Monday, July 07, 2008

2008 SFSFF13—The Evening Class Interview With Stephen Salmons, Part One

It's easy to understand why a year or so back the San Francisco Film Critics Circle unanimously acknowledged Stephen Salmons—Artistic Director for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival—and his remarkable contribution to the Bay Area film community. Not only is he one of the nicest people in the world, but his enthusiasm is contagious, and—having helmed SFSFF for over a decade—he's become as savvy as they get when it comes to silent cinema. It was a complete pleasure to sit down and talk with him about next week's upcoming event.

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Michael Guillén: It seems to me that the appreciation of silent film is poised at a cultural juncture where audiences have become attentive to film preservation. The precarious ephemerality of celluloid lends poignancy to the experience of silent film. Clearly, San Francisco's Silent Film Festival, like the Noir City Film Festival, has become beloved by its audiences who cherish these films of yesteryear.

Stephen Salmons: I completely agree. We're extremely fortunate to have the loving audiences we have. We can take some credit for building that kind of an audience. We started the festival because we loved the films and we wanted the vibe—I guess you'd say—that came from the festival to be one of love for film. We don't have any hidden agenda here. It's not a marketing ploy in any way. We're not showing films because they're about to be released on DVD. We're showing films that we find ourselves that we love and that we want to share with an audience. Film Noir is the exact same thing. You have somebody who loves the genre, loves the movies, and they want to share that love with other people. People really do respond well to that. We have a wonderful audience of people who are sharing their mutual love. I've even been amazed in the last couple of years when we have a really big house for one of the films how incredibly attentive the audience is to the smallest detail. I'm stunned how the group dynamic worked out to be so powerful and positive.

Guillén: Poet William Blake encouraged people to "kiss the joy as it flies" and I find that advice pertinent to film culture, which is changing so much so rapidly, that those who do appreciate vintage film are truly experiencing love for something they fear losing.

Salmons: That's actually my point about film blogs. They seem to be a natural reaction to the need for a pure film culture where people are sharing their love of film to counter how the market is being swamped more and more.

Guillén: When Richard Van Busack interviewed you a few years back for Metroactive, he moreorless laid out how Melissa Chittick's initial efforts kickstarted the festival; but, I'm curious at what point you knew that you loved silent film enough to come on board to eventually become the God of San Francisco's Silent Film Festival?

Salmons: Oh Jesus!! [Laughter.] Thank you, Michael.

Guillén: I'm basically quoting from last year's hilarious Chronicle podcast with Mick LaSalle.

Salmons: Where we were being completely ironic. I'm a 50-year-old man, which means that I got my film education at rep houses. I'm a pre-VHS person. You either stayed up late to watch a movie or you found it at a rep house. I'm from Santa Cruz where the Sash Mill Cinema was our rep house. It was originally a woodworking mill that made windows sashes. It was a beautiful old funky building and I was there almost every night of the week. Also, we had the Nickelodeon Cinema ("The Nick") in Santa Cruz, which is a great art house. So I got my education at those two theatres.

I was also making Super8 films. I even went so far as to enter them in some festivals where I won a couple of awards; but, I couldn't afford to shoot sound. I could only afford to shoot image. Without realizing what was happening, I was learning how to be a silent film maker and how to tell stories without the use of sound, which I found to be extremely difficult but very compelling; a difficult art form to learn how to do correctly. That was the first piece in the puzzle.

The next piece was my actual film history courses when I went to college. They would start with the silent era and inevitably the clips they would show were such low quality that occasionally the professors would make a point of saying that what we were watching was a fifth or sixth generation dupe and wouldn't give us any idea what the films were really like. But that was all you could really see. There was no way to actually see the prints correctly so I wasn't getting any idea what the silent era was really about. I had the impression that most people weren't. We were being told that the first 30 years of filmmaking were important; but, we couldn't see how; we couldn't see the evidence of it clearly.

Then when I moved to San Francisco and discovered the Castro Theatre, The San Francisco International Film Festival was traditionally showing at least one silent film every year under Peter Scarlett. I think the first one I saw at the Castro was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) with Dennis James on the Wurlitzer and that was an absolute revelation—"Here it is! Here's how they really are!"—I was just blown away by the beauty and the power of both pure imagery and visual storytelling, which I've always really loved particularly in film, combined with music into this operatic experience of a pure emotional assault, which you can nurture and think about for days afterwards. That was the next piece. I thought, "My God, I've seen what silent filmmaking is really like." It's incredibly powerful and I didn't know that because access was so limited. I thought, "If I don't know that and I'm a film lover…!" I spent hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours at rep houses and never saw silent films at rep houses (unless it would be something like a very poor 16mm print of Metropolis or something like that in incorrect aspect ratio running too fast). My eyes were opened.

Then I met Melissa Chittick who—at that time—was a volunteer at the Red Vic Moviehouse. She had gotten a degree in film from UC Santa Barbara. She had taken similar kinds of film classes from Charles Wolfe in particular—who's on our advisory committee to this day—and he instilled in her a love for the concept of silent film. But she had the exact same thing happen to her. She didn't know what silent films were really like until she saw them at the Castro Theatre. Then she said to the members of the Red Vic Collective, "Why don't we have a Silent Film Festival?" Their response was, "Why don't you do it?"

By sheer chance I happened to meet her. We both worked on Union Street. I was a picture framer and worked in a picture framing shop and she was a bank teller who used to work at Wells Fargo. I had a film book with me one day when I was making the store's deposits and she noticed that. She said, "Oh, you like film? I'm trying to start a Silent Film Festival." I thought, "Oh my God!" So that's the origin story right there. It's all about proper presentation and that's what finally struck me when I saw The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: you can't watch VHS tapes of these films or DVDs by yourself at home and get anywhere near or close to the actual conception of what the filmmakers intended.

Guillén: Definitely the visual language, as you say, is so important. For myself, it happened at your festival with Seventh Heaven (1927).

Salmons: Can you describe your experience?

Guillén: It was an emotional assault and an aesthetic arrest. I was so overcome with emotion, I couldn't believe it. I sat in my chair weeping, unable to collect myself.

Salmons: At our first festival we showed Lucky Star (1929), which—along with Street Angel (1928) and Seventh Heaven—are the three Frank Borzage films with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Borzage—I don't know how he did that—how he could make such a direct assault on your emotions the way he did and have it be so honest. He's one of the most emotional filmmakers and yet I never feel manipulated by his films. All of the emotion is earned.

Guillén: His films were before melodrama got a bad name. There's a purity to the melodrama that is, as you say, honest and direct.

Salmons: We show a lot of melodrama. I think melodrama was an honest art form. That would be very interesting to trace where melodrama became corrupted into an unappreciated art form.

Guillén: When it became a disingenuous and manipulative formula?

Salmons: Yeah. But in the silent era, it was not formula.

Guillén: Last year when I spoke with Edward Millington Stout for SF360 about the Castro's Wurlitzer organ, and I relayed to him my emotional reaction to Seventh Heaven, he asked me if I understood why I had such a physical reaction to the film? I admitted that, no, I didn't understand why. He said it was because the Wurlitzer organ is vibrating the floor and my body was absorbing all those vibrations. You're not just watching something and having an emotional response, he said, you are literally feeling the emotion physically through the vibration of the music.

Salmons: That's wonderful. Very interesting.

Guillén: Which leads me to ask about the context of venue. Could we be having a silent film festival of this stature anywhere else but the Castro Theatre?

Salmons: Of course our goal is to eventually do that and to move the festival around. I hope that in the future we could package presentations and travel them and do tours with them; but, yours is a really good question. We do a lot of piano accompaniment, some ensemble accompaniment. The Wurlitzer is a very unique musical instrument. When I mention The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Dennis James' performance on the Wurlitzer was part of what made that experience so spine tingling for me. The moment at the end of Four Horsemen where they're in the cemetery and we finally realize that the Christ figure is Christ and he spreads his arms wide and says, "I knew them all"—of all the grave markers—what Dennis did right then on the Wurlitzer, this huge swell of holy music, made me shiver up and down! So the Wurlitzer is a very unique musical instrument. The number of musicians who have Dennis's skill and ability to provide that kind of accompaniment is extremely small. Ed Stout is the Master of the Wurlitzer. Ed tells us who can play that Wurlitzer. If Ed says he doesn't want somebody on that Wurlitzer, they don't get to use the Wurlitzer. There's really only four or five people that we can turn to—Dennis James, Chris Elliot, Clark Wilson (who will be providing musical accompaniment for two films this year), and a couple of others—and that's it! It's definitely a dying art form.

Guillén: That's actually one of my literary aspirations and part of the reason I contacted Ed: I want to write a book on these few remaining contemporary theatrical organists.

Salmons: [Gasps.]

Guillén: Ed told me there were only about five left.

Salmons: I've never read any study on that.

Guillén: There isn't one. I researched it. There isn't. That's why I've put in a request to speak with Clark and is actually one of the main reasons I began attending the Silent Film Festival. Suddenly I became quite aware of the various styles of musical accompaniment being provided for silent films at various festivals and retrospectives. Honestly, I'm not always pleased with what the San Francisco International endeavors with their combinations of silent film and contemporary musicians. Some of their events have worked for me and several have not.

Salmons: During the Peter Scarlett years, they would do one of each. They would have Dennis James play for a program—and I would always see those—and then some of the others where they were trying to reach the kids with the contemporary musicians. I've seen one or two of those that I've enjoyed; but, for the most part, I don't like them because of the transparency of what's being attempted. I don't think the music matches usually. When we first started and introduced ourselves to people in the industry who exhibit silent films and preserve and archive them, we went to some of the conventions like the Cinecon Convention in Hollywood. We'd see how they did it. We saw how they used pianists. Then seeing Dennis James on the Wurlitzer at the San Francisco International, I could see how the art form was surviving through musicians like Dennis. I wanted to work with them. These were the experts. These are the people who have studied silent film and are trying to preserve historically accurate music that is—at the same time—completely emotional and relevant.

Guillén: It truly is a layered visual experience when it's done right. You're getting the visual language of the film but you're also watching the musicians perform with the film.

Salmons: Yes! I don't know if you've talked with Dennis or who you've talked to but organists will tell you that—though their back may be to the audience—they're completely attuned with what's happening in the audience. Dennis has said that he'll feel the audience's energy pouring right through his back, releasing right through his hands up onto the screen. When it's all working right, absolutely. When he did Flesh and the Devil (1926) at our Winter event, it was completely like that. I was stunned at how seriously the audience took Flesh and the Devil, which we always hope to have happen, but they did it. Dennis was picking up on their energy and he even said afterwards, "I'm exhausted!" because of the way the music is a conductor for a large group's energy. It's amazing. Sometimes I watch the musicians too along with the emotional experience of the film itself.

Guillén: Help me place this in context. I know Richard Von Busack asked you about the silent film festival circuit, and I remain curious about that. What is the culture of silent film outside of our own festival here in the Bay Area? The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is so fantastic; are there comparable events going on stateside?

Salmons: No, not really.

Guillén: Though there is the famous silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy, which Jonathan Marlow has written about to The Greencine Daily once or twice.

Salmons: Which I finally got to go to for the first time last year. Stacey Wisnia has been two or three times. That's the granddaddy. When Melissa and I were first talking about the idea, we heard of Pordenone and its eight-day-long festival of silent films. We heard they were showing them all correctly with live music. We figured that—if they were able to do that in Italy—we should be able to do a one-day festival here. Pordenone has a lot of government and local support. It's incredible what they do there. After eight days I was so fried. [Laughter.] It was like having a tremendously large meal at every single film.

Here in the States, the reason we started it as a film festival was because we didn't see anybody doing that. There is a circuit of conventions and most of them are not focused on silent film; they're focused on rare, early film. They'll show some silent and some sound film. Cinecon is like that. There's the Cinevent in Columbus, Ohio. There's the Cinefest in Syracuse, New York. There's a couple of others like that. And then there are some events that are hosted through educational institutions like the Kansas Silent Film Festival, which has been around for about 10 years, and is done through the University of Kansas. That's a free event that the University sponsors.

And then there are still a few of these grand movie palaces that have survived that will do some rep programming because they still do have some theatre organs in them. There's the Paramount in Seattle. Dennis James plays regularly there. He lives up there now. They'll do a silent series where you can see a silent film maybe once every Monday six to eight weeks in a row where Dennis will accompany on the Wurlitzer. So there are those kind of events happening. Occasionally a larger venue like The Lincoln Center will program a silent film. I think they just had Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra play for Beggars of Life (1928) a few weeks ago. So there is a little bit of rep programming happening and there are festivals that feature silent film and then there is this other underground of the conventions where the rare film lovers all congregate. Sometimes they're the ones who discover films again in the same way that collectors are as responsible as archives for preserving films. These conventions where people go to see a film because nobody has shown it in 80 years. They don't care what it is, but nobody's shown it. They frequently stumble onto great finds too. But the idea of a festival—like other film festivals—we chose that idea because we didn't see it happening. We thought that would make it noteworthy, if we did it that way.

Guillén: "Noteworthy" is an understatement. Through this network, then, of these conventions and festivals, is this how you find the films to program each year at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival? I'm sure it's an organic selection process over the course of a year.

Salmons: That's a very good way to put that. It's a process that's grown over the course of our learning how to do the festival. Initially, the very first people who helped us were The Silent Society of Hollywood Heritage in Los Angeles. They were very important. When we were just starting Randy Haberkamp—who's now the Program Coordinator of Educational and Special Projects for the Academy Foundation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—he was the head of the Silent Society. That's an organization that met once a month at the DeMille Barn, which used to be located across the street from The Hollywood Bowl (even though The Hollywood Bowl isn't there anymore). It's called the Lasky-DeMille Barn because it's the first—I guess you'd call it the first studio in a sense—which DeMille built in 1913 to make The Squaw Man (1914), which is sometimes identified as the first American feature film. That's going to be debateable, of course; but, the Lasky-DeMille Barn still stands. It's a barn but they've preserved it as a historic landmark in Los Angeles. The Silent Society would come in there once a month and show silent films with live piano accompaniment. We had heard that Randy—more than anyone in Los Angeles—was the person we should talk to about how to show silent films. Through him we quickly met David Shepard….

Guillén: Who you're honoring this year?

Salmons: Yeah. We discovered those people who were keeping silent film alive whatever way they could. When we first met with Randy, we said, "Here's our idea. We want to create a high profile event for silent film. That's the concept. There are these clubs and are these conventions that cater to educated film lovers; but, we're going to try and create a high profile event that caters to people who don't know about silent film." Because that's who we were! We discovered them and we wanted to share this sense of discovery with the greater filmgoing audience. He was very much supportive of that. Then we met Jere Guldin, who's the archivist at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, who we visit almost yearly to watch whatever they've preserved. We showed Chicago (1927) because they discovered it and we were instantly on top of that. We're in constant touch with archivists and professionals like that about what's being found and what's being preserved. I'm pretty sure that we'll do our best to show Bardely's The Magnificent (1926) in our Winter event next February because we heard from Serge Bromberg at Lobster Films that he had found it. We all went, "Ah!" It's organic, like you said. At this point in our history, we are part of the circle of people who are informed when films are being found, preserved and restored. Also we've seen a lot of films over the years that stick in our minds.

Guillén: We are blessed in San Francisco that the San Francisco Silent Film Foundation is doing all of this for us.

Salmons: I should say that Randy definitely told us—when we told him we wanted to do this in San Francisco—"Well, you couldn't do it in Los Angeles." Because Los Angeles is all about product. You can have societies and groups of people who almost clandestinely meet to appreciate film; but, the idea of creating a silent film festival wouldn't happen in Los Angeles. But in San Francisco? It's the ideal place. Most people I talk to agree that the Bay Area probably has the most avid, intelligent and inquisitive film audience anywhere in the nation. Most people say they think it's better than New York.

Guillén: I won't argue with that.

Salmons: So we're very fortunate in that sense that we just happened to be in the right place to start the festival where there's already a built-in audience, at least a certain number of people, who will come to see something just because they've never seen it before and they're thrilled. From there we built the audience outwards through word-of-mouth.

Part Two of my conversation with Stephen Salmons can be found here.

Cross-published on Twitch.