Broncho Billy and Other Classics

I spent Saturday in Niles at the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival. Lots of fun, good people, and great movies. And some strange ones. One of the strangest: A five-minute short in the Flaming Youth series called “Why Girls Walk Home.” Imagine the sort of sexploitation film where people (usually women) strip at the least provocation while the camera caresses them. Now imagine that they strip only to their very modest underwear.

But the real surprise was The Valley of the Giants. This story of good loggers vs. evil loggers is simple, lurid, yet well-done melodrama, and highly out-of-date by today’s more environmentally-enlightened standards. (Someone must have liked it, though. It was filmed in 1919, 1927–the version I saw–and 1938.) But the action sequences are as thrilling and suspenseful as any you’re likely to see. The location photography, shot near Eureka before that area was, well, ruined by loggers, makes The Valley of the Giants terrific eye candy.

If you like to watch classic movies on the big screen, this is your summer. New schedules for the Castro, Stanford, and Pacific Film Archive overflow with great old movies properly presented. Speaking of presentation, the Castro and the Stanford are by far the best venues for old movies in the area. Their large screens do justice to pictures made before filmmakers took TV into account, they have Wurlitzer pipe organs for silents, and they can handle magnetic stereo, dual-system 3D, and other out-of-date but still wonderful technologies.

The Stanford, being the only theater in the Bay Area that specializes exclusively in classics, boasts the largest selection. It’s got the original Around the World in 80 Dayss, The Adventures of Robin Hood, several of Hitchcock’s best, High Noon, and Bringing Up Baby. The silents, all with organ accompaniment, include Safety Last and Phantom of the Opera

The Castro’s July schedule is light on classics (although it has the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and a couple of others). But in August, the Castro hosts its second (hopefully annual) 70mm series. The line-up looks even better than last year’s. More details when that one is closer.

The PFA’s more esoteric choices include Janet Gaynorr and Frank Borzage retrospectives. For more international fare, directors Vittorio De Seta and Kenji Mizoguchi Winsor McCay.

Finally, I don’t know if my recent diatribe on theaters showing classics on DVD inspired the title, but the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts named its Thursdays-in-July horror series “Too Scary For DVD: Neglected Horror On 35mmmm.”

But what’s worth seeing this week? Read on.

Recommended: V For Vendetta, Red Vic, Friday through Monday. Stunningly subversive for a big-budget Hollywood explosion movie, V For Vendetta celebrates rebellion against an oppressive, ultra-Christian government that feeds on hatred of Muslims and homosexuals. It works as an escapist fantasy action flick and as a call to arms, but when its hero crosses the line (and he does), it forces you to wonder just what is justified in the fight against tyranny.

Noteworthy: Days of Heaven, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30 and Sunday, 5:30. I was blown away by this movie when it first opened–Nestor Almendros’ atmospheric cinematography turned the simple story of lovers posing as siblings into something approaching a masterpiece. But that was nearly 30 years ago and I don’t know if I would have the same reaction today. Besides, back then, the spectacular photography was enhanced by 70mm presentation. The PFA will be showing it in 35mm, but at least it will be a new print.

Recommended: Tsotsi, Red Vic, Wednesday and Thursday. Tsotsi is so good it’s difficult to watch. Writer/director Gavin Hood asks for no sympathy for the violent young thug at the film’s center (Presley Chweneyagae), even as he shows you the dire poverty that created this scary young man. Early in the film, the title character highjacks a car, shooting a woman in the stomach. Then he discovers a baby in the back seat. The thug has no idea what to do, so he finds himself caring for the child, and he slowly begins to soften. This is a tense, scary, vicious, yet ultimately beautiful film about humanity and redemption.