The San Francisco Silent Film Festival starts Thursday night and runs through Sunday night at the Castro Theater.
Far from the ragged, blurry images of the popular imagination, the silent era of filmmaking was an age of discovery, innovation, and supreme achievement by pioneers working in a new medium. Motion pictures, at first treated as a mere novelty, came of age as an art form between 1910 and 1920, growing from brief, flickering diversions into full-scale narratives. And in the 1920s, the silent era's final decade, cinema truly blossomed as it gained in sophistication and artistry. In those early years, film—despite the tiredness of the cliché—was a new and universal language, relying almost exclusively on image and motion to convey plot and meaning.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival showcases the breadth and depth of this first golden age of cinema, presenting the full range of film treasures—from slapstick comedy to noir, from documentary to the avant garde—as it was meant to be seen: on the big screen, in a beautiful 1920s movie palace, and with live musical accompaniment. This year’s program begins Thursday night, May 29, at the Castro Theater with Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which not only features the famous tango that made Rudolph Valentino one of the biggest stars of the era, but honors the hundredth anniversary of the world war that provides the film's backdrop.
The festival continues all day Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, closing with a 9 p.m. Sunday screening of Buster Keaton's classic 1924 comedy, The Navigator. In between you'll find a wide range of films accompanied by an array of superb musicians that includes the British Film Institute's Stephen Horne, playing his unique blend of piano, flute, and accordion; the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra of Colorado, which replicates the sound of the small orchestras that performed for mid-size silent-era theaters; and the Matti Bye Ensemble of Sweden, which brings a more modern, experimental approach to the art of silent film accompaniment.
For more information or to order tickets, go to silentfilm.org. Tickets are $15-$20 per show, or $225 for a festival pass. The complete program is below.