What do I like about the San Francisco Silent Film Festival? Apart from the fabulous Castro cinema with its huge screen, gorgeous décor, perfect sightlines, and refreshingly sturdy balcony (for a cinema of its age)—hmmm … everything. The people, the films, the mattresses.
My revelatory rediscovery? It’s the little things. It will come as no surprise that, as an archivist, my favorite things at this festival are the little nuggets of discoveries in Amazing Tales from the Archives. I remember a moment of gobsmacked incredulity at the story of sixteen-year-old be-jodhpured, wide-eyed Aloha Wanderwell (Aloha? Wanderwell? Really?) who toured the world in a Model T with a man nearly old enough to be her father (hmmm), made films, flew planes, fought herds of elephants, and discovered lost tribes in the Brazilian rain forest. I began to suspect that the Academy’s Heather Linville had made it all up—it’s too, too quintessentially 1920s and a little bit too Tintin … too.
Favorite live cinema moment? Impossible to choose, but a moment sticks in my mind during the screening of The Epic of Everest (1924), with music by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius: the long ringing of a gong wrapped in silence. A moment of rare communion with fellow humans, eight hundred people making no noise, rapt in silence together, in that glorious space.
One story I’ve been yearning to tell is about the weirdness of pantomime and silent comedy. Harlequins and clowns keep popping up in early films I’m watching, and people keep changing into things that are almost, but not quite, entirely different to the thing they changed from. There is something about the specificity of the surreal in early film comedy that points to a universal truth—if only we knew what it was. It needs another decade of pondering.
Favorite silent film of all time? Unfair question. I love them all, from the grandest epic to the smallest ensemble piece. But if I were doing my Desert Island Movies there would probably be a Lubitsch and a Hitchcock in there somewhere.
British Film Institute’s BRYONY DIXON presents her own nuggets of discovery in this year’s Great Victorian Moving Picture Show.