Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Saving General Yang (Dir.: Ronny Yu, Hong Kong, 2013)—It is up to General Yang's seven sons—each a master of his own kung fu discipline—to rescue him from behind enemy lines. Ronny Yu (Fearless, The Bride With White Hair, Bride Of Chucky) revisits anew the oft-told tale of the Yang clan, legends of Chinese martial arts literature and film. Official Selection: Hong Kong International Film Festival 2013. North American premiere. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

I’m the first to admit that I’m not necessarily a Hong Kong film enthusiast, and Saving General Yang ended up on my itinerary by default because there was simply nothing else of interest screening in the same time slot. Further, I arrived at the Imperial Theater a bit pickled from one too many Triple Belgian Zoots at the Benelux and experienced difficulty staying awake for the first half hour. It didn’t help that the film's CGI was a bit threadbare, or that General Yang and his seven sons were nearly indistinguishable from each other, with very little characterization to latch onto. Surprisingly, it was the film’s melodramatic elements that emotionally moved me as one by one the sons sacrificed their lives for family loyalty.  And I sincerely appreciated Ronny Yu's video message to his Fantasia audience apologizing for his not being able to be there in person but wishing them an enjoyable screening.

As a study in the pop culture of China, I was intrigued that the legend of Yang Ye had been used repeatedly in their national cinema. As detailed by Guillaue Desbiens in his program capsule, “Patriarch of the popular Song Dynasty (960-1127), a clan supported by many valiant male and female soldiers. Yang Ye is a genuine hero to the Chinese people. Curiously enough, it has most often been the women combatants that have garnered more attention these last centuries, being the subject of such films as the classic Shaw Bros.’ The 14 Amazons (1972) and the more recently Legendary Amazons (2011). The avenging brothers have also had their story adapted numerous times for both film and television, most notably 1984’s The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter starring the incomparable Gordon Liu.” In gist, I would say that the primary value of Saving General Yang for me is as introduction to this suite of films.  My interest is piqued in taking a look at these earlier efforts.

Without knowing much about the genre, my reactions track with the critical record. At Twitch, James Marsh deems Saving General Yang "solid with glimpses of greatness." At SBS, Don Groves admits: "Yu has a very good eye for spectacle but a tin ear for dialogue and a slapdash approach to fleshing out characters, and thus fails to redress obvious defects in the screenplay by Edmond Wong.... The result is a handsome looking but sporadically satisfying, gory tale of betrayal, familial loyalty, bravery and sacrifice." "It's as close to a Chinese blockbuster as can be with a lightweight narrative propped up by heavy duty battle scenes," writes Stefan S. at A (Nutshell) Review, and adds, "Who would have thought though, that the more dramatic moments in the film, turned out to be its key strengths...."

Rewind This! (Dir.: Josh Johnson, USA, 2013)—Along with business partner James Kennedy, I opened the first video stores in the San Joaquin Valley, California in the mid-‘80s. At that time, there was one video store in San Francisco, Captain Video, which James and I spotted one evening walking to our car after dinner. We walked in, took a look around, and James stated, “We can do this. But we shouldn’t do it in San Francisco. We should open a store where we’d have no competition.” We decided upon Modesto, California, opened Modesto Video, and in ensuing years branched out to Manteca, Turlock, and Stockton. Ours was a thriving business supporting the advent of VCRs in the average household. Whereas James took care of the floor and merchandising, I handled personnel and inventory (and wooed those rich ranch matrons to collect every John Wayne movie imaginable).

These were exciting days for me, watching the boxing match between Beta and VHS (we know who won), stocking shelves with titles I would discover from the pile of pulpy catalogs on my desk, and discovering through the process the bona fide weirdness (if not hypocrisy) of consumer appetites. It used to creep me out a bit that Angel (1984)—the story of a teenage prostitute—was our number one record-breaking rental in that allegedly God-fearing community, which at one point organized its churches to boycott our store for renting X-rated movies. The profits we made from Angel alone financed the entire section on Classics that I developed for the store (long before TCM made such titles readily available).

I lasted three years in that business venture, made a good return on my investment, but walked away once I saw the larger chains step in with dollar rentals, disgruntled when the State of California used our business as a test case to retroactively tax video stores for late charge fees. At that point the writing was on the wall for me, I sold out my portion of the business, and used the proceeds to finance the next phase of my life: adventuring in Central America. James tried to rally on for a few more years but ended up going bankrupt. So it was with considerable fondness and a hefty dose of nostalgia that I watched Rewind This, though—admittedly—I have never felt compelled to tattoo a videocassette onto my arm to honor the fading heyday of the medium.  Retaining a healthy collection, winnowed down as it was once I moved away from San Francisco, suffices. At that time I couldn’t give videocassettes away, other than the few picked out of the boxes I left out on the street. Eventually, I had to pitch hundreds of those little black rectangles into the trash bin. I only kept those titles which were not available in any other medium and—as has often been pointed out—each time cinephilia transitions to a new medium, huge swathes of the once-available inventory are lost.  I regret now that I didn't have enough time to traffick those titles on eBay.  But who knew there would be a revival of interest?  As with any consortium of talking heads, some are more interesting in this documentary than others, and it pleased me to hear intelligent commentary from my former Twitch editor Todd Brown and San Francisco colleague James Rocchi, let alone quips from all-time favorite Cassandra Peterson (“Elvira”).

In his program capsule, Ted Geoghegan describes Rewind This! as "a passionate geek doc that not only follows the life and death of the videocassette, but also the amazingly complex back story of how it became a format for the ages—transforming from afterthought into obsession. Interspersed with endearing insight into the lives of countless modern-day VHS collectors and enthusiasts, this stand-up-and-cheer industrial underdog story sheds light on why geeks and everymen alike can't stop thinking about those temperamental plastic black cases that gave us so many hours of home entertainment." Official site. IMDb.

At The Hollywood Reporter, John DeFore notes that Johnson's nostalgic documentary provides "an entertaining, sometimes enlightening history of the video format." At IndieWire's Playlist, Cory Everett describes Rewind This! as "both a history lesson and love letter to a format." At Screen, Mark Adams spells it out succinctly: "A thoughtful and entertaining elegy to the joys of the VHS tape, from its poor picture quality and ropey pan-and-scan through to is inventive marketing, colorful packaging and sheer breadth of titles available, Josh Johnson's documentary Rewind This! celebrates not just the fan-boy collectors but also the product that changed the face of the film business." He predicts this "charmer of a documentary ... will strike a chord with audiences who have grown up with the format."

The Dirties (Dir: Matt Johnson, Canada, 2013)—An astonishing, illuminating and surprisingly funny film, The Dirties takes on the mortifying topic of high school shootings with an insight and wit that will leave you slack-jawed. And deeply haunted. Winner of numerous awards, including two at this year's Slamdance. The Dirties' Quebec premiere was hosted by the incredibly eloquent and charismatic director / actor / co-writer Matt Johnson, along with camera operator Andrew Appelle (who advised later at The Embassy that he was responsible for the rabid mosquito sequence in last year's Fantasia entry A Little Bit Zombie). Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

A tremendously entertaining low-budget feature that implicates the culpability of its audiences by way of an unidentified camera operator, The Dirties emerged as one of my top two favorite films at this year's Fantasia (the other being the no-budget "zombie" flick The Battery).  Its restraint emphasizes its straight-to-the-point narrative thrust and its final relay between the two lead characters one of the most disturbing endings I've seen in years.

At Filmmaker, Brandon Harris describes The Dirties as "a poorly shot, cleverly assembled rough hewn verite narrative" that "elegantly and depressingly explore[s] the dangers of high school bullying" and "the kinds of empty, pop-culture obsessed lifestyles most American teenagers are subjected to." At the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Jesse Hawthorne Ficks exclaims the film is "controversial and inspired" and "an utterly brilliant, unstoppably hilarious found footage entry that follows two high school cinephiles as they try and make a documentary about 'bullying,' while they themselves continue to get uncomfortably bullied at their own school." Ficks stresses "the level of honesty, originality, and terrifyingly timely subject matter this filmmaker brings to this incredibly contemporary story." At Twitch, Ben Umstead states Johnson exhibits "mad style and intelligence" with his "bromance", which Umstead categorizes as "something so fresh, so bizarre and just as sincere as it is unsettling."

Monday, July 29, 2013


I'll Follow You Down (Dir: Richie Mehta, Canada, 2012)—Richie Mehta, the Genie-nominated director of Amal, and producer Lee Kim hosted the world premiere of I'll Follow You Down, a time travel tale whose genre underpinnings serve an existential if overly-subdued meditation on whether or not the consequences of poor choices can (or even should) be corrected. Well-intentioned and adequately realized, the film nonetheless made me wish I could go back in time and recover the 90 minutes I had just spent. That’s possibly my failing, more than the film’s, as I was anticipating something quite different than what I got. Less flashy than thematically comparable films such as Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes (2007), Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012), or for that matter George Pal’s quintessential The Time Machine (1960), I’ll Follow You Down tries too hard to make its science convincing, which results in a very talkey script and lots of chalkboard scrawling (let alone a fairly ridiculous scene where our protagonist uses a felt pin marker to graph out mathematical formulas all over a basement wall). All that effort doesn’t really translate into a story that is more intelligent, even if more plausible. Though I will admit the film’s strong ending took me by surprise and redeemed the narrative with a powerful emotional punch.

Performances are solid, particularly Gillian Anderson (The X-Files, House of Mirth) who I adore, and who drew me into the film in the first place. She could clean out a refrigerator and manage to find enough emotional nuance between the mustard and the mayonnaise to keep me captivated. Here, she plays a woman devastated by the unexplained disappearance of her husband. Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense, A.I.) hasn’t been on my radar for some time and I’m not sure this blip will keep him there. Again, that’s my failing. It’s hard for me to separate the child star from the adult he’s become and his performance here doesn’t reconcile the difference. Victor Garber does what he always does; but, Rufus Sewell impressed me for the emotional credence he gives to a small role with such short screen time, literally bringing the film home in its final scene. The fade-out on his smile was mysterious and captivating. I really wish I could have liked this film more. I certainly wanted to. IMDb. Facebook.

Love Eternal (Dir: Brendan Muldowney, Ireland, 2013)— By contrast, losing a father as a child haunts Ian (Robert de Hoog) much more provocatively (and engagingly) in Brendan Muldowney’s Love Eternal, based on Kei Ôishi’s novel In Love With The Dead. This moribund but fascinating tale demonstrates the unyielding grip of the death horizon on the living, coloring suicidal ideation with just enough mordant humor to set up an initiatory journey that stumbles its way towards hope. As IMDb synopsizes: “the film centers on an isolated and death-fixated young man who tries to make sense of the world, and his existence, in the only way he knows how ... by getting closer to death.”

Immaculate cinematography by Tom Comerford, a compelling score by Bart Westerlaken (emulating the winding down of clocks), and an especially poignant and pivotal performance by Pollyanna McIntosh complement de Hoog’s central, moody portrayal of a young man who has not yet discovered that love is a beautiful enough reason to live. IMDb.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


Commando: A One Man Army (Dir: Dilip Ghosh, India, 2013)—Thrillingly virile, Vidyut Jamwal (Thuppakki) carries this Bollywood bauble with knockout looks, on-screen charisma, erotic choreography, and exciting stunt-packed combat sequences that had the film's Fantasia audience yelling for more at this North American premiere. The program capsule promised that—after seeing Commando—I'd become an instant Jamwal fanatic and they didn't lie! This dude made my eyes sweat! IMDb. Wikipedia.

His love interest, relative newcomer Pooja Chopra, the chattering pea-hen to his strong and silent peacock, is visually incidental. What a thankless task trying to be more beautiful than Jamwal. Dastardly villain Jaideep Ahlawat as the ruthless and cruel AK 74 milks his comic bit of yanking off his sunglasses to reveal blind white eyes again and again and again, and scores a laugh every time.

The Demon's Rook (Dir: James Sizemore, USA, 2013)—Two and a half years in the making, this micro-budget love letter to the creature features of the mid-'80s is a stellar example of impassioned determination and DIY ingenuity, and deserves appreciation within those parameters alone. Director / writer / actor / make-up technician James Sizemore learned how to wear every hat imaginable during the process of filming his first film, which introduces a demonic mythology he hopes to develop in future projects.

Ted Geoghegan describes The Demon’s Rook as a “monsterific orgy of grue that can only be described as Return Of the Living Dead by way of Jodorowsky with a touch of The Neverending Story”, and as apt as all those cinematic references might be, it reminded me more of the TV series Tales of the Darkside with its simple plot, practical prosthetic and backlit fog effects, and cheesey amateur acting. Post-production sound and throbbing bass-saturated music pays tribute to Italian giallo films. The demon language convincingly slips us into another dimension (the Dark Mother’s womb), and the dangers of a rural childhood summer bear a touch of Ray Bradbury where evening crickets are harbingers of evil to come. If that sounds like more influences than you can keep track of, you might be right, but it’s such a loving homage fest that it hardly matters.

Advance praise from Bloody Disgusting (“delicious special effects work … a breath of fresh air”) caught the attention of celebrated Toronto International Film Festival programmer Colin Geddes and Toronto Film Scene / Exclaim! film critic Katarina Gligorijevic who stepped in as co-executive producers to provide necessary financing and professional expertise for color correction. After its world premiere at Fantasia, The Demon’s Rook is already booked at some of the main international genre festivals and will, no doubt, have a robust run in VOD/rental markets. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


Big Bad Wolves (Dirs: Aharon KeshalesNavot Papushado, Israel, 2013)—It's an oft-stated supposition that one of the redeeming values of genre films—particularly horror, sci-fi, and thrillers—is the capacity to reflect the anxieties of the predominant culture. This cultural component is essential to framing an appreciation of Big Bad Wolves, the sophomore effort by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado (Rabies, 2010), which seeks to introduce the violent revenge thriller to home turf audiences more accustomed to dysfunctional family dramas and war-torn narratives. Keshales and Papushado have negotiated this challenge by premiering Wolves first at Tribeca (where it emerged as the single best-reviewed title in that festival's lineup) and now at Fantasia (where I predict comparable accolades) before opening theatrically in Israel in coming weeks. Their strategy appears to have worked as critical buzz has rallied anticipation of the film’s theatrical release attended by rumors that Wolves is being considered for the Israeli Oscars®. This negotiated strategy is the prime achievement of Big Bad Wolves, let alone that it is enthralling entertainment that satisfies international appetites even as it challenges national ones.  Yet another argument for the international reach of genre films.

Described in its official marketing as "a brutal comedy for a mad mad mad mad world", this gripping, genre-bending tale of vengeance and fury kicks off in Lars von Trier slo-mo with a game of hide and seek, beautifully lensed by Giora Bejach and powerfully scored by Frank Ilfman. In an elegant, throwaway visual reference to the Grimms fairy tale, a little blonde-haired girl in a red jacket is abducted and brutally murdered. A suspect spotted near the scene of the crime (newcomer Rotem Keinan as mild-mannered schoolteacher Dror) is apprehended by local official Miki (charismatic favorite Lior Ashkenazi) who enlists two thugs to beat Dror up during questioning. Unbeknownst to Miki, his tactics are caught on cellphone by an eyewitness who broadcasts the footage on YouTube, ensuring his captive’s release and costing him his job. This narrative detail is of import in that it underscores how citizen surveillance hobbles the ability of law enforcement to do their jobs even as it cogently critiques the violence with which those jobs are effected.

Miki goes renegade, stalking Dror, while at the same time the two are being stalked in turn by the dead girl’s father Gidi (veteran actor Tzahi Grad). This triangulation ensures mounting vigilante tension in the vein of Dirty Harry. What ensues are some nailbiting chase scenes, unexpected twists and turns, and a moral ambiguity about the nature of vigilante justice. All of this might seem like overly familiar territory but what elevates this effort is how Keshales and Papushado accent their drama with mordant humor; another blend generally unfamiliar to Israeli audiences. The balance between action, drama and comedy is brilliantly pitched, which distinguishes it from such films as The Silence and Michael, let’s say, where the unwholesome subjects of infanticide and child abuse are never played for laughs. Which leads to a minor, but for me interesting, point. In Dark Nature, Lyall Watson’s study of the nature of evil, Watson proposes a hierarchy of evil that determines all subsequent definitions. The ultimate evil recognized world-wide, Watson suggests, is any crime that works against the preservation of the species, of which the murder of children is consensually ranked high on the list. There’s no ambiguity there. Ambiguity arises in the evils committed in response to such a horrific act when men take the law into their own hands to avenge the death of children.

Although Keshales and Papushado are insistent that they have purposely avoided politicizing their film, its violence aptly reflects the perpetuation of vengeful atrocities in the Mideast. Keshales and Papushado introduce an Arab character on horseback who contests all stereotypes and who insinuates that the true threat to Israeli society comes from within, not without. This is, of course, a prickly subject and it will be fascinating to see how Israeli audiences react to the implication.  IMDb. Facebook.

Zombie Hunter (Dir: K. King, USA, 2013)—It was clear the Fantasia audience was struggling to enjoy the world premiere of Zombie Hunter, appropriately scheduled as a midnight screening.  King is clearly emulating Grindhouse: Planet Terror on a vastly reduced budget.  It comes off as a SyFy knockoff with sex, vomit and fart jokes to entertain the less discriminating. Once Danny Trejo is eliminated from the cast early on, it all capsizes into derivative formula.  Sad to say it almost works, but not quite.  Its poster art ensures robust DVD rentals. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013


The Weight (Dir: Jeon Kyu-hwan, South Korea, 2012)—Described by Alix Wagner-Bernier as "a melodrama verging on the horror genre", The Weight feels miserably oppressive and morbid at first as we're introduced to a hunchbacked and tubercular mortician and his transsexual brother, both betrayed in their own ways by their individual bodies.  They suffer their wretched and marginalized lives in a nether world otherwise known as Seoul.  But what could have remained an unkind and grotesque indulgence of freaks and misfits at the edges of society subtly uplifts into a sibling love story rendered poetic through compassion and an unnerving realization that death proves every body will eventually betray itself, whether the beautiful body of a celebrity pop star, or the deformed body of one of the netherworld's helmeted henchmen.  On the slab, all bodies are reduced to the same corporeal equation with the same incorporeal promise.   North American premiere. IMDb. Wikipedia.

The Weight had its world premiere in the Venice Days sidebar of the 69th Venice International Film Festival, where it won the 2012 Queer Lion, an award for the "best film with a homosexual and queer culture theme." It is the first Korean film to have won the prize. Something tells me, however, that this is not a film that would be selected for San Francisco's Frameline where softcore romcoms seemingly rule the box office.  The scene where the transsexual is bashed by two cute gay guys is particularly subversive.  Jeon Kyu-hwan was also awarded Best Director at the 16th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival where the jurors stated, "Never wavering from his singular poetic style, Jeon Kyu-hwan deftly pulls the audience through a barrage of painful and extreme imagery into what in the end is a very touching film about love and acceptance."  He accomplishes this through a muted palette—the film looks like hand-tinted black and white—minimal dialogue, and meditative pacing.  I could have done without the literal butterflies as metaphors for the winging soul at film's end; but, up until then, The Weight impressed me for bravely skewering one taboo after the other.

Szamanka / She Shaman (Dir: Andrzej Zulawski, Poland / France / Switzerland, 1996)—In his program capsule, Daniel Bird classifies Szamanka as one of Zulawski's "most outrageous films" and "further proof of Zulawski's use of the fantastic to explore themes and issues existing in a very real and concrete reality." He further contextualizes: "Szamanka is to date Zulawski's only film to be directed in Poland since the collapse of Communism in the Eastern Bloc. Whereas his previous films hid behind the guise of genre—war, horror and sci-fi—Szamanka is, in the director's own words, 'a film without a mask'. It presents a startlingly direct look on life in Poland after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in which the tyranny of Communist rule is displaced by ruthless protection rackets and a hopeless faith in the Catholic Church." The film's criticism of traditional morality and Catholicism, combined with its explicit depiction of sex, generated controversy within Poland where the film was nicknamed Last Tango in Warsaw by Polish critics. Szamanka screened during the 1996 Venice Film Festival. IMDb. Wikipedia.

With Zulawski on hand to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award from Fantasia, this was one of the hottest tickets at the festival, and the only film I know to be screened in 35mm.  This is one bat shit crazy—but beautiful—vision of feral eroticism and shamanic contagion.  By the time we reach the cross formed from cunts, we've recognized that the devouring feminine has been elevated to deity and men are mere sacrifices to her governing hunger.  The sex scenes are percussively energized and the film's climax a brilliant and shocking parody of civilization's spoon-fed manners.  They just don't make films like this anymore and they really should.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Uzumasa Jacopetti (Dir.: Morirô Miyamoto, Japan, 2013)—"Taking some elements from the bizarre, unpredictable worlds of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Michel Gondry by way of the blood-soaked, hyper-real, wholly subversive and violent video days of Takashi Miike," writes Ariel Esteban Cayer, Uzumasa Jacopetti chronicles a father's one-track-minded quest for his family's happiness as it warps into murderous, absurdist carnage; a uniquely mesmerizing, magical, magnetic mind-melt of a movie, heralding the return of true underground Japanese cinema. Cayer further characterizes Uzumasa Jacopetti as a "relentlessly strange downward spiral of equally surreal and unnerving family hysterics." Bemusedly scratching my head at the film's North American premiere at Fantasia, I finally allowed its playful viscerality to take hold.  This was an absolutely perfect film to begin this year's Fantasia experience as it is the kind of rare entry that only Fantasia can offer.  I just don't see how it would fit in any other film festival anywhere else, and underscores for me Fantasia's brave and exploratory curatorial strengths.  Official site [Japanese].

At Midnight Eye, Tom Mes stages the importance of an independent Japanese film like Uzumasa Jacopetti. He writes: "Odd but also oddly endearing, Uzumasa Jacopetti has loopy ideas to spare, yet its 83-minute running time means the film never overstays its welcome."  And that's true.  The movie hardly makes any sense, but why should it when its breakcore electronic sound score makes the hair go up on your neck, and every now and then a deft note of humor redeems the most absurd of scenarios? The little boy and his mother are shot at, the mother is hit several times, and the little boy turns abruptly and pouts, "Stop it!"  It's sweet and charming and funny for being so unexpected.  Does the mother die from her bullet wounds?  Of course not.  There's no pretense at reality here; only Miyamoto's singularly unique vision of an overtly aestheticized alterity, with one strange set piece after the other.

Big Ass Spider! (Dir: Mike Mendez, USA, 2013)—A volatile 50-foot spider wreaks havoc against the city of Los Angeles in this fast, funny and surprisingly smart arachno-coaster ride that's not afraid to enjoy itself but at the same time, never goes for the easy stupid. As Mitch Davis details in his program capsule: "A longstanding member of the Fantasia Family, Mendez first came to Montreal 13 years ago (!) with his delirious demon nun splatter epic The Convent, returning in 2006 with the intense Sundance hit The Gravedancers. Big Ass Spider is something Mendez has spent years working on, striving to deliver a big bug film that would make the subgenre proud—and redeem it from the current wave of awful SyFy channel quickies!" Official Selection: SXSW, Dead by Dawn, Boston Underground, Calgary Underground Film Festival 2013. The film's Quebec premiere was hosted by director Mike Mendez and producer Patrick Ewald. IMDb. Facebook.

Big Ass Spider! was everything I wanted it to be, with a creature designed to be a mix between a black widow and the queen mother from Aliens.  The comic comraderie between flubbish exterminator Alex Mathis (Greg GrunbergHeroes) and his Spanglish wisecracking sidekick Jose Ramos (the consistently-clever Lombardo Boyar) kept the eight-legged antics in an appropriate tongue-in-cheek perspective.  It's fascinating how Grunberg can take ridiculously banal lines and phrase them in such a way that they're given authenticity and weight.  But even director Mendez had to apologize to his Fantasia audience for not providing a clean digital presentation.  His Blu-ray sputtered, half the sound was gone, and the resolution was off.  For its appearance at Fantasia, you would have thought he would have taken a little bit more care than popping in what appeared to be a homemade disk.  But there's no holding Fantasia audiences back from their unbridled enthusiasm and appreciation of the film, despite its technical flub-ups, and you have to admire these mewing hordes for saving this cinematic experience.  Nothing gets in the way of fun at Fantasia, even a faulty projection.  The film will have a theatrical roll-out in October, but I look forward to watching it with friends on my SmartTV in high-def, with beer and boo to spare.

Black Out (Dir: Arne Toonen, Netherlands, 2012)—Crime may not pay, but it certainly entertains in Arne Toonen's Snatch riff Black Out, which is formulaic sure, but never derivative.  As Éric S. Boisvert lays out in his program capsule, "With the help of Mell Runderkamp's pen, Toonen delivers a production reminiscent of the early works of Guy Ritchie (Snatch) or Lasse Spang Olsen (In China They Eat Dogs), in which he mixes together several amusingly charismatic characters.... Arne Toonen compliments his colorful characters with a dynamic editing style and explosive art direction that weave together a suspenseful crime comedy brought to life by actors directed with unmatched dexterity." Official site [Dutch]IMDbFacebook [Dutch].

In the lead role of Jos, Raymond Thiry is particularly charismatic, with a touch of Pierce Brosnan and Sam Neill comingled to sophisticated effect. Political correctness has to be forfeited early on, however, as the script sadly relies on some wince-inducing stereotypes to shape certain characters, including lots of "negro" jokes and a sibilant gay villain whose death cues the audience to cheer. Really? Okay. In the wake of Trayvon Martin's unjust death, it's precisely such "wickedly funny" scenarios that throw up some red flags.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

SFSFF 2013—John Canemaker on Winsor McCay

To celebrate the centenary of Little Nemo, the boy dreamer whose fantastic adventures in Slumberland are chronicled in Winsor McCay's dazzling early-twentieth-century comic strip series, John Canemaker delivered a special presentation at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archives in August 2006 based on his critically acclaimed biography Winsor McCay: His Life and Art. Canemaker is bringing this remarkable lecture back to the Bay Area for this Summer's edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, co-presented by the Cartoon Art Museum and the Walt Disney Family Museum.

His lecture will be illustrated with stunning images from the book, as well as screenings of four of McCay's greatest films: Little Nemo (1911), the first adaptation of a comic strip to a film format; the indelibly disturbing How a Mosquito Operates (1912); Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), the charming and infinitely influential animation McCay designed as part of a Vaudeville act; and The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), a somber animated counterpart to McCay's editorial cartoons. All four films will be accompanied on piano by Stephen Horne.

What follows is my transcription of Canemaker's introduction to the PFA event and some of his commentary during the projection of McCay's animations.

* * *

Once upon a time, a little over 100 years ago, on Sunday, October 15, 1905 to be exact, a pleasant surprise awaited readers of The New York Herald newspaper. Among their favorite color comic strips was a new offering from the prolific Winsor McCay. Little Nemo in Slumberland was unlike any comic strip before or since for its creator the cartoonist Winsor McCay had represented a major creative leap far grander in scope, imagination, color, design and motion experimentation than any previous comic strip that he or his peers had ever attempted. For readers, Little Nemo in Slumberland became an exhilarating weekly fantasy adventure, a cartoon epic, a sustained drama both visually beautiful with a compelling cast of developing personalities, chief among them the boy dreamer Nemo. The model for Nemo—a juvenile everyman whose name is Latin for "no one"—was someone very important to Winsor McCay: his nine-year-old son Robert.

Each week, McCay would slowly reveal Slumberland bit by bit as it gradually became clearer to him. This dream-like unraveling of the story was how Lewis Carroll discovered Wonderland and how L. Frank Baum led us to magical Oz: two classical works of fantasy of which Little Nemo is the creative equal. Week after week, readers were enthralled by an extraordinary array of ravishing imagery that stays in the mind like remembered dreams. McCay's virtuoso draftsmanship is irresistible when butterflies seek shelter from the rain under an umbrella tree, or the open mouth of a giant dragon becomes the traveling coach, or a walking talking icicle escorts us up the cold staircase of Jack Frost's palace, or a walking bed—who likes to get out once in a while—goes for a jaunt down the streets and across the roofs of 1908 New York City.

Within a year of its debut, Little Nemo was translated into seven foreign languages and Victor Herbert composed music for a lavish operetta adaptation of the script that opened in the fall of 1908 on Broadway at the New Amsterdam Theater. The popularity of the strip led to numerous consumer products such as articles of clothing, sheet music, playing cards and other games.

Little Nemo in Slumberland, a child's version of the mythic theme of the quest set in a dreamworld, is quite simply the most beautiful and innovative comic strip ever drawn. It is ultimate eye candy. McCay's style combined a sensuous art nouveau line with subtle yet daring coloring. Architectural perspectives are stunningly rendered and sequential changes of characters and settings within the borders of the strip's flexible panels showcase the artist's natural gift for animation.

In his talent for vividly capturing motion in drawings, McCay may have been gifted similarly to Leonardo daVinci. Sir Kenneth Clark once described the extraordinary quickness of Leonardo's eye: "There is no doubt that the nerves of his eye and his brain were really supernormal and, in consequence, he was able to draw and describe the movements of a bird, which were not seen again until the invention of the slow motion camera." The same could be said of Winsor McCay.

Inevitably, McCay turned his artistic focus toward film animation and, once again, his work represents a quantum leap in the direction of that nascent art form. McCay distinguished his animation from his contemporaries by the sophistication of his drawing style, the application of narrative continuity, the fluid movement of characters, and his attempts to inject personality traits into those characters. He introduced a film version of Little Nemo into his vaudeville act. Yes, McCay was also a stage performer. He was a vaudeville headliner since he first "trod the boards" in 1906 and in his act he drew quick, "lightning sketches", as they were called, on a blackboard to a musical accompaniment and, yes, he did play the Palace.

McCay's first attempt at animation was based on his Little Nemo comic strip. Alone, he drew the nearly 4000 sequential drawings and the film played in movie theaters starting April 8, 1911. McCay also used it in his vaudeville act including a live action prologue at New York's Columbia Theater, which was located at 62nd Street and Broadway. Audiences at the time were amazed by the lifelike animation. A contemporary reviewer said: "One is almost ready to believe that he has been transported to Dreamland along with Nemo and is sharing his remarkable adventures and it is an admirable piece of work that should be popular everywhere."

Four years after McCay's death in 1934, Claude Bragdon wrote: "I shall never forget McCay's first animated picture. In pure line on a white background a plant grows up and a young man plucks it and hands it to the girl beside him. That's all there was to it but it excited me greatly and no wonder; I had witnessed the birth of a new art."

Little Nemo (1911)

Image courtesy of Mike Lynch
 Little Nemo begins with a live action prologue where Winsor McCay initiates a bet among his friends that he can make his drawings come to life. Said friends include John Bunny, one of the earliest screen comedians. McCay is then shown at his drafting board and the audience is provided a rare glimpse of how he drew his work. "He had the extraordinary ability to work with very little construction lines underneath," Canemaker advised. "He was actually able to start at the top of the drawing and work down and have it completed by the time he got to the bottom. When he made posters and billboards in the Midwest, he did the same thing. He would stand on a box—he was a rather diminutive man—and crowds would gather to watch this amazing thing happen in which figures would be drawn from the top of the image straight down to the bottom. Damon Runyon wrote about seeing McCay in the Midwest do this."

The main characters from the Little Nemo strip are introduced as McCay's hand on the screen draws them. On the left is the Imp, in the middle is Nemo himself in his full Slumberland regalia, and on the right is the bad boy, his nemesis, Flip.

"McCay wanted to make sure that you knew that he had drawn these characters, that he actually created them. This photographing of the hand of the artist is one the oldest visual motifs in animation. You've often seen it in many cartoons, including Chuck Jones' Duck Amok in which Daffy Duck is driven crazy by Bugs Bunny drawing him. Here he is making a big deal about bringing these drawings to life. His friends think he's crazy. Again he has to convince them—and you—that he is the god-like creator of these characters."

Watching McCay draw his characters also emphasized that they were not yet moving so that when they "come to life" with very fluid movement—which Disney emulated some 20 years later—the effect is quite stunning.

Though the film states the animations were completed a month after the bet, Canemaker cautions this, of course, is not accurate. It took much longer because McCay was a very busy man. "He was doing his vaudeville act, he was creating these elaborate comic strips—not just Little Nemo but Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend and several other strips, including advertisements. So it took him much longer than one month to do this. Now, again, to emphasize how difficult this task is going to be, he staged this scene where barrels of ink and tons of paper have got to be pushed into his studio."

Canemaker describes McCay as "a very natty dresser" who was "always dressed up in a vest and custom made shirts with cuffs. He always wore his hat when he worked and smoked his little cigars; cheroots he called them."

McCay is then shown surrounded by tall stacks of original art from the film. On his desk we're shown a device, which reveals "how he pencil tested his work before there were pencil tests, which animators use to see if the animation is working smoothly. It's based on the old things from the nickelodeons where you go into see a photograph moving, or cartoons. This is not his house. This is a set. It was filmed at the Vitagraph Studios on Avenue M in Brooklyn. The Vitagraph Studios still exist. In fact, The Bill Cosby Show was shot there for many years recently."

The film then provides a close-up look at the original drawings. "They were made originally on very delicate rice paper and they were attached by glue in six places on cardboards that had registration crosses in the corners so that McCay could register them so they wouldn't shift all over the place. He would make crosses on the rice paper as well. The rice paper allowed him to see through several sheets of paper at the same time. At that time there were no peg holes or peg bars that they could attach the drawings to over a light table. That came a couple of years after this."

This demonstration in the film "was characteristic of McCay in real life. He didn't mind telling everyone how he created animation. He loved the art form very much. He wanted to get the information across to people so when people would ask him questions or come backstage after his vaudeville act, he would tell them how it was done." Further, the film shows how the film drawings were held and how McCay hand-painted each frame. Canemaker focused attention on "the wonderful, fantastic perspective animation of the dragon as he moves out of frame. Amazing. McCay always contrasted the fantastic with the mundane."

Winsor McCay's Biography

Winsor McCay was born in 1867 in Canada and raised in Michigan. He was basically a self-taught artist who learned his craft through experiences on the open road and the exigencies of commercial deadlines. In Chicago, in 1889 at age 22, he was employed by a printing company that made circus posters. Two years later he moved to Cincinnati to work as a poster painter for the local dime museum, which was a popular combination of freak show, vaudeville and curio museum. In Cincinnati in 1891, he met and married Maude DuFour and the couple had two children: Robert and Mariam.

By 1898, McCay was an illustrator on the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune newspaper and he was a contributor of gag cartoons to national humor magazines such as Life. In 1900, he joined the Cincinnati Enquirer where three years later he created his first proto-comic page, Tales of the Jungle Imps, which ran from January to November, 1903. By November of 1903, however, he and his family were living in New York City. McCay had been hired by the New York Herald newspaper.

Fame quickly followed McCay due to the popularity of his numerous comic strips, including Little Sammy Sneeze, a boy whose violent nasal explosions wreak havoc resulting in punishment by rejection in the last panel, even though the subtitle said he never knew when it was coming. There's a wonderful one in which he destroys his own panel. Another strip starred Hungry Henrietta, a little girl with a voracious appetite, who adults ply with food instead of the love she really needs and wants.

Another strip—one of the greatest and most sophisticated and wittiest comic strips ever for adults is The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. Each week a man or a woman experiences an intense and often horrific nightmare usually in a mundane setting. In the final panel the disturbing dream is blamed not on drugs or alcohol but on innocent Welsh rarebit, which is a concoction of melted cheese cooked in cream and ale and served on toast. These are wonderful nightmarish trips. Then in 1905 came McCay's masterpiece Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)

But, for the artist himself, he said it was his work in animated films that would always remain "the part of my life for which I am proudest." McCay's second animated film was How A Mosquito Operates, which was based on a Rarebit-themed comic strip. This film, along with Gertie the Dinosaur, demonstrate McCay's growing interest in telling stories and creating characters with distinctive personalities. McCay's tiny mosquito and gigantic dinosaur reveal personality traits that reveal their thought processes, and thinking cartoon characters, in turn, produce actions that affect audiences' emotions.

Looking at his original drawings for Gertie the Dinosaur close up, you can see that there is a delicate rice paper on which the characters are drawn and then that is placed over cardboard with printed x's that the animator McCay would trace over and that would hold the drawing in place for him. The backgrounds were done by a young man who lived in the neighborhood named John Fitzsimmons, he was 18 years old, and Canemaker had the privilege of meeting him, making him the subject of a documentary film. Fitzsimmons had the nerve wracking job of retracing the background seen on every drawing, on all the hundreds of drawings that McCay did.  McCay did the character; Fitzsimmons did the background.

Like Walt Disney years later, McCay wanted to convince you that his cartoons were real and he did so through precise representational draftsmanship, smooth naturalistic motion and believable timings and effects. His visual sophistication was 20 years ahead of Walt Disney. Gertie the Dinosaur, in fact, was the film that inspired numerous artists who later joined the Disney Studios.

Again, there's a prologue. Again, it's McCay betting his friends—including George McManus, the creator of Maggie and Jiggs—that he can make an animated film of a prehistoric animal come to life. In the scene where Gertie picks up a rock and flings it at Jumbo the mastodon, Canemaker commented, "I want to point out to you that in great animation the feeling of weight to that rock, having to drop it once and pick it up again, adds a great believability. For animators, to put weight into their characters is really quite extraordinary." Canemaker explained that McCay timed himself breathing in and out in order to get this sequence right where the dinosaur is breathing in and out. In the scene where Gertie drinks up the water in the lake, Canemaker once again drew attention to how the ground gives way beneath her, another indication of believable weight. Canemaker then explained that McCay by this time would have walked offstage right, returning onscreen as the cartoon version of himself where he takes a ride on the back of Gertie.
The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)

The Sinking of the Lusitania was McCay's fourth film of the ten films that he made. "This one took him nearly three years to make with the help of two assistants, one being John Fitzsimmons and the other a man named Aptford "Apt" Adams, who was a buddy of McCay's from Cincinnnati. It is McCay's first production using cels—celluloid acetate—a money and timesaving technique in which the characters were inked and painted on transparent celluloid and placed over opaque painted backgrounds. Released in 1918, The Sinking of the Lusitania is a monumental work in the history of animation. While it did not revolutionize comic cartoons of its time, it is a milestone that demonstrates the possibilities that the medium offers to creative animation filmmakers. The film's dark, somber mood, the superb draftsmanship, the timing of the animation, the dramatic directorial choices for camera angles and editing: all these qualities would reappear years later in Disney's mature work in his feature-length cartoons and in WWII propaganda shorts. The ship Lusitania itself, sailing serenely in the beginning, and then attacked and reeling from a fatal wound, and finally in an achingly slow death throe, suggests an amazing sentience and an emotionalism without overt or crude anthropomorphism.

"The incident was the 9/11 of its time," said Canemaker. "There's an eerie correspondence between the World Trade Center attack and the sinking of this ship and its unexpectedness on a placid day, and the imagery of falling bodies, smoke and fire and the helplessness of the victims. The Sinking of the Lusitania was widely admired but McCay's magnificent achievement could inspire only awe from his peers. It was way ahead of its time in 1918 in content and technique and far beyond the sensibilities and capabilities of contemporary animators churning out simple gags in films starring clowns, kids, dogs and cats."

The Sinking of the Lusitania starts out with McCay conversing with a Mr. Beech who was a reporter for the Hearst papers. "There were no photographs taken of the disaster but Mr. Beech was the first reporter in Europe to get the details from the survivors. So he was telling McCay what he needed to know." Canemaker likewise draws notice to "a certain framing device around the image that's moving. Again, they still didn't have peg holes and peg bars so Fitzsimmons suggested that they cut out a book, cut out the center of a book cover and put it over the cels to hold them down, which is why you see this frame throughout."

SFSFF 2013—Michael Hawley Previews the Line-up

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) celebrates its 18th edition this year with a line-up more international in scope than ever before. Ten of its 14 feature films originate from outside Hollywood, with movies postmarked Russia, Japan, Sweden, Germany, France, Denmark, Bali and the UK. The festival, which is the largest and most prestigious silent fest outside of Pordenone, Italy opens this Thursday with Louise Brooks' last great film (Prix de Beauté) and closes on Sunday with Harold Lloyd's iconic Safety Last! In between there'll be such amazements as a tribute to animator Winsor McCay, a 150-minute reconstruction of G.W. Pabst's Garbo-starring The Joyless Street, a two-strip Technicolor Goona-goona epic from Gloria Swanson's ex-husband (Legong: Dance of the Virgins) and a long-considered extinct 1925 drama set our own San Francisco Chronicle (The Last Edition). Other marquee-worthy names include stars Douglas Fairbanks, Marion Davies and Charley Chase, as well as directors Yasujiro Ozu, King Vidor, Allan Dwan, Victor Sjöström, Jacques Feyder and the ubiquitous Keaton and Chaplin, who are represented with a pair of shorts. As always, each presentation will be accompanied by live music. Here's a closer program-by-program peek at what SFSFF has in store this weekend at the glorious Castro Theatre.

Thursday, July 18

7:00 PM Prix de Beauté (1930, France, dir. Augusto Genina, digital)—Proving that San Francisco can't get enough of Louise Brooks, this year's festival opens with what is considered the iconic actress' last important film. She stars here as a conflicted, Parisian typist whose jealous husband can't handle the attention she receives after winning a Miss Europe beauty pageant. It was shot after the release of Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl and was the only film she'd make in France. Released in both silent and (entirely dubbed) sound versions, the fest screens a silent version recently restored by the Cineteca di Bologna, accompanied by pianist Stephen Horne. Knowing I couldn't attend opening night this year, I checked out the chatty, cacophonous sound version available on YouTube. What stood out was Brooks' soulfully luminous performance in a decidedly non-vampy role (but still decked out in Jean Patou couture), a fascinating gaze at Parisian street life of 1929 and a suspenseful, shocking proto-Noir final act. At the SFSFF's Opening Night Party at McRoskey Mattress Company, costumed revelers can compete in the festival's first-ever Mr. and Ms. Silent Film beauty pageant.

Friday, July 19

11:00 AM Amazing Tales from the ArchivesEach year this free-admission SFSFF presentation takes an insider's look at the current state of silent film restoration. First up, Céline Ruivo, Director of Film Collections at the Cinémathèque Française will speak on that organization's restoration of films from the Paris Exposition of 1900. Then preservationist and SFSFF board president Rob Byrne will elaborate on the collaborative effort between SFSFF and the Cinémathèque in restoring director Alla Dwan's once-lost The Half-Breed from 1916, starring Douglas Fairbanks (screening Saturday at noon).

2:00 PM The First Born (1928, UK, dir. Miles Mander, 35mm)—This melodrama reps the directorial debut of actor-writer-playwright-novelist Miles Mander and is based on his novel and play—with screenwriting assistance from Alma Reville, aka the future Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock. It stars Madeleine Carroll, an actress best known as the first of Hitch's icy blonde heroines (The 39 Steps), who would also enjoy a brief but lucrative Hollywood career (The Prisoner of Zenda). (One source I stumbled upon claims she was the world's highest paid actress in 1938). The First Born's plot revolves around a barren society matron who adopts her unmarried manicurist's newborn while her philandering husband (Mander) is off on an African adventure. Upon his return she claims the child is theirs, which of course leads to nothing good for all concerned. This film is known for its naturalistic acting and surprise ending, which I've spoiled for myself by reading the film's plot synopsis on Wikipedia. Stephen Horne accompanies this recently restored print from the BFI National Archive.

4:30 PM Tokyo Chorus (1931, Japan, dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 35mm)—Released one year before Ozu's I Was Born, But… (SFSFF 2011), this bittersweet portrait of the Great Depression in Japan centers on a how a family copes when its insurance salesman father is fired for protesting the dismissal of an older employee. The family's young daughter is played by Hideko Takamine, later known for her acclaimed work for Mikio Naruse. Accompanying the film—and making his SFSFF debut—is composer-conductor-keyboardist Günter Buchwald.

7:00 PM The Patsy (1928, USA, dir. King Vidor, 35mm)—Marion Davies starred in three silent comedies directed by King Vidor. Unlike husband William Randolph Hearst, he saw her as a comedic rather than dramatic actress—having witnessed her wild antics at many a Hollywood party. Davies is often credited with inventing the "screwball" style of comedic acting, and here she portrays the put-upon daughter of a social-climbing family who's in love with her younger sister's beau. The Patsy represented a comeback for Grande Dowager-Battleaxe Marie Dressler, who plays Davies' contentious mother. (Hollywood legend has it that a suicidal Dressler was eating her Last Supper at a restaurant, when director Allan Dwan, acting on behalf of Vidor, offered her this role). This is the festival's only revival for 2013, having screened previously in 2008. Clark Wilson accompanied on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer that evening and I remember it being riotously funny. There can be no doubt that the fabulous Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will do The Patsy justice as well.

9:30 PM The Golden Clown (1926, Denmark, dir. A.W. Sandberg, 35mm)—A.W. Sandberg directed 42 films between 1914 and 1937, and this melodrama remakes his own 1917 picture of the same title, albeit with a much larger production budget. It was the biggest commercial success of the 1920's for Nordisk Studio, which is still operational and now considered the oldest continually operating film studio in the world. The Golden Clown stars Gösta Ekman—last seen in the title role of Faust at the 2013 SFSFF Winter Event—as a rural circus clown who loses the love of his life after becoming the toast of Paris. Ekman was already a cocaine addict when shooting this film, and he would die from the drug in 1938. Sweden's Matti Bye Ensemble will accompany this restoration from the Danish Film Institute.

Saturday, July 20

10:00 AM Winsor McCay: His Life and ArtGenerally acknowledged as the first master of both the comic strip and animated cartoon, Winsor McCay created ten films between 1911 and 1921, four of which will be screened at this presentation (Little Nemo, 1913, How a Mosquito Operates, 1912, Gertie the Dinosaur, 1914, and The Sinking of the Lusitania, 1918). John Canemaker, author of the definitive 1987 book on McCay, will present the films along with images from his book. McCay's longest running comic strip was "Dream of a Rarebit Fiend," which was adapted into a 1906 film by Edwin S. Porter and was screened at the festival in 2011. Stephen Horne will be on hand to accompany. If ten o'clock on a Saturday morning is too early for you to be inside a movie theater, all four films in this presentation are available to watch on Winsor McCay's voluminous Wikipedia page.

12:00 PM The Half-Breed (1916, USA, dir. Alan Dwan, 35mm)—The past two years have seen a bounty of Douglas Fairbanks films at SFSFF (Mr. Fix-It, The Mark of Zorro, The Thief of Bagdad). For 2013's fest they've reached back to 1916, a year when the actor shot 11 movies. In this outing Fairbanks plays a half-Native American societal outcast who lives in a hollowed-out redwood tree and ultimately finds acceptance from a medicine show dancing girl. Shot in Northern California near Boulder Creek (Santa Cruz County), the film has a number of interesting names attached to it. Victor Fleming was the cinematographer and Anita Loos wrote the screenplay (adapting Bret Harte's short story "In the Carquinez Woods"). There's a scene in which a nearly-nude Fairbanks bathes in a river, which was reputedly put in the film by director Dwan only because Fairbank's then-wife, a cotton industrialist's daughter named Ann Beth Sully, hated the idea of her husband playing a "dirty, unwashed" half-breed. Thank you, Ms. Sully! As mentioned previously, The Half-Breed is a co-restoration between SFSFF and the Cinémathèque Française, the details of which will be discussed at this year's "Amazing Tales from the Archives" presentation. Günter Buchwald will accompany on the Castro's (reportedly ailing) Mighty Wurlitzer, the only time the instrument will be used at this year's festival.

2:15 PM Legong: Dance of the Virgins (1935, Bali, dir. Henri de la Falaise, 35mm)—"Nudity Without Crudity" is how the adverts read when this Balinese docu-drama-cum-ethnographic travelogue opened in NYC in 1935. Tickets reportedly cost $5.00 or $84.20 adjusted for inflation. Financed by the director's wife, actress Constance Bennett (Henri de la Falaise was also the former Mr. Gloria Swanson), Legong applied Western plot contrivances to tell its tragic tale of a Balinese dancer who pines for a musician, but he's got eyes for her sister. Butchered by censors for bare breasts and cock-fighting, the film played American grindhouses for decades under various lurid titles. Today it's recognized as a significant document of Bali's traditional dances, funeral rites and marketplace scenes of 80 years ago. It's also one of the very last silent films produced in Hollywood and a near-final example of the two-strip Technicolor process. Although Legong is making its SFSFF debut, the film was exhibited at the Castro for an entire weekend in the spring of 1999, accompanied by the Club Foot Orchestra and Gamelan Sekar Jaya. Those same musicians will be performing again at this year's SFSFF screening.

4:00 PM Gribiche (1926, France, dir. Jacques Feyder, 35mm)—In addition to being a classic French sauce, Gribiche is the title of this silent from the director of 1935's Carnival in Flanders, a classic I recently saw for the first time and wholeheartedly adored. Shot both in the studio and authentic Paris locations, the film tells the story of a poor boy who gets adopted by a rich American woman, but soon becomes bored and rebellious. Gribiche was made by the notable Films Albatros, a studio founded by Russian émigrés in France that produced important works by Marcel L'Herbier (L'Argent, SFSFF Winter Event 2011) and René Clair. Acclaimed art director Lazare Meerson created an entire 17th century Flemish village for Carnival in Flanders, and his art deco sets for Gribiche are said to be no less spectacular. We'll be seeing a new restoration by the Cinémathèque Française, who will also receive this year's SFSFF Award at the screening. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanies.

6:30 PM The House of Trubnaya Square (1928, USSR, dir. Boris Barnet, 35mm)—In this Russian comedy of manners from the director of The Girl with the Hat Box (SFSFF 2006), a young peasant woman and her duck travel to Moscow searching for an uncle and a new life. What she finds is romance and political consciousness after securing a servant's job with a barber and his bossy, lay-about wife who live in a crowded tenement. The film is said to use charm and cinematic invention to poke fun at bourgeois urban Soviet society, housing shortages and labor unions. Stephen Horne provides the accompaniment.

8:30 PM The Joyless Street (1925, Germany, dir. G.W. Pabst, 35mm)—SFSFF's 2013 Centerpiece Film was the third directorial effort of G.W. Pabst, who would go on to make such important films as Pandora's Box with Louise Brooks and The 3 Penny Opera. Set in post-WWI Vienna during a time of extreme economic duress and wealth disparity, the film stars Asta Nielsen and Greta Garbo as two women in dire straits, one of whom will turn to prostitution for survival. This was 19-year-old Garbo's second major role and her own personal favorite. She would depart for Hollywood later in the year. The Joyless Street, exhibited in the U.S. as The Street of Sorrow, served as a bridge between German Expressionism and a "new realism" style of European filmmaking. It is known to most film buffs via a butchered 61-minute version. The festival will show a reconstruction by Stefan Drössler that runs nearly 2½ times that length, with accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble.

Sunday, July 21

10:00 AM Kings of (Silent) Comedy (Digital)—If you've never seen charismatic French preservationist Serge Bromberg in action, you owe it to yourself to catch this program of four silent comedy shorts he's chosen for digital preservation. The titles include a Felix the Cat cartoon (Felix Goes West, 1924, dir. Otto Messmer), Charles Chaplin's The Immigrant (1917) and Buster Keaton's The Love Nest (1923). The one I'm most excited about, however, is Hal Roach Studio's Mighty Like a Moose (1926), directed by Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth, Going My Way) and starring Charley Chase, a silent comedian I know only by name and reputation. The film was selected for the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 2007, and it details the shenanigans which ensue when an equally homely husband and wife decide to have plastic surgery on the same day. Günter Buchwald will accompany the merriment. It's worth mentioning here that children under 10 are admitted free to all SFSFF screenings!

1:00 PM The Outlaw and His Wife (1918, Sweden, dir. Victor Sjöström, 35mm)—Filmmaker and actor Victor Sjöström directed over 40 films in Sweden before emigrating to Hollywood in 1924, adapting the name Victor Seastrom. While SFSFF has shown several of his American films over the years (He Who Gets Slapped, The Scarlett Letter, The Wind), I believe this is the first time they're screening one of his Swedish silents. (According to the festival archive, even his 1921 silent classic The Phantom Carriage has been M.I.A.). In this 1918 film based on a real 18th century Icelandic outlaw, an escaped convict (played by the director) takes up with a wealthy widow and the two escape to a life in the wilderness. Appropriately, musical accompaniment will be provided by Sweden's Matti Bye Ensemble.

3:30 PM The Last Edition (1925, USA, dir. Emory Johnson, 35mm)—Actor and San Francisco native Emory Johnson appeared in over 70 films before turning his hand to directing in 1922. He would make 13 features, most of them stories about blue collar professions adapted from stories written by his mother, Emilie Johnson. In The Last Edition, veteran actor Ralph Lewis (Birth of a Nation, Intolerance) plays a pressman for the San Francisco Chronicle who has a son that works for the D.A.'s office. When a gang of bootleggers frame the son on trumped-up bribery charges, the father literally tries to stop the presses, resulting in the printing plant blowing up. The film was shot in and around the Chronicle Building(s)—both the old one on Market Street and the then brand new one at 5th and Mission—and the film's nifty website contains a front-page Chronicle article about the film's preview for newspapermen at the St. Francis Theatre on Market Street. Until two years ago the film was considered lost, then SFSFF's Rob Byrne discovered that the EYE Film Institute Netherlands possessed an original nitrate print. This screening will be the world premiere of the restoration. Stephen Horne accompanies.

6:00 PM The Weavers (1927, Germany, dir. Friedrich Zelnik. digital)—This Soviet-influenced historical drama centers on a 1844 uprising of Silesian cotton weavers, who were concerned about the impact of steam-powered looms upon their livelihood (the event took place roughly 30 years after the Luddite revolt in Britain). The film stars Paul Wegener (best known for his silent film Golem portrayals) as the heartless mill owner and the inter-title art by renowned caricaturist / Dadaist George Grosz is said to be one of its many highlights. Günter Buchwald will accompany. As an added attraction at this screening, Ken Winokur of the Alloy Orchestra and Beth Custer of the Club Foot Orchestra will accompany a two-minute trailer for Dziga Vertov's The Eleventh Year, which was recently discovered in the Ukraine.

8:30 PM Safety Last! (1923, USA, dir. Sam Taylor, Fred Newmeyer, digital)—Is there a more iconic image from the silent film era than Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock face high above a busy city street? Hard to believe it's taken SFSFF 18 years to get around to showing it, but I for one am thrilled to finally be seeing this classic in its entirety. Lloyd, of course, was the "third genius" of silent film comedy, though at the time his films were more commercially successful than either Chaplin's or Keaton's. Safety Last! was his final film with Hal Roach Productions before striking out on his own. Lloyd stars here as an ambitious small town boy who departs for the Big City, leaving his girlfriend (played by the actor's wife Mildred Davis) behind. He secures a lowly sales clerk job and through a combination of circumstances finds himself ascending a 12-storey department store façade with a new peril—pigeons, a mad dog, a mouse running up his pant leg—awaiting him at each floor. The film joined the National Film Registry in 1994 and while most film scholars don't consider it his best—that honor seems to go to either The Freshman or The Kid Brother—it is certainly his best known and most beloved. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will accompany this Closing Night presentation.

Cross-published on film-415.