San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Part 1

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is the closest thing to a movie marathon I’ve experienced in decades. For three of its four days, it runs movie after movie from 10:00am until nearly midnight, with breaks that generally last an hour or less. Seeing everything–or almost everything–requires stamina and sleep deprivation.

Attending the festival, and blogging about it, takes Herculean efforts.

Here’s what I’ve seen so far:

The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse

Festival President Robert Byrne started things off with a little pep talk, thanking sponsors, noting that this is the 19th year, and talking about the feature.

The movie started only 15 minutes after the scheduled time. For any festival’s opening night, it’s excellent.

If you want to see the value of star power, there’s no better example than Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Rudolf Valentino  was just another handsome face when he was cast in this film, receiving only fourth billing. But he owns the picture. His open likeability, his energy, and his exceptional sexuality dominate this epic about Argentinians caught up in World War I.

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Valentino was a competent actor, although not a great one. Occasionally, he’s horrible. But his magnetism overwhelms his flaws.

The family dynamics of the story are a bit complicated. Let’s just say that a wealthy Argentine family develops into separate French and German forks. The French move to France, the Germans move to Germany, and war puts them on separate sides.

It’s an antiwar movie, of course, but a flawed one. The message seems to be "War is evil, and Germans are evil because they love war." Germans are inherently bad guys in this film’s worldview.

The picture is big, epic, and spectacular. It drags a bit in the first half, but is overall good fun, despite the anti-German sentiment. And Valentino makes it a much better film than it would otherwise be.

The 35mm print was tinted and mostly beautiful. Some scenes were soft; I assume they came from an inferior source. For some reason, it was projected at an aspect ratio that was too narrow even for a silent. Occasionally the sides looked cropped.

The Mont Alto Silent Picture Orchestra did their usual wonderful accompaniment.

Amazing Tales from the Archives

This Friday morning free show is always one of the Festival’s highlights. Once again, Robert Byrne got it started. "I love the smell of nitrate in the morning. It smells of history."

This year’s tales came in three segments.

First, Bryony Dixon, Curator of Silent Film for the British Film Institute, showed us some early nature films–forerunners of David Attenborough’s work. The best sequences involved bees and beekeeping, and required experimental lenses.

Next, Dan Streible of the Orphan Film Symposium discussed one of the most famous films to come out of Edison’s laboratory, The Sneeze. Thanks to the discovery of a new paper print, we now know that this laboratory experiment ran twice as long as anyone suspected. Yes, Fred Ott sneezed twice!

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He also used some of his talk to criticize digital, proclaiming that "digital film is an oxymoron." I disagree, but I should read his article on the matter anyway.

He ended his presentation with a little gem that I saw once maybe 35 or 36 years ago: Raymond Rohauer Presents the Sneeze–a two-minute gem by David Shepard. You have to know about the silent film restoration/copyright battles of 60s and 70s to appreciate this one.

Finally, special effects designer Craig Barron and sound effects creator Ben Burtt took the stage to discuss Charlie Chaplin’s his use of technology. Their point was to dispel the myth that Chaplin was a luddite, interested in the camera only as a way to record his silent performances. Barron and Burtt showed he used trick photography, and Burtt discussed his use of sound effects in City Lights and Modern Times.

These two are always worth listening to.

Song of the Fishermen

They were still making silent movies in China in 1934, although sound was beginning to sneak in. Song of the Fishermen is a bit like the Jazz Singer. Basically a silent film, but every so often, the lead character breaks into song.

The star, Wang Renmei, was both a movie and a singing star at the time.

The movie was shot in horrible conditions on location in a very poor fishing village. The singing was dubbed in later.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t too impressed with Song of the Fisherman–a story about a sister and brother struggling to survive in a depressed fishing village. Many individual scenes worked well, but the continuity was confusing and I often felt unsure about what was going on. After the film, I talked to others who had the same experience.

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It was beautifully shot, but the excellent photography was marred by a poor print source and a worse digital transfer. Fades and dissolves showed very bad digital artifacts.

Donald Soshan’s piano work was fine. But three times he stopped playing and the film’s original soundtrack took over, so we could hear Wang Renmei singing. Sometimes it was out of sync.

Life sometimes gets in the way of going to movies, and I had to return to the East Bay after Song of the Fishermen. I made it back to the Castro in time for the 10:00pm screening of…

Cosmic Voyage

Experimental filmmaker Craig Baldwin selected this Soviet sci-fi for the Festival, and introduced it. "One reason I picked it is it has a sense of otherness. My own films deal with technology. Mine are more pessimistic."

He spoke about as fast as is humanly possible. I think my typed notes are accurate.

"The film is a lesson in itself about how soviet film played out. And it’s a children’s film. It would have been popular, but it was pulled. The benefit of it being a silent is the crucial role of montage. The odd angles, the willingness to take chances, and the release from melodrama."

That’s Baldwin’s view. Here’s mine:

Cosmic Voyage feels like something George Pal would have made in the 1950s, except that it’s a silent film made on the other side of the iron curtain. A brilliant but loveable scientist with a Santa-like beard, a young boy brimming with pluck, and a beautiful young woman convince the powers that be that their rocket is safe. Then they go to the moon, have some adventures there, and return home.

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In many ways, the science is remarkably accurate for its time. Zero gee starts when the thruster rockets stop. The moon has gravity, but it’s so weak that the explorers can make big leaps.

On the other hand, the spaceship has a very high ceiling, which is a big waste in a spaceship (Pal made the same mistake in When World’s Collide). And who can forget a timeless intertitle like "You gather the atmosphere. I’ll rescue the cat." This and other intertitles were in Russian; Frank Buxton read an English translation out loud as the film played.

In other words, the whole thing is charming, silly, and entertaining. I wish it was readily available in this country.

But I don’t understand the festival’s scheduling decision. This is a kid’s movie, and should have screened as a matinee. The 3:00 show that day (which I missed) was called Midnight Madness; that sounds like a better late-night movie.

The print, which I believe was digital, looked great. The Silent Movie Music Company accompanied Cosmic Voyage. They did a good job.