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.


  1. Brian, indeed you did hear that right. Ken Fox, the 2010 SFSFF Film Preservation Fellowship awardee will work on the project to restore MR. FIX-IT. This project is jointly funded by the SF Silent Film Festival Film Preservation Fund and the Goessel Family Foundation. The new tinted restoration will receive its theatrical world premiere next year at the 2011 SFSFF.

  2. Thanks for confirming that, Rob! I seem to recall that you were the one who announced it on Friday, but things get hazy after so many movies in a row. I know that Goessel is an important name in today's Fairbanksian circles, so I'm not surprised to hear about the joint funding.

    Now the only thing I wish I knew was the exact dates of the 2001 festival, as I've already got family members starting to make plans for a reunion that I might be able to engineer to occur at a different point in the summer if I know with enough advance notice...

  3. Hey, thanks for your comments on the festival, and for linking to my impressions of Metropolis. Your in-depth comments make me wish I'd seen more of the films this year. At least there's the winter festival, as long as they don't schedule it during Christmas rush again.

  4. Ah yes. The Winter Event. The second weekend in December was fine for me last year, but it was tough to get many of my friends excited to come along- they were all busy with wrapping up the semester, or with holiday shopping or travel.

  5. Brian - Thanks for this wrap-up. As our own Silent Summer Film Festival started up last night in Chicago, I can't help but envy the adventurous and educational programming the SF festival does so well. Of course, NFPF is located in SF, so that helps with the new NZ finds - and thank you so much for acknowledging the work of the blogathoners (and we were extremely gratified to have such a silents expert as yourself participate) in preserving The Better Man. We preserved two, not three, films (The Sergeant being the other one, and coming to an SF theatre November 29, btw), and I've been invited by AMPAS to attend the premiere of Upstream. I'll let you know what the reception is like.

  6. Marilyn, I'm glad you've been invited to that Upstream screening- and wish I could make it down there as well, but that's not in the cards. Thanks for setting me straight on the number of films preserved through. I'm so excited to see the Sergeant and am excited to learn there's already a date set for a local screening. (a Monday, huh? Makes me wonder where the screening will be, as most rep. venues here take that day off) As someone who has been to Yosemite many times, I can't wait to see what it looked like in 1910!

    Do you usually attend the Silent Film Society of Chicago screenings? If I were there, I'd certainly want to see Ben-Hur- it was part of the very first SFSFF fifteen years ago, before I had the event on my radar screen, so I've never seen it. I've also never seen Pollyanna, and never even heard of Harold Teen before (Mervyn leRoy when he was REALLY a "boy wonder"- intriguing!). It would aso be great to see my favorite Lon Chaney film not directed by Tod Browning, the Penalty on the big screen. And the Mark of Zorro with Mont Alto's accompaniment seems unmissible as well; Rodney Sauer presented a brief excerpt from the DVD during his presentation at the musicians' panel, and Douglas Fairbanks earned a huge applause when he appeared on the screen. He does that.

  7. Brian, a terrific wrap up of the festival weekend. I'm already looking forward to 2011 and plan to cheer long and loudly for the Fairbanks premiere. It was a terrific weekend and I am now only just recovering, I can only imagine what the volunteers and staff feel like.

    I will also be at Upstream in September at the Academy. If it is anything like the screening of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it's going to be a terrific evening. Thanks again for dropping by to see me on the mezzanine, it was great to put a face to the blog.

  8. Brian - I try to make as many Silent Summer films as I can, but the programming has been a little up and down, and they don't bring in scholars or do panels. There's always one full-orchestra showing and the rest accompanied by live organ music. I won't be in Chicago for Harold Teen, and I didn't go see The Freshman because I've seen it many times (if not on a big screen). But yes, Ben-Hur is a favorite of mine. On the 13th, Noir City Chicago opens, and I'll be there instead of seeing The Penalty. But I'll probably make the rest of the shows.

  9. I think shahn meant to call you a "loco sensation", with which I can only concur.

  10. Can't argue with that, Michael/Maya.

    I should note that I've noticed you integrate mention of festival writers' progarm essays into your excellent coverage. I'm so pleased you decided to write up Melissa Chittick's remarks prior to the Pabst screening.

    Donna/rudyfan, I was very glad to put a face to your blog and podcast as well. And your book on Valentino is beautiful! I wish I hadn't already broken my book budget by the time I saw you on the mezzanine. Enjoy Upstream, and I hope to find a spare moment to comment on your own very fine festival wrap-up shortly.

  11. Brian, if only I had this post to reference when writing my piece for GreenCine. Than I could have had better leverage to advocate for the excision from THE IRON HORSE score of that 'dadadada dutdut dum dum dummmmmm' musical cliche used to introduce Chinese characters, knowing now that James has excised items from past 'original scores'. Alas, such is the nature of having to post quickly.

    And for anyone who wants to hear more about those finds in the New Zealand Film Archives, they still have a podcast up on New Zealand Radio National interviewing one of the NZ Film Archivists -


  12. Great write-up, Brian! And I'll be sure to refer to you as "modest local sensation" from now on.

    It was wonderful getting to hang out and watch some films with you again.

  13. Adam, shahn, I really was glad to spend some time with both of you (seperately- I can't remember if you've met) at the festival.