Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Silents Are Golden

Let me see if I can explain this in an easily understandable format:

"Hi, everyone. My name is George and I'm a silent film fan."


"I'm trying to recover from my weekend at the 2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I went to 13 screenings in a little over two days."


"No, I don't think you quite understand where I'm going with this. I was on a cinematic high all weekend -- it was an unbelievable experience."


"I don't think you can. I'm way beyond help (friends tell me I've been beyond help for years). This year's festival almost did me in."


"You don't get it. Moderation is totally irrelevant when faced with such an embarrassment of riches. There were some moments when the music was even better than the film."


"No, I'm saying that the experience of watching silent films the way they're supposed to be seen -- on a big screen like the one at the Castro Theatre, with live accompaniment by gifted musicians, and accompanied by an army of silent film lovers -- is an experience that's hard to beat."


"I'm telling you, you had to be there."

That's the bottom line for silent film festivals. You just have to be there. Watching silent films on a small screen doesn't cut it. With Anita Monga as Acting Artistic Director, this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival struck out in a new direction. I don't know whether this came about as a result of Ms. Monga's input or because the musicians decided to take some new risks. But no matter how you look at it, 2009 was the first year in which composition, musicology and some virtuoso keyboard work gave the silent films some stiff competition.

Over the years (as the festival has tried to include silent films from other nations), new sounds have tantalized audiences in the Castro Theater.
This year's festival included silent films from China, Czechoslovakia, Russia and Mars. As fascinating as some of the films were, some of the musical choices were even more interesting.

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Improved trade relations with China have helped the United States in many ways. One tiny bit of wonderment is access to restored versions of Chinese silent films. One of the guests of honor at this year's festival was Qin Yi, the 88-year-old widow of Chinese film star Jin Yan. A former film actress with a career spanning nearly 70 years on screen, she was given the festival's first "Living Legend Award." The 2009 Silent Film Festival Award was simutaneously bestowed upon the China Film Archive, whose help in restoring silent film has been invaluable. Founded in 1958, the China Film Archive has saved numerous classics of Chinese cinema, including silent films produced prior to World War II.

A party scene from Wild Rose.

For this year's festival, audiences were blessed with a chance to watch director Sun Yu's 1932 film, Wild Rose, starring Jin Yan as a young artist from a wealthy Shanghainese family and then 17-year-old Wang Renmei (also known as "Tiger Cat") as Xiao Feng, the impoverished and carefree country "goose girl" who falls in love with him and (following her own father's disappearance under curious circumstances) accompanies him to Shanghai.

Jin Yan

Accompanist Donald Sosin was confronted with a curious challenge by Wild Rose. Performing on both flute and piano, he had to find a way to capture the following environments:
  • Rural Chinese poverty.
  • A tiny apartment which houses a quartet of idealistic revolutionaries and artists (similar to Puccini's La Boheme)
  • The jazz-era sophistication of a wealthy Shanghai businessman's home (a beautiful Art Deco set)
  • The growing militarism of China's population.
Although Wild Rose follows the young woman's growth from a poor peasant to someone who can inspire her friends (before ending up back in poverty), I found the film most interesting in how clearly it depicted the different standards of living for the rural poor, rich urbanites, and struggling artists/revolutionaries. Sosin's sensitive scoring went a long way toward creating atmospheres that ranged from traditional Chinese to jazz idioms.

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The presence of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra was a major asset for the screening of Erotikon, a 1929 silent film from Czechoslovakia with a striking visual style. Directed by Gustav Machaty when he was a mere 28 years old, the film is doubly blessed by Vaclav Vich's cinematography and Alexander Hackenschmeid's art direction.

The plot of Erotikon follows the sexual awakening and maturation of a young girl named Andrea (Ita Rina), whose father (Karel Schleichert) is the guardsman at a rural train depot. One dark and stormy night, traveling engineer Olaf Fjord (George Sydney) knocks on the window pane, seeking shelter until the next train. After seducing Andrea (and leaving her pregnant), he heads off on his travels but she cannot forget him. A man of many loves, Olaf is surprised to receive a letter from Andrea telling him how much he means to her.

Ita Rina and George Sydney in Erotikon

One of Olaf's mistresses, Gilda (Charlotte Susa), is married to a rather fussy, overweight and clueless man (Theodor Pistek). Although Gilda has a key to Olaf's apartment, her cuckolded husband is a bit of a dolt, thinking that she's joking when she arrives late for an appointment and tells him she was with her lover.

Meanwhile, in another part of Czechoslovakia, Andrea has delivered a stillborn infant. After an attempt at hitchhiking turns sour, she is rescued by a man named Jean (Luigi Serventi), who kills her assailant but is wounded in the fight. When Jean wakes up in a hospital, he is told that his "wife" was the one who donated the blood that saved his life. Not having any idea who his wife could be, he asks to see her and is reunited with Andrea.

Time passes, they marry, and then one day, Jean sets out to purchase a piano. Who should be playing the exact display piano that he wants but Olaf! As soon as Olaf and Andrea set eyes on each other, each begins to wonder if their love could still be viable. When Jean invites Olaf to dinner, things begin to get complicated. Meanwhile, Gilda and Olaf are at each other's throats and Hilbert is beginning to think that his wife is less than faithful.

Marital infidelity may rest at the core of Erotikon, but what really shines is the way Machaty uses the camera for intense personal closeups and as a way of focusing in on objects like an Art Deco compact (or the key to Olaf's apartment) as a way of cuing the audience. The film includes an extended chess scene in which Olaf and Jean are pitted against each other as, on the sidelines, Andrea's face betrays her conflicting loyalties.

Ita Rina in Erotikon

With Rodney Sauer leading the ensemble from the piano, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra did a wonderful job of conveying passionate longing, intrigue, and underscoring key moments of the film with a series of slowly-building climaxes that reminded me of some of Gounod's and Wagner's techniques for building a relentless sense of suspense.

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Released in 1924, Aelita Queen of Mars is a rather schizophrenic experience for silent film fans. Much of the action takes place during the Russian revolution, while the more interesting segments of the film are set on a faraway planet with gloriously campy sets and costumes designed by Cubo-Futurist Aleksandra Ekster (one of the founders of Art Deco).

With a reputation somewhere between a cult film and a camp classic, Aelita's renaissance over the past two decades is partially due to silent film organist Dennis James, who took a special interest in the film and composed a unique score for it (with appropriate leitmotifs) back in 1992. Whereas modern audiences are used to hearing all kinds of cheesy sound effects for grade Z science fiction films, the phenomenon is very different when the music is being performed live in front of a silent film.

If you take the time to watch this clip of Aelita, Queen of Mars (the entire film can be viewed on YouTube), you'll see what happens when someone tries to slap some interesting classical music (in this case The Planets by Gustav Holst as well as the French national anthem, La Marseillaise) onto the film without really thinking about how the film and music should complement each other.

Directed by Yakov Protazanov, Aelita, Queen of Mars is the kind of film you're glad to see once for historical purposes. Too long, too complicated, and a bit boring, the film is at its best on Mars. Having been able to examine life on earth through a wonderful new telescopic invention, Aelita demands that she be touched (kissed) on the lips the way she has seen people behave on Earth. Perhaps the campiest moment comes when it is decreed that 2/3 of the Martian workforce must be sent to the refrigerators.

What really made the evening special for me was the musicianship of Dennis James (playing the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer organ as well as the theremin) with Mark Goldstein on Buchla Lightning wands. For a fascinating look at how Goldstein created the sound effects for Aelita, click here to see a video from UC-Berkeley's Department of Music's Center for New Music and Audio Technologies. Click here to watch Goldstein demonstrate how he synthesized the sound of Russian accordians (a feature not available on the Wurlitzer).

When push comes to shove, Aelita, Queen of Mars is much more an item to satisfy one's curiosity about cinema history than arouse one's passions for Russian film. At least I can now say that I've seen it and move on to other items on my bucket list. If, however, you're looking for some new ideas for Halloween, Aelita, Queen of Mars is chock full of inspiration.

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