Tuesday, June 05, 2018

SF Silent Film Festival Opening Night

When I entered the bustling lobby of the Castro Theatre for opening night of the SF Silent Film Festival, I was almost face to face with Kevin Brownlow, the great champion of silent film from way before it was cool. Sporting a festival baseball cap, he amiably chatted with audience members as if he were just another attendee. There were many women in period costume, & the crowd filled both the auditorium & the balcony.

A gleeful Rob Byrne, president of the festival’s board of directors, introduced the event & remembered Frank Buxton, a long-time festival sponsor & board member, who passed away earlier this year. Mr. Byrne read out a spirited proclamation honoring Mr. Buxton & presented it to Mr. Buxton’s widow & daughter. Mike Daruty, a senior executive at NBCUniversal, announced his company’s plans to restore 10 silent films, in addition to 15 that were announced at a previous festival.

The opening night film was NBCUniversal’s very clean 4K restoration of the 1928 The Man Who Laughs. The movie is a big-budget entertainment & a mature product of the silent era. We get a hero to pity, a villain to boo, a sentimental love story, ghoulish horror, comedy & a climactic chase, complete with rioting mob, sword fighting & rooftop stunts. Conrad Veidt plays the title character with elegance & taste, even in distinctly weird scenes involving his reactions to other characters' reactions to his grotesque disfigurement.

The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, a tight ensemble of twelve musicians, performed a score by seven students of the Berklee College of Music. The music was in the style of traditional symphonic film music & set a strong emotional tone for each scene. It used a lot of repeated melodic motifs, & at various times I was reminded of Wagner, Philip Glass, Leonard Bernstein & Danny Elfman. The composers took turns conducting, quickly & invisibly replacing one another at the podium. The orchestra played with precision, & live sound effects were perfectly timed to the movie.

The specialist audience is one of the best things about this festival, & it was a thrill when the theater spontaneously erupted into joyful cheers & applause for Homo the Wolf at the movie's racing climax. The excitement extended into a thunderous standing ovation for the student composers & orchestra.

§ The Man Who Laughs
111 minutes | USA | 1928 | d. Paul Leni
Live musical accompaniment by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra

§ San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2018
May 30, 2018, 7:00 pm
Castro Theatre

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