Silent statement: Abel Gance's 1919 "J'accuse" is a startlingly original pacifist statement that has probably been more widely experienced in recent years via the director's 1938 talkie remake. (Photo courtesy SF Silent Film Festival)

Wintering with the SF Silent Film Festival

Dennis Harvey December 9, 2009

You’d assume the sound of silence would be restful. But just as Simon & Garfunkel started their song on that subject with "Hello Darkness, my old friend…," one must admit there’s room for it to be kinda creepy, too. Arriving a tad late for Halloween, this year’s Silent Film Festival Winter Event offers one long day of revivals at the Castro that’s surprisingly macabre—given that it hails from the era best remembered for the chipper and charming likes of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Clara Bow.

Whether this was a matter of loosely thematic intention or simply an accident, the bill this Saturday runs a gamut from "primitive" exotica to antiwar allegory to grotesque melodrama. Yes, there is comedy, with the lovable Buster Keaton no less—but even that comes via his most fantastical vehicle.

Should you go? Uh, need you even ask? The real question involves stamina: With every program well worth seeing, can you handle camping out at the Castro for a solid 12 hours?

At least it’ll be easy to sleep in late as fortification. First up at 11:30 a.m. is the oddball (by today’s standards—in 1927 it was simply thrilling) anthropological docudrama-cum-fancy Chang, whose creators would make King Kong six years later. Shot on location in Siam (now Thailand [editor’s note: this was corrected from the original]), it’s the story of a rice-farming, stilt-house-dwelling family who deal with all the threats of their surrounding jungle.

Presented as a manifest destiny kinda thang, their methodical trapping/killing (helped by the entire village) of bears, leopards, tigers, snakes and stampeding elephants wouldn’t pass muster in today’s reality of endangered species and PETA protests. If you can overlook its condescendingly corny intertitles, Chang remains an offbeat artifact, with impressive animal wrangling that must have been quite perilous (for beasts and humans alike) in those days of scant safety regulation.

Next at 2 p.m. is Abel Gance’s 1919 J’accuse, a startlingly original pacifist statement that has probably been more widely experienced in recent years via the director’s 1938 talkie remake. Film buffs today know Gance best for his colossal 1927 Napoleon, which historical epic was painstakingly restored and shown across the U.S. (under Francis Ford Coppola’s auspices) in the early 1980s.

Gance died in 1981, nearly a century old—but despite a long (if sporadic) subsequent career, his most extraordinary achievements remained youthful ones. His ambition and foresight was as extraordinary as it was (often) ruinous— Napoleon famously incorporated widescreen and triptych imagery requiring three projectors. (He’d also considered color and 3-D.) It was also, originally, six hours long. Needless to say, that didn’t go over too well commercially.

J’accuse was his first triumph, at least in freshly war-scarred France. (In the U.S., the antiwar message was perceived as more controversial, and a heavily-cut version bombed.) In both this and the ’38 remake, the early drama—melding global conflict and a romantic triangle—is impressively scaled by the visually wizardly Gance, yet pales in contrast to the striking climax. In which literal armies of the war dead arise to protest their needless slaying in the names of patriotism, politics, commerce, or whatever.

That major downer is followed at 7 p.m. by a dose of sheer delight. 1924’s Sherlock Jr. has Buster Keaton as a projectionist whose dozing daydreams at work turn him into a cinematic sleuth whose Pirandello-goes-slapstick adventures blur with his waking-life pursuit of an ingenue. By all accounts Keaton was a humble, uncomplicated man. But in this period when his ideas as writer-director-producer when unchallenged (before MGM had the bright idea of using him as a mere contract player…and Jimmy Durante’s stooge!), no one made movie comedy as physically (even lyrically) imaginative as he. Sherlock Jr. is 45 minutes long, and sublime. It will be shown with his 1921 two-reeler The Goat, which is about a guy, a girl, and…you know.

Finally, we leap scalp-deep into the fugliest human behavioral swamp with West of Zanzibar, a very late (1929) silent and misanthrope’s delight from the famous duo of director Tod Browning and "Man of a Thousand Faces" Lon Chaney. Taking us back to Chang’s jungle, this features predators more poisonous than any man-eating snake or tiger—namely the Green Monster (jealousy) and that demon alcohol.

When his wife is stolen by some slick jerk, Chaney’s fight-injured hero becomes "Dead-Legs," a paralyzed yet busily wicked avenger who pursues his usurper and alleged stepdaughter to the torrid Congo tropics. There he plots the full degradation of his prey while casually overseeing the more gradual destruction of anyone else within reach. This remarkably sordid story does not neglect caricature of the "natives" as cannibals and human-sacrificers, which latter event occasions the immortal text, "We…come…get…white…girl."

Not up for camping all afternoon and evening at the Castro? Baby, you’ll be deep enough in camp watching West of Zanzibar alone. Although it must be said, Chaney (who died of throat cancer one year later) remains an extraordinary actor who even here transcends and humanizes the grotesquerie of his scenario.

As ever, the Silent Fest is bringing in lots of guests for this event, including Keaton’s granddaughter Melissa Cox, preservationist Robert Byrne, biographer Mark Vaz, and (as yet unconfirmed) Chaney’s great-grandson Ron. Plus of course there will be live musical accompaniment on the Mighty Wurlitzer for each show.

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