Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A little snow can't slow down
the silent film juggernaut of romance

Not even snowpiles like these in the Boston area could stop silent film!

Pleased to report that we went three for three this weekend.

Despite the latest in a series of snowstorms that are collectively burying New England, all three silent film screenings went on as scheduled.

The Aeronaut on a crowded night. We staged the silent film in the area way in the back.

• A Valentine's Day program at the Aeronaut Brewery in Somerville, Mass. attracted a hardy band of the curious (average age maybe half that of mine) who reacted explosively to Buster Keaton in 'Seven Chances' (1925).

We were set up in an unimproved industrial space off to one side of the brewery/bar, and the choice for screen was a large bedsheet or a blank white wall. (I went with the wall.)

Alas, the Saturday night brewery crowd was noticeably thinner compared to my first visit. Blizzard conditions had taken their toll.

But still, there was a good vibe in the place, which features an eclectic line-up of live entertainment. When I arrived, a small combo (I think it included a sousaphone) was playing an arrangement of one of the Gershwin piano preludes while a young woman did interpretive dance on the brewery floor.

And this was followed by some silent film thing!

But come showtime, people began moving over to where I'd set up the keyboard, speakers, and projector, packing in around it in chairs and tables.

By the time we started, it was a good-sized audience. And, as I soon found out, a very responsive one!

You know it's going to be a fun ride when even the opening sequence (in which Keaton repeatedly fails to propose to his beloved) produces gales of laughter.

And after that, it just never let up. People were really into it. And I didn't ask, but I have to think that most people there had never experienced a silent film that way: with live music, and as part of an audience.

So, as we all discovered, what's old can be new again. And it was very gratifying to see it all come together so successfully.

I have to say, it ranked as one of the best silent film experiences I've had in all the years I've been doing this.

My thanks to Christine Platzek, Ben Holmes, and everyone at the Aeronaut Brewery for taking a chance on silent film. Even in the midst of a blizzard, it worked out great!

• Alas, only about a dozen people showed up for a matinee screening of MGM's 'Love' (1927) on Sunday, Feb. 15 at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre.

And that wasn't surprising, as the region was still digging out from another foot of snow, plus contending with Arctic temperatures and winds of 50 mph.

Theatre owner Dennis Markaverich didn't run his usual Sunday shows at 2 p.m., as no one showed up and he was too busy unburying the theater.

But we went ahead with 'Love' at 4:30 p.m., and it seemed especially fitting that the film starts in a howling blizzard!

This isn't one of the immortal silent classics, which I confided in the small group on hand.

MGM basically took a steamroller to Tolstoy's sprawling novel 'Anna Karenina,' boiling it down to a series of scenes that would give maximum face time to Greta Garbo and John Gilbert.

The fact that they threw out just about all of the novel, and then also changed the conclusion to a happy ending, wasn't a concern to the studio. It was designed with one aim: to sell tickets, which it did.

However, 'Love' was produced at the very height of the silent film era. Also, it was made by MGM, at the time the most technically slick studio in Hollywood.

So despite some shortcomings, it contains a lot of interest—sequences that show silent film at the peak of its eloquence.

In previewing the film, I was struck how several intense "dialogue" scenes (where Garbo and Gilbert speak passionately to each other, at some length) are presented utterly without any intertitles.

It's not like 'Love' avoids intertitles. They're used frequently elsewhere.

But in some places, we're left to just watch the faces and the expressions, even as quite a lot is being said, sometimes quite passionately.

I think this is one key to the unique power of silent film. By not getting the details, we're left to imagine what's being said. And that leaves us free to imagine something more intense and personal, perhaps, than could be concocted by any title writer.

By letting us do the work, if we care to, the film absorbs us and draws us in more closely to the characters and the story.

That this is done in a fairly routine (if high profile) release such as 'Love; shows how pervasive this method of presenting a story had become. As the motion picture matured, filmmakers were pushing the technique of visual story-telling in surprisingly abstract directions.

We followed 'Love' with this. Seems fitting, somehow.

• After 'Love,' I raced down snow-covered highways to the Somerville Theatre (just outside Boston, Mass.) to do live music for 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1920).

This screening was part of the annual Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, held every President's Day weekend and now in its 40th year. For 24 hours (yes, straight without a break), about 500 hard-core fans take in a continuous diet of big screen sci-fi flicks of all types—the good, the bad, the very bad, with sometimes even a silent thrown in.

I'd been here before, in 2011, when I did live music for the 1916 version of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.' Not sure how 'Caligari' qualifies as sci-fi, but I was thrilled at a chance to do live music for it at the "'Thon," as attendees call it.

One reason is that it's a chance to bring a silent film to life for a large audience that's quite separate from the usual silent film crowd.

Somerville was absolutely buried in snow. But despite a parking ban and no public transit, the "Thon" went on as planned, although the start was pushed back from noon to 4 p.m.

Attendance was strong: I arrived just as the main theater's doors burst open at the intermission of '2001: A Space Odyssey,' and was surprised that the place was packed!

Set-up required me to gingerly step around people who'd camped out (sleeping bags and all) in the area below the stage, but everyone was really nice about it.

'Caligari' was preceded by a Thon tradition: the alien tinfoil hat contest.

And after that, we went right into Caligari, shown in DCP. Projectionist David Kornfeld thought the transfer was too slow, but it seems to flow all right in terms of the music.

By this time, I had been sitting at a keyboard so much in the past couple of days that I carried over a certain fluency I had accumulated. So things went well, even though I had nothing specific prepared for 'Caligari.'

The only special effect was that I brought my grandmother's old brass school bell to ring during the three times that Caligari is seen ringing a bell to get attention for his carnival act.

Great ovation at the end! Hope to do it again in years to come.

And then I went out in the cold to start my car, and the Thon moved on without me.

• Last-minute addition to the schedule: I'm doing music for Abel Gance's 'J'Accuse' (1919) on Sunday, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, Mass. For more info, please click the link.

I just was asked to do this, so haven't had a chance to prepare much. And I'm leaving for London tonight, returning to Boston the afternoon of the screening.

Cutting it close, I suppose, but I'm game.

And then after that, it's off to the Kansas Silent Film Festival on Feb. 27 & 28 in Topeka, Kansas.

More to come on that!

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