‘Silents’ Is Silver: Dispatches From The 25th SFSFF
I’m going to start by setting a scene. The head of the Moving Image Section at the Library of Congress, Mike Mashon, takes the stage at the Castro Theater to introduce a screening of Erich Von Stroheim’s ambitious debut Blind Husbands (1919) at the 25th San Francisco Silent Film Festival. It’s a full house and that’s certainly not unusual for this event. “Recently, I was watching a conversation on the Criterion Channel,” Mashon tells the crowd. “Critic/curator Dave Kehr and historian Farran Smith Nehme were discussing Raoul Walsh and one of them said that Walsh was one of the least intellectual directors. He didn’t have a pretentious bone in his body; he was just a straight-ahead guy.” Mashon pauses, timing the silence for comic impact. “So… Erich Von Stroheim.” He need say nothing more. The entire audience erupts in laughter. Mashon smiles, saying, “You know, it’s so great to be in a room full of people where you know that joke is going to land.”
Bingo, Mr. Mashon!
Indeed, nowhere will you find more committed cinephile audiences than the ones buzzing around the Castro during the seven days that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs its course and spins its magic. After three years, the event has returned and the energy is contagious. So let’s start with basics: the energy sources, if you will. Fresh 35mm prints of new silent film restorations are projected inside one of the most gorgeous movie palaces in America. They are set to live music. For a number of shows, there are full orchestras performing newly commissioned scores by internationally renowned composers. What’s not to love? Of course, you also get appearances from the likes of TCM host Eddie Muller, podcaster Dana Stevens, beloved historian Kevin Brownlow, and many distinguished others, though I must mention that we all very much missed regular attendee Leonard Maltin this year.
But hey, it was fun running into fellow Trailers from Hell guru Jon Davison! He ventured all the way up from L.A. to catch the first few days of screenings.
After years of being cooped up from COVID-19, the whole affair is a shimmering spectacle par excellence. Most of all, it’s of course a testament to the vitality of theatrical exhibition. If we need any further reminder of the importance of our film heritage, the programmers have engineered a nothing-short-of-essential round-the-clock rally cry.
Beyond that, parts of the festival feel like a seminar or a convention. If that last part sounds like a drag, don’t let the initial mental triggers for the words “seminar” or “convention” fool you. If you truly love film, there’s nothing better than the Tales from the Archive program. Sitting in a golden temple of cinema listening to restorationists, archivists, and historians discuss their intricate labors on individual restoration projects is inspiring and primes you for what you’ll wind up seeing the rest of the festival. Personally, growing up watching Turner Classic Movies in the 90’s, I used to relish their early between-the-movies featurettes on such preservation efforts, so it’s all chocolate to me.
Most would undoubtedly agree with me that one of the best things about the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is the people. We convene for religious purposes, I assure you (as I mentioned, the Castro is a golden temple, and I meant what I said). The festival staff, along the people they attract, are not only the top figures in the field, involved in the most challenging film preservation projects imaginable, but they also appreciate sharing common space with others who likewise believe that “true art transcends time.” I think of an old TCM promo spot with Robert Osborne, in which he states, “I meet people every day who love movies as I do. They are my friends.” That sentiment seems to pervade the festival. Beyond all that, watching parents bring their little children to see Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. and witnessing them laugh gleefully throughout is the most sublime kind of moviegoing experience. Truly chicken soup for the cinephile’s soul!
I won’t bury the lede too much; I will state up front that, to me, the film of the festival was the extraordinary Arrest Warrant (1926), an immaculately visualized, staged, and plotted Ukrainian family saga by Heorhii Tasin. Everyone with whom I spoke was rightly blown away; my prayer is that it sees a Blu-Ray release as soon as humanly possible. After it had been shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna in 2019, artistic director Anita Monga arranged a screening for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. In a not-too-distant second was a restoration of MGM’s The Fire Brigade (1926), directed by William Nigh, with newly restored early colorization techniques not seen since its initial release, including tinting, two-strip “early Technicolor” (giving one sequence an almost watercolor luster), and the Handschiegl process (a roar of bold colors used extensively in an eye-popping inferno finale). Kevin Brownlow writes of the latter, “For its professionalism alone, it deserves a place in the canon. And it wasn’t lurid melodrama; it had an intelligent, socially conscious storyline involving municipal corruption.”
In terms of the live musical performances, the one during the Indian saga Prem Sanyas (1925), courtesy of Club Foot Hindustani, featuring Pandit Krishna Bhatt, easily proved the best. The performance basically consisted of many of the festival’s usual instrumentalists, accented and elevated with sitar and tabla (the instrumentalists of both appearing on stage next to the screen), This made for a sublime and almost interactive experience with the picture, which was directed by Franz Osten and Himanshu Rai (as an Indian-German co-production).
This year’s opening night screening was the major restoration of another Erich Von Stroheim opus, Foolish Wives (1922), a picture often paired with the aforementioned Blind Husbands (the primetime show on the second night). Von Stroheim’s Greed (1925) is my favorite silent film of all time, by the way, so I was primed for this restoration. The festival partnered with the Museum of Modern Art to produce a new, definitive 147-minute version of Foolish Wives. Previously, the only extant version at the same frame-rate ran 117 minutes. The festival presented its award for commitment to the preservation and presentation of silent cinema to the staff at MoMA before Timothy Brock took the baton to conduct the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra with his score. There wasn’t a free seat left in the 1,400-seat theater, or so it appeared to me. The usual 1920’s themed opening night party at the McRoskey Factory followed the show.
The first show the next morning was another restoration, of producer Thomas Ince and director Irvin V. Willat’s Below the Surface (1920), a kind of “spiritual sequel” to that team’s previous picture Behind the Door (1919), which screened at the festival back in 2016. with musical accompaniment by Philip Carli. Star Hobard Bosworth, with a face of granite, a high-strung performance ethic, and the type of name that could have only graced a theater marquee during the silent era, plays a deep sea diver. I was shocked, surprised and delighted by how sophisticated the water effects and the underwater photography looked. Oh yeah, and this is a San Francisco Silent Film Festival in-house restoration. This one is, miraculously, from the film’s original negative (!) and they’ve done glorious work.
The Clara Bow vehicle The Primrose Path (1925) followed, and this one is notable for how often Bow seems to have been upstaged by most of her male leads. It was enjoyable overall, but one gets the sense after awhile that this isn’t as much “her show.” For the late show that night, Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), an early example of the portmanteau/anthology film, was projected on a Deutsche Kinemathek print. It’s fair to call this one a crowd-pleaser, especially the opening segment starring Emil Jannings as the Caliph of Baghdad (typecasting, of course). We’ve also got Conrad Veidt on hand as Ivan the Terrible, because of course we do!
I was dealing with oven trouble throughout the run of the festival, so I had to wait for a repairman and miss the next morning’s showing of the Max Linder film King of the Circus (1924), once again with a Philip Carli musical accompaniment. I made it in time for “The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show”, a British Film Institute showcase of large-format films shot in England between 1897 and 1902, narrated live by the BFI’s Byrony Dixon, with musical backing by festival fixtures Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius. This was followed by the previously mentioned Steamboat Bill, Jr. show, a true highlight peppered with the laughter of young children, many of whom might have been seeing a movie in a theater for the first time. Hey, get ‘em young, that’s what I say!
Mikio Naruse’s Apart from You (1933) made for a stark change of pace following the Keaton. It was a slightly more ragged film print, and I was intrigued by Naruse’s repeated, and often stacked, use of swift zero-in (and “zero-out”) dolly moves, moving to and fro the actors. The story of two geishas, one older and one younger, and the difficult of their lives day in and day out, the film is one of only three surviving silent films by the Japanese auteur.
The major show of the day, Rebirth of a Nation at 7:00, was admittedly not really my cup of tea per se, mostly because I found the thin digital projection of clips from D.W. Griffith’s controversial landmark Birth of a Nation (1915) muddy, visually unappealing, even ugly. It fell below the festival’s usual devotion to visual integrity. I’m also rather skeptical of the idea of digitally superimposing what feel like arbitrary overlays onto the original images and calling the exercise “deconstruction.” That simply doesn’t work for me. I have seen and read many worthy works that actively (and creatively) deconstruct deeply problematic and even racist motion pictures, and from my view, this certainly wasn’t among the better efforts. It didn’t help that I found the beatbox-style music monotonous, so I left early that night. I understand, however, that the dialogue after the screening, between DJ Spooky and Pulitzer-winning New York Times critic Wesley Morris, was enlivening and more than worth the price of admission. But in all candor, I would have rather that conversation followed a screening of Oscar Micheaux’s The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), a pioneer black filmmaker’s response to Griffith’s horrid message.
The next morning, I caught up with William Witney’s loving paean to childhood Penrod and Sam (1923), from the pen of Ambersons author Booth Tarkington, which was preceded by a genuinely delightful comedy short The Kid Reporter (1923). I’ve spoken with various cinephiles about the overlooked auteurship of William Witney (indeed, a very nerdy cause – delectable), and Penrod and Sam spoke to a sensibility that, by 1923, seemed already pretty fully developed.
The Deutsche Kinemathek’s restoration of Lupu Pick’s Sylvester (1924) proves the maxim that the devil’s in the details…but as devils go, these details were worth the trouble. Using extensive notes, a score written by Klaus Pringsheim, Sr., was painstakingly and precisely rewedded to their very hands-on reconstruction and restoration effort. The restorationists presented during the Tales from the Archives seminar, and the account of their “archaeological” research and labor on this picture was nothing if not compelling. The Deutsche Kinemathek was presented with the festival’s award for the commitment to the preservation and presentation of silent cinema, very much earned. The film itself? Well-received, though I quipped to a friend that an apropos alternate title for the film would be “Yo Adrian, meet my mother.”
For the last two days of the festival, I had to go off on a location shoot for a client of mine, so my last show turned out to be half of Mario Peixoto’s Limite (1931). This independently financed experimental silent, directed by a 22-year-old artist from a wealthy Brazilian family, later gained glowing endorsements from the likes of Orson Welles and allegedly Sergei Eisenstein (I say “allegedly” because there is good reason to believe that Peixoto forged Eisenstein’s endorsement for press and attention), but it honestly tested the patience of everyone I knew who attended, the “muckety-mucks” as well as one particular enraged stranger in the lobby who denounced it with unchecked vehemence. Personally, I’ve seen Lettrist films that had more momentum. Though it played like so many “experimental” student films I’ve seen over the years, it’s still possible to marvel at the fact that a young man made a feature-length vanity project on his own dime long before the term “independent cinema” was on anyone’s tongue.
I had to miss a number of films I would have otherwise enjoyed seeing, especially Herbert Brenon’s Bowery chronicle The Street of Forgotten Men (1922), restored by Jennifer Miko, a close friend of mine, and featuring Louise Brooks in an early bit part. But by the time I departed on my location shoot, I left San Francisco proud and inspired. I raved about Arrest Warrant to my crew of collaborators, three of whom are Ukrainian immigrants and new friends. When I told them that the festival kicked off that particular screening with a performance of the Ukrainian national anthem, that everyone in the room rose to their feet in solidarity, and that the proceeds from that packed screening benefited the World Central Kitchen and Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre in Kyiv, they were touched. I simply responded, “That’s the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. High class all the way. In more ways than one.”