Silent but Lovely

The Castro's Silent Film Fest may lack grumbling and rumbling, but not power

While motion pictures say goodbye to their origins as pictures that move, and still photographs projected onto strips of celluloid give way to an all-digital, all-CGI experience, the paradoxical appeal of the silent films made over cinema's first few decades becomes ever stronger. Comprised as they are of images alone, illuminated by light -- absent the grumbling and rumbling of sound films, from the shellac discs of Vitaphone to Dolby's earsplitting noise -- they seem somehow purer.

Every July the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, now in its eighth year at the Castro, has offered a fine weekend's mix of silent picks, from the classics of early Hollywood to rarities from around the world. This year's program is no exception. As always, there's one recognizable classic, King Vidor's The Crowd(Saturday, 8 p.m.), a rare study of failure from the success-oriented America of 1928. International pictures include a pair of works from the staunch French feminist Germaine Dulac (Sunday, 11:15 a.m.) and a feature from Mexico, 1917's Tepeyac (Saturday, 3:45 p.m.). But the real surprises in the program are two new silents, Rock Ross' Stupor Mundi (1999) and Milford Thomas' Claire (2000), screening Sunday at 4 p.m. Both make an earnest effort to recapture the spirit of that cinematic genre, in these cases creating faux-naive allegories in natural settings. Claire in particular is a gorgeous black-and-white dream.

Silent film gave scope to a group of actors whose appeal was at once more direct than that of any stars before them -- they could be seen, in giant close-up, worldwide -- and more inhuman, as they never uttered a sound. Stars like the unsmiling Buster Keaton or the tormented Lon Chaney, for whom every movie was an excuse to contort himself in some new way, have an odd, almost extraterrestrial appeal. In 1920's The Penalty(Sunday, 1:30 p.m.) Chaney plays the legless Blizzard, out for revenge on the world. In her marvelous book Silent Stars, Jeanine Basinger nails Chaney's attraction here: "[H]e just exudes inner rage." Such purity of emotion is unavailable to today's endlessly voluble villains. Similarly, today's talkative comics lack the minimalist mastery of Keaton, who in 1925's Go West (Sunday, 8:30 p.m.) caked on the whiteface in his most Pierrot-like role, as a cowboy conducting a tender romance with a cow. The unsticky sentiment of this romance is set off by the almost lunar desert landscapes of its setting. It's Keaton's most underrated role and an ideal closing-night attraction.

Lon Chaney and Claire Adams in 
The Penalty.
Lon Chaney and Claire Adams in The Penalty.

Go Westis preceded by a panel discussion with Pickle Family Circus founding clowns Larry Pisoni and Geoff Hoyle, "Talk About Funny," on the continuing appeal of silent comedy. An additional appearance worth noting is that of Virginia Davis McGhee, who as a 4-year-old performed the live-action component of the young Walt Disney's charming Alice cartoons of 70 years ago (Saturday, 11 a.m.). Live music accompanies every screening, which is particularly appropriate for Cecil B. DeMille's 1915 version of Carmen (Saturday, 1:30 p.m.). Silence may yet have the last word.

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