Archival Spaces 295
San Francisco Silent Film Festival
Uploaded 13 May 2022
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival celebrated its 25th Anniversary, 5-11 May 2022, and its first live iteration since before the pandemic in 2019. It may also be the last SFSFF at the storied Castro Theater, which the owners -rumor has it – are converting to a concert venue sans seating. In any case, festival directors Anita Monga and Stacey Wisnia put together a stellar program with revelations at every turn. Due to teaching commitments, I missed several days but what follows are some of the highlights for me.
I was bowled over by Mikio Naruse’s 1933 masterpiece, Apart From You, a late silent, shown in a 35mm print from the National Film Archive of Japan. The film follows the fates of two geishas, one aging, the other young, both unhappy in their oldest profession, but trapped because they are supporting families. Terugiku falls in love with Kikue’s son, Yoshio, attempting to keep him from a life of crime, but the couple nevertheless part ways at film’s end because their familial commitments trump personal happiness. There are no big dramatic moments, just the women’s emotional struggle, expressed in intense close-ups, for example, when Kikue’s regular customer leaves her for a younger woman, or when Terugiku realizes her drunkard father wants to sell her younger sister, forcing her to continue working to feed her family.
Saturday evening, DJ Spooky presented his The Rebirth of a Nation Remix, a program he has been performing since 2005, but shown here with a modern score by Classical Revolution and Guenther Buchwald. Cut down from its ostensibly three-hour version to 70 minutes, DJ Spooky focuses on intimate scenes of the Caucasian Cameron and Stoneman families, juxtaposed with epic scenes of war and conflict. While Spooky and critic Wesley Morris discussed the project’s attempt at Brechtian distancing effects, I was surprised that the film still held its toxic power, in particular in the KKK “rides again” finale, despite digital manipulation. But the cut-down also made manifest the film’s racist core, its (and Griffith’s) obsession with miscegenation as the root of all evil.
Sunday’s discovery was the Ukrainian film, Arrest Warrant (1926, Heorhii Tasin), which not only eschewed the reigning Soviet aesthetic of montage and its anti-psychological treatment of actors but also presents an extremely ambiguous view of the Russian Civil War of 1918-20. The second of four films that Tasin directed for VUFKU before Stalin destroyed the Ukrainian company (see Archival Spaces 294), Arrest Warrant’s heroine, Nadya, is the lover of a Red Army Commissar. He asks her to hide important documents when the town is overrun by the White Army. She is psychologically tortured by her White Russian captors, aided by her ex-husband who is conspiring to take away their mutual child. The Bolsheviks don’t come off well either: when the Reds return, her lover believes without evidence that she has betrayed the cause, the woman a victim of patriarchy on all sides. Tasin’s film is constructed through continuity editing rather than dialectic montage, his use of chiaroscuro lighting and dream sequences – as the woman falls into delirium– is heavily influenced by GermanExpressionism, unlike anything else in 1920s Soviet cinema.
Sunday’s other revelation was Sylvester (1923, Lupu Pick), which was previously a more or less lost film since the only known nitrate print was inaccessible for decades. The Deutsche Kinemathek Berlin beautifully reconstructed the film with its original score by Klaus Pringsheim; in fact, the score was a guide for the new edit. Scripted by Carl Mayer without subtitles, the film is identified by Lotte Eisner as an expressionist Kammerspiel, but, like Mayer’s next film, The Last Laugh (1924), [and G.W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925)], Sylvester includes expressionist and new realist elements. Pick continually cuts between realistically shot public street scenes of drunken New Year’s Eve revelers of all classes with the intimate emotional struggle of a wife and mother-in-law for the affection of the husband-son, all punctuated by images of the eternal sea, reminding us of nature’s absence. It is in Eugen Klöpfer’s oversized, lumbering but essentially static body, paralyzed in the face of demands by the two women in his life, that we recognize Eisner’s definition of expressionist acting.
Limite(1931, Mário Peixote) is a Brazilian avant-garde film I have been chasing for at least 40 years available since its restoration in 2010. The two-hour-plus film, financed and directed by a wealthy Brazilian amateur, includes only snippets of narrative: two women and a man adrift on an endless sea, a confrontation between two men in a cemetery, a man and a woman foot-bathing, etc. Its construction of images of nature – while eschewing images of modernity – could be from a structuralist film from the 1960s (as could the minimalist electronic score by Matti Bye Ensemble), but also reminds me in its extreme subjectivity of Henwar Rodakiewicz’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1931), and of the existential dilemma in the isolation of its human subjects. We are caught in an endless dream between consciousness and sleep, life and death.
Another wonderful discovery was Dans la nuit (1930, Charles Vanel), independently produced and possibly the last French silent film to be released before the talkies arrived. Shot on location in northern France, near Vanel’s childhood home, the film’s first half presents a bucolic paradise of happy quarry workers and a manic country wedding, all sweetness and light. But just as many early images are bifurcated between light and dark, e.g. the taking of the wedding portrait, the film morphs into a nightmare when the young husband is mutilated in a quarry accident and loses the affection of his wife. Ten years after World War I, Vanel analogizes the trauma of France’s war wounded, his hero wearing a mask to hide his disfigured face, a trope future horror films would repeatedly utilize.
So many good films, so little time but I have to mention all the truly wonderful musical accompaniments not named above: Frank Bockius, Timothy Brock, Philip Carli, Clubfoot Hindustani with Pandit Krishna Bhatt, Stephen Horne, Sasha Jacobsen Quintett, Monte Alto Orchestra, Donald Sosin, and the professional debut of William Lewis. Their inventive live performances added a whole other dimension beyond music and sound.