Monday, July 17, 2006

The11th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival Round Up

Marquee of The Castro Theater: Home of the 11th Annual Silent Film Festival

What a fantastic event! I have to say this is the best film festival I've ever attended. First, the programming was incredible. The films selected covered a wide range of style, genre, stars and periods. The programming started with the transcendent romance of Seventh Heaven and ended with the good natured but biting satire of Show People and in between included the following genres: western, social drama, gothic adventure, erotic drama, slapstick, Soviet comedy and The Unholy Three which defies an easy genre name- carnival crime caper I guess. Plus each film was in itself an entertaining and well made movie. Even the film I found the weakest, Au Bonheur Des Dames I was still glad to watch in a theater a second time. (It also screened at this year's SIFF.) I enjoyed seeing the same film with a completely different accompaniment.

The breadth of styles in accompaniment also added to the charm of the festival. Each film had a unique and appropriate score provided by different soloist and groups. I especially enjoyed Mike Mortilla's piano accompaniments to Bucking Broadway, Sparrows and the Laurel and Hardy shorts. Another stand out for me was The Balka Ensemble's accompaniment of The Girl with the Hatbox. Having a score played on traditional Russian instruments was perfect for the Soviet comedy. I also appreciated the conductor's explanation of the history of the Balka prior to screening the film.
Another aspect of the festival that I liked was the speakers and guest interviews before and after the films. Three stood out for me: festival patron and board member Frank Buxton comments on Laurel and Hardy, Christel Schmidt from the Library of Congress, and Harry Carey, Jr. My original impetus for coming to the festival was for the screening of John Ford's Bucking Broadway. Then I found out that Harry Carrey, Jr. would be there in person. He was the son of the two stars and a member of John Ford's stock company. I was not disappointed: the film was great and Mr. Carrey told some great Ford stories and signed copies of his excellent memoir: Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in The John Ford Stock Company.
The speakers were part of an overall imparting of film knowledge to the audience that included slide shows before each film and excellent essays on each film included in the program. The slide shows featured stills with captions relating to each film and informational slides including interesting facts about the films and their stars. Not only did it give you something to do while waiting for the film to start, but it enhanced your viewing of the film.
What this all boils down to is people make this festival great. The programmers' passion and ability to pick great films to share with their festival goers. The benefactors and sponsors willing to put money and time into mounting the festival. The guests and speakers willing to attend and impart their knowledge and reminiscences about these great films. A courteous and helpful staff of volunteers making each day of attendance a pleasure. And a theater full of passionate movie goers. I would love to see a festival like this in Seattle. For more information on the festival please go to:

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Chico! Diane! Heaven!

Seventh Heaven
San Francisco Silent Film Festival

janet oscar.jpg
Director Frank Borzage; Oscar; Actress Janet Gaynor

Relationship expert Dr Joy Brown once said "Romance is the poison of the twentieth century." After watching Seventh Heaven in a crowded theater last night, all I have to say is "What a way to go!" Judging from the sobbing and applauding I heard last night at The Castro, evidently everyone else pretty much felt the same. Isn't it amazing that a love story created about eighty years ago can still profoundly move a modern audience? Why?
Because of great film making that like Chico and Diane's love transcends the physical plane and touches the soul.

Seventh Heaven tells the story of Diane who lives in the slums of Paris with her sister who physically abuses her. When Diane cannot bring herself to lie to their newly arrived Aunt and Uncle about how the two women supported themselves, they lose their chance to leave their dire lives. Diane's sister chases her into the street meaning to kill her. Chico, a young sewer worker intervenes to save her first from her sister, then from a police round up of street walkers. He is forced to take Diane home with him when the police inform him that they will investigate his hasty claim that Diane is his wife. Not surprisingly the two fall in love, to only be tragically parted by right when Chico proposes to her. Will they be parted forever? Watch the movie and find out for yourself.
What makes the film great is the change wrought in Diane by the redemptive power of love. It is romantic love but it is closely interlinked with the love of God. From the time the lovers meet to the end of the film their love is linked to God's love through dialog, visuals, and metaphors. Their love which is both physical and spiritual brings her grace. Diane grows not only to love Chico but herself. When Chico leaves her, after a self performed marriage rite using religious medals in place of rings, to go to war, her sister shows up. As she has before she starts to beat a seemingly helpless Diane. When she rips the necklace with the medallion from Diane's neck, Diane turns the tables and vanquishes her sister in a furious attack. Diane will no longer allow herself to be victimized. The applause from the audience was thunderous.
Janet Gaynor rightfully won the first Oscar for best actress for a combination of this film, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and Street Angel. Her performance as Diane is luminous. She engages our sympathy from the beginning. Every emotion from despair, love, hope, to fear she conveys with her face and eyes in a subtle but effecting manner. Charles Farrell plays Chico with the right amount of charm, fun and seriousness. Chico is brash and cocky but displays an amazing emotional depth when he falls in love with Diane. If he gives her self-confidence then she gives him vulnerability. Frank Borzage, the director, manages to make a lushly lyrical film that tells the emotional truth. He balances romanticism and realism in a way most directors would be incapable of doing.