Thursday, August 5, 2010

San Francisco's 2010 International and Silent Film Festivals

Luchino Visconti's Senso (1954) - 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, May 2, Castro Theatre

While working on a Strangers on a Train blog for the Cafe earlier this year, I took a side trip into the career of one of its stars, Farley Granger. I'd been barely aware of his work, so when TCM devoted an evening to films "Starring Farley Granger" in April, I recorded and watched them all. But one film eluded me, a film that is among Granger's own favorites, along with Hitchcock's Strangers... and Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night (1949) - Luchino Visconti's lavish period spectacle, Senso. Soon fate kindly stepped in and tossed a bit of synchronicity my way. A few days after TCM's Granger showcase, I received a pair of passes to this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. Leafing through the program, I was surprised to find Senso listed among the screenings.

The well-established 53-year-old San Francisco's International Film Festival primarily focuses on contemporary films from around the world; this year 150 films from every corner of the globe were featured as well as events honoring Robert Duvall, Roger Ebert, Walter Murch and others. 57-year-old Senso (newly restored) might seem an unlikely entry, but the film is of elemental significance to the festival; its U.S. premiere took place at the inaugural San Francisco International Film Festival in 1957.

Opulent, operatic and visually rich, Senso is set in Venice during the 1860's, when Italy was occupied by Austria, and tells the tale of an Italian countess (Alida Valli) whose intense illicit affair with an Austrian military officer (Granger) ends in betrayal and mad revenge.

It is said that Italian neorealism began with Luchino Visconti 's Ossessione (1943). With Senso, Visconti made his first departure from the genre he helped pioneer. And what a departure - grand and grandiose, vivid and sensuous. This is a truly beautiful film (three-strip technicolor), an epic of passionate romance and passionate rebellion...accented with wit and humor. Though Alida Valli's performance as the excitable countess is at times near hysteria, Granger delivers one of his best performances as her good-looking and manipulative good-for-not-very-much lover.

Visconti has been credited with influencing great filmmakers of later generations and there were moments during the film when his profound influence on Francis Coppola was never more apparent.

In introducing the film, a festival VIP declared that Senso should only be seen at the Castro Theatre. I couldn't agree more; the film and theater together created an experience of unforgettable grandeur.

(Screenwriter Suso Cecchi D'Amico who worked with Visconti on all but two of his screenplays passed away last Saturday at age 96; D'Amico collaborated on Senso)

G.W. Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) - 15th San Francisco Silent Film Festival, July 17, Castro Theatre

Louise Brooks has interested me since the early '80s when I first read her book Lulu in Hollywood. I picked up the Criterion Collection's Pandora's Box (1929) a few years ago and quickly understood the brouhaha over Brooks on film. Beautiful and charismatic, she's an eye-magnet who naturally commands the screen. Her life was legendary...but that's another blog. Her film career was erratic and relatively brief, but her starring roles in Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), two films she made under the direction of G.W. Pabst in Germany, endowed her with a timeless mystique.

Diary of a Lost Girl headlined the 15th San Francisco Silent Film Festival's Saturday night program. Set in Germany's Weimar era and replete with cruelty, betrayal and debauchery, the melodrama follows an innocence-downfall-redemption trajectory.

The film opens as Thymian Henning (Brooks) celebrates her day of confirmation - but the festivities come to an abrupt end when a just-fired servant takes her own life. Undone by events and their implications, Thymian is seduced by her father's assistant (Fritz Rasp). Sent to a reformatory run by proto-Nazi grotesques, she escapes to a brothel and goes on to become a countess by way of a dissipated (and disinherited) aristocrat. Miraculously, a transformed Thymian eventually takes charge of the reformatory where she was once locked away.

Pabst, the story goes, actually had a very different plan for the film's ending. His original intent was for Thymian to become a wildly successful madam, a woman who scoffed at the German bourgeoisie...

G. W. Pabst's cinematic mastery and intelligence along with Louise Brooks' star power envigorate a potentially trite tale. Supporting players Fritz Rasp, Andrews Engelmann and Valeska Gert enrich Pabst's dark potion. Brooks navigates Thymian's travails from naive girl to worldly woman with lithe physicality and subtlety. She and Dietrich could together have ruled the femme fatale corner of cinema for years, if only...As it was, Brooks functioned as Pabst's muse in two of his best-known works and, decades later, achieved screen immortality.

The world famous Mont Bela Motion Picture Orchestra premiered its new score for Diary of a Lost Girl at this screening. The chamber ensemble orchestra is dedicated to reviving the authentic period sound of the silent film orchestra.

A Brief History of the Castro Theatre, "an acre of seats in a palace of dreams"

The Castro was built in 1922 by San Francisco theater pioneers, the Nasser brothers. It was designed by well-known Bay Area architect Timothy Pflueger. The theater's exterior design suggests a Mexican cathedral and the interior is decorated in the Spanish Renaissance style with Moorish Tent, Oriental Zodiac and Art Deco touches.

From 1922 to 1976, the Castro showcased first and second run mainstream films. In 1976 the theater, under new management, began to present repertory cinema, foreign films, film festivals and special first run presentations. This continues today with the Castro's ongoing schedule of special programs.

In 1977 the theater was designated San Francisco's registered landmark #100 and in 1982 the Castro's Conn organ was replaced with a "mighty Wurlitzer."

In 2001 the Nasser family took over operation of the theater once again and made extensive improvements and upgrades.


  1. Eve, superb coverage of lesser known films, as well as your festival/theatre experience. There are no film festivals near my hometown. Attending such a festival won't happen for me unless I make a vacation of it, and I haven't had such an opportunity yet. So I enjoy reading of someone who's able to see a screening of a film they might not be able to find or see anywhere else. Thank you for an immensely entertaining write-up of your festival adventure!

  2. One of your excellent best, Eve. Very interesting write-ups on the movies (I too find Louise Brooks incredible). The theatres are to die for. Like Sark, there are no film festivals, at least not like the ones you describe, near to me, and I envy you the opportunity. Beautiful pictures too!

  3. Thank you, Sark and Becky. I realize I'm fortunate to live where I live and have available to me all that I do - not the least of which is a variety of film festivals and events and more than one vintage theater. We sometimes take our day-to-day environments for granted. I have, anyway...and this blog was meant to try to convey and share my experiences plus encourage those who are within range of such events to participate...and enjoy. Sark, I hope you do take such a vacation some day - and blog about it. You too, Becky. I'm going to attend and blog about more festivals as well as tour (and take pix of) one of the most lavish of the local movie palaces. I hope I'm able to adequately communicate these experiences at the Cafe...

  4. Eve, you have a way of making me feel like I am there with you experiencing the festivals and the theaters. What an enchanting experience you are able to share with us! I truly appreciate your profiles and insights very much. Extraordinary write-up! How I appreciate you!

  5. Eve, Thank you for sharing your wonderful experiences. I loved reading your amazing write up! I can not imagine how much fun you must have had. WOW!!

  6. Eve, I would love to see SENSO, especially at the elegant Castro! I haven't seen any of Visconti's pre-1960 films--that's a gap in my cinema education. It's awesome, too, that you saw a restored print (it was edited by the Italian govt when originally released, wasn't it?). Plus a Pabst classic, too...yes, I am jealous again!

  7. Yes, Rick, I believe the Italian government originally tinkered with it. Apparently the restoration of SENSO would've been next to impossible without digital technology - particular problems with shrinkage and damage to the original three-strip Technicolor negatives - and it is a very colorful and color-oriented film.

    And thank you, Dawn.

  8. excellent post..i am glad to know that THE CASTRO is alive and well...beautiful pictures..anyone who claims to be a film fan abd does not know of LOUISE BROOKS is ((&%#@RFGTY%$...even C. MONTGOMERY BURNS made a reference to her..i used to be a big VISCONTI up to A DEATH IN VENICE...have yet to see OSSESSIONE

  9. Doc...The Castro's heart is beating stronger than ever... from Aug. 27 - Sept. 5 it will run "Blonde Bombshell" double features and I'll be seeing Marilyn Monroe on the big screen for the first time, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. The newly restored version of METROPOLIS is running Aug. 13 -15. As for Louise Brooks, Mr. Burns must've known her in his youth...
    A note to Toto2 - you are so generous in your praise - the admiration is mutual(and thanks)...