Thursday, March 5, 2015
A grand time at the Kansas Silent Festival;
plus, an impromptu Chaplin stress test
Last weekend brought my 16th annual trip to the Kansas Silent Film Festival, to which I've made pilgrimages each year since the turn of the century.
As I say: in February, some folks go to Aruba. I go to Topeka!
But I do it gladly, because the Kansas Silent Film Festival is one of those rare events set up to run mainstream silent films (as opposed to obscure rarities) to large audiences of just plain folks, rather than just plain film buffs. (Who are all nice people, by the way.)
One reason it attracts big crowds is the magical four-letter word: FREE! No admission is charged, so there's no barrier to the curious. There's no registration or badge required, and no tickets, either. You can come and go as you please.
And the White Concert Hall at Washburn University, where the films are screened on Friday nights and all day Saturday, is big enough to hold even an enormous turnout. Big crowds do turn up, depending on the program. So far, no capacity constraints.
And there's the people. Too many staffers and volunteers to list here, but all terrific folks who assemble each year, Brigadoon-like, to bring forth this event. You know who you are, and you're all great. (Many thanks to Carol Yoho for most of the photos used in this post.)
Another reason to go is the music. Usually, it's a rare chance to hear the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra live for several titles in one go, not to mention other regulars such as long-time theater organist Marvin Faulwell and his percussionist sidekick Bob Keckeisen.
This year, Mont Alto couldn't attend. But organizers brought in an equally compelling guest performer: accompanist (and film collector) Jon Mirsalis. Jon is one of the big names in silent film music, and his accompaniment style is one that I really respond to. So I was thrilled that he'd be part of this year's festival. More on Jon in a moment.
My own involvement is to provide piano accompaniment as needed for all manner of odds and ends, with the occasional feature thrown in.
This time around, my big number was 'The Little Church Around the Corner' (1923), an early Warner Bros. melodrama starring Claire Windsor, a Kansas native who attended Washburn University for a time.
Prior to the Saturday morning screening, I got together with percussionist Bob K. and worked out some key moments when his services would add oomph to the proceedings. Any film that features a mine collapse could stand some extra help from the percussion department, and Bob came through in spades.
He also used his crash box to nail a brick thrown through a glass window (another key scene), and also got some nice suspended cymbal action underneath some of the big emotional moments at the keyboard. Bravo, Bob!
'Little Church' turned out to be a good match for the material I'd selected: a big gushing emotional theme for the dramatic moments, a percussive dirge for mining and labor sequences, and some hymn-like chord progressions for the spiritual and religious scenes.
The picture had an unusual structure. The climactic mine collapse actually happens probably about two-thirds through the picture, after which there's an extended sequence showing the townspeople waiting to find out who, if anyone, survived.
For that, I drew back from the big "collapse" music to just playing quiet but steady repeated notes, some high up in the treble, but always simply, like a clock ticking, while the bass wandered slowly below, creating weird tonal relationships that added tension as the sequence progressed. To my delight, I found it becoming one of those impossible-to-plan-for times when everything comes together surprisingly well.
But then out came the gushing emotional theme for the rescue, and then the percussive dirge whipped up into a busy agitato for labor strife. And then the hymn-like music when an unexpected miracle takes place (don't let me spoil it for you) and then more gushing emotional theme for the inevitable happy ending.
I was really pleased with how it came out. Unlike short comedies, a feature like that gives an accompanist room to work with the material and develop it as the story progresses. I was thrilled to have some long-time film buffs tell me afterwards that they thought it was outstanding. Nice! Yay for me!
But the real highlight of the festival for me was Jon Mirsalis, who did music for three features during the festival: Harold Lloyd's 'Grandma's Boy' (1922) on Friday night; the first part of 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) on Saturday afternoon, and then 'The Seahawk' (1924) on Saturday night.
Jon brought with him his Kurzweil synthesizer/keyboard—yes, actually checked as baggage for the flight from San Francisco, the first time he ever took it on a plane, he said.
We happened to arrive at the Kansas City airport on Thursday afternoon at the same time Jon came in, and so were assigned duty to pick up him—and the keyboard—and drive them both to Topeka.
I have to say it was a real treat to bring Jon to Topeka, and then act as his chauffeur for much of his time there.
Jon has been into vintage film for a long time, and is just bursting with stories and lore from decades worth of accompanying, collecting, and obsessing over early cinema.
So get him talking, and there's no end to all the experiences and adventures he's willing to share. He's funny, articulate, and opinionated in the best kind of way.
But music is what he came to Kansas to make. And his work in creating live music for three very different films showed a level of musicianship and a sense of narrative that for my money is just unequaled.
And it's not that the Kurzweil can produce a wide variety of orchestral textures that all sounded pretty impressive in the White Concert Hall. (In fact, he used the house piano, a marvelous Steinway concert grand, for most of 'Grandma's Boy.')
No—Jon has a recognizable style that he can adapt effortlessly, it seems, to whatever is happening on screen, lending it just what it needs at the time: profundity, wistfulness, rhythmic energy, tension, relief, you name it.
It's nearly always right, I think—not just in the moment, but also in the context of the entire film. Jon knows when to go big, when to draw back, when to come to the foreground, and when to disappear. When he plays for a film, it's an ongoing magic act that we were all privileged to enjoy at this year's Kansas Silent Film Festival.
Another highlight was seeing 'The Birth of a Nation' very close to the film's actually 100th anniversary. I know festival organizers were a little nervous about screening this title and all its racist baggage, even making sure a few security guards were on hand just in case.
But as it turned out, there was no controversy that I could detect. Alas, I think attendance was actually down slightly for the afternoon segment in which the film ran.
A panel discussion following the film was lively, but had to end prematurely due to time limits, I thought. For my part, all I could do was make wisecracks about the irony of screening 'Birth' in the White Concert Hall. Har!
Chaplin stress test: One new wrinkle this time around was a one-day outreach program that found the musicians fanning out on Friday to do impromptu silent film programs.
For my part, I rode shotgun with festival organizer Bill Shaffer about 20 minutes west of Topeka to Auburn Elementary School in Auburn, Kansas for a morning assembly.
It's a great-looking modern school, and much larger than I expected for rural Kansas. (Turns out it draws students from a huge area.)
We were in the gym, and everyone couldn't be nicer as hundreds of kids orderly filed in and sat on the floor, eventually filling up nearly the entire basketball court.
But our screening of Chaplin's two-reeler 'The Rink' (1916) unexpectedly turned into a good example of how you just need to be ready to make the best of whatever you're given to work with.
In this case, it was an upright piano with an unusual handicap: for all keys below middle C, the piano's sustain mechanism was stuck in the "on" position, and couldn't be released. Press a note, and it would sound for as long as the strings vibrate, like a gong. Bonnnnnnnnnnnnnnngggggggggggggggggg!
I opened up the piano and tried to figure out what was wrong—maybe a pencil had been dropped into it? But I could NOT get it fixed, and then it was showtime, and off we went.
And so the music for 'The Rink' (1916) was quite a bit more "rinky-tink" than usual, in that I had to be very sparing on the low notes, lest their sound accumulate into a kind of sonic welter.
Also, the gig demonstrated one of the pitfalls of screening films in the digital age. When you use a laptop to run a DVD, it seems there's a very good chance that the player will not be up to the task of reading or transmitting data at a steady rate. And so you get variations in rendering where the on-screen image slows down for a bit and then speeds back up to catch up.
In a comedy such as 'The Rink,' where timing and motion are its chief merits, this can really diminish a film's impact. Not to mention the "bonging" piano.
But you know what? None of this seemed to interfere with the ability of 'The Rink' and Chaplin to capture the attention of youngsters nearly a full century after it was made. As soon as the film started running, the reaction was immediate.
So consider it a kind of stress test. Can silent film appeal to kids in the age of digital distraction and instant gratification, even when hampered by a handicapped piano and an unsteady image speed?
The answer, as I witnessed in Auburn, Kansas on Friday, Feb. 27, is a resounding YES.
Property note: During a few spare moments on Saturday morning, we went looking at real estate. The local market seems like another planet compared to New England. In Topeka, you can get a substantial house and lot for just over $30,000!
Maybe we could buy the place for our annual Topeka sojourn, and rent it out the rest of the year. I could then add "Topeka Slumlord" to my resume.
Publicity notes: Well, back home I've just enjoyed an unexpected burst of what they call "earned media."
Last night, our local ABC affiliate (WMUR-TV Channel 9 in Manchester, N.H.) re-ran a feature segment they produced a year ago about me and silent film music.
Why again? I can only guess something else fell through. Either that, or there's a continuing shortage of interesting people to profile in these parts.
Then this morning, the Concord (N.H.) Monitor ran a pretty extensive profile of yours truly. This lavish write-up led the front of the D section, but also had a teaser right on the front page!
Well, if you're going to be on the front page, it might as well be for playing the piano. As the Car Talk guys would say: "It could be worse!"
If you're interested, here's a link to the story online.
Pretty good, considering I used to be night editor of the paper some (well, many) years ago.
It really is a small state I live in.