July 20, 2010

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival and The Castro Commons: The filmgoing experience.

by Adam Hartzell


Many film festivals seek to start a conversation amongst cinephiles and the wider community in which the films are screened, and to do that they need space. And the lobbies of many film festival venues are often antithetical to discussion. They become cramped spaces of rugby-like scrums of people trying to queue for a seat, the bathroom, a snack, a friend they see in the distance, and, when the film ends, a convenient exit. Once outdoors, the scrum continues, pushed out into the cramped sidewalk where one has to join the strolling pedestrians often obstructed by those in queue for the next film. This year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival provided an opportunity to see how an addition of public space, The Castro Commons, could enhance or detract from the typical experience at the festival.

The Silent Film Festival takes place at the Castro Theatre partly because said theatre was built in the time of silent films and it is one of the few theaters in San Francisco able to project silent films properly. Equally important, the Castro Theatre has a foundation from which to build upon of regular theater-goers attuned to the importance of silent films. The Castro Theatre is half a block away from an awkward five-point intersection. And since the Castro is quite a scene at all times during the day and night, attracting tourists and locals to the queer-friendly bars, restaurants, and shops, this already awkward intersection is made more complicated by the heavy foot traffic.

The 'Castro Commons' became a solution to an urban design problem. (The designers of the plaza refer to it as the 'Castro Commons'. Although I too love this name for the alliteration and political allusions to the commons of yore that allowed citizens a public grazing range for their cattle, the name does not seem to have caught on amongst the public yet. Whenever I refer to the plaza, I have to explain that it's where 17th Street meets Market and Castro, and then people nod their heads that they get where I'm talking about. So as much as I love the name Castro Commons, in the vernacular of everyday language, I've found most people understand what I'm talking about when I say the '17th Street Plaza'. For this essay, I will continue my damnedest to encourage the use of Castro Commons, but I and the city may be forced to give up and call it the 17th Street Plaza eventually.) The plaza was the inaugural "Pavement to Parks" project, a city project inspired by similar efforts in New York that sought to temporarily reposition 'unused swathes' of city streets and 'quickly and inexpensively turn them into new public plazas and parks'.

I am a fan of the project, but let me disagree with a snippet of the city's own interpretation. In the case of Castro Commons, it wasn't 'unused'. (In the case of the other two plazas, Showplace Triangle and Guerrero Park, I would agree that they were extremely underutilized if not 'unused'.) The area that is Castro Commons was heavily used before, but not as a street as we've come to know them, but as a street from the past, where pedestrians ruled over the car. (See Peter D. Norton's wonderful history lesson, "Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City," if you ever want the background necessary to respond to the commonly mis-held belief that streets have always been for cars.) The Castro's pedestrians have reclaimed that intersection as a space for people for some time. By closing off 17th Street from car traffic for the block after 17th Street heads South from Castro Street, the Castro Commons finally made that official.

The projects are indeed inexpensive, put together from items lying around in city storage and donated by local companies with the design provided pro-bono by local landscaping, architecture, and design firms. The greatest expenditure is for labor. How 'temporary' these plazas are is up to the community feedback, since these plazas can be dismantled fairly quickly if the community finds these spaces more detrimental than beneficial. They can last for a long time if the community continues to benefit from them.

And the Castro community, those who live in the Castro and those who trek to it regularly, has fully utilized the Castro Commons, recently celebrating it's one-year anniversary and gradually making the temporary more permanent. Having over one-year under its belt, it's the perfect time to reflect on its impact on the festival experience, particularly for my favorite of San Francisco film festivals, the Silent Film Festival.

The Silent Films


My wife and I attended four films at this year's festival. The opening film, The Iron Horse (John Ford, 1924) with Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer, had me hoping for a return to the dream of intercontinental rail infrastructure in the Peak Oil future rapidly coming upon us. However, I can't say the film itself will stay with me long after the festival.


But the other three films were standouts. The next day we caught the Italian melodrama Rotaie (Mario Carmerini, 1928) with Stephen Horne on piano and accordion and flute. This film was a recent 'discovery' by the Silent Film Festival staff, a lesser known work by a director whose reputation was tainted by his association with the Mussolini regime. Although the ending is disjointedly resolved, the anxiety during the gambling scenes was well-composed, as was the score by Horne, truly the musical highlight of the festival for me.


On Saturday we caught two films. First was the 'race film' The Flying Ace (1926) with Donald Sosin on piano. Directed by Richard Norman, a white man, the film portrays an all-black cast. The film was my favorite of the four, but more for the cultural and historical points than for any dramatic or artistic reasons. Those such as myself who are interested in portrayals of disability will find a compelling paradox in the character played by actor Steve Reynolds, who in real life has only one leg. Although he sings a song celebrating laziness, his character is anything but lazy and foolish, being quite skilled in chasing after the bad guys of this film. His ways of using his crutch, especially when riding a bicycle, are ingenious, and although this was surely played up for humor at the time, in retrospect, there's a respectful dignity presented towards his character too. As someone interested in the evolution of language and grammar, the intertitles display of 'to-day' and 'pay-roll' provide evidence of how the hyphenated words of the past might become the combined words of 'to-morrow'. Also, one of the 'bad guys' has a penchant for racist language that has gone out of fashion. But not racist language towards blacks, but towards white ethnic groups. His dialogue is peppered with rhetorical racism in which something is certainly true or else "I'm a Dutchman" or "I'm the Swede." Of course, whether or not this was common usage amongst African-Americans of the time, I'm not sure, because it was a white scriptwriter who put these words in the mouth of a black character.


Our final film was the German melodrama Diary of a Lost Girl (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1929) with the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. I always make sure I see one film at the Silent Film Festival accompanied by an orchestra, and Mont Alto did not disappoint, although Horne's composition was still my favorite. This film featured Louise Brooks, a fascinating personal story of the Silent Era. Although her image is now iconic of the era, during her time as an actress, she was never held as such. She has become more iconic thanks to the work historians and aficionados. The film itself appears to have acquired a campy creepiness in the performances of a Lurch-ing reformatory school employee and a lascivious pharmacist. Whether such a reception of the film is dissonant from the time, I will leave to historians, but it added to the pleasure of watching it in 2010.

Seeing four films allowed for four visits to the Castro Commons, each demonstrating what the plaza can add to the experience.

We Reserve The Right to Serve Everyone


The Castro Commons maintains at its center a platform for the embarking and disembarking of the F Market classic fleet of streetcars from around the world, from such world-renowned cities as Milan, Italy, Melbourne, Australia, and Cleveland, Ohio. (Humor me, I'm from there.) And when the weather's really nice, which is rare in SF, they sometimes bring out a convertible boat of a streetcar originally from Blackpool, England. Riding an F Market streetcar on route to the Castro Theatre allowed for the perfect play within a photoplay trip to the Silent Film Festival. When I got off work on Thursday and Friday to attend screenings of The Iron Horse and Rotaie respectively, this is the public transportation I took to disembark at the Castro Commons, stepping off the streetcar as if I were a patron of the Silent Era.

The Castro Commons is the perfect meet-up spot for a film festival because it requires no admission, doesn't cost a cup of coffee like a coffeehouse, and is more comfortable to wait in than at a street corner. The addition of the Castro Commons allows for a public place to meet, free of charge, before attending the festival. So this is where I waited for my wife. And we didn't appear to be the only ones using this space for meet-ups and waiting time. A couple (romantic or platonic, I'm not sure) sitting next to me in the plaza before The Iron Horse ended up sitting behind my wife and I in the balcony during the film. An older gentlemen sitting beside me in the plaza before Rotaie clarified for me that the time on the tickets was indeed printed incorrectly. The film was actually at 6pm, not 5:30pm as the tickets said. He told me this when he explained his son was now annoyed he had to kill an hour before the film.

Before the Saturday screening of The Flying Ace, I found my friend Brian Darr (proprietor of the San Francisco film blog Hell on Frisco Bay, where I often post my musings, and the person responsible for the essay and pre-screening slideshow of this year's screening of Dziga Vertov's classic Man with a Moving Camera) in front of the theatre with his friend. I quickly grabbed Brian and pulled him onward to the plaza where we talked about what we'd seen and planned to see until Brian was bogarted by yet another friend of his. But at least she had the decency to bring homemade cookies as a ransom for Brian.

One of the topics of our conversation was Dennis James' insistence of announcing the presence of Chinese railworkers - as David Kiehn noted in the program, some of whom were actually played by Paiute Indians - with a dadadada dutdut dum dum dummmmmm twiddling of the Wurlizter ivories. Those accusing me of political correctness may argue James was in-sync with the time period, but the existence of 'original scores' for films is much in debate by scholars. Local organ-players often improvised, so pursuit of a 'pure experience' is often a moot point. Plus, in some ways James' choice of melody represents, I argued, a laziness, a musical cliché, and I would hope that future compositions would be more creative rather than fall into Looney Tunes-ish musical stereotypes. This conversation was sustained until we saw the line of people waiting for The Flying Ace begin to peter out. Conversations are what the plaza allows for without feeling the need to move-on, as one may feel in the crowded lobby of a festival venue. I felt less constrained in the plaza than in a lobby, where complex feelings about a film need to be compressed into quick and witty soundbites in order to move along. To me, this is the prime benefit that the Castro Theatre now has a public space of leisure just around the corner from its crowded mezzanine and narrow sidewalks. The conversations can expand to fill the space, rather than be constrained to meet a quick exit.

Pavement to Project Runway

The Castro Commons was also a source for extra-diegetic sightings that followed us into the theatre. Like the disheveled-looking hipster pedaling the fixie in the Mission, the business blue-shirts in the bars of Union Street in the Marina, or the various niches of the Castro, from the beards of the bears and the tight-shirts of the gym-obsessed, the Silent Film Festival brings its own metropolitans in sartorial display. This means Flapper dresses and hats and shawls for the ladies, Jazz age suits and fedoras or tuxes and top hats for the men. Although not particular to the era of the silent film, I wore my bowler because quality hats are expensive and someone on a budget can only own so many. This year was the first year I could afford to buy one from the wonderful Paul's Hat Works in SF's Richmond District. Thankfully, one of the characters in Diary of a Lost Girl had a bowler, so I didn't feel like a total anachronism.

The plaza becomes a perfect runway for those of us who have decided to dress for the part of the former silent filmgoers. After the screening of Diary of a Lost Girl, Brian Darr, kicking the circa-correct fedora, my wife in a panda hat suitable for a Giants game, and I in my bowler had stepped away from the plaza to a local tea place called Samovar where we were able to alleviate our waitress' confusion by letting her know why she'd been seeing the hat brought back in the Castro this weekend. Such clarifies that the conversations of pre-film anticipation and post-film meditation are not unique to a public plaza, for we had something similar going in the private seats of this café. But, again, this conversation required a considerable admission price, which the plaza does not.

The Emperor Knows He Has No Clothes

Along with the sartorial on display in the Castro is the sans sartorial display, or unclothed. On nice days, clothing gradually comes off amongst some in the Castro. Usually it's just the buff with their shirts off, but the less-than Aonis-ly chiseled with only a g-string will walk through as well. And occasionally, those with the only covering being the sandals on their feet will saunter by. Two such bare (and shaven) fellows strutted through the plaza just before we ventured into our screening of Diary of a Lost Girl, where we were to find, thanks to Robert Byrne's slideshow background for the film, that these two naked gentlemen weren't the revolutionaries they might think. "Nude Culture" was part of the zeitgeist of 1920's Germany. Byrne coupled "Nude Culture" information with the historical background of the "New Woman" that Louise Brooks eventually epitomized in character and person to underscore the movement towards emancipation of societal constraints on the body, be it men or women, before Nazi Germany re-constrained the bodies of the politic. There is no way that Byrne could have planned the synchronicity that we experienced, but it's moments like these that highlight the unplanned that public spaces allow for.



One of the more problematic aspects of film festivals are the sidewalk obstructions caused by the queues. If no other businesses line the block, such as is the case with the festivals (SFIFF, SFIAAFF) held at the Sundance Kabuki in SF's Japantown, you don't have to worry about upsetting neighboring businesses. (The restaurant on the queue block of the Kabuki is also owned by Sundance.) In the case of the Castro, the businesses know the festival-goers bring in business, but it is still problematic the way the queue obstructs doorways and those simply trying to get through the sidewalk that is already narrow enough. I recall being in line for a past Silent Film Festival and heard an apartment dweller yelling at people for blocking his doorway. (He had a point, though he didn't have to be a prick about making his point.)

With the new Castro Commons, a partial solution to this problem was possible - the queue didn't have to wind around the corner and obstruct the sidewalk down 17th Street. Instead, it could wind into the public space of the plaza. But people have to figure this option out for themselves since no one is directing them to do it. I finally saw the plaza utilized this way for Castro Theatre queue right before Diary of a Lost Girl. And what a line it was. My wife and I, rather than stand in line, sit in the plaza and wait for the line to get going before we consider lining up. But Diary of a Lost Girl had a line that seemed to move on forever, assuring my wife and I would be viewing from the balcony again.

Ironically, even though Silent Film Festival patrons had appropriated the public plaza for the winding of their line out of consideration for the businesses and people along the sidewalk of 17th Street, a young gentleman became verbally aggressive with people in line as they were walking in. He began yelling at them for obstructing the sidewalk. His aggression was likely heightened by the fact that he was clearly on some kind of drug. As wrong as the guy was, unaware of the consideration those in the queue had engaged in earlier, no one wanted to confront him to explain how his tirade was inconsistent with the facts. Street crazies are one reason some people fear public space. Of course, the answer isn't to police-away the drug-addled man, but to make sure the public services are available so that he can get some help when he's finally hit that point, to intervene when things get out of hand. Thankfully, he was more annoying than dangerous and no physical altercation occurred.

What the drug-addled man, and the occasional pissed-off apartment dweller or business owner, needs to understand is that the people in line aren't the problem, the imposition of narrow sidewalks caused by the entitlement demands of private vehicle owners are the problem. Expanding out the sidewalks in front of establishments such as the Castro theatre would be the real answer. And San Francisco has an answer for that in the other aspect of the Pavement to Parks project called 'Parklets' (like this one), where temporary extensions fill-in the areas of the street that people falsely assume are the entitlement of private vehicles. Perhaps the festivals can look into implementing temporary Parklets outside the theatres during the festival run. San Francisco has a whole permit process for Parklets ready to be taken advantage of for such a public use. Because a plaza near the theatre can only help so much, more reclaiming of sidewalks and streets for the public will be needed to add to the pleasure of a film festival.

The Castro Commons is only the beginning of something we've needed in San Francisco for a long time. Although I can't say having a public space close to the Silent Film Festival added as much as the thrill of live accompaniment, with the implementation of a plaza, a typically wonderful experience at the Castro theatre has been made even better.

Adam Hartzell is a contributing writer to sf360.org, Koreanfilm.org, and Hell on Frisco Bay.

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Posted by cphillips at July 20, 2010 1:54 PM

The blogger talks about THE IRON HORSE: "One of the topics of our conversation was Dennis James' insistence of announcing the presence of Chinese railworkers - as David Kiehn noted in the program, some of whom were actually played by Paiute Indians - with a dadadada dutdut dum dum dummmmmm twiddling of the Wurlizter ivories. Those accusing me of political correctness may argue James was in-sync with the time period, but the existence of 'original scores' for films is much in debate by scholars. Local organ-players often improvised, so pursuit of a 'pure experience' is often a moot point. Plus, in some ways James' choice of melody represents, I argued, a laziness, a musical cliché, and I would hope that future compositions would be more creative rather than fall into Looney Tunes-ish musical stereotypes. "

Sad that no one announced at the screening that I was playing the actual original musical score composed and compiled for the film by Erno Rapee for its original release in the Twenties . . . and essentially all I did was transcribe it at sight from orchestra to organ attempting to retain the instrumental characteristics of the original. I played the Castro showing from the conductor's score of THE IRON HORSE. . . and the choices of types of music, matters of cliche, creativity and the like were ALL Rapee's. My job, recreating the exact job of the silent film era musicians, was simply to play it.

Dennis James - Silent Film Concerts

Posted by: Dennis James at July 22, 2010 12:36 PM


Thank you for taking the time to clarify that you were working from an un-improvised score that was released with the film, seeking not to add any of your own embellishments. Reading that, I'll definitely scratch the 'laziness' from my piece and call that a failure in judgment regarding word choice on my part. So apologies for that. And, yes, the context would be a helpful inclusion to prep the audience.

There is a benefit to trying to 'recreate' the original experience, yet, as scholars of the silent era have been excavating, the 'original' experience wasn't consistent from venue to venue as a silent film traveled, particularly, the aural experience. Yet when there are ‘official’ score releases, the musical cliché that accompanies and announces Chinese characters to Western audiences can be placed as historical curiosities along with the archaic racial language I mention in films like THE FLYING ACE. So staying true to the original score can have its intellectual benefits as much as they make some in the audience cringe.

Still, there's also a benefit to commissioning new scores or adjusted scores (or allowing for improvisation) during the film to either enhance or bring new meaning to these films. And based on what we hear in this original score, it is interesting to consider how emotions/actions/characters are announced in scores from the past and the benefit for allowing you and other talented performers more leeway to improvise from the original score as happened during the silent film era as well.

Adam Hartzell

Posted by: Adam Hartzell at July 22, 2010 4:18 PM
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