Thursday, July 12, 2012

Silent Connections

2011's Academy Award-winning The Artist is long gone from theatres, even discount theatres like the Cinedome 7 in Newark, and is now available on DVD and on the free outdoor movie circuitLove or hate the film, pretty much everyone can agree that they hope the attention afforded this homage to 1920s Hollywood will translate into resurging interest in genuine silent-era movies among regular filmgoers and the general public. But few types of movies benefit from their presentation in restored prints at motion picture palaces as much as silent films do, especially when they're accompanied by live musicians (which, of course, The Artist wasn't, or should I say, hasn't been yet) as silent films do.

Fortunately, the 17th San Francisco Silent Film Festival begins tonight at the Castro Theatre- not this town's most opulent picture house built during the silent era, but certainly the grandest one that still plays movies. It's something of a homecoming for the SFSFF, which has rented the theatre twice a year since 2005, hosting a big summer extravaganza as well as a one-day winter event. This year the winter event was held at the Paramount in Oakland, and it was a production more ambitious as any the festival has attempted yet: a staging of a 5 1/2 hour version of Abel Gance's Napoléon complete with triple-screen finale and a full orchestra with composer Carl Davis flown in from London to conduct his score. But the festival's return to the Castro after twelve months is more than just a victory lap for Napoléon; it's also perhaps their most ambitious and exciting summer festival yet. Seventeen programs of films made  by at least seven national film industries, set on at least five continents plus the moon, backed by four small orchestras and at least three other expert musicians-- it will be impossible to know if any possible increases in attendance to this already-popular event might be due to interest sparked by The Artist or Napoléon, or just because the line-up is so strong.

If you're contemplating your first visit to the SF Silent Film Festival, be sure to read the Six Martinis And The Seventh Art blog for tips on how to survive the bustling festival atmosphere most comfortably. Those who desire more information about the provenance of the festival's prints than available on the festival website should be sure to read Carl Martin on the subject, bearing in mind he holds no quarter for digital projection or restoration techniques. Though I'm nowhere near as technically knowledgeable as Martin, I share concerns about the ongoing march into a digital-dominated cinephilia, discussed recently at an Italian film festival on a panel described here and available to view here. As I mentioned in my own previous preview, the SFSFF will be screening two of its features digitally (Wings and The Loves Of Pharaoh) and though I wish they were being presented on film, I'm certainly not going to skip these screenings on principle. Perhaps I'll even be convinced of the value of the new technology in certain circumstances.

It seems this year's free Amazing Tales From The Archives program is designed to convince the festival audience of the value of state-of-the-art digital restoration and presentation. As Michael Hawley notes in his excellent festival preview, Grover Crisp did a side-by-side comparison of DCP with 35mm prints in New York earlier this year, and he'll be doing a similar comparison Friday morning. Can we imagine a future SFSFF in which more than one or two programs are presented digitally? It may depend on how the audience reacts to this presentation.

Also on hand at the archival presentation will be Andrea Kalas of Paramount Pictures, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and prepared a new digital version of its Academy Award-winning Wings as part of the celebration. With no less than five Paramount features on the program, this weekend ought to make a strong case for that studio as the top company in 1920s Hollywood. I'm a huge fan of Paramount's The Docks Of New York, and very curious about The Canadian, The Spanish Dancer, and Mantrap, all of which, I'm pleased, are screening on 35mm.

With so many Paramount silents in the program, perhaps there was no room for a film from another studio celebrating its centennial: Universal. Though most of the silent titles in this month's New York tribute to that studio have played at recent SFSFF editions, I long for a chance to see Paul Fejos's Lonesome on the big screen and hope its recent Criterion DVD release doesn't make local programmers shy away from it. The Pacific Film Archive has its own tribute to Universal on its current calendar (along with retrospectives for Raj KapoorAlexsei Guerman, and Les Blank among other series) but no silent films are included. 
Photo courtesy of Alpha-Omega digital GmbH
Silent films do, however, factor into the new Stanford Theatre calendar, which will have four Friday night opportunities to hear organist Dennis James accompany 1920s cinema sprinkled amidst a 7-day-per-week smorgasbord of films made between 1939 and 1964. Two of these are masterpieces previously brought by the SFSFF: The Wind and Seventh Heaven. I have not seen Son Of The Sheik or Way Down East before, but I'm sure audiences who can't get enough Wurlitzer action at the Castro this weekend as James performs for The Loves of Pharaoh and The Mark Of Zorro will want to take biweekly road trips to Palo Alto this summer.

The Castro Theatre itself is about to celebrate its own 95th anniversary, and includes two great late silent feature films, Sunrise and City Lights, as part of its impressively diverse slate of repertory offerings during an impressively-programmed August that I hope will continue in a similar spirit through the rest of the anniversary year. With no word on musical accompaniment for these screenings, it is likely that both will be, like The Artist, sound-on-film presentations of the kind that became popular if by no means exclusive after the arrival of The Jazz Singer in 1927. A third silent film not visible on the above link, but that word seems to be out about elsewhere, is a 35mm presentation of the newly-exhumed color version of A Trip To The Moon by Georges Méliès, which will play with a DCP version of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey on August 26 & 27, with Bruce Conner's astonishing Crossroads on the bill on August 26th only. What a triple-bill for that giant screen!
A Trip To The Moon will also screen at the SFSFF this weekend, in color, and it will be accompanied by the extremely talented pianist Stephen Horne (who accompanies five other SFSFF programs this weekend!) This is part of the festival's closing night program, along with Buster Keaton at his most Dziga Vertov-esque in The Cameraman, with Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra providing music. British silent film fan Paul McGann, best known for his acting career in films like Withnail And I and Alien³, will read the text Méliès wrote to accompany A Trip To The Moon at fairgrounds and other 1902 screening venues. He will also be at the festival to narrate Frank Hurley's documentary on Ernest Shackleton's polar expedition, South, in the spirit of Shackleton's own presentations with the film in his day.

It's interesting to note which SFSFF films are co-presented by which local film organizations. Saturday night's The Overcoat is co-presented by both SF Cinematheque and by MiDNiTES FOR MANiAX, which tells me it should appeal both to fans of avant-garde filmmaking and to fans of under-appreciated seventies- and eighties-era gems like Car Wash, Phenomena, Assault On Precinct 13, and Halloween 3: Season of The Witch (to name the next four MiDNiTE movies I'm told to expect at the Castro on August 3, September 14, October 5 & November 2nd, respectively.) I've been hoping to see the film version of The Overcoat since seeing an A.C.T. Production years ago, but I really have no idea what to expect from it now. 

I'm also extremely eager for Sunday afternoon's screening of Erotikon, introduced by Jonathan Marlow of Fandor, and co-presented by the San Francisco Film Society, which usually presents a silent film or two at its own annual film festival or during its year-round calendar of events. So far they haven't shown too many silents on their SF Film Society Screen in Japantown, but they have been screening Mark Cousins' epic documentary The Story Of Film: An Odyssey over the past several Saturdays, with two more to go. And this summer has seen more repertory-style programming at the venue than we've seen in previous months, with more to come in August: Kinji Fukusaku's 2000 cult classic Battle Royale gets its Frisco Bay week-long theatrical premiere August 10-16 and the locally-made 1996 animation James And The Giant Peach plays a matinee August 11. The 1952 portmentaeu film Love in the City, with segments directed by a young Fellini, Antonioni, and five other Italian directors (including the still-living Dino Risi and Francesco Maselli) will screen August 17-23, and perhaps most exciting of all, Robert Bresson's neglected The Devil, Probably shows in a new 35mm print August 3-9.

I'm straining to think of Silent Film Festival connections to the current SFMOMA screening series, at which filmmaker Trent Harris is expected to be present for tonight's screening of his bizarre and brilliant "Beaver Trilogy", for the Yerba Buena Center For The Arts series of photography-connected short films by the likes of Agnès Varda, Arthur Lipsett, Ken Jacobs, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Hollis Frampton, Raul Ruiz, Jean Eustache, and others (also starting tonight), or for the music-centered documentaries sharing a screen at the Roxie tonight, Songs Along A Stony Road and Sprout Wings And Fly, which will also be attended by its filmmakers George Csicsery and Les Blank (respectively). But it's time for me to sprout a decent outfit and fly off to see Wings in a couple hours, so I won't strain any longer. Have a great weekend and hope to see you at the Castro!

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