Monday, July 13, 2009

Silent Film Linking, Part One

It's the day after the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and the blogosphere is already filling up with reactions from attendees. Now, to attempt to collect these links and contextualize them within my own experience of the festival. I attended nearly everything, and had a grand time watching films, mingling with friends, and luxuriating in the Castro Theatre. And somehow I find I have the energy to begin a blow-by-blow.

Friday night's opening film was Douglas Fairbanks as the Gaucho, the film in the program I was most familiar with, having seen it multiple times on DVD while preparing the slide show presentation seen on screen as the audience filled the Castro seats, and the 2 1/2 page essay I wrote for the festival's program guide. Of all the many sources I consulted in my research on Fairbanks, there is perhaps none I leaned on more heavily than Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta's biography of the superstar. So it felt particularly fitting for these "silent partners" to introduce The Gaucho (as it is more informally known), as well as give a running commentary track over technicolor outtakes of Mary Pickford's cameo as a Marian apparition screened prior to the feature. Michael Guillén has posted a recap of the duo's introductory remarks, and even excerpts from my essay. Thanks, Michael!

It turns out I was less familiar with the Gaucho than I had thought. Seeing it projected beautifully and grandly on a huge cinema screen revealed details I had overlooked in close study of the DVD. Of all the films in this year's festival, this one must have contained the most shots with multiple threads of action happening simultaneously. The upshot of this is that seeing its images tower above me convinced me that it's an even better, richer film than I had previously judged it to be. I hope the new MOMA print doesn't retire back into the archive for good after this screening; this film deserves to be seen in any theatre where silent film lovers congregate. More reactions to this showing of the Gaucho have been published at six martinis and the seventh art, and at Jason Watches Movies.

This screening of The Gaucho premiered a new score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, which has been a favorite of the SFSFF since 2007. Last year, this quintet performed for the Kid Brother, Harold Lloyd's greatest film. They perform that score again tomorrow night at the Rafael Film Center in Marin, which was the first Frisco Bay venue to bring them in. Their scores are well worth hearing more than once, and if you've never seen the Kid Brother it's an absolute must, deserving to stand with the best of Chaplin and Keaton in the pantheon of silent comedy masterpieces. If you miss that, however, the Kid Brother plays again at the California Theatre in San Jose on July 24th, with Dennis James performing at that venue's sadly-underutilized organ. James also will perform at the California on August 7th for Fairbanks' 1926 swashbuckler the Black Pirate. The rest of the summer weekend at that theatre are devoted to 70mm films (talkies, natch) from the 1960s.

After staying too late at the festival's opening night party, I overslept Saturday and made it to the Castro only in time to catch the very tail end of the free Amazing Tales From the Archives presentation, where I heard Stephen Horne play piano for an Edison short, How the Hungry Man Was Fed. Horne has caused something of a sensation at each of the SFSFF events he has attended, providing knockout accompaniment to often-dark films like a Cottage on Dartmoor, Jujiro, and the Unknown. But when performing for a brief comic piece like this one, I become curious to hear what he'd come up with for a feature-length comedy. Anyone with me?

The next presentation was with the Mont Alto orchestra again, accompanying a long-missing link in King Vidor's oeuvre, Bardelys the Magnificent, previewed by David Jeffers of the SIFFblog. A fine action picture with noteworthy photography, including a vertigo-inducing fall from a balcony, the presentation was notable for two main reasons: it was the West Coast debut of a title that had been considered a "lost film" for decades, and it was the festival's first experiment in screening a feature in DigiBeta rather than 35mm. With no-one willing to assume responsibility for the cost of transferring the recently re-discovered print to 35mm, the "film" is only viewable in digital form. Again, Michael Guillén has details from David Shepard's introduction. The image looked clean if somewhat contrastry on that screen. Vidor's vision may have been suggested, but I for one was unable to forget that I was watching through a layer of technological remove. SFSFF acting artistic director Anita Monga makes a great point about the difference between DVD and 35mm screenings in this recent sf360 interview:

Just because I have a postcard of the Vermeer’s "The Milkmaid" doesn’t make me not want to see it in at the Rijksmuseum. Au contraire, it whets my appetite.
I hope that enough appetites are whetted by the digital screenings and DVD release of Bardleys the Magnificent that the powers that be determine that there's sufficient demand to justify the cost of returning the picture to its celluloid magnificence.

Here's Part Two

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