I picked up a friend from the airport a couple of days before the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Newly returned from two weeks in Ecuador, he wanted a burrito because, he said, “They eat a lot of fried chicken there.” We stopped in the Mission and enjoyed some pork. Hanging out the next night, we ate burritos again—easily his favorite food—and, discussing my upcoming weekend in the dark, we got to talking about why we spend so much time thinking about culture: music for him, movies for me. He said, “That’s all we’ll leave behind: what we give each other.”
With encouragement from Brian Darr, I applied for a press pass to this year’s SFSFF in hopes that the weekend may help me better understand, or spark a stronger interest in, silent cinema. Long have I steered clear of film’s early years. I’m largely ignorant of anything outside Chaplin and Keaton and those two Murnau pictures everybody loves; and even there I’m no expert. Luckily, the enthusiastic and generous Stephen Salmons granted me a pass, saving me some coin and ensuring I would have the pleasure of seeing bright 35mm prints in the best possible auditorium with an excited crowd and live accompaniment. On top of that, local hero Michael “Maya” Guillen was to host both Girish Shambu and Darren Hughes for the weekend—even throwing them a pre-fest party—which promised some face to face with a pair of film bloggers I’ve enjoyed reading (and learned a lot from) in the past three years.
It proved a most worthwhile weekend, even if it distracted from other pressing duties, like laundry. I saw seven of the twelve programs and had two leisurely dinners with Girish and Darren (the first one included Michael, too) that provided all kinds of thoughtful, funny conversation about film, books, music; all our shared and differing cultural obsessions, both artistic and social. Our schedules did not completely overlap (I missed a few, so did they), but we got to share the bulk of the weekend. Talking to the two of them after Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Michael (my first Dreyer film, believe it or not) helped broaden my appreciation for its plangent blocks of hurt; we shared a general uneasiness with the crowd’s quick jump to derisive laughter yet we enthused that this kind of film festival is a major draw in a major city; they told me, “You deserve Ordet; you’re ready; don’t think you need to put it off any longer.”
That Saturday evening ended for me with a walk back to BART instead of the screening of Tod Browning’s The Unknown (complete with Guy Maddin translating the French inter titles; see link below) due to my anxieties of getting home to Berkeley on public transportation. I caught up with the film this week on DVD (curiosity, a killer) and this demented fable of unrequited lust lived up to Girish’s understated description as a perverse film. Browning does love to look at our underbellies: the royal we, here, being us men and our capacities for monstrous acts: our evil hands, that urge to “own” our lovers, the pathologies we choose to live with to prolong pain and ignore happiness, or, more simply (and worse), how we ignore ourselves. Of the films I sampled at the festival, Michael may match The Unknown’s melodrama, but only Jujiro comes close in terms of oddity. If dialectic divisions motivate The Unknown, eternal return pushes Jujiro around (into and onto itself, tracing a path always back); the illusion of one more chance as opposed to the illusion of certain sacrifice. Jujiro translates as “Crossways” and it ends at a literal intersection seen from above, but more prominent in this circus of desires (and broken promises) are spirals and circles, globes and wheels. Strange as it may sound, Jujiro was the one picture I thought could have used less accompaniment since its visual patterns are so striking and dynamic; Stephen Horne provided a virtuoso score, but it was almost too virtuoso, working too well; there was little room for the images to breath and resonate. By contrast, Donald Sosin’s piano with Michael left more spaces open, let rhythms settle, forced the audience to make choices.
Surprisingly, the audience was the most curious character of the weekend. I found my reaction to the films constituted by the crowds as much as by the films and their musical accompaniment, which was kind of a bummer, but also kind of cool to think about. As mentioned above, they were quick to giggle at the possibility of camp in the melodramas (not to mention the tender negotiations of a “dramedy” like The Soul of Youth, a film I appreciated but didn’t fall in love with, although its opening shot and its “animated” title cards are phenomenal), and with the comedies they were equally ready to let loose guffaws and applause. The screening of Her Wild Oat, starring proto-flapper Colleen Moore, easily garnered the rowdiest response (lots of admiration for the double entendre). The opening showcase, Harold Lloyd’s indomitable Kid Brother (my first Glasses!), was greeted with ample cheer and delight; a bemused tot behind our row, for all her questions, was quite taken and absorbed (she even showed up the adults in certain situations). But my favorite of the comedies was Rene Clair’s Les Deux Timides: a playful vision of silent cinema that eschewed the intertitles as much as possible in favor of visual elucidation/exposition—most impressively in its twin courtroom scenes which present the lawyers’ arguments as montage, pure spectacle, the screen split in two, three, sometimes five wedges. Timides gets a bit repetitive in the middle, as the hysterics up the ante again and again, but its eagerness to break up space and time—to allow the fantastical some power—won me over completely. The second biggest crowd reaction was for the final film of the festival, a King Vidor-Marion Davies screwball called The Patsy. Like Her Wild Oat, it relies on speech titles a little too much for my taste (I kept wanting to hear the wordplay), not quite shucking its origin as a stage play, but Vidor’s visual sense helps string the set pieces along and keeps the performances strong through to the close. Of course, it’s hard to go wrong with Davies’ big eyes and goofy mugging, and the dress-up sequence when she impersonates other screen stars of the era is brilliant, hilarious fun (even if you don’t know all the references). It was a fine ending, lifting the crowd and sending them home happy, proud of themselves for paying their dues to this often neglected branch of cinema history.
In all, it was a fine weekend. On my last walk back to BART, I decided to not plug in tunes and to listen to the street. This is a loud world. Even late on a Sunday. I think that’s been my problem with silent cinema so far: the sound of the world is an acute factor in how cinema constitutes its limits, how it discloses its worlds (an odd hybrid of real and virtual). If I learned anything from the weekend it was for the immediacy of silent film. It may be easier to pay closer attention to silent images. And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that most of those odd reactions to the melodramas, and the wild ardor for the dialogue-driven jokes of the comedies, are a barometer of how most people are, for the most part, visually illiterate. The worry I had walking along Market was bearing witness to an odd belittlement of the early film form: a lot of the laughter seemed motivated by the idea that because these films are old they must be quaint, precious. I felt the opposite. Not that Her Wild Oat wasn’t funny—I laughed out loud, I dug the Ferris wheel antics—but are we really that wiser? Can’t we accept these gifts with humility? How will we relish our past?
I wish I could have seen the whole lot of films, just like Brian, but I did miss more than I wanted to miss. I’m sure The Unknown looked great on that imposing screen (ditto The Man Who Laughs), but I did not need to be anxious about transportation while watching them; plus, I got to enjoy that evening with Darren and Girish. I was curious to see “the first animated feature,” The Adventures of Prince Achmed (which is available on Netflix), and the ethnographic film about American Indians’ starvation, The Silent Enemy, but Sunday morning was a crowded affair. Again, I chose food and conversation bookended by a little homework. However: I am happy I saw what I did see and look forward to approaching next summer’s event with more knowledge, more enthusiasm, and more devotion. For all my issues with the reception, it’s a silly hang up when there are this many people actually attending the festival. At the least that shows there is an honest interest in preserving what little we have retained from our past, what little that’s been saved.
House Next Door contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the editor of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy.