Sunday, July 10, 2011

San Francisco Silent Film Festival Screens Rare Gems, Timeless Classics

This year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival starts off with a premiere of sorts. Last year a stash of rare American silent films, many long though lost, were repatriated back to the United States for restoration and preservation. Upstream, one of the gems of the collection and the first to be restored, will screen Thursday, July 14, as the opening film of the annual festival that takes over the Castro Theater through Sunday night.

Upstream is an early film by John Ford, one of the towering figures of cinema, American or otherwise. Made while the director was working for Fox, Ford admitted to having been captivated at the time by the work of F.W. Murnau, who had made a name for himself as one of Germany’s top directors with work as disparate as the horror masterpiece Nosferatu, the expressionist classic The Last Laugh, and a cinematic reworking of Faust. Hollywood was eager to recruit top European talent in those days and Murnau was a high-profile catch for Fox. Here, Ford was able to observe Murnau's methods firsthand, and though he wouldn't incorporate much of what he learned from Murnau until later films, Upstream, a melodrama that centers on a backstage love triangle among Vaudevillians, was produced during this period.

The festival will screen Ford's film along with Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, the masterpiece with which Murnau brought Germanic technique and a palpable European sensibility to American filmmaking. Sunrise is celebrated for its roaming camerawork, its evocative set design, its emotional range and fable-like qualities. The plot concerns a young country couple whose happy home is threatened when the husband is tempted by a footloose city flapper. Murnau sets up dichotomies that are almost allegorical: between city and country, love and lust, virtue and temptation. It is melodrama raised to the level of poetry, a fable of love, devotion and redemption.

Murnau’s camera is almost constantly on the move, tracking characters along village paths, through marshlands at dusk, along the busy streets of a bustling city. Sunrise is a whirlwind of motion and emotion, from tense moments wandering in darkness, to a sun-kissed stroll that leaves the couple bewildered in the midst of a traffic jam, to the kaleidoscopic revelry of a nightclub sequence.

Saturday's highlight is Yasujiro Ozu's I Was Born But..., one of the great Japanese director's early films, and one of his most beloved. Rather rather than employing his camera in bravura displays of pyrotechnic virtuosity, Ozu used it to simply observe his characters, to linger on their faces, on their homes, on their possessions—to look into the souls of everyday people under everyday circumstances. Ozu was both a naturalist and a rigorous formalist, a director who sought to capture life as it is lived, but within a framework of rigidly defined restrictions. He limited the camera’s range of motion and the angles from which it could gaze; he limited his editing to simple, direct cuts—no dissolves or fades; and dialogue was conveyed in simple master shots followed by alternating close-ups. This artistic code focused the viewer's attention on content over form, allowing character to reveal itself, allowing dialogue to breathe, and allowing revelatory spaces to open up between words and gestures and characters. Thus relationships and motivations and plot points gradually take shape before the viewer’s eyes. “Rather than tell a superficial story,” Ozu said, “I wanted to go deeper, to show ... the ever-changing uncertainties of life. So instead of constantly pushing dramatic action to the fore, I left empty spaces, so viewers could have a pleasant aftertaste to savor.”

Long before Ozu refined this method and distilled it into the austere approach of his later, more famous movies, he made many lighter films—comedies, melodramas, even Hollywood-inspired gangster films. One of the best of his early films, I Was Born But... displays the director's remarkable ability to blend comedy with poignant drama. The film examines the difficulties both of children growing up and of their parents in handling them. A man’s young sons brawl with the local kids in their new neighborhood to assert their dominance, and once they do they exercise their power without restraint. Later their father falls from his figurative pedestal as they witness him kowtowing to his boss, the father of one their schoolyard underlings. What follows is both a loss of innocence and a tough lesson in parenting, as the father tries to express the realities of adulthood, and the boys learn that there are other ways to get along than by thundering in the brush and pounding one’s chest like a baboon.

Evident in these early films are some of the techniques that Ozu would employ throughout his career: the floor-height vantage points that place his camera at eye level as his characters sit on the traditional tatami; and the alternating dialogue shots in which each character looks directly at the camera, placing the viewer right in the middle of the exchange, allowing stronger identification with each character, with each argument and with each perspective.

And herein lies much of the appeal of Ozu’s films: His calm, gently unfolding dramas give us time to not only get to know his characters, but also to deeply care about them—to enjoy their humor, to admire their strength and to forgive their transgressions—so that, when a film ends, there is often a feeling of regret that these characters are gone from our lives. “Every time I watch an Ozu film,” says actor Eijiro Tong, “I start to feel very sentimental as the end of the film nears. As I think back over the story, it’s like a flood of old memories washing over me, one after another.”

Also screening Friday are William Desmond Taylor's 1920 adaptation of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn; Il Fuoco, an Italian femme fatale drama; The Great White Silence, a 1924 documentary about a British expedition to the Arctic; and the first of two editions of the festival's popular series, "Amazing Tales From the Archives," in which preservationists screen surviving fragments and trailers from lost films or excerpts from in-progress restorations.

Saturday evening showcases two of the brightest stars of the era, Douglas Fairbanks and Marlene Dietrich. The Woman Men Yearn For shows Dietrich a few years before Joseph Von Sternberg transformed her into an almost otherworldly figure of mystery and beauty, and Mr. Fix-It shows Fairbanks at his charming, comedic best.

There were many stars in the silent era, but few could rival Douglas Fairbanks. The actor made a name for himself between 1916 and 1920 with a string of breezy, acrobatic comedies. His ebullience and his prodigious athletic abilities were on display in a series of brisk films produced at a brisk pace—four or five a year, sometimes more—in which genial, dapper Doug took on the world with gusto and a good-natured smile. He was the can-do, all-American boy, a variation on the same theme adopted by Harold Lloyd in his own screen comedies.

Around 1920, Fairbanks would take a new tack as his ambition swelled. As a co-founder of United Artists (along with three other powerful Hollywood figures: Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Fairbanks' wife, Mary Pickford), Fairbanks would gain complete control over his work and would introduce a new genre to the medium by combining comedy with costume drama. He ditched the modern clothes for period attire, donning the garb of musketeers and pirates. Abandoning the casual spontaneity of his rapid-fire comedies, he followed instead in Griffith’s footsteps, producing fewer films—just one or two a year—with better production values, more complex plots, more costumes, more sets, more drama. Fairbanks had found a new formula, and he would stick with it for the better part of a decade, enjoying much commercial success.

Saturday's screenings also feature a morning presentation of Disney Laugh-O-Grams; The Blizzard, a romantic melodrama by Swedish director Mauritz Stiller; Clarence Brown's The Goose Woman; and "Variations on a Theme," a session in which the festival's musicians discuss and demonstrate the principles and challenges of silent film accompaniment. The panel, moderated by Jill Tracy, includes the Matti Bye Ensemble, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the Alloy Orchestra, Giovanni Spinelli, Stephen Horne, Donald Sosin, and Wurlizter maestro Dennis James.

Sandwiched between Sunday morning's installment of "Amazing Tales From the Archives" and a "Wild and Weird," a program of off-kilter short films, is Shoes, by Lois Weber, the most important female director of the era. Weber enjoyed a tremendous degree of artistic control over her films, which always managed to be entertaining while taking on some of the most challenging social issues of the day, from abortion and birth control to capital punishment, labor and prostitution. Later in the day, The Nail in the Boot, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, who would go on to make such cinematic treasures as The Cranes Are Flying and the monumental I Am Cuba, promises to be another excellent screening.

The festival concludes with He Who Gets Slapped, a confluence of four prominet talents. Lon Chaney was the premiere character of the day, the creator of myriad deformed and deranged figures; John Gilbert was on the rise as one of Hollywood's romantic leading men; Norma Shearer too was on the rise, a budding star who would go on to make some of the most sophisticated dramas of the Pre-code era; and Victor Sjöström (billed as Seastrom in America), the pioneering Swedish director who rivaled Griffith in his influence in shaping the nascent medium of cinema into an international art form.

For tickets, the complete schedule, and more, see