Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Silent Cinema

SIFFtings 2015: Archival Presentations

SIFF more than doubled its archival programming this year, bring a record 19 archival films and programs to the festival this year. The backbone of the archivals this year is a program celebrating the 25th anniversary of Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation. Eight films restored by The Film Foundation play SIFF, and another four will screen at The Paramount Theatre’s Silent Movie Mondays through June.

The Film Foundation screenings, all from 35mm film prints, are almost all done. Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes, which was scheduled for the first weekend of SIFF, had to be cancelled after the screening had begun due to projection problems. Word is that the festival programmers are working to get a new screening scheduled. Meanwhile there is one Film Foundation restoration still on the schedule: Alyam, Alyam (1978), from Morocco, is set to play on June 7 at 4:30pm at SIFF Film Center.

Unconnected with The Film Foundation anniversary was The Son of the Sheik (1926), one of the first genuine movie sequels. It was also the last film that Rudolph Valentino made—he died shortly before its premier. He plays two roles in the tongue-in-cheek Arabian swashbuckler, both father (under a distinguished beard and a stern, serious expression) and son, the former now a responsible leader of his people and the latter a wild young man—just like his father was at his age. The double-exposure camera effects that put father and son together, fighting side-by-side in the climactic swordfight, are seamless, a reminder that the art and craft of Hollywood filmmaking in the silent era was top notch. The Alloy Orchestra played a lively live score, with bongos and congas setting the scene and a bit of accordion and clarinet added to the synthesizer melodies, which in Alloy fashion stand in for flutes, bass, and pretty much the rest of the orchestral colors.

Seattle received the newly-restored The Apu Trilogy immediately after they premiered at Cannes—the films played over Memorial Day weekend to full houses—but don’t worry if you missed them. Word is that they are returning to Seattle for a longer run this summer. These were all shown on new 4K digital restorations, produced from the best archival elements available (after the original negatives were destroyed on a fire). These films are very much India’s answer to Italy’s neo-realism, in part out of inspiration but also because they were shot under similar conditions: little money, non-professional actors, a first-time director trying to capture a world that hadn’t been seen on Indian screens. The films made Satyajit Ray’s name and reputation around the world, but they are also only one aspect of his work. The simple power and poetry of these film gave way for more sophisticated stories, complex portraits of Indian life, and nuanced direction just a few years later in films like The Music Room (1958) and Charulata (1964).

Here are three choice archival programs coming up, two of which I’ve had the opportunity to see in San Francisco ahead of the SIFF screenings.

SAVED FROM THE FLAMES (Serge Bromberg, France, 2015; approx. 90 minutes)

I have not seen this program, which is not a film but selection of archival rarities presented by film preservationist, historian, and director Serge Bromberg, who play host, raconteur, and accompanist to the evening. If his hosting of the Charley Bowers program at SFSFF is any indication, it should be a lively and entertaining evening. He makes sure the audience is having a grand time while they sample delightful pieces of film history. I previewed this program in the SIFFtings Week Three round-up.

Tuesday, June 2, 7pm, Uptown

‘Cave of the Spider Women’

CAVE OF THE SPIDER WOMEN (Dan Duyu, China, 1927; 60 minutes)

Though not complete—this film is missing the first reel—this recently rediscovered film is a major find. It’s based on a chapter in the epic adventure “Journey to the West,” a classic of Chinese literature also known as “The Monkey King,” which is essentially the star character of the story. The hero is a devout young Buddhist monk on a holy mission and this story… the title pretty much sums it up. This is fantasy with George Méliès movie magic and a lot of humor to the action and spectacle. There are physical battles and magical battles, lots of acrobatics, and plenty of transformations, and when the spider women reveal their true natures, the creatures may not be “realistic” but they sure are great. And if the monk is a kind of colorless stiff, the Monkey King is a wily, delightful character, like the classic trickster figure of western mythology, but on the side of the heroes. Donald Sosin, an old friend of SIFF, will be providing the live accompaniment.

It runs a mere hour long so the festival, in a brilliant bit of programming inspiration, is presenting it on a double feature with the 1967 remake The Cave of the Silken Web, produced by the Shaw Brothers as a full color action spectacle. I haven’t seen the remake but I expect a wild ride.

Wednesday, June 3, 6:30pm, Uptown

SHERLOCK HOLMES (Arthur Berthelet, U.S., 1916; 116 minutes)

William Gillette was the definitive theatrical incarnation of Sherlock Holmes in his day. Even Arthur Conan Doyle was a fan of Gillette and his stage play, which is not based on any of the stories but is an original piece. Unfortunately, there was no record of Gillette’s performance to see. Until just over a year ago, when a print was found in the holdings of the Cinémathèque Française. This restoration was co-produced by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which just premiered the American restoration debut in a sold-out screening. SIFF is the next stop on the revival tour.

Produced in 1916 by the Essenay Company, the film is an adaptation of Gillette’s play, which features Watson and Moriarty but very little Holmesian mystery. This is more of a battle between Holmes and the criminal mastermind, and it is briskly paced, handsomely produced, and dominated by the presence of Gillette, whose very presence feels chiseled out of stone. Like William S. Hart, another stage veteran who came to cinema in the teens, he presents a resolute, serious, focused figure on the screen, a strong individual who betrays little emotion to others but allows the audience to see through the carefully controlled mask. Most importantly to Sherlockians the world over, it finally gives them a chance to see Gillette, the man considered the definitive stage Sherlock Holmes in his day, along with a number of members of Gillette’s stage production reprising their roles.

Saturday, June 6, 4:15pm Egyptian

William Gillette in ‘Sherlock Holmes’