Thursday, March 1, 2012

Silent Introduction

The silent film resonances in this year's Oscar nominees and winners The Artist and Hugo have been much-commented on by folks more impassioned and eloquent than I. I'm just glad I could get away with dressing as Georges Méliès at a friend's Oscar party this year. It's been a season of Méliès for me, as I finished up an essay on the indispensable French film pioneer, now up at the Fandor Keyframe blog in two parts.

Local film screening venues have been capitalizing on the silent film/Oscar resonances all Winter, and the reverberations continue throughout March and into the coming months as well. The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum includes Méliès films in three of its five Saturday night screening programs this month, including a hand-colored print of his Palace of the Arabian Nights March 31st. The Balboa Theatre also grabs a hold of Hugo this Sunday when it celebrates its 86th birthday. The tradition of showing a silent film during their annual bash continues, this year with a 35mm print of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last, the film from which comes the iconic image of a bespectacled wall-crawler hanging off a giant department store clock. Hugo presents this image prominently as well, when its main characters attend a film screening (although in the original book they attend the Rene Clair film Le Million.) Past Balboa birthday parties (I've attended three over the years) have been some of the best value-for-ticket-dollar experiences I've had on Frisco Bay. Not only is there a feature film with live musical accompaniment, but also other live entertainment, cake, door prizes and the opportunity for trivia prizes as well. Last year I made quite a haul, and would've even if I hadn't known my Charlie Chaplin trivia.

And then there's The Artist, the first French film ever to win the top Oscar. If you don't count its two scenes containing words and/or sound effects, it's also the first silent film to do so since the first Academy Awards in 1929, when Wings won an award called "Production of Most Outstanding Picture", which in most history books has been revised as "Best Picture" for consistency's sake. The Stanford Theatre showed William Wellman's Wings last Friday as part of a nearly-weekly series of silent films featuring Dennis James as organ accompanist; the series continues this week with Ernst Lubitsch's The Marriage Circle (a huge influence on Yasujiro Ozu and other filmmakers) this Friday, then goes on a little hiatus (during which James performs for F.W. Murnau's Faust with Mark Goldstein at the California Theatre for Cinequest) before resuming in late March and April.

According to a mailer sent out by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, a screening of Wings will open its annual festival at the Castro Theatre on July 12th with the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra providing music and soundman Ben Burtt proving audio effects live, in the spirit of the sound effects used during gala presentations of Wings in its day; the other Academy Award the film won in 1929 was for these effects as well as for the visual effects used to recreate World War I-era aerial action on screen.

But I would be remiss to look ahead to the SFSFF's July festival without pointing out that there are still tickets available for their once-in-a-generation screenings of Kevin Brownlow's reconstruction of Abel Gance's Napoléon at the palatial Paramount Theatre in Oakland. The festival's website has all the information you might need about this presentation, including an indispensable set of Frequently Asked Questions; the answers are an extremely compelling argument that anyone who loves film should attend at least one of these screenings. Which one? If you're the sort of hedging cinephile who waits to see what's happening at all the local film venues before committing to any one ticket, wait no more; pretty much everything has been announced. Check the Film On Film Foundation calendar for that week and see if there's not a day of the four (Mar, 24, 25, 31 & April 1) that you can make seeing Napoléon your priority. I don't want to hear any of my readers complaining a year or a decade from now that you didn't realize how unique and overpowering these screenings are likely to be, and therefore missed out. Even Hugo director Martin Scorsese is stumping for Napoléon. In a brief article written on the film for the latest issue of Vanity Fair he says the 1927 epic is "unlike anything made before or since. Gance ushered in every technical innovation imaginable."

I don't know if Scorsese will be taking his own article's advice and coming to Oakland for Napoléon. For those who want to see more of the famous preservationist and filmmaker, a Jonas Mekas-made documentary An American Film Director at Work: Martin Scorsese closes an 8-program series of documentaries about great film directors at Yerba Buena Center For the Arts; Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, Chantal Akerman, John Cassavetes and Hou Hsiao-Hsien are among the other directors spotlighted. March and April provide a typically diverse and intriguing slate for YBCA, with the great directors joined by SF Cinematheque programs, architecture films and 2012 Human Rights Watch Film Festival screenings. My friend Adam Hartzell, who has frequently written on documentaries on this site and elsewhere, is here to write about Salaam Dunk, which opens the latter festival tonight, and its resonances with other similarly-themed sports documentaries.

Here's his article.


  1. The reawakened interest in silent cinema has also inspired magazine editors to solicit thematic issues in months to come. You've already mentioned Scorsese's piece for Vanity Fair, but the next issue of Cineaste, I understand, will feature some pieces on silent cinema, as will the upcoming issue of Film International.

  2. Thanks for the tips on these periodicals, Michael! I just hope this flurry of interest doesn't create a feeling of it being a fad. I'd hate for cinemas and magazines in 2013 look at the truly timeless art of silent cinema as "so last year"...

  3. Not sure if that will be the prevailing attitude in 2013 as much as topical focus shifting to whatever has gained popular focus at the time. A friend of mine in Idaho commented that--upon seeing The Artist--she felt inspired to actually watch a piece of silent cinema; something she would never have considered before. I thought that was a lovely sentiment but wondered how she would truly have access to the proper experience. I fall asleep watching silent films on TCM. We here in the Bay Area are way beyond spoiled in having the advantage of the Silent Film Festival and other local forums where silent cinema is presented at its best; at proper speeds, at proper size, with proper music. Even though there may be a groundswell in popular interest this year, I'm not convinced it can withstand for long. My guess is that it's just "sexy" right now and, as we learned long ago, sex sells. Once it stops being sexy? Well, we will see.

    Of course, sexiness varies, like any mileage. I actually considered Serge Bromberg's illustrated talk on the history of 3D in silent cinema much more sexier than Scorsese's simulation of same. What was, in one, the glorious possibilities of film is in, the other, a digital facsimile. Just not the same for me.