Friday, May 30, 2014

Cosmic Voyage (1936)

image courtesy San Francisco Silent Film Festival
WHO: Stars Sergei Komarov, the Soviet-era actor who also performed in previous San Francisco Silent Film Festival selections By the Law, Chess Fever and The House on Trubnaya Square, and directed A Kiss From Mary Pickford. He's also in tomorrow night's The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks.

WHAT: In the words of Michael Atkinson, who wrote the essay on this film found in the glossy, 112-page program book provided free to every attendee of this year's Silent Film Festival, Cosmic Voyage is "a genuinely obscure silent-Soviet artifact that appears to not have been mentioned in any film history book known to the English-speaking world. This is hardly just an old silent-- it's a dream retrieved from the long-lost consciousness as well as an important progenitor of many of science fiction film's integral genre tropes."

WHERE/WHEN: Screens at 10PM tonight at the Castro Theatre.

WHY: Cosmic Voyage will be introduced by the one and only Craig Baldwin, who will share a little of his Other Cinema energy with a Castro Theatre audience as the SF Silent Film Festival's annual "filmmaker's pick". This program launched officially in 2008 when Guy Maddin gave a stirring defense of melodrama while introducing a screening of an imported French-intertitled print Tod Browning's The Unknown, for which he recited the English-language title cards. Since then, luminaries like Terry Zwigoff, Alexander Payne and Phillip Kaufman have provided introductions to selections from the festival programs. Last year the "filmmaker's pick" appeared to go on hiatus, although one might consider animator John Canemaker's presentation on pioneer Winsor McCay an unofficial iteration.

It's a wonderful tradition in my opinion, a perfect compliment to the many scholars and archivists who are brought in to introduce films at the festival each year. Though I wasn't able to fit her answer into my Keyframe preview on the festival, I was interested to hear what artistic director Anita Monga said about   Baldwin and the "filmmaker's pick" program when I spoke with her last week:
We don't just ask everyone. We're looking at their work and thinking, "how has early cinema influenced later cinema?" And there's something about Craig's work and that collage sense that has a direct correlation with the Soviet period. People often say "I'm not an expert on the silent film." But that's not why we're asking. We're trying to make the thread from the earliest cinema to today. In all kinds of ways, narrative filmmakers and underground filmmakers and experimental filmmakers had roots in the moving image of the silent era.
I also had the honor of being asked to interview Baldwin for the latest issue of a new Bay Area film site Eat Drink Films, just published earlier today. Please check out the interview and the other articles on the site including another Silent Film Festival-related piece on food in slapstick comedy, by Paul F. Etcheverry.

HOW: DCP with musical accompaniment by the Silent Movie Music Company (a.k.a. Günther Buchwald and Frank Backius). Frank Buxton will be on hand to read aloud an English translation of the Russian intertitles.

As for the digital nature of tonight's screening, I've already noted that there are more digital screenings than ever this year. Though I feel it's also worth noting there are also more film programs being screened on film this year than in any SFSFF year prior to Anita Monga's involvement in the festival. When I asked Monga about digital, she made some very interesting points:
At the beginning of DCP people made mistakes in the quality. They cleaned up too much. They made the image very flat. I am not one of the people who thinks that format is the paramount thing about these films. We're making these titles accessible in the best possible way. If I were going to be doctrinaire I would say I never want to see anything from the silent era on anything other than nitrate because there is a really qualitative difference between that and acetate. I'd like to continue doing other programs that address this."


  1. Brian: Michael Atkinson didn't check his Jay Leyda carefully enough. In what is still arguably the best general book on Russian and Soviet film in English, "Kino" (1960) Leyda says: "In this period there was even an excursion,by no means the last, into outer space and science-fiction, with COSMIC JOURNEY." Not much, but it was actually mentioned,
    I won't get into Anita Monga's specious comparison of the difference between nitrate and acetate, with the difference between film and video, at this point. Just call me, to borrow her similar comment from this week's Bay Area Reporter, a proud "format fetishist."

  2. Lawrence, thanks for the comment. Leyda's astonishing tome (which I've only read a portion of, I must admit) came first to mind when reading Atkinson's line, but I didn't have it handy at the time. Glad to get your fact-check. Also nice to see you at the Dwan this morning. Lovely restoration by Travey Goessel and Rob Byrne, who I had a chance to speak with at some length this evening between screenings about the necessity of film projection for proper presentation of various silent-era film speeds. Glad there's still a "fetishist" in a prominent place at SFSFF. As to that Bay Area Reporter article, don't place more stock in it than your own Film On Film Foundation site in regards to format information; her count it missing two definite 35mm presentations: Midnight Madness and Dragnet Girl.