Silent Film Festival Report

I discovered something about myself this weekend. I can only watch so many silent films in three days.

I attended all but two events at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this weekend. I had a great time, but I feel like I fried my mind. A quick overview:

The General Vibe
There’s more to this festival than the movies. People come in appropriate costumes. You mingle with published authors like Leonard Maltin and preservation heavy-hitters like David Shepard. The makeshift bookstore set up on the mezzanine is a danger to your credit card. Everyone you talk to shares your enthusiasms.

Here’s an interesting coincidence: All three American comedies screened had a Cinderella vibe. In two of them, the protagonist was the youngest, least-loved sibling. In the other she’s an only child, but she’s a overworked orphan and (not really a big spoiler) she gets her prince charming. All three, plus the one un-American comedy (from France) had scenes built around the comic possibilities of washing dishes.

Great Discoveries
Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Jujiro (Crossways) absolutely blew my mind. The story is typical moralistic melodrama: A man’s obsession for a prostitute ruins not only his life but also his sister’s. But Kinugasa’s bizarre staging and camerawork, plus his eye for strange faces (this movie has more bad teeth than the British Isles), intensifies the emotional impact. So did Stephen Horne‘s accompaniment on piano and flute (occasionally playing them together). My first Kinugasa experience, and hopefully not my last.

The festival also gave me my first taste of Rene Clair. Like Jujiro, Les Deux Timides (Two Timid Souls) pushes the medium to its limit, especially with its use of split screens, but this time the intentions are comic. Clair doesn’t depend entirely on special effects for his laughs; he’s got a funny story and a great, chaplinesqe leading man in Pierre Batcheff.

Lon Chaney had already moved to MGM, so Universal cast Conrad Veidt as The Man Who Laughs. Not that the character’s so happy; as a child his face was intentionally disfigured so that it’s stuck in a huge grin (the image inspired Batman’s Joker). Set in 17th Century England and dealing with circus acts, evil monarchs, and lecherous aristocrats, The Man Who Laughs is a well-made piece of big, fun Hollywood entertainment.

Good But Not Great
I initially hated the Colleen Moore comedy Her Wild Oat. While everyone else in the audience laughed hysterically at the corny intertitles, I sat there quietly. There was nothing really funny in the visuals, and I found Moore’s onscreen persona annoying. But slowly, as the mistaken identity plot gained complexity in the second half, the movie grew on me. By the end, I was laughing with everybody else.

The ethnographic film is a lost art form. People still take movie cameras into remote parts of the world, but they know longer ask the “primitives” they encounter to reenact their way of live in the structure of narrative fiction. (Come to think of it, last year’s Ten Canoes qualifies.) The Silent Enemy, about the Ojibway Indians and set before Columbus, works better as anthropology than as melodrama, even if I suspect some liberties were taken with historical and cultural accuracy. Beautifully photographed.

Considering all the names involved, Mikaël should have been a great film. It was written by Thea von Harbou, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, and partially photographed by Karl Freund. It’s also ahead of its time (and arguably of ours), dealing all but openly when a male gay relationship. But it’s cold and uninvolving. This may sound like sacrilege, but the fault lies largely with the medium. There are exceptions, of course (The Crowd, I was Born, But…), but overall, silent film seldom works for complex, three-dimensional drama.

Familiar Favorites
Then there were the movies I’d seen before. I went in knowing that I like The Soul of Youth and The Patsy, and love The Kid Brother. I reviewed them in this week’s newsletter, So here I’ll just concentrate on the music.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra made The Kid Brother even funnier than it already was (they also accompanied The Silent Enemy). I never laughed so hard at the monkey-in-shoes sequence (if you’ve seen the movie).

The only problem with Stephen Horne‘s piano score for The Soul of Youth was that I’d already heard it. It’s on the DVD. I would have rather heard another one.

Clark Wilson did his usual wonderful organ accompaniment for The Patsy (he also accompanied The Man Who Laughs).