OK… world news. You know, when I retired from – as Dr. Lecter would put it – public life, I thought I would have all the time in the world to spend on writing book reviews, film reviews, and whatever you’re having yourself. But the way things have gone, I’ve begun to wonder how I ever found space for a normal job!
So… this small slice of news from the global silent film community in general and the 26th San Francisco Silent Film Festival in particular is coming to you just four months late; and it wouldn’t be coming to you at all if it weren’t for silent era authority Jonathan Mackris, once again comprehensively reporting for the excellent online Australian journal Senses of Cinema.
One of the biggies that jumped out at me was the screening of a restoration of John Ford’s 1925 film Kentucky Pride. I’ll get back to that one in a moment, though.
One of the things that I like about Mr. Mackris’s writing is that he’s not afraid to give a blunt opinion. In a world of contemptibly safe fence-sitters, that’s always a refreshing thing.
San Francisco’s Castro Theatre has been the long-time home of the Silent Film Festival; almost two years ago, however, Another Planet Entertainment acquired the building and in June of this year permission was granted to remove 1,400 orchestra-level seats and turn the historic old building into a concert hall.
I don’t live there and don’t have an informed opinion; but broadly I am very much against anything that means the loss of yet another of our great old ‘picture palaces’ – God knows there are few enough left as it is.
So, I’m pleased that Mackris states unequivocally:
“As for Silent Fest, the Castro has served as its home since its founding in 1996, as well as the home to its spin-off event, the ‘Day of Silents’, held each winter. In fact, looking over the programs for all of its events on the festival’s website, nearly every event since the ‘90s, with few exceptions, was programmed at the Castro.
“I want Silent Fest to continue to operate out of the Castro, an appropriate home for one of the most unique film festivals in the United States: dedicated exclusively to silent films, often prioritizing film restorations (even funding and overseeing restorations of their own), each accompanied by a live performance of an original score. One of the charms of the festival is that it values the artistry at all three levels – the films, their restoration, and their accompaniment…”
Here's hoping that the issue is resolved in something close to suiting all parties by the time that the 2024 Festival comes around.
Speaking for myself, one of the high points of the Festival would have undoubtedly been the comedy section dedicated to the films of Laurel and Hardy. I won’t belabour any further my love for these two men, only refer you to elsewhere on this site and my review of John Connolly’s marvelous novel He.
However, the centerpiece of this year’s festival as far as comedy went was Silent Cinema Galway’s perennial favourite Buster Keaton… and here Mr. Mackris’s outspoken opinions took me a little by surprise.
Three Ages (1923) was Keaton’s first film to feature him not only as an actor but also as a writer, director, and producer. I wouldn’t be surprised if that all-rounder cooked up the food during the breaks as well. What Mackris writes is interesting – and decidedly provocative!
“Three Ages is his three-part historical epic scored by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and restored last year by the Cinecita di Bologna as part of its Keaton project. I have long held that Three Ages is Keaton’s worst feature (released the same year as Our Hospitality, possibly his best), and seeing it again has done nothing to improve this view. Rossellini once said he would make an entire film for the sake of a single gesture, and we can easily imagine Keaton saying, for his part, that he would make an entire film for the sake of a single gag. The difference between them is that Keaton seldom finds it necessary to fill in the rest. In a sense, he’s perfect for clip montages, because the scenarios that contextualize his gags are so slight that, at their worst, they’re basically perfunctory. I think what I like least about his films is that they often choose the easiest way forward… in Keaton’s features [sarcasm] is sometimes the only thing holding the film up for long stretches between the more technically dazzling bits.”
Yowzah! Them’s fightin’ words where I hail from, pardner – but in fairness, Jonathan may have a point.
When he comes to the restoration of John Ford’s Kentucky Pride, he makes the reader sit up even straighter – with a most unexpected comparison between the 1925 Ford silent and Robert Bresson’s 1966 Au Hasard Balthazar. And it came about when a friend of his described the Ford film as an attempt at the Bresson piece forty years too early. At the time he took it to mean that both featured the animal as its protagonist rather than a human character.
“I did not expect that the intertitles were also written from the horse’s point of view, even using ‘I’ instead of third-person pronouns. (Helpfully, a horse is drawn in the corner of each intertitle to remind us of its unusual narrator.) I don’t know that I’d ordinarily associate Ford and Bresson – I also don’t know that I wouldn’t – but both films draw the same conclusion from centering an animal in the film, allowing them to follow a more sociological interest in many different strata of society.”
For more on Kentucky Pride, I’ll refer you to the ongoing series on John Ford’s silent films that have been running on the Silent Cinema Galway blog and which is written by Steve Mayhew -- an expert on anything even tangentially related to the great director. In fact, I emailed Steve with the details from San Fran and received in return the amusing Horse Escaped title for this piece. If you’re a Bresson fan you’ll get it; if not, have one explain it to you. In any case, the Ford movie was scored by Wayne Barker, with the restoration by the Museum of Modern Art. And along with Yasujiro Ozu’s Walk Cheerfully (1930, but like Chaplin Ozu was still silent), it appears to have been one of the highlights of the Festival.
There is a wealth of wonderful stuff to read on the 26th Festival, but for that, I’ll refer you to the aforementioned article in Senses of Cinema issue 107 by Jonathan Mackris. If you’re a movie fan in general you might find it worthwhile signing up for this online journal. And if you’re a silent fan in particular there’s also a fascinating piece on Raymond Longford’s 1916 Australian film A Sentimental Bloke, written by Darragh O’Donoghue.
Or… next year Adam Scheffler, founder of this Parish could make life easier and just send me on an all-expenses paid trip to cover the 27th San Francisco Silent Film Festival in person*.
I’ve just checked my social diary, found that I’m free – and would be more than happy to oblige. It’s something to think of.
* Sooner or later, Charley! For now, let us remain silent on this subject. - Adam