April 29, 2008

SFIFF Dispatch. 2.

Brian Darr on two revivals in San Francisco.

Leave Her to Heaven

The San Francisco International Film Festival's first weekend of screenings arrived in conjunction with late-April weather that could be called summery, except that in San Francisco summer generally means cold fog, not blue skies and temperatures in the 70s. The festival staff introducing daytime screenings, at least the ones some of my friends and I attended, consistently thanked us for deciding to spend the afternoon in a darkened theatre. As if we really had any other option - I mean, how many opportunities does one get in a lifetime to watch a lustrous 35mm print of John Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven on a screen like the Castro Theatre's?

Leave Her to Heaven Movie buffs know how Leave Her to Heaven's sunny technicolor exteriors mask truly sinister impulses underneath. It's not for nothing that the film is frequently the sole full-color entry into the film noir canon. With such a reputation preceding, audiences don't have to guess whether Gene Tierney's longing stare at Cornel Wilde on their early New Mexico train ride portends eventual doom. Tierney's affection-starved green-eyed-monster is no simple rich bitch or cut-and-dried psychotic. Even in her most despicable moments, the audience is asked to empathize with the motivations, if not the twisted logic, behind her devastating acts. As a result, Leave Her to Heaven becomes as cutting an indictment of repression as anything by Ingmar Bergman.

Before the screening of the 1945 Fox picture, Schawn Belston presented a brief digital demonstration of how the film's restoration was accomplished, followed by a video introduction from Martin Scorsese. Scorsese reminded us that the archivist's job does not consist only of the restoration and preservation of film materials. Just as important is the proper exhibition of our cinema heritage, both to viewers already familiar with a particular work, and to newly appreciative audiences.

If the Leave Her to Heaven screening was a happy occasion to bridge the gulf between these two groups - classic cinema devotees and curious newbies - the previous night's screening of The Golem illustrated that trying too hard to connect a new audience with an old film can be fraught with complications. The Golem marked the 2008 edition of the festival's tradition of commissioning untraditional music scores composed and performed live by contemporary rockers. Launched in 2000 with Tom Verlaine's accompaniment of a selection of early 20th century avant-garde shorts, the series has joined Yo La Tengo with the films of Jean Painlevé, Superchunk with Teinosuke Kinugasa's A Page of Madness, the American Music Club with Frank Borzage's Street Angel, and much more. Silent film music purists have learned to steer clear of these match-ups, as the music generally makes little or no attempt to sonically simulate the experience silent-era moviegoers had watching the films upon original release. But for those of us concerned with perpetuating a living tradition of the appreciation of silent film art, these experiments represent an intriguing alternative to a meticulously-researched in-period score performed by a top-tier keyboardist or orchestra. If I prefer the latter, I still leave room to appreciate something different.

The Golem

I appreciated the musical accompaniment to The Golem, very much actually. It was composed and performed by Black Francis, best known as frontman for the Pixies, though he brought along a coterie of instrumentalists including prior collaborators Eric Drew Feldman and Duane Jarvis. Ralph Carney's flute provided the unexpectedly soprano sound of the shofar horn used at one point in the film, but this was one of the few instances in which the sound piped through the Castro speakers directly matched the action on screen. For the most part, the band's contribution was no score at all, but instead a set of ear-catching songs inspired by the 1920 German film. Francis would wail lyrics like "how did you get so screwed" and make references to the demon Astaroth, creating a parallel narrative that sometimes illuminated and sometimes dominated the images shot by Karl Freund.

The Golem Because I enjoyed the music so much on its own terms, I didn't so much mind the fact that the film was comparatively incidental to the experience. I did mind the attempted wisecracks about YouTube, the Castro Street Fair, and other irrelevant topics uttered by comic Roy Zimmerman, billed as "master of the ceremony" for the evening. These hapless attempts at wit, perhaps intended as bite-size benshi bits to help smooth over the alien experience of watching an 88-year-old film for Generation MST3K, thankfully did not draw much laughter out of the audience, and were infrequent enough that they didn't ruin the rest of the evening.

But honestly, The Golem is no masterpiece to desecrate; it's actually a rather thin telling of a well-known legend, and it takes a while to get very exciting. The Jewish inhabitants of a medieval Prague ghetto whose protection from an anti-Semitic emperor is a clay guardian come to life, played by the film's co-director Paul Wegener. The most interesting aspects of the film are its special effects, Wegener's earthen performance as the Golem, and the significance of the frizzy-hair, wizard-cap depictions of medieval Jews in a Weimar-era film that clearly is trying to appear sympathetic to the persecuted minority, even as it trades on superstitious stereotypes. I don't have my Siegfried Kracauer handy right now, but I'm curious to see what he says about the role a little blonde gentile girl outside the ghetto gates plays in the films denouement, and what it might have meant to audiences of the time.

More from San Francisco here.

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Posted by dwhudson at April 29, 2008 5:05 AM