IF YOU think watching a silent movie is a hushed experience for stuffy academics, think again. In fact, listen. This weekend at the National Gallery's East Building auditorium, you can not only watch three great films of the 1920s, you can listen to the live music of Carlos Garza and Rich O'Meara. Collectively known as Silent Orchestra, they bring a little jazz, a little classical and even the occasional few passages of rock to all manner of silent classics.
The lineup this weekend: three visually pristine, restored versions of F.W. Murnau's 1926 "Faust" and 1924's "The Last Laugh" on Saturday ("Faust" at 1, "Laugh" at 4), and the 1922 "Nosferatu" at 4:30 Sunday.
Garza and O'Meara, longtime friends and collaborators from the Washington area, had played in progressive bands such as the Young Professionals and Dance of Guilt. And they had evolved into an improv jazz combo. But in their opinion, they were going nowhere fast.
"We were unsure how to market it," says Garza, 48, who is also a senior technologist for the Recording Industry Association of America. "Was it alternative jazz? It was hard to categorize."
He'd been thinking loosely of scoring for films, but that general idea didn't take shape until a friend suggested they rent a videotape of Murnau's vampire classic "Nosferatu." They watched it over and over (Garza estimates they've seen the film about 100 times), pored over their improv performance tapes and started putting a score together. They came up with one that is about 80 to 90 percent composed, purposely leaving the rest to improvisation. If they composed the whole score, note for note, Garza says, "it would lack spontaneity. We like the energy of the live audience, and we both come from a jazz background."
The screening of a silent film, he points out, can be unpredictable. The projector can be slower than usual, or film can tear, or there might be long sections of film leader between reels.
"All these things can happen, which forces us to try different things -- things we don't do [in rehearsal] in the basement. We enjoy the excitement of being in front of an audience, the fact that things can go wrong. You have to be on your toes and be able to improvise."
Check these guys out. Their composed work, incidentally, is available on two DVDs: "Nosferatu -- Special Edition" and "Salome/Lot in Sodom," both from Image Entertainment. For more about Silent Orchestra, visit silentorchestra.com.
AFI'S 'HEARTS AND MINDS'
"Hearts and Minds," one of the most powerful documentaries about the Vietnam War, comes back for a theatrical run at the American Film Institute Oct. 22. Before its opening, the AFI will present a screening of the film Saturday night (at 7:30) followed by onstage conversations with director Peter Davis, and two people who figure prominently in the 1974 film: Bobby Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, and antiwar activist Daniel Ellsberg. To purchase tickets, visit www.afi.com/silver. You can also buy tickets at the box office (8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring) Friday or Saturday.
The Arabian Sights Film Festival, sponsored by FilmFestDC, returns for its ninth season Friday through Oct. 24 with an eclectic selection of films from across the Arab world. This year's Arabian Sights, at Loews Cineplex Wisconsin Avenue Cinemas (4000 Wisconsin Ave. NW), includes the festival's first Iraqi film ("Zaman, the Man From the Reeds"), completed shortly before the start of the war in that country. Amer Alwan, the director of "Zaman," will discuss his film after the screenings on Oct. 23 and Oct. 24.
The fest opens at 6:30 Friday with "Sleepless Nights," an Egyptian film that has caused a stir at home for its explicit sexual and emotional subject matter. (It's repeated Saturday at 9.) Also scheduled for this weekend: Mohamed Asli's "In Casablanca the Angels Don't Fly" (Friday at 9:30, Sunday at 6:30), a Moroccan film. "About Baghdad," a documentary that asks Iraqis about the relationship between America and their country, is directed by Sinan Antoon, Bassam Haddad, Maya Mikdashi, Suzy Salamy and Adam Shapiro, all of whom will attend. It screens at 6:30 Saturday and 9 Sunday. "We Loved Each Other So Much," a Dutch documentary by Jack Janssen about entertainer Fairuz, screens at 7 Saturday and 8:30 Sunday.
For more information, call 202-724-5613 or visit www.filmfestdc.org. Admission is $9 per film. A special package of 10 tickets for all films is available for $80. Call 202-724-5613.
PEACEMAKERS ON SCREEN
The Common Ground Film Festival, established in 2001, showcases films about individuals working to make a difference in their community and stories of reconciliation between former enemies. It's organized by George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. This year's festival, which runs through Oct. 28, opens Tuesday at 7 with "Peace by Peace: Women on the Frontlines," a film profiling women in Afghanistan, Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Burundi who are building the foundations for peace. There will be a post-screening discussion with women in the film, including Afghan activist Fatima Gailani. The screening's at 1957 E St. NW, Room 213. All films are free. For more information, visit www.sfcg.org.
-- Desson Thomson