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Nothing Quiet About It
by Sophie Aissen and Tom Mayer
Metropolis: The 1927 poster was as artistic as the movie. photo: Goethe Institute Archives
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival's 15th annual, at the Castro Theater, was a roaring success, especially the US premier of the restored version of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," including 30 minutes not seen since 1927.
"This discovery is one of the most important in silent film history,'' noted Anita Monga, the festival's renown artistic director. Indeed, the tale of how an Argentinian film archive found the long-lost footage, from one of the era's greatest directors, is astounding.
So is the story of how one filmmaker, Sophie Aissen, was introduced to the silents in a very special way. Aissen's film business partner, Elliot Porter, had been corresponding with Kevin Brownlow, of Photoplay, United Kingdom, regarding research into the WWI era. But Brownlow is also a celebrated scholar and restorer of silents who has rescued over thirty nitrate films from disintegration. In fact, Brownlow was invited to this year's Silent Film Festival to receive an award, present "The Strong Man" by Frank Capra (1926), and sign his latest book "The Parade's Gone By."
Aissen and Porter thought that it would be a grand and romantic idea to take Brownlow to the West Point Inn on Mount Tamalpais where Eric Von Stroheim, whom Brownlow has written about extensively, worked in 1912. Alas, the festival schedule was in flux, and Brownlow is elderly, so they weren't able to make concrete plans.
"But at 9:20 a.m. Thursday morning my phone rang," Aissen said. "On the other end was a soft spoken English accent. 'I'm free today after 2,' he said. 'Wonderful,' I said. 'How will we recognize you?' 'I'm the only guy in San Francisco wearing a tie.'"
"We screeched up to the Castro Theatre at 2:08," Aissen continued (Aissen is very precise: assistant camera and data wrangling are her specialty). "Sure enough, I spotted the slim man in a cap, tweed jacket, and blue Reeboks, right in front of the Castro - wearing a tie as promised. 'Kevin?' I asked. 'Sophie?' 'You look so dapper,' I said. 'Dapper, that's an old fashioned word,' he said."
They motored over the Golden Gate Bridge, chatting about "The Iron Horse" by John Ford (1924), which opened the festival the night before, with Dennis James doing great work on the Mighty Wurlitzer. (Note: silents are not supposed to show in silence, indeed, the music, often improvised, is an integral part). As they climbed Mt. Tam, and entered the infamous fog, Aissen called the West Point Inn to see if they could use the service road and avoid the three hour hike to the Inn. Brownlow was 74, after all. One of the innkeeps, Helen (also English), was friendly, and said yes.
"It's much nicer than I imagined," noted Brownlow, before recounting Von Stroheim's stable duties. They wandered the narrow stairs and peaked in the small rooms. "It was easy to understand why so many people have made the trek to this magical place," Aissen said.
When they returned to the main building, Helen chatted up Brownlow. "I can't help myself, I've been wanting to do this since you walked in," she said and loosened his tie. Brownlow accepted her quite-California gesture but tightened right back as they left, which they had to do, pronto, to make the 8 p.m. screening of "Metropolis" and grab a bite.
At the restaurant in Mill Valley, Aissen asked Brownlow how he got into silents. At age 11, he said, his parents gave him a projector but no movies so he bought his first reel for a small sum. When he brought it home, his parents recognized it as "The Good Bad Man" with Douglass Fairbanks, but he wanted to know more.
"I went to library to see what I could find," Brownlow said, who was raised on talkies. "I thumbed through the stacks, pulled a book out and opened it to a page with a picture from the film. It was such a thrill. I continued to research every silent film that I could find."
They raced back to the city and made it to the Castro at 8:09 p.m. The line for "Metropolis" was around the block but they were seated in time to hear the twenty year saga that brought the full "Metropolis" to the screen. In closing, Paula Felix-Didier and Fernando Pena, of the Museo del Cine, Buenos Aires, said, "We never could have done it without the work and encouragement of Kevin Brownlow."
"Knowing the lengths that the preservationists go to keep these silent gems in the collective conscience, it is impossible not to be utterly inspired," said Aissen, who had never previously viewed a full-length silent. "The texture, the clarity of vision, the technical ingenuity are amazing. Sitting there, stunned after 'Metropolis,' moved by the emotions of 'The Strong Man,' or mesmerized by Georges Melies's shorts [531 in all 1896-1914], I understood the thrill that Kevin has worked to preserve. What a gift it was to have the doors to silent films opened by such a perfect gentleman. It was incredible to see him shyly looking around the Castro as the crowd roared their applause."
Another notable moment was when Pete Docter, the Oscar-winning director of Pixar's "Monsters, Inc." and "Up," presented a program of comedy shorts and was interviewed by Leonard Maltin. "Pixar's artists seem to have an affinity for the visual storytelling of the silent era," Ms. Monga said, "and of course, great senses of humor."
Also showing was a newly restored Mutt and Jeff cartoon "On Strike,;" "A Spray of Plum Blossoms" ("Yi Jian Mei"), a 1931 Chinese silent based on "Two Gentlemen of Verona;" "The Flying Ace," featuring an African-American cast; "Diary of a Lost Girl," with Louise Brooks, by G. W. Pabst; and a spectacular version of "Man With a Movie Camera," by Dziga Vertov, the fount of so many alt-film tropes, accompanied by the magnificent Alloy Orchestra.
The festival closed with another amazing rediscovery, "L'Heureuse Mort" (France, 1924) which translates as "The Happy Death," perhaps a metaphor for the resurrected silents, the art of which transcends time, and loudly proclaims the power of that bygone media.
Sophie Aissen is a camera assistant, data wrangler and producer who can be reached at
Posted on Aug 13, 2010 - 02:57 AM