My September 2009 film column for Maximum Rock N Roll. Originally appeared in issue 316.
SILENCE IS GOLDEN
One of the best things about summer in San Francisco is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. If you've never seen a silent film, you need to. One of the best ways to see one is at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. While you could probably watch a silent film at home on your 50-inch flatscreen TV or whatever you have, seeing a film in a theater with live musical accompaniment is the way to go. San Francisco Silent Film Festival pulls out all the stops. It takes place at the Castro Theater, an art-deco theater that opened in 1922 and has managed after all these years to remain a one-screen theater. The screen is really big. There is a Wurlitzer organ that rises from the floor and is played before some films or in the case of some of these silent films during the film. Additional sound effects have even been recently added which probably annoys purists. I didn't really notice until gunshots loudly rung out during one film. Then I started noticing all of the extra sounds.
The first film I saw was Underworld, which is purportedly the first film to glamorize gangsters. It was made in 1927 and was the first hit film for director Josef von Sternberg. Underworld opens with a late night bank robbery conducted by a lone man Bull Weed. He is seen leaving the scene of the crime by drunkard Rolls Royce whom is stumbling down the street. Instead of threatening Royce, Weed decides to clean him up and put him to work. Royce was a lawyer so his knowledge comes in handy. That is until he falls for Weed's girl Feathers.
Underworld is a dark film. Gangsters are intelligent and the cops are easily manipulated. Ben Hecht who would later go on to write the screenplay for the original Scarface wrote the story.
Next up is Aelita, Queen of Mars, a 1924 Russian Sci-fi film. Half of the film is set in Russia, during the Russian Civil War. Food is being rationed. People have been displaced. Around the world a strange radio message is received. No one can decipher it, but it causes Russian engineer Los to dream of going to Mars. The other half of the film is set on Mars. Gor, a Martian engineer, designs a device to view other worlds. The Martian elders decide to keep the machine a secret, but Queen Aelita discovers it. Since Gor has a crush on Aelita he shows her how it works. She becomes obsessed with watching people on Earth. The story lines eventually collide when Los and two other Russians go to Mars. Politics oddly clash between the two races with an attempt at a workers revolution on Mars.
While the sudden shift to a political angle definitely throws the viewer for a loop, Aelita, Queen of Mars presents a very interesting look at how outer space was thought of by the Russians in those days. The Martians' costumes are very elaborate with large headdresses and metallic clothing. The look of Mars is almost Cubist. There are lots of stairs and odd-shaped buildings. It is all very imaginative and much more interesting than what Hollywood presents as outer space today.
I am not sure how it happened, but everyone I talked to at the festival on Saturday seemed very excited to see Erotikon, a Czech film from 1929. Rumors circulated throughout the theater that the film is a silent porn. So the house was full at 1 pm on Sunday for the screening. As it ended up there was no nudity, but there was one very impassioned scene where the protagonist Ita has sex with a man who was invited to stay at the family's house by her father. The scene is mostly shown from Ita's point of view and she seems to be enjoying it very much. I am sure it would have been enormously shocking to American audiences in 1929 if they ever had the chance to see Erotikon. It probably wouldn't easily get by the MPAA censors today. Erotikon then descends into an average melodrama where Ita is forced to deal with the consequences of this one night stand.
So's Your Old Man gets it title from a comeback W.C. Fields would respond with when insults that came his way. The joke appears twice in the film once as an insult and later as a compliment. Fields plays Samuel Bisbee an inventor who creates unbreakable windshield glass. He also likes to drink and shows obvious contempt for authority and the rich. The son of the richest family in town The Murchisons is interested in marrying Bisbee's daughter. After meeting Mr. Bisbee, Mrs. Murchison won't allow it. She throws some insults at him about his uncouth behavior and he replies with "so's your old man."
Bisbee sets off to Washington DC to meet some car manufactures to show his unbreakable windshield glass. He parks his car in a no parking zone. The car is moved. After throwing bricks through the windshields of some other cars, he goes back home on the train a failure. On the train, he accidentally meets a princess who comes to visit him in his hometown. The Muchisons and others in town quickly change their attitude toward him. But Bisbee does not reciprocate. He thinks the Princess is pulling a fast one on the townspeople, which makes him appreciate her more.
Director Terry Zwigoff introduced So's Your Old Man at the festival saying it is the funniest film he's ever seen. It is incredibly funny. You almost forget it is a silent film as Fields dishes out the insults. His physical comedy also adds so much. The simple act of walking into his house from the garage in only an undershirt then attempting to become more presentable by pulling up his suspenders is done so brilliantly straight. It is a wildly fun film.
The final film I saw at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was Jean Epstein's The Fall Of The House Of Usher from 1928. Epstein started as a film critic before becoming an experimental film director. When The Fall Of The House Of Usher was introduced at the film festival it was mentioned that Luis Bu–uel was working as assistant director on the film until he insulted a producer. Epstein fired Bu–uel, reportedly telling him to stay away from the Surrealists.
The Fall Of The House Of Usher is based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe. Roderick Usher is obsessed with painting his wife Madeleine's portrait. As he paints, Madeleine begins to die. Usher calls for a friend Allan to help figure out what is wrong with Madeleine. Usher continues to paint. The film is dark, stifling and otherworldly. It is a bad dream.
Besides the annual July festival, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has added a winter event. The film has yet to be announced, but the date is set for December 12, 2009. silentfilm.org
I am always looking for films to review. If you made one, send a copy to Carolyn Keddy, PO Box 460402, San Francisco, CA 94146-0402. If your film is playing in the San Francisco Bay Area, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will go see it.