Following Black Friday this year, we're having a Black AND White Weekend!
Join us for screenings of two great silent films that both offer adventure and escape for the whole family:
• On Saturday, Nov. 30 at 7 p.m., it's 'Peter Pan' (1924), the original screen adaptation of J.M. Barrie's immortal stage play; shown at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St. in Concord, N.H.
• On Sunday, Dec. 1 at 4:30 p.m., 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924), the epic fantasy widely regarded as the masterpiece of screen icon Douglas Fairbanks Sr., will be shown at the Wilton Town Hall Theater, 40 Main St. in Wilton, N.H.
Tickets for 'Peter Pan' at Red River are $10 and I urge you to get them in advance because our show is in the relatively small screening room. Not to sound overly optimistic, but the place seats only about 55 people and it's likely we'll sell out. (In the event we do, I'll try to schedule a follow-up repeat soon after.) For more info or to buy tickets, please visit www.redrivertheatres.org.
'The Thief of Bagdad' is free and open to all, but we do request a donation (suggested $5) to help cover costs. The screening will be in Wilton's main theater, which seats something like 300 people, so I don't expect standing-room-only. Still, if the weather is right (meaning lousy) and everyone gets their shopping done, it might a good crowd. It's a great family movie and I encourage you to see it!
And now that I think of it, my joke about having a "Black AND White" weekend doesn't make much sense because the prints for both films contain original tint colors to brighten up the visuals and help tell the story.
So that, as they say, is a horse of a different color!
Sunday, November 24, 2013
Okay, here's a new rule I'm following from now on. It goes like this:
"Henceforth and commencing immediately, I shall not program a silent film for which I do not have a suitable copy in hand."
The reason for this rule is a recent screening I did of 'Beau Geste' (1926), the great Herbert Brenon version of the classic tale of adventure in the French Foreign Legion.
It was an adventure, all right, but mostly due to my inability to find a decent copy of the film as the days ticked down to a long-scheduled screening.
I had put 'Beau Geste' in the November slot at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H., where I do a monthly silent film program.
This was scheduled months ago, mostly because I'd never done music for the silent 'Beau Geste' before, and also because the time between Halloween and Thanksgiving would be good for a rousing adventure in an exotic locale.
At the time, copies seemed to be freely available online, so I assumed I could just pick one up. And then, of course, I forgot all about it.
Then last month, I was reviewing my schedule and realized 'Beau Geste' was coming up, and that I'd never gotten a copy.
A quick look online found copies available from resellers on Amazon.com. So last last month, I ordered one, thinking I would get it in plenty of time before the screening on Wednesday, Nov. 20.
Well, October turned to November (funny how that happens) and at some point I got an e-mail that my order had shipped. Great! Unfortunately, the window of delivered was listed basically as any day up until Wednesday, Nov. 20—the day of the screening! And alas, it had been shipped via U.S. Postal Service, so there was no way to track it.
So I waited, growing just a little more anxious each day that it failed to arrive. Finally, two days before the screening, I couldn't wait any longer and decided to take action. I began calling other distributors to see if anyone had a copy of 'Beau Geste' that could be overnighted to me.
After a day not getting through to anyone, on Tuesday afternoon I finally reached a guy in Maryland. I was in luck, he said, because they were just getting ready to go on vacation in two hours, but he'd be happy to drop 'Beau Geste' off at the post office that afternoon on his way to the airport.
The post office!? Well, it was the only option, so I took it.
And sure enough, the next day (the day of the screening), it arrived at my business office via U.S Postal System's overnight delivery option. Thank God! I brought it home at mid-day and popped it into a DVD player. The guy had described it as "watchable," and it was, though a far cry from the visual quality I would normally shoot for in scheduling a film. But with four hours to go before showtime, I wasn't in a position to complain.
Our audience that night (a less-than-typical turnout of just 24 folks) enjoyed 'Beau Geste,' even though the visual quality was sub-par and I had to play the film cold. ("Uh-oh! He's picking up the trumpet again to play...'Taps' this time!) I had seen the film years ago, but was still surprised at how much music factors into it, including a rousing 'Desert Soldiers' fight song that comes up several times.
And on Friday, two days after the screening, guess what arrived on my doorstep? Yes, the original order of 'Beau Geste' had arrived, two days past the promised date. And yes, it was a better transfer, so I'll probably use it if I ever program the film again.
Now that I have a copy, it's fair game!
But the lesson from this has coalesced into a new rule I intend to observce: never again will I program a film that I don't actually have in hand.
I'd rather join the foreign legion!
Sunday, November 10, 2013
Whenever I do music for the silent film version of 'Peter Pan' (1924), I try to conjure up my own reaction to the film when I first saw it.
This happened in 2000 at the Kansas Silent Film Festival in Topeka, Kansas. It was the first time I'd ever gone out there, primarily to hear the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra live. And one of the films they were playing for was the silent version of 'Peter Pan' in 16mm.
I was unfamiliar with the film, but was just beginning to grasp the scale and scope of what silent cinema encompassed. And I remember being beguiled right from the start by the family dog Nana, played by a guy in a cleverly designed dog suit. To me, it perfectly set the tone of fantasy in all that was to follow.
And on that, the film really delivered. It was just one visual surprise after another. Not even the mistaken reverse threading of a reel during the performance (rendering the titles into something that looked like Czech) was enough to break the spell. It really opened my eyes to how rich the silent era was with treasures that were yet unknown to me.
In the past few years, I've done my own music for 'Peter Pan' many times, and for each performance I try to remind myself of that sense of wonder I had when I first encountered it. I think the key to replicating that feeling is to keep things very simple at first—on the level of a nursery rhyme. After all, author J.M. Barrie urges us to think back to when we were children, and music can really help in that regard.
Ususally my accompaniment is heavy on improv. But with 'Peter Pan,' I've developed some music that I think works well, so the score will be a little more structured than usual. Still there's always room for surprises and in any case it's never quite the same way twice no matter how much I plan ahead.
We'll see how things evolve, as I have no less than three separate screenings of 'Peter Pan' to accompany in the next month. There's the 35mm screening at the Somerville (Mass.) Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 17 at 1 p.m.; then a showing during Thanksgiving Day weekend at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. on Saturday, Nov. 30 at 7 p.m.; and then a screening at the Statford (Conn.) Library on Sunday, Dec. 15 at 4:30 p.m.
More info on the Somerville screening is below in the form of the press release that was sent out to Boston area media. Hope to see you there, as this is a definitely a film where a big audience makes a big difference.
SATURDAY, NOV. 9, 2013 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • firstname.lastname@example.org
Silent film version of 'Peter Pan'
at Somerville Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 17
Matinee of timeless family movie classic in 35mm will feature live musical accompaniment
SOMERVILLE, Mass.—It was the film that introduced movie-goers to visions of flying children, magical fairies, human-like animals and menacing pirates. It was the original silent film adaptation of 'Peter Pan,' a picture personally supervised by author J.M. Barrie. The film became a major hit when released in 1924, with audiences eager to get their first big-screen look at the wonders of Neverland.
Boston-area movie fans can see for themselves when the first 'Peter Pan' (1924) is screened with live music on Sunday, Nov. 17 at 1 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.
'Peter Pan' will be screened in the Somerville's main theater using a 35mm film print. The program will be accompanied live by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $15 per person, with discounts for seniors and children.
'Peter Pan' is the latest in a monthly series of silent film screenings in 35mm with live music at the Somerville Theatre. The series aims to show the best silent films in the way that caused people to first fall in love with the movies—on the big screen, in a theater, with live music, and with an audience.
"We're thrilled to be presenting this great movie in our main theatre, where familes can come together and experience it in a way that's impossible to duplicate in a home entertainment center," said Ian Judge, manager of the Somerville Theatre. "The original 'Peter Pan' contains enough timeless magic to get everyone in the mood for the coming holidays."
Thought lost for many years, and overshadowed by more recent adaptations, the original silent 'Peter Pan' maintains its freshness and charm more than 80 years after its original release.
In the story, first presented as a stage play in 1904, three children in London are visited one night by Peter Pan, a youth in search of his shadow. Pan shows his new friends how to fly, and then convinces them to join him in a journey to Neverland.
There they encounter Indians, mermaids, and a band of pirates whose leader, Captain Hook, is Pan's sworn enemy. The children are captured by Hook and taken prisoner aboard his pirate ship, setting the stage for an epic battle, the outcome of which will determine if the children may ever return home.
Though the Peter Pan story is well-known today due to subsequent adaptations (and also merchandising that includes a ubiquitous brand of peanut butter), the tale was virtually new when Hollywood first brought it to film in the early 1920s. In England, author Barrie gave his blessing to the adaptation, though he retained control over casting and insisted that any written titles in the film be taken directly from his own text.
After a major talent search, Barrie settled on unknown 18-year-old actress Betty Bronson for the title role, and filming began in 1924. The role of Captain Hook was played by noted character actor Ernest Torrance, who invented the now-iconic villainous priate persona that would become a Hollywood legend.
The film's highlights include special effects that maintain their ability to dazzle even today. The film's memorable images include a group of mermaids entering the sea, a miniature Tinkerbell interacting with full-sized children and adults, and a pirate ship lifting out of the water and taking flight.
'Peter Pan' also includes a cast of animal characters played by humans in costume, including the family dog Nana and an alligator who serves as Hook's nemesis, lending the film a magical quality.
After the film's release, no copies of the original 'Peter Pan' were known to exist, and for many years the film was regarded as lost. However, in the 1950s a single surviving print turned up in the George Eastman Archives in Rochester, N.Y., from which all copies today have descended.
'Peter Pan' will be accompanied by local musician and composer Jeff Rapsis, who has prepared new material to go with the picture. "Silent film was intended to be screened with live music that not only supported the action, but clued in the audience to changing moods and scenes," said Rapsis, a New Hampshire resident. "I hope this new music will help bring to life the film's special qualities of fantasy and child-like wonder."
‘Peter Pan’ will be shown in 35mm and with live music on Sunday, Nov. 17 at at 1 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Admission is $15 per person. For more information, call (617) 625-5700 or visit http://www.somervilletheatreonline.com. For more information about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com
Saturday, November 9, 2013
Postponed for an entire year by Hurricane Sandy, a screening of the Josef von Sternberg drama 'The Last Command' (1928) finally took place on Thursday, Nov. 7 in the Hays Theatre at Molloy College.
Let me say right up front that it was not the easiest screening. Tech issues almost prevented the show from going on at all. However, thanks to the efforts of Karl Mischler (a regular at the Kansas Silent Film Festival, but a resident of Glendale, Queens who came out for this program), we were able to get the film going about a half-hour behind schedule.
Karl mentioned later that one reason the film wouldn't play was that the disc we were using had a giant thumbprint on it. He wiped it off, which proved to be a crucial step in allowing the program to proceed. I couldn't help but imagine the apocalyptic reaction of high-strung director von Sternberg to the idea that his film was being held hostage by someone's greasy thumbprint.
Because of all the distractions, by the time the film started, I was in nowhere near the mental state needed to attempt to pull off some of the more ambitious texture changes I had planned. Instead, I simplified to just a standard orchestral setting, which helped me concentrate on the music as music. I must say, though, the first 10 minutes were a rough go.
The only "extra added attraction" that survived was the ringing of a brass bell that I used during the "revolution" scenes in which a character, sure enough, rings a brass bell to get everyone's attention. Prior to the screening, I couldn't remember when this happened in the film, but was able to review this sequence on a computer in the Molloy College Philosophy Department. There! Just after a guy gets hung, a cue that's hard to miss. So I was able to nail it during the performance, and it proved pretty effective, I thought.
My college classmate Michael Russo, now a professor of philosophy at Molloy (and organizer of this screening), was kind enough to send along a few photos of the accompanist in action. Thanks, Mike! However, I'm disappointed that he didn't apply the "handsome" filter that I find is more necessary as time goes by.
A GALLERY OF THE ACCOMPANIST
Okay, enough of that. But I do want to set down a couple of thoughts about 'The Last Command,' a film that impresses me more every time I encounter it.
SPOILER ALERT: The analysis below will totally spoil the film if you haven't seen it. Beware!
After the movie was over, a couple of folks said they didn't understand the ending. Why would director Lev Andreyev (William Powell) be sympathetic and even respectful to Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings), a former Czarist general who stole his girl and unjustly imprisoned him a decade earlier?
The answer, I think, goes to the heart of what 'The Last Command' is all about. Yes, on the surface, it's a story of the Russian Revolution, with a parallel story of a Hollywood movie about the Russian Revolution being made not long after. That alone sets up all kinds of complex possibilities for irony and so on.
But the core drama of 'The Last Command' is one that hinges on personal integrity and character. The film frames it as a question: "Who among us is truly himself, and who is merely acting a role because he or she is ordered to do so?"
'The Last Command' is filled with scenes, both in Russia and Hollywood, of people acting under the orders of others. It's a dynamic that occurs frequently. Soldiers respond to commands. Extras respond to the cattle call. (In a meta sense, the movie itself is the result of a lot of people following orders of director von Sternberg, a notorious tyrant on set.)
By the way, the movie makes no judgment about people in the position of following orders. After all, it's a position that most of humanity finds itself in. It's a natural state of the human experience, rather like the laws of physics. No one is exempt: Even Sergius Alexander (Jannings), at the height of his power over the Russian military, is forced to engage in "play-acting" when the Czar orders ceremonial troop reviews at a time when troops can least be spared from the front. "The show is almost over," he remarks to an underling with an urgent message.
So no matter what's going on, life takes place in a web of relationships in which some people possess power of some sort over others. In 'The Last Command,' this dynamic is visually represented by the act of smoking and lighting matches. Watch for how the etiquette of lighting a cigarette (who does what for whom) appears again and again--at first comically when director Andreyev is greeted by a half-dozen underlings vying to light his cigarette, and then again and again throughout the film as relationships between characters are established and then change.
But back to the core drama. To be truly yourself, and to be true to yourself, is never easy, and was no less so during the Russian Revolution as depicted in 'The Last Command.' Even so, it's a core component of what in us is noble and worthy of respect. Being true to yourself instead of following orders you don't believe in: one wishes this film would have been more popular in pre-Nazi Germany, where great atrocities would soon occur because people were "just following orders."
Also, what we do with any power we have over others speaks volumes about our character and who we really are. Do we abuse the power for power's sake, or does our use of it reflect our true beliefs? And what is the effect of our power on those who are subject to it? It can be argued that successful navigation of all this--being true to one's self, and not abusing power--is a prerequisite for being a hero.
For Andreyev (Powell), the price of being himself and speaking his mind to Sergius Alexander is getting struck in the face with a whip, having his woman taken from him, and then indefinite imprisonment. But the price of not being himself would perhaps be worse: a betrayal of what he believed in (the Revolution) and a loss of self-respect.
For Sergius Alexander (Jannings), the price of being true to his beliefs about what is right for his people and his nation is even more drastic. The Revolution robs him of everything—his position, his stature, his health, and the woman he stole from the future director. He is reduced to a shell of his former self, living in a rooming house, his swagger transformed into a pathetic nervous head twitch.
So, 10 years later, why should now-all-powerful Hollywood director Lev Andreyev care at all about again Sergius Alexander, who washes up at the studio as an extra? And why should he treat him with something bordering on sympathy?
The way I see it, filming a Hollywood battle scene with Sergius Alexander placed in charge of the troops is arranged as a kind of final exam for the Jannings character. Even after a decade of hardship and humiliation, what is the General made of? What does he truly believe in? Were his actions a decade ago rooted in his character and what he truly believed, or merely an abuse of power for power's sake? The movie set provide Andreyev with a laboratory to settle the question once and for all.
Jannings, by going berzerk, passes the exam with flying colors. During the Revolution, he was not acting after all. And after all was taken away, he could not change what he truly believed (his love for Russia, and that the Revolution was led by traitors), no matter what circumstances he found himself reduced to. (This commitment was symbolized in part, again visually, but the modest medal from the Czar that he continues to wear throughout the film.)
As such, after collapsing on the set, the General earns the reward of being assured, in the arms of the director (by no coincidence, a God-like figure) that he won after all. This is not a very elegant comparison, but to me it's a moment very similar to the ending of the 1971 "Willy Wonka" movie, where Gene Wilder tells young Charlie Bucket that he passed the test (by being honest) and thus won the factory. (Although in 'The Last Command,' his reward is not a candy factory, but a peaceful death.)
All this is handled very poetically, forming a subtext to a film that boils with surface action and tension and dramatic ups and downs. Through it all, we're not hit on the head with any lesson. Instead, it can be seen throughout the movie, if only we are perceptive enough to recognize it for what it is, and what it is adding up to.
If you pick up on the imagery, it enriches the film immensely. When Sergius Alexander stoops to light the cigarette of the young revolutionary Natasha (Evelyn Brent), you know trouble is brewing. So what could have been a fairly pedestrian war story is instead arranged as a great visual study of some fundamental questions that we all face, whether or not we realize it.
What does it mean to have power over another? And who among us is acting? And who is real?
All of this is made clear, I think, in the final intertitles, in which an assistant director observes callously that the Jannings character was a great actor, and Powell replies that he wasn't just a great actor, but "a great man."
Sunday, November 3, 2013
'The Last Command' (1928) is one of those films that seems to reveal new things about itself, and about life in general, every time I encounter it.
Made at the very end of the silent era, when filmmakers were taking the expressive power of visual story-telling to its highest level, 'The Last Command' (directed by Josef von Sternberg) is a rich treasure trove of allegory, story, irony, drama, and just plain all-around great cinema.
And the work of Emil Jannings as a Czarist general caught up in the Russian Revolution—a towering performance that won him the first-ever Academy Award for Best Actor—remains flat-out amazing, even to modern eyes. It's also a treat to see William Powell in a significant early role, and I don't think I could ever get tired of looking at Evelyn Brent as a flag-waving Russian revolutionary.
I'm reminded of all this because I'm preparing to head down to Molloy College on Long Island to do music for a screening of 'The Last Command' on Thursday, Nov. 7.
I'm looking forward to this one not only because it's 'The Last Command,' but also because the audience is likely to be folks not very familiar with silent drama of this stature. So it's a real rush for me to help bring a film such as 'The Last Command' to life in this kind of situation.
However, there's also some pressure involved. If I have an off night or somehow screw up with the music, I could diminish 'The Last Command,' and by inference all silent film, in front of a lot of people who haven't had much exposure to it.
But this apprehension pales in comparison to my eagerness to share this film with others, come what may. Among its other virtues, the story of 'The Last Command' is driven by big emotions that are at the root of my own attraction to silent film.
True, I may never go through what Grand Duke Sergius Alexander (Jannings) experiences. But as a member of the human race, for better or worse, I feel things. And I think I feel them strongly, at least in terms of my own frame of reference. It might be joy, it might be despair, it might be anything in-between. But I feel. I am not made of stone. Over the years, I've come to terms with this range of emotions (which are not always pleasant) as an important part of what it means to be truly alive.
And it makes sense that this would be the case, because at its best, silent film deals with emotions that can become so powerful that words would only get in the way. Music, also suited for big emotions, plays a powerful supporting role, or at least can when everything's working. And all this happens in a way to which I respond very strongly, and inspires my desire to introduce and share the experience with others.
I sometimes joke that my way of doing music for silent films is a public form of psychological self-therapy. It helps me cope, and if I didn't have this outlet, this impulse might surface in ways that society finds less acceptable, such as spray-painting bridge abutments.
But when I think of what the people who made 'The Last Command' and 'Wings' and 'The Big Parade' and other great films of the silent era were able to achieve, and how I respond to them, then I realize it's not completely a joke.
So creating music for silent films and helping them connect with modern audiences is my way of spreading the notion that to feel is at the root of what it means to be human. And I think that's important whether it's 1928 or 2013 or 355 B.C.
I think as more time goes by, the best silents will be recognized for how they can show us what's timeless about the human experience. It may be a bit too early for this to be apparent, but I think it's a major strength of silent cinema. We'll see as the years go by, as they inevitably will.
For now, in going down to Long Island to accompany 'The Last Command' and doing other screenings all over the place, I'm a sort of Johnny Appleseed character, spreading not seeds but opportunities for people to let out their emotions.
I should probably work out a sponsorship deal with Kleenex.
While I work on that, here's the text of the press release on 'The Last Command' that has all the details of the screening on Thursday, Nov. 7. Hope to see you there!
TUESDAY, OCT. 29, 2013 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • email@example.com
Silent epic 'The Last Command' with live music
at Molloy College on Thursday, Nov. 7
War picture from 1928 won 'Best Actor' for Emil Jannings at first-ever Academy Awards
ROCKVILLE CENTRE, N.Y.—'The Last Command' (1928), an intense silent film drama that won Emil Jannings 'Best Actor' honors at the first-ever Academy Awards, will be screened with live music on Thursday, Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Hays Theatre, Wilbur Arts Center, Molloy College; 1000 Hempstead Ave., Rockville Centre, N.Y.
Admission is free and the event is open to the public.
Live music for the screening will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based musician recognized as one of the nation's leading silent film accompanists.
Rapsis will create the film's score live as the movie is shown by improvising music based on original melodies created beforehand.
"Making up the music on the spot is kind of a high wire act," Rapsis said. "But there's nothing like the energy and excitement that comes with improvised live performance, especially when accompanying a silent film."
Rapsis accompanies films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of a full orchestra. He has performed live film scores at events ranging from the Kansas Silent Film Festival to the Cinefest vintage film convention in Syracuse, N.Y., and most recently collaborated with Academy Award-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow on a silent film program at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
Finding work as an extra at a Hollywood studio, the former general lands the part of a commanding officer in a movie about the revolution, causing flashbacks to his traumatic experiences. The conflict leads to a spectacular climax and a towering performance that earned Jannings 'Best Actor' honors.
The film takes audiences on a journey through big emotions as well as issues of history, time, power, and especially a man's duty to his country and to his fellow citizens—and what happens when the two obligations diverge.
The film also stars a young William Powell as a Hollywood movie director who crosses paths with the general during the Revolution, and 1920s starlet Evelyn Brent as a seductive Russian revolutionary.
Critic Leonard Maltin hailed 'The Last Command' as "a stunning silent drama...a fascinating story laced with keen observations of life and work in Hollywood." Time Out of London called it "the first Sternberg masterpiece, expertly poised between satire and 'absurd' melodrama. The cast are fully equal to it; Jannings, in particular, turns the characteristic role of the general into an indelible portrait of arrogance, fervour and dementia."
Director Sternberg, a master of lighting and black-and-white photography, created 'The Last Command' as a visual tour de force. The film is often cited as a prime example of the emotional range and visual accomplishment of silent films at their height, just prior to the coming of pictures with recorded soundtracks.
Rapsis said great silent film dramas such as 'The Last Command' told stories that concentrate 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—in a theater on the big screen, with a live audience and live music.
"Dramas such as 'The Last Command' were created to be consumed as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, they still come to life as their creators intended them to. This screening at Molloy College is a great chance to experience films that first caused people to fall in love with the movies."
'The Last Command' (1928) will be screened with live music on Thursday, Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Hays Theatre, Wilbur Arts Center, Molloy College; 1000 Hempstead Ave., Rockville Centre, N.Y. Admission is free and the screening is open to the public. For more information, visit www.molloy.edu or contact Prof. Michael Russo at (516) 323-3345. For more information about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.