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San Francisco Silent Film Festival (#110 of 8)

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2014

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San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2014
San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2014

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.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2011: Polar Extremes: The Great White Silence and The Blizzard

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San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2011: Polar Extremes: <em>The Great White Silence</em> and <em>The Blizzard</em>
San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2011: Polar Extremes: <em>The Great White Silence</em> and <em>The Blizzard</em>

[Editor’s Note: Our coverage of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is cross-posted at Parallax View.]

Silent cinema was uniquely suited to shooting in extreme conditions. Without worries of sound recording, cameras could be taken almost anywhere a person could go, especially in the twenties, as equipment became more portable. But even in the early days of silent cinema, cameras were being hauled all over the world to capture parts of the world most American audiences had never seen and likely never would, except through the cinema eye. It began with the Lumiere “actuality” programs, which took the travel lecture slideshow and transformed them into packages of moving picture postcards and sent them to theaters where everyone could see them. (See Kino’s Lumiere Brothers First Films for a well curated selection of these early travel films.) But that was only a hint at the wonders to come.

That’s a grand introduction to a pair of films that share little more than extreme snowy climes (Antarctica and the wilds of Northern Sweden) and a determination to film in the extreme conditions of said locations, but I use it as a reminder that the silent cinema was far more adventurous in taking cameras to otherwise inhospitable and difficult locations than the subsequent sound era, when the machinery of moviemaking became much more cumbersome. Of course, things changed when lightweight news cameras and, more recently, digital video made it easier to carry cameras into difficult situations, but that was years later. Until then, films like The Blizzard (1923) and The Great White Silence (1924) were the great true-life adventure cinema of the 20th century.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2011: A Yank at Oxford: Douglas Fairbanks is Mr. Fix-It

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San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2011: A Yank at Oxford: Douglas Fairbanks is <em>Mr. Fix-It</em>
San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2011: A Yank at Oxford: Douglas Fairbanks is <em>Mr. Fix-It</em>

[Editor’s Note: Our coverage of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is cross-posted at Parallax View.]

There is a defining contradiction at the center of Mr. Fix-It, the buoyant 1918 Douglas Fairbanks comedy directed and written by Allan Dwan, their sixth or seventh feature together (they made four films together in 1918 alone).

Fairbanks’ Dick Remington is ostensibly a British student at Oxford and roommate to American Reginald Burroughs (Leslie Stuart). Yet Burroughs, with his regal bearing and trim dress and mannered courtship of his college sweetheart, is the very image of a British aristocrat while the bouncing, eternally smiling Remington is the quintessential Fairbanks character: Boisterous, fun-loving and eccentric (he somersaults fully clothed into his bathtub as a lark in the opening scenes), he is unmistakably the can-do American, no matter what the intertitles tell us.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2011: Divas: Il Fuoco and The Woman Men Yearn For

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San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2011: Divas: <em>Il Fuoco</em> and <em>The Woman Men Yearn For</em>
San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2011: Divas: <em>Il Fuoco</em> and <em>The Woman Men Yearn For</em>

[Editor’s Note: Our coverage of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is cross-posted at Parallax View.]

Pina Menichelli is the very ideal of the diva in Il Fuoco (Italy, 1915). Introduced only as an illustrious poetess and countess, she steps out of her chauffeured car in a feathered outfit and hat that makes her look like a bird of prey. And she acts that way too when she meets the young artist Mario (Febo Mari), “the unknown painter.” She is inflamed by the power of his commitment and the beauty of his art but love is a very different kind of thing for her, a momentary conflagration of great excitement and heat that quickly burns out. And fire is the appropriate metaphor for a woman whose seduction includes smashing an oil lamp onto a table just to watch the flames burn.

Menichelli, whose contorted poses and curled smiles give her the look of a female Nosferatu in Milan couture, makes Theda Bara look like a pretender. This countess treats seduction like a competition to be won but she really does feed on the physical charge of the affair. She simply burns out so quickly that she has nothing left for her abandoned lover, pretty much a mama’s boy whose first step away from maternal protection leaves him crushed, broken.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2011: John Ford’s Upstream

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San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2011: John Ford’s Upstream
San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2011: John Ford’s Upstream

The biggest film history news of 2010 was without a doubt the discovery of Upstream (1927), a John Ford comedy from the late silent era previously thought lost, found in a New Zealand film archive along with numerous other American shorts, features and fragments. After screenings in Los Angeles, Pordenone, New York and elsewhere, San Francisco Silent Film Festival kicked off with Upstream as their opening night event, accompanied by The Donald Sosin Ensemble (pianist and composer Sosin on piano with a makeshift group consisting of members of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and others) playing a score that he premiered at Pordenone.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2008: A Series of Introductions, A Question of Communion

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San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2008: A Series of Introductions, A Question of Communion
San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2008: A Series of Introductions, A Question of Communion

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.”