Sunday, April 19, 2009

Louder Than Words

I first worked for the San Francisco International Film Festival back in 1998, and have been a faithful attendee for long before that (enough for my wife to know, even before we were married, that she’d be a Festival widow for a good week every year). The Festival always comes within a few days of Westpex, so late-April always represents the annual sweet spot for the Filmatelist.

My very first FDC was for these Silent Film Star stamps (Scott #2819-28). I bought my own postcards of Chaplin, Lloyd, and Valentino and had them postmarked right in the lobby of the legendary Castro Theater, a beautiful art deco palace in San Francisco. But since those didn’t turn out so hot (a blog post for another day), I picked up one of these caches as well. There was also a special screening of Safety Last that day, the first time I’d ever seen that film.

People often ask if I ever want to go to Cannes or Sundance one day. And I tell them if I could only visit one film festival in the world, it would be the Pordenone Silent Film Festival near Venice, Italy. For while I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to preferring to see any movie in a theater over TV or video, silent movies in particular benefit from the live music, the energy of the crowd, and the beautiful evocation of a time long past, preserved in those indelible flickers on the screen.

Although there are still plenty of silents I haven't seen, I try to seek out as many as I can on that big screen, and the Bay Area is certainly an embarrassment of riches in that department. For those who've never experienced a silent film in a theater before, they are often surprised by how raw, funny, sophisticated, and emotionally complex films from that time could be. The technology may be dated, but the sensibility and artistic vision on display rarely is. And while most of the stars in this USPS issue don't appear in my personal Top 10 (below), that's just a tribute to how many wonderful silent films are with us (despite so many still having been lost over the decades)--and all well worth discovering.

My Top 10 Silent Films
1. The General (Keaton/Bruckman, 1926; w/Buster Keaton)
2. Sunrise (Murnau, 1927)
3. Pandora’s Box (Pabst, 1929; w/Louise Brooks)
4. Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929)
5. Greed (von Stroheim, 1924; w/Zasu Pitts)
6. The Italian Straw Hat (Clair, 1928)
7. The Freshman (Newmeyer/Taylor, 1925; w/Harold Lloyd)
8. The Wind (Sjostrom, 1928; w/Lillian Gish)
9. Metropolis (Lang, 1927)
10. The Lighthouse Keepers (Gremillon, 1929)

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