In Motion with the SF Silent Film Festival
A forward-thinking SF Silent Film Festival builds cult devotion, new contexts for our motion picture past.
“You must always grind forward, never backward.” So says Marceline Day to Buster Keaton (via title card) in 1928’s The Cameraman. She’s explaining how to operate the motion-picture-making apparatus, and how not to get discouraged; Keaton’s aspiring newsreeler, understandably lovestruck, has just humiliated himself with an incoherent riot of double exposures. And although the film also points out that the grinding itself is so easy even a monkey could do it, that advice still seems like a worthy mantra for big-picture management. Thus is The Cameraman one of several essential selections at the 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Each year’s slate has at least a few must-sees—or more, depending on which species of enthusiast you ask—and the current crop also includes two from 1929 Germany: G. W. Pabst’s luminous masterwork Pandora’s Box, introduced by its San Francisco-based restorers, David Ferguson and Angela Holm; and Hanns Schwarz’s impishly elegant melodrama The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna, introduced by locally rooted filmmaker Philip Kaufman.
Having built up several decades’ worth of cult devotion, Pandora’s Box —and more specifically its star, Louise Brooks, black-bobbed doyenne of modern mystique—might count for a token of familiar repertory comfort, except that the tale of seductive showgirl Lulu keeps insisting comfort can’t be trusted. (So this is how it was just before Hitler.) Saturday’s centerpiece screening has new original live accompaniment by Sweden’s Matti Bye Ensemble, reason enough to see it on the Castro’s screen; yes, Criterion’s DVD includes several possible soundtracks, but this new one from festival veteran Bye, a genius, might very well prove definitive. (Live scoring historically has been a constant SFSFF highlight, with even the most habituated film refreshed as intimately as a favorite book newly gilded by a friend’s tactful margin notes.)
Schwarz’s Wonderful Lie, a glorious rarity, proffers another silent-era stunner, Brigitte Helm, as a rich Cossack’s mistress who dares catch and hold the eye of a poor young cadet. (“Women and horses should have only one master,” is the elder man’s response, and not surprisingly it’s largely downhill, hope-wise, from there.) Set among smoky card games in Czarist St. Petersburg, teeming with silky surfaces and silkier camera moves, this is a film that measures pathos and time’s passage simultaneously, by dissolving through emptied bottles of champagne. It’s this year’s “director’s pick,” and anyone fond of Kaufman’s own polished poignancy will enjoy seeing why.
Of course, should the occasion arise, it’d also be fun to hear what Kaufman makes of the festival’s opener, William Wellman’s 1927 military-aviation epic Wings, famously replete with flyboys working up their Right Stuff. Of these, still the most outstanding is the radiant fatalist played by Gary Cooper in what retrospect reveals as a prescient and career-boosting cameo: triumphantly a man of few words, even in a silent film. He’s barely in it, though; as history’s first successful Oscar bait, Wellman’s extravagant WWI saga has a lot going on, not least its aerial combat scenes that go way beyond the merely not bad for 1927. Notwithstanding their quaintly hand-painted flames, these dogfights still can thrill.
Now aged 17 and bearing the motto “true art transcends time,” the festival shrewdly cultivates endurance—hence the annual installation of selective directors among its participating devotees. It’s no fluke that the brochure sports fawning blurbage from the likes of Terry Zwigoff, Alexander Payne, Guy Maddin, and Pixar’s Pete Docter, for here is a still-living history of the medium coming into itself, working out formal considerations now taken (or left) for granted. Variance in the films’ styles is what makes seeing them by the bunch so pleasurably instructive.
Some, like Wellman’s Wings and Herbert Brenon’s 1923 gypsy costume drama The Spanish Dancer, seem slickly studio. Others are singularly opulent, like Wonderful Lie and Mauritz Stiller’s wise, well-tailored marvel, Erotikon (introduced by Fandor’s Jonathan Marlow). That latter title may imply some recent anime softcore, but in fact it hails from 1920 Sweden, a forerunner of high-toned romantic comedy that tracks a posh professor’s interest in insect sexuality and his wife’s interest in other men. Aside from contagious delights, there are lessons here for Lubitsch and Renoir, among later others. Some styles, meanwhile, remain precedents only for themselves: We’ve not since seen anything quite like 1926’s nightmarishly expressionistic The Overcoat, self-described as “a film play in the style of Gogol” and not at all bookish but glad to show off its flourishes of gutsy technique.
Set among smoky card games in Czarist St. Petersburg, teeming with silky surfaces and silkier camera moves, ‘The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna’ is a film that measures pathos and time’s passage simultaneously, by dissolving through emptied bottles of champagne. It’s this year’s ‘director’s pick,’ and anyone fond of Kaufman’s own polished poignancy will enjoy seeing why.
In any case, the festival is broadly amenable, well practiced at pleasing both loyal and newcomer crowds. For the half-abashed appreciator of Hugo or The Artist looking to round out a film-history education, here are movies to which those movies paid tribute, respectively the cinematic alphas of magic and swashbuckling: from 1902, Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, with live Méliès-penned narration performed by Paul McGann; and from 1920, Fred Niblo’s The Mark of Zorro, with the grinning and winning Douglas Fairbanks in jaunty oscillation between nimble hero and timid alter ego. Alternatively, for the nostalgia-averse skeptic, Josef von Sternberg’s unsentimental 1928 proto-noir The Docks of New York is confidently recommended.
There are more still: an Antarctic expedition (Frank Hurley’s documentary South, 1919); a recently restored Lubitsch leviathan (The Loves of Pharaoh, 1921); a frisky bundle of Felix the Cat cartoons from 1925 through 1929; a better angle on Wings’ flirty-flapper leading lady Clara Bow (Victor Fleming’s Mantrap, 1926); an adapted Somerset Maugham play of wheat-field hardship (William Beaudine’s The Canadian, 1926); a first try at an oft-adapted Olive Higgins Prouty novel of maternal suffering (Henry King’s Stella Dallas, 1925); and a rare Chinese classic (Sun Yu’s Little Toys, 1933).
How to navigate them? Trust the example of Keaton’s clumsy, ardent cameraman. It’s only through story-propulsive labor—of acquiring his craft, due credit, and the girl—that his hard-won and rightly exposed footage possibly can redeem him. Always grinding forward seems like the best approach.
For more on Silents, visit fandor.com/silent.