Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sean McCourt: The Unknown

This year was the first that I attended essentially every program at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Prior years I'd come close, but had always skipped at least two presentations as a strength-saving strategy. This year, I was a late arrival to the free Archivist presentation where the audience learned about the good work of the J. Jeffrey Selznick School of Preservation but caught everything else in the marathon weekend. Between screenings I squeezed in some socializing with friends old and new, including a crew of bloggers from Frisco Bay and beyond (Ryland Walker Knight and Girish Shambu have more details on this social aspect of the festival). If only the SFSFF had programmed a clear dud or two, I might not have felt so overstimulated and wiped out by the end of the event! Ultimately I'm thankful for such a rich three-day weekend, though. And I'm eager to form my impressions of the screenings as soon as I can.

Unfortunately, that's probably not going to be very soon. I'm no longer exhausted, but I've taken on enough projects and activities that I'm too busy right now to sit down and pound out a piece that will do some small justice to the riches of the festival. So I'm ever so grateful to present a wrap-up of the festival's latest program innovation: a late-night screening of Tod Browning's mad masterpiece the Unknown. Lon Chaney admirer Sean McCourt follows up his previous silent film coverage here at Hell on Frisco Bay, with his take on the "Chaney By Midnight" screening:

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The 13th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival lit up the screen at the Castro Theatre last week, showcasing three days of entries from the earliest days of motion pictures, ranging from riotous comedies to twisted tales of the macabre. Saturday night's presentation of the 1927 film The Unknown, was definitely in the latter category, with the Tod Browning (The Unholy Three, Dracula, and Freaks among many others) picture reveling in its disturbing imagery and subject matter.

Before the show began, a series of slides were presented on the large screen, giving facts and trivia tidbits about the stars of the film, Lon Chaney, Sr. and Joan Crawford. As the audience filled in to near-capacity, one series of slides said that both Chaney and Crawford were known for transforming their looks -- his for horror, hers for fashion. The next slide showed two pictures, side by side -- one of Chaney with his makeup kit from the 1920s, the other showing Crawford with hers in the early 1930s. Operations Director of the Silent Film Festival and host for the evening Jesse Hawthorne Ficks started the evening off with some of the usual pleasantries that accompany such events, such as naming sponsors, but quickly electrified the packed audience with his passionate delivery and clear love of all things cinema, particularly when he spoke about why it is so important to preserve films, mentioning how the recent fire at Universal Studios had destroyed many of the circulating 35mm prints of classic films.

Ficks also mentioned that all of the short films presented at the festival were restored by students at the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, which drew a wildly appreciative round of applause from the audience, leading into the screening of the first film of the night, a classic short Nick Carter two reel mystery, The Last Call, starring San Jose native Edmund Lowe and Diana Allen. Stephen Horne, who has been a performer for silent films for nearly 20 years, provided an outstanding live piano accompaniment for this, as well as for The Unknown. During the film, there were plenty of funny (though quite effective) special effects, such as when Carter’s wife is listening to the radio horn, and the musical score and lyrics are animated coming out of the horn, followed by the words of the opera star in trouble begging for help careening outwards.

After the warm-up picture, Ficks explained that all prints of The Unknown were lost for 50 years until one was found in France in the 1970s, then introducing Guy Maddin (director of My Winnipeg, The Saddest Music in the World, and others) to a volley of cheers and enthusiastic screams, inaugurating the Festival’s "Director’s Pick" series. Maddin initially joked with the audience, saying that he was probably preaching to the converted, then stated how he felt that "really good melodrama is as fine an art form as there is," and likened the effect of silent films to when "at night, when we sleep, in our dreams we are liberated."

Closing his brief introduction, where he admitted that he was going to be reading the original English subtitles to the film, and not translating directly from the French on screen, he said that melodrama is "true life uninhibited", and that "there's nothing more truly, crazily, uninhibited than a Lon Chaney and Tod Browning collaboration." Departing the stage to a roar of applause, Maddin made his way to the back of the theater and his microphone, and the curtains parted for what many consider one of the finest films of its time.

In The Unknown, the legendary Lon Chaney, Sr. is repulsive, yet somehow empathetic, as circus attraction Alonzo the Armless, a member of a traveling gypsy circus who harbors a dark secret known only to his sidekick, the diminutive Cojo. Alonzo pines for the love of Nanon (Joan Crawford), the circus owner’s daughter. She reveals to him that she has a self-proclaimed incorrigible fear of men’s hands and arms, and that she is tired of men constantly pawing at her. The fact that Alonzo has no arms (or so she thinks) renders him harmless to her in her mind, and she spends a considerable amount of time in his company, speaking of a multitude of men’s advances, including Malabar, the circus’s resident strong man.

Throughout the film’s bizarre plot twists and unexpected surprises, Chaney’s incredible talents are constantly on display. Rightfully known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces," Chaney was one of the earliest and most influential pioneers in make-up for the cinema, creating many characters and looks that are still instantly recognizable today, 80 years after he committed them to celluloid. In the beginning of the film, first-time viewers can genuinely believe that Alonzo is indeed an armless man, thanks to the ingenious work of Chaney, though his method is revealed soon enough in the progress of the picture’s story.

There are several humorous shots (at least the audience thought they were funny, exploding in laughter when they appeared on the screen) such as when Chaney is seen smoking a cigarette with his feet, or playing a tiny guitar or ukulele with his lower extremities. There has been some discussion whether this was actually Chaney or a stunt double performing in the shadows, but nonetheless the effects are entirely believable. Though the plot of The Unknown -written by Browning- emerges as a twisted, nightmarish story even 80 years after its’ release. Based on the audience's reaction, which ranged from a few couples who might have actually seen some first-run silent films in their youth to current twenty-somethings who dressed the part of prohibition-era flappers and bootleggers, the film can still elicit an overwhelmingly positive response, proving that the innovators of film and the language of cinema can give today’s filmmakers an even run for their money when it comes to entertainment and the suspension of disbelief.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Benshi

A Japanese friend who is attending tonight's San Francisco Silent Film Festival screening of Harold Lloyd's the Kid Brother at the Castro Theatre told her mother that she was planning to see a silent film. The mother asked if there would be a narrator present at the screening. The answer was no; the screening will be accompanied by a performance by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, who played for Beggars of Life and Miss Lulu Bett at last year's festival. But no narrator. The highly-developed tradition of an interlocutor (of sorts) performing narration, interpretation, and giving voice to silent characters, is a distinctly Asian one. In Japan, these performers were known as benshi or katsuben, and in their heyday they were more popular than the stars acting on the screen.

I'm by no means versed in the benshi tradition. I've never seen a benshi perform live. The SFSFF has brought the foremost modern benshi, Midori Sawato, to perform for the Sessue Hayakawa film the Dragon Painter, but unfortunately that was the year I missed the entire festival (I have since learned to make sure my family schedules its reunions on another summer weekend). I did once see a Korean byonsa silent film performer in Berkeley in 2002, but I understand that the traditions are significantly different. For one, a benshi would always perform along with a live musical accompaniment as well, something this byonsa event lacked. The closest I've come to experiencing the art of the benshi is when I viewed a 16mm print of Kenji Mizoguchi's the Water Magician with a katsuben talkie soundtrack.

Likewise, Jujiro will not be screened this festival weekend with benshi accompaniment, but with a new original score composed and performed by Stephen Horne. This seems not so inappropriate, considering the fact that the film's screenings in Western countries must have been sans benshi as well.

I didn't want to focus too heavily on the benshi in the materials I prepared to contextualize the Jujiro screening; there were so many other fascinating aspects of Japanese silent cinema I wanted to make sure to cover. But the benshi played a very important role in the development of cinema in Japan. Filmmakers, knowing that their products would have someone on hand to explain narrative or other unclarities, had little incentive to use the motion picture as a complex visual storytelling medium, as their counterparts in Europe and Hollywood would. Or so it was argued by members of the "Pure Film Movement" which sprang up in the late 1910s, and set Japan's filmmaking on the path that led to the development of a national cinema appreciated the world over. The "Pure Film Movement" is well-documented in Joanne Bernardi's Writing in Light.

By the time Teinosuke Kinugasa made his most radical works, the battles fought by the "Pure Film Movement" had seemingly shifted. But the benshi still thrived, and in fact it was revered benshi Musei Tokugawa who secured the release of a Page of Madness at the prestigious Shinjuku Musashinokan, a cinema that normally played European film imports. Upon the film's premiere, some reviews lavished Tokugawa's benshi performance with more praise than Kinugasa's film.

I was unable to unearth such specific information about the benshi in relation to Jujiro, and thus decided to leave a treatment of the phenomenon out of the final draft of my program guide essay. But I decided to devote half of the slide show I prepared to play before the film screens, to the context of Japanese cinema and the benshi. If you're planning to see the show on Sunday, be sure to get to the theatre early, so you can view my presentation. Or, for a terrific brief primer on benshi, take a look at this article by Frisco Bay's resident expert Frako Loden, who also co-authored a much more detailed article on the performers in the Iris 22 (Autumn 1996) article called Mastering the Mute Image: The Role of the Benshi in Japanese Cinema.

If I weren't going to be at the Silent Film Festival all weekend, I would take a visit to Artists' Television Access, where kino21 is presenting the New Talkies: a neo-benshi cabaret, a periodic event that I never seem to be able to catch. How different are these poets' performances in front of video projections from the benshi of silent-era Japan, I'm ill-equipped to judge.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Teinosuke Kinugasa sources and links

Jujiro was the 55th film directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, out of a total of 118. So far I've seen four, and only one of those on the big screen, a Page of Madness. It may be a small number, but if there are people out there who have seen more of his films than that, not many are writing about them.

The most significant English-language tackling of the scope of Kinugasa's life and work, that I'm aware of, is still Robert Cohen's six-page article found in the Summer 1976 issue of Sight and Sound. There are few overviews to be found on the internet, though here is one and here is another. Many surveys of Japanese cinema history barely mention the director, though Donald Ritchie's tend to be exceptions. Most other discussions of Kinugasa zero in on a few films, usually a Page of Madness, Jujiro, and/or the 1953 Gate of Hell, which would become the second Japanese film after Rashomon to receive an Academy Award.

Kinugasa did publish an autobiography before his death in 1982, but I'm not aware of it having been translated into English. Another book that has been essentially inaccessible to me thanks to a language barrier is Marianne Lewinsky's book on a Page of Madness entitled Eine Verrückte Seite - Stummfilm und Filmische Avantgarde in Japan. I guess I should have studied a lot harder in my high school German class.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Jujiro in the West

Teinosuke Kinugas's Jujiro was shown in Europe and the United States in 1929 and 1930, but it was not, as is sometimes reported, the first Japanese film to have screened for Western audiences. Kenji Mizoguchi's Passion of a Woman Teacher was screened in Paris at around the same time, and Minoru Murata's The Street Magician came to Germany before Kinugasa did. In New York, Mordaunt Hall's March 1929 Times review of Heinosuke Gosho's a Daughter of Two Fathers indicates that that comedy played the Fifth Avenue Playhouse with a Harry Langdon short at the time, more than a year before Jujiro played at the Fifty-Fifth Street Playhouse.

Nor was Jujiro the last Japanese export known to Western audiences until Rashomon launched the post-World War II Euro-American fervor for jidai-geki upon its winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. A selection of Japanese films had played at the 1937 edition of that festival, for instance. Mikio Naruse's wonderful Wife! Be Like A Rose was circulated in a number of North American cinemas in 1937 as well.

But evidence suggests that Kinugasa's tour of Europe with his Jujiro print was the most significant exposure of a Japanese film in the West in its time. According to D. A. Rajakaruna's preface to his translation of the screenplay, Jujiro played "in ten countries including Germany, France, Switzerland and England". In Germany the film was screened for UFA producers, and secured a theatrical release under the title Shadows of Yoshiwara, Yoshiwara being Tokyo's licensed red-light district just outside Asakusa, where the film's action is set. Rajakaruna relates that there was some outcry from Japanese residents of Berlin over the title and subject matter -- Yoshiwara was notorious, not a source of national pride.

Critics in France compared Jujiro's close-ups to the aesthetic of Carl Dreyer, who had just released the Passion of Joan of Arc. The film's appearance in London is the reason why an English-intertitled print survives to screen today; most of Kinugasa's silent output no longer is known to exist. Though Kinugasa began his European tour in Moscow, it seems that Jujiro did not screen there. However, Kinugasa did meet Soviet directors Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein, and apparently picked the latter's brain on the transition to sound, a process that was just starting to occur in Japan. Kinugasa would go on to direct the first jidai-geki talking picture, the Surviving Shinsengumi in 1932.

For its New York engagement, Jujiro became Slums of Tokyo. It played for two weeks in July 1930, along with an early talkie short with a Japanese subject, called the Golden Kimono. According to Joanne R. Bernardi and Greg M. Smith, Slums of Tokyo was sold as an exploitation picture, with ad copy promising "Painted Lilies Barter Bodies in Yoshiwara Tenderloin...For Adults Only! No One Under 18 Admitted!" The only advertisement I was able to find in my research was the New York Times' more highbrow appeal, however; there Slums of Tokyo was billed to arthouse audiences as the "Greatest since the Passion of Joan of Arc and Shiraz". Presumably the exploitation ad copy comes from another New York paper or other source.

One final caveat: since my research focused on English-language sources, it ignores the film screenings held within Japanese-American communities in Western states, where films were shown untranslated at Buddhist temples and elsewhere, and advertised only in Japanese-language newspapers. There's always another door left to unlock when it comes to researching early cinema.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Jujiro Week

Welcome to the slightly-belated beginning of Jujiro Week here at Hell on Frisco Bay. Teinosuke Kinugasa's 1928 film is playing at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this coming Sunday at 6:10 PM, and I can't wait to see it for the first time on the towering Castro Theatre screen.

I was bowled over by Kinugasa's 1926 a Page of Madness when I saw it on that screen back in 2002. Jujiro, (frequently known in the English-language world as Crossways or Crossroads) while considered not quite as avant-garde in its narrative approach, was the director's attempt to apply the experimental technique of that film to a jidai-geki (period) piece; it's a samurai film without swords.

Jujiro will be accompanied by a newly-composed score by Stephen Horne, who wowed last year's festival audiences with his performance to a Cottage on Dartmoor.

As I've mentioned here before, I was charged with researching Jujiro, writing an essay for the festival program guide available to each festival attendee, and preparing a slide show that will be presented while the audience files into the Castro's seats on Sunday. Much of the material I collected on the topics of Teinosuke Kinugasa and Japanese silent cinema had to be left out of these educational materials for space concerns. Over the next several days, I'll be putting up some of this here on my site.

In the meantime, make sure you check out the terrific advance coverage of the festival on The Evening Class: A preview by Michael Hawley and Michael Guillén's two-part interview with the festival's artistic director (and not-so-secret Bollywood enthusiast) Stephen Salmons.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Bruce Conner (1933-2008)

Bruce Conner has died.

A local artist and filmmaker with global impact, his work meant a lot to me, and I feel lucky that I got to hear him speak before film screenings three times in the past several years. Though I'd seen a few samples of experimental/personal filmmaking before then, always on VHS tape, I can credit a viewing of Conner's film the White Rose at the De Young Museum in 1996 with lighting the fuse that would eventually explode my interest in exploring this particularly expansive cavern of cinema. My first visit to SF Cinematheque was to see a program of his films, and I've been back countless times.

Enough about me, though. Here's Conner talking about himself and his mid-1960's peers in a 2001 interview, as published in Scott MacDonald's indispensable book Canyon Cinema: the Life and Times of an American Independent Distributor:

A lot of the people involved with Canyon were living at a level that people working in film today would see as poverty. But many of us had decided that this was the life we had to live if we were going to be artists or filmmakers. It was almost like taking a vow of poverty in a religious order, and we had a faith that this was one of the more important things in life. We did not consider what we were doing as a career -- unlike people who go to school today and take film classes or video or art classes and consider this preparation for a career. That idea didn't exist then, at least not among us. We were people who were willing to suffer a lot of indignity and deprivation, and to withstand things that might damage our health or well-being or standing in society, to do this type of work -- we dedicated ourselves to art. There were people going to jail because of what they were doing as artists and filmmakers. It was a social environment that's very hard to convey to people now.
Image is from Easter Morning, shot in the 1960s, completed this year, and internationally premiered at the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes, 2008. A collection of Conner's still photography is currently on display at the Berkeley Art Museum. I'll be visiting it soon.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Apichatpong Weerasethakul connections

When I watch a film, I usually struggle to resist evaluating it as a discrete object that succeeds or fails on its own merits. I prefer to think of each film or other artwork as a segment of a continuum of creation -- usually the context of an artist's body of work, though there are other continuums I'm interested in as well.

When I watch a film by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, it's no struggle to see it in the latter mode. Apichatpong's strategies especially invite the observation of them as part of a continuum. As critic Chuck Stephens has said of the director's filmography, "Something in one film will establish something that will recur in the next film, or there'll be a reminder of something in one film from a previous film."

So as a strong admirer of the filmmaker's feature-length films, I've been particularly grateful that Frisco venue Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has decided to show two programs of Apichatpong's rarely-screened short works, none of which I'd seen before. Unfortunately, the one-week postponement of the screenings has prevented me from watching them on the Yerba Buena's screen; I was able to make sure my work schedule didn't conflict with the originally posted dates, but unable to take time off on short notice to see the rescheduled shows.

That's why I was so relieved when the YBCA staff allowed me to view all but one of these short works on screener DVDs; a compromised viewing situation to be sure, but at least I wouldn't have to miss them completely. In addition, as much as I would have liked to see them in a cinema I'm not sure I'd trade that for two chances to see the masterpiece Syndromes and a Century in a 35mm print, which YBCA provided as compensation for those of us who had planned to see the shorts as originally scheduled. (They're reviewed as a group here, here and here.)

Each short I watched (all those in Program 1, which played on Thursday, and all but one film in Program 2, which plays tomorrow at 2PM) brought up rhymes, resonances, and questions from at least one of the feature-length works I've seen from Apichatpong's filmography. This is a beginning, by no means exhaustive :

Program One (already occurred):

The Anthem, 2006
One of my favorites of the set, this brief piece recalls Tropical Malady and especially Syndromes and a Century in its marriage of exuberantly catchy pop music to large-scale group exercise.

Windows, 1999
Perhaps the piece I most wish I could have seen on as large a screen as possible, this completely abstract study of light, rhythm and the camera mechanism nonetheless takes place in a room that reminded me of the settings of the director's hour-long video work Haunted Houses from 2001, even if the nature of each film's laboratory quality is completely different. I also have to wonder if some of what Apichatpong learned about light streaming through a window in 1999 was later applied to certain scenes in Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady.

Malee and the Boy, 1999
Made before his first feature, Mysterious Object at Noon, this color video work feels if not like a technical, then a spiritual precursor to the latter, which was shot on 16mm and 8mm and blown up to 35mm. Both pieces emphasize the communal nature of Apichatpong's work in a very front-and-center way, by putting unskilled collaborators (in this case a young boy who recorded the soundtrack in various Bangkok locales, as the director followed him) in control of the narrative.

Like the Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves, 1996
This film brought forth connections to many of Apichatpong's credits, but none more than a film he did not direct but is credited with contributing a story idea to: I-San Special, made by Mingmongkul Sonakul in 2002, which like this film features a Thai radio drama as soundtrack over images of a group of passengers being driven from Point A to Point B. Chuck Stephens, in the same (unfortunately technically compromised) DVD commentary track that I quoted from near the beginning of this piece, brings up I-San Special, asking Apichatpong about a never-filmed project called Driving that apparently became the inspiration for Mingmongkol's film. When reviewing her film, Time Out New York refers to Driving as an "early short", with no mention that it never was filmed by Apichatpong. It makes me wonder if the Time Out reviewer was conflating the non-existent film with Like the Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves...

Thirdworld, 1998
I'll be honest: of the nine short I saw, this is the piece that felt the most impenetrable to me upon a single viewing. I'd like to take another stab at it, but in the meantime I'd rather not write anything about it, other than to point out that since I watched it I've learned its production connection to Mysterious Object at Noon.

Program Two: (Sunday, July 6, 2PM)

Worldly Desires, 2005
Like Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady, this 40-minute piece (co-directed by Pimpaka Towira, whose thriller One Night Husband is referenced in a scene in Tropical Malady in which the poster is visible) is set in a forest. But though at one point or another I thought of just about every one of his major works, what formed the most active mental connection for me was the resonance of its musical presentation to another forest-set feature co-directed by Apichatpong, this time with drag performer Michael Shaowanasai: the Adventure of Iron Pussy. For Apichatpong, the forest is an important sphere in which the expected norms of culture and society cannot hold the same deep influence that they can in civilization and especially inside government buildings. Both Worldly Desires and the Adventure of Iron Pussy fit into that conception as well as any of his films. As an aside: is it coincidence that his feature film that traverses territory farthest from the forest, Syndromes and a Century, is the one that has had the most publicly visible struggles with the self-appointed arbiters of cultural norms?

0116643225059, 1994
The earliest of the pieces seen is this one, titled after a phone number, and pictured at the top of this post. It shows that the budding director was from very early in his career concerned with investigating the schism between soundtrack and image, as he has been in most if not all of his subsequent works.

Ghost of Asia, 2005
The most purely enjoyable of all the pieces I viewed (though competition for that standing is pretty stiff from certain corners), this successor to Mysterious Object at Noon features Sakda Kaewbuadee, the "tiger" from Tropical Malady and the music-loving monk from Syndromes and a Century, as a kind of puppet-actor being controlled by the whims of a young team of "screenwriters" who appear in the other frame of a digital split-screen. It has a credited co-director in Christelle Lheureux, but that understates its collaborative authorship.

My Mother’s Garden, 2007
This piece of mixed-media animation reminded me that when I once rewatched the superimposed-drawing scenes from Blissfully Yours after seeing some Jim Trainor films I had to wonder if Apichatpong's time studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago overlapped at all with Trainor's employment as a professor there, if he had come across Trainor's work by some other means, or if he was wholly ignorant of Trainor yet shared some aesthetic strategies nonetheless.

Luminous People, 2007
This is the only piece I did not get a chance to see on screener, and I also was out of town when it played the YBCA as part of the State of the World omnibus in January of this year. I'll miss it again tomorrow, but would love to get your comments on it if you had a chance to see it.