Reflections on the 18th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival: The Sound (And Seasons) of Silence

by Mary Lenoir Bond on August 18, 2013

Marion Davies in The Patsy (1928)

Marion Davies in The Patsy (1928)

The intoxicating, nostalgic scent of freshly popped, earthy corn merging with the salty richness of melting butter permeating the air is a familiar movie theatre setting. At the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, where the annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) is held, our olfactory senses are still treated to this familiar comfort and all seems like a typical Castro event, at first. Not that the Castro Theatre is your ordinary strip-mall movie experience to begin with, however. The majestic landmark building, built in 1922, has grand stairways, a charismatic Wurlitzer organ, 1937 Art Deco chandelier, rare scrafitto wall décor, seats over 1400 patrons, and weekly shows “repertory cinema, foreign films, film festivals and special first run presentations,” as well as favorite cult classics, and occasionally hosts special live theatrical or sing-along events. It is certainly a major source of pride in San Francisco. Once you move past the enticing phantom of popcorn aroma lingering in the lobby and take a seat, the heavy, old-fashioned curtains part like a luxurious and dramatic movement Isadora Duncan would be proud of.

Next, the huge screen is illuminated, and you are transported to another era, where silence is golden and images swirl in colors ranging from dusty rose to vintage sepia to various hues of gray and black. The sound of silence feels nearly sacred, as the reverent fans all gaze in enthusiasm at these original and unforgettable stars of cinema, the pioneers who paved the way for all other actors to attempt to parallel their innovative brilliance. The screen flickers some, but you are invited to view this as part of the magic, tempting you to get lost for an hour or two—or even three unforgettable days—should you be lucky enough to attend the whole festival. The restoration of each film varies, but the occasional dust or faded film merely adds to the charm, as if you are privy to a great historical secret, or a lost treasure. The images never fail to enchant, the way eyes shine brighter and all colors of skin glow like liquid reflecting sunlight. And make-up filmed in black and white seems to have a more glamorous, haunting, and yes, sometimes, almost gothic appearance. These stars existed long before Botox, bleached-teeth, breast implants, and intentional eating disorders. They are incredibly lovely and captivating, but more real, and, therefore, also seem more relatable, and all the more alluring.

The musicians and orchestras that accompany these stories add a dynamic element to this experience, often improvising the actors’ next move and translating emotions into melody; the music is a truly important part of the occasion. The genius accompanists, composers, and orchestras gracing the event this year were Gunter Buchwald, Gamelan Sekar Jaya and Club Foot Orchestra, Matti Bye Ensemble, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and Stephen Horne. Horne, from Essex, and now based in London, was the featured musician for the opening night Louise Brooks film. During the motion picture, you only vaguely see one man at a shiny piano under the far left corner under the screen, but when you hear sound effects or the piano being played at the same time as a flute or accordion, you wonder if your mind is playing tricks on you. Or perhaps Horne is part musician, part magician. No, everything is live, and he is a true one-man, multitasking band. When asked how many times he had seen this film, he said only about three or four. It’s amazing how much he relies on instinct and improvisation. The music is such a fantastic complimentary layer to the films that it’s easy to forget it is live. The synergy between what is past and what is present heightens the thrill of this unique happening.

The movies at this festival beautifully range in culture as well as genre. There is comedy, drama, cartoons, obvious historical elements that sometimes felt like unintentional documentaries, and the surreal. The films are from countries all over the world, including Germany, Bali, Japan, Sweden, India, France, the USSR, and the UK, making the festival refreshingly not all American or Eurocentric. Patrons can thus see the cultures and concerns of people on the other side of the world, and from nearly a century ago. Obviously, time does not allow for reviews of all 17 wonderful films, so the focus here is on a few highlights from ones that were particularly favored.

The opening night film kicked off with a bang as the first shots of Louise Brooks in Prix de Beaute featured the bobbed-haired goddess, legs first, stepping out of an old car. Then the camera panned up to a flirtatious Louise, a sparkling beauty who was one of the most desired femme fatales of the era. Some believe it was she and not Clara Bow who made the concept of the goodtime-Flapper-party-gal famous. Brooks had the kind of looks that you imagine inspired all kinds of catcalls, whistles, and cartoon cars honking and creating all sorts of mad-capped traffic jams. She could be convincingly playful one minute and then, in another second, flat; a scowl and a glare could have her companions feeling scorned like little children. In this film, Brooks played an office girl who just happens to win a beauty contest, much to the disapproval of her fiancé. Brooks was of an interesting, untraditional splendor. She featured full hips and a flat-chest, severely sleek and angular short hair, all in an alluringly tomboyish manner. Brooks was like the effervescence of spring, where colorful blossoms burst and playfully dance in the air. Everything in spring, like Brooks, feels green, hopeful, and awakened.

As for The Golden Clown, it blew people away. This Danish film (restored by The Danish Film Institute) took place in Paris and addressed basic issues of love, fame, and jealousy. The acting was staggering, and with the twisting emotional eclipses mid-plot, shocking creepiness, and powerfully miserable heartbreak, it’s easy to imagine that perhaps Lars Von Trier and Wim Wenders took inspiration from this brilliant story. The story starts out as a quirky romance between two circus performers (some might even call it mildly sappy) but it turns into a tale of menacing betrayal and melancholy. The damaged clown managed to simultaneously charm and frighten at the same time, with just one look — enough to send hot chills up your arms and drop an elevator in your stomach at the same time, a sensation more like a riding a rollercoaster than watching a film. And yet, the film still somehow magically managed to end bittersweet, a real thrill ride for the emotions.

The Greta Garbo film, The Joyless Street, must also be mentioned. Garbo’s stunning looks and stony facial expressions are legendarily hypnotic. Her tall but delicate frame, with its translucent skin and elegantly sloped nose, enhanced those big, sad eyes like a Modigliani portrait. If Garbo were a season, she’d be winter, naked, dark bark speckled with glittering snowflakes. Watching this deeply committed actress emote is like watching a graceful ice-skater glide over snow and ice — smooth and entrancing. But her poised beauty only thinly veils the haunting pain Garbo easily casts from her poignant eyes. And in this chilling film, where poverty pushes people to cruel and shameful acts, we find a greedy male butcher and villainous (nearly comically evil) female seamstress masking their livelihoods for a speakeasy and brothel. These circumstances were so intensely sad and heartbreakingly honest that the film was often heavily censored, or banned altogether.

In The Patsy, Marion Davies (famously known for her longtime relationship with William Randolph Hearst) played an adorably hilarious blonde with flawless comedic timing and an endearingly perky personality. Her impeccable comedy and impersonations of other silent film stars of the time (such as Lillian Gish) had everyone’s cheeks aching from laughter. A former Zeigfeld Follies gal, Davies was impressively comfortable with physical comedy, a skill still particularly dominated by male actors. Davies was almost like an early Lucy Ball in this picture. If Garbo is winter and Brooks is spring, Davies is most certainly summer. She is like bright, sunny days filled with mischievously romping squirrels and colorful butterflies mingling and merging on the branches in ripe, orchard air.

Other standout films were Tokyo Circus, The Half-Breed, and The Outlaw and His Wife, but it is truly unfair to pick too many favorites, since each film at this festival offered something unique. The event ended perfectly with an upbeat comedy, and Harold Lloyd always delivers the laughs. His dexterous humor and endearingly nerdy demeanor has landed him as one of the most popular and best know comedians in film history.

Dave Slaughter, silent film aficionado and former manager/projectionist for The Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax in Los Angeles, shared some of his thoughts on why he felt silent films are still important and relevant today. His grandfather, John Gough, was a character actor in silent films, but Dave’s enthusiasm and knowledge of this genre goes even deeper than family sentiment, as he explained, “The experience of seeing a silent film with live accompaniment, one in which the musicians interpretation compliments the directors intent is, to me, the most immersive and transportive cinematic experience that one can have. I love all kinds of film—sound film too—but the absence of sound in the form of spoken dialogue requires a contribution from the audience. In the absence of this one sensory element—voice—the imagination is asked to rise to another level of engagement –not so passive. The actor’s performance and the imagery must reach out to the audience to express an idea or an emotion. And then the audience must reach back for understanding, so a connection is made, and the quality of that connection relies heavily on the music—it’s the binding element. When it’s all working together perfectly it’s just spectacular, there’s nothing like it.” This sentiment affirms a view from the Spinning Platters Blancanieves review in April earlier this year. Silent film acting has to rely on believably solid gestures and facial expressions, which must be precise or risk appearing campy or solely comedic. And the music needs to be an adequate companion. The tunes on some DVDs for silent films sometimes interrupt or impair the original plot intent, sadly. On these occasions, viewers might be better off improvising the melodies themselves by busting out some old Tangerine Dream, Psychic TV, or Brian Eno vinyl. The general public sometimes seems unaware that there are an equal amount of great dramatic silent films as there are comedies.

As far as the splendid staff and contributors to the festival, stylish Kelly Wiggin and Charissa Faire were the enthusiastic Marketing and Operations Interns for the Silent Film Festival, who also keep the charming and informative SFSFF Facebook page fresh and exciting. Even if you are unable to attend the festival, I highly recommend “liking” the page, since it is regularly updated with gorgeous pictures, fun facts, and interesting artsy events around town. These ladies were also the ones seated at the McRoskey raffle table during the festival. Their big smiles and warm personalities were hard to miss. You can find the Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/sfsilentfilm.

And finally, it must be said, another captivating element to the festival was the food. If you were at the opening night party at the decadently deco McRoskey Mattress Company building on Market Street, you might have seen an energetic brunette hostess running around, taking beautiful black and white photos and mingling with the crowd.  Her name is Victoria Jaschob, and she is also the one responsible for putting together a fashion show, at which contestants dressed up in their best 1920’s interpretations, adding to the sophistication and sensational character of the event. Additionally, if you were fortunate enough to visit the Starlight Lounge upstairs at various times before the films, you might have noticed a theme unfolding. For instance, before the Garbo film, shot in Germany, Jaschob was serving several types of gourmet marinated cabbage on small, rye bread. The film actually contained the written screen words expressing a characters protest of the leafy vegetable. Of course, this cabbage was a delicious treat, not a punishment for poverty, as implied in the film. And before Tokyo Circus, Jaschob had the popular Samovar Tea Lounge hosting green tea and yummy treats. And to accompany the film featuring old shots on location in our very own San Francisco, The Last Edition, delicate bite-sized seafood tarts were served.

The SFSFF motto of “true art transcends time” is the perfect sentiment for this event. When you allow yourself to advance beyond preconceived notions of apparent hyper-rapid film frames, slapstick comedy, and overacted or melodramatic characters, you realize how much genius actually existed in these original cinematic treasures. The veins of this art run deep, and established film as a favorite form of entertainment forever more.

Please visit http://www.silentfilm.org/ to find forthcoming information regarding next year’s event, which will run May 29th-June 1st in 2014.

Mary Lenoir Bond

Mary Lenoir Bond graduated from University of Southern California with a BA in Creative Writing and Theatre, and holds a MFA from Pacific University in Writing/ Poetry. More importantly, she enjoys hunting for mushrooms and the lost pages of Laura Palmer’s diary in the woods. In her parallel-universe life she is a professional jazz-singer/go-go dancer/award-winning physicist who owns a green tea plantation run exclusively by former child-stars.

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Chris Beyond August 29, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Lovely and well written article! Glad to see that The Patsy was represented in the festival too!

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