Friday, April 11, 2014

Adding trombone to 'Our Hospitality'
Plus, 'King of Kings' on Good Friday, April 18

Buster in town after his train journey in 'Our Hospitality.'

At last night's screening of 'Our Hospitality' (1923), I tried something different.

This great Buster Keaton film (one of his best, I think) has an extended sequence on a period-authentic railroad train of the 1830s.

The train's staff includes a top-hatted conductor who sits high atop the last coach. He's equipped with an oversized horn to signal the engineer out in front when needed.

The horn, like so many props in Keaton's films, becomes an object of comedy as the journey progresses, serving to punctuate several disasters that occur en route.

But in such a visually rich sequence, I've always felt the horn gets a little lost in the shuffle.

So, prior to last night's screening at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H., I got my old trombone out of the garage, literally dusted it off, and prepared to use it for the "horn" sound during the train sequence.

Which is what I did.

Blaaaaaaaaaaaaaat  Blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat!

One side effect of this kind of musical multi-tasking is that it forced me to use only my left hand on the keyboard for much of the train scenes. The other hand was needed to hold and manipulate the trombone.

But this turned out to be an advantage, I think, because it prevented me from over-playing during this sequence, which takes place very near the film's opening.

The trombone sound seemed a little harsh and out of place to me—so much so that it risked taking attention away from the film, I thought, rather than pointing up the comedy.

Also, I hit all the cues (six times) in the outbound journey, but I'd forgotten the horn gets blown one more time later in the film and so wasn't ready for that one. Oops!

Afterward, I asked the audience of about 50 folks if it worked, and was surprised to get a resounding YES!

So I'll keep the horn for future screenings, and try to remember that seventh time.

Looking ahead: I also tried something different for a screening of Cecil B. DeMille's epic 'King of Kings' (1927) set for Friday, April 18 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H.

The film depicts the last days of Jesus, so I figured it would be appropriate to show it on Good Friday.

But here's where the "something different" comes in. To promote it, I didn't just send out the usual press release to the usual suspects.

I also snail-mailed the release and a cover letter to 60 different churches in or around the Concord area. I pitched the screening as a fresh perspective on the Jesus story as told by Hollywood filmmakers from another era. It's a sermon topic, a great night at the movies, an uplifting experience, and teachable moment all in one! (Well, at 2½ hours, it's hardly a moment.)

I don't know if this hucksterism will result in more attendance, or get me struck down by a bolt of lightning.

But I had to do something because we're running 'King of Kings' in one of Red River's big theaters (instead of the much-smaller screening room, which accomodates 50 people at most) and so I need to fill seats. So come one and come all!

For more info, here's the text of the press release below.

* * *

Jesus presides over the Last Supper in 'King of Kings.'

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

'King of Kings’ to be screened with live music on Friday, April 18 at Red River Theatres

The perfect prelude to Easter: 1927's silent film Biblical blockbuster about the life of Jesus features cast of thousands, giant earthquake

CONCORD, N.H.—It was the original big-screen blockbuster, an epic movie on a grand scale depicting the greatest story of all: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille and featuring a cast of thousands, ‘The King of Kings’ (1927) stands as one of the sensations of Hollywood’s early days.

In honor of this year’s Easter season, a restored print of ‘The King of Kings’ will be screened with live music on Friday, April 18 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.

The screening is a chance to experience this landmark film as it was intended to be seen: in a high quality print on the big screen, with live music and with an audience. The screening will take place in the theater's Stonyfield Culture Cinema.

Tickets are $10 per person.

As a movie, ‘The King of Kings’ was designed to push the limits of Hollywood story-telling. Director DeMille, already famous for over-the-top historical epics such as the original ‘Ten Commandments’ (1923), demanded and got a then-astronomical budget of $2 million, which he used to construct massive sets, hire thousands of extras, and stage an enormous earthquake at the film’s climax.

“The monumental devastation unleashed by Christ’s crucifixion dwarfs even the cataclysmic Holy Grail finale of ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,’ ” wrote film historian Charles Musser in 1992, observing that “raw material and non-union labor gave more bang for the buck in 1927.”

The film was considered daring as the first mainstream Hollywood picture to depict the actions and life of Jesus on-screen in great detail, paving the way for future generations of filmmakers.

Although the movie’s title cards quote directly from scripture, ‘The King of Kings’ was not a scholarly depiction of scenes from the Bible. Rather, it was created to emphasize drama and conflict, prompting DeMille to change many aspects of the story as traditionally related in the New Testament Gospels. DeMille even spiced things up by including teams of zebras and other exotic non-native creatures in the film.

Because of this, 'The King of Kings' was regarded as blasphemous by some, and proved “as controversial in its day as Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ was in 1988,” Musser wrote. “Although DeMille made his film under the pious supervision of clergy, he managed to titillate audiences with the same heady mixture of sex and moralism that had made...earlier films so successful.”

In just one example, DeMille opens the film with the character of Mary Magdalene leading an orgy, though she is quickly rescued from debauchery by an encounter with Jesus.

Outrage or not, audiences flocked to the 2½-hour epic, which was released in May 1927 and quickly broke box office records for attendance in the U.S. and around the globe. Audiences regarded it as grand entertainment.

The cast included early Hollywood star H.B. Warner as Jesus Christ, winning plaudits for his portrayal of the lead role. (Warner’s later roles included druggist Mr. Gower in Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’) Playing Peter is character actor Ernest Torrence, famous as Captain Hook in the original version of ‘Peter Pan’ (1924); the role of Judas is acted by Joseph Schildkraut, already a Hollywood veteran who later went on to play Nicodemus in ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ (1965), a much-later Hollywood epic on the same topic.

‘The King of Kings’ was also noted for technical breakthroughs. It featured state-of-the-art movie lighting techniques, including a glowing halo that surrounded Christ whenever he appears on screen. ‘The King of Kings’ was also among the first mainstream Hollywood pictures to use color in several sequences.

To enhance the film’s spiritual underpinnings, during production DeMille arranged for a Catholic Mass to be celebrated each morning before shooting started. In a publicity ploy, DeMille also made his stars enter contracts that prevented them from doing anything “unbiblical” for a five-year period; prohibited activities included attending ball games, playing cards, frequenting night clubs, swimming, and riding in convertibles.

The film’s sets ended up being so massive that they simply weren’t torn down, and so wound up appearing in several other pictures. A giant gate built for ‘The King of Kings’ was later used in 1933’s ‘King Kong.’ Some of the original sets were finally lit ablaze in 1939 for the burning of Atlanta in ‘Gone with the Wind.’

Critics remain impressed by the film’s epic sweep, although they often dismiss how DeMille pandered to a mass audience. “It’s a stupendous exhibition by any standard, though you can practically smell the sawdust and greasepaint,” wrote critic Peter Matthews in 2004. “Despite the baloney (or because of it), ‘The King of Kings’ captures the fervor of na├»ve devotion. On that level, the movie is a genuinely uplifting experience,” Matthews wrote.

'King of Kings' will be screened with live music performed by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

Rapsis, who uses original themes to improvise silent film scores, said great silent film dramas such as 'King of Kings' used their lack of dialogue to create stories that concentrated on the "big" emotions such as Love, Despair, Anger, and Joy. Because of this, audiences continue to respond to them today, especially if they're presented as intended — with a live audience and live music.

"Dramas such as 'King of Kings' were created to be shown on the big screen as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, they still come to life as their creators intended them to," he said.

Red River Theatres, an independent cinema, is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to screening a diverse program of first-run independent films, cult favorites, classics, local and regional film projects, and foreign films. The member-supported theater’s mission is to present film and the discussion of film as a way to entertain, broaden horizons and deepen appreciation of life for New Hampshire audiences of all ages.

Red River Theatres includes silent film in its programming to give today's audiences a chance to experience the great films of cinema's early years as they were intended: in restored prints, on the big screen, and with live music and an audience.

Upcoming events in Red River's silent film program include:

• Friday, June 13 at 7 p.m.: 'The Iron Horse' (1924). A young John Ford directed this big movie on a big subject: the building of the Transcontinental Railroad following the Civil War. Epic film weaves together several narratives and includes parts for everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Buffalo Bill. Plus great western action sequences that set new standards for cinema!

• Friday, Aug. 15 at 7 p.m.: 'The Last Command' (1928). Emil Jannings snagged the first-ever Best Actor Academy Award for his towering portrayal of a Czarist general and patriot forced to contend with the Russian Revolution in this sweeping late silent drama directed by Josef von Sternberg. One of early Hollywood's most creative and challenging looks at World War I.

'King of Kings' will be shown on Friday, April 18 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Admission is $10 per person; for more info, call (603) 224-4600 or visit For more information about the music, visit

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Coming on Thursday, April 10:
Buster Keaton in 'Our Hospitality' (1923)

Buster doesn't quite fit his steed in this posed still from 'Our Hospitality' (1923).

Next up: a screening of Buster Keaton's miraculous 'Our Hospitality' (1923) on Thursday, April 10 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. Showtime is 6:30 p.m.; tickets are $10. More info in the press release below.

But wait. Why miraculous?

Yes, it's funny. Yes, it holds up well today. But how can a silent comedy film be considered miraculous?

It is, in terms of Buster's rapid growth as a filmmaker. Prior to 'Our Hospitality,' he and his team were producing superb two-reel (20-minute) comedies that are great in their own right and helped cement Buster's reputation as one of top bananas of the silent era.

But a two-reel comedy is one thing, and a full-length feature quite another.

In a short comedy, it can be anything for a laugh, which is a direction Buster often takes in his two-reelers.

But a feature film requires story, character, setting, and so many other elements for it to hold an audience's attention. It's a whole different kettle of fish, or can of film, if you will.

And the miracle is that Buster was able to make the leap so effortlessly from knockabout comedies and all at once to the fully-formed feature film world of 'Our Hospitality,' with its vastly expanded demands and requirements and ways of laying out a story and engaging an audience.

I think it's one of the great transformations in cinema history, and maybe art in general. In just a few years, Keaton went from Fatty Arbuckle's pupil to a highly personal comic style of his own. And then, after just a few years on his own, he catapulted himself into the rankers of the era's great makers of full-length films — starting with 'Our Hospitality.'

There's so much more to say about this film, but there's a time and a place. For now, if you'd like to get into 'Our Hospitality' more, let me point you to a great essay on the picture by Jim Emerson, with plenty of links to follow.

If you just want more details about this week's screening, here's the text of the press release. Hope to see you in Plymouth!

Keaton gets musical with then-wife and co-star Natalie Talmadge in 'Our Hospitality.'

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

'Our Hospitality' silent film comedy
Thursday, April 10 at Flying Monkey

Classic Buster Keaton feature-length comedy to be screened on the big screen with live music

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s. Acclaimed for their originality and clever visual gags, and admired for their realistic stories and authentic location shots, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a screening of 'Our Hospitality' (1923), one of Keaton's landmark features, at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center on Thursday, April 10 at 6:30 p.m. The program, the latest in the theater's silent film series, will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis. Admission is $10 per person.

In reviving the Keaton comedy, the Flying Monkey aims to show silent movies as they were meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will improvise scores on the spot for each film. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early Hollywood leap back to life. They featured great stories with compelling characters and universal appeal, so it's no surprise that they hold up and we still respond to them."

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

'Our Hospitality,' a period comedy set in the 1830s, tells the story of a young man (Keaton) raised in New York City but unknowingly at the center of a long-running backwoods family feud. Highlights of the picture include Keaton's extended journey on a vintage train of the era, as well as a dramatic river rescue scene that climaxes the film. The film stars Keaton's then-wife, Natalie Talmadge, as his on-screen love interest; their first child, newborn James Talmadge Keaton, makes a cameo appearance, playing Buster as an infant. Keaton's father also plays a role in the film.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands today as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Some critics regard him as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies." While making films, Keaton didn't think he was an artist, but merely an entertainer trying to use the then-new art of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.

Engineer Joe Keaton (Buster's father) mans the primitive locomotive in 'Our Hospitality.'

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age. He spent his entire childhood and adolescence on stage, attending school for exactly one day.

An entirely intuitive performer, Keaton entered films in 1917 and was quickly fascinated with them. After apprenticing with popular comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Keaton went on to set up his own studio in 1920, making short comedies that established him as a one of the era's leading talents. A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents meant he performed all his own stunts.

In 1923, Keaton made the leap into full-length films with 'Our Hospitality,' which proved popular enough for him to continue making features for the rest of the silent era. Although not all of Keaton's films were box office successes, critics later expressed astonishment at the sudden leap Keaton made from short comedies to the complex story and technical demands required for full-length features.

The Flying Monkey usually shows silent films on the second Thursday of each month. Other upcoming films in the Flying Monkey's silent series include:

• Thursday, May 8, 6:30 p.m.: 'Intolerance' (1916). D.W. Griffith's early blockbuster about man's inhumanity to man weaves together four stories spanning four eras of civilization. Filmed an a vast scale, setting a new standard for Hollywood extravagance.

• Thursday, June 12, 6:30 p.m.: "Metropolis" (1927). German director Fritz Lang's amazing epic about a futuristic society where an educated elite enjoys life in a glittering city, all supported by colonies of workers forced to live deep underground. A film that set new standards for visual design and changed movies forever!

‘Our Hospitality’ will be shown on Thursday, April 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $10 per person. For more information, visit or call (603) 536-2551. For more information about the music, visit

Friday, April 4, 2014

The calm before the storm:
Only a few screenings this month

Buster Keaton prior to the cyclone that concludes 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928).

The month of April, 2014 won't break any records in terms of the number of silent film screenings I do.

Only a handful of events beckon, although they're all worthy films that I'm looking forward to accompanying. I've listed them below for easy reference.

But I'm glad for a slightly relaxed pace this month, as things will start to pick up in May, and then get downright crazy after Memorial Day.

Get this: in June, we're restarting monthly silent film programs (in 35mm) at the wonderful Somerville Theater in Somerville, Mass.

Also, I'll be back to doing monthly screenings up in Brandon, Vt. for the summer season.

On top of that, I'm scheduled for two shows a month at the historic Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine in a series that runs through the Labor Day.

And then, for a special series featuring the great animal stars of the silent film era, we're ramping things up to two shows each month at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

All that adds up to a lot of film.

So I'm taking the time now to work on some keyboard technique, and to develop fresh material that I can use for this summer's glut of screenings.

Ultimately, I'd like to see if I can create a new round of music that pushes my personal vocabulary for acccompaniment to a new level of fluency.

And the only way I know how to do that is how Harold Lloyd used to turn out one-reelers: do it often enough so you can find out what really works, and have it sink into your bones.

So get set for a quiet April, but an exciting time after that.

For now, here's a quick roundup of upcoming screenings to help all of us take care of any needed silent film fixes...

Buster Keaton in 'Our Hospitality' (1923), to be screened on Thursday, April 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H.

• Thursday, April 10, 2014, 6:30 p.m.: "Our Hospitality" (1923); The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551; Buster Keaton's classic comedy/drama about a long-running family feud. Filled with great gags and a timeless story that culminates in a dramatic river rescue where Buster almost lost his life for real! Part of a monthly silent film series at a newly restored moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. Admission, $10 per person.

• Friday, April 18, 2014, 7 p.m.: "King of Kings" (1927); Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.; (603) 224-4600; Celebrate Easter weekend with Cecil B. DeMille's legendary adaptation of the story of Christ. An epic movie that served as a model for dozens of Biblical blockbusters to come. Silent film with live music at this popular venue for independent and arthouse cinema in New Hampshire's state capital. Admission $10 per person.

• Saturday, April 26, 2014, 8 p.m. "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928) starring Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrence; The College of Saint Mary Magdalen, 511 Kearsarge Mountain Road, Warner, N.H. Silent film program on the campus of Magdalen College. Pampered Buster returns home from college to help his father, a tough riverboat captain, battle to save the business; falling for the archrival's daughter doesn't make things easier. Climaxed by an eye-popping cyclone sequence. Plus companion feature 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) starring Keaton as a movie projectionist and would-be detective who dreams himself into an on-screen whodunnit. Admission is free for Magdalen students and any others with college ID; general public admission is $5 per person.

• Sunday, April 27, 2014, 4:30 p.m.: "Destiny"(1921): Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Wilton, N.H.; (603) 654-3456; Years before his classic 'Metropolis,' German director Fritz Lang brought this ground-breaking expressionist fantasy to the big screen. A strange tale in which human lives are each represented by a candle, and a figure representing 'Death' grants a woman three chances to rescue her lover from a premature demise. Part of a monthly silent film series with live music at a theater where movies have been shown since 1912! Admission free, donations of $5 per person encouraged.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Coming on Sunday, March 30 in Wilton, N.H.:
'Long Pants,' a very strange silent comedy

Harry Langdon in 'Long Pants' (1927), to be screened on Sunday, March 30 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

Just a brief post to highlight an unusual film this weekend that I think is worth checking out.

On Sunday, March 30, we'll be showing 'Long Pants' (1927), a rarely screened feature-length silent comedy starring Harry Langdon.

The show is at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. Admission is free, although we encourage a donation of $5 to help defray expenses.

Who was Harry Langdon? He was a middle-aged vaudevillian who quickly shot to movie comedy fame in the last years of the silent era, that's who.

How popular was he? In a word, huge. For a time, he was regarded as Chaplin's only serious rival in motion pictures. His character, a baby-faced innocent man-child making his way in the sophisticated 1920s, struck a chord that really resonated at the time. His films, with stories created by a team that included a young Frank Capra, were big hits.

And yet as rapidly as Langdon's star rose, it fell just as fast. By the end of the silent era, Langdon was yesterday's leftovers.

For audiences who are new to Langdon, the point I try to make is that his comedy exists primarily in reaction to so much that was typical of silent film comedy.

Where other comedians would react violently to being hit on the head, Langdon might just go quiet, blink his eyes, and then quietly curl up on the nearest sofa or divan. (That's exactly what happens in 'The Strong Man' (1926), another Langdon feature that I accompanied earlier this week.)

And in 'Long Pants,' things are especially strange in that Harry, an obviously middle-aged man, plays the role of a teenage boy coming of age.

I've done the film once before, about three years ago, and it got a surprisingly strong reaction from a small audience in which no one had ever heard of Langdon before.

So I'm interested in seeing what kind of reaction 'Long Pants' produces on Sunday afternoon in Wilton, where we often get sizable crowds. (Plus, the weather is looking gloomy for this Sunday, which often boosts attendance at our screenings.) Come on and be a part of the experiment.

And because the film is only about an hour long, I'll run some unusual silent comedy shorts prior to the main event. Hope you can join us!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Finishing out March with a comedy,
a drama, and then another comedy

See 'The Wind' (1928) on Thursday, March 27 at 7 p.m. at Keene State College in Keene, N.H.

March is supposed to go out like a lion, so maybe it's appropriate we're screening the great MGM silent drama 'The Wind' (1928) on Thursday, March 27 at 7 p.m. at Keene State College in Keene, N.H. (In addition to having a weather-related title, it begins with Leo, the MGM lion, in silent roar.)

This Lillian Gish classic will be bookended by screenings of two Harry Langdon films: 'The Strong Man' (1926) on Wednesday, March 26 at 7 p.m. at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., and then the rarely screened 'Long Pants' (1927) on Sunday, March 30 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

Right now, I'm in the post-tour let-down period following appearances in the past month at the Kansas Silent Film Festival in Topeka, Kansas and then Cinefest in Syracuse, N.Y. In recent years, these two back-to-back festivals have served as the annual climax of my accompaniment calendar. It's a lot of film to accompany, and now that's it's over, I kinda feel like smoking a cigarette.

Accompanist Rodney Sauer and I showed up at the Kansas Silent Film Festival in nearly identical performing garb, with me furthering the illusion with eyewear borrowed from festival director Bill Shaffer.

These festivals cut both ways. Because I get to hear other accompanists, see films that are new to me, and interact with a lot of people, they inspire me to want to improve my craft. But the stress of performing in unfamiliar places, and sometimes to films that I've never seen (five different features at Cinefest!), wears me out for a time.

The four accompanists at Cinefest 2014: me, Makia Matsumura, Judy Rosenberg, and Jon Mirsalis. Thanks for the photo, Makia!

The calendar beckons, however, with places to go and shows to do, and silent films to help bring to life for today's audiences. And so I soldier on, having already done music for 'The Lost World' (1925) this past Thursday at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. And now these three upcoming shows to finish out the month.

(If you'd like more info on the Langdon films or 'The Wind,' check out the "Upcoming Screenings" page on this site. I haven't had time for press releases just yet.)

Coming out of this period, I feel the need to do fewer screenings, and work a bit more on material for screenings that I do commit to. Until now, I wanted to do as many shows as possible, if only so the feel of performing live would become second nature, and to get experience winging it if I had to.

Okay, so I'm not always relaxed and in control at the keyboard.

I think I've gotten where I want to in that area. Now the challenge, I believe, is to work at further forging my own personal musical language for silent film accompaniment, which has developed somewhat but has a long way to go.

The main way to do that, I sense, is by taking time to work up consciously new material even for films I've done many times before. Less winging it, more careful preparation prior to sitting down on the bench, even though I'll still be mostly improvising during the actual screening. 

In the coming months, I'd like to develop a suite of melodic material built on elements that I'm attracted to: the call of the sharped fourth or the flatted seventh is beckoning. And I'd like to get better at producing material on demand that reflects this language.

Plus I might acquire a real piano to replace the spinet I've been pounding for well nigh 40 years now. And the Korg synth and speakers are showing their age, too. We'll see about upgrading them as well.

Lots to do, but the main thing is—fewer gigs, and a little more time spent preparing for each. I'm really looking forward to it!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Some notes from Cinefest 2014;
and next up, 'The Lost World' (1925)

'Saturday Night' (1922), shown on Thursday morning, was the opening silent at this year's Cinefest.

I've just come back from Cinefest in Syracuse. And although I didn't fly, boy are my arms tired!

Well, not really, even though I accompanied six feature films in four days. I just couldn't resist the chance to give new life to humor from another era.

And that captures the spirit of Cinefest, I think: giving life (on screen, anyway) to older motion pictures that otherwise aren't screened anywhere. By "older," I mean features and short films from the silent and early talkie era, up until about World War II.

Some are surprisingly compelling. Others turn out to be real turkeys. But all get a chance to live again, shown as they were intended: on a big screen, with an attentive audience, and with live music for the silent films.

The more I think about it, the more important I realize such events are in terms of understanding the impact that early motion pictures had on the culture of their era. Much of their energy and excitement comes from the effect they produced on an audience, and the people who created them had this in mind all along.

They were never intended to be consumed in private or in solitude, either on a screen in someone's basement or, God help us, on a cell phone.

So the chance to see older pictures, good or bad, with an audience, can be a revelation in that a key element of their original power is restored. To see any motion picture from before World War II without an audience is like standing outside the Louvre Museum in Paris and saying you've experienced the Mona Lisa.

This year's Cinefest, which ran from Thursday, March 13 through Sunday, March 16, 2014, offered a wonderfully mixed grabbag of titles, including a group of a half-dozen Fox talkies from the early 1930s and a bigger-than-normal proportion of silent films.

In fact, the silent schedule was heavy enough for this year's Cinefest to have four accompanists on hand to supply music, rather than the usual three. And that was good news for me, because one of the big attractions of Cinefest is the chance to hear other accompanists ply the trade in live performance for a lot of different films.

This year, my colleagues were Makia Matusmura, a highly regarded New York-based accompanist whom I'd never had the chance to hear before; Judy Rosenberg, a wonderful accompanist from San Francisco whose recorded work I've long admired but whom I also hadn't heard in live performance; and the great Jon Mirsalis, also from the San Francisco area, whose style and approach I think makes him one of the most effective accompanists in the field.

All three turned in multiple memorable performances—in fact, there was so much music and so many movies, at this point I would be hard-pressed single out one moment over another. There was also a richness to the accompaniment in that everyone was able to adapt quite readily to all the different styles and genres of the many silents on the program.

Even accompanist Ben Model was on hand for his "undercranking" presentation, and sat in to play for many of the comedy short subject programs, so I got to hear him in action as well. Five accompanists in one spot must be some kind of record.

I always learn so much, I think, from hearing what other accompanists do and now they approach the task. It's one of the great pleasures of being part of Cinefest these past three years.

As for me, I had some good moments, but also some weak stretches. Compiling a log of what I did might help me tie together what I got out of the experience, so here goes. (Keep in mind that there's no chance to preview these films, so they're played "cold" by the accompanists.)

• Thursday, March 13: 'Saturday Night' (1922): The very first silent feature of this year's Cinefest was this Cecil B. DeMille society comedy/drama that went pretty well. I had good material to accompany the constrasting worlds of the upper and lower class characters, and the story flowed quite naturally, so the music stayed on target, I thought. The best thing about it was that you could see the comedy scenes coming from a mile away, so I was able to get music under them that was pretty effective, I thought. It wasn't hard to capture even small details, such as how the elevated train ran right outside a tenement flat.

• Thursday, March 13: 'Fanchon, the Cricket' (1915): This recently restored early Mary Pickford feature was another effort that held together well, I thought. Unusual in that it was set in a kind of medieval fantasy world, which I tried to match with a light "music box" style of accompaniment that seemed to do the trick.Kind of a weak film in that I found it hard to find much to be sympathetic about in Mary's character or situation, but I did my best to "cast a spell" and help put the film over.

Fannie Ward and Jack Dean in 'For the Defense' (1916)

• Friday, March 14: 'For the Defense' (1916): This early Paramount drama was perhaps my favorite of those I accompanied, in that it was totally unknown to me, but somehow I felt in synch with it right from the start. The material I chose seemed to fit well, I could follow the story with ease, and I paced it right so that the last 20 minutes of the film seemed to be very effective. No less a person than film preservation guru David Shepard said I did a good job "heightening the dramatic tension" of the film's climax. High praise indeed! It also won the award for the best intertitle of the festival: "I have to tell you ..... I murdered a man.... and I love you."

• Friday, March 14: 'Buck Privates' (1928): No, not the Abbott and Costello film, but a silent World War I army comedy about doughboys in Europe. I tried to keep it light, which was the right approach, but somehow the material I had didn't seem to help the film jell. (The fact that the film started just before midnight might have been a factor.) However, a frantic chase finale came as a nice surprise, allowing me to kick the material I'd been using into high velocity mode. Too bad so few attendees were on hand for it! But this served as a great example to me of how comedy is harder to do effectively. A chance to see this beforehand would have really helped with the pacing, as the humor was not as easily discerned on sight as in, say, 'Saturday Night.'

• Saturday, March 15: 'The Live Wire' (1925): This Johnny Hines comedy should have been a highlight of the festival, but it produced only sparse reaction, I think in part because the material I chose just wasn't a great fit for the film, and also I couldn't seem to get in synch with the film's spirit. Because of this, I began pushing tempos too soon, further confusing things and leaving me with nowhere to go when the climax finally did play out. Leonard Maltin, sitting right behind me for the screening, commented afterwards that I had "set quite a pace for myself" on that one. Definitely my weakest entry, I felt, and not helped by two cups of wine I had earlier in the evening. :)

• Sunday, March 16: 'The Devil Horse' (1926): I considered this action-packed Western drama starring Rex the Wonder Horse my grand finale, and so got permission to hook up the digital synthesizer and speakers to go all out. Everyone seemed really impressed, if only because the palette of the full orchestra (including big percussion, appropriate for a horse opera full of scenes of "injuns" on the warpath) was undoubtedly a constrast to the piano texture that is otherwise the soundtrack for silents at Cinefest. However, like 'The Live Wire,' I felt out of synch with this one as well, and found myself playing too much too soon. All went okay, however, despite a blown projection bulb during the climactic battle to save the fort. I pushed forward in the darkness, playing underscoring that vamped us until the movie started up again—now tinted pink because the new bulb hadn't warmed up yet!

What did I learn? Take your time. Resist the temptation to overplay. And don't drink wine prior to accompanying. A continuous line of melody can be better than abrupt transitions. Matching the right material is important, so don't be afraid to abandon music that's not working and go with something else. Avoid AUI, or Accompanying Under the Influence. 

Cinefest follows a pattern of inviting accompanists for a three-year commitment on a rotating basis. And because this was my third year, 'The Devil Horse' really was the grand finale of my involvement for now, at least as an accompanist. It's been a great experience, as I've learned a lot and made contacts that will help me continue to pursue this unusual craft.

So I want to thank everyone associated with this grand affair for the chance to contribute music and get to know some wonderful people. Thanks especially to Joe Yranski for first inviting me as an accompanist, and to organizers Rick Scheckman and Gerry Orlando for all they do it getting the films programmed and the festival planned, and also to the projection and house crew in the theater who make it easy to concentrate on the music alone—something that's quite a luxury for me. :)

And now...looking ahead! A screening of 'The Lost World' (1925) will take place on Thursday, March 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. Tickets are $10 and hoping for a good crowd to be on hand for this grandpappy of all dinosaur movies.

I've been so busy that I haven't had a chance to get out a press release on this one, which is a shame, because I think it has a natural audience, given the enduring popularity of our prehistoric friends. Still, hope to see you there!

Monday, March 10, 2014

We raised $3,000 for the Town Hall Theatre;
Now, on to Cinefest in Syracuse, N.Y.

The Wilton Town Hall Theatre occupies the second floor of the old town hall in downtown Wilton, N.H.

I'm pleased to report that yesterday's screening of 'Wings' (1927) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre raised more than $3,000 towards the facility's conversion to digital for first-run movies.

I want to thank the generosity of silent film fans who turned out for this $20-per-ticket event, many of whom made additional donations to the theater yesterday.

The Wilton Town Hall Theatre is one of the great things about living in our part of the world. It's also where I got my start accompanying silent films live in front of an audience, and I still consider it my "home base" with the monthly screenings I continue to do there.

So I was really pleased to see such a great response to this fund-raiser. Many familiar faces, and some new folks as well, and a lot of kind comments after the show.

Ironically, we showed 'Wings' in the same theater where '12 Years a Slave' is currently playing. So on Sunday, movie-goers in Wilton had a choice between the very first and the most recent Best Picture. That can't happen very often.

The screening of 'Wings' also served as a kind of "final exam" prior to heading off to Syracuse, N.Y. later this week for Cinefest, a four-day annual gathering of vintage film buffs. As part of the festivities, silent and early sound movies are screened pretty much continuously each day from 9 a.m. until after midnight. (No, they're not totally crazy. On Sunday, they stop about 6 p.m.)

That's so much film that they actually bring in no less than three accompanists to handle the music. Pianists are generally given a three-year stint, and this time marks my third (and final) year in the rotation.

I love going there, but I'll be honest: for me, it's a fairly challenging event because I'm playing alongside the likes of Phil Carli, Jon Mirsalis, Andrew Simpson, and other terrific accompanists with long-established national reputations.

This year, my co-conspirators at the keyboard are Makia Matusmura and Judy Rosenberg, both fantastic accompanists that I'm looking forward to meeting and hearing. And I understsand Ben Model and Jon Mirsalis will be coming in for some things as well, too.

Each time I go, I'm thrilled (and amazed) to hear what these other accompanists can do. I'm also forced to consider my own way of accompanying, which is good, because it inspires me to continue to try to improve my craft. So that means everything from Hanon technical exercises (the classic piano player's finger-training exercises) to working through chord progressions that I can file away for future use, and also making a concious effort to make full use of all 88 keys. (Sometimes I seem to forget about the upper third of a piano keyboard.)

Another challenge is mastering the considerable difference between an acoustic piano (such as that used at Cinefest) and the Korg digital synthesizer I often use in my own shows. Though the keyboard itself might look the same, each requires a whole different style of playing.

Well, I do work at it, but there's only so far that work (and any natural talent) can get you. And in recent months, I've become increasingly comfortable with a sense that my own strength as an accompanist lies not in flying all over the keyboard, but with keeping things small and in control, and using that to maximize an audience's experience of the film. Use the tools you have.

I may never be Vladimir Horowitz, but I do have a definite sense of drama and a good feel of how music can augment many different types of cinematic story-telling. (Comedy, yes, is still the toughest to pull off effectively.) I may not have the ability to rattle off, say, a Chopin polonaise at will. But I'm not likely to go off on a showy tangent when accompanying a film. All I seem to be able to do is organic film music that's not intended to be anything else.

And Phil Carli himself, one of the most impressive keyboard players I've ever witnessed, has said that one of the cardinal sins of accompaniment is "overplaying," or trying to play beyond one's ability. It's a tendency I notice in myself, because I do get carried away by a film, and also with trying to do what other accompanists sometimes do. It's a basic human motivation: peer pressure. Hey, I want to be like them!

And this feeds a cycle where I tend to push too hard too soon, which sometimes can lead to overplaying, which is when things are most likely to fall apart. Worse, it give me nowhere to go when a film really demands it. This has happened several times at past Cinefests, where the audience of vintage film specialists tends to fuel my desire to make a big impression. I really want this film to work, dammit! With me, that often results in less-than-optimal accompaniment.

I've had some good moments at Cinefest, too. But they seem to happen mostly when I'm able to keep the music from spinning out of control and stay within my range. Strangely, it seems that the longer I can maintain this control during a picture, the more my confidence grows, and so I actually am able to make the most of the big moments when they come. That's exactly what happened last year with 'The Foundling' (1915), a Mary Pickford feature I played for.

I'm now running the risk of overthinking all this, so I'll stop here. Let's just say it's a delicate balance, but I'm starting to understand the contours of how that balance works and how best to manage it so that a film gets the best score I can give it.

So this Cinefest, I'm going to make a deliberate effort to just be myself and do what I do best: start slow, don't be afraid to keep things simple, and work hard to rein in things so that big moments have a chance at feeling authentically big. This will require actual courage on my part, as the temptation to "go big" is huge. But more than ever I understand how important it is for me to do the best I can in my own style.

And after Cinefest, the schedule lightens up a bit, which is good. That's because I would like to take time to push my scoring technique in directions that, yes, build on my strengths and continue to improve my technique, as much as possible. I get a sense that I'm maybe about a third of the way to the point where I have my own authentic vocabulary for scoring silent films. So there's still a lot of work to do.

In the past few years, I've booked a great number of screenings with the idea that what I needed most was experience in front of a live audience. That's been helpful, but I now find I'm often drawing upon the same bank of material rather than creating new stuff, which is where the musical vocabulary truly gets forged. I need to spend more time in the lab, so to speak.

So I'm moving into a phase where I hope to prepare more new material for screenings and see how I can push things in that direction. Though it's always exciting to accompany a film live, doing 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928) yet again using the same tunes I've been using for years is beginning to wear a little thin.

Something new seems called for. Stay tuned.