Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Waxworks (1924)

WHO: Paul Leni was both director and art director on this film.

WHAT: Waxworks was the last feature made by German director Leni before he emigrated to Hollywood to make films like The Cat and the Canary and The Man Who Laughs, before an early death befell him at age 44, in 1929.

Waxworks has never been a particular favorite of mine from among the canonized classics of German expressionistic horror, but I suspect this may be because I've never seen it on the big screen. As a film, much like Murnau's masterpiece Faust, where visual design overwhelms narrative and character (even with a cast full of heavyweights: Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss and William Dieterle in main roles), it seems certain that to get the same kind of impact out of the imagery that the critics and filmmakers who canonized it did, one needs to see it on as big a screen as possible.

The film mirrors Fritz Lang's Destiny in presenting a frame story and three stories-within-stories. Jannings plays Harun al-Rashid, Veidt takes the role of Ivan the Terrible (in a sequence that Lotte Eisner claimed influenced Sergei Eisenstein), and Krauss is Spring-heeled Jack, while Dieterle portrays a writer hired by a wax museum to write narratives about these figures in his collection.

Eisner features the film prominently in a chapter called "Decorative Expressionism" in her essential book The Haunted Screen. Here's an excerpt, focusing on Leni's set design:
The low ceilings and vaults oblige the characters to stoop, and force them into those jerky movements and broken gestures which produce the extravagant curves and diagonals required by Expressionist precept. If the Expressionism in the caliph episode is confined to the settings, in the Russian episode it completely withdraws into the attitudes of the characters, as when the bloodthirsty Tsar and his counsellor move in front of a wall in carefully stylized parallel attitudes, with their trunks jack-knifed forward.
WHERE/WHEN: San Francisco International Film Festival screening tonight only at 8:30 PM at the Castro Theatre.

WHY: I'm extremely excited to see Waxworks on the Castro screen, but I'm not sure I'd recommend the experience to everyone. The screening marks the SFIFF's annual experiment in presenting a silent film with a newly-commissioned score by musicians known for working in a musical idiom, and promises to be one of the most experimental entries in this tradition. Waxworks will be accompanied by vocalist Mike Patton (of Faith No More, Fantômas, and many other musical projects) and three percussionists (Matthias Bossi, Scott Amendola and William Winant), each known for pushing the envelope of musical expression. I've followed Patton's work for years and seen him perform live several times, so "I plan to go as a Patton fan and leave my German Expressionist hat in the closet."

That quote comes from a Paste Magazine article on tonight's screening, for which I was interviewed to provide perspective on the SFIFF's long tradition of presenting silent film screenings, and some of the hazards of making film-musician pairings when the latter are novices as playing for silent film. The author, Jeremy Mathews, also interviews Sean Uyehara, the SFIFF programmer who has been the caretaker of this series in recent years, as well as Bossi, whose comments make me optimistic that tonight's score will go down as one of the better SFIFF presentations. Although I have to say that even when these pairings fail to produce a stellar film-music combination, I sometimes enjoy the event quite a bit anyway; hearing Mountain Goats perform a lovely set on the Castro Theatre stage, and seeing a terrific print of Sir Arne's Treasure flicker on its screen, at a December 2010 Film Society event was very much worth my while, even if it was as if the two activities were happening in the same space and time without one having much to do with the other.

For those who desire a more authentic silent film & live music experience, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum continues to provide one weekly, and has just announced its May and June schedules as well as the line-up of its June 28-30 Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, which will include a Saturday matinee screening of a German silent from 1926, The Adventures of Prince Achmed with Judith Rosenberg on piano. And although the July San Francisco Silent Film Festival hasn't announced its program yet, but it's been leaking a few titles through various channels (most recently Safety Last! through Facebook), including a German title starring Werner Krauss, The Joyless Street. In the meantime they of course host nine early films by the German-trained Alfred Hitchcock at the Castro in June.

If you're not a Mike Patton (or Matthias Bossi or Scott Amerndola or William Winant) fan, and you're not sure you want to attend a classic film screening with a musical soundtrack likely to be incongruous to styles used during the jazz age, the SFIFF is screening three other classics of a far more recent vintage today. The 1971 Finnish made-for-television work Eight Deadly Shots screens for five and a half hours this afternoon. Meanwhile, the 1993 Best Picture nominee The Fugitive screens as part of a Harrison Ford in-person tribute. And in the evening, conflicting with the Waxworks screening, director William Freidkin will be at New People to screen his underrated 1985 thriller To Live & Die In L.A. 

HOW: Waxworks will screen via a 35mm print from Cineteca de Bologna.

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