It’s summer, time for Shakespeare in the park, blockbusters at the multiplex, and best of all, silent movies with live musical accompaniment. In case you never noticed, your opportunities to enjoy this sublime hybrid of canned and live entertainment increase when the kids are out of school.
We have two weekend-long silent film festivals every summer, this year with only one weekend off between them. And there are always plenty of other silents, as well. And almost all of these are accompanied by live musicians, often improvising or playing their own compositions.
The silent season begins June 24-26 with the Broncho Billy Film Festival in Niles. Once a town of its own and now a neighborhood in Fremont, Niles played a role in silent film history–Charlie Chaplin spent a year making two-reel comedies there. The Niles Film Museum shows silents year round, but the Festival is their big annual event–two days and three nights of silent pictures, panel discussions, and overflowing enthusiasm.
This year’s program includes Greta Garbo’s last silent, a collection of early films by great clowns, a nickelodeon act combining movies and live entertainment, a talk by David Shepard on restoring early Chaplin shorts, and John Ford’s epic western, The Iron Horse. Local pianists will accompany all films.
Perhaps it’s Niles’ small-town nature, but this is a very friendly festival. There’s always someone worth talking to and happy to talk to you. In just one day at the festival two years ago, I found myself in discussions with two authors of published silent film books, a technician hoping to recreate long-gone film stocks, and the above-mentioned David Shepard–one of the leading figures in silent film restoration.
The ball moves to San Francisco two weeks later for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, July 8-10 at the Castro. While it lacks Niles’ small-town intimacy, this festival makes up for that in showmanship and international flavor. All of the movies will be in 35mm, several of them tinted. Some films will be accompanied on the Castro’s Wurlitzer pipe organ, some on piano, and two by ensembles.
Those two are from countries whose silent films you probably haven’t seen. The Latin American Chamber Music Society will accompany the Brazilian love story Sangue Mineiro, with a score by Mauro Correa. And Indian classical musicians Ben Kunin and Debopriyo Sarkar will play for Prem Sanyas, an Indian biopic on the life of Buddha. Other films on the schedule include King Vidor’s great war movie The Big Parade, Harold Lloyd’s For Heaven’s Sake, and the Clara Bow hit It. (It, by the way, will be preceded by the early experimental talkie, “Gus Visser and His Singing Duck,– which I can assure you is a truly bizarre experience.)
But the silent films don’t end on July 10. The Balboa has three silents, Grass, Chang, and South scheduled for its Human/Nature series–the last two with live music. The Castro will show new archival prints of Wings (accompanied by Warren Lubitsch on the Wurlitzer) and The Sheik (with Joel Adlen on piano) later in July. Then, in late August, the Castro has a week of Harold Lloyd double bills. The accompaniment won’t be live; the movies come with new recorded scores by Carl Davis, one of the current stars in silent film music. And, of course the Niles Museum will continue to show silents every Saturday night–except July 9, when the entire staff will probably be at the Castro.
The big question mark in the lineup is the Stanford. Like the Castro, the Palo Alto palace is a great venue for silents–with a tall screen and a Wurlitzer pipe organ. In past years, Wednesday night silents were an important part of the Stanford’s summer schedule. But the theater is currently closed for renovations, and no one is telling us exactly when it will open or what it will be showing.
But here are a few items that are showing this week, and worth checking out. All of them are talkies.
Recommendation: The Princess Bride, Film Night in the Park, Old Mill Park, Mill Valley, Friday night. William Goldman’s enchanting and funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. Warning: This will be a DVD presentation.
Recommendation: Raging Bull, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Martin Scorsese put a cap on 70’s cinema with this study of boxer Jake La Motta. It isn’t an easy film to watch; the experience is not unlike a good pummeling, but it’s absolutely worth it.
Noteworthy: Shake Hands With the Devil, Opera Plaza and Act 1 & 2, opening Friday for one-week engagement. The documentary version of Hotel Rwanda. This film follows Canadian Lt. General Roméo Dallaire on a return trip to Rwanda–a country whose genocide he tried to stop while stationed there in charge of a UN peacekeeping force. This film, which I haven’t seen, won the World Documentary Audience Award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.
Recommendation: East of Eden, Balboa, opens Friday for at least a week. This movie carries a lot of historical baggage. It was directed by Elia Kazan, probably the most talented artist to name names for the House Un-American Activities Committee. It made James Dean an overnight star just a few weeks before his sudden death. But if you forget the baggage and look at the picture itself, you’ll find a great study of father/son relationships set at a pivotal time in California history. On a double-bill with Rebel Without a Cause, both films presented in what the Balboa is describing as “Beautifully Restored Color Cinemascope 35mm Prints.–
Recommendation: The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear, Roxie, opens Friday for an ongoing engagement. This three-part television documentary explores the parallel rise of militant Islamism and American neo-conservatism. It received major television coverage on the BBC in its native England; in America, you have to catch it at the Roxie. Its well-researched and carefully explained revelations are astonishing; for instance, I learned here that Al-Qaeda is not the huge, highly-centralized organization we’ve been told about–a fabrication that’s useful to both sides. This is one of the most important, and one of the most entertaining, documentaries I’ve ever seen; Michael Moore can only dream of making something this good. Directed by Adam (Century of the Self) Curtis.
Noteworthy: Joe, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday night. I loved this film when it was new. Of course, I was a 16-year-old hippy wannabe, and any movie with drugs, nudity (including a yet-unknown Susan Sarandon), and a serious message seemed good to me. I have no idea how it has dated; quite possibly very badly.
Recommendation: Shrek II, Film Night in the Park, Albert Park, San Rafael, Saturday night. No, this sequel isn’t as good as the original, but close. And almost as good as Shrek is still very, very good. Another wonderfully tongue-in-cheek fairy tale. Warning: This will be a DVD presentation.
Recommendation: Duck Soup, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Sunday afternoon. A blatantly corrupt politician is appointed leader at the request of the wealthy elite. Once in office, he cuts benefits for the working class, fills important positions with unqualified clowns, and starts a war on a whim. But how could a comedy made in 1933 be relevant today? The Marx Brothers at their very best. Part of YBCA’s Safety Last: The Anarchic Imagination series.
Noteworthy: Sweet Honey In The Rock: Raise Your Voice, Eureka Theater, Sunday afternoon. I’ve never heard of this movie, but how can a documentary on Sweet Honey In the Rock not be wonderful? Part of the San Francisco Black Film Festival.
Recommendation: Kiki’s Delivery Service, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday afternoon. You can’t find a gentler, friendlier children’s movie than this animated tale of a young witch with her own parcel post business. Originally released in the USA dubbed, this is a rare chance to see the original version on the big screen. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
Recommendation: Spirited Away, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday evening. A beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale about a young girl cast into a strange and magical world populated by some of the strangest creatures ever put on celluloid. But they’re more than just strange–they’re intriguing. Another opportunity to see a Hayao Miyazaki masterpiece on the big screen with the original soundtrack.
Noteworthy: Enter the Dragon, Parkway, Sunday. I’m not a big fan of Bruce Lee’s last movie–his only one financed by a major American studio–but its strange mixture of Hong Kong epic and 70’s American exploitation is unique. Look for a very young and barely recognizable Jackie Chan among the endless villains that Lee easily dispatches. A Childreach/Plan USA benefit, each show will include a live demonstration by Studio Naga students.
Recommendation: The Lost Boys, Castro, Wednesday night. A clever and funny, and even occasionally scary teenage vampire movie shot in Santa Cruz. What do you do when peer pressure tells you to become an immortal bloodsucker? Hey, all the cool kids are doing it. On a double-bill with Flawless, with director Joel Schumacher in person, a benefit for Magnet, a gay male health center.