In the past, I’ve balked at the request for a list of my top ten films of the year so far (here are TOH!’s) for a variety of reasons — mostly that I hadn’t seen enough, and, as I read this year in contributor Tom Brueggemann’s comments, that most of my choices would come out of the previous year’s film festival viewing. And when I did contribute a list, I insisted on including a television miniseries, documentaries, and a Raoul Walsh film from 1932. (Plus I included 13 films, disguised as 11.)
Reading through the other TOH writers’ lists, I found myself disagreeing with their affections more than agreeing. And, in thinking about the movies I had seen in 2014 that had truly enthralled me — and reminded me why I continue to get the hell out of my house and sit in a movie theater (it would have to be a true work of genius to reach through the TV and/or computer screen and grab me by the throat) — I realized that most of my peak experiences had occurred at the one unmissable film event of the year for me, the venerable San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
A couple of the movies had so elated me that I buttonholed people for weeks after the festival and told them that these were works of genius, two German Expressionist masterpieces: "Under the Lantern" by director Gerhard Lamprecht, and "Harbor Drift" by Leo Mittler.
I feared my listeners would run out of patience if I kept raving about "Cosmic Voyage," a late silent film by Vasil Zhuravlyov of the USSR; "Underground," by the British Anthony Asquith; "The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks" by Lev Kuleshov of the USSR; "Dragnet Girl," a late Japanese silent by Yasujiro Ozu; and "The Girl in Tails" by the Swedish actress/director Karin Swanstrom.
So at least seven out of ten on my best-so-far-of-2014 list came out of one delirious weekend. And so I interrogated the Artistic Director, Anita Monga, on how she had put together the stellar 2014 lineup, film by film.
I’d been transfixed by her SFSFF onstage introduction to the manic farce "The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks" when she had magically transported us to a late-night screening in Norway, where she’d discovered the movie, at the Tromso Silent Film Days, accompanied by a wacky-sounding group of musicians from Russia and Norway — the Russians wearing cowboy garb and the Norwegians wearing Russian ushankas, the fur hats with earflaps. To mix Scandinavian countries a little, it had sounded like something right out of a (Finnish) Aki Kaurismaki movie.
"They do the Silent Film Days every year, in September," Monga said, "separate from the annual January Tromso International Film Festival — the January festival, in the near-the-Artic-circle winter, coincides with the one day when the sun peeks over the horizon. They show films in the dark, sometimes projected on ice! Martha Otte, who runs both the festivals, and her husband Hermann Gruel, who runs the Nordic Youth Film Festival, invited us. They vacation in the Bay Area in the summer — they have a house near Yosemite — and had attended the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Unfortunately with our calendar change to late May/early June this year, instead of midsummer, they couldn’t come. At the Silent Film Days, I’d been asked to introduce the opening night film, ‘Aelita, Queen of Mars,’ that a group called the Cleaning Women were playing with, and I was wearing a grey outfit, with a skirt. The Cleaning Women came out — all men — and they were dressed exactly the same as I was!"
Did the success of your noir film festival, Noir City, which featured an international array of subtitled films, encouraged you to program this year’s obscure Silent Film Festival lineup, with just a few marquee names — Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, the inevitable Chaplin — among the unknown quantities?
"No, and I was never worried that people wouldn’t come to the Noir City festival, either. You build up a trust with an audience. They know you won’t sell them down the river."
I then questioned her about the circumstances surrounded each pick, learning that putting together a program is much, much harder (and takes more time and effort) than the smoothly-unspooling festival would lead one to believe. It’s not just a matter of attending the Pordenone Silent Film Festival once a year and cherry-picking your favorites. Lots of patience and diplomacy is involved.
"I was standing in line waiting to get my accreditation at Pordenone, next to Kevin Brownlow, and I was thinking about doing something to coincide with the 100th anniversary of WW I. I asked him ‘What would you say was the best WW I film,’ and he immediately said ‘The Four Horsemen,’ which he had restored, with a score by Carl Davis, which we couldn’t mount — unlike his epic version of Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon,’ which we had done in 2012, at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, with a 48-piece orchestra. It’s not just the money — you can’t get a full orchestra into the Castro. It took many months to convince him to do it with another score, by the Mont Alto Orchestra, and I think they did a wonderful job."
"It’s interesting to me to get a film from China, which is the passion of our advisory board member Richard J. Meyer. People don’t know them. I love the way this film goes from the rural village to the city. The China Film Archive did a DCP restoration, and they did a really good job. We got the intertitles translated, via Andrea Lingenfelter of SF’s Center for the Art of Translation, and, far beyond the call of duty, she found a recording of Wang Renmei singing the song in the movie — which had been married to the film, but lost — and we managed to synch it for the screening."
"I love Clive Brooks! This is from the New Zealand film archive, part of the continuing restoration of films from them undertaken by the National Film Preservation Foundation." (A selection of films — not including "Midnight Madness" — is available on DVD.)
"This is one I’ve wanted to do for many years. Pordenone calls this kind of programming ‘The Canon Revisited.’ It’s an unmitigated absolute masterpiece. And a chance to have the Swedish musician Matti Bye play. I eventually want to also program Carl Dreyer’s ‘The Master of the House.’"
"I saw it at Pordenone last year, and unfortunately I was sitting next to somebody who, uh, was quite smelly. The theater was packed, and I couldn’t see a free seat. I got up to leave, and in the lobby ran into Stefan Droessler of the Munich Film Museum. He said ‘This is a discovery — you really have to go back!’, and I did, and he was right."
"Tracey Goessel, who is one of our board members and a Fairbanks specialist, got Rob Byrne, the president of the board, who has an MA in Preservation from the University of Amsterdam, involved in this restoration, as well as our friends at the Cinematheque Francaise, who had some of the material used."
"We’ve long wanted to host Bromberg again, who last appeared in 2007. The amazing thing was seeing the alternate version of Keaton’s The Blacksmith, which was discovered by Fernando Pena, who had found the original uncut version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Argentina, which we presented in 2010. A fellow collector, Fabio Manes, bought a 9.5 mm version online, which has four minutes of footage unseen in the original American version."
"This [ed. note: a poetic documentary of a failed British expedition to Everest in 1924, which resulted in the death of two climbers] was selected from the BFI as part of the tribute to them in honor of their receiving this year’s Silent Film Festival Award. One of the things I loved: this was the first time that the accompanists, Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius, had seen the movie in its entirety on the big screen, instead of on DVD or during the brief sound rehearsal. And they were very moved by it."
"Again, I’d been wanting to show this for years — I saw the restoration three years ago — and once again it was done with a big orchestral accompaniment, 85 musicians, by Neil Brand, which we couldn’t do. I think Stephen Horne did a magnificent job — I especially love the first chase sequence."
"A major discovery! Gerhard Lamprecht was unknown to me. Martin Koerber, the head of the Deutsche Kinemathek, brought four Lamprecht films to Pordenone last year. He did a lot of social films, about things like children in the slums — the others were maybe a little too long and a little too do-gooding for our purposes. But this one [about a girl, turned out of her middle-class home by her father, who descends into prostitution] — so incredible! With the wonderful Donald Sosin score, and his extraordinary use of the drinking song."
"Matti Bye had asked to do Potemkin, which he calls ‘the Rock Star of silent films,’ but it had just been recently shown. I really tried to get Two Days, a Ukrainian film which was shown in Pordenone, but it was hard to find a print. This delightful film fit the bill."
"I programmed a Max Linder season decades ago, at the York [ed. note: no longer in existence as a movie house]. The French Ministry of Culture is doing a Linder tour. The mirror sequence is astonishing!" (Anita agrees with me that it seems a precursor to the famed Harpo/Groucho sequence in "Duck Soup.")
"Again, part of the canon. How could you not program this Ozu film? I also love wowing Eddie!" (Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir, who, after Anita showed him the film, both wrote about it for the catalogue and introduced it onstage.)
"Don’t you love Karin Swanstrom?," Anita says, referring to the film’s corpulent actress/director. "She certainly didn’t cut herself any slack!", I reply, since she was presented in an unflattering — if comedic –light. "I love the accretion of characters, each shown with generosity. It’s just a very charming and funny film, and the Mont Alto orchestra was charmed by it." I say that its feminist slant — and gathering of female friends, which seemed reminiscent of Natalie Barney’s sapphic circle, including one monocled character who seemed just like Barney’s lover Romaine Brooks’ portrait of Una Troubridge seemed very modern indeed.
"This was part of the BFI tribute. It’s a nod to the Holmes craziness of now. And I liked the fact that Conan Doyle liked Eille Norwood’s portrayal. I also love that it takes place on the real streets of London."
"I love that film so much. I tried to bring it to the festival for years. It came from the Bundesarchiv Film Archives in Berlin, after much negotiation. And Stephen Horne’s score — with Frank Bockius — was so wonderful." I can only agree, and hope that some day this film, as well as Under the Lanterns, will be available on DVD.
"It’s nice to end the festival with a comedy. If it was up to me [she laughs] — well, I guess it IS up to me! — I’d always end with a comedy."
We agree that, although some people consider The Navigator to be one of the lesser Keatons, more of a collection of set-pieces than an exquisitely-worked-out narrative, we sure do love those exquisitely-worked-out set pieces! I’m a sucker for the two shipboard kitchen sequences: the first, when the two rich kids have no idea how to cook; the second, when they’ve worked out a set of Rube-Goldberg-like devices to cook a meal quickly and mechanically. I also point out something Anita already knows: that the famous shot in which Keaton gets in his car and drives a U-turn to arrive at his girlfriend’s house was shot in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights.
As a special extra treat, "The Navigator" had been preceded by a rare Russian animated silent film, "Pochta," based on a poem about how a letter followed its intended reader as he travelled the world from country to country, that was published as a children’s picture book in 1928. Illustrator Mikhail Tsekhanovsky directed the movie, a year later.
"It’s very difficult to get stuff out of Russia. The film is on 35 millimeter. We had the Cyrillic captions list ahead of time. By the time the film arrived, we had no time to screen it — we were already in tech rehearsals for the festival. We had the U.S. Version of the picture book, too, but it’s different than the Russian. I ended up doing the translations myself, using Google translate — but poetically! I thought we might have to do them by speaking them over the film, but that would be too distracting, I thought. So I did them on Keynote, the Mac version of Powerpoint, and, exhausted, on the last night of the festival, we were crammed up in the booth, launching them manually!"