Sunday, September 28, 2014

California Culture 4: The Son of the Sheik

California's most potent art form has always been film, spreading photographed dreams across the world. A common refrain I have heard from immigrants over the years: "When I arrived in California, I felt like I'd been here before in an earlier life," and in truth they had, except it was probably as toddlers watching old movies on television filmed on Hollywood backlots and in Southern California deserts and mountains which transformed itself into memory.

Last Saturday the invaluable San Francisco Film Festival organization projected a one-day festival of films from the birth of cinema at the Castro Theater, including Rudolph Valentino's last film, The Son of the Sheik, a lavishly produced 1926 sequel to his earlier breakout hit The Sheik, which was the 50 Shades of Grey of its time. Hollywood studios and sand dunes in the desert near Yuma stood in for Arabia very convincingly. Valentino played the dual roles of the Sheikh in old age makeup and his impetuous young son who falls in love with a dancing girl who works for a pack of thieves, including her dissolute French father. It's the latter group that ambushes our young hero above and tortures him all night, blaming the innocent Vilma Bánky for luring him into their trap. The camera loves Valentino and his understated acting style has aged well in comparison to many of the mugging antics around him.

Of course the dancing girl is blameless, but our young hero doesn't know that so he kidnaps her and maybe or maybe not ravishes her in his desert tent. After realizing his mistake, there is a rousing rescue scene that includes both the Sheikh and his son, not to mention a comic dwarf baddie who appears to be the inspiration for much of Jodorowsky's El Topo.

The movie was completely satisfying on its own terms, helped immeasurably by the live performance of a new accompanying musical score by the Alloy Orchestra above. From left to right, Roger Miller, Ken Winokur, and Terry Donahue gave a hard-charging performance that included a synthesizer and a vast array of percussion as they toyed with just about every Oriental musical cliche extant.

There was also a British Film Institute program devoted to a typical evening at the cinema in 1914, 100 years ago. It was a grab bag of short travelogues, newsreels, comic routines, a very entertaining Perils of Pauline serial, and one of Charlie Chaplin's earliest Max Sennett slapstick farces. World War One had just started, and it was bizarrely disturbing to see dispatches from the first few months of the conflict when everyone in Britain thought it would be a short romp.

In an animated short by "Lancelot Speed" called General French's Contemptible Little Army, Prussian Imperialism is sent on a hasty retreat, reminiscent of how American wars are sold to the public.

The pianist Donald Sosin above accompanied the mixture of shorts with patriotic marches, delicate tunes, and comic sound effects.

1 comment:

janinsanfran said...

Interesting. I had that sensation of "having been here before" in the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota. That landscape may not have been the literal cinema "West" but its canyons and rocks sure are what films simulated in Hopalong Cassidy.