Friday, July 9, 2010

Silent Summer

This limited edition poster for Diary of a Lost Girl is one of three made by David O'Daniel to promote the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which takes over the Castro Theatre in one week. I've written before about my involvement in one aspect of the festival, and in the interest of full disclosure I don't feel it's proper to blog about my enthusiasm for the festival without mentioning that connection. But I assure you the enthusiasm is genuine; no one at the festival is in any way pressuring me to promote the event (they have their own fine blog for that) in addition to my other contributions there. But since the festival has been the centerpiece of my summer moviegoing for longer than I've been part of the festival's writers group, I feel moved to write about the programs I'm anticipating nonetheless.

The three feature films depicted in O'Daniel's posters are the three I've seen theatrically before, all at the Castro, though under very different circumstances than the way they'll be presented July 15-18. Diary of a Lost Girl was the film German director G.W. Pabst made with that great cult icon of the silent screen, Louise Brooks, directly after Pandora's Box. Critic Lotte Eisner was not the last to contend that it illustrated the development (a maturation, perhaps) of Pabst's technique over the more famous film he'd made the year before. Eisner wrote: "The film displays a new, almost documentary restraint. Pabst now seeks neither Expressionistic chiaroscuro nor Impressionistic glitter; and he seems less intoxicated than he was by the beauty of his actress." Many call Diary of a Lost Girl the better film, though I'm not sure I'm quite with them. It was my first exposure to Pabst or Brooks when I first saw and loved it at the Berlin and Beyond festival in 2002, but upon finally seeing Pandora's Box at the SFSFF a few years later, the latter's grand guignol overwhelmed my memory of Diary almost entirely, and Pandora is the one I now own on DVD. I can't wait to learn my reaction to seeing Diary of a Lost Girl again on the big screen, musically accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and introduced by SFSFF founders Melissa Chittick and Stephen Salmons.

With Berlin & Beyond no longer the organization it once was thanks to a well-publicized shake-up, I worry that the gulf between the theatrical exposure the great German silent film industry deserves, and what it gets here in Frisco might widen. At least this year, however, the Silent Film Festival is breaking precedent by showing two features from the same foreign film industry, and it is indeed Germany's. Along with Diary of a Lost Girl, the SFSFF will screen Fritz Lang's Metropolis in its closest-to-complete version since being cut for international distribution in 1927. There has been some consternation among film lovers in response to the fact that this screening will be, as all screenings of this newest restoration of Metropolis have been, sourced from a digital copy rather than a tangible 35mm print. The disappointing fact is that distributor Kino decided to eschew the expense of striking physical prints for circulation this time around. Even the (decidedly non-Kino-sanctioned) screening of the Giorgio Moroder version of Metropolis which the currently-running Another Hole In The Head festival has cheekily booked to play the VIZ Cinema shortly after the SFSFF, will be screened digitally. I don't suppose it's for nothing that James Quandt referred to a mythical Fritz Lang retrospective in his contribution to this year's Cineaste magazine round-table on the state of repertory in the United States. (It's a must-read article in both print and online form, by the way.) I have a feeling that the live score performance by the Alloy Orchestra will overwhelm most any consternation and disappointment among those who attend the sure-to-sell-out event at the Castro next Friday.

Alloy Orchestra, making its first appearance at the Silent Film Festival since 2000 (the year before I started attending), will also provide the music for the film I was honored to research and write about this year, Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera. What can I say: I loved this film long before I began my research, and I love it all the more now that I've read more than I ever knew was written about it. It's simultaneously the one film on the program I'd most heartily recommend to someone who'd never seen a silent film before, and the one I'd most strongly urge the most diehard silent film enthusiast to take another look at. A third opportunity to see the Alloys in action comes after the SFSFF ends, on Monday July 19 at the Rafael Film Center in Marin, where the group will perform to Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail.

Though it's a haven for fans of Old Hollywood, foreign films have been an integral piece the from the beginning of the Silent Film Festival. Actually, before the beginning- two years prior to the first annual festival in 1996, the nascent organization presented Ernst Lubitsch's German film I Don't Want To Be A Man at Frameline. Foreign silents have been part of every summer program since 1999, but this year they enjoy a particularly prominent place; a record seven countries will be represented by films at the festival. For the first time, the fest's closing night film is a foreign title (the French comedy L'heureuse mort), and an entire day of screenings (Friday, July 16) will be devoted to films from abroad: Metropolis will be preceded by A Spray of Plum Blossoms from China and Rotaie from Italy. I've seen neither, and had in fact heard of neither before being made aware of them by the SFSFF.

Akira Kurosawa was not the first filmmaker to transpose one of William Shakespeare's plays to an East Asian setting. In 1931, long before Throne of Blood or Ran, Chinese director Bu Wancang placed stars Ruan Lingyu and Jin Yan in a version of Two Gentlemen Of Verona, entitled A Spray of Plum Blossoms, that sounds positively psychotronic! Apparently a mash-up of The Bard, elegant 1930s Shanghai design, and a Douglas Fairbanks-style Western complete with a Robin Hood character, a Spray of Plum Blossoms seems sure to be the most rollicking of the four films from the Shanghai silent film industry that the SFSFF has presented thus far in its fifteen summer festivals.

The first screening I ever attended at the SFSFF was the Italian adventure film Maciste All'inferno, back in 2001. In 2006 another Maciste film screened. This year, Rotaie becomes the festival's first Italian program choice not featuring Bartolomeo Pagano's charismatic bodybuilder. Also known as Rails, the 1929 Rotaie was directed by Mario Camerini, according to Peter Bondanella one of two directors dominating Italian moviemaking in the Fascist-government period. However, all accounts label this particular Camerini film very atypical of the kind of artistry we expect to exist under a totalitarian state. Bondanella writes: "it is a psychological study of the complex interrelationships between two fugitive lovers." The film has been compared to that beautifully downbeat but ultimately inspiring film Sunrise: a Song of Two Humans. That's more than enough to make it a must-see for me.

While researching Sunrise for an essay I wrote accompanying its screening at the festival's February 2009 Winter Event, I found myself becoming fascinated by the Fox Studio and its head of production William Fox. For years he had the reputation of being the most frugal and aesthetically conservative of the majors, churning out low-budget, but profitable Westerns starring the likes of Buck Jones and Tom Mix. In the mid-1920s, however, he began to realize that to compete with MGM, Paramount and First National, he would have to produce films that could play in large movie palaces in cosmopolitan city centers, where audiences wanted more glamor and spectacle than his likable cowboy heroes could provide. This is what led Fox to put into production films like Raoul Walsh's What Price Glory?, Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven, and imported auteur F.W. Murnau's Sunrise. Before these war movies and dramas, he had contract director John Ford test the waters with the first of Ford's big-budget epics of the Old West. Thus the Iron Horse paved the way for the period of intense artistry of the late 1920s that the Fox studio became remembered for. Though the film is available on DVD, I've been waiting to see it on the big screen, and am thrilled that the Silent Film Festival chose it to be their opening night selection, accompanied by the organ virtuosity of Dennis James. If next Thursday is too long to wait for a big-screen Fox Western, however, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont has selected a Tom Mix film entitled The Last Trail for this Saturday night's slot in its latest weekly silent screening schedule.

Certainly the least-known of the SFSFF's American features this time around is the Flying Ace, a film made at Richard E. Norman's Jacksonville, Florida studio in 1926. Norman cast his independent film productions exclusively with African-American actors, and expected his films to be seen largely by African-American audiences who in many regions of the country were excluded from the theatres, or at minimum the screening times, that white audiences frequented. It's exciting to be exposed to a film with little to no critical reputation in a more-than-ideal exhibition environment with what is sure to be a large and curious audience. There's no way I'm going to miss this one either.

I don't strictly watch silent films, of course; I explore contemporary cinema frequently enough that I feel I can put together a respectable top ten list of new releases every year. The film I placed atop my list of 2009 Frisco Bay commercial releases last year was the animated feature Up, my favorite of the Pixar films so far. As I wrote after first seeing it, the film clearly exhibits its creators' affinity for silent story-telling technique. So what a treat it was to learn that Up's director Pete Docter will be part of this year's Silent Film Festival, presenting a Saturday morning program of two-reel comedy shorts: Laurel & Hardy in Big Business, the hilarious, underexposed Pass the Gravy, and the Buster Keaton/Fatty Arbuckle team-up The Cook. Directly following that program will be a festival first: a panel discussion on the art of silent film music composition and accompaniment that promises to be a lively intersection of the diverse array of the top-tier silent film musicians attending the festival this year. This in addition to the continued tradition of free-of-charge presentations by invited film archivists, this time expanded to two programs kicking off the festival days on Friday and Sunday.

I'm running out of writing juice, so I'll have someone else with infinitely more credibility than I provide brief comments on the remaining films on the program. I've plucked a few quotes from the many wonderful writings of filmmaker and historian Kevin Brownlow, who I've written on before, and who has surely done more than any living person to augment the reputation of silent cinema among film buffs, and whether they know it or not, among the general public as well. His many books, articles, interviews, film restorations, and documentaries speak for themselves as accomplishments. But they also speak for an artform that had no literal voice, in a way that speaks to everyone from academics to channel surfers. He's one of the few prolific film writers of any kind who I cannot say I've ever seen a negative word written against. And here are some of his words on films in the Silent Film Festival program this year:

On the director of all the short films that will precede many of the feature film programs in this year's SFSFF: "Georges Méliès used the cinematograph to extend his act as a magician, and he produced a series of enchanting films, incorporating camera tricks and sleight of hand which can still astonish."

On the Danish documentary-turned-cult-film Häxan: Withcraft Throughout the Ages: "bizarre and brilliant"

On William Wyler's boxing drama The Shakedown: "impressive"

On the first Norma Talmadge feature to be included at the Silent Film Festival: "I have just seen The Woman Disputed and it's a remarkable piece of filmmaking. The plot takes Maupassant's "Boule de Suif" to extremes, but it succeeds so well as a brilliant piece of flim craft that is MUST be brought back to life."

On the Frank Capra-directed comedy starring the so-called "fourth genius" Harry Langdon, The Strong Man: "Its tremendous climax matches that of the best action pictures...the picture stands today as one of the best comedies ever made."

Brownlow himself will attend the Silent Film Festival for the first time ever this year, along with Patrick Stanbury, his partner in his Photoplay Productions company, which is the institution receiving this year's Silent Film Festival Award. This award has previously been granted to David Shepard, the Chinese Film Archive, and Turner Classic Movies among other recipients. The 2010 award will be presented at the 4:00 Saturday screening of The Strong Man, and I wouldn't miss it for anything.


  1. Tremendous write-up, Brian. I'm always so pleased when you inform me of so much. And congratulations on your equally fascinating read in the current issue of Senses of Cinema.

  2. I'll be there, too. I can hardly wait!

  3. I must admit I'm a bit disappointed to learn that METROPOLIS won't be on film. I knew it was screening digitally elsewhere, but I was convinced that SFSFF would obtain a 35-mm print. On the bright side, I've seen all the good-quality material and look forward to hearing Alloy's score (I've never heard their Metropolis before!)

    Also, Alloy accompanied STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. at the first SFSFF I attended, so it'll be nice to see them at the Castro again.

    In other news, Brownlow is a god.

  4. Also, if I make it to SF I'm really looking forward to seeing Stephen Horne play again. He really wowed me in 2008 with his accompaniment of Jujiro:

  5. Michael, Filmatelist, It'll be great to see you at the festival again. Rudyfan, Jeremy, I hope we can finally meet at the festival this year, after having attended together in the past. I'm not sure what I'll be wearing yet, but if I figure it out I'll mention in a comment in this space so you can know who to look for.

    Michael, thanks for your kind words on the Senses of Cinema article, which I will link on this blog soon. I was tickled that both that piece and your latest post on Metropolis utilize the intellect of the silent film researcher extraordinaire Bret Wood.

    Jeremy, I'm a bit disappointed, and even a bit more so having learned from Carl Martin that apparently a 35mm print of the restoration does exist to be screened, and seemingly was in Hong Kong earlier this year. But I'm looking forward to Alloy's score as well; my own in-person track record with Alloys includes the General, Dans La Nuit, Blackmail, the Eagle, and the final reel of Phantom of the Opera. I know not everybody loves their approach, but I've never been disappointed. I was definitely remiss in not mentioning Stephen Horne anywhere in this post. I'm especially excited to see him play for a comedy. Between him and Brownlow, that screening of the Strong Man will have an awful lot of brilliance on display.

  6. Great post, Brian, with lots of interesting tidbits that'll enhance the upcoming weekend. I'll probably miss the opening tonight, but plan on catching just about everything else. What do make of Carl Martin's discovery that the 'new' METROPOLIS screened at the Hong Kong Film Archive earlier this year in 35mm?

  7. Michael, I was impressed with Carl's ability to ferret out that info, and wonder if it was because he's in touch with someone who saw it screened that way there. I still have an ounce of skepticism, knowing that there are festivals which sometimes advertise one format while actually projecting another. However, the Hong Kong festival is by all accounts a class act- no less a cinephilia/criticism giant as David Bordwell attends every year (I only wish he'd mentioned the format he saw the film in on his blog). And it's the closest thing I've seen to corroboration of Craig Kellar's comment on Dave Kehr's blog back in May. I'm hoping I can see Carl and perhaps some others I might be able to ask about the information tonight.

    Speaking of which, I've picked my outfit for tonight. Going with a Western theme (why not?) I'll be in a white Western shirt with suspenders, black jeans and a cowboy-style straw hat (which of course I will remove during the screening for the benefit of the rows behind me). Look for me and say hi!