a weekend of silent cinema

There’s a reason why the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is considered one of the premiere film festivals in the city (and the world, for that matter), what with its procurement of luminous 35mm prints from international archives, presentations of commissioned restorations, live musical accompaniment, handsomely produced festival booklets, etc, etc. But with individual ticket prices ranging from $15-$20 each, it is, sadly, no friend to a student budget, and I was only able to afford two tickets this year, alas.

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It was with the awareness that Allan Dwan is currently undergoing something of a critical renaissance (a large retrospective in NYC, a massive new 400-page biography by Frederic Lombardi, the release of an equally substantial free(!) e-book of collected essays and reviews, etc) that we bought tickets for The Half-Breed (1916), an early Douglas Fairbanks vehicle that is also one of the prolific director’s earliest feature films. Fairbanks plays the titular character, a man named Lo whose mixed heritage–his Native American mother was cruelly abandoned by his unknown father white–is not fully embraced by either community and so instead makes the wilderness his home. His personal charisma, athletic prowess, and intimate knowledge of nature, however, make him a magnet for the women of a small wilderness town, and the town’s “respectable” men employ racist social conventions as a cover of their utter loathing of his existence and justify their violent plans to excise him from

Expensively made and ambitious in scope, it was a box office flop, and according to the introductory lecture at the screening, Fairbanks in particular tracked all incoming receipts, and from that point forward always made sure to carefully cater his performances to public expectations. half breed doug fairbanksBecause this is not at all the Doug Fairbanks of the wide grin and broad gestures, but a characterization marked by cross-armed stoicism (Lombardi says its the actor “at his most dour,” which I think is a rather unfortunate and unfair choice of words). Either way, audiences in 1916 weren’t interested in this Fairbanks persona, but it makes for a very naturalistic and extremely dignified performance when viewed today, and all the more interesting because the impassiveness prevents the characterization from ever descending into gross stereotypes. Endlessly utilized by the film as a means through which to point out racial bigotry, religious hypocrisy, and individual and social prejudices of all kinds, Fairbank’s good humor and indignation toward a variety of injustices prevents this from being a one-dimensional portrait of the familiar “noble savage” figure, and instead creates a multi-faceted portrait of a misunderstood man. 

But even more than Fairbanks, The Half-Breed features two excellent female performances, by Jewel Carmen and, particularly, the tragic Alma Rubens, both who shine in contrasting roles that are atypically well-rounded for the era–perhaps the result of Anita Loos’s contribution as co-writer of the screenplay. Also worthy of note is Victor Fleming’s work as cinematographer, with the location shooting taking full advantage of the soaring vistas of the Sequoia National Forest. Despite all of these laudable elements, the financial failure of the film upon its initial led to it being frantically recut, and a number of shorter, re-edited versions ended up circulating for years; a reconstruction has been made drawing from all surviving material, and the restoration work on the image is uniformly gorgeous. It’s not exactly a find that’s going to rewrite cinema history or anything, but I hope it is made widely available, because it’s definitely an interesting film well worth seeing (35mm).

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Another powerful–but extremely different–rendering of complex human emotions and interactions playing against the vast backdrop of nature is Victor Sjöström’s The Outlaw and His Wife (1918). The plot is basic: a man who was compelled by circumstances to commit a criminal act is forced into a life of hiding in the bleak expanses of rural Iceland. Eventually he takes on a manual labor position at a farm of a rich and generous widow, and judging from the title alone, it’s not hard to figure out the trajectory of their relationship. Things get more interesting when the man’s past inevitably comes back to haunt him, forcing him to return to hiding, only this time around with his new wife in tow. Sjöström plays the role of the outlaw himself, and it is rather startling to see the man who is most familiar to American audiences as the frail elderly gentleman of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries here appear as a robust (and extremely handsome) young man who gets a job because he can effortlessly sling a large wooden chest over his shoulder and carry it up a ladder. It is also worth noting that the actress who plays the wife, Edith Erastoff, would in several years become Sjöström’s own.

But if I’ve focused almost solely on the acting and storyline, the most impressive and memorable element of the film is the landscape itself, which constantly dwarfs the human figures both in its scale and its unrelenting harshness, imagesand the interplay between humans and the natural world creates its own sub-narrative to the overall plot. Also crucial to the experience was the musical accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble of the original score composed for the film, and I particularly liked how it emphasized the ethereal qualities of Sjöström’s image’s, and stretches of the film subsequently began to play like a dream. The opening presenter went out of his way to note that it’s a superior score to the one included on the widely available Kino DVD, and I absolutely believe it. Overall I never found the film to quite reach the heights Sjöström achieved several years later with The Phantom Carriage (1921), but it’s an excellent film nonetheless (35mm).

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week in review – 07/10 – 07/15/12

Theatrical Viewing

Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria) (Fellini, Italy, 1957) – PFA, 35mm; 2nd viewing

Ted (MacFarlane, USA, 2012) – Century Theater, Digital Projection

At the San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre:

The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna (Schwarz, Germany, 1929) – 35mm

The Docks of New York (von Sternberg, 1928) – 35mm

Stella Dallas (H. King, USA, 1925) – 35mm

Le voyage dans la lune (The Voyage to the Moon) (Restored Color Version) (Méliès, France, 1902 – Digital Projection; 3rd viewing

The Cameraman (Keaton, USA, 1928) – 35mm

Home Viewing

Ulysse (Varda, France, 1982) – Digital Projection, Fandor; 2nd viewing

The Extraordinary Voyage (Bromberg & Lange, France, 2011) – Digital Projection, Fandor

Alice Neel (Neel, USA, 2007) – Netflix Instant (expired)

Upcoming Possibilities

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Zeitlin, USA, 2012)

Sandra (Visconti, Italy, 1965) – PFA, 07/25


week in review – 06/25 – 07/01/12

Better late than never!

Theatrical Viewings

Barbarella (Vadim, France/Italy, 1968) – Castro Theatre, 35mm; 2nd viewing

Roman Holiday (Wyler, USA, 1953) – Stanford Theatre, 35mm; 3rd viewing

Sabrina (Wilder, USA, 1954) – Stanford Theatre, 35mm; 2nd viewing

Home Viewing

Les dites cariatides (The So-Called Caryatids) (short) (Varda, France,) – Digital Projection, Fandor

Elsa la rose (short) (Varda, France, 1965) – Digital Projection, Fandor

The Girl’s Nervy (short) (Reeves, USA, 1995) – Digital Projection, Fandor

Upcoming Possibilities

The Connection (Clarke, USA, 1962) – Roxie, 06/29 – 07/05

Beyond the Black Rainbow (Cosmatos, Canada, 2012) – Roxie, 06/29 – 07/07

Le amiche (Antonioni, Italy, 1955) – PFA, 07/06

Always For Pleasure (Blank, USA, 1978) – PFA, 07/07

great illusionary delusions

There’s precious little I can say about La grande illusion (Renoir, France, 1936) that hasn’t been said before and likely many times over, so I won’t even try. Like the other Renoir masterpiece Le règle de jeu from a few years later, Illusion is a one of those films perennially at play at the “best ever made” cinephile games; both are films I ended up liking/appreciating more upon reviewings but have yet to genuinely warm up to (this is more or less the case with Renoir in general, unfortunately).

Not that I wasn’t immune to the magisterial depiction of the slow crack-up of the European class system(s) under the weight of the First World War–the film remains the benchmark of how to elegantly delineate the intricate intersections of class status, language, patriotism, illusions (and the inevitable, accompanying disillusions), sacrifice, friendship, and fraternité in a manner that is lucid but never lacks in complexity.  The wary pas de deux between Maréchal and Boleidieu, together lamenting the passing of a centuries-old way of life and their privileged place within it, remain the highlight of the film, so much so that it’s rather impressive Renoir avoided the impulse in making the entire film into some kind of poignant, nostalgic elegy.

But at the same time Renoir also resists turning Jean Gabin (& co.) into idealistic symbols of emerging European populism–even as they trek across shimmering expanses of untrodden snow that seem to beckon a bright new future, it is disquieting how the tensions that occasionally emerge between Gabin (of the French/European working class) and Marcel Dalio (of the prosperous Jewish merchant class) seem to prophetically hint at dark chapters of history soon to unfold.

And while it might be an early depiction of such a situation, from a contemporary standpoint the appearance of haloed Dita Parlo as the shy but sympathetic German hausfrau can’t help but feel a bit like a musty cliché (such was my boyfriend’s criticism), but for me it did end up taking the film to a different dimension of emotional engagement it never quite manages to reach otherwise. Also of note: Rialto’s 75th anniversary restoration is gorgeous–it’s traveling across the country all summer; prioritize it if it’s going to being crossing your path.

[Seen at the Castro Theatre, 06/01/12]

week(s) in review – 06/04 – 06/17/12

I didn’t realize I had forgotten to post an update last week!  Busy viewing weeks too.  All first viewings unless otherwise noted.

Theatrical

The Color Wheel (Perry, USA, 2012) – Roxie Theater, 35mm

Daisies (Chytilová, Czechoslovakia, 1966) – PFA, 35mm; 3rd viewing

Nightwatching (Greenaway,UK/Netherlands/ Poland/Canada, 2007) – PFA, 35mm

Moonrise Kingdom (W. Anderson, USA, 2012) – Metreon, Digital

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, USA, 1953) – Stanford, 35mm; 5th(?) viewing

The Films of Nathaniel Dorsky: Recent Films Program – PFA, all 16mm:

  • August and After (Dorsky, 2012)
  • The Return (Dorksy, 2011)
  • Pastourelle (Dorsky, 2010)
  • Compline (Dorsky, 2010)
  • Aubade (Dorsky, 2010)
  • Sarabande (Dorsky, 2009)
  • Winter (Dorsky, 2008)

Home Viewing

The Thin Red Line (Malick, USA, 1998) – Projected Blu-ray

Let Me Die a Woman (Wishman, USA, 1978) –  Projected Digital Streaming (Fandor)

The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (Rappaport, USA, 1997) – Projected Digital Streaming (Fandor)

John Garfield (short) (Rappaport, USA, 2002) – Projected Digital Streaming (Fandor)

The Secret of Wendel Samson (short) (M. Kuchar, USA, 1966) – Projected Digital Streaming (Fandor)

The Color of Love (short) (Ahwesh, 1994) – Projected Digital Streaming (Fandor

The Soul of Things (short) (Angerame, 2010) – Projected Digital Streaming (Fandor

Upcoming Possibilities

Keep the Lights On (Sachs, USA, 2012) – Frameline at the Castro, 06/20

Rio Bravo (Hawks, USA, 1959) – Stanford Theatre, 06/20 – 24

The Fallen Sparrow (Wallace, USA, 1943) – PFA, 06/23

The Films of Nathaniel Dorsky: Recent Films (USA, 2010–12) – PFA, 06/24


week in review – 05/28 – 06/03/12

Theatrical Viewing

Written on the Wind (Sirk, USA, 1956) – Castro Theatre, 35mm

The Tarnished Angels (Sirk, USA, 1957) – Castro Theatre, 35mm

La grande illusion (The Grand Illusion) (Renoir, France, 1937) – Castro Theatre, 35mm

Upcoming Possibilities

Rembrandt’s J’Accuse (Greenaway, UK/Netherlands, 2008) – PFA, 06/08

Nightwatching (Greenaway, UK/Netherlands/Poland/Canada, 2007) – PFA, 06/09

Daisies (Chytilová, Czechoslovakia, 1966) – PFA, 06/09

The Films of Nathaniel Dorsky: Recent Films (USA, 2010–12) – PFA, 06/10

week in review – 05/21 – 05/27/12

Despite the fact it was the first week of summer vacation, other priorities didn’t allow much time for movie viewing.  All first viewings.

Theatrical Viewing

Harold and Maude (Ashby, USA, 1971) – Castro Theatre, 35mm

Brewster McCloud (Altman, USA, 1970) – Castro Theatre, 35mm

Upcoming Possibilities

Written on the Wind (Sirk, USA, 1956) and The Tarnished Angels (Sirk, USA, 1957) – Castro Theatre, 05/30

Keyhole (Maddin, Canada, 2012) – Roxie Theatre, through 05/31

Once Upon a Time in AnatoliaSFFS, through 05/31

La grande illusion (The Grand Illusion) (Renoir, France, 1937) – Castro Theatre, 06/01 – 03

The Color Wheel (Perry, USA, 2012) – Roxie Theater, 06/01 – 07

week(s) in review – 04/02 – 05/13/12

So as I expected Memories of the Future was forced into a temporary hiatus in consideration of academic priorities, but I turned in my last paper of the semester this evening, and I’m eager to channel my focus towards several exciting projects that have presented themselves, and I’ve jotted down notes on a number of topics I’d like to post on here, starting with my forthcoming contribution to this year’s Film Preservation Blogathon, which kicked off yesterday.

To say nothing of all the films in store for Bay Area cinephiles this summer: the first weekend of the Roxie’s film noir series “I Wake Up Dreaming” was amazing, the Crossroads Festival for experimental film next weekend looks mind-blowing, the Silent Film Festival has announced an impressive lineup, the PFA has several programs this summer I’m eagerly awaiting (Dorsky!  Greenaway!  Czech New Wave!), Frameline will be here in several months, and the list goes on and on…

As usual, first viewing unless otherwise noted.

Theatrical Viewing


The Penal Colony
(Ruiz, Chile, 1970) – PFA, 16mm

A TV Dante: Cantos 9–14 (Ruiz, UK, 1991)  – PFA, 3/4″ Video

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (Greenaway, UK, 1989) – Castro Theatre, 35mm

Zabriskie Point (Antonioni, USA, 1970) – Castro Theatre, 35mm

Whores’ Glory (Glawogger, Austria/Germany, 2012) – PFA, 35mm

Workingman’s Death (Glawogger, Austria/Germany, 2005) – PFA, 35mm

Kill Daddy Good Night (Das Vaterspiel) (Glawogger, Germany, 2009) – PFA, Digital Projection

Megacities (Glawogger, Austria, 1998) – PFA, 35mm

The Day He Arrives (Hong, South Korea, 2012) – SFFS Cinema, 35mm

Galaxie (Markopoulos, USA, 1966) – SFMOMA, 16mm

The Big Combo (J. Lewis, USA 1955) – Roxie Theater, 35mm

The Scar (Hollow Triumph) (Sekely,  USA, 1948) – Roxie Theater, 16mm

Knock on Any Door (N. Ray, USA, 1949) – Roxie Theater, 35mm

The Royal Tenenbaums (W. Anderson, USA, 2001) – Castro Theatre, 35mm

Une si jolie petite plage (Such a Pretty Little Beach) (Allégret, France, 1949) – Roxie Theater, Digital Projection

Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945) – Roxie Theater, Digital Projection from a 35mm print; 2nd viewing

The Pretender (W.L. Wilder, USA, 1947) – Roxie Theater, 16mm

Home Viewing

The Blue Gardenia (Lang, USA, 1953) – Amazon Instant Video

Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich, USA, 1955) – Projected Blu-ray; 2nd viewing

Making the Boys (Robey, USA, 2011) – Netflix Instant

Paranormal State: Seasons 1, 2, 3, and 5 (2007 – 2010) – Netflix Instant (one of my great guilty pleasures)

In Concert

St Vincent with tUnE-yArDs – Fox Theatre

Upcoming Possibilities

Storm Over Lisbon (Sherman, USA, 1944) and Shadow of Terror (Landers, USA, 1945) – Roxie Theatre, 05/16

Killer’s Kiss (Kubrick, USA, 1955) and Female Jungle (VeSota, USA, 1956) – Roxie Theatre, 05/18

To Have and Have Not (Hawks, USA, 1944) and Sergeant York (Hawks, USA, 1941) – Stanford Theatre, May 18 – 20

As much as the Crossroads Film Festival as possible – Victoria Theatre, 05/18 – 20

week(s) in review, 03/19 – 04/01/2012

I blame midterm craziness for the lack of updates, and as I’m diving headfirst into final papers I’m not sure if the situation is going to change much in the upcoming six weeks or so.  And I have so many updates I’d like to make–particularly regarding the epic experience that was seeing Napoleon.  2012 viewings also memorably kicked off over the last two weeks.  As usual, first viewing unless otherwise noted.

Theatrical Viewing

Napoleon Poster Paramount Theatre OaklandNapoleon (Abel Gance, France, 1927) – Paramount Theatre, 35mm (x3!)

The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (Raúl Ruiz, France, 1979) – PFA, 35mm; 2nd viewing

Le colloque de chiens (Dog’s Dialogue) (Raúl Ruiz, France, 1977) – PFA, 35mm; 2nd viewing

The House of Pleasures (Bonello, France, 2012) – SF Film Society, 35mm

The Deep Blue Sea (Davis, UK, 2012) – Embarcadero Landmark; 35mm

Friends with Kids (Westfeld, USA, 2012) – Century SF, Digital Projection

Crazy Horse (Wiseman, 2012) – Roxie Theatre, Digital Projection

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Gelb, USA, 2012) – Embarcadero Landmark; Digital Projection

Upcoming Possibilites

The Penal Colony (Ruiz, Chile, 1970) with A TV Dante: Cantos 9–14 (Ruiz, UK, 1991)  – PFA, 04/04

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (Greenaway, UK, 1989) – Castro Theatre, 04/05