I confess that I did not get the gestalt, and flat-out joy, of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival until I attended a program at the Castro. I was anticipating the quiet, respectful excavation of an embalmed, herky-jerky curiosity passed off as a lost classic -- movies as medicine, or dusty history. Instead I found myself in the middle of a fully alive full house of folks thrilling to an epic undertaken without computer-generated visual effects, enraptured by an onscreen romance and touched by timeless human desire and fallibility.
Nostalgia is a small part of the fest's appeal, admittedly, but it's mostly for the clothes, cars, architecture and etiquette that appear more solid and comforting than the over-marketed accoutrements and rampant selfishness that define our disposable culture. As a rule, the festival staff chooses movies that stand up all these years later as art, which is to say the filmmakers explore universal situations with insight, inspiration and wit. Given our typical condescension to the past, a solid silent film can be a shock and a revelation. Believe it or not, in the 1920s people recognized the folly of war, distrusted politicians and had sex with someone other than their spouse.
"The Iron Horse"
The festival begins tonight with an ambitious 1924 Western from an already adept John Ford. The Iron Horse conveys the American aura of optimism and destiny that fueled the construction of the first transcontinental railroad 75 years earlier. Saturday's lineup skips from China (A Spray of Plum Blossoms, a 1930s-dress transposition of Two Gentlemen of Verona) to Italy (the roller-coaster romance Rotaie) to Germany and the eagerly awaited (and probably sold out) local premiere of Fritz Lang's visionary Metropolis, restored with a half-hour of newly discovered footage and backed by the Alloy Orchestra.
Saturday brings a rare African-American independent film, The Flying Ace, sandwiched between a morning program of comic shorts and a Harry Langdon comedy, The Strong Man, directed by Frank Capra. Adults will flock to the evening revivals of G.W. Pabst's stunning Diary of a Lost Girl, starring the most modern of silent screen actresses, Louise Brooks (of Pabst's Pandora's Box), followed by the 1922 Swedish cult classic Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages featuring live music by the Matti Bye Ensemble from the same country.
"Diary of a Lost Girl"
Sunday gets off to a ripping start with William Wyler's The Shakedown, a lively melodrama about a boxer and an orphan. Dziga Vertov's still-breathtaking and influential hybrid of documentary and narrative, Man With a Movie Camera, returns with the Alloy Orchestra supplying the notes and beats. A Norma Talmadge vehicle, The Woman Disputed, shapes up to be a genuine rediscovery, along with the festival closer, L'Heureuse Mort, an acerbic French comedy about a playwright who discovers acclaim and success after (mistakenly, as it turns out) news breaks of his death at sea.
Truly, there is something to charm or move everyone at the S.F. Silent Film Festival. For a flat-out good time, no festival in the Bay Area can match it.
The 15th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs July 15-18, 2010 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit silentfilm.org.