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The Silent Film Festival opens tonight with Ernst Lubitsch's MGM extravaganza starring Norma Shearer and Ramon Novarro, the Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, with other films like Camille and the Godless Girl playing throughout the weekend. I've already mentioned here that I had the privilege of being part of the festival's research committee this year, researching the Sunday afternoon film Miss Lulu Bett. This is the first year I've spent months prior to the festival discussing the films in the program with the esteemed members of the committee, and I have become thoroughly convinced I'm going to enjoy all of them. But though my own objectivity may arguably have become compromised, I don't want Hell on Frisco Bay to be conspicuously quiet on this weekend. There have already been a good number of excellent advance articles on the festival, from interviews with the festival programmers to anticipatory previews. Knowing that friend and Hell on Frisco Bay contributor Adam Hartzell was going to be missing the festival this year, I arranged to get a few screeners from the festival for him to watch at home, hoping he'd provide a take on a few of this weekend's films that wasn't laced with the same information provided in the program guide; a less "inside baseball" take, as it were, than I'd probably supply. So let me clear out and let Adam take over:
Of all the festivals in San Francisco, the Silent Film Festival is my favorite. And for the second year in a row, I'm going to miss it.
Work is sending me abroad, which will enable me to catch a couple days of the Pucheon Fantastic Film Festival in Bucheon, South Korea, just outside of Seoul, so I would be an entitled prick to complain, so I won't. But I am still bummed I'll be missing the 12th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival as I missed the 11th. In spite of all that the home theater industry enables these days, The Silent Film Festival still demonstrates aspects of the communal theatre experience that can't be duplicated easily in the home, since most of us can't afford the individual overhead of the accompaniment of a live organist or pianist, let alone a live orchestra.
And the live orchestra is my favorite of the unduplicatable assets. One of the films I attended during the 10th Annual was the Brazilian film Sangue Mineiro (Blood of Minas, dir. Humberto Mauro, 1929). Mauro Correa and the Latin American Chamber Music Society performed along with the film, which very much heightened the actions on the screen and the electricity in the packed theatre. (My personal electricity was due to the fact that I was attending this screening with a woman from Montreal with whom I was quite smitten. And thankfully, at that time, she was equally smitten with me. There's nothing like attending an orchestra-accompanied screening of a silent film with a romantic interest if you're lucky enough to have that in your life at the same time as the festival.) This year, only two films will feature an orchestra (the others accompanied by piano or 'The Mighty Wurlitzer" organ), Beggars of Life (William A. Wellman, 1928) and Miss Lulu Bett (William DeMille, 1921). Aware that I wouldn't be able to attend these screenings, nor the screenings of the British film A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929) and the Italian film Maciste (Luigi Romano Borgnetto, 1915), Brian was gracious to snag me screeners from the festival so I could regret what I was missing.
The Maciste screener came without translation, as the festival screening will feature live English translation of Italian intertitles thanks to the Center for the Art of Translation. (An organization I was made aware of by the wonderful Independent Press Spotlight series at Intersection for the Arts, since the Center for the Art of Translation also produces the lovely journal Two Lines.) I'm hesitant to say much about it, but ignorance of language can provide its own pleasures, trying to figure out the narrative without the assistance of the title cards. Actor Bartolomeo Pagano debuts as a larger-than-life strong man whose fancy suits can barely contain his muscle-bound torso. In this first of what would be 26 films about this character, we watch Maciste as he engages in set-ups of sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups to exploit his strength such as throwing evil-doers onto carts and busting through ceilings to save a distressed damsel. All silent films give us a glimpse of the times they were made within, but this one also presents us with the early serializing of the action flick genre.
Speaking of action, Beggars of Life contains some its own impressive moments, such as when our two main character hobos are jumping onto, and being propelled from, a train. Directed by the director of the first film to win the Best Picture Academy Award, William A. Wellman for the film Wings, the film soon begins with a special effect lesser used these days, probably partly responsible for my finding its use quite appealing. That is, the superimposing of two film stocks upon each other as actress Louis Brooks' character tells her soon-to-be hobo companion (played by Richard Arlen) about the sexual abuses of her adoptive father. The film allows a glimpse of a lifestyle, the boxcar life of hobos, long abandoned like the rail system of which our infrastructure-vulnerable country now laments the passing. As much as it's a romanticized portrayal of this community, far from the real experienced on the rails, it's still as interesting to see how this community was organized on screen, having established their own legal and welfare systems outside the wider body politic.
One of the educations I've received from early cinema is how the world doesn't progress linearly, but in a circular momentum, regressing before it can progress again to greater things. (This is what leads me to be hopeful that my country can recover from the major regressions in human rights and democracy engaged in by the present Cheney/Rove Administration.) Miss Lulu Bett provides glimpses into earlier feminisms through a story that eventually has its revolution in a room without much of a view, but plenty of pots and pans. Played by Lois Wilson and directed by Cecil DeMille's brother William de Mille, Miss Lulu Bett is a sister-in-law relegated to kitchen duty for what appears to be the rest of her days until two suitors come a courting, one more assertive than the other. You know the drill, but according to what the excellent researcher who wrote the program notes told me, if you've read the book or the Pulitzer Prize winning play it’s based on, you don't really know how this will end.
When watching films of early cinema, I find myself often thinking about gestures and how they evolve just like words and grammar within our languages. If certain phrases fall out of common parlance, it makes sense that certain gestures fall out of use as well. When the character Carmen of Sangue Mineiro raises her leg while she kisses her suitor, we know in the past this signified a less chaste kiss within the guise of a chaste one. Although we still know what this leg bend signifies, we never expect to see this in real life outside of intended camp, intended playfulness. So I wonder about the forlorn arching of the torso, head tilted back to signify a whoa-is-me sigh from Miss Lulu Bett's niece that she displays at the front gate with her suitor. Did women really make these gestures back then? Or were they merely the necessities of expressing emotion sans words in silent cinema? And if women did make these gestures, if not stuck in a chicken-or-the-egg genesis confusion, were the gestures heightened or exaggerated due to cinema's influence?
The most powerful scene for me of the four films I watched was the silent film within the silent film of the British film A Cottage on Dartmoor. Besides making me wonder if early cinema had 'Take Off Your Obnoxiously Large Hat' commercials before screenings like our cellphone service providers reminding us to 'Turn Off Your Cellphones', what's so striking about this scene for me is how director Anthony Asquith presents the various ways the cinema was used by the patrons of this time. Some go just for the show; others go to be the show. Some are on dates, some are on the prowl for dates, and some seem to pay more attention to what's going on behind them than to what's in front of them. And when an intriguing suspenseful story such as this barber obsessed with his manicurist colleague takes a turn for the worst in the second half, where my politics cringe at the misplaced sympathies, as is the case for me with A Cottage on Dartmoor, it's nice to know that the experience of cinema will allow for many other various options for enjoyment and education besides the narratives. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival provides history, culture, language, music, and the spectacle of the sounds and visuals on screen and around the lovely Castro Theatre that each work together and in spite of the other to entertain the most and least distinguishing patrons amongst us.
So go and take advantage of what I can't. See one of these films, any of them. It's an experience that gives you hope in the future from the dreams of the past.