Silence is Golden

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SIlent Film Festival Podcast

Hayley Hosman talks with Max Siegel and Liz Mak about the 15th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

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Silent films conjure images of a time long past, so it's of no surprise that the 15th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which took place at the Castro Theatre, was, in the end, a celebration of nostalgia. Showcasing films ranging from the obscure to early Frank Capra and John Ford, the Festival resurrected an old medium. Audiences responded in turn by eagerly lining up around the block.

The Festival offered its attendees an alternative way of viewing and interacting with film. Introductions and interviews provided a historical context, and live orchestras and bands accompanied the films. After all, back in the day of silent films, far from being sterile events that played in silence, were lively celebrations of a still-new medium.

But the Festival wasn't just an educational event. It reminded audiences that silent cinema was just as, if not more, creative than modern-day films. Even though these films were made nearly a century ago, their humor and emotional content are in tune with modern sensibilities. By the end of its four-day run, the Silent Film Festival taught a new generation of moviegoers that films from a bygone era still excite.

-Liz Mak and Max Siegel

As befits the Castro Theatre crowd and silent film enthusiasts, the 15th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival celebrated the adamantly nostalgic. It was a haven for both neophyte and silent film veteran, though exclusively for the enthusiastic: Few places other than the Castro can boast audiences that regularly applaud any and all film references en masse.

Call silent film old, but never irrelevant; as the thousands of attendees can attest, the SFF was an experience evocative not only of a past era, but of the present. There were references to "Up!," appearances from a TV star, and a strong film line-up confirming that the sensibility, humor, and weight of silent films are not something fixed in their age.

Saturday's first presentation, "The Big Business of Short, Funny Films" was a compilation of three films (all in 35 mm; cue film nerd drool) selected by animated film director Pete Docter, who - in an interview with film historian Leonard Maltin - expressed the influence of the silent film on his own work, evident in silent montages within his films.

"The Cook," starring Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, was first to show, and representative of silent films with little plot, whose absurdity and humor still punch. The film, which follows an irreverent Keaton and jolly-fat-man Arbuckle, is full of visual gags and physical comedy with perfect timing and wit.

It's worthwhile to look at modern physical humor in contrast with "Cook." Often today, it's the stuff of banalities and overdone material. It's clear that the girl in the white shirt will fall in the pool, and that some guy is going to face-plant onto some other guy. There's a nostalgia within the film festival prompted by the quality of silent films' painstaking care and carefree absurdity.

Also showing were "Pass the Gravy" and Laurel and Hardy's "Big Business." The latter follows two salesmen selling Christmas trees door-to-door. A misunderstanding with a customer becomes a battle of the brawn: Who can destroy the others' property the most? This is simple, uncomplicated physical comedy.

The fight between modern and traditional film techniques was echoed in "Variations on a Theme." The program gave an insider's view of the production of musical scores for film, with a dialogue between those placed in both camps. It was the resolutely traditional musicians, concerned with scoring silent films exclusively with original and pre-existing period scores, and the pragmatically modern, willing to do anything lending itself to a film's mood and theme.

The mood and theme of the festival itself included a deep reverence for the importance not only of the medium, but of its preservation. "The Shakedown," a film from "Roman Holiday" director William Wyler, was thought previously lost but recently rediscovered and introduced to the Festival audience on a new 35 mm print. The title character is cheeky, scheming Dave, a swindler who worms his way into small towns and becomes their village good boy. Challenged by a traveling boxing heavyweight, he accepts the provocation, and town members bet on the match accordingly, swayed heavily by sentiment and in favor of Dave's imminent win. In reality, he's a professional boxer in cahoots with the traveling boxer and his team, working to fix the bets. He's still a winning character and a testament to much of silent film's charm. Its characters are still clever, its stories telling and its sentiment just as affecting 100 years after the fact.

-Liz Mak

Many of the films that played at the Silent Film Festival dealt with the shifting landscape of an increasingly industrialized and connected world. The first film of the festival, "The Iron Horse" (1924), is a bloated two-and-a-half-hour-long epic that thrust a young, audacious filmmaker named John Ford into fame. Focusing on the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, Ford weaves an expansive tale about individuals who come together to fulfill what an intertitle calls "the strong urge of progress."

The film has its share of shortcomings, including a predictable romantic plot. Yet there's a level of beauty that's rarely seen in films today. While Ford is famous for his gorgeous landscape shots, he also had a knack for capturing unusually expressive faces, like that of a bushy-browed worker. And then there's the acting, which, while exaggerated, feels pitch perfect. Take our young protagonist, whose father is killed early on in the film. The boy reacts by throwing his body on top of the freshly buried grave. This over-the-top gesture somehow works in the context of Ford's vision, in which both the best and the worst aspects of humankind collide.

Meanwhile, back in the urban world, people take advantage of each other not by committing murder but through greed and outright robbery. In Mario Camerini's Italian film "Rotaie" (1929), a young, naive couple land themselves in an opulent resort. At first a sanctuary full of riches, the hotel soon becomes something of a prison. The poor young man becomes a gambling addict who throws away all of his money.

"Rotaie" starts off slowly, but it perks up when dealing with the cutthroat nature of upper-crust society. Showcasing imaginative cinematography, the film captures the madness behind the quest to attain wealth. "Rotaie" puts forth a puzzlingly simplistic solution at the end: the husband happily works at a factory. Perhaps Camerini is trying to say that people should spurn selfish self-fulfillment for the betterment of society. Or perhaps some people just aren't cut out for the bourgeoisie.

Other films like Fritz Lang's masterpiece "Metropolis" (1927) don't hold such a quixotic view of industrial advancement. Set in a future in which a ruthless capitalist rules a mega-city, "Metropolis" pairs jaw-dropping visuals with a passionate plea for social mobility. Freder, the leader's son, befriends a beautiful woman named Maria from the workers' underground city, and learns that conditions are terrible. Meanwhile, a mad scientist constructs a jeering robot modeled after Maria who nearly brings down the entire city.

For decades, "Metropolis" only existed in truncated form, and its plot was virtually indecipherable. Thanks to the recent discovery of a longer, nearly complete print in Argentina, the story now makes sense. Freder's vision of a machine devouring its workers still haunts, but Lang's answer to industrialization? Moderation. There must be a balance, he insists, between humanity and industrial drive.

This is the world Russian director Dziga Vertov envisions in his documentary "Man with a Movie Camera" (1929). Following in the city symphony tradition, he documents everyday life in Russian cities using some of the most powerful camerawork and editing. Accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra's score, the film drips with the stimuli of an urban environment that, like other films in the festival, hum with the energy of humans and machines alike.

-Max Siegel


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