Spellbound with music: Surviving and enjoying the 2016 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Nothing really beats the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. For three days (plus an opening night), you’re immersed in an art form that was born, matured, reached extraordinary heights, and then suddenly died–all within the space of 20 to 40 years (depending on how to you define its birth and death). All told, this year’s festival presented 15 feature films, three collections of shorts, a program of lectures, a lot of live music, some fascinating introductions, and an opening-night party.

Only one of those three days had a break long enough for a comfortable restaurant dinner.

This year’s marathon included two French comedies by René Clair, the restoration of a long-fractured Laurel and Hardy comedy, two films shot in the frozen arctic, a double bill on cross-dressing, an Ozu crime thriller that’s also a family story, an African-American response to Birth of a Nation, a selection of colorized shorts, and one of Douglas Fairbanks’ pre-swashbuckler comedies.

The live music was, almost without exception, magnificent–both as cinematic accompaniment and live concert in its own right. The musicians provided not only tunes and emotional heft, but also some surprising sound effects. Even the squeak of pen on paper could be heard at one point.

The major musical newcomer this year was Michael Morgan, conducting a subsection of the Oakland Symphony–complete with chorus–in Adolphus Hailstork’s score for Within Our Gates. I had mixed feelings about Hailstork’s score. While it was powerful and dramatic, it failed to calm down for the quiet moments. And sometimes the music just stopped at seemingly random places, leaving the movie in silence.

Following the modern trend in silent film presentation, the foreign films were shown with their original German, Japanese, French, or Swedish intertitles, with digital English subtitles appearing at the bottom of the screen. When the films were projected in 35mm (which was most of them), the subtitles came from the Castro’s digital projector.

It seemed as if every third film was restored by the Festival itself (usually in collaboration with other organizations). Although all of these movies had been restored digitally in either 2K or 4K, they were projected in 35mm. I’m all for returning a digital restoration back to film for archival purposes, but these movies would all have looked better off of DCPs.

Serge Bromberg couldn’t make it this year, which is a pity. He’s always worth listening to. And the number of costumed festival goers was surprisingly small. I did, however, catch this happy couple:

But what about the movies I saw? Here are my favorite screenings from this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival:


Emil Jannings proves himself a great actor in this powerful, sexy, and spectacular tragedy set in the world of vaudeville and the circus. He plays a trapeze artist who leaves his wife for a younger woman…with predictably disastrous results. The trapeze sequences are breathtaking, even while you can clearly see that Jannings is being doubled. And the sense of foretold doom covers the tale.

The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra‘s score matched both the film’s emotional heft and its many dancing sequences. This was all the more remarkable because it was such a group effort. Several students of a film-scoring class worked together, and passed the piton from one to another during the performance.

A Woman of the World

Pola Negri gives a fine comic performance as an Italian countess who comes to small-town America to recover from a broken heart. She smokes (a sign of an independent woman in the 1920s), has a tattoo, and is otherwise unacceptable to the local gossips and worse, to the blue-nosed district attorney. Directed by former Buster Keaton collaborator Malcolm St. Clair.

The Italian Straw Hat

A man on his way to be married runs into trouble when his horse eats a woman’s hat. If she comes home without her hat, her husband will suspect that she has a lover. She does have a lover–a short-tempered army officer who insists that our hero find an identical hat immediately. The story is ridiculous, but who cares when the movie is this funny.

Friday at the PFA

I caught two very different films, from two very different series, at the Pacific Film Archive Friday night. Both films were shown without an introduction.

Bachelor’s Affairs

This was the second screening of the UCLA Festival of Preservation 2016 series, and the first in that series that I was able to attend.

Before the feature, we were treated to a Vitaphone short from 1929, Me and the Boys. Like all early Vitaphone shorts, it was basically a vaudeville act performed in a movie studio—in this case, a song. I found it moderately entertaining. The print was tinted yellow; like the silents they helped replace, Vitaphone pictures were often tinted. The preservation was clearly made from a print that suffered a lot of nitrate decomposition.

The feature looked much better. And while I wouldn’t list this 1932 marriage farce among the great pre-code comedies, it was fun. Adolphe Menjou starred as a middle-aged millionaire who unwisely marries a young blonde who’s being pushed into the marriage by her older sister. She wants to party and, we assume, sleep with younger men. He’s too old for this lifestyle. Meanwhile, his secretary really loves him.

The rumba dance sequence was very funny, and most of it proved entertaining. And at 64 minutes, it was pleasingly short. I give it a B.

Like everything in this UCLA series, the film is screened in 35mm instead of off of a DCP. These films have only been preserved, not restored. Preserving a film is still an analog, film-based process. You make a new negative from the best source you have. Restoration, where you try to make the best-possible recreation of the film, has become a digital process and with good reason.

These films either don’t need a full restoration (Bachelor’s Affairs certainly didn’t), or aren’t important enough for the expense (probably the case with Me and the Boys).

The Wrong Move

I’m beginning to see why the PFA called this series Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road. This is the second film in the series that I’ve caught, and it’s the second road movie.

The Wrong Move is a more even film than Kings of the Road. It lacks the brilliant scenes that made Kings so memorable. On the other hand, at 103 minutes, it didn’t sag in places like the other film did.

The film looks at a temporary family that creates itself on the road. It’s told through the eyes of Wilhelm (Rüdiger Vogler). He wants to be a writer, but he worries that he’s too emotionally remote to be a good one. And he’s probably right. He’s a pretty cold guy.

He sets out to see Germany on train, and becomes the nucleus of a group of travelers. There’s the former Nazi officer filled with guilt (Hans Christian Blech), the teenage girl who never talks and develops a crush on Wilhelm (Nastassja Kinski in her first screen role), a beautiful blonde who might be an actress (Hanna Schygulla), and the bad poet comedy relief (Peter Kern). They travel together for a while, and then go their separate ways.

These people interact with each other in some intriguing ways, but they learn very little on the trip. I give this one a B, too.

As with everything in this series, The Wrong Move recently received a 4K digital restoration. It was screened off a DCP.

More on the new PFA Theater

Before the first film, I walked up to the back of the theater, and took some photos:

Janus, Criterion, Coen Brothers, and James Schamus: Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I started the day with Wesley Morris’ State of Cinema address. But as I’ve already written about that presentation, I’ll skip it here and go to the two other events I attended.

Mel Novikoff Award: An Afternoon with Janus Films & the Criterion Collection

Every year, the Festival gives the Mel Novikoff Award to “an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema.” This year, it went to two companies that often work together: Janus Films and the Criterion Collection.

The event happened at the Castro.

If you’re not familiar with them, Janus distributes classic films–mostly foreign–to theaters. Criterion brings classics and not-so-classic films to the home screen via DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming services. If you check out my Blu-ray reviews, you’ll find a lot of Criterion titles.

Much of what we take for granted on DVDs and Blu-rays today–extras, commentary tracks, carefully-created transfers, and presenting a film in its original aspect ratio–started with Criterion on Laserdisc.

On stage, film critic Scott Foundas interviewed Criterion’s Jonathan Turell and and Janus’ Peter Becker. Some highlights:

  • This idea that Criterion has come to play a role in canon creation is an accident. The result is people have started to think that way.
  • On working with major studios: We try to be an asset to the studios. We’ve been able to position ourselves has a way .
  • On their devotion to physical discs: I don’t think the beauty of it can go out of style.
  • Long ago, Turell showed Michael Powell a Laserdisc with one of the first commentaries–possibly King Kong. Powell exclaimed “What I could do with that technology if I were younger.” Then he did the first ever director commentary; it was for Black Narcissus.
  • They’re preparing to launch Filmstruck, a recently-announced streaming service that’s a joint venture between Criterion and Turner Classic Movies. “It’s built from the ground up and just for movies. And it’s wholly curated by us.”

The Novikoff Award presentation always includes a movie. This time, it was the Coen Brothers’ first film, Blood Simple, which Criterion has just restored. So the Coen Brothers and the film’s cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld (now a director) came on stage and joined the conversation.

More highlights, all from the creators of Blood Simple:

  • What a relief to deal with people who understand what your movie is trying to do. It’s not about marketing the movie. It’s about presenting a movie in a particular way.
  • The first day of shooting was the first time we ever were on a movie set.
  • The Coen brothers raised money for Blood Simple marketing it as a splatter movie. “Well, we did have vomiting blood.”
  • M. Emmet Walsh was the only actor in the film that anyone would recognize. When asked to do something a little different “to humor me,” he responded “I’ve done this whole fucking movie to humor you.”
  • Sonnenfeld on shooting John Getz: We could never focus his face. Those in front of him were in focus, those in back of him were on focus. But he was never in focus.

Then we got to see Blood Simple.

The Coen Brothers’ first film shows a promise of what they’d become. An exceptionally dark, violent, gruesome, and funny noir, it tells a coherent story that is totally incoherent to the characters onscreen. You’ve got an adulterous couple (half of which is Frances McDormand in her first film role), a violently vengeful husband, and a private detective with less morals than your average snake (Walsh).

As I watched it, I kept seeing tropes that would reappear in Fargo. While it’s not quite Fargo material, it still earns a clear A-.

There was no audience Q&A. Too bad. I must have 50 questions for Criterion.

Centerpiece: Indignation

For my final event for the day, I went to the Victoria Theatre for the Centerpiece screening of James Schamus’ directorial debut, Indignation.

The film will get a theatrical release in the near future, so I’m not allowed to say more than 100 words about it now:

Most coming of age movies are essentially optimistic. You know that the protagonist will come out alright. But in Indignation, you slowly begin to realize that Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) just might not find happiness. He has no good options, only bad ones. And he lacks the maturity to find the lesser evil. The son of a New Jersey kosher butcher, he does well academically but not socially in a Christian college in Ohio. And if he leaves college, the draft and the Korean War await. Based on a novel by Phillip Roth.

I give it an A.

After the movie, Executive Director Noah Cowan presided over the Q&A with Schamus, best known as Ang Lee’s producer/screenwriter and as the former head of Focus Features. Some comments:

  • On adapting a Phillip Roth book: He’s notoriously difficult to adapt, and I learned that the hard way. Empathy comes out of the brutality. You can’t get that kind of truth on film.
  • On Roth’s reaction: He did me the greatest favor. I sent him the screenplay before we started shooting. He refused to read it. that was the best thing he could do.
  • On why he waited so long to direct: I’ve written a lot of screenplays. Then I think: I could direct it, or Ang Lee could direct it.
  • I know it’s a miserably depressing movie, but I had a blast making it.
  • On directing for the first time: There were two things that were completely new. Where you put the camera, and working with actors.

The Best of this years’ San Francisco Silent Film Festival

I planned to report on every day and every screening I attended at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. But that was just too much. So this year, I’m waiting to the end and discussing the highlights.

But first, one serious lowlight. When it comes to reserving seats, the Silent Festival is getting almost as bad as the San Francisco International Film Festival. A huge block of rows–comprising the center of the house where most people prefer to sit–was blocked off with Reserved signs. For Sherlock Holmes, they extended the Reserved section so far forward that even the fifth row was out of bounds for most ticket buyers and pass holders.

Okay, now on the good parts.

Few festivals are as fun as this one between the movies. If you have a pass or a ticket to the next show, you’re welcome to hang out, shop for books and DVDs on the mezzanine, or just talk to people.

And the people you can talk to are pretty amazing. When I came in Friday morning, Kevin Brownlow, Serge Bromberg, and Grover Crisp were within about six feet of each other. A collapsing chunk of ceiling would have set back the cause of film preservation for decades.

Another example: A friend of mine, at the festival for the first time, talked about a silent movie he remembered fondly–The Way of All Flesh. He wondered how he could see it again. As he was talking, who should walk by but Serge Bromberg, who joined in the conversation. Bromberg explained that, aside from one reel, the film is believed lost. (He also mentioned a Charley Chase short comedy made soon afterwards called The Way of All Pants.)

The talks–introductions, Q&A, the Amazing Tales from the Archives show–contained a lot of talk about preservation and restoration. We heard multiple stories about reassembly and re-translating intertitles (a lot of American silents exist through foreign, non-English prints). We viewed recently discovered early Technicolor from Hearst’s Castle. And Serge Bromberg–who seemed to be everywhere this year–told us a long and funny story about acquiring the large collection of a family of total jerks.

One running gag ran throughout the festival. Anyone on stage soon learned they could get applause by saying “35mm,” “nitrate,” or, for a really big reaction, “35mm nitrate.”

So much for atmosphere. Here are my favorite films and presentations at this year’s Festival:

Visages d’enfants (Faces of Children; AKA Mother)

I had never heard of this film before I read the program, so I was in a good place to be blown away. It sounded interesting, but I didn’t know until it started that I was watching a masterpiece.

Set in a small town high in the Alps, in what appears to be the last 19th century, Visages d’enfants follows the difficulties of what is now called a blended family–and–as is so often this case, it wasn’t blended very well. A widower with a son and daughter marries a widow with a daughter. Bullying, anger, and complicated emotions result.

I don’t believe I have ever seen such good child performances. The kids come off has real kids, with their own joys, angers, and issues. I grew up in a poorly-blended family myself, and this film hit every nerve.

One major flaw: The movie climaxes with not one but two nail-biting cliffhangers. That works for Harold Lloyd, but for a realistic story like this one, that was one too many.

Stephen Horne provided accompaniment on piano, flute, and I’m not sure what else.

The Last Laugh

This was my third time seeing F.W. Murnau’s 1924 masterpiece, and my first time seeing it theatrically. I loved it from the first, but this time around, with a big screen, a full audience, and great, live music, I realized that this is A+ material.

An aging hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) loves his job. He gets to wear a fancy uniform with big, brass buttons. He’s a member of the working class, but he dresses up, looks smart, and commands respect. And at the end of the workday, he comes home to his tenement apartment, still in his uniform, and everyone respects him. Then he’s demoted to washroom attendant. He’s so ashamed he can’t even tell his family.

Silent films didn’t get any purer than The Last Laugh. It tells almost everything visually, without benefit of language. The film has only one intertitle, separating the main story from the epilogue.

The music came from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra–an undergraduate program in film scoring at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Several students worked on composing this score, and they took turns at the baton. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it was anything but.

There was one problem with the music. From where I was sitting, the conductor’s head blocked the bottom of the screen, and thus the subtitles. On the other hand, you’d find few foreign films with less need for subtitles.

Sherlock Holmes

This was, of course, the movie we were all waiting for–newly found and restored after sitting in a French vault for almost a century. It’s the only filmed performance by the great stage actor William Gillette–the first playwright and actor to make the famous detective his own.

By the time Gillette shot Sherlock Holmes in 1916, he’d been playing the part onstage on and off for some 17 years. And even without hearing his voice, you can see that he was a great Holmes. He brings an insolence and an air of sarcasm to the role, making him a very modern hero.

The film’s faults come primarily from the stage play, and from its adaptation to the screen (or lack thereof). It appears that the filmmakers simply filmed the play, then added a few intertitles. Much of the time, you’re watching people talk, without any hint of what they’re saying.

And the play has its own problems. For instance, Holmes falls in love, and presumably is heading towards marriage at the final curtain (or fade out). I’m sorry, but Sherlock Holmes does not fall in love.

The Donald Sousin Ensemble provided excellent accompaniment.


Harold Lloyd’s silent features tend to fall into two categories: Very funny, and really good stories that are also very funny. I prefer the second category. Lloyd’s last silent film falls into the merely very funny group, and was thus never one of my favorites. The story is weak and meandering, and Lloyd’s character is an absent-minded failure who can’t hold a job. But seeing it for the first time on the big screen, with an audience around me, I realized just how funny Speedy is. And believe me–it’s extremely funny.

Much of it was shot in New York City, and Lloyd’s team had a lot of fun with the locations. There’s a long sequence at Coney Island that makes me want to visit the place–or at least visit the Coney Island of 1928. Babe Ruth has a cameo as himself. And the final chase is one of Lloyd’s best.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, amongst my favorite accompanists, kept the story hopping.

The Donovan Affair

This had to be the weirdest thing at the festival. For one thing, it’s not really a silent movie. At best, it’s an “accidental silent,” as Bruce Goldstein described in his introduction.

It was made as a talkie (Frank Capra’s first). We have the picture, but the soundtrack is lost. So it was screened with live actors lip-synching–usually accurately–the dialog onscreen. Oddly enough, after a few minutes getting used to the experience, it worked. There was also piano accompaniment and sound effects.

The movie is a very silly murder mystery–I believe the laughs were intentional. I don’t think this type of presentation would work with a serious film.

Cinema’s past and cinema’s future: Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

Yesterday was a very strange day for me at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I didn’t see a single, complete film. But it was still worthwhile.

Mel Novikoff Award: Lenny Borger

The Novikoff Award goes to someone who who "has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema." Sometimes it goes to someone famous, such as Roger Ebert. This year it went to Lenny Borger, whom I had never heard of before the award was announced.

imageIn her introduction, Director of Programming Rachel Rosen described him as a "film writer, translator, scholar, and something of a film sleuth." An American who’s lived much of his life in Paris, he writes English subtitles for French films. The event included the North American restoration premier of Monte-Cristo, a 1929 French silent epic directed by Henri Fescourt that Borger was instrumental in restoring.

This was Borger’s first visit to San Francisco. He was interviewed on stage by Variety reviewer Scott Foundas (Borger was once Variety’s Paris correspondent). Borger came off as shy, and not comfortable talking to an audience.

A few highlights from the interview:

  • When searching European archives, "Being in Variety helped me open the door. Archivists are very secretive people–except for the ones I know who are here."
  • About Monte-Cristo: "What you’re going to see now is what I call the full monty. You have to leave a margin for some shots that are missing. If any of you have reels of film, get in touch with me."
  • "Monte Cristo has no reputation at all. I spent a lot of time trying to convince people to see it."
  • He called Brussels "the best archive in the world. The French are always the last to recognize their own films."
  • On translating dialog into subtitles: In the beginning, it was just information. If you look at old subtitles, they’re often very comic." He described a French subtitle in Sam Peckinpah’s war movie, Cross of Iron, where the word tanks was translated to merci.
  • A single subtitle can’t be longer than 70 characters. "Less than a tweet."
  • About his experiences with Godard: “The first film was a wonderful experience. The next film a little less good because he started cutting titles. Film Socialism was a nightmare."
  • "I worked on Children of Paradise two or three times. I’ve never been satisfied with it."

Then they screened the movie. I knew going in that I wouldn’t be able to see all of it–I had a 3:00 appointment to interview Douglas Trumbull. But I wanted to see as much as possible.


What I saw was wonderful. Beautifully photographed and acted, it pulled me into its epic tale of an innocent man framed and arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, set in the post-Napoleonic period.

The music, though recorded, was excellent. The intertitles were in the original French, with Borger reading his translation live.

And then, a little less than an hour into the movie, I reluctantly got up and left. That was difficult.

I hope to see the full movie someday. Or maybe I should just read the book. It’s my son’s favorite novel.

Douglas Trumbull interview

Douglas Trumbull didn’t remember me, but I could hardly expect that he would. Last time we met, I was a movie-obsessed teenager. My stepfather, John H. (Hans) Newman cut the sound effects on Silent Running, and I spent a day hanging around the studio where Trumbull and his team were creating special effects.

We talked briefly about Hans’ work on the film, then went to the main subject. Trumbull wants to be "directing movies at 120 frames per second."

imageTrumbull has been a major player in special effects for almost half a century. 2001: A Space Odyssey made his name. He also worked on Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He has written and directed two features–Silent Running and Brainstorm. He developed Showscan, a special immersive format that ran 70mm film at 60 frames per second (fps).

Breaking away from 24fps–the standard frame rate since the talkie revolution–is clearly a major obsession with him. With digital cameras and projection, it’s become practical. "I started experimenting. I realized there’s another thing we can do here. They have projectors that could run at 144 frames. Let’s try it."

(I should mention that I have never seen a motion picture projected at a fast frame rate. I have to take other people’s words for the quality.)

"I made this kind of discovery, doing some experiments at 120 frames. One of the first things I noticed: You can use any shutter opening you wanted. With a 360 shutter, you can blend frames together. You can get back to a 24-frame conventional release. It looks exactly like 24."

Trumbull decided to use 120fps rather than the maximum 144, because 120 is evenly divisible by both 24 and 60–the American television standard.

I had to bring up The Hobbit, the only Hollywood feature (well, actually a trilogy) shot in a fast frame rate. Even people who liked the movie hated the unusual look created by 3D at 48fps. According to Trumbull, Peter Jackson was "shooting at 48, but projecting at 98," producing a problematic flicker. He described Jackson’s decision to shoot at 48fps "heroic but mistaken."

Trumbull wants to build a 3D camera that will alternate between the left and right lenses, simulating the way most projectors handle 3D sequentially. Shooting each eye at 60fps, this should take care of that flicker problem.

"’You can make a standard DCP. It’s off the shelf in tens of thousands of theaters."

His brand name: Magi.

But he wants more than just a faster frame rate. Looking back at the glory days of Cinerama and other immersive formats, he wants theaters that bring back showmanship–with curtains that open up on huge, deeply-curved screens.

But will today’s 3D movies work on a giant screen? Even on modest screens, they’re too dim. "If you could get the brightness back, you can increase the field of view. Then you’ve got something that’s better than anything."

Trumbull’s solution: Torus screens, a far-from-new technology which would "triple perceived light." These specially-built curved screens "compensate for what you lose [in 3D projection]. And there’s no cross reflection." Cross reflection is a problem specific to curved screens.

image"It’s time to redefine what a movie theater is. People don’t see any value to the movie-going experience, so we got to make a better movie-going experience. If you increase the size of the screen, people will see it."

His solution: Magi Pods. These are small, 40-seat pre-fabricated theaters. He wants to bring these to museums, amusement parks, and anywhere else where you can set them up. 

Like Trumbull, I’m a fan of immersive cinema. I don’t know if his Magi is the solution, but I hope there is one.

State of the Cinema Address: Douglas Trumbull

But Douglas Trumbull didn’t come to the San Francisco International Film Festival to talk to me. He came to talk to anyone who attended his State of the Cinema Address.

I hate to say it, but after the private interview–which I totally enjoyed–I found the public talk disappointing.

Playing clips off his laptop as he talked, he spent much of his allotted 90 minutes covering his own autobiography. He talked about his birth during World War II, and the excitement he found as a child with Cinerama and other immersive film technologies. He talked about his work on 2001, and how he learned to direct on the job with Silent Running.

When he discussed his second directorial feature, Brainstorm, he implied that Paramount closed and shelved the film after Natalie Wood’s death. But MGM, not Paramount, financed the film, and it was completed and released. I remember that well; I saw it in 70mm.

Eventually he got to his main point, that the Hollywood system isn’t interested in improving the movie-going experience. The studios are "betting the farm on big sequels," while the theaters "give you better seats because they can’t change what’s on the screen."

Much of what we covered was also in my interview, so I’ll just add some highlights:

  • Projecting Cinerama "was a nightmare.” Fifty percent of the box office take went to technical overhead in the theater.
  • "When you change the medium, you have to change how you direct, how you act."
  • "Today we see some of the same issues with 3D [as we had with Cinerama]. 3D cameras are very difficult to use."
  • "Disneyland was virtual reality."
  • "The state of cinema is led by directors pushing into new territories."

His talk covered the full 90 minutes. There was no time left for Q&A.

TCM Classic Film Festival coming to Hollywood (and I wish I could be there)

I generally only write about Bay Area film festivals. In fact, all too often, I don’t have time to cover them properly. And yet here I am, writing about a festival that’s four hundred miles away. And there’s simply no practical way for me to attend.

It is, of course, Turner Classic Movies’ TCM Classic Film Festival, a celebration of classic films and restoration. Among the better-loved titles are Tokyo Story, American Graffiti, Stagecoach, A Hard Day’s Night, Gone with the Wind, Mary Poppins, East of Eden, the original Godzilla, and This is Spinal Tap. Other titles include The Best Years of Our Lives, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Johnny Guitar, Hobson’s Choice, and Freaks.

More than anything else, I would love to attend the screening of The Adventures of Robin Hood, and not only because it’s my all-time-favorite swashbuckler and turn-of-the-brain action movie. Craig Barron and Ben Burtt will be in attendance to discuss how the special visual and audio effects were created. The conversation with Carl Davis also looks like fun.

Techy that I am, I naturally wanted to know how the films would be projected.–film or digital? At first, that seemed impossible. Clicking on a title from the Programs page tells you everything about the movie and the presentation except that one little detail.

But I found a way. If you go to the schedule page, you’ll get a pop-up that, among other things, tells you if the film is 35mm or "digital." It doesn’t say what kind of digital. I’d certainly feel cheated if they screened a DVD. I’ll give the festival a benefit of the doubt and assume here that all of the digital presentations will be off of DCPs–the professional, theatrical format.

I didn’t click on every single movie, but I checked out a reasonable sample. About half the films will be digitally projected, and as a general rule, they’re the better-known titles. Oklahoma, East of Eden, and Double Indemnity will be screened digitally. But On Approval, My Sister Eileen, and The Naked City will be on 35mm film.

That isn’t surprising. It takes time and money to properly digitalize an old movie. Naturally, the films everyone loves are the top priorities.

Of course there are exceptions. Stagecoach will be screened on 35mm, and Paper Moon will be digital.

I know that a lot of people disagree with me on this, but I’m happy to see so many classics available on (I assume) DCP. It makes them available in more theatres. And a well-transferred DCP looks at least as good as a brand-new print going through a projector for the first time. Often, they look better.

But sometimes they take the digitizing too far.  For its 75th anniversary, the festival will screen the 3D version of The Wizard of Oz. A 2D movie should remain 2D.

Chaplin at the Castro: My Report on a Wonderful Day

On January 11, 1914, a Keystone movie crew drove to Venice–a beach town near Los Angeles–to improvise a comedy around an actual event of modest interest. Only one performer came with the crew–a young British Music Hall comedian recently signed with Keystone. The comic, Charlie Chaplin, quickly put together a costume and makeup, and created the most beloved, endearing, and popular character in the history of cinema. Perhaps in the history of the world.


Exactly 100 years late, my wife and I spent all day (this past Saturday) in the Castro Theater for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s celebration of The Little Tramp at 100. And a wonderful day it was!

The movies were all projected digitally, but the music was live. So were the enthusiastic audiences.

Before I discuss the three programs screened, I want to talk about that famous imagecharacter, almost universally called The Tramp or The Little Tramp. Although Chaplin stumbled onto the costume and makeup soon after he first stepped in front of a movie camera, it took years of cranking out short subjects to flesh out the image into a human being. The mature Tramp, while desperately poor and surviving on subterfuge and petty theft, has the manners of a gentleman. He’s chivalrous to women, polite to men (when he’s not kicking them), and haughty when appropriate. He may carry a selection of cigarette butts in an old sardine can, but he handles that can like a gold cigarette case.

But he isn’t always horribly poor, and he isn’t always a tramp. He often has a job. Watch his films, and you’ll see him on a farm, working in a pawnshop, waiting tables, tightening bolts on an assembly line, and working in construction. He also occasionally returned to the character that first brought him success on the stage–a rich drunk.

But there’s one thing he never has: a name. A silent movie can easily have a nameless protagonist. In his film’s cast lists, he’s identified as "a factory worker," "an escaped convict," "a lone prospector," "a derelict," and–most frequently–"a tramp."

Here’s what I saw Saturday.

Our Mutual Friend: Three Chaplin Shorts

Over a period of 18 months in 1916 and ’17, Chaplin made twelve two-reel shorts for the Mutual Film Corporation. These represent his best work in short subjects–more mature than the Keystone and Essanay shorts that proceeded them, but without the artistic pretentions that sometimes mar the later First Nationals.

The Festival made an excellent choice in the three Mutual shorts it screened–and not only because they were all very funny. The first, "The Vagabond," is an early experiment into the sentimentality that would become a Chaplin specialty. The second, "Easy Street," may be Chaplin’s first experiment in social criticism, getting laughs in a story that deals with grinding poverty, violent street fights, battered wives, and drug addiction. "The Cure" is arguably the funniest Mutual. It’s also an excellent example of his rich drunk character.


Serge Bromberg has recently restored the Mutuals, and his Lobster Films provided the DCP for this screening. "The Vagabond" looked so good it was a revelation; the image was so clear I felt like I was in those locations. "Easy Street’s" image quality wasn’t anywhere near as good, but it was certainly acceptable. "The Cure" was quite good–better than "Easy Street," but not the revelation of "The Vagabond."

Jon Mirsalis provided musical accompaniment on the Castro’s grand piano. He did an excellent job. The Tramp plays the violin (as did Chaplin himself off-screen) in "The Vagabond," and Mirsalis made you hear it through his piano.

The Kid

The middle show didn’t start with the main feature.

First, the Festival offered something common in the 1920s–a Charlie Chaplin look-a-like contest. Most of the contestants were children, and yes, they were adorable. The judging was done by audience applause.

Chaplin lookalikes

Next, they screened the very first movie with the character later called The Tramp: "Kid Auto Races in Venice, Cal." Running only about five minutes, it might today be called a found footage movie. A camera crew tries to record a children’s car race, but this little man with a toothbrush moustache keeps stepping in front of the camera and ruining the shot. And yes, it’s very funny.

It’s also a filmed record of the Tramp’s first audience. Once he became famous, Chaplin couldn’t shoot a movie with a real crowd; he had to hire extras. But here, people in the background look quizzically at this odd man getting in the way of the camera crew. They soon figure out that he’s intentionally funny, and they enjoy the show..

A century later, we’re still laughing at Charlie Chaplin.

Jon Mirsalis accompanied this screening on piano. The movie was projected off of a very good  35mm print–the only analog projection of the day.

Author and Chaplin expert Jeffrey Vance introduced the contest, the short, and the feature.

That feature is Chaplin’s first, The Kid. Although it was many wonderful sequences, it’s actually my least favorite if Chaplin’s five silent (and almost silent) feature comedies. This story of the Tramp raising a child, and fighting to keep him, occasionally falls to deeply into sentimentality. And the dream sequence near the end never worked well for me–despite a few laughs. It’s always felt like padding.


On the other hand, when The Kid is good, and that’s most of the time, it’s terrific. The Tramp’s early attempts to not take responsibility for an abandoned baby are side-splittingly funny, as are the domestic scenes of unorthodox child-rearing. And the chase across the rooftops manages to be heart-breaking, suspenseful, and hilarious at the same time.

Chaplin recut The Kid in 1921, and that’s the version shown. The changes, as I understand it, were minor. I’ve never seen the original.

Visually, The Kid was the big disappointment of the day. It looked awful, showing the harsh lack of detail that comes when you project standard-definition video onto a large screen. I suspect we saw a DVD, or a DCP made from a DVD master. I can accept that no one has yet spent the time and money required to convert the The Kid to theater-quality digital. But couldn’t the Chaplin estate have loaned the Festival a 35mm print?

Before I discuss the musical accompaniment by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, I need to disclose a conflict of interest. My wife played First Viola with this orchestra for many years. We know a lot of musicians.

For Saturday’s screenings, the Orchestra played Chaplin’s own score, written for the 1971 re-release. (In addition to being an actor, writer, producer, and director, he was also a composer.) Timothy Brock, who has been working with the Chaplin estate to adapt the filmmaker’s scores for live performance, conducted.

The small orchestra sounded great. I have only one complaint–and the fault lies with Chaplin, not Brock or the Orchestra. For the above-mentioned rooftop chase, Chaplin wrote a soft, sentimental, romantic piece. It hurts both the suspense and the humor.

The Gold Rush

The day closed with Chaplin’s epic comic adventure, The Gold Rush, and if you’re presenting Chaplin with live music, nothing could beat that. Here you’ll find some of Chaplin’s funniest set pieces, including the Thanksgiving dinner of boiled shoe, the dance of the rolls, and my favorite–the fight over the rifle that always points at Chaplin. All within the context of a powerful and touching story of love and survival.  You can read about the film itself in my Blu-ray Review, and my report on seeing it with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (as opposed to the Chamber one).


So I’ll go right to Saturday night’s presentation. The image quality was uneven, which is hardly surprising for a restoration that’s being called a work in progress. But most of it looked very good, and none of it looked dreadful. Considering the film’s history (see that Blu-ray Review for details), it’s amazing that The Gold Rush looked as good as it did.

Once again, Timothy Brock conducted the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra in his own adaptation of Chaplin’s score. It’s one of Chaplin’s best scores, and Brock did a great job adapting it for the longer silent version and for a smaller orchestra. In other words, I loved this accompaniment.

And it improved upon earlier performances of the score. Brock’s recording of this score on the Blu-ray lacks the musically-created sound effects that are a big part of silent film accompaniment. I’m glad to say he fixed that problem Saturday night. The orchestra provided gunshots, hand clapping, and a strange, whale-like sound for a cabin teetering on the edge.

I do have one complaint about how the festival was managed. A huge number of seats in the center section were reserved before the audience was allowed into the theater. And it wasn’t always clear which seats were reserved. My wife and I picked seats that were not marked as such, but staff members asked us to move because the seats were, in fact, reserved. Then they told us that we could move back. The reserved seats next to us were empty for the first two shows.

But despite the seating shenanigans, I couldn’t imagine a better place to have spent an overcast and drizzly day. Or even a nice one.