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SF Silent Film Festival

Highlights of the Fest

To fully appreciate the art of cinema, you have to travel back in time to see where this art form came from. The 15th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre July 15th-18th provides a glimpse into the first decades of the twentieth century (1922–1931 to be precise) when the beauty of film as an art form and commercial enterprise sprang forth from the monochromatic silver screen, displaying a level of creativity, brilliance, and experimentation seen only sparingly today.

The live musical accompaniment by piano, organ, or ensemble captures the imagination as fully as any recorded surround-sound score. You'll never think again that silent films were silent.

The festival is part peephole into the societal attitudes of a century ago and part time warp as you realize that great storytelling never goes out of style. There's something for anyone who loves romances, escapades, action-packed thrillers, sweeping dramas, comedies, science fiction, experimental fare — or just Louise Brooks. Many people attend in period dress to keep it real.

Opening night features John Ford's The Iron Horse — the silent era's version of How the West Was Won, a romance about the story of the building of the first transcontinental railway. Accompanied by Dennis James at the Mighty Wurlitzer performing his own score (July 15th, 7pm).

Diary of a Lost Girl (Das Tagebuch einer Verloren) has a shocking storyline even by today's standards — a young woman is seduced/raped by her father's assistant, delivers a child out of wedlock, is rejected by her bourgeois family and sent to a strict reform school, becomes a prostitute, and eventually gains control of her life — but it established Louise Brooks and her director, G.W. Pabst, as some of the silent era's most forceful talents. Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (July 17th, 6:30pm).

Although Fritz Lang's well-known masterpiece, Metropolis, is probably the most-reinterpreted silent classic — emerging every few years in some sort of new guise, whether accompanied by contemporary pop music, adapted for the musical theater, or even animated — this time there's a newly commissioned score by the Alloy Orchestra as well as thirty minutes of restored footage cut from the original version that was found only two years ago in a vault in Buenos Aires (July 16th, 8:15pm).

Man with a Movie Camera is arguably one of the most innovative and influential films of the silent era. Director Dziga Vertov's groundbreaking style of rapid editing and use of cinematic effects and camera tricks created a vibrant film that traces a dawn-to-dusk montage of urban Russian life, and the tireless forces that keep the thriving city alive. Accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra (July 18th, 2:30pm).

Pianist Donald Sosin accompanies The Flying Ace, a crowd-pleasing, high-spirited adventure about a crime-fighting pilot that features an all-black cast. Producer Richard E. Norman made six films between 1920 and 1928 in an effort to establish an independent black cinema, and this is the only one of his that survives (July 17th, 2pm).

From China comes A Spray of Plum Blossoms (Yi jian mei), based on Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona and set in the 1930s. The duke is a warlord and his daughter's ladies-in-waiting are military police. Accompanied by Donald Sosin on piano and presented with both Mandarin and English intertitles (July 16th, 2pm).

The expressionistic film Rotaie, from Italy's late silent period, follows two very poor lovers on their spending spree after they find a wallet in a train station. Presented with Italian intertitles accompanied by a live English translation and Stephen Horne on the piano (July 16th, 6pm).

Hδxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages from Sweden uses a series of dramatic reenactments to conjecture that the witches of the Middle Ages suffered the same hysteria as turn-of-the-century psychiatric patients (July 17th, 9:30pm).

Academy Award winner Pete Docter, who directed such Pixar hits as Monsters, Inc. and Up, appears on stage with Leonard Maltin to talk about the comedic shorts he selected for the program The Big Business of Short, Funny Films, which includes The Cook starring silent standouts Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton (July 17th, 10am).

The festival's educational programs are compelling for anyone fascinated by the filmmaking process. Variations on a Theme highlights the efforts behind composing music for silent films, and all festival musicians will participate (July 17th, noon).

Two free Amazing Tales from the Archives programs use film clips and slides to expose the heartbreaking state of most silent films that have not yet been restored. It's never a pretty sight to see unique, often unidentified films deteriorating on their reels. Happily, not all is lost: several international film repatriation projects are helping to preserve American silent films that have been unseen for decades (July 16th, 11:30am; July 18th, 10am).

The 15th San Francisco Silent Film Festival
July 15th–18th, Castro Theatre