The Mel Novikoff Award, named after the pioneering San Francisco film exhibitor (1922–1987), is bestowed annually on an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema.
An Afternoon with Kevin Brownlow
Onstage interview followed by a screening of The Iron Mask
Saturday, April 28, 2:00 pm
Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street (near Market)
The Silent Spokesman
By Dennis Doros
There is much competition among cinephiles to see the rarest of films. It’s a bloodthirsty sport, with filmgoers battling to be the first to lay eyes on, say, a ten-second fragment of a 1919 Mabel Normand movie languishing in an undisclosed Eastern European archive. The rivalries are legendary. With Kevin Brownlow, it’s a vastly different experience. When Kevin asks you about a certain film you admit you haven’t seen, his eyes light up not with triumph, but with envy that you’ll be able to enjoy the thrilling experience of seeing a special film for the first time. He might even invite you to his office for a personal screening. This alone is enough reason for the San Francisco International Film Festival to honor him. However, there’s more.
Born in Sussex, England in 1938, Kevin Brownlow is the godfather of modern film archiving practices. He is the preeminent film historian and documentarian of the silent era, and he is—along with his cohort Andrew Mollo—one of the finest British directors of his era, having made the masterpieces It Happened Here (1966) and Winstanley
The film world is rampant with large egos—mine included—but it is hard to think of yourself as accomplished when compared to Kevin. It is even more impossible to compete with him. He is silent-era cowboy hero William S. Hart, and even against a town of outlaws you just know who’s going to emerge from that penultimate duel and the cloud of smoke filling the screen. And with his self-deprecating wit, he will make you feel better by divulging all of his mistakes and failures. (There is the story of Kevin, his wife Virginia and John Ford, but it’s best if he tells you.) Yet his successes are infinitely greater in number.
How It Happened Here, a warts-and-all account of the making of his first feature, is the finest book on the difficulties and triumphs of making an indie film. Insightful yet humble, and with enough pearls of wisdom (never trust a distributor!) to make it even more relevant today than when it first was published in 1968, the book is a treasure. The fact that he was just 18 (!) and with five pounds in his bank account when he started filming only makes this a more remarkable story.
Kevin’s collection of interviews with silent-film stars, The Parade’s Gone By (1968), and his ensuing 12-part television documentary Hollywood (made with the equally wonderful David Gill) have inspired a thousand film archivists, critics and professors. They marked the birth of the brood of silent film enthusiasts that exists around the globe today. (Kevin likes to point out that by now he has promoted the silent era longer than it existed.) Each succeeding book and documentary has created more fans and influenced more people. In fact, his book The War, the West and the Wilderness (1979) inspired me to cofound, with Amy Heller, Milestone Films, a distribution company specializing in silent and long-neglected gems.
Then there is his magnificent restoration of Abel Gance’s 1927 classic Napoleon. It wasn’t just the film preservation event of the decade when it was rereleased in a gloriously restored version in 1981, but a cultural phenomenon. Many people have taken credit for the resurrected Napoleon’s success, but it was all Kevin’s doing. For nearly 40 years, he assembled every scrap of celluloid he could find, searching Paris flea markets and the world’s most exclusive archives. He championed the film and Gance at every opportunity, even when no one else cared. And he is still restoring the film. Like the Flying Dutchman, the film is his curse—and the world’s blessing.
Most of all, there are the films he has salvaged and dusted off for Photoplay Productions, the company he founded to focus on important restorations, The Eagle, The Phantom of the Opera, The Thief of Bagdad and The Gold Rush to name just a few. To see a film bearing the Brownlow touch is to go back to a magical time when the silent movies glowed on the silver screen and cinema was a physical experience.
Kevin’s intense passion is something to emulate. His utter tenacity to present the best restorations and orchestral scores is not about self-importance, but has always been about the value of the film itself. And when you read his writings, you want to see every movie he mentions because he loves them so much—even the “bad” films.
Kevin is not without fault. That drive for perfection has caused labs to consider Brownlow-cide. And let’s face it: He’s never had a firm footing on the ground of reality. Kevin convinced himself at an early age that everyone loves silent films and wants to contribute to the cause. A full orchestra? Someone will fund it. An unwilling archive or collector? Someone will persuade them. A national broadcast of a 60-year-old film? Why show that Benny Hill rubbish when they could—no, should!—be showing The Chess Player?
As one of the many “godsons” of Kevin who entered into the film business because of him, it has been an honor to become his friend and his distributor. He was my idol before I ever met him, and on closer inspection he has done nothing to dissuade me of this opinion.
So if you find another 12 lost frames of Napoleon, you know whom to call.
Dennis Doros is co-owner, with his wife Amy Heller, of Milestone Film & Video. Their latest release is Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
I’m King Kong!: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper (2005)
So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM (2004)
Cecil B. De Mille — American Epic (2004)
The Tramp and the Dictator (2002)
Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000)
Universal Horror (1998)
Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1996)
D.W. Griffith: Father of Film (1993)
Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow (1987)
Hollywood: A Celebration of the American
Silent Film (1980)
Abel Gance: The Charm of Dynamite (1968)
It Happened Here (1966)
2005 Anita Monga
2004 Paolo Cherchi Usai
2003 Manny Farber
2002 David Francis
2001 Cahiers du Cinéma
San Francisco Cinematheque
2000 Donald Krim
1999 Enno Patalas
1998 Adrienne Mancia
1997 Judy Stone
Film Arts Foundation
1996 David Robinson
1995 Institut Lumière
1994 Naum Kleiman
1993 Andrew Sarris
1992 Jonas Mekas
1991 Pauline Kael
1990 Donald Richie
1989 USSR Filmmakers Association
1988 Daniel Talbot
Mel Novikoff Award Commitee
Francis J. Rigney, chairman
Linda Blackaby, ex-officio
Helena R. Foster
George Gund III