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Monday, July 18, 2011

S.F. Silent Film Festval: Resurrecting Napoleon, Fiercely Debating Modern Musical Scores

Posted By on Mon, Jul 18, 2011 at 10:30 AM

Napoleon, presented at actual size
  • Napoleon, presented at actual size
The 16th San Francisco Silent Film Festival reached a triumphant conclusion Sunday after four full days of nonspeaking - but not mute - cinema at the Castro. Founded in 1994 by a small band of enthusiasts, the "SF Squared" Festival, as it's been nicknamed, has expanded into one of the nation's best venues for century-old movies, a travel destination for hundreds of film buffs and historians the world over.

The films aside, the festival's two highlights involved some very public discourse. Historian Kevin Brownlow's Sunday morning memory of his years of struggle in restoring Abel Gance's four-hour-plus epic Napoleon held its lucky auditors spellbound, the gentle English wizard unveiling hitherto unseen footage dating back to extracts from the original 17.5 mm reel of the film he'd discovered as a teenager, the reel that inspired his lifelong quest to restore its shattered glory.

The festival's big announcement had come Thursday, with the news of four days' worth of a complete screening of the restored Napoleon coming to Oakland's Paramount Theatre in March. Brownlow appeared at this announcement as well, not so gently: "I order you to come!" he declaimed.

The festival's other lively exchange came with a Saturday noontime discussion of composing and performing live music for silent films. Since its founding, the festival has specialized in offering musicians the opportunity to compose for film -- a splendid chance that many have seized as a venue for some radically innovative work.

Much of this work can be very exciting. (All anyone I met on Friday could talk about was Giovanni Spinelli's electric guitar accompaniment to Sunrise the preceding evening.) I particularly enjoyed the Matti Bye Ensemble's score for the Swedish film The Blizzard, featuring a particularly soulful violin that leads its protagonist back to sanity (perhaps Hitchcock was thinking of this film when he made Vertigo).

click to enlarge Einar Hanson and Mary Johnson in The Blizzard
  • Einar Hanson and Mary Johnson in The Blizzard

As it happens, the public chat between the musicians -- "Variations on a Theme" -- was vertiginous itself. Traditionalist organist Dennis James argued with passion that the original score, if available, is preferable to anything a modern composer can conceive. He likened many contemporary scores to graffiti, a stance and a term that clearly annoyed some of his fellow panelists.

Moderator Jill Tracy -- who'd sung for Il Fuoco on Friday night -- did admirable work in keeping things civil, and thanks largely to her light touch the discussion emitted more illumination than heat.

The historically accurate scores James performed were excellent, but so were the imaginative scores of Bye and others. James is persuasive, however, in arguing that some musicians are more interested in their creations than the films meant to be showcased, that just wasn't true of the scores I heard at the Castro. Indeed, some of the nicest playing came from the improvisation of two teenagers, Evan Chow and Joseph Lai, at the Walt Disney program on Saturday.

The festival's 15 programs offered several premieres of rediscoveries of works lost for many years, including the American films Upstream (John Ford, 1927), Huckleberry Finn (William Desmond Taylor, 1920), Mr. Fix-it (Allan Dwan, 1918), and Shoes (Lois Weber, 1916).

The Ford film was a delightful character comedy, moodily photographed in what must have been the world's grubbiest boarding house. Taylor tied himself down to illustrating his text, which allowed him little freedom to reach beyond it, while the ever-moralistic Weber played and replayed a single note of persecution. Her tale of a department store drudge driven to prostitute for a new pair of shoes was so relentlessly grim that it made the sinful Blue Goose Café, with its lecherous singing waiters, seem a delightful haven of joy (or maybe this was just because of Dennis James' music).

click to enlarge John Ford's Upstream
  • John Ford's Upstream

By contrast, Dwan's Douglas Fairbanks vehicle was almost excessively giddy, waving away trouble with no effort at all. Films from Italy, Sweden, and Japan (Yasujiro Ozu's wonderful I Was Born, But...) helped fill out the weekend.

We silent-film buffs are exhausted now, but soon we'll be hungry for more. What's up for next year?

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Gregg Rickman

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