Now Playing! Getting the Band(s) Back Together at SF Silent Film Festival

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Still from 'The Signal Tower,' 1924; Directed by Clarence Brown; Restoration by SFSFF and Photoplay Productions. (Courtesy of SF Silent Film Festival)

You’re most likely to hear the magic words "live cinema" at experimental-film venues and (paradoxically) top-tier film festivals. The phrase typically refers to a creative presentation of images (i.e., dual asynchronous projectors) or live musical (or verbal) accompaniment to a completed film. In every case, the tangible goal and fundamental appeal is a unique evening that can never be precisely duplicated.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which Art Deco-rates the Castro Theater May 1–5, has been in the forefront of the live cinema movement for 24 years. SFSFF founders Melissa Chittick and Stephen Salmons didn’t aspire to be trendsetters or jargon coiners; they simply wanted to spread their love for silent movies. Circa 1995, the silent era was the least-respected period in cinema history—for the simple reason that it was the least-remembered and the most poorly presented on television and in theaters.

Still from 'L'inferno,' Directed by Francesco Bertolini and Adolfo Padovan.
Still from 'L'inferno,' Directed by Francesco Bertolini and Adolfo Padovan. (Courtesy of SF Silent Film Festival)

The SFSFF screens new or recently restored prints, at their proper speed, accompanied by the top musical ensembles specializing in silent film accompaniment around the globe. A slew of slides with delicious trivia and background info precede each film, while the free program is packed with expert essays about each title. The environment, scholarship and performance are designed to not merely entertain, but to revive and celebrate an art form that reached its first—and to some, greatest—peak before technology regaled us with “talkies.”

The upshot, if you’ve never attended the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, is that you can pick any program and get the gestalt of the entire enterprise. The evening screenings, of course, draw more people in period dress among the enormous, rapt crowds. You’ll need to hurry to nab tickets to the hot Saturday night shows: Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March (1928), accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and starring Fay Wray of King Kong fame (whose daughter and biographer, Victoria Riskin, will introduce the film), and L’inferno (1911), a stunning dramatization of Dante’s circles accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble. As we say every year, silents is golden.