Sunday July 15th 2007
By Meredith Brody
San Francisco is blessed with more interesting and compelling film festivals than any other city I have ever lived in -- and they weren’t tank towns: I’m talking New York, Paris, and, most perplexing of all, Los Angeles, which after the demise of Filmex spent a number of years without any major international film festival at all. Happily things have improved in LA since, with both the AFI Film Festival and the Los Angeles Film Festival, showcasing independent film vying for audiences.
Among the festivals I most look forward to in San Francisco are the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Noir City, and, of course, the venerable San Francisco International Film Festival, the oldest continually running film festival in the Americas, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary this spring. And that list is just off the top of my head.
But, still, my favorite San Francisco Film Festival is the Silent Film Festival: it’s the only one that I will drop everything for. Well, almost, everything: last year I had to skip the last day because I left on a long-scheduled trip to Prague, Budapest, and Bucharest. I loved every minute I spent in Eastern Europe, but I DID resent missing a day of silents, most especially The Girl With the Hatbox, a rare 1927 Russian film with Anna Sten. I’m not likely to run across that one anytime soon. I tried to be a grown-up and remind myself I had already seen other films showing that day, including The Unholy Three and Show People, while knowing full well that seeing those movies at the Castro, with live musical accompaniment, in the company of a large, sensitive, and enthusiastic audience, elevates the experience to a totally new and enthralling one. The Festival makes abandoning one’s daily life easy by running such a tight, focused weekend, of course (try to ignore your obligations when a film festival runs a couple of weeks).
The third and last day of the 2007 Festival was exhilarating. Program Seven, More Amazing Tales from the Archive, amused, with lively anecdotes of rediscovered films and the organizations that restore and preserve them, complete with film clips, from Patrick Loughney of George Eastman House, Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress, and Rob Stone of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, with piano accompaniment by the inventive Donald Sosin.
Another clip show followed, Program Eight’s Retour de Flamme (Saved From the Flames), an almost-too-generous array of twenty short films and excerpts of mostly French origin, often with special effects and hand-tinting. These were highlighting the preservation efforts of presenter Serge Bromberg (who also provided his own piano accompaniment) and his prolific, Paris-based Lobster Films. I asked him afterwards where the name came from, and he said he’d thought of Frog, after the American slang for French people, but it was already taken. He came up with Lobster because he’d lived with a non-French-speaking American girlfriend who asked him why he so frequently used the word “langouste”; it was actually “l’angoisse” (anguish, or anxiety) that he said, but Lobster stuck in his mind. “And,” he said, “I like Dali’s lobster telephone, too.”
Program Nine, William C. de Mille’s Miss Lulu Bett, demonstrated one of the great pleasures of seeing a decades-old movie today, with an enlightened and mature audience: sharing an unabashedly sentimental experience. It’s a delicate matter: the success depends on a question of tone. And much credit goes to the unsung Lois Wilson, a now-mostly-forgotten actress of great skill.
My companions and I gave in to the realization that this year’s Festival, in order to pack extra programming into each day, had eliminated the dinner break of previous Festivals, during which we’d sampled the best of the Castro (including Home, and the Woodhouse Fish Company). So, as Martine and I watched the thrilling, Hitchcockian-but-more-stylized A Cottage on Dartmoor, by Anthony Asquith, with the equally thrilling piano accompaniment by Englishman Stephen Horne, who has performed his original score for the movie everywhere from the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy to the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, Hilary made the trek down Market Street to the Woodhouse Fish Company to bring us back Woodhouse’s exemplary lobster rolls. (It’s only as I write this that I note the coincidence with Lobster Films. I wonder if that subconsciously encouraged our choice. I doubt it. I note that whenever I am within range of Woodhouse, getting a lobster roll there – or, even better, a whole lobster – occurs to me, whether I complete the action or not. Recently I have also become enamored of the excellent lobster rolls available at the North Beach Lobster Shack, www.oplobster.com: the Maine Lobster Roll, lobster mixed with Hellman’s mayo and green onions, stuffed in a top-loading bun baked especially for them, and the Naked Lobster Roll, just lobster meat in the bun with sides of drawn butter and mayo, and chunks of lemon. Yum.)
The fries have gone a little limp, but they’re wonderfully potatoey, and who cares, anyway: it’s the most luxurious snack I’ve ever enjoyed during a movie. And that movie is the last one of the festival, the deliriously lurid, enjoyably over-the-top The Godless Girl, by Cecil B. DeMille (and yes, he’s William’s brother, though they spelt their last names differently). The wacky combination of high school kids forming atheism clubs, rioting with Christian classmates, and members of each faction being sent to reform schools that needed reforming themselves, featured, in addition to Demille’s trademark mix of sex and sadism, the sexy, glowing performances of Lina Basquette and Marie Prevost, way plumper and juicier than the Lindsay types who might play such high schoolers today. Both of these lively girls went on to rather poignant second acts after leaving show business.
After leaving the 12th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, I felt poignant, too. But their December program is only five months away.