Friday, July 16, 2010

"Amazing Tales" from Amazing People, in the Amazing Castro Theater

This weekend, I am up in Northern California. Though the respite from the recent (and sudden) Los Angeles heatwave of 2010 is welcome, I have returned to the geopolitical region of my birth for something much more important: the 15th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival. It's my first time, and I'm constantly kicking myself that I didn't start coming to it years ago. I'll certainly be back again.

My first day at the festival, Friday, was pretty brief. (I didn't go to the opening film on Thursday night, John Ford's The Iron Horse, though it would have been fun.) After trying to plan an elaborate Caltrain/Muni route from my parents' house to the Castro District, I was relieved to get a ride from old mom and dad, who were going to be passing through there (they went out of town for the weekend). I'm not complain, but it feels really weird being dropped off in a gay ghetto by your parents.

I was there (at the Castro Theater) for a presentation called Amazing Tales from the Archives, in which several people spoke about preservation issues and showed clips from things that had been recently preserved. I started things off with a coffee from Cafe Flore and a stroll around the block after making sure I didn't need a ticket for the event (I didn't). I also texted a friend to say "i'm in sf bitch!"

The first feeling upon walking into the Castro Theater was that feeling I always get when I walk in there: pure elation that I'm standing in/sitting in/moving through such a stunningly beautiful space, crowded in with tons of other geeks just like me. The turnout for this event was much bigger than I expected. I took a seat in the middle-back of the auditorium, and (this always seems to happen) two heavy breathers settled into seats on either side of me. I don't want to judge them, but the gods of age and metabolism had not been kind to either of these cinephiles. A gaggle of attractive, well adjusted-looking guys sat in front of me, giving me hope for what I might look like in five or ten years (provide I grow five inches, drop fifteen pounds and achieve significant facial hair growth).

On screen flashed a slideshow of glass slide movie advertisements. Titles, which I now really want to see, included Padlocked (with positively fierce graphic design), Trent's Last Case, All of a Sudden Peggy, The Land of Jazz (with a cartoon halo of musical notes around Eileen Percy), Thirty Days, His Secretary and the short comedy One Spooky Night. In their hand-colored, low-fi, sometimes outright tacky way, glass slide movie ads are invariably gorgeous, and sometimes they are the only available visual record of a particular film. I had to call a friend to sort some schedule stuff out and, in a moment of total conceitedness, I sighed "You don't know what you're missing."

Among the other slides was this one, which I loved:

The show got started, and somebody who's name I don't remember (but should) spoke to us about the preservation efforts of the L. Jeffrey Selznik School of Film Preservation, which I'm embarrassed to say I need to look into now, and introduced a few of their scholarship students who were in the audience (to well-deserved applause). The 2010 scholar, who's name I will find and fill in later, will be restoring Mr. Fix-It this year, and their hope is that it will be on the screen at the Castro next year.

Kyle Westphal, the school's 2008 scholar, then took the stage and talked us through a project he worked on, two 1926 Kodachrome shorts, Parisian Creations in Colour with Hope Hampton, and Parisian Inspirations in Colour with Hope Hampton. He talked through them (there was musical accompaniment as well) and it was a little hard to focus on both, but his explanation of the films, the technology, and Ms. Hampton were all very interesting. Fun tidbits include:

1. These Fashion Newsreels were created by McCall's Magazine and distributed by some entity with a name like Educational Pictures Inc. They were not a very good distributor, so the films didn't get far. More people probably watched the film at that screening than had in 1926.
2. The Kodachrome stock and processing used in the film was an early version, very different from the Kodachrome stock for home movies that modern audiences are familiar with. Still in its infancy, it required lots of printing and reprinting in order to achieve the correct print exposure. Around this same time, Technicolor had already streamlined their process. Technicolor prints were cheaper, too ($0.08 a foot vs. $2.00 a foot for Kodachrome).
3. These films were just two of several similarly-titled shorts that were filmed by McCalls at the Long Island mansion of Hampton and her husband, Jules Brulatour. The list in the "Herself" portion of Hampton's IMDb page looks close to the titles Westphal rattled off. He asided that they do tend to run together.
4. Hope Hampton and Jules Brulatour didn't like the fashions that McCalls supplied for the film series. Fortunately for them, they had considerable funds of their own to go on what must have been a redonkulously expensive shopping spree.

For my part, I thought that A) it was cool to see footage of Hampton for the first time, and B) she looked a lot like Billie Burke. (The Photo of her above does not represent anything from the film I just described.) Also, C) the fashions were fantastic. Mr. Westphal kept apologizing for the length of the two movies ("It always goes on longer than I remember"). I for one could watch days of 1920's color fashion footage, so I wasn't complaining.

Once we finished with The Lady Hampton, we watched reel two from a King Baggot movie (I don't recall the name), in which he plays a dual role as a wealthy man and a double. All that survives of the film is this second of three reels; all the special effect footage, where Baggot faces off against himself, was in reel one (you're cruel jokes are not lost on us, Universe). There was a trailer reel for The Last Warning, On Trial and White Shadows in the South Seas, and, before I get too far ahead of myself, there was a snippet of A Chili Romance, which we were told was found rolled in with the King Baggot footage. (For a relatively generic slapstick comedy, it was very funny.)

Finally came the pièce de résistance: Paula Felix-Didier and Fernando Peña took the stage to talk about the restoration of the "new" version of Metropolis which was announced to exist in Argentina in 2008. The film screened to a packed house that night (I was not there, sorry) but it was interesting to hear them talk about the film's discovery, which wasn't nearly as instantaneous as it sounds in the press reports. Peña recalled how he had heard about the long-lost longer version of the film: Colleague Salvador Sammaritano described a film society screening during which the print was not running through the projector correctly. To correct it, Sammaritano had to run to the projection booth and hold his finger on the shutter to keep it from shaking. He held it there for two-and-a-half hours; when Peña said he had never heard of a version that ran so long, Sammaritano replied "Trust me, if it was your finger pressing on the gate for two-and-a-half hours, you would remember."

Felix-Didier and Peña had brought with them some clips of Argentine films, which they screened for the audience off of an ok-quality DVD. The first, a dramatic film called La cuena de la muerte (almost literally The Flute of Death), a story about a white man and a white woman who go on vacation in rural Cordova and have affairs with native people there. The quality was not exceptional, but the fact that such footage survives is miraculous. They also told us that this might have been the first "Gaucho" film, and the only silent Gaucho film, as most Argentine films made afterward were usually concerned with the middle class and were almost always shot in Buenos Aires.

There was also a documentary about the health hazards of flies (with microphotography that made me look away a few times). Finally, they presented ("cheating" as Sra. Felix-Didier confessed) the first sound film produced in Argentina. It consisted of four musical vignettes which would have been synchronized to a record. In both content and presentation they were similar to a Vitaphone short or even an Alice Guy-Blache song-film, but still I couldn't take my eyes (or ears) off the screen. The numbers consist of a singer in an unflattering gingham dress singing along with a three-piece band. Two mestizo Gauchos do some heel-stomp-dancing while . A musician plays something on . Finally, a different singer from the one before (and in a better outfit) does an entrancing rendition of a Tango song "Preciosa." This was the first Tango recorded on film, and thus puts the film under UNESCO's umbrella of World Heritage preservation (UNESCO has designated Tango to be an item of shared cultural significance, and with good reason).

The entire time, a sign-language interpreter worked tirelessly at the left of the stage. He was very expressive and, to my untrained eyes, an excellent interpreter. And handsome. He's probably not single.

And so concluded day one. I wasn't especially interested in A Spray of Plum Blossoms, which was up next, and I headed home, very sated indeed, and ready for the adventures to continue the following day.

See also:
Silent Film Festival's Blog Unlike me, they actually have photos from the event, along with insider information, show times, better writing, etc.

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