Monday, July 16, 2007

Synchronized Silents


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When attending nearly every program in a weekend-long film festival like the 12th Annual Silent Film Festival, it's impossible not to start noticing connections, coincidences, crossovers and synchronicities. Some seem to be deliberately planted by the programming team, and some are even mentioned from the Castro Theatre stage, or in the program guide (in the interest of full disclosure: I contributed to that document this year, and what you're reading is not going to be a critical piece on the festival, just a set of my own thoughts and reflections, that are likewise not in any way intended to represent the festival.)

Take a deep breath now...

This year's SFSFF brought films starring both of Hollywood's two great "Latin lovers" of the silent era: Mexican-American Ramon Navarro in the Student Prince of Old Heidelberg and Italian-American Rudolph Valentino in Camille, the film he made right before hitting top-tier romantic lead stardom in the Sheik, a film title that entered the American slang lexicon under the definition "a romantically alluring man," though that American Heritage Dictionary definition fails to capture the sarcastic, derogatory usage of the word when used by a Beery brother in either Beggars of Life or the Godless Girl, the latter of which was directed by Cecil B. DeMille several years after his older brother William C. de Mille directed Miss Lulu Bett, which featured a considerably less rugged Milton Sills than the one starring in the Valley of the Giants, which contained a wonderful comic interlude from Arthur Stone, whose Just a Good Guy was among the two-reelers shown in the Tribute to Hal Roach, as was the Charley Chase short Movie Night, which contained a tremendous extended sequence in a movie theatre, as did a Cottage on Dartmoor, previously mentioned by Adam Hartzell in his festival preview on this site, which sparked a comment linking to D.W. Griffith's Those Awful Hats, a short whose French DVD release came through Lobster films, the company founded by Serge Bromberg, who presented a program with the same title as that DVD, Retour de Flamme, which featured at least one film (Les Roses magiques) directed by the Spanish transplant to Paris, Segundo de Chomón, who later would devise special effects for the Italian epic Cabiria, the inspiration for Maciste and its numerous sequels.

Whew! That was a mouthful, but here are a few more synchronicities, that seem worth discussing at greater length than would be allowed if I tried to squeeze them into a single sentence:

I spent enough youthful summers in Mendocino County teaching teenagers about nature and environmental issues that I harbor no nostalgia about the timber industry. But I have to admit that some beautiful images were captured as a function of the destruction of the great groves of Sequoia sempervirens, or Coast Redwood trees. Such images abounded in the Valley of the Giants, an action-packed melodrama filmed by First National further up the coast in Humboldt. The truly astonishing, though brief, images came from a film transferred from a Spirograph disc entitled Oregon Lumber Flume, which played as part of the enlightening (and free) More Amazing Tales From the Archives program Sunday morning. Traveling on this redwood aqueduct above the misty treetops made for an exhilarating 1.25 minutes.

The Movie Night/a Cottage on Dartmoor connection mentioned above ought to be stressed further. Barring Tsai Ming-Liang's masterful Goodbye, Dragon Inn, I'm hard-pressed to think of a film with a longer, more elaborate scene depicting the way a movie theatre audience might behave than either of these two films display. A Cottage on Dartmoor's scene (following the film's third iteration of the priceless intertitle "Will you come with me to a talkie tonight?") serves a purpose in the story, but its primary function is surely to mourn the passing of the silent film era. The talkie in question is preceded by a Harold Lloyd film, which explains why the SFSFF played an early Lloyd short Lonesome Luke's Lively Life before a Cottage on Dartmoor as part of its weekend-long presentation of George Eastman House enlargements of 28mm films to 35mm. Stephen Horne's stupendous score, one of the real musical highlights in a weekend packed wall-to-wall with great, professional silent film accompanists, beautifully emphasizes the contrast between the joyful, immersing experience of watching a silent film with live musicians involved, and that of watching the average early talking picture, and helps to explain why it's so much more difficult to find rude audience members at the Silent Film Festival than at modern theatres that insist on using technological novelty rather than entertainment value as the primary selling point for the films exhibited.

Though I only saw the film a couple days ago, I already don't remember if it's ever made clear whether the film Charley Chase brings his family to in Movie Night, also made in 1929, is a silent or talking picture. Either way, great comic hay is made of obnoxious audience behavior (in this case, mostly Chase's). Another interesting connection, one mentioned by Rob Stone of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, is the film's depiction of a pre-show raffle similar to the one held for the first time by the Silent Film Festival this year. Though the prizes are quite different; Chase went home with a duck while one lucky SFSFF patron won a $5000 McRosky Mattress shopping spree, and another won passes to the 2008 Seattle Film Festival. In Movie Night, before Chase wins his lucky duck, a Jewish character wins a large ham, evidence that the contest was probably not as rigged as Chase's intertitle suggested. The raffle prize offered just prior to the Hal Roach tribute was two tickets to see the silent boxing film His People at the SF Jewish Film Festival next Saturday. Yet another synchronicity, I suppose?

Finally, two directors with reputations connected to their facility for staging large crowd scenes were featured in this year's festival: Ernst Lubitsch and Cecil B. DeMille. I've tended to overlook Lubitsch as a director of truly epic-scale productions, thanks to the more intimate turn his films took in the early 1930s. But his German historical extravaganzas like Madame Dubarry and Anna Boleyn were really what got the Hollywood studios interested in wooing him to these shores. Since I haven't seen any of these films yet, the Student Prince of Old Heidelberg is probably more dependent on large crowd scenes than any other Lubitsch films I've seen. In this film, his crowds seem very tautly choreographed, and not only in the scenes of rigid formality like the opening shots of huge groups of men removing their hats for the king. Even in the ostensibly looser scenes of tavern carousing shortly before the intermission, Lubitsch has instilled symmetries of motion that give the crowd a particularly otherworldly quality perfect for this half of the film's idealized tone.

On the other hand, DeMille's crowds in the Godless Girl, while undoubtedly carefully-choreographed as well, always seem on the verge of exploding into utter chaos. That is if they haven't already, as in the jaw-dropping "holy war in the stairwell" sequence. This is probably an obvious point, as Lubitsch is employing his crowds to make the viewer laugh or at least smile, while DeMille's aim is for the edge-of-the-seat thrill. I for one felt I truly didn't know what was going to happen next, or just how far a descent into the darkness of human nature DeMille was going to take the audience (the answer: pretty far, but of course only to set up a scene of redemption, a structure that gets repeated in the film more than once.) Contrast that with the crowd scenes directed by Charles Brabin for the Valley of the Giants. These were pretty much the only scenes in the film that really reminded me of the other Brabin film I've seen, the Jonathan Rosenbaum-approved Mask of Fu Manchu, where a sense of the chaos of crowds is quite evident, but also infused with an overwhelming sense of narrative doom.

So, how was your weekend? Notice any connections, coincidences, crossovers or synchronicities?