Loudly Anticipating the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Part One: Not Feeling Festive

By Meredith Brody

May 3, 2022

The pandemic disrupted virtually (pun unintended, but hiya, Dr. Freud!) every aspect of my life, but none more thoroughly or dismayingly than the one that contributed most of its bliss, excitement, and travel (not to mention remuneration, once I’d written about them): attending film festivals. 

I counted time from their disappearance: The last time I was out of the country was attending the Morelia Film Festival in October 2019. The last time I flew within the United States was attending Telluride in September 2019. The last time I was in Europe was attending Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in July 2019. 

Like dominos, festivals fell from the schedule, month after month.  Not only festivals, of course, but movie-going as we knew it ended.

My movie watching (I first wrote movie-going, but I was going nowhere) was sadly confined to a meager 36-inch flat screen.  After some months a dear friend who came over a few times a month with pizza or deli in hand to share a socially-distanced noir movie night (often Eddie Muller’s TCM Noir Alley offering) found me a much larger flat screen that was being discarded from, coincidentally, a film festival’s offices that was upgrading its screening room. 

I had Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney +, Criterion, and Kanopy, not to mention TCM, HBO (and eventually HBO Max), Showtime, and whatever else was on the cable package. So there was no shortage of Things to Watch. But how easy it was not to watch them. Or to fall asleep while watching them – especially because my screen was in my bedroom.  Or to start watching them and not continue. 

Meanwhile a few festivals straggled online.  I didn’t know how to get anything from my 13-inch laptop to my TV, which wasn’t young or smart enough to have an input for an HDMI cord, so I practiced a kind of Incredible Shrinking Woman mind control, imagining myself gazing up at the huge screens I was missing so much. (Not to mention the camaraderie.)

Oh, let’s mention the camaraderie. It was really only at film festivals that I encountered the kind of audiences I craved: full rooms, full of people who were excited about what they were going to see, who trained their eyes and energy on the screen, who hung on every word and gesture and responded to them.  (Note that press screenings often do not provide this peak experience: when Toronto went from sharing its superb audiences with the press to establishing almost two separate festivals, one for the public and another for the press, I realized how important the audience had been. Some screenings, such as the Midnight Madness ones, were alluring at least partly because of their enthusiastic following.)

I can tell you that “attending” a film festival online is not very festive, which will surprise no one. (Stop the presses!) I attended Rotterdam, sort of, twice, which I’d never visited in the flesh.  I got up every day at 6 am to watch its impressive director Vania Kaludjercic, interview directors for its daily lineup, and dutifully watch their films later. At this remove I can remember almost nothing that I saw, except that one of the directors was represented in his interview by his rather charming avatar, a refinement I haven’t seen used before or since.

After almost exactly two years of Not Going to Festivals, a friend and I went nuts, after discussing the possibility desultorily for weeks, at what amounted to the last minute — and DROVE 18 hours straight to attend Telluride on Labor Day weekend 2021. (I actually had the feeling that if I didn’t go THEN, I never would get it together to go ANYWHERE EVER AGAIN. Pandemic willies.)

I wrote about that manic drive and the subsequent first day of movie-going here

And I intended to write about the rest of the festival.  But trying to do so was dispiriting: despite the fact that I saw many wonderful movies, actually in theaters, squeezed into a few intense days, I felt oddly disconnected from the experience. It had been too long. All of us were vaxxed, boosted, and had tested negative on a non-rapid PCR test within 72 hours of arrival. But although fewer passes were sold than in pre-Covid years, social distancing was not observed in the venues. Most of the screenings I went to were quite full, and I often sat elbow-to-elbow with strangers – masks were ubiquitous, however.

Palm Theater, Telluride. Photo by Pamera Gentile

And yet a friend who I sat next to during the charming Bernstein’s Wall documentary on Sunday afternoon texted me later that day: her mother, with whom she’d been sharing a room, had just tested positive for Covid.  They were cutting their losses, quitting town, skipping the next day of screenings and the Labor Day Picnic.

I was rendered off-balance by this, as I had been a day earlier when I chatted in line with an old chum, a stalwart Telluride regular, who told me of her still ongoing harrowing experiences with long Covid.

I wasn’t quite myself, either.  I was happy to be there, but outside of the movies, walking in the streets, I felt like a zombie.  I didn’t eat very well. My usual treat of ears of heavily buttered Olathe corn at Baked in Telluride were mysteriously not available: the signs offering it (one ear now cost what two used to) were still posted, but “We stopped getting corn in last week,” I was told. The sandwich counter at the supermarket across the way from the Palm and Pierre venues was no longer what it had been; they had switched from the homey offerings I remembered to a pricier, shorter list of proprietary Boar’s Head sandwiches.  I don’t remember a single thing I ate after the first night’s fried chicken, which fed me for a couple of days, and the next morning’s ritual brunch. I drank a lot of coffee and Coke Zeroes.

I was invited to a few dinners and parties but didn’t drag my zombie self to them; it was easier to sit in movies.  I hadn’t come back to real life; reel life was enough for the moment.

I unbent somewhat on my long drive home, which took several days. I dropped my Telluride companion off at the Denver Airport and spent a night in Denver, two nights in Fort Collins visiting my nephew, and a night in Salt Lake City en route to the East Bay. There were several good meals — first-rate Indian food at the Tajmahal in Fort Collins, and stellar Mexican fare at The Red Iguana in Salt Lake City – I would eat at both of those at least once a month if they were in the Bay Area.

Back in the Bay, as Telluride receded into the past, my non-movie-going present resumed.  I scarcely saw anything in a theater.  The Pacific Film Archive resumed screenings, and where once I had looked at their schedule eagerly and planned my social life around its offerings, I was now relieved if nothing appealed to me.

The few movies that drew me out of the house and across the bay were ones I knew I couldn’t see again on the big screen: mostly Don Malcolm’s inventive Midcentury Productions pairings at The Roxie and the snug, smaller-screened Little Roxie. I saw such rare treats as  Marcel Carne’s Les Tricheurs (1958), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo,; Les Amours de Minuit (!931) by Augusto Genina and Marc Allegret, paired with Maurice Tourneur’s Au Nom de la Loi (1932); and my two favorite double bills of the year so far: the German noirs Epilog (1950), by one of the best German directors, Helmut Kautner, paired with the astonishing serial-killer noir Many Passed By (1956), by the unknown-to-me Peter Pawas; and a Jacqueline Audry double bill, the lush period piece Olivia (1951) – I wondered if Truffaut and Godard would consider it Cinema de Maman? – paired with her delightful, jazzy Hitch-Hike (1962).

I even tried to talk myself out of going to Eddie Muller’s Noir City festival in March, even though he had relocated it from our beloved Castro to the more-convenient-to-me Grand Lake Theater. I had seen every movie in its brisk four-day offering of a dozen films except for two, the Noir Foundation restoration of Cy Endfield’s The Argyle Secrets (1948) and Open Secret (1948), directed by John Reinhart.  And I’d seen the other ten multiple times, some of them under Eddie’s aegis in his Noir City festivals in both Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Luckily I came to my senses in time. I went to all of the programs on Thursday night, Friday night, and the two on Saturday afternoon and evening. Eddie had themed his program with the title “They Tried to Warn Us!” 

“Film noir is revered for its incredible sass and style,” Muller says, “but many of the films were also warning flares about issues that still plague our culture more than seventy years later.”

I remembered at the Grand Lake that a receptive and attentive audience is what makes the filmgoing experience complete. And the realities of the horrors of the current day – political demagogues, the pandemic, an unthinkably brutal war – made re-watching such movies as All the King’s Men (1949), about a corrupt populist politician, and The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), in which a deadly smallpox outbreak threatens the city, even more compelling than my earlier viewings had been.

In the event, I found The Argyle Secrets inexplicable; I revere a number of Endfield’s later movies, including the noirish Hell Drivers, but I couldn’t even follow the plot of this brief (64 minutes) and messy distinctly unthrilling thriller. I admire the work of the Film Noir Foundation – it has funded beautiful restorations of such masterpieces as Cry Danger, The Prowler, Try and Get Me!, and nothing else on its impressive list of restorations and new 35mm prints is less than interesting – but The Argyle Secrets seemed to me to be an outlier. I couldn’t have felt more addled by it if I had been on drugs.

By contrast Open Secret, though no masterpiece, had its points: anti-Semitism gets me where I live, especially nowadays, when American Fascism seems more possible than ever during my lifetime. It was suitably paired with Crossfire, which changed the homophobia of its source novel (by Richard Brooks) to anti-Semitism. And the 7-minute short that preceded Open Secret, A Night at the Garden (Marshall Curry, 2017) with shocking footage of a 20,000-strong American Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden in 1939, was unbelievably chilling.  It can’t happen here…?

(I note that although Noir City’s poster and other materials required proof of vaccination status and said Mask protocol enforced, in the event I saw many unmasked – and not metaphorically. My favorite was the guy next to me who watched the movie with his mask under his chin and then pulled it up to exit the theater to the street.)

Not at Noir City audience. Photo by Martin Divíšek/EPA

On Sunday I reluctantly drove away from Noir City to watch the Oscars with friends – an Oscars for which I’d seen fewer movies than any in my memory. Most of what I’d seen had been on Telluride’s big screens: Belfast, The Power of the Dog, The Lost Daughter, Spencer, Flee, The Hand of God, Cyrano. Drive My Car was the only movie I saw at the 2021 Mill Valley Film Festival, a favorite local fest at which I usually see tons of movies. Summer of Soul and Being the Ricardos I saw at two increasingly rare press screenings. And I paid for Nightmare Alley and Licorice PizzaLicorice Pizza in 70mm at the Alamo New Mission, even. I hadn’t even seen some that had been easily available to me in my very own bedroom, for free (or “free,” on my paid services), including Tick, Tick…Boom!, Don’t Look Up, and, ironically as it turned out, King Richard.  (The weekend before, in a last-ditch attempt to be classy, I saw Parallel Mothers, which I adored, and The Worst Person in the World, which I didn’t like as much as I thought I would, at the New Parkway.)

I will draw a veil over the evening, although it had its own noir aspects, and I was happy to be among similarly shocked and dismayed friends as it unspooled.

But I give thanks to Noir City 19, as it re-awakened my festival chops and reminded me just why we go to them.

And as my favorite of all Bay Area film festivals, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, quickly approaches, I find my movie-going endorphins rising rapidly as I anticipate its offerings…

Watch for what I look forward to seeing In Part 2!

proxyMeredith Brody, a graduate of both the Paris Cordon Bleu cooking school and USC film school, has been the restaurant critic for, among others, the Village Voice, LA Weekly, and SF Weekly, and has written for countless film magazines and websites including Cahiers du Cinema, Film Comment, and Indiewire. Her writings on books, theater, television, and travel have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Interview. She also contributes to EatDrinkFilms including her“Meals with Meredith,” where she talks about food and film with filmmakers at restaurants in northern California, writes about vintage cocktails and where she eats during film festivals at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Some of her EDF pieces are found here.

One could describe Meredith as “hooked on cinema” as she attends four-five films a day at many bay area and international festivals each year.  Somebody has to do it.

 

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