Monday, November 7, 2011


THE BAT WHISPERS, one of my favorite films, is spun from a comedy whodunnit called THE BAT by Avery Hopwood and Mary Roberts Rinehart. It offers an expressionistic take on the genre, framing its characters in bizarre architecture and inky shadows (in addition to seeding the character of Batman in the mind of the young Bob Kane). I'd known it was the second take on the material by director Roland West, but his first - a silent film made four years prior - had eluded me.

Happily, last Friday the San Francisco Film Society had a 9:30pm screening of the first film, so I was pleased to finally catch up with it. It is something of a rough draft for the more ambitious and accomplished later film, but it still offers a remarkable (if rougher) visual take on the proceedings. With the dialogue confined to title cards, the mysteries permeating the film are given somewhat scant treatment, but there's enough there to keep the details interesting amid the experiments with light, shadow, and setting. And the shorthand necessitated by the silent film format works to the film's advantage as the Bat is finally captured thanks to a hilarious detail planted in the first reel.

Adding to the event was the musical accompaniment by Bay Area guitarist Ava Mendoza and her drummer Nick Tamburro. There's a healthy amount of silent film/live music pairings here throughout the year, and the music more often than not leans towards a kind of cutesy whimsy. Mendoza and Tamburro were much more daring, and their looping technology and improv energy served West's mise-en-scene beautifully, often electrically. Rather than preserve the film in a kind of amber, their music truly brought the film to life. It was my first encounter with their work - here's hoping it won't be the last.

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