By far my most deliriously delicious experience at SFSFF dates back to that enchanted night at the 2008 edition of the festival when I stood behind a microphone and narrated into the Castro nitrate airs the intertitles embedded in my favorite film of all time, also the most romantically sadomasochistic film of all time, the Tod Browning and Lon Chaney collaboration, The Unknown (1927). The George Eastman House print of the film had only French intertitles, so someone had to read each card’s English translation out loud! When Stacey Wisnia invited me to supply this voiceover, live at the legendary Castro, I needed an iron to smooth out the gooseflesh that rose on my back. How did Stacey know I loved this film more than any other in the history of cinema? Maybe because I’d been telling anyone within earshot about this cruel, taut masterpiece for years! Anyway, with my woefully inadequate voice—I’m not exactly James Mason—I copresented the picture along with the incomparable Stephen Horne at the keyboard. I guess because The Unknown is so important to me, the Castro seemed bigger than ever that night; its shadowy dimensions stretched out for blocks in all directions; there were three extra balconies stacked to improbable heights above the usual one; the concessions stand was a couple streetcar stops away; and there were roughly ten thousand rabid silent film fanatics thronging the pitch-black galleries! And every one of these lovers of kino muteness had their bat ears popped up in erect alertness for every dark nuance throbbing out of the sickened and sickening heart of Chaney’s Alonzo the Armless, a man longing to claw with his hands—but willing to use his feet if necessary—the heart, soul, and lithe torso of his beloved Joan Crawford. What a frighteningly crazy film, what an insane night! Hoots, hollers, shreds of anguish, joy, and something celebratorily rancid rained down from the black rafters above as Chaney, Browning, Crawford, Horne, and I danced our cruel cakewalk together for forty-eight exquisite minutes of mad-love cinema perfection, a psychology so bizarre it’s utterly plausible, including the scene where Chaney blackmails a doctor into sawing his arms off, followed quickly by the harrowing close-up of Chaney as he realizes he shouldn’t have had his arms sawed off! At the climax the bulging balconies bounced with perverted anticipation as Chaney plots to have the arms of his romantic rival torn off by horses, a pair of stallions whipped to frenzied arousal by the lashings of an orgasmic Crawford, and the Castro hordes at that point every bit as orgasmic. Everything about my big night was perfect! Except my voice, of course. But the sheer power of the crowd’s love for the film somehow excused my feeble pipes enough to get me through the job. Narrating had allowed me to sit atop this thrilling tsunami of barbarous narrative for the duration, and I felt myself the luckiest freeloader in the world. God and the Devil bless The Unknown, and the festival that let me be part of its screening!
Canadian-based filmmaker GUY MADDIN has amassed an impressive oeuvre that pays loving homage to the aesthetics of silent-era cinema.