Saturday, May 30, 2015

SFSFF: All Quiet on the Western Front

When I arrived an hour early for opening night of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on Thursday, there were already 2 lines outside the Castro Theatre. In his introductory speech, Board President Robert Byrne told us it was not OK to skip any of the festival's great programs. A representative from NBCUniversal, one of the sponsors, announced that the company was committed to restoring 15 of its silent films in the next 4 years. Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress introduced the opening night film, All Quiet on Western Front. He explained that though it was produced as a sound film, a silent version was also made for the European market. The hyped-up audience applauded any mention of "nitrate" & "35mm" in his remarks.

The film was accompanied by the 6-member Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra on piano, violin, cello, clarinet, cornet & trombone. For each scene, they vamped on one of a handful of themes, ranging from jaunty to martial to lyrical. The score was tuneful & had a 19th century feel. The movie ran well over 2 hours, plus an intermission, & the band's playing was impressively consistent throughout. Additional musicians supplied sound effects for the battle scenes. We heard a whistle & bass drum for explosions, as well as the sound of marching, gun shots & machine gun fire.

I'd never seen All Quiet on the Western Front before. The artful framing & camera movements give it a European style. The movie does a good job depicting the spectacle of battle without glorifying it. A staccato sequence showing soldiers being mowed down by machine guns is particularly effective, & I experienced a real sense of loss as the characters got picked off one by one. The traumas that the soldiers suffer made me think of the Vietnam War for some reason. My festival companion thought that the movie soft-pedaled the episode in which 3 young soldiers exchange food for a night with a trio of French country girls.

§ All Quiet On The Western Front
Lewis Milestone, USA, 1930 • 134 mins.
Live musical accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2015
Thursday May 28, 7:00 pm
Castro Theatre

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