San Francisco Silent Film Festival enjoying banner year 

click to enlarge Source material: “The Artist” was largely based on the career of Douglas Fairbanks, right, pictured with Robert McKim in “The Mark of Zorro.” The movie screens Sunday morning at the Castro. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Source material: “The Artist” was largely based on the career of Douglas Fairbanks, right, pictured with Robert McKim in “The Mark of Zorro.” The movie screens Sunday morning at the Castro.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, opening Thursday at the Castro Theatre, is sitting pretty in 2012.

Winning a combined 10 Oscars, “The Artist” and “Hugo” brought silent film back into public consciousness. In March, the festival made its own headlines, screening Abel Gance’s rarely seen 1927 epic “Napoleon” and receiving accolades in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker and more.

“It’s been a big year for us,” says Lucia Pier, festival operations director. “‘Napoleon’ gave us incredible exposure, and ‘The Artist’ did the magical trick of convincing new audiences that they can be entertained by a silent movie for 90 minutes.”

“The Artist” won five Oscars, including best picture and best director. Jean Dujardin walked away with Oscar and Golden Globe best actor honors for his portrayal of George Valentin, a character largely based on swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, who stars in “The Mark of Zorro,” screening Sunday at the festival.

“The one thing ‘The Artist’ didn’t get across about the silent film experience was the music,” Pier says. All 16 films at the 2012 festival feature live musical accompaniment, from Colorado’s Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the Bay Area’s Toychestra and Sweden’s Matti Bye Ensemble and others.  

“The music is half of what we do,” Pier says. “It makes each screening unique. It runs the gamut from period appropriate to new, contemporary scores. It’s exciting to bring that range to our audience.”

Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” a love letter to early cinema, weaves into its storyline pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès, including its imaginative reconstruction of Méliès’ short film “A Trip to the Moon.” The festival screens Méliès’ short Sunday with Buster Keaton’s “The Cameraman.”

Those who saw “Napoleon” know the power of a grand screening and how celluloid’s metallic, mercurial richness, complemented by a full orchestra, creates a mesmerizing effect that can’t compare to a 3-D digital film in a multiplex with surround sound .  Still, technology is not the enemy of silent film.

Festival opener “Wings” — recommended to those who enjoyed “The Artist” — was digitally restored for Paramount Pictures’ 100th anniversary. Experts from Paramount and Sony discuss digital restoration advances in a free presentation Friday morning.

“The history of film is full of technological advances that change how everything is done,” says Pier. “There are growing pains, but I’m excited to see what is possible with digital.”

The festival’s most painstakingly restored film is “Pandora’s Box,” starring icon Louise Brooks as the femme fatale in all her glossy, bobbed-hair glory. Global archives were sourced to create the recent print screening at the Castro Saturday.

lgallagher@sfexaminer.com

IF YOU GO

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

When: Thursday-Sunday

Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.

Tickets: $14 to $20; $180 to $215 for passes

Contact: (415) 777-4908, www.silentfilm.org

SELECTED HIGHLIGHTS

Thursday –
“Wings” (1927), 7 p.m.

Sunday – “The Mark of Zorro” (1920), 10 a.m.  

Sunday – “The Cameraman” (1928), 7 p.m.

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Lauren Gallagher

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