Thursday, July 22, 2010

SFSFF Weekend Wrap

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival facilitated four tremendous days of cinephilia. So many rare opportunities to see films from the early part of the previous century (and even one from 1898) presented with live musical accompaniment with a knowledgeable and appreciative audience, and to talk to musicians, scholars, offspring of key players in silent filmmaking, and enthusiastic fans, made for a truly overstuffed weekend. I saw every "full-length" film shown, and most of the short films and public presentations as well. Some highlight memories of many from the past weekend:

1. Walking down Castro Street after Sunday's screening of The Shakedown, I saw the familiar face of Leonard Maltin approaching. I had to stop him to quickly thank him for his introduction to the film. In the course of interviewing its director William Wyler's three daughters, Catherine, Judy and Melanie, he spoke of Wyler's second film made outside the Western genre as a good, but not great picture. Watching it, I found the Shakedown to be more than just a terrific entertainment and a showcase for Wyler's developing skills as an inventive filmmaker. In the way it depicts con artists on the show-biz boxing circuit, it's a deeply meaningful look at the way acting a persona can envelop a performer's personal life and self-identity. The resonances of leading man James Murray (also of the Crowd) and his sad biography surely added to this deep feeling. On the other hand, his co-star Barbara Kent is one of the few silent-era players still living today.

I told Mr. Maltin how much I'd appreciated his approach to introducing the film: keeping audience expectations modest, so that we could in a sense "discover" the film's virtues for ourselves. This as opposed to the approach of praising a film to the skies to an audience just before we're about to see it, which seems unnecessary as we're not going to be buying any more tickets to it at that moment, and it may inflate expectations to the point where the film, no matter how good it is, can't measure up. Maltin's smiling response: "It's probably never played so well in its history." Surely a tribute to the receptive festival audience, and perhaps even more to Donald Sosin's virtuosic jazz piano accompaniment (Sosin really outdid himself with his three accompaniments this year, and the Shakedown was his best performance of the three, I felt.) But most of all to the nature of the Silent Film Festival, which is able to create almost utopian presentations of the films selected, by aligning all the right factors: venue, audience, accompaniment, and best available film print.

2. Saturday's presentation Variations On A Theme: Musicians on the Craft of Composing and Performing for Silent Films was not organized quite how I expected, and I'm not sure how the hour would have gone over for an individual ticket buyer, but for those of us with festival passes, it was certainly well worth staying in our seats for. We even got to witness a bit of friendly but sharp disagreement between the panelists! Classical musician/writer/radio host Chloe Veltman seemed natural and confident as moderator, even if a few of her questions to the gathered accompanists betrayed some inexperience with watching silent films with live music (though at least she'd seen the festival screening of The Cook, Pass The Gravy and Big Business that morning). But the best part of the presentation was when the musicians took a couple of questions from the audience. Audience q-and-a is always a crap shoot but in this case the questions elicited responses that got close to the heart of some very real philosophical differences between the panel members.

Authenticity is perhaps the key issue at stake in the variety of approaches taken by different accompanists. Pianist Stephen Horne (or should I say multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne, as he sometimes plays flute or squeezebox with one hand while the other dances upon the ivories,) spoke up for an approach that privileges an authenticity to the scene and its emotional resonance. By contrast, both Rodney Sauer of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and theatre organist Dennis James argued for an authenticity to music that audiences of the silent era might have been likely to hear when attending a film. Interestingly, these two, whose approaches might appear at first glance to be the most closely aligned amidst the group, engaged in the most contentious exchange of the panel. James argued for fidelity to the original sheet music commissioned by the director or producer of the film, whenever possible. Sauer countered that such cue sheets or scores were often abandoned or otherwise ignored by accompanists after an initial premiere performance or engagement in large cities, which is why his group favors compilations from the repertoire of compositions that would have been familiar to a typical salon orchestra of the 1920s. What became evident is that each accompanist does a certain amount of research into conventions of the time when producing a score, but that none of them are absolute purists in their approach. Even James will make certain allowances for the modern audience in defiance of the instructions of silent-era film music decision-makers. He'll ignore a cue sheet's suggestion of (for example) Rossini's William Tell Overture, because ever since the popularity of The Lone Ranger on radio and television, that theme takes audiences out of the moment. So don't expect to hear that familiar theme when Dennis James plays the Davies Symphony Hall organ to back John Barrymore in the 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this October 31st.

3. One moment that felt particularly gratifying to this blogger was the unveiling, during the second of two sets of presentations by members of the film archiving community, of a newly-preserved print of a 1912 one-reeler called The Better Man. The film is notable as a rare positive portrayal of a Mexican character in a Western, and features some notably effective camerawork, particularly an unexpected long tilt up a cliffside, revealing just how far one character has just fallen. Apparently the first new print struck from the trove of American films recently discovered in a Wellington, New Zealand film archive, The Better Man is also one of three two films whose preservation was funded through the efforts of the For The Love Of Film blog-a-thon organized by the incomparable Self-Styled Siren and Marilyn Ferdinand this past February. Whether or not even one person donated to the blog-a-thon fund after reading my own written contribution to that online event, I felt a little pride just from my connection to a community that made seeing this film possible.

In truth, everyone who buys a ticket to a Silent Film Festival program can feel pride that they help to support not only the presentation of, but also the preservation of silent films. The festival organizes its own annual fellowship through the L. Jeffrey Selznick school at Eastman House, and unless I misinterpreted what I heard announced from the Castro stage, this year's fellowship recipient will prepare the Douglas Fairbanks feature Mr. Fix-It for preservation, and presentation at the 2011 SFSFF. It's never too early to begin anticipating next year's program, and given that Allan Dwan directed Fairbanks in arguably his two best costume pageant films of the 1920's (Robin Hood and the Iron Mask), I'm excited to see this little-seen Dwan-directed film from Fairbanks's 1910s filmography.

According to the festival's own blog, another title already announced for the 2011 festival is Fritz Lang's second-most-famous science-fiction epic Woman In the Moon. I must have been in the popcorn line or something during this announcement, because I certainly would have remembered had I heard such an ingenious plan. I did hear Anita Monga announce that another Lunar silent, a Trip to the Moon would be forthcoming at the next festival. By then, a hand-colored version of the film will have been subject to a new restoration, and will be exhibited in a 35mm print that shall surely put to shame all of the Georges Méliès films that played from digital projections prior to festival features this year.

Other announcements made from the Castro stage over the weekend:

If you enjoyed The Iron Horse, you'll want to know that another John Ford film, this time a comedy from his F.W. Murnau-influenced phase, will have its "repremiere" at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on September 1st. Normally I wouldn't mention screenings happening all the way at the Southern end of the state, but since Upstream is one of the films being repatriated from New Zealand along with the Better Man, and because John Ford fans are hoping this screening is a success and leads to more around the country (including, hopefully, here on Frisco Bay) it seems worth noting.

Closer to home, Susan Oxtoby of the Pacific Film Archive announced, as part of her introductory remarks on Man With A Movie Camera at the festival, that the PFA is planning a Dziga Vertov retrospective for that venue, most likely for September-October of 2011. The Alloy Orchestra seems too large and loud a group to fit into the Berkeley venue to provide a reprise of the frantic scoring we heard Sunday afternoon, so my imagination is running wild trying to think of how Vertov's 1929 masterpiece might be accompanied musically there; I've regrettably missed several chances to hear what Judith Rosenberg does with Man With A Movie Camera (though I got a sampling when she performed to a DVD snippet at the SFSFF's press conference back in May), but I'm also very curious about Dennis James's score for the film, last performed here almost fifteen years ago. And then there is recent rumor of a "definitive" soundtrack recording on the horizon. If anticipating screenings more than a year in advance is too exhausting, Frisco Bay Vertov fans will surely be interested in the work of filmmakers his theories inspired, some of whom are sure to be a part of the PFA's focus on Frisco Bay's avant-garde filmmaking history this fall in celebration of the long-awaited release of the Radical Light book. Another filmmaker influenced by Vertov, Jean-Luc Godard, will have his first feature film on local screens for a week starting tomorrow. I've had a chance to see this new Rialto print of Godard's Breathless, with its new and improved subtitle translation unavailable on DVD, and it's certainly the upcoming week's cinematic must-see. Rod Armstrong of the San Francisco Film Society will introduce tomorrow night's screenings at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.

More random notes on the 2010 Silent Film Festival and upcoming related screenings:

The San Francisco Film Museum has posted the photos taken of SFSFF attendees disguised as the Maria Robot from Metropolis this weekend, so take a gander. For those who were shut out of Friday night's screening, the Castro will hold digital screenings of the restoration, albeit without live musical accompaniment, on August 13-15. Also part of the Castro's upcoming August calendar will be a screening of Fritz Lang's most well-known Hollywood film, the Big Heat, on August 30. The Jewish Film Festival is the next organization to bring a silent film with live accompaniment to the Castro, with this Monday's presentation of the 1922 film Hungry Hearts.

I always know I'll see some of my favorite local bloggers at the Silent Film Festival. Michael Guillén, Lincoln Specter, Jay Blodgett, Jason Wiener and shahn, who surely exaggerates when calling me a "local sensation". Then again, I am quoted on my experience watching Häxan by Jeremy Mathews in his article for Moving Pictures Magazine, and a conversation with Adam Hartzell is described in his piece for GreenCine Daily. I guess it's in the nature of being something of a blogosphere gadfly, but I'm a little embarrassed to find my name singled out in so many blog write-ups on the SFSFF when so many of my writers' group colleagues produced superior work on much more difficult subjects. For example, David Kiehn's essay on the Iron Horse is filled with drama and quotes from personal accounts, and avoids at least one oft-repeated but easily debunked myth about the film's masterful final scene. Megan Pugh's essay on the Flying Ace and Monica Nolan's on L'Heureuse Mort must surely be among the most substantial pieces written in English on these two previously-obscure films. I could go on and on. At some point all the essays should be available to read in the Silent Film Festival's website archive.

It was nice to be able to build upon the research I did for the festival for last December's Winter Event when writing an article recently published in the Australian journal Senses of Cinema on West of Zanzibar and its director Tod Browning. Please let me know what you think of the article if you get a chance to read it, either at the e-mail address found on my profile page, or in a comment below. I also recommend highly that anyone who saw Diary of a Lost Girl last Saturday (or, anyone who didn't!) take the time to read a truly remarkable essay on the iconic status of Louise Brooks, published in the same issue. The twenty-fifth anniversary of her death arrives this August 8th.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Adam Hartzell: The Topp Twins

The above still comes from the formally-perfect Samurai Rebellion, one of the 35mm prints playing this week in a chambara film series at the VIZ Cinema. The VIZ will be showing five more classic Japanese films in 35mm prints in August, including one my friend Adam Hartzell's been bugging me to see for a while now, Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.

I met Adam at a Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screening of an Abbas Kiarostami film several years ago, where we hit it off immediately. In addition to being a friend, since 2006 he's been the most frequent guest contributor to this blog, and though it's been a few months since he last offered a piece here, I'm thrilled that he's offered up a new contribution, bringing his unique perspective to one of last month's Frameline festival offerings. Take it away, Adam!

Lately, it has been hard for me to watch DVDs. In some ways, it has become a chore, something I must do to keep up with the films I want to be conversant in. When such a film is showing at a theatre near me, I don’t have this trouble because I long for the preferred experience/ of film in the cinema. I find watching a film in the cinema a more visceral experience. A film, as opposed to a DVD, is something I can visually imbibe because it is a more tactile medium. As if I'm feeling the light reflected from the screen on my eyes, on my entire body.

Along with the visceral is the communal nature of a film in the theatre. This is why I put off sleep to catch a couple Ozu films last week that were part of the series of three Japanese directors at the VIZ Cinema that Brian discussed in a past post. Watching Ozu on the screen rather than on the box is so much more pleasurable to me. And watching it with my wife and her friend (also named) Adam added to the experience. Plus, I noted some people whom I’d never seen at a VIZ screening before, sensing my film-going community expanding. This doesn’t mean they’d never made it out to VIZ before, but they seemed to be an instance of VIZ expanding its audience beyond what the young ones prefer, bringing out some older folk by screening some old school Japanese cinema along with the new.
In addition to the visceral and the tactile aspects of a cinema, watching film is as much about the space and the audience and the context in which it is watched as it is about the film, which is why I will receive regular detention slips from the school of film criticism that demands you only talk about the film. The theatre screen is not bounded by four sides for me any more than the cinema is bounded by four walls. The sides and the walls are permeable. Stuff seeps in to talk with the film as I watch. All these factors just don’t infiltrate my viewing experience as much when watching them on the TV via DVD.

No more was my preference for the cinema evident then the only screening I caught at this year’s Frameline Film Festival, The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls (Leanne Pooley, 2009). Before I get into who they are and what the film tells us about them, let me share how I came to hear about the Topp Twins. I am a big fan of the Radio New Zealand National radio host Kim Hill. A voice of a thousand cigarettes, she has a timbre and a frequency that I find calming, reassuring and familiar even though her country’s history and accent is not mine and she insists on pronouncing the word film as ’fil-lum’. My two trips to New Zealand have been sound-tracked by her questions towards the various personalities and thinkers who she brings on to her show. Because she speaks for New Zealand, she presumes an understanding of many of these individuals and the issues they discuss, a knowledge that I as a Yankee often don‘t possess when the topics are first introduced. Part of the pleasure in listening to Hill and her radio colleagues is trying to figure out what goes unsaid while listening.

Now, I can‘t recall confidently if I heard the Topp Twins themselves interviewed by Kim Hill, or if it was the director Leanne Pooley. (And outsourcing my recall to Google brings no verification through any links.) But I think it was the Topp Twins themselves. Regardless of the accuracy of my memory, my introduction to the importance to New Zealand of this lesbian twin yodeling comedy folk duo was thanks to Hill. And Hill spoke of the Topp Twins with such a reverence that I had to know more about the importance of these two women. And the significance of Pooley’s documentary to New Zealand cinema was validated by its inclusion in Hamish McDouall’s 100 Essential New Zealand Films, a book picked up for me on a colleague‘s recent visit to New Zealand. As McDouall differentiates the Top Twins’ humor from that of the Jackasses and The Offices, “This is not the comedy of cruelty but a heartwarming tribute to New Zealand and its odd and charming personalities...“ This was my build-up to The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls. I had to see this film. Thankfully, Frameline made that possible.

And Frameline’s audience was the perfect space in which to watch this movie. I came to this film wanting to know about these two women, while much of the audience at the Frameline Film Festival seemed to already know about the Topp Twins and were looking for an opportunity to laugh at what they knew would be hilarious and to show their applause-resounding, appreciation for what they already knew these women had accomplished. It was a perfect example of how the networks in which we are node-d might cause us to miss the significance of certain people and movements. Although I have made concerted efforts to school myself in Queer culture and movements around the world and have challenged my country’s provincialism by actually caring about the history and contemporary politics of other countries such as New Zealand, my self-education hadn’t found the Topp Twins’ place in my pedagogy until now.
The Topp Twins are a folk duo of country roots consisting of real life twins Jools and Lynda Topp who grew up on (and would return to) a farm in rural New Zealand. They both also happen to be lesbians. Their down-homey-ness is be part of what enables them to reach many demographics that might have shunned them were they city-folk lesbians. Their reality as lesbians is palatable to less-lesbian-receptive groups because they are talented singers in a genre favored by many in that less-receptive demographic. So much so that according to director Pooley, the Topp Twins have never received a single bit of hate mail.
It also helped that they crafted their comedy from the archetypes of New Zealand culture - such as the drag king get-up of Ken and Ken, blokes reminiscing about their rugby days at the bar of the pokie; Prue and Dilly Ramsbottom from Hawkes Bay, New Zealand’s own variation on posh upperclassness, people who Jill Caldwell and Christopher Brown call “The Remuera Tribe“; and the brilliant meta-layers of the camp of Camp Mother and Camp Leader. As British folk singer Billy Bragg notes in the documentary, too much protest music is somber. The Topp Twins were able to bring people over to human rights causes because they made people laugh. Be it Gay Rights for Kiwis in the 80‘s, anti-apartheid awareness during the infamous Springbok rugby tour in New Zealand, anti-nuclear protests in the Pacific leading to a nuclear-free New Zealand, and Maori land right claims, they made people move towards a future of greater justice by making the movement fun.
The documentary begins at a cabaret where many of the ‘patrons’ were important figures in history of the Topp Twins and the history of modern New Zealand. These figures are interviewed individually throughout the film, including the sitting prime minister at the time the documentary was made, Helen Clark, another farm girl whose rural roots won over New Zealanders. This is a documentary made for New Zealand, so just like when I listen to Kim Hill’s radio show, one less familiar with New Zealand’s 1980’s protest movements will need to make an effort to consider the significance of the events presented. (Still, particulars such as how intimidating protesting a rugby tour in New Zealand would be for a Kiwi are laid out in the documentary for the non-Kiwi.)
A yodeling comedy folk duo consisting of lesbian twins? To the uninitiated, it sounds like the premise of a mockumentary. But seeing this film amongst a Frameline audience, some of whom likely have been hip to The Topp Twins through folk festivals or women’s music festivals of the past, one realizes very quickly that The Topp Twins are all real, indeed, and thankfully so, because New Zealand is a better place because of them. It’s time for a wider swath of the U.S. to learn from them like the Kiwis have. And watching such a documentary amongst such a crowd is an experience that the DVD on the TV just can’t duplicate. In spite of this film preference, I did buy the DVD at the event, as a means to support The Topp Twins and the filmmakers, and as a totem to remember a film moment rather than the verisimilitude of one.

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.