Monday, April 30, 2007

Breaking Silence


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I've really been enjoying the 50th S.F. International Film Festival over the past few days. The filmgoing is fun of course, but at least as much of the fun has been found in meeting up and talking movies with discourse-hungry cinephiles, whether longtime friends I don't see as often as I should, or with folks I've only just met. This evening at the Kabuki the festival publicity department hosted a gathering of bloggers and other web-centric writers, many of whom I'd only ever been introduced before to through their work online. I swapped stories with Cathleen Rountree, exchanged a few words with Kevin Lee, and more, all only a day after finally meeting Lincoln Specter of Bayflicks, a major inspiration for this site. I particularly enjoyed a brief conversation with Tony An because he too had seen Sounds of Sand and, though our reactions to the film were very different, I found I finally had an outlet in which I could respectfully dislodge all my opinions on the film, and get a thoughtful rebuttal to boot. I don't feel I can really get into too many of the specifics, as the film is at "hold review" status, meaning I'm supposed to wait until it gets a commercial release before I say more than seventy-five words on it. But to put it briefly, I agree with others who have called the film "soulless", "predictable" and "self-congratulatory", though I must admit that because of a) its eye-popping landscape photography and b) the cross-cultural issues it brings forth through its very existence as a film shot in Africa by a European, an international film festival is perhaps the ideal environment for it to be seen and discussed in.

Another hold review film is Private Fears In Public Places, which I'd call a mediocre play, exquisitely directed. In other words, a real test to the limits of my auteurist predelections (not that I'm nearly as well-versed in the cinema of Alain Resnais as I'd like to be). My favorite new film seen at the festival so far has got to be the aptly-named Opera Jawa. (And no, it has nothing to do with cloaked scavengers other than the fact that back in the seventies a certain festival honoree took to appropriating names from the world's cultures for his creature creations, including the word Indonesians use for their most populous island Java.) But this New Crowned Hope film is something I feel I need to sit with for a while before being able to say anything substantial about. It certainly was beautiful on the big Castro Theatre screen.

No, the films I feel I can most usefully talk about at this bleary-eyed stage of festival madness, are the ones I attended in my capacity as a silent film devotee. Well, near-devotee, I suppose. A full-fledged devotee would never have let himself miss Saturday afternoon's Castro screening of the Iron Mask with Kevin Brownlow in attendance, even if he was scheduled to work and the film was screening with a sound-on-print score instead of a live musical accompaniment. I mean, I'm not the hugest fan of Carl Davis but he is the man the utterly tasteful Brownlow chose for the job of providing the music to the film he restored, and I'm sure the score has merit. Anyway, I wish I could have made it to that screening, which I hear was, of Brownlow's three festival appearances this weekend in honor of his hugely justified receipt of the Mel Novikoff Award for "enhancing the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema," the most delightfully anecdote-rich.

You probably already know what a legend in his own time Brownlow is. If he had only made his two so-called "amateur" masterpieces, It Happened Here! and Winstanley, his places in British and World Cinema History would be assured. But he has so generously recorded and popularized under-explored sections of cinema history through his unceasing efforts as a writer, interviewer, preservationist, and documentary filmmaker, that his impact is even more felt on the way we and future generations will be able to regard these histories. For my part, I can credit my borrowing of his "Cinema Europe: the Other Hollywood" miniseries from the local library, as much as anything else I can think of, for my interest in movies blossoming into a full-fledged cinephilia. I haven't read all of his books or seen all his documentaries yet, but so far I've been transfixed by each I've encountered. And the idea of seeing his 2000 restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon in a cinema, even if due to rights issues it has to be in another country, is one of my greatest cinephile dreams.

Seeing Brownlow speak in person, taking a rapt audience through a program of immaculately-projected, grandly-accompanied (by pianist Judith Rosenberg) short films and excerpts, at the Pacific Film Archive yesterday evening might have been another, had I the imagination to dream it. Some of the films and scenes he showed were great. Others were not terribly special beyond their status as relative rarities. But all were provided with fascinating context by Brownlow. Before showing the 1913 short Suspense, directed by Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, he alerted us to take note of an early use of a three-way split-screen effect to acknowledge a telephone conversation and its subject (the splitting diagonals elegantly taking their angle from a lampshade in the center of the frame), but also ruled out the possibility of it being the earliest such use, as he'd seen an earlier Danish film employ a similar effect. He showed a film made in Frisco Bay's backyard, Broncho Billy's Adventure, filmed by the Essanay in a rather empty-looking San Rafael before the studio settled in at Niles in the East Bay. He showed a film promoting kit homes, made by the Ford Motor Company, that he suspected was a likely influence on Buster Keaton's One Week, and then he showed both complete reels of Keaton's comedy tour-de-force. Believe it or not, I had never before seen One Week, though it plays fairly often at Frisco Bay theatres, including a showing at last year's SFIFF. Somehow I'd never made it to another local screening, and I had resisted successfully the lure of DVD and youtube presentations of the film. Now I know why: to save myself for the privilege of experiencing it for the first time with a terrific live score, a laughing audience, and in the glow of Brownlow's marvelous enthusiasm and insight.

It wasn't all laughter and delight, though. When introducing a clip from Raymond Bernard's the Chess Player, Brownlow reminded the room full of silent film enthusiasts, with a healthy contingent of scholars and archivists, of a darker side to the history of film preservation. He told of how "we owe the existence of this film to the Gestapo," as the Nazis, who I did not realize had created the first film archive, confiscated the Chess Player among other films when they arrested Bernard during the occupation. They released the director on the urging of his famous father Tristan Bernard, but kept the films safe from destruction during the war (except for reel one of the Chess Player, which disappeared). The clip made the film look like a tremendous epic, but I'm not sure I'll ever be able to watch Bernard's film without thinking of how bitter a victory it is when great objects of art are saved while so much else is lost.

After the screening, there was a very brief question-and-answer session in which Brownlow demonstrated his quick wit and ability to oh-so-gracefully deal with a question asked in more of a spirit of showing off in than requesting knowledge, but before the house was cleared I was thankful to get a chance to approach the man and ask a question in person. I felt I had to ask something about the documentary he'd directed, Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic, since he'd had to bow out of the q-and-a after that 9:15 PM Saturday screening due to jet lag. I probably should have asked about the doc's absolutely breathtaking Elmer Bernstein underscore (according to imdb, it's the legendary composer's last credit), or about how his impression of DeMille had changed since making the "Autocrats" episode of his "Hollywood" miniseries in 1980. Or else just thanked him for the evening. But I couldn't resist posing an entirely too-big question about DeMille's sincerity, and he oh-so-gracefully gave an answer about how the director's cynicism was far more evident in the sound era than the silent. Though I doubt Mr. Brownlow intended it as such, I'm trying to take it as a lesson against wordiness.

Which should be my cue to wrap this post up. But before I do, I just want to point out a few more silent film-related offerings that are of great interest to me. While the SFIFF is still in full force, there are two more such programs: Notes to a Toon Underground, a May 5th program of old and new silent animations backed by live music from local indie rockers, and Guy Maddin's neo-silent Brand Upon the Brain with live music and Joan Chen as guest narrator on May 7th, both at the Castro.

This summer, the Niles Essanay Film Museum will show 35mm prints of Broncho Billy's Adventure and 56 more Essanay films of all sorts in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the film company's founding. It starts June 2nd when the 1915 Charlie Chaplin Essanay short His New Job plays in front of the first feature he directed, the Kid. Each subsequent Saturday evening will find Essanay films gracing the Edison Theatre screen, culminating in the tenth annual edition of the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, June 29-July 1, which will include Essanay films featuring Max Linder, Gloria Swanson, Frances X. Bushman, Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson of course, and many many more. Niles is nestled in a remote enough corner of Frisco Bay for me to have only been there once, but I'd love to go again, and this series may just be the perfect excuse.

Then from July 13-15, it's Frisco's own Silent Film Festival, which has announced a sneak preview of four of the titles it's bringing to this year's edition: Beggars of Life by William Wellman, starring Louise Brooks as a cross-dressing railroad-hopper, the Cottage on Dartmoor, the final silent film directed by British director Anthony Asquith, the Student Prince of Old Heidelberg, one of the Ernst Lubitsch silent films that had been absent from the retrospective held at the PFA earlier this year, and the Godless Girl, clips of which were featured prominently in Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic. It looks to me like a great lineup as usual, but I have to admit my bias: I was recently honored to become a volunteer member of this year's film research committee, which means I'm charged with writing program notes for one of the films playing this July. Don't bother trying to guess which, since I won't tell, and it may not even be one of these four that have been announced so far. What I will say is this: the one I'm writing on is the only one I've seen as of yet, and as I'm learning more about the other researchers' films I'm growing more and more impatient to see them all on the big Castro screen.