Sunday, July 22, 2007

Power Of The Image: talking with Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky


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I've been focusing the majority of my filmgoing activity over the past few months to revivals and retrospectives, but I can say without question that there is at least one new film in Frisco Bay theatres absolutely worth the attention of moviegoers who prefer visionary cinematic achievements to would-be rollercoasters determined to be forgotten five minutes after exiting the mall: Manufactured Landscapes, a documentary on the work of "subliminal environmentalist" photographer Edward Burtynsky, and on the context he's found himself working in for the past several years: the factories, the energy extraction centers, and the rapidly transforming cities, villages, and post-industrial wastelands of modern China.

The award-winning film was directed by Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, whose often poetic approach to the material inspired me to track down her other films available on DVD: Let it Come Down: the Life of Paul Bowles and The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia. They're both excellent and the latter is a particularly compelling counterpart to Manufactured Landscapes. They're similar in that each film follows a photographer whose stunning compositions inspire drastically conflicting emotional reactions in viewers, and indeed sometimes within an individual viewer, but very different in approach to presenting these conflicts. Burtynsky's work has hung in the boardrooms of corporations that profit from the industry his images depict, as well as of activist organizations working to minimize the physical impact of human industry and globalization on our planet. In Manufactured Landscapes Baichwal and cinematographer Peter Mettler have created an often horrifying, often beautiful, largely pictorial investigation of the apparent contradictions in Burtynsky's work.

When presented with an opportunity to speak with Baichwal and Burtynsky in late May, while they were in town together "doing press" on the film, I leapt despite my rather paltry experience with interviewing. I was nervous, and they were probably exhausted from being asked about the film all day, but if perhaps I didn't establish the rapport that other, more experienced interviewers like Glen Helfland and Michael Guillen seemed to, at least Baichwal and Burtynsky were comfortable with following up on each others' answers, and I felt lucky just to get to be in the room getting it all down thanks to my handheld digital recorder. The recorder was one of the first things mentioned when I sat down with them at a table in a room adjoining a publicist's office. Before I even had a chance to turn it on, I noted that it bore a label "Made in China." This launched Burtynsky into a story about his daughter...

Edward Burtynsky: It was three Christmases ago. We have the tradition of Christmas stockings that "Santa" brought. The youngest had just started to learned how to read. She pulled out a plush toy, and she looked at it. She read "Made in China" and she turned and looked up and said, "Hey Dad, even Santa shops in China!" [The room fills with laughter.] Out of the mouths of babes.

Hell on Frisco Bay: There was even a Santa Claus in the film.

Jennifer Baichwal: There were two Chris Marker moments in the film for me. One was the stills, at the coal distribution center, and the other was the hydrofoil. The whole scene on the hydrofoil reminded me of Sans Soleil, which is one of my very favorite films.

HoFB: I loved it when I saw it at the Castro several years ago.

JB: It's extraordinary, just the most incredible film, but [the hydrofoil scene in Manufactured Landscapes] reminded me of the people asleep on the ferry. This was only after, when I looked at the footage; I wasn't thinking about it when we were shooting it. [to Burtynsky, who nods:] Do you remember that scene with the Santa? With the guy on the boat just standing, looking at the Santa Claus sign. You ask "what is this thing doing here?"

HoFB: I saw Manufactured Landscapes at Sundance, and of all the films I saw there it's the one that has haunted me the most since January.

JB: It is pretty haunting. It was haunting being there. I'm still reminded of those locations where we were. I mean I think about that kind of thing every day now. And I'm beginning to look at how I'm engaging in this process that is directly related to what's happening over there. And trying not to.

HoFB: One of the workers, who is demolishing his own city to make way for the Three Gorges Dam, looks at a test photograph you've handed him, and he says "it's a very broad view; it's hard to see the details."

EB: Right.

HoFB: I was able to view your photographs in a gallery setting. There were I believe six of them on display in Park City during the festival. Looking at them in this setting, I definitely felt like it was easier to hone in on the details than when looking at a reproduction in a book, but I wonder if you also see the film as a presentation of some of the details that might get lost otherwise?

EB: I think the film successfully moves from a broader view, to look at some of the more nuanced, human scale moments that are within the subject. Jennifer was able to go into some of my photographs from the macro, and then follow some of the paths through the images, traversing some of these paths. It was used quite sparingly, but when it was, it was used very effectively. I think the film was in keeping with how one is confronted by the work itself. You start out seeing and trying to absorb the overall, and then you enter it, and because it's a large format, you're able to investigate the smaller things that often belie the scale. Often the scale isn't immediately present in the picture. It's only when you go in further that you start to find things you can understand the size of, like a ladder, or a 45-gallon drum, or a person, that it reveals itself in a way that would be difficult on a first view.

JB: It really is what we were wrestling with; how to translate these photographs intelligently into film. Peter and I talked about how we would move back and forth between the wide view and the detailed, which is how you look at those photographs. Because the detail is so extraordinary and the resolution is so extraordinary, you can see, when you look in close, all of these things happening. Then when you pull back, it's just about the scale. And often you're confused by the scale. At one point there's this truck and then you pull back and it looks like a little toy truck. You wouldn't have any idea how big that was unless you started there. There are tricks of scale where you really have to look to see. "Okay, that dot, that is a human. That's how big this place is." So we follow these inherent narratives that are there in the photographs. Teasing them out was a strategy that was something I really wanted to use; to keep moving back and forth in a rhythm, macro to micro.

HoFB: I remember one shot in particular, where the camera is traveling over some high-rises. We can't tell if the camera is flying over Shanghai, or one of Ed's photographs. And then it pulls back and we see we're looking over someone's shoulder, looking at the photograph.

JB: And you know what, that was important to me because issues of representation are. Every time you engage in the language of documentary or photography, you have to talk about that. On the other hand, you can't only talk about that. You can't be constantly self-referential, and just reflect on what it means to be representing just this person's view of a real place, and are we filming all those layers? But I really felt it was important to make reference to it, and include those deliberately confusing moments, where you're not sure where you are, or what vision you're looking at, what frame you're looking at. Is this reality? Is this the photograph, the image? Is it the photograph in another context? And that's sort of where we begin and end also: in the museum, making reference to the fact that in some ways that is the end point of this vision.

EB: One of the things that was consistent with what I'm doing, where Jennifer's coming from and where the cinematographer Peter is coming from, is that I think all of us are believers and proponents of very strong visual language. We're all interested in the Power Of The Image at a time when there's the Power Of Theory and the Power Of Concept. Not to say that the work is devoid of any of these things, but as visual people, we invest enormous amounts of energy to get the visuals right. That's something that I fight for in my work all the time, and I know that Peter does, and I know that Jennifer is just absolutely fastidious about getting what's possible out of the scene and out of the materials afterwards. So there is a visual determination of trying to translate all that through truly powerful visual narratives, and I think that probably has helped the film become a piece, and in a way a work of art in itself. It isn't a documentary on me; it's a parallel piece that exists in its own right.

JB: Art is really one arena of inquiry that allows you to engage intellectually and emotionally with issues. Take something like the Al Gore film which I felt was very powerful because of him, because of his commitment to what he was doing. It's a completely didactic film. It is an archive of a slide show. There is nothing artful about that film. Yet it... persuades you. Because of his passion. And in some ways, we end up at the same place through an entirely different route. A route of witnessing, of being in these places we are responsible for but don't normally see. I think the arena of art is a very powerful arena because of the possibility of melding the intellectual and the emotional.

EB: It leaves enough openness of meaning. The viewer has to conclude or put closure to it themselves. We're not saying, "this is how you have to think about it." Coming to those conclusions and arriving on them yourself is a much more powerful and lasting way to leave somebody with something than to say "you need to think about this this way". And most people coming out of the film, I would be willing to gamble, arrive at the same conclusion: "Uh, oh!"

JB: It is open-ended. It has to be. It can't be fixed. In the film there's enough to help you contextualize information without fixing the meaning, ever. Because for me, past films have been very dense; the last film with Shelby Lee Adams [the True Meaning of Pictures] was very dense with argument, you know. We were cutting between people literally having arguments on screen. For me, this film was really an exercise in restraint in allowing the images to lead and the pictures to tell the story, and to then pull back. Somebody asked me, "What are you most proud of?", and I'm proud that I was able to do that. To pull back and let it be as sparse as it was, as it needed to be.

HoFB: One word I used in writing on the film for GreenCine was "neutrality"...

EB: I don't know if that actually describes the film at all. If it were truly neutral, then there would be no problem for us screening the film in China, and that's a big question for us right now. What is neutral? Is it culturally, is it globally, or in China, where they see their neutrality differently than the free market democratic system we see as neutral? So I think it's almost like "what is normal?" How do we place it, when every culture has a different definition of what is normal. I think "what is neutral" is an equally slippery kind of idea to pin down. "Neutral" is almost paralleling "objective". We're forever wondering if we could ever achieve objectivity. Media are not objective, whether we use stills or film, or whatever.

JB: I don't think any sane person could argue for objectivity, which in some ways is the same thing as neutrality. It's impossible. Neutrality almost feels like nothing, like you're in a place that is not advocating anything. The difference here is that the complexity of what you're seeing in the film does not allow you to have a simple response. There are so many layers. You know, the idea that somebody thousands of miles away is making the spray mechanism for your iron that you use every day, that is shipped here, and when you throw it away, goes back there. The complexity of this, and the fact that there are no easy answers to this predicament that we find ourselves in, that's what I mean by being "open-ended."

HoFB: Are the photographs shown in China?

EB: The book is for sale in China. It sold well there.

JB: Wow.

EB: The book is in China, and with no adverse effects. If they had a problem, they would approach Noah [Weinzweig, producer and translater], I think. Because Noah is the one who made it all happen. But nobody's ever talked to him. No-one's ever given him any grief. I think that they're so very busy there, with too many bigger fish to fry, in terms of issues. And I think that they also recognize that they have to open up. They are opening up. With the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World's Fair, they're inviting the world and it's press into what's normally a fairly closed, controlled society. You can't control 8,000 reporters walking around the streets of Beijing, and not have them interact with your people, and hear stories from their mouths. That's what they really don't like. I mean, where they get upset is where we're at Three Gorges Dam, or we're talking to a factory worker or we're talking to a ship worker and it's not the worker that they want, and their story isn't "I'm a happy worker here in China, happily making more money than I was as an unhappy farmer". That's the story they want you to tell. "We're moving ahead, modernizing, and we're bringing our people out of poverty. And yes we know we've got some problems. We're working on that. But don't just focus on the problems. Please, take a look at the fact that we have lots of positive stories." And you know what? It's true. It's not all bad, and it's not all simple. Also, I bet you we can go into North America with a film camera and we can find the some of the same waste and the same dreck work happening here. It's still happening here. I did that kind of dreck work when I was going through school.

JB: And you photographed it.

EB: Yeah. It's not that we've left that chapter completely, but it is true that the chapter's shifting. It is moving over there, and though it still exists here, it's still an industrial process and an issue.

JB: It's just that it's so much bigger over there, and it's so dirty. We find it pretty easy to send the things away that we now know to be dirty, and move them to a another place.

EB: Right, and it's so much bigger because in the last fifteen years we added 4 point something billion people to the planet.

HoFB: You tell the story in the film about your oil epiphany, and I found that was really interesting, where at one point you were driving in your car, and you were realizing...

EB: That all roads led back to oil.

HoFB: Right. And you also talk a bit about shooting film stock with silver in it at a silver mine, and I've been recently reading about nitrate stock, and how in 1926 up to one-thirtieth of all the world's silver supply was tied up in the motion picture industry. It's been making me think about how the appeal of art for humans might, consciously or not, be in the stain that it leaves on the planet.

EB: The appeal of art is that people have found meaning in the marks that they leave behind, from the first cave paintings in Lascaux. From the earliest mark-making, I think it's still the same impulse. We find meaning in trying to tell stories about our passing, and our perceptions of what we see. For most artists who devote their lives to it, it's something you really can't control. The need to leave those marks is the reason you get up. Because you're interested in that process, and being able to translate your world through another channel, or create some new form or new way of expressing yourself.

JB: One of the things that drew me to the photographs in the beginning was that Ed acknowledges his own implication, and we all have to acknowledge our own implication. Existing environmental discourses, early environmental discourses were very polarizing. Very much a kind of us-and-them situation advocating radical solutions while most people just could not imagine living that way. So not a lot happened. I think there's something about the acknowledgment: "I'm steeped in this." Ed went [to China] first to find out where his computer went when it died. I've probably filled the tank in my car with oil from one of these tankers. We're all joined to these processes and it's not easy. How are we going to get out of it? We all have to get out of it together, and that acknowledgment of complexity is very powerful to me, in him as a person saying that, and also in his work. In these processes that he's photographing instead of just having this, "I'm good and you're bad, and if you were like me you'd stop what you're doing."

EB: The first of the twelve steps of AA is to acknowledge the problem.

JB: [laughing] Acknowledge the addiction.

HoFB: Well, it looks like I have to acknowledge that my time is up, so thank you both for your insights into this marvelous, important film.

And in came the next interviewer...

Manufactured Landscapes is currently playing at the single-screen Lark Theatre in Marin County, the Shattuck in Berkeley and the Lumiere Theatre here in Frisco.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Synchronized Silents


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When attending nearly every program in a weekend-long film festival like the 12th Annual Silent Film Festival, it's impossible not to start noticing connections, coincidences, crossovers and synchronicities. Some seem to be deliberately planted by the programming team, and some are even mentioned from the Castro Theatre stage, or in the program guide (in the interest of full disclosure: I contributed to that document this year, and what you're reading is not going to be a critical piece on the festival, just a set of my own thoughts and reflections, that are likewise not in any way intended to represent the festival.)

Take a deep breath now...

This year's SFSFF brought films starring both of Hollywood's two great "Latin lovers" of the silent era: Mexican-American Ramon Navarro in the Student Prince of Old Heidelberg and Italian-American Rudolph Valentino in Camille, the film he made right before hitting top-tier romantic lead stardom in the Sheik, a film title that entered the American slang lexicon under the definition "a romantically alluring man," though that American Heritage Dictionary definition fails to capture the sarcastic, derogatory usage of the word when used by a Beery brother in either Beggars of Life or the Godless Girl, the latter of which was directed by Cecil B. DeMille several years after his older brother William C. de Mille directed Miss Lulu Bett, which featured a considerably less rugged Milton Sills than the one starring in the Valley of the Giants, which contained a wonderful comic interlude from Arthur Stone, whose Just a Good Guy was among the two-reelers shown in the Tribute to Hal Roach, as was the Charley Chase short Movie Night, which contained a tremendous extended sequence in a movie theatre, as did a Cottage on Dartmoor, previously mentioned by Adam Hartzell in his festival preview on this site, which sparked a comment linking to D.W. Griffith's Those Awful Hats, a short whose French DVD release came through Lobster films, the company founded by Serge Bromberg, who presented a program with the same title as that DVD, Retour de Flamme, which featured at least one film (Les Roses magiques) directed by the Spanish transplant to Paris, Segundo de Chomón, who later would devise special effects for the Italian epic Cabiria, the inspiration for Maciste and its numerous sequels.

Whew! That was a mouthful, but here are a few more synchronicities, that seem worth discussing at greater length than would be allowed if I tried to squeeze them into a single sentence:

I spent enough youthful summers in Mendocino County teaching teenagers about nature and environmental issues that I harbor no nostalgia about the timber industry. But I have to admit that some beautiful images were captured as a function of the destruction of the great groves of Sequoia sempervirens, or Coast Redwood trees. Such images abounded in the Valley of the Giants, an action-packed melodrama filmed by First National further up the coast in Humboldt. The truly astonishing, though brief, images came from a film transferred from a Spirograph disc entitled Oregon Lumber Flume, which played as part of the enlightening (and free) More Amazing Tales From the Archives program Sunday morning. Traveling on this redwood aqueduct above the misty treetops made for an exhilarating 1.25 minutes.

The Movie Night/a Cottage on Dartmoor connection mentioned above ought to be stressed further. Barring Tsai Ming-Liang's masterful Goodbye, Dragon Inn, I'm hard-pressed to think of a film with a longer, more elaborate scene depicting the way a movie theatre audience might behave than either of these two films display. A Cottage on Dartmoor's scene (following the film's third iteration of the priceless intertitle "Will you come with me to a talkie tonight?") serves a purpose in the story, but its primary function is surely to mourn the passing of the silent film era. The talkie in question is preceded by a Harold Lloyd film, which explains why the SFSFF played an early Lloyd short Lonesome Luke's Lively Life before a Cottage on Dartmoor as part of its weekend-long presentation of George Eastman House enlargements of 28mm films to 35mm. Stephen Horne's stupendous score, one of the real musical highlights in a weekend packed wall-to-wall with great, professional silent film accompanists, beautifully emphasizes the contrast between the joyful, immersing experience of watching a silent film with live musicians involved, and that of watching the average early talking picture, and helps to explain why it's so much more difficult to find rude audience members at the Silent Film Festival than at modern theatres that insist on using technological novelty rather than entertainment value as the primary selling point for the films exhibited.

Though I only saw the film a couple days ago, I already don't remember if it's ever made clear whether the film Charley Chase brings his family to in Movie Night, also made in 1929, is a silent or talking picture. Either way, great comic hay is made of obnoxious audience behavior (in this case, mostly Chase's). Another interesting connection, one mentioned by Rob Stone of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, is the film's depiction of a pre-show raffle similar to the one held for the first time by the Silent Film Festival this year. Though the prizes are quite different; Chase went home with a duck while one lucky SFSFF patron won a $5000 McRosky Mattress shopping spree, and another won passes to the 2008 Seattle Film Festival. In Movie Night, before Chase wins his lucky duck, a Jewish character wins a large ham, evidence that the contest was probably not as rigged as Chase's intertitle suggested. The raffle prize offered just prior to the Hal Roach tribute was two tickets to see the silent boxing film His People at the SF Jewish Film Festival next Saturday. Yet another synchronicity, I suppose?

Finally, two directors with reputations connected to their facility for staging large crowd scenes were featured in this year's festival: Ernst Lubitsch and Cecil B. DeMille. I've tended to overlook Lubitsch as a director of truly epic-scale productions, thanks to the more intimate turn his films took in the early 1930s. But his German historical extravaganzas like Madame Dubarry and Anna Boleyn were really what got the Hollywood studios interested in wooing him to these shores. Since I haven't seen any of these films yet, the Student Prince of Old Heidelberg is probably more dependent on large crowd scenes than any other Lubitsch films I've seen. In this film, his crowds seem very tautly choreographed, and not only in the scenes of rigid formality like the opening shots of huge groups of men removing their hats for the king. Even in the ostensibly looser scenes of tavern carousing shortly before the intermission, Lubitsch has instilled symmetries of motion that give the crowd a particularly otherworldly quality perfect for this half of the film's idealized tone.

On the other hand, DeMille's crowds in the Godless Girl, while undoubtedly carefully-choreographed as well, always seem on the verge of exploding into utter chaos. That is if they haven't already, as in the jaw-dropping "holy war in the stairwell" sequence. This is probably an obvious point, as Lubitsch is employing his crowds to make the viewer laugh or at least smile, while DeMille's aim is for the edge-of-the-seat thrill. I for one felt I truly didn't know what was going to happen next, or just how far a descent into the darkness of human nature DeMille was going to take the audience (the answer: pretty far, but of course only to set up a scene of redemption, a structure that gets repeated in the film more than once.) Contrast that with the crowd scenes directed by Charles Brabin for the Valley of the Giants. These were pretty much the only scenes in the film that really reminded me of the other Brabin film I've seen, the Jonathan Rosenbaum-approved Mask of Fu Manchu, where a sense of the chaos of crowds is quite evident, but also infused with an overwhelming sense of narrative doom.

So, how was your weekend? Notice any connections, coincidences, crossovers or synchronicities?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Adam Hartzell's Silent Film Festival Preview


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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.