Here's one clue that 'Sunrise' (1927) should be regarded as allegorical fantasy: tubas.
They're not visible in the above poster, but yes, there are tubas in the film—or, more precisely, sousaphones. In the idealized city, the house band in a nightspot boasts at least a half-dozen of the big-belled instruments. That's more than most marching bands have!
As a tuba/sousaphone player myself, the only time I've encountered that many instruments in one place has been at various Tuba Christmas celebrations over the years. Otherwise, it just doesn't happen.
So keep that in mind when we screen F.W. Murnau's masterpiece, which will happen on Thursday, Aug. 22 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. It's a fantasy, folks. It has to be because of the tubas.
But before we come together to take in 'Sunrise,' a few notes about shows from this past week.
• Peter Clayton, owner of the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine, did it again. Greeting patrons on Thursday, Aug. 15 was a wonderful sandwich board featuring artwork from 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), the evening's silent film attraction.
The show went well, despite intermittent distractions from a couple of large insects attracted to my light down below the screen. I got pretty good at swatting them away with one hand while keeping the music going with the other.
• And then on Saturday night (Aug. 17), it was up to Ludlow, Vt., where the Friends of Ludlow Auditorium were staging their now-annual silent film night. It's a great place to do these programs because the audiences are so enthusiastic, and also I get to hear another guy do accompaniment.
After that, I chipped in with music for Keaton's feature 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' Things got off to a rocky start as the recorded soundtrack to the print we were using was inadvertently left on as the movie opened, and so at first I didn't know what I was hearing underneath my own playing. I thought it was my cell phone going off!
But then I realized what it was, and so had to actually stop playing and ask for the soundtrack to be turned off. It eventually was, and things went pretty smoothly from there. But sometimes that kind of thing can throw you mentally, and it can take a lot of effort to get back into the groove.
It doesn't help that the opening of 'Steamboat' is actually quite challenging to score, I think, because there needs to be a contrast between music for King's new steamboat and Canfield's old wreck. The music for King can't be too triumphant, and the audience for Canfield can't be too morose, or I think an audience new to the picture might start off rooting for the wrong characters.
And then there's 'Sunrise.' I'm looking forward to doing music for this film, one of the great romantic dramas of the silent era. For details and more info, here's the press release that went out earlier. Hope to see you there!
MONDAY, AUG. 19, 2013 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • email@example.com
Classic romantic drama 'Sunrise'
to be screened Thursday, Aug. 22 at Flying Monkey
Silent film won three Oscars at first-ever Academy Awards, including 'Best Actress'; show features live musical accompaniment
PLYMOUTH, N.H.—Silent film on the big screen with live music returns to the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center with the Academy Award-winning romantic drama 'Sunrise' (1927) on Thursday, Aug. 22 at 6:30 p.m. Admission is $10 per person.
The screening of 'Sunrise,' starring Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien, will feature music by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis, who will accompany the film live.
Gaynor, a popular female star of the silent film era, won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in 'Sunrise.' The movie took top honors in cinematography and was also recognized for "Unique and Artistic Production" at the first-ever awards.
'Sunrise' tells the story of a young country couple (played by Gaynor and O'Brien) whose marriage is threatened by the presence of a woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) who convinces the man to abandon his wife. Will the young husband go through with a plan to kill his wife? Will true love overcome the obstacles of temptation and the promise of short-term pleasure?
'Sunrise' was made by F. W. Murnau, a German director and one of the leading figures in German Expressionism, a style that uses distorted art design for symbolic effect. 'Sunrise' was made when Murnau was invited by studio chief William Fox to make an Expressionist film in Hollywood.
The resulting movie features enormous stylized sets that create an exaggerated, fairy-tale world. The city street set alone reportedly cost over $200,000 to build, an huge sum at the time. Much of the exterior shooting was done at Lake Arrowhead, Calif.
Full of cinematic innovations, the groundbreaking cinematography (by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss) featured moving cameras and impressive tracking shots. Titles appear sparingly, with long sequences of pure action and the bulk of the story told in Murnau's signature style. The extensive use of forced perspective is striking, particularly in a shot of the City with normal-sized people and sets in the foreground and smaller figures in the background by much smaller sets.
The story of 'Sunrise' is told as a visual allegory with few specific details. The characters have no names, and the setting is not named in order to make the tale more universal and symbolic.
With a full title of 'Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,' the film is regarded as one of the high points of the silent cinema. In 1988, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress for films that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." The Sight and Sound poll of 2012 for the British Film Institute named 'Sunrise' the fifth-best film in the history of motion pictures by critics, and 22nd by directors.
Critics continue to hail 'Sunrise' as one of the best films of all time.
"F.W. Murnau's 'Sunrise' conquered time and gravity with a freedom that was startling to its first audiences," wrote Roger Ebert in 2004. "To see it today is to be astonished by the boldness of its visual experimentation.
The Flying Monkey originally opened a silent film moviehouse in the 1920s, and showed first-run Hollywood films to generations of area residents until closing several years ago. The theater has since been renovated by Alex Ray, owner of the Common Man restaurants, who created a performance space that hosts a wide variety of music acts.
Movies of all types, however, are still a big part of the Flying Monkey's offerings, and the silent film series is a way for the theater to remain connected to its roots.
Rapsis, who uses original themes to improvise silent film scores, said great silent film dramas such as 'Sunrise' 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 in the 21st century, especially if they're presented as intended — with a live auience and live music.
"Dramas such as 'Sunrise' 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. So the Flying Monkey screenings are a great chance to experience films that first caused people to fall in love with the movies," he said.
The Flying Monkey usually shows silent films on the second Thursday of each month. The screening of 'Sunrise' was shifted to Thursday, Aug. 22, because of a musical booking at the venue.
Other upcoming films in the Flying Monkey's silent series include:
• Thursday, Sept. 12, 6:30 p.m.: 'The Last Command' (1928) starring Emil Jannings, William Powell. Jannings snagged the first-ever Best Actor Academy Award for his towering portrayal of a Czarist general and patriot forced to contend with love and the Russian Revolution in this sweeping late silent drama directed by Josef von Sternberg.
• Thursday, Oct. 10, 6:30 p.m.: 'Safety Last' (1923) starring Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis. The iconic image of Harold Lloyd dangling from the hands of a downtown clock is only one small piece of a remarkable thrill comedy that has lost none of its power over audiences. See for yourself as the film celebrates its 90th anniversary.
• Thursday, Oct. 31, 6:30 p.m.: 'Nosferatu' (1922). Celebrate Halloween by experiencing the original silent film adaptation of Bram Stoker's famous 'Dracula' story. Still scary after all these years—in fact, some critics believe this version is not only the best ever done, but has actually become creepier with the passage of time. See for yourself, if you dare!
'Sunrise' will be shown on Thursday, Aug. 22 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 www.flyingmonkeynh.com or call (603) 536-2551. For more information about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.