SFIFF, weekend one: Dario, Black Francis, and Roy Andersson

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By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I found it vaguely irresponsible, and perhaps even cruel, that the festival programmed its two most high-profile horror pictures on the same night at around the same time. Dario Argento's Mother of Tears and Paul Wegener's 1920 film The Golem both played Friday night between 9 and 11 p.m. I managed to see the Argento film in advance: Mother of Tears is the third in a trilogy that Argento began with Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), but unlike those two this one is laughably awful. Written and performed in stilted English, it's filled with continuity gaps, logic holes and otherwise unmotivated behavior. But its use of gratuitous nudity, gratuitous gore (much of it actually done with latex rather than CGI!) and gratuitous random acts of cruelty make it a hilarious, MST3K-style cult classic keeper. Not to mention that Asia Argento, though not exactly deserving of an Oscar, manages to inject enough sheer animal presence into the movie to make it worth sticking around.

Mother of Tears is supposed to get a theatrical release in June, while SFIFF's particular version of The Golem was a one-time deal. The screening boasted a live score by none other than Black Francis (once again going by his Pixies-era moniker, rather than Frank Black or Charles Thompson). The good news is that it was a great Black Francis show, but the bad news is that I'm not sure the songs actually synced up with or enhanced the movie in any way. For the most part they actually rubbed up against the movie, competed with it for our attention. In 2005, American Music Club's score for Frank Borzage's Street Angel (1927), was pure genius, absolutely mesmerizing. Francis' The Golem played a bit more like syncing up Pink Floyd to The Wizard of Oz (1939); sometimes something magical happened, melding music and film, but other times, you were trapped in some netherworld between the two forms.

Co-directed with Carl Boese by Paul Wegener, who also plays the Golem, the film is a good, but not quite great, example of German Expressionist horror. Of course, Wegener denied that he was making an Expressionist film, and critic Lotte H. Eisner's 1952 The Haunted Screen points out that the film's skewed rooftops and slanted buildings actually enhance the realism of the Jewish ghetto.

Unlike The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) or Nosferatu (1922), The Golem also has its share of plain, ordinary filmed sequences against ordinary backdrops; it's not quite as streamlined or as resonantly off-kilter. But certain scenes, such as the summoning of the magic word from the evil demon, are as stunningly effective as anything made at the time.

Francis' noise-driven live score (complete with vocals and actual take-away songs) raised the level of drama to an aggressive yowl, although he didn't make use of his old "loudQUIETloud" technique quite as one would expect. The show actually played much like an album, with a few seconds of silence between each song, although a snarky narrator occasionally cracked jokes about the images onscreen (that I could have done without). Some of the instrumental pieces were quite astounding, and reminded me of Neil Young's 1995 Dead Man score, with that painful, yearning wailing, like the sound of a wounded, melancholy dog. If you're still curious, I've been told -- though I have not confirmed -- that Francis will be releasing a DVD of his score (mainly since The Golem is available in the public domain).

Prior to The Golem, I also checked out Roy Andersson's terrific new film, You, the Living. As far as I can tell, it's only the second Andersson film to turn up here (after 2001's Songs from the Second Floor).

Andersson probably isn't much of a household name yet, but he deserves to be. He's like a cold soup mix of Buster Keaton, David Lynch, Jerry Lewis and Terry Gilliam, hawking deadpan jokes as well as chilly, disheartening mean streaks in his blocky, deep-space single takes. Every frame is drenched in blue-gray, ranging from gray clothes to gray buildings and gray clouds (a thunder and lightning storm breaks up the grayness by turning it a bit darker). There's rarely a continuous cut within a scene, and camera moves are even scarcer. His disparate characters talk about dreams and nightmares, practice musical instruments (there's a hilariously ill-fitting ragtime score) or simply wait in endless lines. You could call it deadpan comedy or dark comedy or both, but lightweight or disposable it's not.

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