Silence is Golden IV: “The Mark of Zorro”

I stopped tuning in to the Oscars over thirty years ago, after “Ordinary People” beat out “Raging Bull” for Best Picture. Haven’t watched a moment of the annual broadcast since. Couldn’t care less about the Golden Globes and have only mild interest in the big international film festivals. Cannes? Meh

For this cineaste, the best night of the year comes every February when Saskatoon’s Roxy Theater presents Silence is Golden.

Let me set the stage for you: classic, 1930 movie theater, lovingly restored, impeccably maintained, superbly managed. Now add a classic film from the silent era. Not only that, throw in live accompaniment provided by world class musicians from the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra.  Now do you understand why I’m among the first people queuing up to buy tickets the moment they’re made available, why I’ve never missed a showing in four years?

Heartfelt thanks to New Community Credit Union for sponsoring the event; a tip o’ the hat, as well, to host Randy Pshebylo, executive director of the Riversdale Business Improvement District for reminding us how far the area has come over the past few years.

As for the experience itself…

All I can say is this is pure cinema.  “Mark of Zorro” was released in 1920 and as it progresses one quickly discovers that it could be the template of many of today’s blockbusters, right down to a timid central character with a secret identity (sound familiar?), hidden headquarters (one of the first appearances of the Bat Cave), superhuman stunts, defending the weak from the powerful, etc.

Douglas Fairbanks carries the picture on his broad shoulders. He jumps, leaps, flings himself through open windows, hurtles donkeys…watching him makes you feel old, flabby and out of shape. The story may be long in the tooth, the ending preordained, but Fairbanks’ charm, charisma and animal grace help us forget the formula–it’s easy, we can’t take our eyes off him. That movie star quality no finishing school can teach or mere chiseled chin achieve. He simply has IT.

As the curtains closed, an enormous and prolonged ovation for conductor Brian Unverricht and his players. Saskatoon is fortunate to have musicians of this caliber and a maestro who unhesitatingly takes on the difficult task of directing his charges while keeping one eye on the film playing overhead. That the music appears so seamless, so perfectly integrated with what’s happening onscreen, an alchemy of sound and vision…well, it is testimony to the skill and genius of those involved. The percussion section, especially, really stood out.

And what can I say about pianist and accompanist Rick Friend? Each year, he makes the journey north from his home in Los Angeles, braving Saskatchewan in the very heart of winter, so he can share his expertise and virtuoso skills with us.  I can’t imagine there’s much time for rehearsing with the Symphony but that doesn’t seem to affect him…or them. Instead, we see a cheerful rapport, a chemistry that is evident from the first struck note.

A funny anecdote about Rick to pass along. I spoke to him during the intermission, the exchange beginning awkwardly when I mentioned I’d very much like to see his dryer. “My what?” I suspect he thought I might be a trifle loony.

I quickly amended: “You know, ‘The Trial of Joan of Arc’. Carl Theodor Dreyer…” According to the program, it was another classic silent film on his playlist.

Once he realized what I meant, he relaxed and we had a brief and enjoyable chat.

Speaking of Dreyer, I think he’d make an excellent candidate for a future installment of Silence is Golden. While “Mark of Zorro” was entertaining, it lacked the aesthetic heft of previous offerings (“Metropolis”, “The General”, “The Thief of Bagdad”).  And I’d still like to see something by that great film artist and pioneer, D.W. Griffith (“Broken Blossoms”, anyone?).

I was delighted to learn there is going to be a fall edition of Silence is Golden; watch for “Nosferatu” around Hallowe’en. Judging by the two sellout crowds for “Mark of Zorro”, there is a marketplace for classic cinema in Saskatoon, a small but devoted audience who love films made the old-fashioned way, harkening back to a time when moving images weren’t shaped and painted by computers, whose flaws and imperfections bear the unmistakable signature of human design.

PostScript: A shout-out to my chum, Jordan Delorme, manager of the Roxy Theater. Jordan took some heat when the Roxy switched from 35 mm to digital and that wasn’t fair. As a film fanatic, I want to see the widest possible range of movies, regardless of the format. Put away your hatchets, Jordan’s one of the good guys and he’s doing a helluva job.

About Cliff Burns

I'm a literary writer, specializing in slipstream/ alternative/surreal/science fiction. My influences include Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, David Cronenberg, Rene Magritte, any artist who defies convention and busts open genres, attacking the status quo.
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