Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

20th Century Fox DVD screen capture
WHO: William Fox produced this film and F.W. Murnau directed it.

WHAT: One of those rarities of cinema: a technical marvel with a living, beating heart. As I wrote in my 2009 essay on this film when it screened at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's Valentine's Day event:
Charles Rosher, one of the top cinematographers in Hollywood, had spent time with Murnau in Berlin serving as an unofficial consultant on Faust, the director’s most effects-laden film to date. Rosher worked alongside Murnau as a student as much as an advisor, learning about the innovative German camera methods that amazed American critics and filmmakers. 
Rosher recruited Ben-Hur cinematographer Karl Struss to help him shoot Sunrise on Rochus Gliese’s elaborate sets. Gliese built a vast indoor city set designed to appear even larger through the use of forced perspective. It cost $200,000—nearly the entire budget of a typical program picture of the day. He also created a studio-bound marsh with an uneven floor that could not accommodate a dolly setup. Instead, tracks were attached to the ceiling and Struss filmed upside-down, a maneuver Rosher had observed on the Faust set. It was only one of many radical techniques used in Sunrise. Nearly every shot in the film involves a striking effect, whether from an unusual light source, a superimposition, or a complex camera movement. Yet each is motivated by allegiance to the story and its emotions. Murnau told an interviewer, “I do not take trick scenes from unusual positions just to get startling effects. To me the camera represents the eye of a person, through whose mind one is watching the events on screen.”
WHERE/WHEN: Today only at the Stanford Theatre at 3:50 PM.

WHY: The Stanford is halfway through its most appealing and ambitious program in at least the past 18 months: a tribute to the twenty year reign of the Fox Film Corporation, which began releasing films in 1915 and ceased in 1935, when it merged with the lesser-known upstart Twentieth Century Pictures. So far the series has brought little-screened films featuring stars such as Clara Bow, Will Rogers, Spencer Tracy, and Janet Gaynor, the luminous star of Sunrise who rose from her roots in San Francisco (where she went to Polytechnic High School and was employed by the Castro Theatre) to become the first Best Actress Oscar winner for this film as well as Seventh Heaven and Street Angel. All three of these masterpieces will be screened at the Stanford in 35mm prints as part of its Silent Sunday series, and I can hardly imagine a better introduction to most of these films if you've never seen them before, or to the Stanford if you've never traveled to Palo Alto to visit it before. Gaynor also features in The Johnstown Flood, the rarest of the Stanford's Silent Sunday offerings (on a double bill with Seventh Heaven December 6th) and Lucky Star, which screens with Murnau's lovely final film made in the United States, City Girl, to close the Fox Film Corporation series December 20th as the Stanford moves into its traditional Christmastime screenings: The Shop Around the Corner, It's A Wonderful Life, etc.

Dennis James, Wurlitzer organist extraordinaire, has been performing live music to all the Stanford's Silent Sundays screenings thus far, and will continue to do so for the final three Sundays of the series. Today he gets a week off, as the Stanford has elected to screen Sunrise not with live music but with the pioneering sound-on-film Movietone score that was prepared for the film's original 1927 release in the United States. This score is beloved by many fans of Sunrise but I find it merely adequate and more interesting as a historical curiosity than as an artistic statement. I'm swayed by Janet Bergstrom's research that indicates it was quite possibly not, as is frequently assumed today, prepared by famous composer Hugo Riesenfeld, who definitely composed the musical score for Murnau's swan song Tabu: a Story of the South Seas. To me, it sounds like a mostly-pedestrian compilation score whose tendency to be overwhelmed by non-musical sound effects destroys some of Murnau's poetic treatment of soundless sound in the film (such as in the scene of George O'Brien reacting to an off-screen dog bark, as pictured above). I always found it interesting that Dennis James has so frequently spoken of his insistence on performing originally-composed scores to silent films for which scholars have found them, but often ignores his own rules when it comes to Movietone or Vitaphone soundtracks, having played his own scores to Sunrise and to West of Zanzibar when at the SF Silent Film Festival in 2009. In the case of Sunrise, perhaps he feels (and if so, I agree) that the Movietone score that premiered in New York is less sacrosanct than the live score performed in Los Angeles would be were it not lost to the sands of time.

In fact more notable on today's Silent Sunday docket is the presentation of the almost universally beloved Movietone score to John Ford's heartbreaking, Sunrise-esque World War I picture Four Sons, which was to the disappointment of many excluded from the 2007 DVD release of the film. Rarely screened in any form, Four Sons will be for many attendees today the real gem of the program; I've only seen it once myself and never in a cinema, but still I can imagine myself being among them despite my deep, abiding love for Sunrise.

Other upcoming Stanford screenings of particular note include the wonderful Me & My Gal this Wednesday and Thursday, my favorite Janet Gaynor talkie (heck, one of my all-time favorite films as well) State Fair on December 18-19, and most unusually a December 4-5 triple bill of the rumored-excellent Zoo in Budapest along with Seventh Heaven/Street Angel/Lucky Star director Frank Borzage's bizarre 1930 version of Ferenc Molnár's play Liliom as well as Fritz Lang's 1934 version (which I have yet to see). The last of these is a real surprise to see on a Stanford calendar, as it's not a Fox film at all but Lang's sole film made in France on his way out of Germany and into Hollywood. In my fifteen years or so of following the Stanford calendars I'm positive this is the first time I've seen a French film booked for a theatre that in my experience focuses exclusively on classic Hollywood and British productions with the two notable auteurist exceptions of Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray. Given that I have to stretch to imagine any other currently-operating Frisco Bay cinemas willing to book a 1934 French film in 35mm, I welcome this development wholeheartedly.

Luckily, although the Liliom/Zoo in Budapest/Liliom bill screens on the same day as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's December 5th "Day of Silents", it also screens the day before, so it won't be necessary to miss a rare 35mm screening of the Anna May Wong vehicle Piccadilly, or the other offerings at the Castro Theatre that day. I'm excited to revisit Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate, this time with Alloy Orchestra accompaniment and introduced by Tracey Goessel, whose new Fairbanks biography The First King of Hollywood I'm in the midst of devouring. Also to see rare documentary footage of China and a Harry Houdini feature The Grim Game. And if you've never seen Marcel L'Herbier's L'inhumaine on a cinema screen it's worth it for the set design alone. Alloy Orchestra takes on musical duties for that one as well; the rest go to the terrific pianist Donald Sosin.

The Day of Silents is just the first cinephile-catnip program on a December full of goodies at the Castro Theatre. Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre with Michael Mann's The Keep, Noir City Xmas pairing The Reckless Moment and Kiss of Death, December 17th Stop Making Sense and Laurie Anderson's Home of the Brave and a twisted Christmas booking of Brazil and Eyes Wide Shut are some of the more enticing all-35mm double-bills there this month. The venue also hosts the annual Lost Landscapes of San Francisco show December 9th and will ring in January with a set of Alfred Hitchcock masterpieces. But even more than all of those, I'm finding myself most excited for a digital presentation of a San Francisco cult classic that deserves to be far better known than it is. I'm speaking of course of Curt McDowell's Thundercrack!, starring (and scripted and lit by) the great underground film icon George Kuchar. It screens twice with director McDowell's sister Melinda and his frequent collaborator Mark Ellinger on hand at (I'm told) both shows, but only the evening show will be hosted by the one and only Peaches Christ. Even if you have no awareness of Thundercrack!, the most entertaining "Old Dark House"-style quasi-pornographic art film ever to get Fox News in a tizzy, this is a rare opportunity to see a Peaches Christ show for less than $20. Mark December 11th on your calendar- in ink!

There's a lot more happening in December at other Frisco Bay venues, but for now I'd better sign off. But in case I don't have time to put up another post before this Tuesday, December 1st, I want to point out that, with the help of other Artists' Television Access volunteers, I'll be helping to present a free 16mm screening of Curtis Choy's untoppably topical 1983 documentary The Fall of the I-Hotel at the Noe Valley Public Library, and I hope you can make it out that evening.

HOW: Sunrise screens on a 35mm double-bill with Four Sons.