Friday, February 28, 2014

At the Kansas Silent Film Festival:
The importance of the audience

In February, most people go to places like Aruba. Me, I go to Topeka, where each year the Kansas Silent Film Festival takes place over two days i the dead of winter at Washburn University. And that's where I am right now.

This year, it's Friday, Feb. 28 (hey, that's today!) and Saturday, March 1. On the bill are a wide range of films, all shown with live accompaniment, and most of which I've never seen before.

And that's unusual, because one of the things that's a little different about this festival is that it doesn't focus on "rare" or "unusual" films or prints.

Rather, the pattern in Kansas has been to give audiences a chance to see some of the more mainstream classics in the way they were intended to be experienced: on film (in this case, 16mm), on the big screen, with live music, and as part of a large audience.

That last part (the live audience) is key. Because the Kansas Silent Film Festival is free and open to the public, the screenings tend to attract a fairly heavy turnout of local folks who aren't necessarily vintage film fanatics, but just looking for a good night out.

And so attendance can be immense: 500 people or sometimes more, depending on the vagaries of the weather and what else might be going on in town.

Inside the White Concert Hall at Washburn University, home of the Kansas Silent Film Festival.

And that allows all of us, vintage film freaks included, to experience something that was an essential part of the early cinema experience, but which is devilishly difficult to accomplish today: the reaction of a large group of "just plain folks" to an art form that was once part of pop culture, but is no more.

And it really makes a difference. It's one thing to chuckle along with other film folks at Charley Chase in 'Limousine Love' (1928) or Max Davidson in 'Pass the Gravy' (1927). But it's something else again to be part of a large crowd absolutely rollicking with laughter at these very same films.

It no less than restores to them the power they once had (and still do have) and provides the necessary context to understand why people first fell in love with the movies.

I've been interested in cinema of the silent era since I was a kid buying 8mm prints out of the Blackhawk Films catalog. But it was a trip to the Kansas Silent Film Festival back in 2000 that showed me first-hand how the films play with a large audience present, and how important that piece of the equation is (and continues to be) to the silent film experience.

To me, it was a revelation. These films leap to a whole different level of life when the missing ingredient of the large audience is supplied. It indirectly led to my own efforts to stage silent film events in my part of the world, which in turn has given me first-hand experience in how difficult it is to attract a large audience of "just plain folks" to a silent film screening. (In Boston, the best we seem to be able to do is about 250 tops. That's good, but not as good as Topeka.)

Sure, it's great that so many silent shorts and features have been restored and made available on digital media for home use or on YouTube. It's never been easier (and I include the silent era itself in that statement) to see not just the classics, but also obscure films and rare items that until now had been impossible to experience without trekking to the world's archives.

However, if you don't experience the films as part of a large audience (and live music, but that's a whole other topic), you can't really say you've seen them. As the Kansas Silent Film Festival continues to show me (this will be my 15th year in a row), the large audience can make all the difference, whether it's with a well-established classic or just some obscure program filler.

But back to the original point: this year's Kansas festival has a relatively high proportion of "rare" films, most of which I haven't seen before.

Yes, there's 'Modern Times' (1936) in honor of the centenary of Chaplin's 'Tramp' character, and also Marion Davies in 'The Patsy' (1928). Otherwise, it's a real grab bag of shorts and features that I'm looking forward to experiencing, especially with an audience present.

One added wrinkle this time around is that I have the honor of presenting a until-now-lost Mary Pickford film at this year's annual cinema dinner on Saturday night.

I know what you're thinking: there must be a real shortage of prominent people in the vintage film world for me to be asked to do this.

But the film was found in New Hampshire, so I have a geographic connection to it, at least. And so it will be my pleasure to present and accompany 'Their First Misunderstanding' (1911) as part of tomorrow night's dinner, which I'm told is sold out. Thanks to Bill Shaffer and everyone who helps organize and carry out this great festival for all the hard work that goes into making it look easy.

For the other events today and tomorrow, the White Concert Hall at Washburn University holds maybe 1,000 people. So even if the dinner is at capacity, there's plenty of room at the screenings, and the more the merrier. So come join us starting tonight at 7 p.m. More info is online at the Kansas Silent Film Festival's Web site. See you there!

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