California dreamin’: A beginner’s guide to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Could there be a finer thought in a grey week such as this one than a burst of California sunshine? Maybe there’s one, the gilded interior of the Castro Theatre in the heart of San Francisco, which truly has to be seen to be believed.

What I’m driving at is the fact that Early Bird Passes for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival are on sale now, and it’s a very wonderful event indeed. If you’ve never been before, see below everything you need to know (that I know) about this welcoming, and rather glitzy, event in northern California.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the festival, and they are promising great things, not least a long-awaited restoration of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives, undertaken in collaboration with MOMA New York, accompanied by members of the Oakland Symphony, playing a new score commissioned by Timothy Brock. The rest of the programme will be announced on 24 March.

One of the first things you should know about SFSFF is that is a preservation organisation too and it collaborates with archives around the world on a lot of first-class restoration work, but then again, if you read this blog you probably knew that. You may also know that it hires some of the world’s best musicians too – including many American performers and groups as well as some familiar faces from closer to home. The programming is great – high-quality, very international, and often full of surprises, This is a ritzy kind of festival, with a bit of showbiz pizzazz and a great sense of humour (the MC is just brilliant), but it’s also on the cutting-edge of what’s happening in the silent film world.

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First things first – travel, accommodation and accreditation

  • When I say San Francisco Silent Film Festival, I am talking about the main event – the annual week-long event in early May. This year the dates are 29 April-3 May 2020. The festival also stages one-day events throughout the tear, so if you are lucky enough to live close by, fill your boots.
  • I don’t need to tell you how to get to San Francisco – for most people reading this it requires a very big plane. There’s a handy train from the airport to the heart of the city, and once you are settled you can get around easily on foot and public transport. If you need cabs, my Airbnb landlady recommended downloading the Lyft app – “like Uber, but not so evil” she says.
  • Speaking of which, hotels in San Francisco are not cheap, but self-catering is a fairly affordable alternative. The Castro District, where the festival is based, is a little west of central San Francisco, so bear that in mind when you are looking for accommodation – you don’t need to fork out for city-centre prices.
  • Passes are on sale now at a special Early Bird Price until 23 March. They’re $275, which apparently save you $140 on the full price.
  • If you are feeling flush and want to support the festival all year round, you can become a member, and get a whole range of benefits including discounts on tickets.

At the festival

  • When it comes to the schedule, this is a single-screen festival (and what a screen) so there are no clashes. There are also no terribly early starts and healthy breaks between films too. How very genteel. You can even buy coffee and popcorn in the foyer. SFSFF takes good care of you.
  • For more substantial meals, San Francisco is your oyster. From street food, markets and diet-friendly salads to American comfort food, you’re all set. For a vegan such as myself it’s tofu and kale salad heaven. For other tastes, I’m not the best-placed person to advise, but why not take a vintage food tour, to accompany your retro films?

 

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Do:

  • Get your hands on the catalogue. The festival produces an especially beautiful, and smartly written brochure, with essays on the individual films and more. You may know that these essays go online on the website eventually, but they’re an invaluable companion to the festival in progress.
  • Learn a little something. One of SFSFF’s unique events is the Amazing Tales from the Archives show – a great way to find out about new research and restoration work, and always very entertaining. Last year I took a tour of the Pacific Film Archives at Berkeley too, which was incredibly cool.
  • Dress up to the nines. Well you don’t have to. But the vintage-glamour quotient is high at this festival, so if you have a wardrobe of 1910s and 20s numbers at home, this is the perfect place to show it off. Especially at the opening night party, which is a splendid affair, and is held in a mattress factory – it is!
  • Take your seat early. Not only is the Castro a sight for sore eyes, but the pre-film slide shows are well worth your attention.
  • Meet your favourite authors. There’s a merchandise fair on the mezzanine level at the Castro, and each year, a selection of writers are on hand to sign, and sell, their wares.
  • Stretch your legs. A Clipper card (for public transport) and Shanks’s Pony will get you everywhere you need to go, but in San Francisco, very often, the only way is up – so prepare your thighs for a serious workout. It should counter-balance all that time spent sitting in front of a screen, at least.

Don’t:

  • Let jetlag get the better of you. This is one for us Europeans, really. If you’re flying 11 hours to see silent films, you don’t want to snooze through the movies, so build some time into your schedule to get acclimatised, and sleep on the plane!
  • Forget to sightsee. The Castro district, where the festival is based, is a pretty happening place – it was one of the US’s first gay neighbourhoods, for one thing. But it’s just a short hop from there to the Mission District (amazing Mexican food), or Haight-Ashbury, and then there’s the Golden Gate Bridge, all the Vertigo locations your Hitchcock-loving heart could crave ,and great parks and architecture all across the city … Last year, a few of us took a short ferry trip to Sausalito, which is a great way to see the bay, and blow even more of those cobwebs away.

 

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  • The San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes place from 29 April-3 May 2020. To find out more and to book your pass visit the website (which was recently redesigned, by the way).
  • San Francisco a little far? Check out my guide to the Pordenone and Bologna festivals instead.
  • Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page

 

 

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