San Francisco has become ground zero for a culture of noise -- blasting jackhammers, the screeching tires of SUVs (fleeing a hit-and-run, no doubt), and of course cell phones. With murder illegal, options for the nerve-jangled modern are limited. One brief respite, however, can be found at the annual Silent Film Festival, happening Sunday at the Castro Theater. If "silent" isn't entirely accurate -- there's live musical accompaniment, after all -- the festival is just a soothing step away at "quiet."
The discovery here is a rare 1931 Chinese silent, The Peach Girl (Taohua Qi Ueji). Star Ruan Lingyu committed suicide in 1934 at age 24, and the tragedies that led her to this end can be divined in her endlessly evocative expressions. Peach Girl begins as a bucolic fairy tale but escalates quickly into a full-blown melodrama, with poor country girl Miss Lim (Lingyu) and wealthy Teh-en (Jin Yan) in a desperate but impossible love affair. This richly textured film gains from its no-holds-barred narrative and the luminous acting of its star, known as "the Chinese Garbo."
The ever-welcome Buster Keaton, aka "the American Jackie Chan," makes poetry out of pratfalls in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). Shot in the Sacramento Delta (which gives a stellar performance as the Mississippi), it features one of the stone-faced auteur's best scenes, an extraordinary tornado sequence that shows a whole town exploding around an unfazed Buster. In one unforgettable scene, he clings to an uprooted tree that sails gracefully through the air to deposit him gently in the river.
Erich von Stroheim's The Wedding March (1928) is slight in story -- a layabout prince (Stroheim) wants to marry a poor girl (Fay Wray) against both their parents' wishes -- but the fetishized imagery, air of decadence, and some rediscovered early Technicolor footage make it well worth a look. Wray will make a rare appearance to honor this film made five years before she was wooed and tickled by King Kong.