Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Dashing across the pond tonight to accompany 'Cat and the Canary' in London tomorrow

What? I have to travel basic economy?!

Tonight I head off to London, where I'll accompany a screening of the great Paul Leni thriller 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927) tomorrow night at the Kennington Bioscope.

It's one of the most visually spectacular silent features ever made, I think. And I hope the music I have in mind will be worthy of what Leni put on screen.

I'll also do some business in London and Amsterdam before heading back to Boston on Thursday afternoon, arriving less than 48 hours after I left. Quick trip!

And I have to think: what an age we live in when it's possible to transfer yourself across the North Atlantic in less time than it takes for me to get through an issue of the Economist.

(That's how I get to sleep by the way. No drugs for me! Just buy the current issue of the Economist, open up any page, and in 10 minutes I'm dozing off. Works every time!)

What a difference from, say, when John Adams set out to win support from France for the then-new United States, and it took weeks, and then they were chased by actual pirates, and wound up landing in Spain, and then had to ride donkeys over the Pyrenees.

What would Adams make of us jetting at high speed seven miles above the ocean, making a journey so quick that there's not enough time for a decent night's sleep? (Unless you buy the Economist.)

Speaking of which: I've done this before, and I now know that the evening after an overnight trans-Atlantic flight is not the best time to be in top form when creating live music for a demanding feature film.

So I've built in a little down time on Wednesday afternoon to help things come together later that evening. Jeffie needs his nap time!

After all, don't want to disappoint those in the audience, which will include film historian Kevin Brownlow, who's scheduled to introduce the picture. (And they're running his 35mm print of the film, which I can't wait to see.)

When I get back, mud season in New Hampshire can only mean comedy!

And so the film calendar heads into a patch of hilarity in small towns throughout the Granite State.

Buster and friend in 'Our Hospitality' (1923).

On deck: Buster Keaton's 'Our Hospitality' (1923) on Saturday, March 23 in Danbury, N.H., and then 'Seven Chances' (1925) on Sunday, March 24 in Wilton, N.H. And then Harold Lloyd in 'Safety Last' (1923) on Friday, March 29 in Richmond, N.H.

And I'm especially excited about an unusual program coming up Sunday, March 31 at the Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville, Mass.

For this one, we're celebrating the 130th birthday of the Eiffel Tower (really!) with a screening of 'The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower' (1927), a comedy/thriller with a climax filmed high up among the struts and girders of the iconic structure.

The Aeronaut has done a splendid job promoting this event, so I'm pasting in the press release below in an attempt to encourage you to attend.

Unless you'd rather spend time with the Economist!

* * *

In Paris, high above it all.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 6, 2019 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Celebrate 'Eiffel Tower Day' on Sunday, March 31 at Aeronaut Brewing Co.


Vintage silent thriller 'Mystery of the Eiffel Tower’ to be screened with live music on iconic structure's 130th birthday

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—When you turn 130, it's time to party.

That's the thinking behind 'Eiffel Tower Day,' celebrated every year on March 31 in honor of the iconic Paris structure, which was completed on March 31, 1889.

The Aeronaut Brewing Co. will celebrate this year's 'Eiffel Tower Day' on Sunday, March 31 with the screening of a rare silent adventure movie with a thrilling climax actually filmed on the tower.

'The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower' (1927), directed by Julien Duvivier, will be screened on Sunday, March 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Aeronaut Brewing Co., 14 Tyler St. (near Union Square), Somerville, Mass.

Admission is $10 per person and seating is limited; for tickets and information, visit www.aeronautbrewing.com, or www.eventbrite.com at this address:

www.eventbrite.com/e/aeronaut-silent-film-club-vol-1-well-always-have-paris-tickets-58304749074

The event is also on Facebook: www.facebook.com/events/619207078520181/

The screening will feature live musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician.

Duvivier’s late-silent adventure served as an inspiration for the original Tintin comics, and delivers much of the same charm, inventiveness, and visual delight.

Set in France of the 1920s, 'The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower' follows a carnival performer who is half of The Mironton Brothers, a supposed Siamese twin act.

The performer sees a chance to claim a massive inheritance by pretending to be a missing heir.

The scheme makes him fabulously wealthy. He leaves the circus, but also crosses a secretive cabal which has its own plans for the fortune.

Harried by mysterious threats, the imposter uses his identical partner from the old carnival act to suffer in his place.

Lots of laughs and exciting close calls follow as the unsuspecting double is drawn into a struggle with the secret organization.

The climax is a death-defying chase up through the skeleton of the Eiffel Tower that anticipates the later work of director Alfred Hitchcock.

"This is an astounding film with sequences shot high up on the Eiffel Tower and without trick photography," said Rapsis, a silent film accompanist who will improvise a musical score for the movie.

"This vintage film, like a fine champagne, is a great way to celebrate the 130th birthday of this landmark, one of the world's most recognizable structures," Rapsis said.

The Eiffel Tower was constructed in 1889 for the International Exhibition of Paris, during the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, and was named after the principal engineer, Gustave Eiffel.

‘The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower’ (1927) will be shown on Sunday, March 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Aeronaut Brewing Co., 14 Tyler St. (near Union Square), Somerville, Mass. Admission is $10 per person and seating is limited; for tickets and information, visit www.aeronautbrewing.com or www.eventbrite.com at this address:

www.eventbrite.com/e/aeronaut-silent-film-club-vol-1-well-always-have-paris-tickets-58304749074

The event is also on Facebook: www.facebook.com/events/619207078520181/











Wednesday, March 6, 2019

What if Disney's songwriting duo the Sherman brothers had been born in Beijing, not NYC?


I've been remiss in updating my silent film adventures due to a big grant-writing deadline.

But now, before heading off to London to accompany a screening of 'The Cat and the Canary' at the Kennington Bioscope next week, it's time to catch up.

Since returning from the Kansas Silent Film Festival, I've had the pleasure of doing live music for two very different motion pictures: one a familiar warhorse, and the other completely unknown to me.

The former: 'Wings' (1927), the grand epic of the skies that won Best Picture at the very first Academy Awards.

The latter: 'The Stormy Night' (1925), a Chinese silent comedy/drama that was considered lost until just recently.

With 'Wings,' I was on familiar ground. (Har!)

Booked by the Center for the Arts in Natick, Mass. for an afternoon screening on Sunday, Feb. 24, it was intended as a warm-up for that evening's Oscars ceremony.

For me, the circumstances were hard to beat. That morning, I had flown from Kansas City through Detroit and then into Manchester, N.H., arriving in plenty of time to swing down to Natick and load in my gear for the 4 p.m. show.

So what better prep for 'Wings' than flying not one but two commercial flights right before the screening?

We enjoyed a healthy turnout, and a pre-show poll found most people new not only to 'Wings' but also the silent film experience. (And the theater, managed by Josh Valentine and Nicola Anderson, always does such a great job promoting the screenings, putting up vintage posters to build excitement.)

Located in a beautifully refurbished firehouse, the Center for the Arts boasts a gleaming Yamaha grand piano in its upstairs performance space, where movies are shown.

It's been beckoning me since I started performing in Natick. One of these days I'll use it, but so far all the films in Natick have been better served by digital synthesizer, I think.

This time around I found the piano up on the risers that constitute the "stage." And even though I wasn't going to use it, I couldn't resist opening the lid and playing a bit...and then realized that it was at the perfect height for me to use while standing up!

Now there's an idea! It's sitting down at a desk bad for you? Isn't the human body designed to function most efficiently in a standing position?

So why do people sit at a piano to play it? Wouldn't it make more sense for the player to stand?

We have stand-up comedians. Why not stand-up pianists?

Quick, get me a patent lawyer so I can protect my innovative new "pedal extendeder," which allows you to easily convert an old-fashioned sit-down piano into a modern, up-to-date, ergonomically superior STAND UP PIANO!

Order before midnight tonight and we'll throw in a VHS bootleg tape of Buster Keaton's 'The General'!

And then...

Last Saturday I had the privilege (and the challenge) of creating music for a newly rediscovered Chinese silent film that's been making the rounds of elite film venues.

In this case, it was for a screening of 'The Stormy Night' (1925) at the Harvard Film Archive.

The film, a light-hearted comedy/drama about the upper classes in pre-Maoist China, had been missing since its release.

This was par for the course. As the Harvard Film Archive notes tell us:
More than 650 films were reportedly made in China between 1921 and 1931, yet no more than twenty have survived the wars that followed. The serendipitous rediscovery of Zhu Shouju’s 1925 film 'The Stormy Night' gives us a rare opportunity to learn about this significant yet forgotten era of Chinese silent cinema.
That's a pretty rotten record, even for silent film!

But yes, a nearly complete print of 'The Stormy Night' was discovered some years back in a Japanese archive. After repatriation to China, it was restored by Shi Chuan, a Shanghai-based film scholar. It's now available for screening for the first time in nearly a century.

A special treat for this screening was an introduction by Shi Chuan himself, with translation by Jie Li of Harvard's Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.

A scene from 'The Stormy Night' (1925).

Unsurprisingly, the audience was packed with Chinese students. Surprisingly, the accompanist was an occidental of Irish-Lithuanian-French-Canadian extraction with no cultural connection to the film's milieu short of an appetite for General Tso's chicken.

But I looked at it as a challenge: how could I create appropriate music for a film made in a completely different cultural context compared to my own?

This, after all, was not the Chinatown riot sequence from Buster Keaton's 'The Cameraman' (1928). Nor was it the seedy faux Chinese opium den depicted in Raymond Griffith's 'Paths to Paradise' (1925).

With cultural references like those in his head, what's an accompanist to do?

My approach was to back off and keep it light. It was a comedy, after all. And it seems to me no matter what the cultural context, with comedy, less is more.

Also, I tried to use a musical language that was separate from the familiar Western/classical harmonies and chord progressions.

Melody, yes. But not the way you'd encounter it in Mozart or Beethoven. More like a modal sound,

My overriding attitude was this question: "What would it sound like if Disney songwriters Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman had been born in Beijing instead of New York?" That's what I was going for.

Songwriting brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman with their patron, Walt Disney.

(I think the Sherman brothers were among the best songwriters of all time, and I'll fight anyone who disagrees.)

But back to pre-Maoist China. To help get my mind in the right place for this, I opted for a synthesizer texture that was light and airy and heavy on the strings and harp.

Just by hitting a single note, you could hear we were in a different place. But it wasn't the plinkety-plink of xylophones or the tired and not-very-exotic crash of a gong. It was more of clean sweep, giving me implicit license to work in a fresh style.

That's what I was going for. And from the reaction to the film, I think I wasn't too far off.

I mean, people actually laughed at this formerly lost comedy from a lost world. It engaged them, drew them in, and they enjoyed it.

Thus I'm really glad I didn't go with my original plan, which was to play variations on 'Chopsticks' for 90 minutes.

Thanks to Haden Guest and Karin Kolb of the Harvard Film Archive for continuing to program a wide variety of silents with live music.

And special thanks to Shi Chuan for rescuing this rare film from oblivion, and for coming all the way to Boston to share it with us!

Monday, February 25, 2019

Ben and Ken and Marvin and Bob and Bill
and me and the Talking Heads, too:
Music at this year's Kansas Silent Film Festival

Ken and Ben: The Alloy Orchestra's Ken Winokur and silent film accompanist Ben Model embrace backstage at this year's Kansas Silent Film Festival.

This year's Kansas Silent Film Festival was highlighted by some great films, special guests, and also a personal milestone.

For me, the 2019 gathering marked 20 consecutive years of attending this event, which is held each February at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.

Twenty years? Other than being married, and breathing, I haven't done anything for 20 years. Heck, it's a run nearly as long as the silent film era itself.

More below. But about this year's festival..

Ben Model and festival music director Marvin Faulwell at the organ console at Washburn University's White Concert Hall.

It was a special privilege to hear and collaborate with fellow silent film musicians, including regulars Marvin Faulwell, Bob Keckeisen, and Bill Beningfield, and guests Ben Model and members of the Alloy Orchestra: Ken Winokur, Terry Donahue, and Roger Miller.

Highlights included the Alloy Orchestra's pounding accompaniment for 'Metropolis' (1927); Marvin and Bob's controlled and evocative score for 'The Daughter of the Dawn' (1920); and Ben Model doing his music for 'When Knighthood was in Flower' (1922), a film he reissued on DVD on his Undercrank label.

Ben also gave a slightly abbreviated edition of his talk on undercranking and film speeds in use during the silent era. Below is an underexposed photo of his uncranking talk, but I liked it because of how Ben's pose mirrors the action on screen.


Film speed is just one of many issues that can prove troublesome when presenting films from the silent era to modern audiences. It's hard for people to grasp that in early cinema, for many years there was no standard film speed, either for photographing action (called "taking speed") or projecting it in a theater.

But Ben's presentation shows this aspect of silent cinema was well-known by filmmakers, who would deliberately incorporate various taking speeds into what they did.

I remember reading about this practice in books such as Walter Kerr's 'The Silent Clowns.' But Ben has really gone into the archives and sussed out hard evidence of how extensive the practice was, how filmmakers made use of it, and what a difference it made.

Most amazing are statements from silent-era stars such as Milton Sills, who wrote in detail how an actor had to gauge his or her movements to allow for the way they would appear on screen, which was almost always at a slightly brisker pace than reality.

So film speed, and specifically undercranking, is one of the foundations of early filmmaking technique. Bravo to Ben for helping us all understand its impact!

As the festival's utility musician (I'm listed in the program as "staff pianist"), this time around I was asked to provide scores for five movies: three short films and two features.

All went well, generally. I was most pleased with an unusual film, 'Venus of the South Seas' (1924) starring Australian swimming champion Annette Kellerman in her only surviving film.

For this very lightweight drama, percussionist Bob Keckeisen and I collaborated on a score that tried to stay on the shimmery side, just like the sparkling water that appears throughout the film.

So I developed material that mirrored early minimalism that first started being heard in the 1970s. I was running through some of it in a practice room, and I'm told someone on the piano faculty wanted to know who was playing the Philip Glass music!

Not to get too technical, but this was very much a "sharped 4th" score: one in which all melodies are built on a scale in which the fourth note is the one between "fa" and "so". I guess you could say it's "fo."

But that one little note makes all the difference, as it lends a shimmering quality to any run of notes. So that's what I played with throughout the film, while Bob contributed sounds ranging from the sawing of a metal file to calls on an underwater horn.

It all fell together quite effectively, I thought, considering that Bob and I spoke about 'Venus of the South Seas' for all of about a half-hour the day before.


But it was enough to work in some good cues. Most impressive was a quick scene in London, which saw Bob ringing out the "Big Ben" chimes in C major. (A tribute to Ben Model, too!) It worked and sounded pretty good, I thought.

For any water or swimming scenes, I had a riff of repeated notes that I'd play for as long as it made sense to do so. Occasionally I'd vary the harmony, but mostly it was a nice steady tapping that fit the on-screen action and helped it move along.

So it was most satisfying when I landed on just the right moment near the end to start this up again and slowly build to a nice finish. And Bob K. caught this wave as well, hitting the suspended cymbal softly at first but then growing as I pushed the volume on my repeating chord.

And we both built to a nice level as 'The End' appeared on screen, and kept it there for what felt just the right amount of time before going out on one final bump up.

Wow! Few accompaniment experiences have been as satisfying as that!

So thanks to Bill Shaffer and everyone (too numerous to name, but you know who you are) who make this festival work.

And by work, I mean they work year-round, and thus make it easy for an out-of-towner like me to just show up on the big weekend and do my thing.

It's been enough to keep me coming back for 20 years, and was a big influence in getting me to start pursuing silent film accompaniment myself.

And after 20 years, I find myself thinking about the Talking Heads, one of the few pop music groups I know anything about.

"You may find yourself at the Kansas Silent Film Festival for the 20th year in a row. And you may yourself, how did I get here?"
How? It wasn't letting the days go by. It was getting placed on leave from a job teaching middle school English. (Yes, I washed out in my attempt to teach middle school kids.)

This led to a plan to write a book about silent film, and this led to the idea of going somewhere so I could recover the magic of this art form.

Recover? Yes! As a teenager, I had a passionate interest in the silent film era. But it faded due to a misguided attempt to behave and act like an adult. (Big mistake!)

In March 2000, I wanted to reconnect and see if anything was there. So I used this new thing called the Internet to see if any festivals were happening soon.

There was: something called the Kansas Silent Film Festival. And a pair of Delta Airlines 'Friends and Family' passes would get me there and back.

Next thing I knew, I was sitting in the White Concert Hall at Washburn University, with the Mont Alto orchestra doing live music to Keaton's 'The Cameraman' (1928).

The distinctive "bio-hazard" design of the White Concert Hall's carpeting, which last year I was told would be replaced. Returning this year, I was thrilled to see it still there.

I was reminded of what I loved about silent film. But as I watched that magical "dolly back" in 'The Cameraman' that reveals the monkey to be cranking the newsreel camera, I immediately sensed something was going on that would be a big part of my future.

(I had seen the picture before, but not since college. Seeing it again, I recall feeling excited at how much fresh creative energy Keaton was finding in the silent cinema even as it was ending. It was as if he was saying, "Look at what we can still do with this!")

It took awhile for me to figure out that silent film would lead not to a book, but to silent film accompaniment, would eventually become the main outlet for my creative energy.

But back at that first-for-me Kansas Silent Film Festival, I found more than just silent film. Visiting from the far-off East, I found myself welcomed by friendly people who by rights I never should have met. But I'm glad I did.

Next thing I knew, I was putting 16mm prints in the trunk of my rental car and getting directions to the afterglow at the old Holidome on Fairlawn Boulevard. And there we were, enjoying drinks and eating Doritos as Rodney Sauer of Mont Alto played ragtime on the lounge piano while a few bemused barflies looked on.

I came to that festival uncertain of what was next for me. Unexpectedly, I came away with a renewed sense that anything was still possible: that I could start a business (which I did), that I could find a creative outlet (I have), that I still had a lot to do and give and experience in this life.

So I returned the next year, and the year after, and every year since. Each time, I'm reminded of that same feeling I got the first time: that life continues to offer possibilities as rich as those shown by Keaton in 'The Cameraman.'

And so, at last night's 'Cinema Dinner,' when festival director Bill Shaffer asked if anyone had attended 20 years in a row, I thought to myself: "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Shaffer!"

But I didn't say anything. Instead, I just stood and took a bow.

Thanks to everyone at the Kansas Silent Film Festival for keeping it going all these years.

Only 52 weeks and five days until the next one. Next year's festival, already on the calendar, is Feb. 28-29.

So get ready to celebrate Leap Day in Topeka.

And the burning question is: will they program the Fatty Arbuckle feature 'Leap Year' (1920)?

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

How playing tuba in a youth orchestra
led to some unconventional sci-fi music

Prof. Georg Manfeldt: what music goes with this guy?

So there I was, in the middle of creating live music to the nearly three-hour-long silent sci-fi epic 'Woman in the Moon' (1929), when I became inspired by a tuba part I'd played several weeks ago.

Which tuba part? That of the 'Academic Festival Overture' by Johannes Brahms, which was on the program of a Feb. 2 concert at the Manchester (N.H.) Community Music School, where I sometimes help out when competent tuba players aren't available.

How did this aid me in scoring a 90-year-old German movie about mankind's first voyage to the moon? Let me explain, as I think it's a good example of how improv-based music can surprise even the person doing it.

Here's the deal: one of the first characters we meet in 'Woman in the Moon' is an impoverished old professor, bounced out of the academic fraternity long ago for his outrageous ideas about mountains of gold on the lunar surface and the space travel required to retrieve it.

For this character, Prof. Georg Manfeldt, I've developed a skittering chromatic theme that I feel captures his prolonged isolation, and also his roots in science and pedantry. It serves as his "leitmotif" for the entire picture.

However, an accompanist for 'Woman in the Moon' is challenged early on by a flashback to 30 years earlier, when Prof. Manfredt was a respected academic, so much so that he's seen sharing his controversial ideas to a lecture room filled with distinguished colleagues.
Manfeldt as a much younger man. Actor Klaus Pohl was actually only in his 40s, but was made up to look much older as Prof. Manfeldt for most of 'Woman in the Moon.'

Music can and should (I think) help reinforce the idea that in this flashback, we're suddenly in a different time and place in this character's life. In past 'Woman in the Moon' screenings, I would try and transform the skittering chromatic melody into something bolder and more confident, and it was okay, but it never seemed to feel quite right.

So last Sunday evening, at the annual Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, I decided to take another route. And Brahms came to mind.

You may know the composer's aforementioned 'Academic Festival Overture' is built with student and university tunes popular in the 19th century. One of the most prominent is 'Gaudeamus Igitur,' the still-popular commencement and drinking song that goes like this. Pretty catchy, right?

To me, this music sounds like college in a classic, abstract kind of way. Whether you partied all four years or spent them all in the library or never set foot on a campus, 'Gaudeamus Igitur' conjures up "university" in the same manner as Elgar's 'Pomp and Circumstance.'

An excerpt of the exciting tuba part for the 'Academic Festival Overture.'

And I had just played it, or at least the tuba part, as orchestrated by Brahms for his overture's big finale. So it was kind of in my head.

Thus, when director Fritz Lang made the flashback leap from the "present" (meaning 1926) back to 1896, I made the snap decision to make Prof. Manfredt's music change to something completely different as well.

And out came 'Gaudeamus Igitur,' played as underscoring to the professor addressing his colleagues. To my mind, it instantly captured both the change in time and situation, but also conveyed an atmosphere of stuffy academia—the milieu that was about to reject the upstart professor and his outlandish notions of spaceships and lunar gold.

Lang's orderly lecture hall quickly gives way to a chaotic (and visual) uproar, with close-ups of a proctor ringing a bell and another blowing a whistle, sound effects both recreated live by me.

So 'Gaudeamus Igitur' gets swallowed up by me ringing my grandmother's school bell and also blowing a referee's whistle, my left hand still working the keyboard, all making a tremendous racket until Lang fades us back into the present, with the professor's original melody just drifting along high and unaccompanied.

And that's the end of the Brahms, right? It served its purpose, but then the film shifted back to the present, and so did I. No more musty 19th century academic anthems, right?

Well, more than two hours later, 'Woman in the Moon' is in the process of reaching its multi-stage climax. Against all odds, Prof. Manfeldt has actually made his long-dreamed-about journey to the lunar surface. (Spoiler alert!) There, while using a diving rod (!) to find water, he stumbles across a huge deposit of gold, proving his theory correct after so much personal suffering and sacrifice.

For the now-joyous and awestruck professor, it's a moment of supreme vindication, even though he's all alone. How to communicate that musically? Without thinking, I found myself shifting back into 'Gaudeamus Igitur,' but now more like Brahms treated it: with a dash of triumph in its simple structure and chords.

And it also felt right, I think because it brought it all back to his original lecture hall humiliation. It's something that Lang didn't depict visually at that point (no flashbacks), but which the music could bring out all on its own.

Alas, the professor's triumph is short-lived, and so is the reprise of 'Gaudeamus Igitur.' But to me, this turned out to be one of the dramatic highlights of the screening. I was delighted how it fell into place: a reprise more than two hours later that effectively book-ended the film, or at least one of the story's major threads.

Afterwards, several people commented about how effective it was—and I hadn't even planned it!

And that's how playing tuba in a youth orchestra can lead to unexpected and wonderful things. So when offered the chance to do so, never turn it down.

As for the screening itself: my long-awaited chance to do music for 'Woman in the Moon' for the Marathon audience earned me a very gratifying standing ovation from the discerning attendees. (These are serious film-goers, folks. Some even carry rayguns!)

And it was a all the more satisfying because the two days leading up to this long-awaited show was a time of close calls and compromises.

A blurry selfie taken while setting up my keyboard prior to 'Woman in the Moon' at this past weekend's annual 24-hour Boston Science Fiction Marathon.

Due to a mix-up, the digital restoration was never sent from Germany. So a last-minute substitute had to be made by way of a standard DVD edition, which looked reasonably okay on the Somerville's giant screen.

And then, in hooking up my digital keyboard to the Somerville's terrific house sound system, a crucial component for one of the lines was discovered missing. So we had to go with a mono output, and although it worked, the whole character of the sound was very different from what I'm used to in that house.

But you know what? Once the lights went down, none of it mattered. The audience was into it: all 169 minutes, which is a long flick by marathon standards.

Funny: one of the reasons 'Woman in the Moon' had never played the 'Thon before was because it was thought of as "too long." I could never understand that, as we're talking about a 24-hour-long-marathon, folks.

But we did it. Thanks to Garen Daly and everyone with the marathon, and Ian Judge and David Kornfeld of the Somerville Theatre, and all those in my entourage, especially Ariana Cohen-Halberstam, for all the help and support.

The ovation was for all of us—and for Fritz Lang and Johannes Brahms, too!

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The countdown to 'Frau im Mond,' the movie that introduced the pre-launch countdown

The backwards 3-2-1 countdown to a rocket launch is a common practice. But where did it start?

Look no further than the world of silent film, where German director Fritz Lang chose to use it to increase the drama of mankind's first-ever lunar voyage.

That voyage was depicted in 'Frau im Mond,' or 'Woman in the Moon' (1929), Lang's final silent, a bizarre film that imagines a Weimar-era German space program that was never meant to be.

In the film, the countdown looks pretty much as we've always known it: 10, 9, 8, and so forth. The only difference is that at zero, instead of saying "Blast off!" or something like that, in 'Frau im Mond' it's "Jetzt!", the German word for "Now!"

On the lunar surface: a hiking expedition in search of—what else?—gold!

And NOW a different sort of countdown is underway: as of noon today (Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019), we've passed the four-day mark in terms of the time remaining before the launch of this year's Boston 24-Hour Sci-Fi Marathon.

The annual marathon, which includes a screening of 'Frau im Mond' this year, begins on Sunday, Feb. 17 at noon at its long-time home, the Somerville (Mass.) Theatre in Davis Square.

As tradition demands, the marathon starts with a 35mm print of the 1952 Warner Bros. cartoon 'Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century.'

And it then runs for 24 hours, all through the night and straight through to noon on Monday, Feb. 18. And a countdown is appropriate because the marathon constitutes an epic voyage all its own: about 500 fanatics join together for 24 hours filled with cinematic visions of other worlds gone by or yet to come. Strap yourself in!

On this year's program are a dozen feature films, with most shown via 35mm vault prints: titles such as 'Dr. Cyclops' (1940); 'Andromeda Strain' (1991); Escape from New York (1987); 'Roller Ball' (1975), and a clutch of others, highlighted by a 70mm print of 'Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country' (1991).

And then there's 'Frau,' countdown and all. Ever since I discovered it, I've thought of it as the forgotten companion to Lang's 'Metropolis' (1927), its famous predecessor.

And for a long time I've wanted to accompany it at the 'Thon, as it's called by long-time devotees. And sometime early on Sunday evening (when it's slotted to run), I'll get my wish.

Why the 'Thon? Because I think it's the perfect audience for this flick, in which Lang merged his appetite for pulp sci-fi stories of the era with what was then cutting-edge scientific know-how.

In the 1920s, German scientists were in the forefront of rocket propulsion. In making 'Frau im Mond,' Lang tapped noted rocketry experts such as Hermann Oberth, who received equal billing to the film's stars in the credits.

After World War II, many German rocket experts contributed to the U.S. space program, most notably Werner von Braun (a big fan of 'Frau im Mond') but scores and scores of others.

So what we see in 'Frau im Mond' isn't total fantasy, but a draft of NASA's Apollo moon program 40 years before it became reality.

The Eagle has landed, about 40 years early.

And in this year of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11's moon landing, it's only fitting that the 'Thon include 'Frau im Mond' on the program.

Tickets for the Sci-Fi Marathon are $90 and cover admission to the whole event; you can buy online at www.bostonscifi.com.

Alas, it's not possible to get tickets for each individual film. But if you'd like to catch 'Frau im Mond' another time, I'm accompanying it at several other venues later this year.

For more info, check out the "Upcoming Screenings" page on this site.

But if you can make it to the 'Thon, I can promise you it will be a 'Frau im Mond' like none other.

Plus you get 'Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century' in 35mm!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Tubas and pot luck and movies, oh my! Plus thoughts on scoring 'Woman in the Moon' at this year's Boston Sci-Fi Marathon

First, if you're wondering what a concert looks like from the perspective of a tuba player, here you go:


On the podium is Dani Rimoni, director of the Dino Anagnost Youth Symphony Orchestra of New Hampshire. We're just finishing the first movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, which has no tuba part, which allowed me to take the picture.

This is at a concert on Saturday, Feb. 2 at the Manchester (N.H.) Community Music School in which my Yamaha concert bass tuba and I sat in with the low brass during the group's winter performance.

I'm technically not qualified to be in the youth orchestra, as I'm not a youth. (Also, I don't play nearly at the level as these kids do!) But there's apparently a something of a shortage of low brass players, and it must be truly severe if they called me to sit in.

And although there's no tuba in Beethoven's 5th, there IS in the Academic Festival Overture by Brahms, which was also on the program. And so I got to bomp along with the trombones when Brahms got frisky with his orchestration.

Also on the program was a medley of music from 'West Side Story,' but somehow no tuba part was printed. So I played off a string bass part, coming in judiciously to avoid making it sound like an oompah band during "I Feel Pretty."

Maestro Rimoni, conducting from a piano score, seemed to like what I was doing: at rehearsal, at one point during a soft transition, I hit it just right doubling the double bass, and he mentioned later that it sounded really powerful.

But I had no time to bask in the glow of the only compliment I've ever received for my tuba playing, as I had to dash an hour north to make it in time for the Campton Historical Society's annual Pot Luck and Silent Film event!

Yes, this is what winter in New Hampshire looks like, both scenically and culturally.

I was there to accompany the silent film, which was Buster Keaton's 'Our Hospitality' (1923).

But the pot luck supper is a highlight, and there's always a few surprises. This time it was a shepherd's pie in which taco sauce was used. It worked!

Buster killed, as usual. As the years go by, I've found that of all the Keaton features, 'Our Hospitality' seems to get perhaps the strongest overall response from audiences.

Yes, 'The General' and 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' are popular and always get a reaction. 'The Navigator' is among my personal favorites, but only once have I seen it produce a sustained laugh-out-loud response. And whatever else happens, 'Seven Chances' always springs to life when the brides start marching down the streets.

But 'Our Hospitality' has emerged as the most all-around sure-fire Keaton opus. Why? Well, it's a great balance of story and comedy, and a great introduction to Buster's unique visual humor, and perhaps its historic setting (in the 1820s) helps it seem somehow universal and accessible to our modern eyes. ('The General,' set in the 1860s, has this going for it as well.)

Well, for whatever reason, it happened again last Saturday night. 'Our Hospitality' was greeted with constant outbursts of astonished laughter (to use Walter Kerr's phrase), and a foot-stomping ovation at the waterfall rescue. I mean, it just really works.

This weekend brings a pre-Valentines Day screening of Rudolph Valentino is 'The Eagle' (1925), and then the weekend after that brings a screening that represents the culmination of eight years of badgering.

Ever since I discovered Fritz Lang's 'Woman in the Moon' (1929) and the Boston Sci-Fi Marathon (held every Presidents Day weekend, now in its 44th year), I've wanted to bring them together.

And now, after eight years of badgering, and wheedling, and imploring, and other words I'm too lazy to look up in a thesaurus, my dream is finally happening.

On Sunday, Feb. 17, I will enter the Somerville Theatre sometime after 6 p.m to accompany 'Woman in the Moon' before an audience of 700 hard core sci-fi fanatics.

It's not your usual silent film crowd. But that's the point!

Some people dream of getting the Congressional Medal of Honor. Some people just want their kids to respect them. For me, this is it — for years now, accompanying 'Woman in the Moon' at the Boston Sci-Fi Marathon is all I've ever aspired to do.

And now it's about to happen. And if you'd like to be on hand to witness this transit, I'm pasting in a press release below that has all the info.

For me, I'm elated. I'm ecstatic. I'm, I'm...hey, get me that thesaurus!

* * *

A promotional poster for 'Frau im Mond' (1929).

TUESDAY, FEB. 5, 2019 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Boston Sci-Fi Marathon highlighted by early silent German space travel epic that predicted Apollo program

'Woman in the Moon,' Fritz Lang's pioneer fantasy about mankind's first lunar voyage, to be shown with live music during 44th annual Presidents Day weekend event

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—A sci-fi adventure hailed as the first feature film to depict realistic space travel will be screened this month as part of the annual Boston Sci-Fi Marathon over Presidents Day weekend.

'Woman in the Moon' (1929), directed by German filmmaker Fritz Lang ('Metropolis,' 1927), will be shown with live music during the 24-hour event, which starts at noon on Sunday, Feb. 17 at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville.

The screening is a highlight of the 44th year of the Science Fiction Marathon, which bills itself as the nation's longest-running genre film event. This year's marathon includes a total of 11 feature films, many presented using 35mm or 70mm prints from studio vaults.

In addition to 'Woman in the Moon,' titles include 'Rollerball' (1975), 'Andromeda Strain' (1991), and 'Inner Space' (1987), and Dr. Cyclops (1940).

'Woman in the Moon' holds a special place in this year's line-up, in part because of the 50th anniversary of the actual Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, which it anticipated in many remarkable ways.

On the lunar surface: 'Woman in the Moon.'

" 'Woman in the Moon' is a great and at-times bizarre film, one that must be seen to be believed," said Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who will create live music for the screening.

Director Fritz Lang, responsible for the groundbreaking sci-fi epic 'Metropolis' (1927), planned 'Woman in the Moon' as another step in his quest to stretch cinema's visual, story-telling, and imaginative capabilities.

The rarely seen full-length version of 'Woman in the Moon' follows an intrepid band of German space pioneers as they attempt mankind's first voyage to the lunar surface, where they hope to find large deposits of gold.

The film, made with German rocket experts as technical advisers, anticipated many of the techniques used by NASA for the Apollo moon launch program 40 years later. For example, a multi-stage rocket is employed to escape Earth's gravity, and a separate capsule is used to reach the lunar surface.

Willy Fritsch prepares to pull the lever.

The film is also noted for introducing the idea of a dramatic "countdown" prior to launch, which later became standard procedure in actual space flight. Critics regard the film's extended launch sequence as a masterpiece of editing and dramatic tension.

But 'Woman in the Moon,' with its melodramatic plot, also stands as the forerunner of many sci-fi soap opera elements that quickly became clichés: the brilliant but misunderstood professor; a love triangle involving a female scientist and her two male colleagues; a plucky young boy who yearns to join the expedition; fistfights and gunfire and treachery on the lunar surface.

Added to the mix is a vision of the moon (created entirely on a massive studio set in Berlin, Germany) that features a breathable atmosphere, giant sand dunes, distant mountain peaks, and bubbling mud pits.

The moon as imagined by Fritz Lang.

"Including 'Woman in the Moon' in this year's Sci-Fi Marathon, with its foreshadowing of the Apollo program, is a great way to acknowledge this year's 50th anniversary of mankind's actual landing on the moon," Rapsis said.

"And as a past vision of a future that didn't quite come to be, it really gets you thinking of time and how we perceive it."

Rapsis, a resident of Bedford, N.H., will improvise live musical accompaniment during the screening, using a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound of a full orchestra and other more exotic textures.

'Woman in the Moon,' a full-length feature than runs more than 2½ hours, should not be confused with the much earlier film 'A Trip to Moon,' a primitive "trick" short movie made by French filmmaker George Méliès in 1902 and famous for the image of a space capsule hitting the eye of an imaginary moon man.

"Unlike the Méliès film, there's nothing primitive about 'Woman in the Moon,' " Rapsis said. "It's silent film story-telling at the peak of its eloquence, with lively performances, imaginative camera angles, and superb photography."

Bad timing is one reason that 'Woman in the Moon' (titled 'Frau im Mond' in German) is not as well known today as 'Metropolis,' its legendary predecessor. Lang completed 'Woman in the Moon' just as the silent film era was coming to a close.

As one of the last silent films of German cinema, 'Woman in the Moon' was unable to compete with new talking pictures then in theaters, making it a box office flop at its premiere in October, 1929.

However, German rocket scientist Hermann Oberth worked as an adviser on the movie, and it developed cult status among the rocket scientists in Wernher von Braun's circle starting in the 1930s. During World War II, the first successfully launched V-2 rocket at the German rocket facility in Peenemünde had the "Woman in the Moon" logo painted on its base.

During the war, the Nazis tried to recall and destroy all prints of 'Woman in the Moon' due to its detailed depiction of state-of-the-art rocket propulsion technology; in later years, this served to make the film even more hard to find. For many years, the film was available only in cut-down 16mm versions that ran as short as one hour.

But pristine and complete 35mm copies of 'Woman in the Moon' did survive in several European archives. Today, restored prints are amazingly clear and sharp, Rapsis said.

" 'Woman in the Moon' is technically one of the best-looking silent films I've ever seen," he said. "If you think all silent films are grainy and scratchy-looking, 'Woman in the Moon' will change your mind. It's like an Ansel Adams photograph come to life."

"Although 'Woman in the Moon' is available for home viewing, this is a motion picture that should be experienced as intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience," Rapsis said. "There's nothing like it."

'Woman in the Moon' will be shown as part of the 44th Annual Boston Science Fiction Marathon, which begins on Sunday, Feb. 17 at noon at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

Tickets to the 24-hour marathon are $90 per person and available at www.bostonscifi.com. Tickets for individual movies shown during the Sci-Fi Marathon are not available.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Cheap eats and cheap seats in Keene, N.H., plus Keaton, Valentino screenings coming soon

The marquee last Tuesday night at the Colonial Theatre in downtown Keene, N.H.

I can't wait to tell you all about this week's screening of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) at the Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H.

But it says a lot about my priorities when I have to say first that I was flat-out amazed by the meal I had just before the show down the street at Lindy's Diner.

Really! Two chicken croquettes, mashed potatoes with gravy, a generous helping of carrots—mind you, all served piping—plus two rolls and butter, and coffee with refills, all for...$8.18!

Can you believe it? I actually took a picture:


On a cold night with snow starting to fall, this was just what the doctor ordered. Really—if prescribed, I believe it would mitigate the symptoms of most afflictions, physical or mental.

In any case, it was great show prep for the on-screen visual feast to come at the Colonial.

And, given my inexpensive meal, would it not seem equally amazing that the admission price for our screening of 'Hunchback' was the sum of...35 cents!

Really? 'Hunchback' on a cold Tuesday night in Keene, N.H., and an absurdly low admission price? What's going on here?

What was going on is that the Colonial's grand opening night was exactly 95 years ago: Jan. 29, 1924. And the opening night attraction, yes, was 'Hunchback,' the Universal blockbuster starring Lon Chaney.

And yes, admission that night was 35 cents per person.

So last Tuesday night in Keene, the audience and I all joined in to recreate not just the early movie-going experience, but also opening night at the Colonial, a terrific medium-sized theater which continues to serve Keene and the surrounding Monadnock Region as a first-class (and now non-profit) performing arts center.

And the comedian in me has to observe that a 35-cent ticket price isn't about to endanger their non-profit status. Har! (Rim shot here, please.)

With a snowstorm looming, no one was sure who might show up, despite the bargain entrance fee. But we got a healthy crowd, and it didn't take long for 'Hunchback' to get everyone absorbed. Reaction was gratifyingly strong throughout.

I think it's a great film for music: lots of scenes that lend themselves to the big lines that I like to spin.

I've done the film quite a few times, but not recently. One element with which I've never been satisfied is the music I create for Esmeralda, the gypsy girl, which always ends up sounding too slow and too much like the Habanara from 'Carmen.'

This time, I deliberately used different material: specifically, a 3/4 riff that I created for action scenes in 'Zorro' (1920) starring Douglas Fairbanks. It worked really well as a theme for Esmeralda! Specifically, it has a modal flavor, and so I could use it to shape some of the big scenes so "her" music was referenced, at least harmonically.

Anyway: another reason to support recycling!

The film got a big ovation, and I had some great conversations afterwards with people who couldn't believe the score was improvised live.

I try to illustrate how it's not all that unusual by pointing out that we're doing it right now: we're having a conversation in real time, and we're not following a script.

The folks at the Colonial were excellent to work with, and there's been enough of an audience interest to merit exploring a regular series of screenings to round out the Colonial's offerings.

I would love to work with them on this, as I love how a venue such as the Colonial are perfect places to exhibit films from a century ago in the way they were intended to be shown.

Plus, these films were designed from the ground up to be experienced by a group of people coming together. And a hundred years later, we need that kind of experience more than ever!

And in the theater world, which faces more and more competition from so many other sources of entertainment (most of it consumed at home), it's important to offer experiences that only a theater can do: such as silent film with live music!

So we'll see what the schedule brings for Keene, N.H. Me—I'd be delighted at the chance to eat regularly at Lindy's. :)

Before that happens, two upcoming screenings might warm you up during this cold spell that's now hit New England. (It's 10 below outside as I write.)

On Saturday, Feb. 2, the good folks at the Campton Historical Society (in Campton N.H.) will hold their now-annual pot luck summer/silent movie night. It's free and the public is welcome, especially if you bring a dish to share at the supper, which starts at 5 p.m. (Here we go with food again, but every year some excellent dishes turn up at this event.)

The movie program, highlighted by Buster Keaton's 'Our Hospitality' (1923), begins at whatever time everyone finished eating. Usually that's about 6:15 p.m. or so.

The post-food attraction in Campton, N.H. on Saturday, Feb. 2.

It'll be interesting this year because I've volunteered to play bass tuba (my other instrument) for a youth concert in Manchester, N.H. that afternoon. It's about an hour and some change up to get to Campton, so if you see a green Subaru Forester bombing up Interstate 93 that afternoon, that'll be me trying to make it to Campton before all the vittles is gone.

More details about this show are on the "Upcoming Screenings" page. Hope to see you there, but make sure you leave some dinner for me, willya?

And then the week after that, it's Rudolph Valentino in 'The Eagle' (1925), a pre-Valentine's Day show on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

At Wilton, we usually run silents the last Sunday of the month, but that weekend I'm making my annual pilgrimage to the Kansas Silent Film Festival, so we moved the Wilton date up to take advantage of Valentino/Valentine's Day synergy.

Hope to see you at that one as well. For more info, check out the press release below.

* * *

Vilma Banky and Rudy Valentino generate heat in 'The Eagle' (1925).

THURSDAY, JAN. 31, 2019 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Warm up for Valentine's Day with Valentino at the Town Hall Theatre


'The Eagle' (1925), starring silent film icon Rudolph Valentino, to screen in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, Feb. 10 with live music

WILTON, N.H.—He was the cinema’s first sex symbol, causing hordes of female moviegoers to flock to his pictures throughout the 1920s. He starred in films designed to show off his Latin looks, his smoldering eyes, and his dancer’s body. And his untimely death in 1926 prompted mob scenes at his funeral.

He was Rudolph Valentino, who remains an icon for on-screen passion long after he caused a sensation in the 1920s.

To celebrate Valentine’s Day, one of Valentino’s most acclaimed films will be screened with live music on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

‘The Eagle’ (1925), a racy story set in Czarist Russia, proved one of his most popular features and marked a peak in his brief career.

Based on the novel Dubrovsky by Alexander Pushkin, ‘The Eagle’ casts Valentino as a lieutenant and expert horseman in the Russian army who catches the eye of Czarina Catherine II. After he rejects her advances and flees, she puts out a warrant for his arrest, dead or alive. When he learns that his father has been persecuted and killed in his hometown, he dons a black mask and becomes an outlaw, finding unexpected romance along the way.

The screening of ‘The Eagle’ will be accompanied by live music by local composer Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 per person to defray expenses.

An Italian immigrant who arrived penniless at Ellis Island in 1913, Valentino rose to superstar status in a series of silent pictures that enflamed the passions of female movie-goers from coast to coast and around the world.

But he was more than a pretty face—during his career, critics praised Valentino as a versatile actor capable of playing a variety of roles; his achievements included popularizing the Argentinian tango in the 1921 drama ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.’

‘The Eagle’ was Valentino’s next-to-last film, released the year before his unexpected death at age 31 from complications from peritonitis. Valentino's death in August 1926 occurred at the height of his career, inspiring mourning across the globe and a day-long mob scene at the actor’s New York City funeral.

But Valentino's brief stardom was defined by roles that brought a new level of exotic sexuality to the movies, causing a sensation at the time. In theaters, women openly swooned over Valentino’s on-screen image, especially in pictures such as ‘The Eagle,’ which featured foreign locales and elaborate costumes.

At its peak, Valentino's popularity was so immense that it inspired a backlash among many male movie-goers, who decried Valentino’s elegant image and mannerisms as effeminate.

Valentino’s sudden death fueled his status as a legendary romantic icon of the cinema. For years, a mysterious woman dressed in black would visit his grave at the Hollywood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, leaving only a single red rose.

Valentino was aware of his effect on audiences, saying that “Women are not in love with me, but with the picture of me on the screen. I am merely the canvas upon which the women paint their dreams.”

‘The Eagle’ is the latest in the Town Hall Theatre's series of monthly silent film screenings with live music. The series aims to recreate the lost magic of early cinema by bringing together the elements needed for silent film to be seen at its best: superior films in best available prints; projection on the big screen; live musical accompaniment; and an audience.

“These films are still exciting experiences if you can show them as they were designed to be screened,” said Jeff Rapsis, the accompanist for the screenings. “There’s a reason people first fell in love with the movies, and we hope to recreate that spirit. At their best, silent films were communal experiences in which the presence of a large audience intensifies everyone’s reactions.”

Live music is a key element of each silent film screening, Rapsis said. Silent movies were never shown in silence, but were accompanied by live music made right in each theater. Most films were not released with official scores, so it was up to local musicians to provide the soundtrack, which could vary greatly from theater to theater.

"Because there's no set soundtrack for most silent films, musicians are free to create new music as they see fit, even today," Rapsis said. "In bringing a film to life, I try to create original 'movie score' music that sounds like what you might expect in a theater today, which helps bridge the gap between today's audiences and silent films that are in some cases nearly 100 years old."

For each film, Rapsis improvises a music score using original themes he creates beforehand. None of the the music is written down; instead, the score evolves in real time based on audience reaction and the overall mood as the movie is screened.

‘The Eagle’ will be shown on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

Upcoming features in the Town Hall Theater's silent film series include:

• Sunday, March 24, 2019, 4:30 p.m.: "Seven Chances" (1925) starring Buster Keaton. In this 1925 farce, Buster is about to be saved from bankruptcy by an unexpected inheritance of $7 million—but only if he gets married by 7 p.m. that very day. One of Keaton's best comedies, climaxed by one of the great chase scenes in all film, silent or otherwise.

The next installment in the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series will be ‘The Eagle’ (1925), to be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is suggested to help defray expenses. For more info, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com or call (603) 654-3456.