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Anita Monga – Talking with the Artistic Director of the SF Silent Film Festival

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The San Francisco Silent Film Festival opens Thursday night at 7:00 pm at the Castro Theater with the film that marked the beginning of Rudolph Valentino’s legendary Hollywood career, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The film will be screened in 35mm and is the recently restored version provided by historian and preservationist, Kevin Brownlow. The 1921 super classic directed by Rex Ingram [The Conquering Power, Prisoner of Zenda, Garden of Allah] also features Alice Terry, Pomeroy Cannon, Alan Hale and Josef Swickard. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will provide the accompaniment. This year marks the 25th Anniversary of this highly inventive company of musicians.

“We were interested in doing something that commemorated the 100th Anniversary of the First World War,” said the Festival’s artistic director, Anita Monga. “And the war dragged on, so we’ll be doing more commemorations. I asked Kevin Brownlow what he would do for the anniversary and he answered unambiguously, ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – the greatest of the great war films.’ The film hasn’t been shown here for a long time. Warner Brothers has the rights, but they don’t have a good print. I thought they might have the materials for a restoration, but they don’t. So, we worked it out with Kevin. He can’t come to the festival, but his partner at Photoplay, Patrick Stanbury, is coming. He’ll be in the booth making sure the film runs at the right speed.”

That translates to Stanbury keeping a very-experienced eye on the film’s varying speeds which stretch between eighteen to twenty-four frames per second. Back in 1921, films were hand cranked. It’s easy to imagine that even the best of cameramen might have gotten a rush of excitement as he captured the volatile tango of Rudolph Valentino and Beatrice Dominguez.

“I suspect there will be a time when every film is made in DCP [Digital Cinema Package] or some kind of digital thing – because you can’t wreck them. So, for exhibition and because they have made such strides in the artistry of making these prints – sending something across the world that is smaller than my purse is really different than sending out huge cans of film and with all the risk that goes with it. Even though I am a booster for these new kinds of formats – because they make a lot of things available – it is still so special to have a 35mm print. So, this will be fun. The reality is that the process keeps getting better. There are amazing people who are doing better at doing the work of making these digital prints. They do make things accessible. It’s still difficult procuring old titles. It’s not like DCP where you can just make a copy. It requires high definition transfer and it’s quite an expensive process. The difference between that and 35mm exhibition is that if you wreck a DCP it can be easily replicated. If you wreck a 35mm print, that may be the last time you see it because making another is so expensive.”

My introduction to Rudolph Valentino came courtesy of the TV series, Silents, Please. The show ran for two seasons between 1960–61. Condensed versions of well-known Silents – featuring a major star – were screened along with a musical score and compelling narration. The premiere episode featured Rudolph Valentino and Hungarian beauty, Vilma Banky in the 1926 blockbuster sensation, Son of the Sheik. I got hooked and there was no turning back.

I asked Anita about her own reaction to Valentino. He was not an established star when production began on The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But following its New York premiere in March 1921, there was a roster of romantic leading men whose style of love-making would be measured against that of a rather exotic young Italian – dancing a tango in gaucho pants. The idea was the brainchild of June Mathis, creator of the screenplay.

“The Four Horsemen made him a star,” she said. “I think that Valentino became so big – I mean, you can see why. It’s his combination of hard and soft along with the androgynous. That is the key. Valentino appealed to everyone. And with cinematography by John Seitz and the director, Rex Ingram, who had the brilliance to create those close-ups and long shots. June Mathis was responsible for bringing Valentino into the project. She insisted that the dance scenes be in full frame, because Valentino could do that sexy kind of dance. It was unusual. So, you get this full, beautifully dressed... everything about him was beautiful! Then you get those close-ups. That first kiss on the dance floor? It’s just long and beautiful. You can see right away why he became a star. It just set hearts on fire. It was a universal hearts-on-fire.”

Evidently.

“Hollywood was about creating that desire. There was something about the stars themselves, too, because no amount of lighting is going to allow the camera to make Wallace Beery into Douglas Fairbanks. These are stories of the discoveries. Like the story about the discovery of Lana Turner or where somebody catches somebody on the street – one of Bruce Weber’s boys. They just saw something and then turned that person into an object of desire. First of all, the photographer’s desire. In the case of Valentino and The Four Horsemen, I believe it’s June Mathis’ desire.”

Every year the Silent Film Festival presents a miracle find or an extraordinary restoration. Films or missing portions of films regarded as hopelessly lost or perhaps known to have burned in one of too many fires suddenly re-emerge and very frequently by accident. This year is no exception. One of them is the 1928 romance, Ramona, starring Dolores del Rio and Warner Baxter. Somebody stumbled over an intact nitrate print that was able to be transfered and restored. For decades, fans of Dolores del Rio have mourned the loss of this film. The one available remnant of its charm has been it’s title song, “Ramona” as recorded in 1928 by Dolores del Rio and a host of others since. Its waltz tempo and sentimental flare is stock-in-trade for ballroom dancers.

“Ramona was thought to be lost. It was found in 2010 in the Czech Republic and restored. Dolores del Rio was the first Latina to become a major international star. In Ramona she plays a Native American. It’s a melodrama par excellence, based on a story by activist Helen Hunt Jackson. She wrote particularly about the issues and mistreatment of Native Americans in California. The director, Edwin Carewe, was part Chickasaw. I suspect there are not that many Native American directors in early cinema or cinema period.”

“Serge Bromberg is coming from Paris and bringing several things from his archives. Fernando Peña, the Argentinian historian and collector who discovered the complete Metropolis, found a version of Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith that nobody knew about. Nobody was looking for it, nobody registered that this version existed, and it is so superior to the version that got distribution. It’s going to need more delving into as to why it happened. Fernando got a 16mm print and looked at it – which is not always the case with collectors. They just collect. He realized it was different than anything he had seen and it had French intertitles. So, he called Serge Bromberg in Paris – his Lobster Films does restoration – and says, ‘Can you look for 35mm material on this title? This is what I’ve found.’ Serge went to CNC [Centre National du Cinéma], they took a copy – it was that version, nobody had ever looked at it because they just assumed it’s The Blacksmith, everybody knows what it is. So, not only does Serge find this 35mm which meant that it could be restored, but it had even more footage. So, Fernando and Serge are meeting here. Fernando lives in Buenos Aires and Serge lives in Paris. The film will be part of Serge’s presentation of Serge Bromberg’s Treasure Trove.

The 2014 Festival offers an array of exciting and rare films that are probably unfamiliar to most. I asked Anita to suggest a couple of titles that would excite first-time viewers. Apparently, it’s the entire list.

“I would pick Harbor Drift. I’m a big fan of German Expressionism. The film is so simple. The camera drifts through the streets and harbor of Hamburg. The story is centered around three people – an old man, an unemployed dock worker, and a young woman who works as a prostitute. It’s like a Guy de Maupassant story, about a pearl necklace that’s discovered in the street. It is formally beautiful, really effecting, and Stephen Horne will be doing the music. And if you come to Buster Keaton’s The Navigator, you will also see this amazing Soviet animation that is mind-boggling and beautiful. You cannot surpass Buster Keaton and the Matti Bye Ensemble. I’m also directing people to see The Parson’s Widow.... ”

Click here for more information: SF Silent Film Festival 2014

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