Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Keeping Score

One of the unanticipated benefits of web-based services like YouTube and Facebook is that a few zillion hours have been spent by people all over the world watching videos of animals. Whether the star of the video is a family pet or a predator in the wild, what makes most of these videos go viral is not just the visual content but the music which has been added to the experience. Just as different folks appreciate different strokes, what one person might deem pleasant to the ear might cause another to click the "silent" button.

A scene from SCORE: A Film Music Documentary

Earlier this year, the San Francisco International Film Festival offered a screening of a fascinating new documentary written and directed by Matt Schrader. While Score: A Film Music Documentary takes viewers inside the history, challenges, and process of creating music to accompany a film, many audiences are so engrossed in the action unfolding before them that they remain unaware of the music enhancing their experience. On many occasions, that music plays a key role in shaping their feelings of suspense, warmth, and exhilaration. As Schrader explains:
Film music speaks to us in a language we can understand, but few of us can speak. Like many a cinephile, I remember the stirring rhythms of The Good The Bad and The Ugly, the spine-tingling orchestral finale of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and the pounding, adrenaline-pumping awe of The Dark Knight's final ride. These are moments where, almost inexplicably, we as viewers transcend the story we're being told. The music speaks to us in ways we can't intellectually grasp, but in ways our heart still can. These moments prove that the right picture paired with the right sound can create a physical change in our heartbeats, our tear ducts, even our arms and legs. They create chills. Cold shivers. Goose bumps.”
A scene from SCORE: A Film Music Documentary

What was the most difficult challenge Schrader faced while filming SCORE? "Scheduling was an immense headache during production. What many people don't know is that most prominent film composers are in extremely high demand, which means their schedules can be booked solid for months at a time while they're trying to brainstorm, write, orchestrate, record and mix," he explains. "We had to wait more than a year for one of our favorite composers, Bear McCreary, because he was working on six television shows and, as it turned out, the uber-secret 10 Cloverfield Lane."

A scene from SCORE: A Film Music Documentary

One of the most surprising facts to emerge from Schrader's documentary is that the musicians who perform during a film's recording session are usually sight-reading the composer's score. While many may bypass SCORE in search of more exciting, political, or historical documentaries, Schrader's film is a must-see for any devoted cinephile.

Although many great film composers (Hans Zimmer, John Barry, Danny Elfman, Bernard Hermann, Ennio Morricone, Elmer Bernstein, Henry Mancini) have been hailed for their contributions to cinematic history, few have received the loving treatment that Seth MacFarlane and his friends have showered on John Williams.

In recent years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has become as much a celebration of silent film as an art form as it has been about the experience of being able to watch a silent film with live accompaniment by talented musicians. Two screenings of beautifully restored films at the 2017 festival could not have done a better job of matching musicians with a film suited to their aesthetic.

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Like many young boys, I was fascinated by dinosaurs. My thirst for sauropod adventures was triggered by trips to the dinosaur halls within the American Museum of Natural History, a growing number of plastic dinosaur toys, the scale model kits manufactured and sold by Revell, and The Rite of Spring segment in 1940's Fantasia.

Although televised screenings of films like 1953's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1954's Godzilla, 1959's Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1961's Gorgo, and 1962's Reptilicus were met with a combination of reverence and glee, the fact that my father was a high school biology teacher gave me a rare treat. How so? He was able to show me clips from Harry O. Hoyt's 1925 version of The Lost World (the screen adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel which became a major step forward in stop-motion animation).

Poster art for Harry O. Hoyt's The Lost World (1925)

With Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger, Lewis Stone as Lord John Roxton, and Lloyd Hughes as an ambitious young reporter named Edward Malone, Hoyt's film added a role that could provoke a romantic interest for actress Bessie Love and incorporated a pet monkey named Jocko into the action. The Lost World made cinematic history in two other surprising ways:
  • This was the first feature-length film to be made in the United States (and perhaps the world) that featured model animation as its raison d'etre.
  • In April 1925, aboard an Imperial Airways flight from Paris to London in a wood and fabric-hulled plane that was actually a converted bomber left over from World War I, The Lost World became the first inflight film to be shown to airline passengers despite the fact that the print being screened was made from highly flammable nitrate stock.
A scene from 1925's The Lost World

The script for the film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel deviated from its source material in several respects:
  • Although the character of the local guide (Zambo) was meant to be a fearless and loyal figure in print, as portrayed by Jules Cowles in blackface, it represents an outdated, racist stereotype to modern audiences who shun the use of the word "darkie" in contemporary language.
  • Instead of the novel’s climactic war between humans and ape-men, the film features the massive eruption of a fiery volcano that belches rivers of lava.
  • The final segment of the film, in which a brontosaurus (instead of a pterodactyl) runs amok in London, paved the way for the finale of 1933's King Kong to make cinematic history.
A scene from 1925's The Lost World

In 1905, American cartoonist Winsor McCay used a brontosaurus in his comic strip entitled Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. In 1913, McCay introduced a dinosaur named Bessie into his Little Nemo strip in an episode entitled In the Land of Wonderful Dreams. In 1914, he famously introduced Gertie the Dinosaur to the silver screen.

In his program essay Dennis Harvey explains that:
“In 1915, Willis O’Brien made an 80-second test reel that convinced San Francisco exhibitor Herman Wobber to fund The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy. That six-minute clay puppet extravaganza (animating both comedic cavemen and giant critters) was a striking enough novelty to attract distribution from Thomas Edison’s company. Its success prompted a series of hastily produced follow-up shorts, most now lost. O’Brien accepted East Coast producer Herbert M. Dawley’s offer to make another dinosaur film in which Uncle Jack conjures a Dream Valley where hermit Mad Dick (played by O’Brien) leads some adventurers to a site inhabited by prehistoric animals. The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, released in 1919, became another acclaimed novelty.”
Poster art for 1919's The Ghost of Slumber Mountain
“O’Brien found a new employer in Watterson R. Rothacker, who was eager to film Doyle’s story with the combination of animation, models, and live action pioneered in Slumber Mountain, but on a much grander scale. By far the most elaborate special-effects feature made to that point, it would be starry and lavish, delayed over production costs (approaching a million dollars), and done under the cloud of copyright claims made by Dawley. The enterprise was a big gamble both for Rothacker (whose company up until that point provided laboratory services and made advertising films) and for First National Pictures, which was absorbed by Warner Bros. three years later. But it paid off in one of the most spectacular successes of the era.”
Poster art for Harry O. Hoyt's The Lost World (1925)

Unfortunately, much of Hoyt's film went missing for decades. As Harvey explains:
“The 1925 version was quickly lost, largely because of an unfortunate 1929 agreement to withdraw prints from circulation. For decades the film was available only in worn 16-mm dupes drastically reduced to little more (or sometimes less) than an hour. It seemed unlikely that anything like a complete restoration would ever be possible. Yet beginning about a quarter-century ago, various missing pieces started to surface around the world, principally a near-complete version at the Czech national archive.”
Poster art for Harry O. Hoyt's The Lost World (1925)
“Combining elements from 11 sources, the 2016 restoration is no amusingly creaky antique. It’s a beautifully tinted, ambitious, and exciting spectacular that more than holds its own against today’s FX-laden fantasy blockbusters (the CGI era began in earnest with 1993’s Jurassic Park, which owes everything to The Lost World). Though it may not offer 100% of what audiences saw 92 years ago, the restoration is a near-seamless entity whose appeal goes beyond pure nostalgia and remains shockingly in line with modern popular taste.”

The print shown at the Castro Theatre (courtesy of Lobster Films) is about as close as one can come to Hoyt's original and obviously requires a much more compelling soundtrack than the one that accompanies Gertie the Dinosaur. True to form, the Alloy Orchestra provided a hyper-aggressive score which did a superb job of capturing the raw brutality of Conan Doyle's fantasy world ruled over by prehistoric beasts and an angry volcano. Their performance (which knocked the experience right out of the ballpark) was every bit as thrilling as what John Williams created for Jurassic Park. Although the following video does not use the Alloy Orchestra's score, it allows viewers to enjoy the recently restored film.

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While many movie fans can easily name their favorite films, it's harder to get them to talk about the ones that got away -- movies they've always wanted to see but, for one reason or another, were never able to fit into their schedule. Because I spent so many years attending live performances in theatres and opera houses on four continents, I've missed out on many a cinematic treasure that my friends have cherished for years.

Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)

In early June, I finally caught up with a legendary film on my bucket list when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented a screening of the 27-year-old Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin. My only exposure to this film had been during a college course on world cinema during which our professor turned off the lights, fired up his film projector, and showed us the famous sequence that takes place on the Odessa Steps.

Shown out of context early in the morning (when most students quickly fell back to sleep), it meant nothing. More than half a century after that class, I finally had an opportunity to understand its cinematic (as well as historic) importance and see how it fit into the larger picture of the 1905 mutiny by the crew of a Russian battleship against their officers.

Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)

It's hard to grasp how Eisenstein managed to commence shooting his film on March 31, 1925 in Leningrad, use the battleship Twelve Apostles (which was based in the port of Odessa) for his naval sequences, and still deliver the completed film in time to meet his end-of-the-year deadline (the script didn't receive final approval until June 4). Eisenstein's first feature film, Strike, premiered on April 28, 1925. Battleship Potemkin's world premiere took place at the famed Bolshoi Theatre on December 21, 1925 at a ceremonial meeting marking the 20th anniversary of the 1905 revolution. Since then, Battleship Potemkin has had a long and impressive history.
  • Eisenstein's spectacular use of montage sequences inspired filmmakers throughout the 20th century.
  • The filmmaker also revolutionized the casting process by seeking out people who (though they might have lacked professional training as actors) looked like the type of working persons he wanted them to portray.
  • Eisenstein's masterpiece was constantly subjected to censorship, cuts, and revised translations that weakened its dramatic and political impact.
  • After seeing Battleship Potemkin, Adolf Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, described Eisenstein's provocative piece as "a marvelous film without equal in the cinema ... anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film."
  • In 1958, Battleship Potemkin was named the greatest film of all time at the Brussels World's Fair.
Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)
  • In 1976, Eisenstein scholar Naum Kleiman embarked on an attempt to piece together Eisenstein’s intended sequence of shots for the film.
  • In 1986, Enno Patalas also worked on reassembling Battleship Potemkin while working at the Munich Filmmuseum.
  • In 2005, a newly restored version of the film by the Deutsche Kinemathek (made possible by the work of Kleiman and Patalas) debuted at the Berlin Film Festival with the original musical score by Edmund Meisel. This final version of Battleship Potemkin contained all of the material that had been missing after having been removed by German censors in the 1920s.
  • In 2007, a definitive restoration allowed audiences to experience Eisenstein's masterpiece in all its glory.
Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)

In his program essay, Miguel Pendás notes that:
“The intended audiences for Battleship Potemkin were the millions of victorious workers and peasants in 1925, decimated by the recent civil war, in need of the inspired example of their revolutionary predecessors. There was hardly a person in Russia who would not have been deeply moved by the scenes of sailors being forced to bear terrible conditions and yet refusing to shoot their comrades. The use of bold imagery and sparse intertitles ensured that even an illiterate peasant could understand what the film was about. Battleship was a revolution unto itself."
Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)
"The film’s reputation spread quickly. There were efforts to show it throughout the world, starting with Germany, which, in 1926, was in the throes of its own deep and bitter class struggle. Fearful of the film’s incendiary potential, German authorities severely censored it. They found the breach of military discipline depicted in the film especially disturbing. The distributor was forced to eliminate nearly 100 feet of film (crippling the film’s message) in order for it to be shown. Censored German versions are what most people outside the USSR saw."

Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Using a print from Kino Lorber, the screening at the Castro Theatre was accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble (a Silent Film Festival favorite). While this group has often accompanied depressing Scandinavian films, bleak documentaries, and cryptic ghost stories, one of Matti Bye's great strengths is knowing when to have his musicians stop playing and let a gruesome action sequence unfold onscreen in deadly silence. The ensemble's work accompanying Battleship Potemkin ranged from eerie silences to accompanying the military revolt with a kind of blood-pumping music and throbbing masculinity that befits a crew of angry sailors. Here's the film, in all its glory.

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