer might, at times, find himself or herself winging hands while watching Why Be Good?, feeling like the filmmakers were so close to being on the right track with its message. I'd remind those folks that it was probably fairly progressive for 1929, and that focusing on the moment or two when it isn't means missing out on all the things that make it a charming and funny romantic comedy.

It wastes little time introducing us to its two halves. First up is Winthrop Peabody Jr. (Neil Hamilton), the dashing scion of a millionaire department store owner (Edward Martindel), having one last blast as a free man before being employed the next day. Then there's Pert Kelly (Colleen Moore), an aptly-named flapper who can out-Charleston anybody on the dance floor and isn't exactly shy off it. They met at a nightclub called "The Boiler" and hit it off, making a date for the next night, but that's before a tardy Pert gets called in to see the new personnel manager at work the next morning, creating a sticky situation that Winthrop Sr. only makes worse.

We may see Neil Hamilton first, but there is never much doubt that this is Colleen Moore's movie. She spent a fair chunk of her career playing characters like Pert Kelly, and if it was generally with the same sort of energy she brings to this one, it must have been an enjoyable run. Pert has a winning confidence and enthusiasm when she's out on the town, sure, but it transforms rather than disappears when she's at work or arguing with her father. Moore makes silent dialogue "sound" snappy by how she moves when delivering it, and she makes the most of an expressive face, especially when Pert's impulsiveness has her s seeming to switch directions quickly. She's naturally very funny, and doesn't have to change things up much when the writers give her material that they want the audience to take seriously.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 35mm)

I wonder, half in jest, if today's independent and foreign film fans had great-grandparents who hoped for movies like Norrtullsligan to play their city, grumbling that every terrible Poverty Row slapstick one-reeler showed up at their neighborhood theater but not an intelligent, true-to-life drama about working women from Sweden. If it did - without being cut to pieces with new intertitles that changed the whole story - those early cineastes were lucky; there is a lot going on in this feature that one doesn't see that often in the best-remembered American films from the silent era.

The title refers to a group of four secretaries living in an apartment, mostly working for the same large company, although Eva (Renée Björling) works for an undertaker, figuring she'll be dealing with a better class of people than, say, Pegg (Tora Teje), whose boss (Egil Eide) is described as understanding but shown as touchy. The other two flatmates are Emmy (Linnéa Hillberg), who has been at it the longest and has an aching back to show for it, and Baby (Inga Tidblad), young and optimistic to be an easy target for both men and union organizers.

Pegg is not just the film's protagonist - the other girls are her friends and we also meet the boy she's working to put through school (Lauritz Falk) but her cousin and rich aunt (Stina Berg) - but also its narrator. That may seem like an odd thing for a silent movie to have (and I wonder if it's a Scandinavian thing; Norway's Pan was also told though not shot first-person), but it's not, really. Many silent films will often precede a scene with an ironic title card; having it clearly come from Pegg rather than some arch omniscient writer gives these words a bit of teeth. Pegg confronts bitter ironies rather than winnking ones, and when she notes a social ill, it's a source of genuine frustration rather than something to be shrugged off as just the way it is. It also gives director Per Lindberg and star Tora Teje the chance to play her character as keeping her head down and trying to get by without feeling like she's passive or unengaged compared to the rest of the cast.

Full review on EFC.

Sherlock Holmes (1916)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 31 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 35mm)

Last October's announcement that a complete nitrate negative of a Sherlock Holmes film starring William Gillette made in 1916 had been found in the Cinemathèque Française may not have had quite the same impact on the film world as, say, a similar announcement about Fritz Lang's Metropolis a few years prior, but it's still a big deal to film-lovers in general. For fans of the character, it's mind-blowing; as many pieces of imagery associated with Holmes comes as much from Gillette's much-revived 1899 play as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories, but for many decades, we've had to take the scholars' word for it. Now it can be up on the screen in tinted black-and-white for the first time in nearly a century, and generations of fans should be pleased.

It follows the stage production closely, introducing Alice Faulkner (Marjorie Kay), whose sister has recently died leaving her in possession of correspondence that could undermine the Grand Duke of a small European country, and when she refuses to hand it over, a pair of nearby grifters (Mario Majeroni & Grace Reals) see an opportunity. Once they hear that the government has hired Sherlock Holmes (Gillette) to retrieve the letters, they join forces with James Moriarty (Ernest Maupain), a master criminal intent on both blackmailing the Duke and having his revenge on Holmes.

Though one of America's most celebrated actors at the turn of the Twentieth Century, Gillette only made this one film (he was also meant to adapt his other hit play, Secret Service, but that did not happen); he was sixty-two in 1916, wasn't likely to be a leading man in productions other than this one, and by many accounts ignored director Arthur Berthelet in favor of longtime compatriots from his touring company. It's not surprising, then, that the film's Holmes looks a bit weary, but in certain ways that makes the story work even better than it might have: Moriarty needs no introduction to those who don't know the name, as it is clear just by looking at the pair that Holmes and Moriarty have been battling for some time, and though Gillette was initially nervous about giving Holmes a love interest, he does have the air of someone ready to have more to his life than crime-solving.

That trait is not the dominant one, though, and one can immediately see why Gillette was said to embody Sherlock Holmes from the moment he took the stage in 1899. His Holmes is stern, sometimes bordering on cold, but unlike Benedict Cumberbatch's high-functioning psychopath, possesses the sort of empathy that would see him dismiss crimes the police couldn't ignore. While it's a bit jarring to see his heart skip a beat upon meeting Alice, it is something Gillette quickly integrates into his character. The overall impression is of a man who is capable enough to be in control of most situations without and can assert his intellect while only seeming a little boastful. His active mind, probing senses, and general curiosity are on display from the start, making his methods clear enough that this silent version of the play need not stop for long, multiple-title-card explanations.

Full review on EFC.

L'hirondelle et la mésange (The Swallow and the Titmouse)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 35mm)

It's kind of surprising to see that The Swallow and the Titmouse was considered so non-commercial as to go unreleased when it was made, and kind of not; the audience that would go for its style of storytelling today is a niche one, although the appeal of its inside look at the rivers of France and Belgium must have been even greater. That's what happened, though; the film vanished into obscurity even before leaving it until an assembly cut was found sixty years later and restored, demonstrating that the film business has been making great art difficult to see since the 1920s.

L'Hirondelle and La Mésange of the title are not birds but barges working the rivers. Pierre Van Groot (Louis Ravet) is their captain, and the crew is mostly family: his wife Griet (Jane Maylianes) and her sister Marthe (Maguy Deliac), along with their dogs, chickens, and other small animals. They lack a pilot, but hire Michel (Pierre Alcover) in Antwerp, where Pierre also obtains diamonds to smuggle into France, as one does. Affection soon blossoms between Marthe and Michel, encouraged by Pierre, but he may be more interested in that secret cargo.

This may be an art movie, but it's one with a pretty straightforward plot when you get right down to it, and while the suspense is a bit muted compared to some of the more melodramatic movies with similar plots, it develops into something enjoyably noirish as the film goes on. It never completely becomes a thriller, but it's a great deal of fun to watch as director André Antoine and writer Gustave Grillet tease the story out and Antoine even applies some flourishes that have characters emerging from the shadows in a way that presages film noir, while the methodical way things are laid out will later be echoed in policiers. It's got an ending to match, too.

Full review on EFC.

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