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Why You Shouldn’t Miss Out On The 25th San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Updated: May 05, 2022 11:47
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The 25th edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (hereafter “Silent Film”) is coming to San Francisco’s Castro Theatre from May 5-11, 2022.  And Broke-Ass readers really should try some of the offerings.

The San Francisco Bay Area’s cinephilia shows that having a good area film culture requires more than just having a giant multiplex showing the latest Hollywood entertainment product.  Cherishing older films that paved the way for what we present-day audiences take for granted in films today is one aspect of that cultural love.  

Silent Film has over its existence honored the non-spoken language films made around the world from the late 1870s to the early 1930s.  Audiences unfamiliar with silent films may be tempted to think of them as creative Beta-tests for what’s seen in modern-day theaters.  But that would be a mistake.  These films were made at a time when cinema technology was an utterly new invention whose creative possibilities were just beginning to be explored.  Those early filmmakers had to invent such familiar cinematic storytelling techniques as montage.  

Silent films are records of how these early filmmakers learned by doing how to tell a story primarily through moving images.  Pantomime and early comic strips certainly existed during part of the silent film era.  But those creative media primarily relied on telling relatively simple stories.  Silent Film’s best offerings over the years show that the silent film medium can be used to tell emotionally complex stories through a combination of actors’ facial expressions and inventive cinematography.  

Two offerings from this year’s Silent Film demonstrate this point.  Mario Peixoto’s stunning avant-garde film “Limite” was inspired by an Andre Kertesz photograph.  The film’s narrative set-up of a man and two women adrift in a small boat soon gives way to some unforgettable images.  Lupu Pick’s “Sylvester” is a kammerspielfilm (cinematic portrait of lower middle class German life) set during New Year’s Eve celebrations.  While the neighbors are living up the ringing in of the New Year, the film’s main characters (unhappy wife, manipulative mother-in-law, weak-willed husband) are stewing in extreme emotional discontent.

Sylvester

Incidentally, silent films may not have spoken dialogue on their soundtracks.  But that doesn’t mean attendees to Silent Film’s offerings at the Castro will be sitting in silence for a couple of hours.  All Silent Film screenings will have live musical accompaniment.  They will range from solo accompaniment (e.g. Wayne Barker, who’s composed for Dame Edna Everage) to full fledged orchestra (e.g. San Francisco Silent Movie Orchestra).

There are two particular Silent Film programs with unique musical accompaniment.   The Indian film “Prem Sanyas” features Club Foot Hindustani with Pandit Krishna Bhatt.  This group is a slight reconfiguration of one of the Bay Area’s O.G.’s of new silent film scoring, the Club Foot Orchestra.  The re-naming is necessary here because Bhatt’s sitar playing provides a key element for the music accompanying this pre-Bollywood epic re-telling of the origin of the Buddha.   

But the wilder Silent Film offering is “Rebirth Of A Nation” featuring DJ Spooky and Classical Revolution with Guenter Buchwald.  “The Birth Of A Nation” has an infamous history of turning Klansmen into heroes and glorifying Southern slavery.  DJ Spooky remixes and chops up the original film into something that’s more truthful to history.  Hopefully, this will mean a) Klansmen get shown to be terrorists and b) the Silent Film audience will drink in the tears of upset bigots.

For those interested in trying Silent Film’s offerings, there are several paths to find films matching their interests.

 

For silent film star watchers

Erich von Stroheim, nicknamed “the man you love to hate,” stars and directs in both Opening Night Film “Foolish Wives” and “Blind Husbands.”  In “Foolish Wives,” von Stroheim plays a fake aristocrat leading a pair of fellow con artists to find wealthy wives to blackmail.  Especially impressive are the sets built to evoke the story’s setting of Monaco.  “Blind Husbands,” von Stroheim’s first film, sees him playing a womanizing cad targeting vulnerable women at an Austrian Alps resort.  

Silent film comedian Buster Keaton was a huge creative influence on martial arts film star Jackie Chan.  Keaton’s in the festival with his last independent film “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”  It’s a comedy whose incredible finale features stunt work and gags that the viewer fears would have gotten Keaton killed several times over.

Legendary master of disguise Lon Chaney stars as “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame.”  Chaney’s performance as the tormented bell ringer Quasimodo would become an iconic role for the actor,

Famed silent film era It Girl Clara Bow plays a chorine who refuses to give up on a ne’er-do-well playboy in “The Primrose Path.” 

Iconic silent film star Louise Brooks (“Pandora’s Box”) made her feature film debut in “The Street Of Forgotten Men,” a tale whose details of New York City’s Bowery District may make you wonder just how much times have changed.

King Of The Circus” will re-introduce Bay Area audiences to the movies’ first international star, the French slapstick artist Max Linder.  Sadly, this film was also the last film Linder completed before his death in 1925.  

Steamboat Bill Jr.

For fans of famous directors

Mikio Naruse’s “Apart From You” sensitively tells the story of an aging geisha trying to support both her sullen teenage son and a young colleague. 

Julien Duvivier’s long lost “The Divine Voyage” pits ill-treated sailors against a greedhead shipping tycoon.

For sheer creative cojones regarding image-based storytelling, check out Ernst Lubitsch’s “Lady Windemere’s Fan.”  It’s an updated adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s famous play.  But the humor in Wilde’s original depended on verbal wit…whereas Lubitsch is relying solely on visual humor.  

Falling into the “holy s**t” slot at Silent Film is the screening of Dziga Vertov’s “The History Of The Civil War.”  Viewers with a working knowledge of film history will know Vertov from his unforgettable “The Man With A Movie Camera.”  This film might be called an early example of embedded cinematic reporting.  Vertov and his cameramen were embedded with the Red Army and filmed them engaging in street fighting and assaults against the Russian Civil War’s counterrevolutionaries.  Now Vertov’s second documentary is finally whole again after the footage Vertov’s teams generated got sliced up into newsreels.     

 

For fans of cinematic rarities

The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show” offers a collection of shorts lasting only a minute or two.  But the appeal of these rare films from the British Film Institute is seeing a visual moving record of the splendor and variety of the Victorian era.

Holger-Madsen’s 1918 Danish space opera “A Trip To Mars” follows an exploratory voyage to Mars.  There, the explorers find the Martians are peace-loving space vegans!

 “Salome,” from directors Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova, adapts the titular Oscar Wilde play.  Nazimova plays the title character, while the sets are designed by the incredible Aubrey Beardsley.

Arrest Warrant

Odds are readers have never heard of director Herohii Tasin.  But the reasons for catching the thriller “Arrest Warrant” are two-fold.  First, its setup of “Russian revolutionary’s wife must guard cache of secret documents from discovery by the White Army” uses some incredible must-see expressionist effects to convey the psychological stress endured by this woman.  Second, and equally importantly, the Silent Film screening is a benefit for both the World Central Kitchen and Kyiv’s Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre. 

So don’t miss out on this anniversary edition of Silent Film.  Be amazed by a special film rescued from the ravages of time or discover some of the roots of today’s cinema. 

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Peter Wong

Peter Wong

I've been reviewing films for quite a few years now, principally for the online publication Beyond Chron. My search for unique cinematic experiences and genre dips have taken me everywhere from old S.F. Chinatown movie theaters showing first-run Jackie Chan movies to the chilly slopes of Park City. Movies having cat pron instantly ping my radar.

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