Like with so many things in my life recently, my review of this year’s silent film festival has been backlogged for a couple of weeks. But here it is, finally, in an attempt to get it out of my To-Do list.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival this year was spectacular. In my brief three day visit to the city, I managed to see four films.
`The Gaucho`_ (1927): Aside from being my alma matter’s mascot, gauchos are the Argentine version of the more northern cowboy. I knew that I wanted to see this film the moment saw it listed for the festival. ‘Douglas Fairbanks’ is a name that means less than it should outside of the silent film crowd. Thankfully, Dougy-Baby didn’t fail to deliver.
The basic plot goes as follows. Girl master thief (Lupe Velez) meets boy master thief (the Gaucho, Douglas Fairbanks) and they fall in love. In their raiding of small town antics, they get roped into saving a small mountain shrine (the City of the Miracle) from a recent coup’s dictator whose lackeys were shaking the Church down from money. Apparently, the plot occurred to Mr Fairbanks while visiting a similar shrine in the French countryside.
Douglas Fairbanks aerobics were impressive as always. Watching the man vault up and down buildings, on and off moving horses never seems to get old. But the truly shocking thing to me was his mastery of the bola. The bola is a weapon that is notoriously hard to learn. To master it takes practice from early childhood. However, Fairbanks performs difficult tricks with smooth ease. He even incorporates their usage into a dance!
Nor should the utter competence of the leading lady be overlooked. Lupe Velez was effectively the equal of her male counterpart. The most memorable moment for me of her was when she was locked up in a room. The key was stuck in the door on the other side. She pushed a rug underneath the door, used a pin to push the key out of the lock, the key fell onto the rug, she dragged the rug buck under the door, used the key to unlock the door, and walked out of the room. It was brilliant.
To overcome the dictators army currently garrisoned at the shrine, the Gaucho causes a stampede of thousands of cattle and ushers them into the city. This gives one of the most stunning shots of the film. When the cattle first get to the city walls, they cram up against them until their sheer mass breaks down brink and mortar. Then a flood of cow-flesh pours over the wall. When I am old and grey, that is an image that I will remember when I have forgotten all else. This movie was fantastic!
`Wild Rose`_ (1932): I have trouble finding good things to say about this movie. Not that it was bad, per se. I think fundamentally when I sit down to see a movie, I want to be entertained. This is probably a broader category for me than it is for most people; if I am challenged or forced to think, I am entertained.
That said Wild Rose wasn’t entertaining. It is supposed to be this big paradigm shifting film for Chinese cinema. The director, Sun Yu, had just returned from the United States (having learned cinematography) and made this film. So maybe Yu’s Chinese audience had never seen something like this movie before. However, I swear I had seen some of his shots in earlier films by Vertov and Chaplin and others. What was special was who made it and who was watching it at the time, not the film itself. The plot was OK, but overloaded with nationalist sentiment. I understand that some people really get off on such palpable propaganda, but I can’t stomach it.
`Underworld`_ (1927): Easily my favourite film of the festival this year. It was marginally better than “The Gaucho”. Billed to us as a proto-noir, it was truly the essence of a gangster film. To get an idea of how excellent this film was, it won the first ever Oscar for best writing. The plot is roughly about the sordid affair of the manly bank robber, criminal overlord Bull Weed, his girl Feathers, lawyer turned bum turned henchman Rolls Royce, and the usual cast of side character policemen and criminals. The movie is dark and funny, but never both at the same time. Rather than trying to describe the movie further, here is a poem I wrote about “Underworld”:
You really should try and find a way to see this movie. Without discussing it to much more, Rolls Royce has this excellent line when Feathers first starts flirting with him. Even though Bull Weed is absent, Rolls legitimately plays hard to get.
Feathers says something like, “I am not interested in books.” To which Rolls slyly responds, “And I am not interested in women.”
The audience laughed. But there is an interesting historical point here. ‘Woman’ used here is a double entendre. The first meaning is the obvious one, ‘woman’ as in female human. The second use is ‘woman’ as a profession. So it is this second meaning that has since (thankfully) fallen out of usage. But I think it is this second one that Rolls really meant. Unlike Bull Weed, his character was not interested in having an unthinking, sit-there-and-look-pretty partner.
`Aelita: The Queen of Mars`_ (1924): This was a Soviet Russian science fiction film. I had seen this one in Austin a few years prior so I didn’t bother seeing it again. I think I even made a post about it back then, but I am having trouble finding it. In truth, I was a bit disappointed. This was the first time that the Festival was screening a film I had already seen.
`Erotikon`_ (1929): ‘Erokikon’ was a Czech film discussing ‘modern female sexuality’…if you ignore the glaring plot holes. The story is about a love pentagon. Basically, it follows this creepy (but handsome) sleaze-ball, the two women who he has seduced, and their husbands. The plot holes all revolve around the women. There is NO REASON after the first 20 minutes of the film for the women to ever even speak to the creepy guy again. But for some reason, they see him and fall head over heels once more.
The film was pretty good. The camera work had at least one toe in Avant Garde. Which of course was awesome. Virginal sex where the camera is placed on the bed, aimed upwards and pivoted. Splice in the picture of Mary on the wall looking down on you, and my friends, you have one awesome sex scene.
More than this though, I noticed that my facial features were similar to those of the actors in the movie. This perturbed me. They look like me. I know I have some Czech in me, somewhere. I have never felt th at I need to find people that I look like. Skin tone and is Italian, my height is French, hair is German. I don’t look Jewish. But I always figured that I was an amalgam. These Czechs, though, they have my face. Of course what I really mean is that we share facial bone structure. This is even more clear and present since I have been recently beardless. For some reason this bothers me. They have my face!
Congrats if you made it here!