There’s something undeniably special about viewing silent films at the Castro. As the theater was built in 1922, it’s not too difficult to imagine that at least a handful of the films screened as part of this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival program didn’t light up the same walls with their shadows almost a hundred years ago. And what celestial shadows they were and are. At a boutique festival such as this, which only runs for four days (May 29 to June 1) and screens less than 20 feature films, it’s possible to see a clear curatorial byline—a dedication to variety that cuts a wide swath across directors (no two film by the same auteur), genres, and countries, all the while pushing forward the radical in form and narrative.
Many of the films that came out of (post)modern and historically revisionist eras of filmmaking—such as Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man—expressly took the rewriting (and righting) of historical memory as the meat of their content. But it’s rare to find a film clear-eyed about race relations (from 1928!) that also takes a Native American—or, half Native America and half Italian, in this case with Edwin Carewe’s Ramona—as its central character. Ramona stingingly darts away from the historically and morally muddied path of so many westerns that would come in the years of the talkies. In this film, white men are seen as the intolerant, merciless, and murderous villains, tacitly bent on genocide. In a scene rivaling the direct brutality of the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin, the eponymous Ramona (an incredible Dolores del Rio) and her husband barely survive an attack on their village as white men play shoot ’em up for no better reasons then greed and bloodlust.
The irreverence of Vasili Zhuravlyov’s Cosmic Voyage stands at a contrast to Carewe’s film and is quite the oddity, not least of all for being a silent film to emerge out of the USSR at the late date of 1936. The Soviet Union was certainly producing many sound films by that time, with Boris Barnet’s By the Blues of Seas being released that same year. (Two years prior, in 1934, the USSR even saw the release of its first musical, the very successful Jolly Fellows.) Cosmic Voyage is a film made at cross-purposes, attempting at once to impress with the virtuosity of its cinematography and sci-fi sets (boasting a near-360-degree tour around what’s an incredibly large and long rocket) while clearly being intended to appeal to children. These two motivations are certainly not mutually exclusive, but in this case the result is a preposterously plotted and undercooked genre film.
The story is quite simple: Professor Sedikh wants to travel to the moon, but his colleague stands in the way because he believes that traveling to the moon is dangerous. But Professor Sedikh decides to launch the rocket anyway and invites the rival professor’s assistant to come along (about 10 minutes before take-off) and a little boy sneaks aboard, and before you know it they’re all off to the moon with very little of what one would imagine to be requisite pre-space travel procedures and preparations (such as, oh, having anyone on the ground involved in the launching off of the ship into space). While whimsy abounds, there’s also a strange lack of physical specificity. The interior of the ship and the lunar surface are dull and under-designed, and the space-travel sequences made me wistfully yearn for the spark and imagination of Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon.
Looking back in time, instead of ahead into the space-age future, is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Parson’s Widow, in which a small town’s newly elected parson is required to marry the previous parson’s widow. Unfortunately, this forces him to put off his engagement to the woman he loves. While he convinces her that they can be married once the widow has passed away, things get a little tricky when the widow turns out to be a witch with life-prolonging powers. The 1920 film approaches horror, comedy, and drama, and while it’s all of these things, it’s not quite any of them. And this not-quite-ness gives the film a rather ethereal, otherworldly feel—the constant lurking sensation that the materiality of the world is about to be pulled back. (Dreyer would brilliantly expand upon this mood in his later Vampyr.) Irises, pans, camera tilts, and variations in shot length and distance reveal Dreyer to be a curious nose-abouter, testing and stretching the limits of the fledgling art form.
Part of cinephilia is about always being left a little unsatisfied and never quite sated. So all through the festival I found myself wanting to engage in counter-programming of my own. To go home right after seeing J.B.L. Noel’s documentary The Epic of Everest, which goes from light to emotional darkness, to an awed tempest of hope and despair, and juxtapose it with Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, which arrives at a meager and questionable hope that’s borne out of physical darkness, to see how two films at practically the furthest points away from each other on the cinematic timeline might converse on the topic of men in nature, courage, and environmentalism. The Epic of Everest is heavy on title cards and wide shots of the mountain and its many peaks and valleys. People, when they do appear on screen, are usually seen from a distance, dwarfed by the sloping whiteness and the sky, the camera patiently showing their slow movements across the horizon of the screen, as they attempt to make it to the summit of Mount Everest.
But of all the films I saw at the festival, none struck me as hard as Anthony Asquith’s London-set Underground, a product of the late silent era. The 1928 film begins as a boisterous romantic comedy about a love triangle (that turns out to be a love square) and darkens methodically toward a last reel that spews ugly tragedy and madness. Perhaps what’s most emotionally affecting about the ending is that the lead up to it is a series of grace notes (one lingering shot, in particular, of a newly formed couple walking down a knoll, a tree towering in the background, and the light a hue that’s nearly inexpressible in terms of color, can only be spoken of in relation to the gentleness and promise of its tone) and playful winks of humor. That so much loveliness and light can be followed by such tersely edited blackness is deeply unsettling. This is a work that left me eager to burrow deeper into Asquith’s work. And if at the end of a festival you have come away with a list of more films to see, directors to pursue, and national cinemas to burrow into, then the festival has, resoundingly, done its job.