Preview: 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

For years, a movie-fiend friend made annual trips to California for what I thought was an odd arts event: San Francisco Silent Film Festival. He sung its praises and in 2016, I finally joined him. That year, I witnessed silent dramas from Japan, Sweden, Germany, France and the USA. I loved E.A. Dupont's high flying camera angles in Varieté, a circus story starring Emil Jannings (The Blue Angel). I imagined my big city wife as Pola Negri, a sophisticate who finds herself trapped in a small town trying to survive among the rubes in A Woman of the World. There was so much more too, including Nanook of the North, Beggars of Life, Battle of the Century and The Strongest.

Later this month, I return for The Man Who Laughs, a 1928 adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel about a guy whose facial reconstruction surgery didn't turn out quite right. 

  The Man Who Laughs  (1928), directed by Paul Leni.

The Man Who Laughs (1928), directed by Paul Leni.

Among the 22 films screening in 2018 (all with live musical accompaniment) are movies from more than half a dozen nations, including two from Japan. Policeman (1933) is one of only a handful of films to survive Japan's plunge into World War II. The festival describes it as a "stylish crime drama melding the fast pace of Hollywood with the fluid, evocative camerawork of the Germans." Also on tap from Japan: An Inn In Tokyo (1935), directed by the masterful Yasujiro Ozu. In that 80-minute movie, a father "wanders the industrial outskirts of Tokyo looking for work with two young boys in tow."

  An Inn In Tokyo  (1935), directed by Yasujiro Ozu.

An Inn In Tokyo (1935), directed by Yasujiro Ozu.

The festival also includes comedies like Battling Butler (1926), a newly restored Buster Keaton movie with appearances by Snitz Edwards, Sally O'Neil and Walter James.

  Battling Butler  (1926), directed by Buster Keaton.

Battling Butler (1926), directed by Buster Keaton.

The 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival is scheduled for May 30 - June 3 at the Castro Theatre.

Dave, It's Been 50 Years Since You Unplugged Me

Fifty years ago, I convinced my mother to let me see 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was 8-years-old and knew nothing about Stanley Kubrick or evolution or much of anything. After dropping me off at the theater, I settled in and waited for cool space stuff to happen. Instead, apes fought.


Of course, seeing 2001 as an adult was a much richer experience, especially during 70MM screenings at an actual cinema. (Note to first-timers who like to smoke pot: toke up during intermission. The colors in the final sequence make for one helluva high.)


With the 50th anniversary of 2001 upon us, there's been a rush of articles and exhibitions about the outer-space-what-does-it-mean-to-be-human story. Vanity Fair chronicles how Kubrick and science fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke huddled over tiki drinks at Trader Vic's. The New York Times profiles the Canadian actor who became the voice of HAL, the murderous computer. The Guardian gets The Empire Strikes Back cinematographer to admit he recommended 2001 cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth for the job. To which George Lucas replied, "He's not available."


NPR gets permission to print an excerpt of Michael Benson's new book on the film, "Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clark, and the Making of a Masterpiece." That's just a sampling! If you're really into 2001, consider a trip to Washington, D.C. for this Smithsonian exhibition or Frankfurt, Germany for another Dave-HAL museum experience.

Interviews, Silents

Buster Keaton v. Charlie Chaplin

 Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton

We love most Quentin Tarantino movies, but man, do his characters fill the frame with words. Vincent Vega: a talker. Nice Guy Eddie Cabot: a talker.

There was a time, though, when motion pictures relied on visuals to tell stories. Silent star Buster Keaton says he and Charlie Chaplin once battled to see who could use the fewest title cards. (Title cards, for those who've never seen a silent movie, are interstitials with words telling viewers what characters are saying or providing a bit of background information.)

"We eliminated subtitles as fast as we could," Keaton says.

At the time, Keaton says most seven-reel movies used as many as 240 title cards. In their friendly competition, Chaplin won, wrapping up a film with just 21 cards, compared to 23 for Keaton.

The most he ever used in a film?

Fifty-six, Keaton says.

Keaton's short interview with the legendary Studs Terkel has dozens of other nice moments. Among them, Keaton offers tips on how to stage a fight scene, why he never wrote scripts for his films and why movies need a strong beginning and end before filming begins (the middle can be figured out later).