San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2011 – Day 2

The judgment of the art directors and curators was once again sound, and the three programs I saw were fantastic.

Program 1:

Orphan Film

The program began with an anonymously created short about a plane flying around the camera, and featuring a baby Charles Lindbergh. A nice little novelty that one never would have had the chance to experience if someone didn’t find the film in an archive and decide to put it on.

I Was Born, But… by Yasujiro Ozu

This was the film that I was most excited to see in the festival and was not disappointed. It is a coming of age film set and shot in pre-war military dictatorship Japan, in 1932, about two brothers whom, with their father and mother, move to the suburbs so that, we soon find out, the father can live closer to his boss. The boys are immediately picked on and try to avoid the bullies. The mood and atmosphere are unique, and reminded me more than anything of that of many of the French New Wave films, including Truffaut’s 400 Blows – one of a simple, lighthearted exterior and a dark and complicated interior. In this case, the problem in the interior seems to be one of class, and the dual worlds of the children and adulthood illustrate this. In childhood, wealth does not matter – what matters is strength (perhaps acquired by eating a sparrow’s egg) and friendship with the strong; in adulthood, class and wealth are all that matter, and to get ahead you must be rich or grovel at the feet of the wealthy. Like the French New Wave, you can’t help but be charmed by all that you see, and yet it makes you inadvertently consider a difficult subject.

The accompaniment, Steven Horne on flute and piano, was fantastic – in fact, it was so good that I have very little to say about it. I hardly perceived the presence of a live performer; everything seemed to fit to the film so well. In retrospect this is extremely impressive – a Western musician accompanying a Japanese film without it feeling uncomfortable to someone (me, that is) who has seen enough Japanese cinema to be acquainted with their unique musical choices. Though it is not necessarily consistently authentic Japanese music, it was unique enough to fit every ounce of the images on screen.


Program 2:

Main Program:
The Great White Silence by Herbert G. Pointing

This film is an experience, and I feel lucky to have seen the North American premier of this immaculately restored print. Released in 1924, it is a documentary consisting of footage shot during a 1910 British expedition to the South Pole. From the very beginning I was already utterly captivated. The tone of the piece, the photography, the clever intertitles. The film felt, stylistically, like a very modern documentary, with the primary exceptions of not having the modern technology which would have made the task easier. We are taken along on this amazing journey which, to this day, is an adventure and beyond most of our imaginations, and in the process we see men in the process of enduring hardships incomprehensible to us. As a time capsule it perfectly captures the mentality and technology of the age – dog sleds, a very archaic form of tractor, a kitten affectionately named “Nigger”, many references to God and the great British Empire and His Majesty the King abound. But beyond that, it is thoroughly modern; and his investigation into the lives of the animals which live there, primarily of the penguins and seals, is often compassionate and thoughtful (and very funny).

The ensemble, the Matti Bye Ensemble, was phenomenal. This group of musicians played such a diverse and unique array of music. I can not imagine having seen this film in a better environment – the Castro Theatre, with a better musical accompaniment. They were nothing short of perfect. I cannot imagine saying more than that about them.


Program 3

Opening Film:
The opening film was a silly, but charming, little orphan film called Origin of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, in which Beethoven is struggling to write, walks outside, hears (yes, hears; a minor idiosyncrasy…) a blind woman play something he wrote, invades her house, proceeds to play music beautiful enough to make her see the Moonlight (eh? eh? it wasn’t Lake Lucerne after all…!), runs home, and proceeds to write the Moonlight Sonata. It was amusing seeing this idea of the crazed genius Beethoven prancing around, often throwing his arms into the air; this might not be too overdone anyway, as apparently his last moments alive were spent lifting himself from his death bed, staring angrily at the ceiling and shaking his fist dramatically three times at the heavens, and then falling down to die.

The musical accompaniment, the very same Stephen Horne, was brilliant, though, and carried the show. He played through a bit of Beethoven’s repertoire, primarily elements from his Pathétique and Moonlight Sonatas, with a lot of improvisation between, appropriately according to the wants of the piece.

Main Program:
Il Fuoco by Febo Mari and Giovanni Pastrone

The first thing I noticed about Il Fuoco is how, released the same year as Birth of a Nation, it is not too far behind Griffith’s epic in maturity of film technique (edits, pans, and it even has one dolly!). After that, the acting was a bit over-the-top, as was to be expected, and the story at first seems a bit dull. SPOILERS AHEAD (although you may never get ahold of this piece…) A poetess and a painter meet by coincidence in a bog, each doing his or her respective craft, and the painter naturally becomes a bit infatuated with her, to her seeming great delight and intent. He returns, to be cast away by her annoyedly; with sad dejection he wanders away. Later he returns to the spot where she was, and finds a cryptic poem written by her. This is where things begin to get a bit strange: she later sneaks into his room, lights a fire on his table, and invites him to a castle where she lives, and later drugs him and sells it while he sleeps. He is heartbroken, and later runs into her, and attempts to attack her; he is assumed to be insane and is sent to the loony bin. The ending is him doing origami. What it appeared to me is that we have an unreliable narrator – the events in the film are a bit too incredible, and it seemed possible that this is the first film in film history in which the entire piece is just a fabrication created by an insane narrator. What is really remarkable about this film, though, is the sexuality and tension caused by Pina Menichelli – a true femme fatale in every sense of the word, imaginary or not. What a dark sexuality she created, yet still so palpable so many years in the future!

The musical accompaniment fit the film quite well; Stephen Horne was at it again, doing what he does best. With him, though, was Jill Tracy, adding a vocal splash of eroticism as Menichelli’s theme, which was utterly poignant and fit perfectly, especially when her throaty voice continued to echo in the main character’s mind in the end.


Schedule for tomorrow (7/16/11):
10:00 am – Disney’s Laugh-O-Grams
12:00 noon – Variations on a Theme
2:00 pm – The Blizzard
4:00 pm – The Goose Woman
6:30 pm – Mr. Fix-It
8:30 pm – The Woman Men Yearn For


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Categories: Festivals, Silent Film Festival

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