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SF Silent Film Festival and a Conversation with David Ferguson

SF Silent Film Festival

Now entering its 17th year, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is the event par excellence for silent film fans, and some would argue for fans of film in general. A testament to the festival's quality is the way most film buffs get tongue-tied if you ask which films they'd most like to see–they're so good that filmgoers want to see every last one. As someone whose tastes often skew toward the difficult and bizarre, I'm practically foaming for the "Late Show" screening of the 1926 Soviet import The Overcoat, an adaptation a short story by Nikolai Gogol accompanied by a brand new soundtrack by renowned silent film scoring ensemble Alloy Orchestra.

Another offering that's quite well-anticipated is the new restoration of the German masterwork Pandora's Box, G. W. Pabst's career-making drama  starring the American actress Louise Brooks, who then and there struck the template for all femme fatales to follow as a bewitching avatar of unbridled female desire. Fittingly, the frame-by-frame restoration showing at this year's fest is the work of local restoration company Big Sound, an effort led by Angela Holm and David Ferguson, the San Francisco-based punk rock impresario famous for his association with outré acts and causes ranging from Iggy Pop to imprisoned photorealistic artist William Noguera. David spoke with me about the restoration of Pandora's Box and the film fest yesterday. What follows are some of the highlights of our conversation:

David Ferguson: One of the most interesting parts of this project has got to be Hugh Hefner's involvement, I'll bet you can't wait to hear that story.

Jackson Scarlett: It was actually going to be my first question, I have all kinds of ideas in my head about it!

DF: Well, Anita Monga, who runs the silent film festival was very helpful to us when we started this project back in 2005. She had once mentioned how much Hugh Hefner loved the film's star Louise Brooks and that he had also produced a documentary on silent films, so we got in touch with him about what we were doing with Pandora.

What people often don't know is that he's spent tens of millions of dollars to restore silent films theaters in Los Angeles. The first screening of Pandora was actually at one of these theaters, which was invitation only but had about a thousand of his closest friends at it.

JS: I'd imagine that Hugh Hefner has quite a few close friends.

DF: It was so full, and there were… a phalanx of bunnies surrounding him–not your usual film scholars. It was very exciting. To be dealing with someone that used to have Marilyn Monroe on the payroll, that's about as iconic as it gets! 

The great David Ferguson

JS: I'd love to hear more about your restoration company, Big Sound. Can you tell me about how it came to be, and why you've made this leap from something the seems very transgressive to something so much more… classic? 

DF: I have been fascinated for decades with the idea that the silent film, as an art, is a great equal with music… that they complement each other in a perfect way. The first time it really hit me was when I saw Francis Ford Coppola's restoration of Napoleon in San Francisco, I think it was at the Castro, with a score by his father Carmine Coppola and what was then the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and it blew me away. A lot of people bemoaned the introduction of talkies, including Charlie Chaplain, who was actually also a composer of much of the music for his films–he was a very accomplished cellist–and I think that in a way they were upset about the destruction of that link between music and film by the introduction of so much dialogue. When I've taken people to see silent films at Silent Film Festival and at the Castro in the past it has always been the revelation of the music and the film together that has knocked them out.

JS: How much did Pandora cost in total to complete the restoration?

DF: I can't really tell you… but… it ended up costing somewhere in the mid six figures. This kind of project represents a wonderful convergence of the golden era of high tech and connectivity that we're currently in–you have a restoration that took so much work on the part of so many, that introduces the first lesbian character, that's playing in the Castro Theatre, one of the last in the world of its kind–these aren't insignificant connections: There are deep levels of resonance here.

JS: Is there anything else you're looking forward to seeing in this year's Silent Film Fest?

DF: (Mauritz Stiller's) Erotikon sounds very, very exciting, and also the same orchestra is going to play along as with Pandora. The original Mark of Zorro–how could you do better than Douglas Fairbanks jumping around and doing all of his own stunts? Every kid in San Francisco should see that.

The SF Silent Film Fest begins tomorrow, July 12 and runs through the 15th.