San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2014: Days 2 and 3 – Germans, Swedes, Japanese, Russians and Keaton

And so once again the Silent Film Festival came and went.  And with it the privilege and pleasure of watching the best versions of carefully selected films from this bygone era at the fantastic Castro Theatre, a place I often refer to as my church.

The selection was great, as always.  If you missed it this year, stay tuned for next year.  But following are some thoughts I had on a selection of the films that played:

Under The Lantern

UnderLantern.3Gerhard Lamprecht‘s 1928 film is something of a marriage of German Expressionism and German Realism, and thus a fine reflex of the age. 

Enormously tragic, it is a fine examination of society’s usurping and exploitation of women’s innocence.  Throughout the picture, almost all men are little more than drooling dogs looking at a piece of steak when a woman walks by, while women are often innocent and unaware of this societal element.  Set in this exaggerated  uncanny valley of a world which many women could likely relate to, we see a young girl, at first a minor, in her downfall from young, innocent love towards eventual basic sex slavery.  Before the film began, I overheard concerns from one woman that Lamprecht may have Nazi sympathies since he continued to work in Germany throughout the Third Reich; in the film, the response to her was a firm philosophic rejection in the portrayal of the cruel, stubborn, authoritarian father who essentially drives her onto the street because she rebels against his arbitrary punishments of her.  It’s a fantastic film, beautifully shot, sympathetic and humanist (and therefore feminist) in tone, with many fantastic moments of mise en scène juxtapositions, such as the joyful dancing (exaggerated frenetically with cellos spinning and trumpets wailing) while she is being basically pimped out.

Once again, the music was fantastic. The Donald Sosin Ensemble played a great jazz-infused score to highlight the contrast of tones inherent in the film.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks

ExtraordinaryAdventuresMrWest.2A highly amusing satire of both American perception and American cinema, this is Lev Kuleshov‘s (of the famous Kuleshov Effect which distilled montage to its essence) premier feature.  It involves an American man and his cowboy sidekick coming to Moscow, only to be swindled by a group of thieves (including Vsevolod Pudovkin as the headmaster) and finally saved by real Bolsheviks, who proceed to show them the glory of Bolshevik Russia.  It’s notable both as a moment in time – showing off, for instance, much of the beauty of winter-time Moscow, something often not done in this techno-philic period of Russian art; and for its understanding of the perception the Bolsheviks had in American culture. There was also a little glimpse of Trotsky, ostensibly, as it was 1924, not long before his ouster from the party and then Russia.  Naturally it has a bit of propaganda in it (to exaggerated comedic effect in the ending), and an excessive amount of slapstick violence.  The main actress, and also his wife, Aleksandra Khokhlova, was phenomenal as the praying mantis-like, sexualized criminal attempting to seduce the morally impenetrable Mr. West. One note that I couldn’t help but notice was that, unlike the demonic vision of the Bolsheviks this was reacting against to, Kuleshov refrained from turning the Americans into bad people, and instead showed them to be misled but otherwise honorable, and even gave two of them an albeit obligatory romantic subplot.  Very unlike the cruel, menacing, spittling hatred spewed from Eisenstein’s Tsarists and bourgeoisie.

The Mattie Bye Ensemble is, as always, a great privilege to view and hear, and they accompanied the film with a rather mysterious score counterpointing its silliness but accompanying its pace.

Dragnet Girl

Dragnet GirlWhen I say the name Yasujiro Ozu, what do you think of?  Long shots of a kimono-clad father bowing sadly in recognition of the passing of time.  A daughter moving on with her life, though trying to hold on to her past. Nature reflecting the changing of seasons, the changing of seasons reflecting the passing of life. Mono no aware… And so, naturally, when I heard that this old master made a gangster film, I could not resist a view.

It basically involves how a gangster and his lover’s lives are impacted when a seemingly un-notable young man and his sister enter their lives.  What seems to be investigated here though are the contagious impacts of both corruption and innocence, with the gangster being corruption and the boy’s sister being innocence.  Everyone the gangster comes into contact with becomes elated with him, inspired, and wants to join him or be him.  As a result, the young man becomes something of a “punk”, as the translation of the Japanese intertitles so fondly put it.  However, when the gangster comes into contact with the sister, he becomes enamored with her and softened in repose and ideals, falling in love with her.  Naturally, his lover has a problem with this and confronts her, but instead of killing her as she threatened or even warning her away, she also falls for her (in an interesting bit of homosexual acknowledgement) and wants to change her life in her model.  These contagious elements are not easily shaken off, just as a sickness.

Classic elements of Ozu which I found in this film are primarily in the complex relationships and the irrational, imperfect ways in which the characters react with each other and live.

Another jazz-laden score by Günter Buchwald and a drummer carried this piece through.

The Girl In Tails

Flickan i frack (1926) Filmografinr 1926/07The Girl in Tails was an interesting film; I can understand its selection because of its element of gender reversal.  It involves a girl who wants to go to a ball but can never get new clothing because of her (yet another) authoritarian father.  As a result, she wears her brother’s clothing and causes a bit of a scandal.  It is notable for its female director, Karin Swanström, and its forays into the world of feminism, though unfortunately it ends with the traditional morality and the main character more or less asking for redemption for her transgression against society, and then marrying rich.  It contains an interesting element of Nordic culture, though, which is the utter fear of scandal (seen in other Swedish films of the time, as well as the Norwegian Ibsen and the like), a topic which is worth further investigation.

The Navigator

Navigator.11What could I say about Buster Keaton‘s work that hasn’t already been said?  His comedy is still just as funny as it ever was.  His perpetually dour expression, the absurdity of the situations (the saw cutting the tin was priceless).  I’m not sure if it’s been explored elsewhere (it likely has) but there’s a nice little bit of racist cultural imperialism in the depiction of the savage tribe attempting to assault the ship; but I suppose with acknowledging that, one must forgive the time and appreciate the humor for what it is.  The film was an absolute pleasure to watch.

The film was preceded by a most amusing short animated Russian film about the glory of the postman and his Kafka-esque desire to deliver mail through all conditions, accompanied by Günter Buchwald.

Once again, The Mattie Bye Ensemble was spectacular, punctuating every bit of the film with their multi-instrumental, dynamic sound.

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