It’s embarrassing to admit I’ve only attended the San Francisco Silent Film Festival twice, thereby proving once again the truism “you only regret the things you didn’t do.” Given this shocking state of affairs, I don’t feel qualified to recount one memory, or one favorite event. Instead I’ll describe what makes this festival so special to me, notwithstanding an ever-growing landscape of silent film events.
I won’t be alone in citing the terrific audience—how can you not? It’s the first thing you notice stepping into the cavernous space of the Castro. Of course it’s fun to see how many people dress up, plunging themselves in a 1920s atmosphere, but even beyond the visual stimulation, for me what thrills is the palpable sense of excitement, the air electric with impassioned discussions: “Why didn’t I know about Ita Rina before now?” “Did you hear Philip Carli’s wonderful accompaniment for You Never Know Women?” “Can’t we see more Ivor Novello?”
It reminds me of my undergraduate years, when I’d sit in one of the library cubicles with a stack of Motion Picture Classic magazines, ignoring my studies while immersing myself in what really mattered: what Lubitsch was shooting next, or how Noah’s Ark was being marketed, or Vilma Bánky and Rod La Rocque’s upcoming marriage. At the age of nineteen these things mattered to me, but I certainly couldn’t share any of it with my peers, who weren’t able to understand why a phone call from Billie Dove put me in seventh heaven for weeks and weeks. At SFSFF, that would never be a problem.
What also impresses is the warmth of everyone involved, whether staff, volunteers, or just fellow spectators. Whether you’re Alexander Payne or Josephine Bloggs, it’s all the same—we’re joined in celebrating cinema artistry. At times there’s an element of escapism (don’t all forms of cinema, no matter the era, take us out of ourselves?), but it’s neither blind nor empty. The audience in the Castro know their stuff and seek to deepen their knowledge as well as their enjoyment, to feel the transcendence of a perfect tracking shot as well as gasp with delight at some bewitching confection worn by Lili Damita. They confidently rely on the superb programming, the transformative magic of the expert musicians, and the impressively seamless logistics. My few times at the festival made me a convert to San Francisco’s magic, and I can hardly wait for the next time I will enter the famed movie palace and feel again the kinship of those wonderful people out there in the dark.
JAY WEISSBERG is artistic director of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy and movie critic for Variety.