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Dizzy Heights: Silent Cinema and Life in the Air

February 23, 2012 - February 26, 2012

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Copresented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The cinema and aviation go arm in arm through life; they are born on the same day.—Fernand Léger

For many years, the vehicle in which most people first experienced flight was not the airplane, but the movie theater. The new flying machines were still prohibitively expensive and often dangerous, but the vertiginous thrills they provided could safely be simulated with a fisticuffs-on-the-wing film like Dizzy Heights and Daring Hearts (1915). That is, when the idea of mechanical flight did not seem simply far-fetched. If a ship could actually fly, it was thought, well then anything might fly: beds, houses, people. The great silent fantasists—Winsor McCay, Georges Méliès, Walt Disney—all explored these possibilities.

Others imagined how life might be lived in a world of commonplace flight. The London of High Treason (1929), a science-fictional “aerotropolis” of conspirators and saboteurs, suggests that such speculation was not without attendant anxieties. This was, after all, the first generation to see these machines put to war. In A Trip to Mars (1918), made at the war’s end, we find a pacific message gleaned from the new technology of flight. Above all, the new way of seeing—the aerial view—is savored in these films. In The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower (1927), director Julien Duvivier steals glances at the world below from every available purchase, possessed by the view from above—a harbinger of our present life in the air.

Patrick Ellis, Guest Curator

Thursday, February 23, 2012
7:00 p.m. A Trip to Mars
Holger-Madsen (Denmark, 1918) Archival Restoration! Introduced by Mark Sandberg. Bruce Loeb on piano. Part science fiction and part utopian fantasy, this silent film from Denmark combines the fascination for flight with a WWI-era imagination of a world without war—in this case, perhaps ironically, the planet Mars. (90 mins)

Friday, February 24, 2012
7:00 p.m. High Treason
Maurice Elvey (U.K., 1929) Archival Print! Live musical accompaniment by Peter Chapman. In a futuristic London, the Peace League must stage a popular revolt in the air force —and in so doing repair the romance between a pacifist and a soldier. A modernist Lysistrata, an English Metropolis: High Treason is science fiction for the Jazz Age. (75 mins)

Saturday, February 25, 2012
6:00 p.m. The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower
Julien Duvivier (France, 1927) Archival Print! Introduced by Patrick Ellis. Live musical accompaniment by Ralph Carney and Serious Jass Project. A palate cleanser for those who found Spielberg’s Tintin wanting, Julien Duvivier’s late-silent adventure masterpiece served as an inspiration for the original Tintin comics, and delivers much of the same charm, inventiveness, and visual delight. We are pleased to be screening the only known copy of this rare film. (129 mins)

Sunday, February 26, 2012
2:00 p.m. Fantasies of Flight: Animation and Comedy Shorts
Introduced by Patrick Ellis. Frederick Hodges on piano. The utter novelty of human flight during most of the silent period is hard for our post-jet-set age to fathom: this program aims to recapture an inkling of this lost sense of wonder. Included are the French comedy Airplane Gaze; Edwin S. Porter’s The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend; Winsor McCay’s The Flying House; Disney’s Alice’s Balloon Race; and the Mack Sennett-produced aviatrix comedy, Dizzy Heights and Daring Hearts. (97 mins)

Patrick Ellis is a doctoral student in the Department of Film and Media at UC Berkeley. Dizzy Heights: Silent Cinema and Life in the Air is a project of the UC Berkeley graduate course in film curating taught by BAM/PFA curators Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid. With thanks to Doug Cunningham, Laura Horak, Luke McKernan, Alexa Punnamkuzhyil, Mark Sandberg, and Stacey Wisnia. Cosponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities. Presented with support from UC Berkeley's Student Opportunity Fund, the Graduate Film Working Group, and the Department of Film and Media. We are grateful for the assistance of Marianne Jerris, Danish Film Institute; Fleur Buckley, British Film Institute; Marleen Labijt, Eye Film Institute Netherlands; Daniel Bish, George Eastman House; Marie-Pierre Lessard, Cinémathèque Québécoise; Serge Bromberg and Maria Chiba, Lobster Films; Nicholas Varley and Mark Truesdale, Park Circus; and Mary Tallungan, Walt Disney Studios.