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San Francisco Silent Film Festival: The Silents Are Deafening

07/26/2011 12:15 pm ET | Updated Sep 25, 2011

The parade of film festivals through San Francisco's annual arts calendar offers a constant source of entertainment. But if I had to choose one festival above all others, my favorite would undoubtedly be the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The largest silent film festival in the United States, its continued growth is proof of the organization's clearly stated mission, sound executive and artistic management, and willingness to take risks. Having just completed its 2011 festival, the organization is laying plans to celebrate its 20th anniversary next year.

This organization's health is all the more remarkable in light of major cutbacks, layoffs, and in some tragic cases, the demise of beloved cultural institutions (Opera Pacific, the Baltimore Opera Company) in cities across America. Symphony orchestras in Syracuse, Honolulu, Louisville, Albuquerque, and Philadelphia have recently filed for bankruptcy. All one has to do is look at the shaky financial history of Seattle's Intiman Playhouse and the New York City Opera to understand that no arts organization is too big to fail.

What helps to keep San Francisco's Silent Film Festival so clearly focused is a keen understanding of its devoted audience and the cultural heritage it celebrates.

  • This year's festival crammed 18 programs into four days at the Castro Theatre without a single screening of a silent film by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Mack Sennett, or Laurel & Hardy.
  • In addition to works from Hollywood studios (and such legendary directors as F. W. Murnau, Lois Weber, and John Ford), the festival screened silent films from Russia, Japan, Britain, Italy, and Sweden.
  • Newly restored and/or "rediscovered" prints of silent films add excitement to each year's program (this year's opening night was devoted to Upstream, one of the "lost" films recently discovered at the New Zealand Film Archive).
  • Stars from the silent era included Lon Chaney, Marlene Dietrich, Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Louise Dresser, and Norma Shearer.
  • The depth and breadth of the festival's offerings, from orphaned films to early Disney "Laugh-O-Grams" (as well as detailed program notes and academic lectures about the history of silent film and the art of film preservation) could easily earn the festival's content accreditation by a university film department.
  • The festival's steady cultivation of musicians who specialize in the accompaniment of silent film (Stephen Horne, Donald Sosin, Dennis James, the Alloy Orchestra, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Giovanni Spinelli, and the Matti Bye Ensemble) has made this festival equally important to music lovers.

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Silent film organist Dennis James

This was the second year that the festival featured a "Variations on a Theme" seminar in which its participating musicians had a chance to discuss how they approach the task of composing a score to accompany a silent film. As he did last year, organist Dennis James staunchly insisted that if a written score exists for a silent film, that is the only music that should be played with any screening. Others on the panel discussed how scoring a silent film gives them new opportunities to express themselves artistically.

One of the most refreshing additions to the festival took place during the program devoted to Disney's "Laugh-O-Grams." Earlier this month, Donald Sosin had conducted his "Sounds For Silents" workshop at the annual conference of the Music Teachers Association of California. Of the eight participants in the MTAC workshop, two young Asian-American pianists performed during the festival. In the following video clip (recorded during the 2010 Music Teachers Association of California conference), you can watch Evan Chow working with Philip Kereven in a piano improvisation master class.

Now watch Chow, a year later, as he accompanies a screening of 1922's "The Four Musicians of Bremen" at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival:

I found the performances by Evan Chow and Joseph Lai of particular interest because, in recent years, I've been so severely disappointed by film festivals that hire rock musicians to accompany silent film. This year, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival engaged composer Giovanni Spinelli to accompany F. W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans on an electric guitar (a brainstorm attributed to Paolo Cherchi Usai, the founder of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation as well as co-founder and co-director of Italy's Pordenone Silent Film Festival). In the following video clip, Spinelli talks about how he went about composing a score for this beloved film classic:


While I give Spinelli credit for trying something new, the results only proved the point I've been trying to make for several years. Rock music is the antithesis of what a silent film needs. It tends to drown out any hope of nuance, suffocate all attempts at subtlety, and lessen (rather than enhance) a silent film's impact.

Not only does an electric guitar have a very limited musical vocabulary (compared to a piano, theater organ, or ensemble), the idea of a silent film being paired with a rock musician -- who can easily be tempted to make as much noise as possible -- is simply counterproductive. A slow, but steady stream of people filed out of the Castro Theatre during the film's first half hour. When the screening concluded, the applause was polite.

When Spinelli spoke at the "Variations on a Theme" program two days later, he confessed that his performance had met with a lot less Sunrise and a lot more He Who Gets Slapped. I personally think the San Francisco Silent Film Festival would be better off trying to nurture talents like Evan Chow as the next generation of silent film accompanists.

Alas, there were several moments during last weekend's festival when I felt as if my head might explode but they had absolutely nothing to do with Spinelli's electric guitar. A little bit of sleep deprivation goes a long, long way. In recent years I've learned that, while watching movies of varying film quality, the effect on my eyes can trigger brief moments of narcolepsy.

The problem is that, especially when watching a black-and-white silent film, I can suddenly find myself in the middle of a Technicolor dream on a related topic (which gets extremely confusing). Thankfully, this did not occur during the screening of Winsor McCay's delightful 1921 short entitled Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend: The Pet.

The big news, of course, was the announcement that next spring the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will present four performances of Abel Gance's completely restored Napoleon at the Oakland Paramount with Carl Davis conducting the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Each screening of the 5-1/2 hour epic will begin in the afternoon and be shown in four parts with three intermissions (including a dinner break).

To help whet the audience's appetite for this historic event (the first time the completely restored Napoleon will be shown in North America), Academy Award winning film historian Kevin Brownlow gave a detailed lecture about how his early fascination with two 9.5-mm reels from Napoleon that he had purchased at a street market in the 1950s led to the culmination of a life's work in 2000.

For film fanatics, the chance to see Gance's Napoleon in all its glory will be as intoxicating as Richard Wagner's RING cycle is to opera lovers (you can order tickets here). Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape