In the past, I've balked at the request for a list of my top ten films of the year so far (here are TOH!'s) for a variety of reasons -- mostly that I hadn't seen enough, and, as I read this year in contributor Tom Brueggemann's comments, that most of my choices would come out of the previous year's film festival viewing. And when I did contribute a list, I insisted on including a television miniseries, documentaries, and a Raoul Walsh film from 1932. (Plus I included 13 films, disguised as 11.)
Reading through the other TOH writers' lists, I found myself disagreeing with their affections more than agreeing. And, in thinking about the movies I had seen in 2014 that had truly enthralled me -- and reminded me why I continue to get the hell out of my house and sit in a movie theater (it would have to be a true work of genius to reach through the TV and/or computer screen and grab me by the throat) -- I realized that most of my peak experiences had occurred at the one unmissable film event of the year for me, the venerable San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
A couple of the movies had so elated me that I buttonholed people for weeks after the festival and told them that these were works of genius, two German Expressionist masterpieces: "Under the Lantern" by director Gerhard Lamprecht, and "Harbor Drift" by Leo Mittler.
I feared my listeners would run out of patience if I kept raving about "Cosmic Voyage," a late silent film by Vasil Zhuravlyov of the USSR; "Underground," by the British Anthony Asquith; "The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks" by Lev Kuleshov of the USSR; "Dragnet Girl," a late Japanese silent by Yasujiro Ozu; and "The Girl in Tails" by the Swedish actress/director Karin Swanstrom.
So at least seven out of ten on my best-so-far-of-2014 list came out of one delirious weekend. And so I interrogated the Artistic Director, Anita Monga, on how she had put together the stellar 2014 lineup, film by film.
I'd been transfixed by her SFSFF onstage introduction to the manic farce "The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks" when she had magically transported us to a late-night screening in Norway, where she'd discovered the movie, at the Tromso Silent Film Days, accompanied by a wacky-sounding group of musicians from Russia and Norway -- the Russians wearing cowboy garb and the Norwegians wearing Russian ushankas, the fur hats with earflaps. To mix Scandinavian countries a little, it had sounded like something right out of a (Finnish) Aki Kaurismaki movie.
"They do the Silent Film Days every year, in September," Monga said, "separate from the annual January Tromso International Film Festival -- the January festival, in the near-the-Artic-circle winter, coincides with the one day when the sun peeks over the horizon. They show films in the dark, sometimes projected on ice! Martha Otte, who runs both the festivals, and her husband Hermann Gruel, who runs the Nordic Youth Film Festival, invited us. They vacation in the Bay Area in the summer -- they have a house near Yosemite -- and had attended the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Unfortunately with our calendar change to late May/early June this year, instead of midsummer, they couldn't come. At the Silent Film Days, I'd been asked to introduce the opening night film, 'Aelita, Queen of Mars,' that a group called the Cleaning Women were playing with, and I was wearing a grey outfit, with a skirt. The Cleaning Women came out -- all men -- and they were dressed exactly the same as I was!"
Did the success of your noir film festival, Noir City, which featured an international array of subtitled films, encouraged you to program this year's obscure Silent Film Festival lineup, with just a few marquee names -- Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, the inevitable Chaplin -- among the unknown quantities?
"No, and I was never worried that people wouldn't come to the Noir City festival, either. You build up a trust with an audience. They know you won't sell them down the river."
I then questioned her about the circumstances surrounded each pick, learning that putting together a program is much, much harder (and takes more time and effort) than the smoothly-unspooling festival would lead one to believe. It's not just a matter of attending the Pordenone Silent Film Festival once a year and cherry-picking your favorites. Lots of patience and diplomacy is involved.