Whoopee! Cinecon 48 is here! I can’t wait! Each year, with the Labor Day weekend, comes one of the most enjoyable film festivals in Los Angeles. It’s a chance to see some truly rare cinema, both silent and classic sound films. Cinecon (www.cinecon.org) gives classic film lovers a chance to check out some truly rare films, as well as a few “old friends.” And even old friends can appear fresh and “new,” under some circumstances.
Less than two months back, I was at another great festival, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (www.silentfilm.org). It has become one of three “can’t miss” annual events on the west coast for me. The other two, in Los Angeles, are Cinecon, of course, and UCLA’s Festival of Preservation (www.cinema.ucla.edu/programs/ucla-festival-preservation ). Of these, San Francisco’s is the only festival that is made up exclusively of silent cinema. Over its seventeen seasons it has grown from a delightful trio of films to a smorgasbord of 17 programs, presented over 4 days. The presentations range from newly restored, well-known titles that are part of everyone’s “Silent Film 101” education, to rarities and truly remarkable discoveries from world cinema─ films that everyone ought to know. Now, thanks to the good folk in San Francisco, we can!
For a music lover, San Francisco offers something else that is unique, at least at the west coast festivals I have attended: a delicious variety of musical ensembles of extraordinarily high quality. This year, that meant (in order of appearance) the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Donald Sosin, Dennis James, Stephen Horne, an amusing group known as Toychestra, the Matti Bye Ensemble, and the Alloy Orchestra.
For much of the silent era, if you went to a first-run theater in a major city, you heard an orchestra that might number from 3 or 5 players anywhere up to a 30 or even 50-piece symphony. Due to obvious financial constraints, screenings of symphonic proportion must be reserved these days for special events like SFSFF’s presentation of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, earlier this year. But the commitment required to present even a five member group like Mont Alto is significant, and the fact that San Francisco chooses to present not just one, but a several ensembles, makes this festival a true gem to behold.
I always particularly enjoy the foreign films that San Francisco brings from overseas. This year, Little Toys (1933) from China and the German film, The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna (1929) were my personal favorites. From what I was told, a print of Nina Petrovna exists in the United States, but when the festival learned that a better and more complete print exited overseas, they went to the added expense to be sure that they presented the best material possible.
Exterior of the 1922 vintage Castro Theatre, at 429 Castro Street, San Francisco.
Of course, one of the great joys of this festival is its venue, the wonderful Castro Theatre. It’s such a pleasure to take a seat in this house, and settle in for a great movie. Naturally, a few of the restorations that appear in San Francisco may already have played Los Angeles, and I had seen three of this year’s offerings on big screens in LA. But seeing Wings (1927), The Loves of Pharoah (1922), and Pandora’s Box (1929) again at the Castro was still a treat.
This year my financial circumstances are more limited than they have been in the past, so I had to keep expenses to a minimum, and offset the cost in any way possible. That necessitated a visit to www.airbnb.com where I was able to find an inexpensive but conveniently located place to crash between midnight and 8:00 AM each night. Thanks also go out to Thomas Gladysz, journalist and creator of the internet-based “Louise Brooks Society” (www.pandorasbox.com) who was kind enough to invite me to the dealers’ lounge between films, to sell and sign copies of my documentary DVDs, including some of the last remaining copies of the original Image edition of my film Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu (1998), as well as my more recent film, The Woman with the Hungry Eyes (2006), about the legendary Theda Bara.
Thomas Gladysz and Yours Truly
Several events at this year’s festival were presented by Fandor.com, an online streaming service that is quickly signing up silent film distributors. Jeff Masino of Flicker Alley introduced me to Fandor V.P. Jonathan Marlow, who is an enthusiastic proponent of the medium we love. Fandor is definitely a site to watch, and may prove to be the silent film online venue of the future.
I very much enjoyed Pola Negri in The Spanish Dancer (1923) and Betty Compson in The Docks of New York (1928), a particularly unflinching (and decidedly “pre-Code”) film from director Josef von Sternberg. A significant part of my appreciation for both presentations was due to the profoundly effective work of Donald Sosin at the piano. Sosin was joined by Jim Washburn and Gregg Smith for the Negri title, and I don’t think I could have asked for a more dramatic and enjoyable accompaniment.
Still other pleasures included Dennis James really slicing through a terrific score for The Mark of Zorro (1920), Douglas Fairbanks’ seminal swashbuckler, and the Alloy Orchestra’s delightfully quirky take on the even quirkier 1926 Russian film, The Overcoat, based loosely on a couple of stories by Nikolai Gogol. This comedy was a product of the creative collective FEKS, or “Factory of the Eccentric Actor.” It’s hard to watch the stylized acting in The Overcoat without mentally referencing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but this is really a very different sort of film, with terrific photography, much of it at night, and a sharply humorous spirit. I found myself contrasting it to a very different, much gentler Russian comedy, The Kiss of Mary Pickford (1927) that I had the honor to introduce at SFSFF’s winter event in 2009. Neither film would have been possible only a few years later, as “Socialist Realism” became a straightjacket binding just about all Soviet art.
Marquee casts its luminous glow over Castro Street on Saturday night.
The centerpiece of this year’s festival was the screening of Cineteca de Bologna’s new print of the recent and stunningly pristine restoration of G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) with Louise Brooks. The restoration, like several at this year’s festival, was the result of meticulous frame-by-frame digital clean-up, and was overseen by a company called BigSound, David Ferguson, and Angela Holm, with much of the funding coming from Hugh M. Hefner. When this restoration was screened in Los Angeles, I was tapped to introduce the film, and I have fond memories of that screening. But this presentation, despite some minor problems with the English-language titles, which had to be projected live over the print, surpassed that experience, thanks to a stunningly evocative live score from the Matti Bye Ensemble.
Pandora’s Box is a difficult film to score “just right.” Prior to this screening, my favorite music for the film was the score recorded many years before by Stuart Oderman, available only on VHS tape. A few years ago the Criterion Collection brought out a DVD edition with no less than four different scores, but tragically, for my money, not a single one was a “home run.” On that disc, Dimitar Pentchev’s score, with its Kurt Weill-ian sensibility, comes closest, but none of the music offered can match the film’s irony and dark esthetic. Saturday, July 14, at the Castro Theatre, the Matti Bye Ensemble did! The music seemed to breathe through the mouth and nose and into the body of Louise Brooks, filling her lungs and bringing her to exquisite life. She floated on this musical current, downriver on her tragic odyssey, from the carefree dance in her lover’s flat, along her travels through the German night, down to the docks by the sea, and then finally the music seemed to evaporate, a dissolving wisp, as her heart is pierced by the knife of “Jack the Ripper.” I hope you, too, were there, because like all live performance, even with the best of intentions and opportunity, it may never live and breathe this same way, again.
As evocative as the music was, the impact of the film was also due to a great degree to the remarkable restoration presented here. It cannot be denied that the digital tools available to today’s archivists are not merely powerful, but are in fact profoundly effective, when used wisely. The ability of these digital tools to correct problems with dust, scratches, stability, contrast, timing, and particularly various forms of emulsion damage, far exceeds anything that can be done photochemically. We have seen the dawn of a new generation of film restoration, where careful, conscientious use of these new tools can bring us closer than ever to the filmmaker’s ideal presentation.
Pandora’s Box on the Castro Theatre screen. (Image simulated.)
I think you could not help but watch this screening with “new eyes,” as though seeing the film for the first time. This can produce a delightful, but ironic effect: one film archivist friend of mine told me afterward that he was amazed by all the additional footage in the restoration that he had never seen before. The thing is, I think he was mistaken! Of course there were badly cut versions of Pandora’s Box, but the film has been available in a substantially complete form for some time now. While Ferguson and Holm pulled material from archives all over Europe, my understanding is that the key to this restoration was the clarity of the image (as well as some previously lost title cards). Over the years we’ve all gotten used to seeing the films we love through images that are far from perfect, be it a battered 35 mm print, a fuzzy 16 mm copy, or a god-awful film-to-tape transfer done by careless people with substandard equipment. When we get a chance to see a film we have seen many times before, in a print that surpasses those of our previous experience, it can be like seeing that film with new eyes.
I had this experience myself, a few years ago. When we made the documentary The Woman with the Hungry Eyes: The Life and Films of Theda Bara, I spent hours in the telecine room with a 16 mm dupe negative of Theda Bara’s first hit, A Fool There Was (1915). After that I spent multiples of those hours with our film-to-tape transfer in the video edit room. By the time I was done, I was certain I knew that film as well as anyone. At the time, a 16 mm element was all that was available. Though the Museum of Modern Art had a 35 mm source, they did not have an access print in that format, and the only other 35 mm print, at BFI, had been retired due to deterioration. Kino had released a DVD that was completely unusable for my purposes, as it had been transferred at 24 frames per second, when it should have been run at 18 or 19 frames per second, and furthermore it had extremely poor shadow detail in many of the interior scenes. The 16 mm material we worked from was no sharper than the somewhat soft Kino version, but we were able to transfer it at the correct speed and control the contrast more effectively, in some scenes significantly so. The point here is that we took a lot of time, and by the time we were done, I thought myself thoroughly familiar with the film.
Theda, the vampire, watches over the remains of one of her victims, in a publicity shot probably made for A Fool There Was.
With an irony that is all to frequently encountered in this business, a year or so after we finished our documentary, the Museum of Modern Art produced a new 35 mm access print of A Fool There Was. This was no digital restoration, as the cost of both the tools and the raw man-hours required to do a thorough job still keep digital work out of reach for silent film projects that do not enjoy significant studio or private funding. But when the best example you’ve had is a soft 16 mm, a sharp new 35 mm print, with carefully-controlled contrast, and shot-by-shot timing, can still be a revelation. I visited the Museum of Modern Art in 2008, and viewed their new 35 mm print of A Fool There Was on screen in the museum’s theater. I was bowled over! The improved sharpness and contrast revealed so much more of the work of the actors and the director! And still further, I saw several shots, and even one scene of which I had no memory. I was certain that I had seen footage I had never seen before. I rushed home and pulled out my film-to-tape transfer, using notes I had made at the museum to look up each scene where I had seen new footage. But I was wrong! Everything I had seen in the museum’s 35 was there in the 16 mm footage, down to the frame.
I had seen A Fool There Was in 2006, but now I had seen it with new eyes! There were moments in the film that I had looked through, rather than at. It’s so easy to do this, when the image is of poor quality. And when the fog is lifted it becomes a revelation.
Yes, of course, I’m sure the two year gap had something to do with it. But once such images have seared your memory, they have much greater staying power. I’ll wager that I will have no such surprise the next time I view the 35 mm print of this film. I have now seen the film as I had not, before. I hope others will have such opportunity…frequently.
As yet it is not possible to simply scan a film to 2k, or 4k, or 8k resolution, press a single computer key, and – Voilah! – get a fully restored work ready to record back to film. To do much of the work that we saw in the digital restorations at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival (Wings, The Loves of Pharoah, and Pandora’s Box) a great number of hours must still be spent, reviewing and fixing one frame at a time. Not all that is digital is gold, too. An overenthusiastic operator can easily over-correct, and introduce digital artifacts, or remove visible film grain, or bring out detail the was meant to be obscured, and thus destroy the integrity of the film he or she is trying to restore. But when these tools are used well, they offer great possibility.
At the informative talk given Friday morning about digital restoration, Paramount archivist Andrea Kalas, while showing us fascinating comparisons of raw and fixed frames and scenes from Wings warned that it may be some time before we see another Paramount silent raised to this level of restoration. It’s still too expensive for a profit-making company and, one presumes, a public or privately funded archive, unless some unique funding strategy is available. Nevertheless, we should be grateful that new ways to restore our film heritage do exist, and are getting better and more affordable by the year. Soon, we may be able to see many more films with new eyes. And that is a good thing, indeed.
~ Hugh Munro Neely