Saturday, July 21, 2007

Saved From The Flames

My last entry covering the 12th San Francisco Silent Film Festival will attempt to explain something that totally defies rational explanation: the fascinating yet disturbing allure of ultra-rare time capsules from the earliest days of cinema. How early? Imagine movie buffs watching Ratatouille in, say, 2111-2114 - that's how early!

Serge Bromberg, founder of Lobster Films, presented one of his celebrated Retour de Flamme (Saved From The Flames) programs - an annual tradition in Paris - for this year's fest. While the show included a very funny 1928 short about a drunken, showgirl-crazy fireman who saw naked Folies-Bergere dancers, including a somewhat more clothed but always witty and striking Josephine Baker, everywhere he looked, most of the 35mm French rarities dated from the turn of the 20th century. The core of the program spotlighted ultra-rare "trick films" by Georges Méliès, Gaston Velle, Segundo de Chomom, Ferdinand Zecca and others.

The modus operandi of the earliest trick films is "hey, look - we can do this", and draws from magic tricks, vaudeville and Grand Guignol. One very early "short short" solely featured a guy getting his head chopped off, while another (more entertaining) later trick film had a fellow's barber decapitate and re-capitate him - something I'm pretty sure was not taught in barber college. Another trick film portrayed an overenthusiastic musician who, incessantly playing his clarinet for captive audiences, suffered an accident that shoved the instrument through and out the top of his head; the big joke, even better than Steve Martin's arrow-through-the-head gag, was that he continued playing. Still another sublimely ridiculous reel consisted entirely of a zaftig showgirl doing a series of little dances with an actor in a giant pig costume.

The fascination in such wonderfully bizarre relics is self-evident, but what causes me to describe them as disturbing? It isn't the content, but the visceral experience of seeing living history: walking, breathing people who lived and died long ago in a 19th century Victorian world so very different from our own. Some of this rings true in the more advanced pre-WWI silent cinema of D.W. Griffith, Max Linder, G.M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson and others, but it's really resonant after experiencing 90 minutes of pre-1905 movies - and brings one vividly in touch with that pesky, nagging topic of mortality.

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