Friday, April 20, 2012

Notes from scoring 'Metropolis' in Plymouth, N.H. and the peculiar art of audience judo

Last night's screening of 'Metropolis' (1927) at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. was highlighted by...the audience!

Yes—the film was amazing and the music came out okay, I thought. But it was especially gratifying to have a strong turnout at the Monkey, where attendance at our monthly series sometimes approaches the "private screening" level.

But not this time! For starters, 'Metropolis' attracts an audience beyond the usual silent film crowd. Also, a strong promotional effort that included 100 posters done well ahead of time, a story in the local college newspaper, big play in the other local papers, and generous space in our state daily on the day of the show, all added up to about 90 people in their seats at showtime.

That might not sound like a lot. But, after doing silent film for three years in Plymouth, N.H., I can say it's huge. Even better, we were blessed with a couple of volunteers at the end who passed out comment cards, something we've never been able to do before at the Flying Monkey. So this morning I have a couple dozen of these, all filled with kind thoughts about the show, suggestions for other films, and even offers to help at future screenings. Nice!

It was an interesting audience, too. 'Metropolis' often brings in a lot of non-silent-film folks, and last night was no exception. You can tell right away by the reactions to the opening scenes—there's a certain amount of guffawing that erupts at the style of acting, the fashions, or whatever. I can totally understand that, and it's actually a helpful reminder that so much from the silent era is really so foreign to people who aren't immersed in it.

Newbies are always welcome, of course, but in a situation like this it can go two ways. Sometimes the film wins them over, and the audience as a whole settles down as it casts its spell. You can tell people are buying it, and that's what happened at 'Metropolis' last night. After the first 15 minutes, you could have heard a pin drop at some places. Occasionally, I could glance over my shoulder, and I could see rows of faces bathed in the light bouncing off the screen—the classic movie audience image.

The other way, alas, is when the film isn't strong enough to overcome the audience reactions, and then they persist throughout, which can sometimes seriously erode the experience and prevent the "spell" from taking hold. In my experience, 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925) is the biggest culprit here. It's another title that attracts non-silent-film regulars, and it seems to keep them laughing throughout, primarily due to Mary Philbin's acting, which, yes, is a little over-the-top.

This is one reason I haven't done 'Phantom of the Opera' too much. But, fool that I am, I'm making it this year's "Halloween" title and plan to do music for several screenings in October. I think by now, after doing this pretty regularly for the past five years, I have a good sense on how to help a film get over that "giggle" barrier, and I'd like to see if I can do it with 'Phantom.'

One technique that works is to simply stop playing for a moment. Find a place where a bit of drama happens or a mood changes, and just roll the music up naturally to a pause. It really focuses an audience. (It's not that much different from when I taught middle school—to quiet a room down, you would sometimes just stop talking, stand there, and wait for the chatter to quiet by itself.) I think of it as audience judo: use their energy against themselves.

I tried this last year at Stonehill College, where I faced a noisy group of students for a screening of 'Ben Hur' (1925). A half-hour into this massive religious epic, the giggling and cackling wasn't stopping, so I tried the audience judo technique, and it worked! Instead of the picture being minimized by a minority who found it hilarious, things quieted down, allowing the majesty and power and emotion to work on the people who were willing to accept it.

So we'll see if I'm up to 'Phantom' later this year. For now, i'm getting the summer schedule finalized. Lots of good films coming up: check out the schedule at the future screenings page!


  1. Thank you Jeff - We really enjoyed the movie and your performance!!!

  2. Thanks so much for the kind words, Peter! Glad you could be part of the experience and hope you'll join us for future screenings!

  3. I love this audience judo idea! There have been screaming fights at some of the NY screenings I've played for, often among the small cadre of silent film fanatics (you can see them for yourself in the film CINEMANIACS) about something or other: focus, projection speed, somebody texting in the audience. I usually keep the music going but I'm tempted to try your approach. Manuals from the 20's encouraged pianists to keep playing during fire alarms and other emergencies to quell audience panic, but audience disrespect for the film deserves your middle schoolmaster tactic. Though I'm sure it's annoying to have to interrupt your train of musical thought to get their attention...
    hope to get to hear you at some point. I'm playing at MoMA tomorrow for the 4+ hour MISS MEND, a Russian detective serial. Really great film and I'm sure it will be packed.

    All best

  4. Thanks, Donald! Great to get your input on this. New York audiences are in a class by themselves. Years ago, as a college student new to the city, I remember being stunned at a screening of the film 'Frances' (1982) when people stood up during the credits to make angry speeches denouncing President Reagan!

    In film accompaniment, the "middle school stop" is best used sparingly, I think. It's not meant to leave a film in silence for more than a moment, or just enough to draw attention to the screen and perhaps give the film a fighting chance. Something tells me that won't work with the NYC crowd but it's worth a try.

    I know Stuart Oderman often uses silence to underscore really big moments, so that's another way of effectively using the contrast of silence vs. accompaniment.

    I'm not sure how common this is, but I find that I can't help but factor in audience reaction in real time when doing live music for a film. Even when I'm deep in what I call "the accompaniment zone," there's always a little part of me that's aware of how an audience is responding. I guess I think of it as a three-way art: the film, the music, and the audience are all collaborating anytime a silent film is screened.

    Strangely, the biggest complement I can get afterwards is from people who say they got so into the film, they forgot that the music was being performed live. So it's an odd art form -- one where success can be measured by how invisible it is.

    Maybe someday I'll try a John Cage-like approach and do a score that's more silence than sound. I expect people will eventually start throwing things.

    Wish I was down in NYC more often so I could hear some of the great stuff down there by you, Ben Model, Steve Sterner, and so many others. Good luck with that Russian serial! And Болшой Спaсибo!

    Jeff R.

  5. And in Russian too, I'm impressed! I'm always aware that the audience is big determining factor in what and how I play. If they are a coherent group and really into the film, there is less static in the atmosphere and I do my work better. Reminds me of someone asking Ravi Shankar why he spent such a long time tuning his instrument onstage, and he replied that he wasn't tuning the instrument, he was tuning the audience.

    I've posted some of my live playing on YouTube. One clip is from a Dreyer film which I had first done at BAM and then repeated in Pordenone. In listening back to the BAM performance, I decided that I had played way too much, so I cut back and was much more spare about the accompaniment. People really enjoyed it, they said, and thought it was one of my best scores. Maybe if I didn't play at all they would have been ecstatic...

    Anyway, less is more, I keep reminding myself. Now back to my office to throw out another pile of papers.