SFiFF1: Sounds of Silents: <i>THE EAGLE</i> & <i>CLOUDS OF YESTERDAY</i>

by gabe
April 27, 2006 12:20 PM
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On Sunday night at the historic Castro Theatre—could there be a more appropriate setting for silent film?—the Alloy Orchestra performed a live score to compliment a brand new print of the Rudolph Valentino vehicle THE EAGLE, 1925 (but erroneously listed in the SFiFF program guide as 1927.)

Eagle 4x6 Newspage.jpg

A minor film, notable mostly for first pairing Valentino with Vilma Banky, a match that yields significantly more dividends upon their reunion in SON OF THE SHEIK, THE EAGLE is also an early film by Clarence Brown, who went on to direct NATIONAL VELVET, THE YEARLING and ANGELS IN THE OUTFILED in his illustrious four decade career.

Despite the fact that THE EAGLE is a less than remarkable film—a rather bland telling of a Robin Hood-like tale set in the Russian countryside—the opportunity to experience live accompaniment with a pristine print is always noteworthy.


Before the program, Alloy Orchestra’s Ken Winokur announced that THE EAGLE will be distributed through his new company, Box 5, through which he plans to restore and release more films down the road.

Here’s a bit from the Alloy Web site about Box 5:

“The new company has purchased approximately 100 silent films from the Killiam Collection in NY, as well as films from other sources. The new company is currently to making plans to restore and release these films on 35mm and in digital formats.”

At a time when movies are frequently experienced outside of theatres—on DVD, on demand, on cable, on iPod, on laptop—it is refreshing to attend a show like this, a program which MUST be seen on the big screen, with an audience, live and alive.

But it also bears mentioning that live accompaniment to silent films such as this, also serves as a reminder of how dramatically paradigms can shift.

CLOUDS OF YESTERDAY, the ambitious debut from Japanese director Takushi Tsubokawa strives to bridge the gap between present and past through cinema.

The multi-generational story shot in black & white and color, concerns the recollections of an old man who is visiting with his daughter and granddaughter. The ethereal plot, such as it is, pays homage to Ozu’s tradmark shomingeki— simple stories of everyday life. Between his efforts to connect with his grand daughter, the old man recounts an episode from his youth, a time when he worked as a delivery boy for a film production.

The film, which took over ten years to complete reportedly due to financial difficulties, suffers from a disjointed, fractured narrative. One cannot hope but feel that the arduous filmmaking process contributes to the film’s overall sense of confusion. Yet Tsubokawa embraces his limitations by telling an abstract story. Steering away from conventional story-telling conventions, the film is crafted by atmospheric artistic brush strokes. Scenes, relationships and conventional establishing elements are all suggested.

Tsubokawa finds narrative clarity in the film’s centerpiece—a silent film, painfully recreated to look authentically of the period. Capturing the vintage look and feel of a silent film is not easy—and this film within the film is the highlight of CLOUDS OF YESTERDAY.

Also of note, are the cultural specifics of Japanese silent film exhibition. As the silent film within the film screens, the movie is accompanied by a live chamber orchestra, and a narrator. A holdover from Bunraku story telling, the narrator not only sets the scene, but also assumes characters’ voices with the linguistic dexterity of Mel Blanc.

Special thanks to San Francisco Film Society's Paula Cavagnaro, who was generous enough to furnish me with a press pass so I can provide my thoughts about the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival in this here blog.

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