A two-day program of silent films starring Mary Pickford might have seemed out of place among the many new movies at the Cinetopia International Film Festival, but guest speaker Christel Schmidt helped put things in perspective.
“[Mary Pickford] co-founded United Artists, which was Hollywood’s first independent distribution company, with actors Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and director D.W. Griffith,” said Christel before a screening of short Pickford films at the Michigan Theater on Saturday, June 8, 2013.
“Pickford was now starring in, producing, and distributing her own work. UA allowed these four co-owners essentially to avoid the burgeoning studio system, and they really are at the forefront of the independent film movement, which is pretty much what a festival like this champions.”
Christel, who works with the Library of Congress to restore and publish books about silent movies, hosted a screening of the 1926 Pickford feature Sparrows on Friday, June 7, 2013 at the Michigan. She came back the next day to introduce and discuss the short Pickford movies, which were released from 1909 to 1912 by the Biograph Studios.
“I really want to thank all of you because you came out to this program, which I think for many people is a bit of a hard sell,” Christel said before the short films. “I think when you tell people you’re going to look at films from 1909 to 1912, they think, oh my gosh.
“These are not etchings on a cave wall. These are stories that you’re all going to relate to. They’re over a hundred years old, but people who lived a hundred years ago are not foreign objects. They laugh a lot at the same things, and they talk about the human experience.”
Christel has traveled around the United States promoting Mary Pickford, including a trip to the Redford Theatre on April 25, 2009 (The Music of the Redford).
This was the second Cinetopia festival, and the second time that a silent movie star was showcased. At last year’s inaugural event, Harold Lloyd was the featured artist, with a guest appearance by his granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd (Journey to Cinetopia).
I hope this continues, at least through some kind of annual tribute to movie history. After both Mary Pickford events, my first impression was, “This has been a great experience.” I’m sure the vibrant Cinetopia atmosphere at the Michigan contributed to that feeling.
And Christel Schmidt had similar thoughts at the Saturday event.
“I just want to make this point. I think a silent component of a film festival is very important, because as much as we should come to these things to recognize current filmmakers and current work, especially by independents, I think it’s important to remember our task, so the [director Robert] Altman symposium, the Pickford series, I’m very pleased that we’re invited and get to participate.”
DFT Joins In
My two days of Cinetopia at the Michigan Theater were more than enough for a great movie weekend, but my festival enthusiasm was re-energized on Sunday, June 9, 2013 at the Detroit Film Theatre, which this year joined Cinetopia. There was the same enthusiasm and excitement among the DFT patrons and staff that I saw at the Michigan.
Many of the same films played at both theaters, including Dear Mr. Watterson, a documentary about Bill Watterson, the creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.
After the 1 p.m. DFT showing of the movie, director Joel Allen Schroeder came on stage and fielded questions. One visitor asked him to explain the philosophy of Calvin and Hobbes, which Watterson stopped writing in 1995.
“In the film, I really tried not to define Calvin and Hobbes too much because I think people see them differently,” Joel remarked. “There are fans who are all about Calvin being naughty—that’s what they love about it.
“For me, it’s more about the imagination, he had all those adventures going on, the friendship with Hobbes, I think was one of the defining messages that Watterson was trying to defend. For me, the strip is about imagination, about exploration—some of the messages that stick with me throughout the strip.
“Look at the titles of the books—It’s a Magical World, There’s Treasure Everywhere. Those are the things that for me really are the overarching themes. And I think one of the great things about the strip is that I think it appeals to everybody across political lines…I think it’s a very, very human strip.”
After Dear Mr. Watterson, I stuck around for a 4 p.m. showing of The Source Family. This documentary about a communal family of the 1960s and 1970s was my chance to do what I’m sure many other people were doing that weekend—move out of their comfort zone into something unsettling but still stimulating and instructive.
As someone who grew up in the 1970s, I’ve always been curious about how the excesses and idealism of the 1960s were mainstreamed into life in the 1970s.
A 1978 clip from Saturday Night Live was particularly revealing. The skit made fun of two restaurant owners who seemed a little spaced out as they described their vegetarian menu to some customers.
I later thought, a line was being drawn between the acceptable counterculture attitude of SNL and a counterculture attitude that was being portrayed as a parody of the hippie utopianism of the late 1960s.
After the movie, co-director Jodi Wille tried to explain how people get involved in communal movements.
“Often when the culture is in a period of decline, and these institutions that people have faith in, like the government, the economy, the church—they start seeing the cracks. People realize this power structure is not supporting them, they’re not fulfilling them.”
As I watched both Joel Allen Schroeder and Jodi Wille interacting with the audience, I thought this must be one of the most satisfying payoffs for the hundreds of hours I am sure they devoted to their movies. And afterwards, they were in the inner lobby of the DFT, exchanging greetings, smiles, and conversations with DFT patrons.
The wide selection of films at Cinetopia meant I had to miss some promising-looking movies, but now I can look forward to seeing many of those films at the DFT and Michigan in the coming months. Films like the new silent film Blancanieves, which won the 2013 Cinetopia Audience Award for best narrative (story-based) film.
And I also remind myself that most weekends of the year, I can put together my own alternative film festival of classic, documentary, foreign, and independent movies at the DFT, Michigan, and Redford.
Copyright © 2013 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.