Tuesday, June 03, 2014

SFSFF: Tales from the Archives

Last Friday morning I was at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for Tales of the Archives, a free event featuring 3 presentations on silent film history. The chipper Robert Byrne, the festival's board president, greeted the audience by saying, "I love the smell of nitrate in the morning. It smells like history."

Bryony Dixon of the BFI showed a variety of early nature films by British filmmakers which she claims began a line leading directly to David Attenborough. We saw F. Martin Duncan's 1903 microscopic film of cheese mites as well as a genuinely funny parody made in the same year. Oliver Pike's hand-tinted films of birds were lovely. Percy Smith tricked flys into mimicking jugglng acrobats in one film & recorded the graceful blooming of flowers with time-lapse photography in another. Someone attempted a simultaneous translation of the German intertitles for John Charles Bee-Mason's educational film about bees, but he simply uttered "Jesus!" when faced with a long description of bee larva development. Stephen Horne accompanied the films quaintly on piano, flute & accordion, sometimes playing more than one instrument at once.

NYU professor Dan Streible unwound the convoluted history of Edison's 1894 kinetoscope of Fred Ott's Sneeze, which has been misrepresented in film histories for decades. It was originally created for print in Harper's Weekly & not intended as a projected film. Different versions have different frame counts, but we got to be the 2nd public audience to see a projection of the full 81-frame version, which reveals that Mr. Ott sneezed not once but twice. Mr. Streible also showed us the Raymond Rohauer version, a satirical in-joke that somehow made it into the Library of Congress catalog.

Special effects supervisor Craig Barron & sound designer Ben Burtt talked about how Charlie Chaplin used up-to-date film technology. Their presentation was jokey & a bit rambling, but I was interested to learn about the use of hanging miniatures in City Lights & to see how a painting on glass was used for the roller skating sequence in Modern Times.

§ Amazing Tales from the Archives
Bryony Dixon, Curator of Silent Film for the British Film Institute
Dan Streible, Associate Professor, Film Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, NYU
Craig Barron, Visual Effects Supervisor & Ben Burtt, Sound Designer
Musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2014
Friday, May 30, 10:00 am
Castro Theatre

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