Friday, June 12, 2015

Ménilmontant (1926)

WHO: This was written and directed by Dimitri Kirsanoff, and starred his wife Nadia Sibirskaïa who, according to Monica Nolan's just-published SF Silent Film Festival essay, may lay some claim to being a co-director on at least some of their collaborations.

WHAT: Though I just saw this a couple weeks ago, I'm in a rush, so let me quote my friend Jeremy Matthews, who just ranked this film #14 on a list of the 100 Best Silent Films which made me realize just how similar our tastes are (although he loves Buster Keaton far more than I even do):
Watching Ménilmontant is a deeply felt experience. Impressionist filmmaker Dimitri Kirsanoff takes the dreamlike qualities of silent cinema to their natural conclusion, letting the story float by alongside haunting imagery without any intertitles directing hot to interpret the story. Kirsanoff made only one other film before this bold work, which starts abruptly and brutally with a man murdering a couple, then follows a love triangle involving the dead parents’ two daughters once they’ve grown. For all his cinematic innovations, Kirsanoff is not too hoity-toity to to tug the heartstrings, and a scene with a kind old man on a park bench is one of the most touching you’ll ever see.
WHERE/WHEN: 7PM tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive.

WHY: The beginning of the month saw the tail end of the 20th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which I'm still in the midst of writing my final wrap-up report on. In the meantime, you can check out the preview pieces linked at Keyframe Daily and wrap-ups by Donna Hill, Meredith Brody, Mary Mallory, David Mermelstein, and, if you have the inclination toward the spoken rather than written word, the Cinephiliacs podcast, in which attendees Peter Labuza and Victor Morton discuss several of the screened films. Peter kindly name-checks me in this episode, even though I've been so lax in keeping this blog up-to-date that I haven't even mentioned yet the fact that I was honored to be a guest on a prior episode of his podcast in which we talked about my path into cinephilia, the San Francisco screening scene, and other topics but especially Christopher Maclaine's 1953 masterpiece The End.

I'd wanted to write a post of footnotes about the many points I in retrospect wish I could've expanded upon during our fast-paced discussion, but I have a feeling that's not going to happen which is just as well as I'm very happy with the way the piece came out thanks to Peter's editing, and humbled to be added to his illustrious guest list. I will say one thing about the podcast: that I hope no listener has the impression that I've programmed more than one film for YBCA, that being The Company during last summer's Invasion of the Cinemaniacs series, as Joel Shepherd is handily taking care of that himself (this month's New Filipino Cinema and the upcoming David Cronenberg series prove he knows exactly what he's doing). I've programmed only a little more than that for the San Francisco Public Library, but tomorrow afternoon's free 16mm "ATA @ SFPL" showcase at the Noe Valley Public Library is one I and my co-programmers are particularly proud of.

Steering back to Ménilmontant: it a highlight of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for many people, but I'm glad it's showing again tonight as the second program in the PFA's final 2015 calendar. Final because the PFA will soon be moving its screening space from the "temporary" location it's inhabited at the corner of Bowditch and Bancroft for more the fifteen years. It's final day in the purple-chaired classroom-style room is August 2nd, and the institution is expected to reopen in 2016 at a location on the West side of the UC Berkeley campus, closer to BART and Shattuck Avenue. Glad because it will be great to see it paired with another Kirsanoff/ collaboration Autumn Mists, put into greater context as part of an incredible centennial tribute to La Cinémathèque Française's legendary founder Henri Langlois that also includes rarely-shown films by Ernst Lubitsch, Jean Grémillon, Abel Gance, Jean Renoir, Erich von Stroheim and many more, and woven into the fabric of eight weeks of PFA programming that shows its commitment to both expanding the canon and offering chances to reaffirm it in the best possible projection setting as well as ever. This weekend's launching series include tributes to comics W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy and a forgotten silent serial, and later on the venue will host a night of Indian video art and 35mm-heavy Andrei Tarkovsky, John Stahl and Victor Erice retrospectives, the latter paired with a hefty selection of his own favorites drawn from cinema history.

I'm also glad because...

HOW: When Ménilmontant screened at the Castro nearly two weeks ago it showed digitally with a score by the ever-reliable Stephen Horne. This presentation was strong enough to fool at least one filmmaker in the house into thinking it was 35mm, but tonight's screening is a chance to see the real thing: the Cinémathèque Française is supplying a print, which will be able to screen at 18 frames per second rather than the digital standard (unless you're a hobbit) of 24 fps. The musical accompaniment will be by another of my very favorite pianists, Judith Rosenberg, bucking the tradition of silent-era films shown in silence that Langlois is famous for. This is a tradition that barely exists in the Bay Area cinemas, and as a silent-film-music appreciator (and occasional practicioner) it's not one I'm particularly eager to see get a foothold. But I am curious why, if the PFA is not planning to employ Rosenberg to play music for Queen Kelly on July 24th anyway, they don't give us a little sample of this Cinémathèque Française sonic tradition, just to hear what it's like for once.

1 comment:

  1. Brian: Glad to see your blog back. Those who were at the PFA in the mid 70s, when Tom Luddy was programming, can recall for you how a whole series of Stroheim silents was shown without any musical accompaniment, and how The Big Parade, with Vidor in person (and he was noted for saying music was something like 60% of a silent film's presentation) was also shown completely silent. So this aspect of the Archive's homage to the Cinematheque doesn't need to be repeated again!