Twenty Junes ago, San Francisco moviegoers were first made aware of something called simply the Silent Film Festival, described as “a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the art of silent film and its value as a record of early 20th century life.” This tiny upstart, run by two people (co-founders Melissa Chittick and Stephen Salmons) out of a one-bedroom apartment, had yet to consummate its first actual festival. It was making its debut in symbiosis with an already established festival, the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, then in its eighteenth edition (and now running thirty-eight years strong as Frameline). This launch was a single Sunday afternoon Castro Theatre screening of Ernst Lubitsch‘s 1919 gender-bending comedy I Don’t Want To Be A Man, with Dennis James providing Wurlitzer organ accompaniment and Leigh Crow (a.k.a. Elvis Herselvis) on hand to recite the English translation of German subtitles. Sandwiched between showings of Dionne Brand’s documentary Long Time Comin’ and the posthumously-assembled Derek Jarman film Glitterbug, I Don’t Want To Be A Man was a hit with the SFLGFF audience, and a tangible foundation had been laid for future success.
It would be another two years of fundraising and community-building before the first actual San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) was underway in July 1996. Three feature films (Gretchen the Greenhorn, Lucky Star and Ben-Hur) and a program of shorts, fragments and trailers from lost films (including Lubitsch’s Oscar-winning The Patriot) packed a Castro Sunday with 1800 attendees. Everything screened as superior 35mm prints played at the proper projection speed, with expert musical accompaniment. This has been the template the SFSFF has followed ever since. Initially slow-growing (the 1998 event actually scaled back to one film—Erich von Stroheim‘s S.F.-shot Greed—and was billed as a benefit for the festival, but has retroactively been counted as the third annual festival), SFSFF expanded from one packed Castro day to two in its seventh year, adding a third day to its summer festival and an annual winter screening in year ten. This weekend the nineteenth edition of the festival will screen more than twenty-five films in eighteen programs over four days, plus a free presentation of recent work from archivists Bryony Dixon and Dan Streible, and industry veterans Craig Barron and Ben Burtt at the “Amazing Tales From The Archives” showcase Friday morning.
In 2009 Anita Monga took the reins of Artistic Director over from Salmons. “Peaceful Transition of Power” is an understatement here, as he was ready to step away from the organization he’d helped create, just as Chittick had a few years prior, and was overjoyed to be able to pass it to a beloved and veteran film booker (Monga oversaw the Castro’s regular programming for sixteen years until 2004) with deep contacts in the distribution world. Since then the organization has been more ambitious and successful than ever, continuing the incremental annual expansion of its summer programs while mounting weekend retrospectives for individual silent-era directors (so far: Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin) and special events like, at Oakland’s über-grand Paramount Theatre, Carl Dreyer‘s Passion of Joan of Arc with a full orchestra and chorus and the to-date only four North American screenings of Abel Gance‘s triple-projector epic Napoléon in its full Photoplay restoration by Kevin Brownlow, with Carl Davis conducting his symphonic score. Annual attendance has grown to 18,000 and the festival has become at least as internationally significant as any silent film showcase outside Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Italy.
Under Chittick and Salmons, SFSFF tended to avoid most of the silent film staples of Film History 101 classes in favor of films made, whether by auteurs or by skilled craftsmen and women, with entertainment rather than self-conscious artistry in mind. Though launched with a German film, the festival proper didn’t feature a foreign-made film until its fourth year when Lev Kuleshov‘s By the Law was shown. Non-American films continued to be programmed but they were more likely to be lesser-known gems from Shanghai or Latin America than “warhorses” from Scandinavia or the Weimar Republic. Monga’s arrival coincided with an explosion of European films in the festival line-ups, and this year’s edition is the most impressively international yet, with two feature films from Germany and an unprecedented three from British producers, two from Sweden, two from the Soviet Union and two from East Asia. Language barriers some filmgoers experience with subtitled sound pictures aren’t an issue for silent pictures. “With silent film you don’t have to be constrained because people aren’t speaking in words; they’re speaking in intertitles which can be easily translated.” Monga reminded me when I interviewed her recently. “In the silent era everybody really sounds how you think they sound.”
Monga’s shown a few extremely famous European silents when there’s been a special reason to, like premiering Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis reunited with footage that had been missing from it for over eighty years, introducing San Francisco audiences to Swedish composer Matti Bye and his ensemble with a signature accompaniment for Häxan, or showcasing Pandora’s Box in a new photochemical restoration. But for the most part she eschews the “warhorses” as well, in favor of demolishing audience stereotypes. For 2014 she’s picked films by Kuleshov, Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu, but in each case they’re films that go against the grain of their auteurs’ reputation. Ozu’s gangster picture Dragnet Girl has been called a “film noir” by David Bordwell, and may be the only film the Japanese family drama/comedy specialist made in which a gun is fired. Dreyer’s The Parson’s Widow is an uncharacteristically ironic comedy by the ponderous and austere director of Vampyr and Ordet. And Kuleshov, best known for his theory of using editing to change audience perception of an individual shot, made only one feature-length comedy and it screens Saturday night. The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West In the Land of the Bolsheviks, as scholar Vlada Petrić has noted, does indeed utilize the “Kuleshov effect” when it intercuts its American-in-Moscow protagonist with real archival footage of a Red Square march to make it appear as if the Harold Lloyd-inspired character is integrated into a space the actor never occupied, the scene resonates with comic absurdity. It’s a proto-Zelig moment.
Most of the other international selections are truly obscure, at least here in the land of Mr. West Coast. I’d be pretty surprised to learn that China’s first international prize-winning film The Song of the Fisherman (by Cai Chusheng, slightly better known for The Spring River Flows East) or late-1920s German dramas Harbor Drift and Under the Lantern, had screened in a Bay Area cinema since the silent era, or ever. Monga singled out Swedish actress/director Karin Swanstrom‘s The Girl In Tails as particularly (though of course not literally) “made for San Francisco.” She told me “it interweaves all of these disparate stories and there’s a retreat with a group of wild women: intellectuals and lesbians and women living apart from society, embracing their goofy nephew who comes with the transgressing girl in tails. It was a surprise to me and I think people will really love it.”
One signature of Monga’s programming is the annual inclusion of some kind of documentary in the summer program. I use the term loosely to include an exhilarating formalist study like Man with a Movie Camera or an ethnographic slice-of-life like Legong: Dance of the Virgins, but there’s no mistaking The Epic of Everest for anything other than history in the making. Filmed by Captain J. B. L. Noel, formerly of a British Army regiment in North India and an explorer in his own right, this chronicling of a G. Leigh Mallory’s climbing team attempt to summit the planet’s highest peak is rich in slices of Tibetan life, mountaineering drama, and Himalayan views that would make even Leni Riefenstahl gasp for breath. It’s also a triumph of filmmaking technology’s ability to withstand extremely harsh natural conditions, much like Herbert Ponting’s footage of Captain Scott’s doomed mission to the South Pole, which greatly inspired Noel even before it was edited into the form shown at the 2011 SFSFF: The Great White Silence.
There are, of course, plenty of American films in the 2014 festival program, including six features and a generous helping of short films of various kinds. The opening night film is one of the landmark Hollywood films of the early 1920s and the one that made Rudolph Valentino a screen giant: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Cited by no less an authority than Kevin Brownlow as “the greatest World War I picture” it’s an ideal choice for the festival to commemorate the 100th anniversary of The Great War. Monga promised they’ll be showing “Brownlow’s own restored print. So Patrick Stanbury, Kevin’s partner at Photoplay, will be in the projection booth, changing the speeds as the film goes. It’s 132 minutes but it is not all the same speed.” The musical accompaniment to this Argentine-centric film will be provided by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, who are celebrating an anniversary as well, as they banded together as the Mont Alto Tango and Ragtime Orchestra twenty-five years ago.
For the fourth straight summer, the SFSFF will screen a film starring acrobat extraordinaire Douglas Fairbanks. Like Mr. Fix-It and The Half-Breed before it, this year’s selection The Good Bad Man is one of the lesser-known of the eleven films he made under the directorial guidance of Allan Dwan (the better-known ones include A Modern Musketeer and Robin Hood). All three films were restored with direct support from the festival, in fact. Mr. Fix-It was aided by the SFSFF preservation fund, and both The Half-Breed and The Good Bad Man are in fact SFSFF restorations (assisted by archival partners of course) outputted to 35mm presentation prints that require special projection equipment. “The Castro projectors have variable speeds, but they don’t go down as slow as the Good Bad Man needs. That creates a lot of flicker on screen, so we have to replace the blades. It’s a three-blade shutter instead of a two-blade shutter,” Monga explained to me. “We control it at the Castro, so we know that the print is not going to be ruined with one turn through the projector. That’s the fate of 35mm. You can wreck a really expensive print really fast.”
This fragility, and its effect on the policies of archives and distributors that supply films to a festival like this, is why the SFSFF is increasingly employing digital projection. About two-thirds of the 2013 summer festival program was screened on 35mm prints, while this year it’s expected to be about half-and-half. All the slapstick comedy screenings, for example, are planned to be shown via DCP, for instance, including both of the Buster Keaton showings. A newly-discovered alternate version of his short The Blacksmith debuts as part of a program presented by Paris archivist Serge Bromberg (also including work by Roscoe Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin), and the festival closes with one of Keaton’s biggest commercial successes The Navigator, preceded by an animated short from the Soviet Union called Pochta. Monga sounds particularly excited about this East-West program pairing. “There’s something that is going to be perfect about putting it before the Keaton. In The Navigator particularly there’s a kind of Rube Goldberg-ian aspect to the actions, and Pochta’s forward momentum is all the letters being sent around the world in search of a guy who’s one step ahead of the letter. You get to see this amazing progression.”
In fact every one of the SFSFF programs is a testament to the international cross-connections that informed cinema history as it was being made, and to those that continue to inform its rediscovery and restoration. The exportable nature of film has always defined it, especially in the years before recorded dialogue created obstacles to immediate comprehension of images across language-segregating boundaries. Every foreign filmmaker on display this weekend was directly influenced by American films, and it’s fair to say all the Americans were influenced by international filmmakers as well. And it’s through international archival cooperation that many of these films are being presented today. Midnight Madness, a DeMille Pictures production, was thought lost until it was repatriated from its hiding place in a New Zealand archive in 2010. A similar story involving the Czech Film Archive is responsible for the availability of the 1928 version of Ramona, starring Mexican import to Hollywood Dolores Del Rio and made by the most thoroughly American of the weekend’s directors: Chickasaw actor-turned-director Edwin Carewe.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s motto has long been “True art transcends time.” It may be time to add a corollary. It transcends distance as well.