But wait, how can that be? For one thing, they're not making them anymore, other than one-offs like 'The Artist' (2012). And also, about 80 percent of all films released during the silent era (up until about 1929) are lost.
Even so, I've found those that remain form an endless all-you-can-eat buffet of silent cinema that I don't think I'll ever finish consuming -- er, watch. (Can you tell I'm writing this just before dinner?)
Really! I've been doing this for years now, and I continue to encounter films that I never knew existed. At Cinefest (held earlier this month in Syracuse, N.Y.), I had the pleasure of doing music for no less than five different features, all of them worthy, and all of them unknown to me.
In the spirit of exploring this bounty, I've made it a practice to program a certain number of "new" films in the screenings that I do (new to me, that is) rather than rely solely on the tried-and-true warhorses. For one thing, to do the same films again and again would be boring. Also, you never know how a film is going to play until you show it as intended: with live music in a theater, and with an audience.
Because of this, the titles are piling up. As of this month, the list of full-fledged silent feature films I've accompanied with live music has surpassed 135. And it's about to get a little longer with my first-ever presentation of the great French-Danish film 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928) this Sunday in Wilton, N.H.
It should be interesting, as the film is noted for its unusual structure, its cinematography and a world class performance by French stage actress Renee Maria Falconetti. You don't have to take my word for it -- check out what no less than Roger Ebert had to say about her work in 'Joan of Arc':
"You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renee Maria Falconetti. In a medium without words, where the filmmakers believed that the camera captured the essence of characters through their faces, to see Falconetti in Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc'' (1928) is to look into eyes that will never leave you."
That's from Ebert's 1997 assessment of the film as part of his 'Great Movies' write-ups. The 'Dreyer' who Ebert mentioned, by the way, is Carl Theodor Dreyer, a Danish director who helmed this unusual film.
Why is it unusual? I hope Roger doesn't mind if I quote him at length:
"There is a language of shooting and editing that we subconsciously expect at the movies. We assume that if two people are talking, the cuts will make it seem that they are looking at one another. We assume that if a judge is questioning a defendant, the camera placement and editing will make it clear where they stand in relation to one another. If we see three people in a room, we expect to be able to say how they are arranged and which is closest to the camera. Almost all such visual cues are missing from "The Passion of Joan of Arc.''
"Instead Dreyer cuts the film into a series of startling images. The prison guards and the ecclesiastics on the court are seen in high contrast, often from a low angle, and although there are often sharp architectural angles behind them, we are not sure exactly what the scale is (are the windows and walls near or far?). Bordwell's book reproduces a shot of three priests, presumably lined up from front to back, but shot in such a way that their heads seem stacked on top of one another. All of the faces of the inquisitors are shot in bright light, without makeup, so that the crevices and flaws of the skin seem to reflect a diseased inner life.
"Falconetti, by contrast, is shot in softer grays, rather than blacks and whites. Also without makeup, she seems solemn and consumed by inner conviction. Consider an exchange where a judge asks her whether St. Michael actually spoke to her. Her impassive face seems to suggest that whatever happened between Michael and herself was so far beyond the scope of the question that no answer is conceivable.
Okay, that's enough from Roger...
Another reason our screening should be interesting is that I have had absolutely no chance to prepare. In fact, I'm writing this on the west coast of Mexico, in the resort town of Ixtapa, the day before we decamp from a family vacation and return to New Hampshire. We'll be back in the wee hours of Sunday morning, which gives me about 14 hours to come up with something, besides sleeping and eating, etc.
Interested to see how it comes out? Then join us for Sunday's screening as I add one more title to must list of features scored. For more info, here's the press release that was sent out awhile back...
FRIDAY, MARCH 22, 2013 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • firstname.lastname@example.org
Rediscovered French silent religious drama
to be shown in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, March 31
'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928), long thought lost
until a copy was found in Norway, to be screened with live music
WILTON, N.H.—A ground-breaking European feature film—considered lost for decades until a copy surfaced in Oslo, Norway—will soon return to the big screen in Wilton, N.H.
'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928), a film noted for its innovative camera work and an acclaimed performance by actress Maria Falconetti, will be screened on Sunday, March 31 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.
Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with donations accepted.
Directed by Denmark's Carl Theodor Dreyer, 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' chronicles the trial of Jeanne d'Arc on charges of heresy, and the efforts of her ecclesiastical jurists to force Jeanne to recant her claims of holy visions.
The film’s courtroom scenes are shot almost exclusively in close-up, situating all the film’s meaning and drama in the slightest movements of its protagonist’s face.
Of Falconetti's performance in the title role, critic Pauline Kael wrote that her portrayal "may be the finest performance ever recorded on film." Her performance was ranked 26th in Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time, the highest of any silent performance on the list. Falconetti, a legendary French stage actress, made only two films during her career.
The film has a history of controversy. The premiere of 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' in Paris on Oct. 25, 1928 was delayed because of the longtime efforts of many French nationalists, who objected to the fact that Dreyer was not Catholic and not French and to the then-rumored casting of Lillian Gish as Joan.
Before the premiere, several cuts were made by order of the Archbishop of Paris and by government censors. Dreyer had no say in these cuts and was angry about them. Later that year, a fire at UFA studios in Berlin destroyed the film's original negative and only a few copies of Dreyer's original cut of the film existed. Dreyer was able to patch together a new version of his original cut using alternate takes not initially used. This version was also destroyed in a lab fire in 1929. Over the years it became hard to find copies of Dreyer's second version and even harder to find copies of the original version of the film.
It was banned in Britain for its portrayal of crude English soldiers who mock and torment Joan in scenes that mirror biblical accounts of Christ's mocking at the hands of Roman soldiers. The Archbishop of Paris was also critical, demanding changes be made to the film.
'The Passion of Joan of Arc' was released near the end of the silent film era. About 80 percent of all movies made during that time are now lost due to decomposition, carelessness, fire, or neglect. But copies of "missing" films still occasionally turn up in archives and collections around the world, so researchers and archivists continue to make discoveries.
In the case of 'The Passion of Joan of Arc,' the original version of the film was lost for decades after a fire destroyed the master negative. In 1981, an employee of the Kikemark Sykehus mental institution in Oslo, Norway found several film cans in a janitor's closet that were labeled as being The Passion of Joan of Arc.
The cans were sent to the Norwegian Film Institute where they were first stored for three years until finally being examined. It was then discovered that the prints were of Dreyer's original cut of the film before government or church censorship had taken place. No records exist of the film being shipped to Oslo, but film historians believe that the then-director of the institution may have requested a special copy.
For 'The Passion of Joan of Arc,' Rapsis will improvise a score from original musical material that he creates beforehand, using a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound and texture of a full orchestra.
"What I try to do," Rapsis said, "is create music that bridges the gap between a film that might be 80 or 90 years old, and the musical expectations of today's audiences."
'The Passion of Joan of Arc' is the latest in a monthly series of silent films presented with live music at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. The series provides local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in good-looking prints, with live music, and with an audience.
"If you can put pieces of the experience back together again, it's surprising how these films snap back to life," Rapsis said. "By showing the films under the right conditions, you can really get a sense of why people first fell in love with the movies."
Upcoming silent film screenings at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre include:
• Sunday, April 28, 2013, 4:30 p.m.: 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1926). Epic Western starring Ronald Coleman, Vilma Banky about the settling and irrigation of California's Imperial Valley, once a wasteland but now an agricultural paradise. With a young Gary Cooper playing a key role. Visually spectacular story filmed largely on location in Nevada's Black Rock desert.
• Sunday, May 26, 2013, 4:30 p.m.: 'Tell It To The Marines' (1926). In honor of Memorial Day: U.S. Marine Sergeant O'Hara (Lon Chaney) has his hands full training raw recruits, one of whom, 'Skeets' Burns, is a particular thorn in his side...especially when it comes to romancing nurse Nora Dale.
'The Passion of Joan of Arc' will be shown on Sunday, March 31 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free, with donations encouraged to defray expenses. For more information, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com; for more information on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.