Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Unknown (1927)

 A scene from Tod Browning's THE UNKNOWN, which will screen with live musical accompaniment by Stephin Merritt at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24 - May 8. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Tod Browning directed, and Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford star in this film.

WHAT: Eventually every film lover who digs deep enough into the most remarkable and unusual treasures of film history comes across The Unknown, a circus-set tale of obsession, blackmail, and revenge. It's best if he or she knows as little as possible about the plot specifics before watching it for the first time however. But I don't think it's a spoiler, or a risk of overselling it, to say that it contains Lon Chaney's most remarkable physical and emotional performance, and that I consider it one of the great cinematic works of the late 1920s, too-often unfairly relegated to sideshow status to the kinds of films that were considered for Academy Awards and/or received frequent citations in film history books. The Unknown barely even rated a mention in the 1957 Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces, in part because that film was made at Universal, which saw Chaney's Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame as far overshadowing the films he made with Tod Browning and others at MGM, and in part I suspect because its subject matter was still considered too hot to handle even in the waning years of the Motion Picture Production Code. That's all fine, as it helps The Unknown feel less like an old "warhorse" and more like a gem waiting to be discovered, even today.

If you do want to read more about the film, Sean McCourt wrote an article for this very blog about the last time it screened in the Bay Area almost six years ago.

WHERE/WHEN: 8PM tonight only at the Castro Theatre, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival.

WHY: I'm not going to earn any "cool points" from certain purists by admitting this, but I've attended just about every live music/silent film event the San Francisco Film Society has put on in the past fourteen years, and I regret attending none of them. Last year I was quoted in an article discussing the history of these screenings, and I'm afraid I came off as a little more curmudgeonly than I really feel. It's true that some of these events (Mountain Goats and Sir Arne's Treasure; Black Francis's The Golem) are really just music concerts with a 35mm print running overhead a band playing the kinds of songs it usually does, with little attempt to connect musical and film content beyond providing inspiration for the setlist. But I can certainly enjoy that kind of experience even if I don't necessarily consider what's happening "accompaniment" or a "score". Increasingly I'm just thankful to get to see silent films in 35mm, no matter what the sound in the venue is like.

These are unique events in that you really don't know what you're going to get when you walk into them. I had no idea what to expect last Tuesday when I went to see Thao Nguyen and her band the Get Down Stay Down, one of the few instances in which the SFIFF has presented one of these events with a band I was not already something of a fan of. I sat next to my friend Dakin Hardwick, who was covering the event for the Spinning Platters website, and has written an excellent summary of the event from the perspective of a Thao fan who'd never seen a Charlie Chaplin film before. A few seats away on my other side was silent film aficionado Lincoln Specter, a film-blogging colleague whose account I agree with almost completely, although I'd note that the low-budget classic The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra is as much influenced by Soviet film trends as German ones. I found the evening tremendously entertaining, and it was great to see The Pawnshop and several short newsreels from the National Film Preservation Foundation's haul of treasures recently repatriated from New Zealand (as well as 9413), in 35mm prints. 

Neither Dakin nor Lincoln really commented on the thematic unity of all the mixed-and-matched films and videos from various moviemaking eras, which only truly became apparent in the final of three short videos directed by Lauren Tabak and starring Nguyen, which made joking reference  to one of the Hearst Movietone clips screened earlier in the program. Nguyen is clearly aware of the historical demands of show business, in which women have found themselves offered as a commodity for audience consumption; performing on a stage built for nubile dancers to provide pre-film spectacle back in 1922 was a way to reclaim female power out of such a situation.

What Nguyen and company did was, again, not what I'd call a "score" for any of the films shown, but it was totally of a piece, and worked well as an evening's entertainment. Arguably better than some prior attempts by SFIFF-selected bands to compose or adapt music for a true film accompaniment. I thought last year's Waxworks score by Mike Patton, Matthias Bossi, Scott Amerndola and William Winant was possibly the most successfully realized of these attempts, but I know there are those who disagree with me even placing it in this category. Others, like Jonathan Richman's The Phantom Carriage and Stephin Merritt's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were, for me, largely admirable attempts that suffered a few too serious problems to truly succeed. As the latter ended, I tweeted that I "overall enjoyed the audaciousness of it all. Applied to an inarguable non-masterpiece, it doesn't fell like a wasted opportunity." I hope that Merritt learned a few lessons from that night, since he's being brought back tonight to provide the music for The Unknown, and is expected to tackle a third silent sometime down the road.

Anyway, if it doesn't work out, the professional silent film accompanists will arrive in full force (minus any organists, sadly) for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival which comes sooner than usual this year. It runs May 29 through June 1, in a cost-cutting attempt to take advantage of cheaper air and hotel rates for festival guests than traditionally found in July. There's only three feature films in this year's program I've seen in full before, the lowest such tally in many a year. All three are well worth watching, even if they're not their director's respective masterpieces: Carl Dreyer's The Parson's Widow, Yasujiro Ozu's Dragnet Girl and Buster Keaton's The Navigator. Of the others, I've long been wanting to see 35mm prints of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Underground, and The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, and am crossing my fingers these titles screen that way. Most of the others I've never or barely heard of at all, and am excited just to experience however I can, but especially on the Castro screen with top-class accompaniment.

If you can't wait that long, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum hosts silent 16mm screenings with live musicians every Saturday and have just announced their line-ups for May and June, including their weekend-long Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival which includes showings of proven classic titles like The Big Parade, Gertie the Dinosaur and The Circus as well as many lesser-known films.

HOW: The Unknown will screen in a rare 35mm print, with live accompaniment by Stephin Merritt. It will be preceded by a Guy Maddin short film Sissy Boy Slap Party, the soundtrack for which Merritt and accordionist Daniel Handler hope to whip the audience into a frenzy of participation.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Day 13 hosts the last scheduled screening of Tangerines, a Georgian (as in former Soviet Republic of) film that I've heard nothing but praise about from festgoers who've had a chance to see it already. Among other options there's also Charlie McDowell's The One I Love, one of three programs happening over the next couple days that were added to the festival schedule after the program books went to press, as noted on Gary Meyer's new EatDrinkFilms website.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The New Parkway in Oakland holds a special screening of a 2008 documentary called Children of the Amazon at 7:00 with the director present tonight.

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