Sunday, December 20, 2015
Catching the train that never left: A report
on my excellent on-the-road adventure
Okay, I'm back from my "Pre-Holiday Midwest & Canada Silent Film Tour." And here's all the dirt I know you've been waiting for.
First, I want to thank the people who made this excellent adventure possible.
Too many to name every single one, but kudos to:
• Maggie Perrino and Bleu Pellman of the Carnegie Center in Covington, Ky.
• John Ewing and Tim Harry of the Cleveland Cinemateque.
• Alicia Fletcher, Craig Caron and Eric Veillette of the Revue Cinema in Toronto.
I came away impressed by all that they do, and inspired by their support of silent film with live music.
The good news is that each venue put on a first-class show for its patrons, from promotion to presentation.
And the bad news...well, there isn't any bad news. All screenings went off without a hitch.
Even the weather, which in this part of the world is a real roll of the dice in mid-December, was mild and pleasant throughout.
And no car trouble in 2,149 miles of driving. Heck, I even found gas for $1.67 a gallon in Ohio!
So it truly was an excellent adventure. Here's a day-by-day round-up for the record books:
• Wednesday, Dec. 9: Sometimes my double life as newspaper publisher and silent film accompanist merges into one. Like with this tour: it starts at noon with me bombing down I-93 for a couple of client visits in the Boston area prior to heading west. I promptly get stuck on the Southeast Expressway. Not a fast start.
Then it's out on the Mass. Pike (argh, now during rush hour!) to I-84, through Connecticut and New York and into Pennsylvania by evening. Dramatic arrival into downtown Pittsburgh at midnight via I-376 and the Squirrel Hill Tunnel. Finally pull into hotel (outside Pittsburgh Airport) sometime before 1 a.m.
• Thursday, Dec. 10: An early morning run of 7 miles through the streets for Coraopolis, Penn. allows me to claim Pennsylvania in my quest to run at least 10K in all 50 states.
Then it's onto the Carnegie, via I-70 through a sliver of West Virginia and finally into Ohio, where I find gas that $1.67-a-gallon gas.
I also find lunch at this place:
When in Rome...I had a "Schlepp Burger," which features Thousand Island dressing and costs $4.25. Why not?
Pulled into Cincinnati exactly on time for easy 4:30 p.m. load-in and set-up with Bleu Pellman, a veteran of my prior Carnegie appearance in 2013.
The Carnegie is across across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, so it's in Covington, Ky. Hence my accommodations at the Extended Stay in Covington, where I get to witness police intervene in a family squabble in a White Castle parking lot. Why do people need reality television when plain old reality is more than enough?
Just over 100 people attend the evening's "holiday" program, which includes extremely short early version of seasonal classics ("A Christmas Carol" in nine minutes!) and then the much more substantial 'Tess of the Storm Country' (1922), a Mary Pickford melodrama with a great Yuletide ending.
Introducing the films, I encouraged audience members not to hold back in reacting to the on-screen characters and action. And they sure didn't!
The two Edison holiday shorts (the other was 'Twas the Night Before Christmas') were greeted with a lot of hearty laughter, and cheers for the amazingly low-tech special effects used to bring Santa's sleigh ride to the screen in 1905. All this served to loosen things up for a truly epic response to "Tess."
There was hooting, hollering, cheering, booing, and laughter throughout. And as the film's story intensified, so did the response, to the point where I heard people openly sobbing during the final 20 minutes.
So it was one of those great silent film experiences where an audience gets absorbed by a story and characters, and then gets swept along as the drama deepens and the stakes rise.
All this was enhanced by the Carnegie's first-class presentation: a robust house A/V system, robust acoustics, and just the right size for silent film, I think: just big enough but not too big.
So it was one of those times where I played with an increasing sense that the audience was completely buying the whole experience.
Also, I had chosen some good material to work with, and the score came together in a way that punched up both the humor and the drama, I felt.
And so, after two hours of intense emotion, we all experienced the film's cathartic Christmastime ending with a kind of collective sigh of relief, me included.
It was one of those times where I think people weren't prepared for how absorbing a silent film can be, and were surprised to find out.
What a treat to do music to help this whole process come about. At the end, I found the big ovation gratifying, and can only hope Mary would have approved.
Afterwards, a nice group of people stayed in the theater to talk shop. Some big silent film fans in the Cincinnati area! So I hope to return again to this wonderful venue.
• Friday, Dec. 11: I awake to find it's still dark at 7 a.m., as we're in the far west of the Eastern Time Zone.
Still, I go out for a longish two-hour run through the scenic streets of Covington and Newport, Kentucky. It's in the 40s—mild but overcast, perfect for jogging.
While not the wealthiest part of Greater Cincinnati, this region has considerable charm. The area escaped urban renewal in prior generations, meaning it's still full of unique and older structures in various states of repair.
And "downtown" Covington—the area just across the river from Cincinnati's office towers—is funky enough to remind me of funky North Topeka, but about 20 times larger.
After adding Kentucky to my list of states in which I've run at least 10K, I hit the road for the Cleveland Cinematheque, which is on the other side of Ohio and about four hours away.
Along I-71, I get to see my favorite billboard: a huge sign right next to the road with the three words HELL IS REAL. "Yes," I think, "And depending on how people drive, I sometimes think we're in it."
I'm due in Cleveland at 3:30 p.m. My usually trusty GPS guides me there right on time, but it turns out to be the Cinematheque's former home, which it vacated this past summer for new digs.
Fortunately, the new home isn't far away, and long-time director John Ewing is waiting outside for me.
A local legend among cinephiles, Ewing has led the Cinematheque since its founding in 1985. Under his guidance, the Cleveland area has enjoyed three decades of sustained access to a wide range of pictures that aren't likely to play at your local multiplex anytime soon.
We're talking foreign films, documentaries, classics and cult films, and independent features that often struggle to find theatrical venues or an audience. But not in Cleveland, where the eclectic tastes of Ewing and his staff keep the screen lit up year in and year out with compelling cinema.
That includes silent films, and Ewing was kind enough to invite me to accompany two programs over two days: first a holiday program featuring Laurel & Hardy's 'Big Business' (1929) and Harry Langdon's seldom-seen feature 'Three's A Crowd' (1927) on Friday, Dec. 11, followed by 'Passing Fancy' (1933), the final silent film from Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.
These were packed into a crowded bill of other fare, all shown at the Cinematheque's very spiffy new 300-seat theater at the Cleveland Institute of Art, its parent organization.
The place has its own very nice grand piano (I forget the make), but I had planned synthesizer scores for both programs, so opted for that. There was no way to plug into the house sound, but my pair of trusty Rolands were up to the task of filling the room when necessary.
We had a good house on hand for the Langdon program, and reaction was huge for Laurel & Hardy's 'Big Business' (1929), shown from a 16mm print and accompanied by a farrago of variations on "O Christmas Tree," with a little "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" thrown in when Ollie begin hitting hurled crockery with a shovel.
The Langdon film seemed to puzzle the audience, which wasn't a surprise. He was really stretching for Chaplinesque pathos in 'Three's A Crowd,' but in surviving versions (including the 35mm print from the Rohauer collection we were running) there's enough disjointed material to throw people off and keep the movie from jelling.
For instance: near the beginning, what's all the business about that note delivered by a bird? Either something's missing, or Langdon (who directed and supervised this release) missed the mark by a country mile and was content to release the film as is.
Still, I did what I could with music to keep the film glued together so what really does work had a chance to connect. Once a newborn child enters his life, Langdon does some of his best pantomime ever, and I hoped very deliberate underscoring would help bring it out.
It worked, somewhat. But there's one sequence where Langdon is so caught up in gazing at the child and mother that he absent-mindedly fashions a diaper into a complete fruit pie ready for baking. I set this as the test: if it didn't get a big reaction, I had somehow missed something.
Well, the moment came. And it earned at most a polite chortle, not the belly laugh I was hoping for. Well, maybe that's Langdon after all.
Although not a conventional film, Langdon did amp things up for a final "dream/nightmare" sequence, which allowed me to push the score into big and busy territory. I was pleased with how I was able to keep the different melodic cues under control as I cranked up the pace.
It all came together quite effectively, I think, giving 'Three's A Crowd' at least a fighting chance—an apt metaphor considering the boxing ring that features so prominently in the dream/nightmare.
Lots of thoughtful comments from people afterwards in the lobby, where a giant tin of hard candy encourages patrons to linger.
Afterwards, John was kind enough to join me in strolling over to Cleveland's Little Italy, right behind the Cinematheque along Mayfield Road. I enjoyed my first beer of the trip, a Peroni, at Mamma Santa's (how appropriate with Christmas two weeks away) while John had Piselli, a curious dish made with peas that I'd never heard of before. (But then how many people in Cleveland have had gorton?)
I was staying in the Indigo, a place out by I-271 about a half-hour from the theater. This meant leisurely drives through some of Cleveland's ritziest neighborhoods, with home after home looking more like it belonged in Beverly Hills, not in a city famous for the river once catching fire. (I know, that was long ago.)
• Saturday, Dec. 12: Although the weather continued mild, fear of overdoing it plus a strong wireless signal led me to cancel another long run in favor of actually getting some work done while on the road. My other life leads to such situations as an hour-long conference call with the office in New Hampshire while I'm looking for Interstate 70 in Pennsylvania.
And after days of quick meals (including one at the White Castle in Covington, a rare treat), I thought it was time for some serious food. Turns out Cleveland's best French restaurant is L'Albatros Brasserie, located in an old carriage house within easy walking distance of the Cinematheque.
I arrived at 3 p.m., and for the next 90 minutes I just could not believe the food that came out of that kitchen. The main dish was a shoulder of lamb served in a bowl over polenta with about a half-dozen different vegetables mixed in. But I couldn't resist trying the braised leeks with mustard, or the roasted red pepper potage, or...well, you get the idea.
Since this blog is about movies, you might understand how I began thinking of what happened to Mr. Creosote in Monty Python's 'The Meaning of Life' (1983). I dreaded the idea of a server resembling John Cleese offering me one "way-fair thin mint" for dessert.
But instead, I had the mixed berries with cream fraiche, and waddled out of there under my own power. I hope John invites me back just so I can eat there again and again!
Prior to the Ozu, the Cinematheque was running 'Tokyo Ga' (1984) a documentary about Ozu's Tokyo that German filmmaker Wim Wenders made in 1984. Little known but recently restored, I thought it proved a terrific lead-in to 'Passing Fancy.' Ewing and his team put together a program with all the finesse at the nearby Albatross. (There I go again.)
Speaking of food: in a sequence worthy of Ozu, Wenders devoted extended footage to visiting a shop where artisans create the astonishingly real fake food shown in glass cases outside virtually all Japanese restaurants. Even after over-eating, I felt like having a bowl of ramen.
But what really caught my eye in his documentary was how it opened with him on the plane to Japan. Wenders admitted he didn't like watching movies on airplanes (I feel the same way), but then he couldn't take his eyes off the film that was playing at the front of the cabin. (This was in the days before seatback video.)
So he filmed a small bit of the film right there in the plane, making it look ridiculous, and pointing out how inferior it was to the magical view out the window. (Without, however, bringing up the point that we all can't get window seats.)
Me, I couldn't help but notice that the in-flight movie we glimpsed only briefly was 'On Golden Pond,' filmed at Squam Lake in New Hampshire. Wow—I drive all the way to Cleveland to see a German documentary from 30 years ago in which there's a glimpse of where I came from.
For the Ozu film, I used the same harp-and-plucked-strings synthesizer setting I employed for another Ozu film, 'I Was Born, But...' at the Harvard Film Archive last year, and also some of the same melodic material, too. I felt it went well with Ozu's world, and this was a chance to develop it further. Plus recycling is good for the environment.
Somewhat like the Langdon, I feel it's really important with Ozu not to overplay. His films are all about character nuance, and about weaving a story into the patterns of daily life: getting up, eating, going to work or school, and so on.
So you can't come in with a Japanese version of the 'Star Wars' main title theme or anything like that.
And for that matter, you really can't come in with something too obviously "Eastern" sounding, either, I think.
Otherwise you risk putting the film in a box (the "old Japanese film that has nothing in common with my life today" box) instead of letting an audience get absorbed by the movie's more timeless qualities, of which there are many if you allow them in.
So I didn't employ the stereotypical pentatonic scale, either, nor did I limit myself to modal Asian-sounding cadences.
Instead, I took a Mozartian approach, using many very simple chord progressions with a slowed-down "Alberti" bass. Melodies were diatonic, though spiced with sharped fourths and flatted sevenths to create a kind of impish quality, I hope.
Attendance was less than Langdon, but the room was strongly pro-Ozu, you could tell. So I was really pleased afterwards to receive compliments on the music, including the much-sought-after "I forgot someone was playing the music live" remark. Thank you, Cleveland!
And to top it off, John and wife Kathy brought me across the street for ice cream. Picking out a flavor, I felt like their overgrown teenage kid. Not bad for 51 years old!
• Sunday, Dec. 13: To make up for yesterday's massive indulgence at L'Albatross, I began the day with a somewhat shorter run (just an hour) through the suburban office parks of Beachwood, Ohio, which to my surprise have sidewalks!
They also have hermetically sealed glass office buildings set amid enormous parking lots and acres of open grass "landscaping," with eateries such as PIADA attached to them.
Piada is "Italian Street Food," the sign says. I look around the boulevards, deserted on a bleak Sunday morning, and wonder if any street in Italy looks like where I am.
But then it's a mad dash to the Canadian border, as today I'm scheduled to make my INTERNATIONAL DEBUT at 4 p.m. at the Revue Cinema in Toronto.
So I point the Subaru Forester northeast, and prepared to zig-zag my way through the Niagara Falls area and engage in a cross-border raid on Toronto, allowing 90 minutes for the chronically clogged international crossing.
My route takes me through industrial Buffalo and then over the Peace Bridge, which to my surprise is almost as deserted as the office park outside Cleveland.
After waiting for just one car ahead of me, I pull up to the Canadian customs kiosk, where a friendly officer seems ready to wave me through.
And he almost does, but then suddenly turns serious and asks in all capital letters, "DO YOU HAVE A HANDGUN IN THE CAR WITH YOU?"
I say no, and he says, "ARE YOU SURE?" with the last word in bold.
I again say no, which prompts him to revert to the person he was and say "Have a nice day, then."
And I am in Canada, where the highway is named for the Queen and the speed limits are much higher than in the states.
(Yes, I know about kilometers. Just practicing my dumb American act in case I get stopped. My wife would tell me I don't really need to practice.)
I cruise into Toronto about three hours early (amazing!), the car radio tuned to all-news 680 AM. Yes, AM radio. Hey, I'm a silent film guy, so I tend to be behind the curve in a lot of things.
The forecaster on duty is soft-spoken Harold Hosein, the most Canadian meteorologist I ever expect to hear. He sounds like a guy who would spend time in a cabin in Labrador checking the temperature every hour and writing it down, which is exactly what I want in a Canadian meteorologist.
I find the Revue Cinema in the midst of a tightly packed neighborhood that wouldn't need to change much to be the setting for a movie in the 1940s. Streetcars already in place and ready for their cue.
A classic moviehouse that first opened in 1911, the Revue has been recently rescued and rehabbed and revitalized by a dedicated crew of cinephiles. They run it as a non-profit and program a little bit of everything.
In addition to contemporary flicks, the current brochure also outlines programs such as the "Drunk Feminist" film series, which I'd like to attend one of these days.
And they're also crazy enough to run silent films with live music, a series curated by local experts/fanatics Alicia Fletcher and Craig Caron.
Alicia happened to be in Boston earlier this year when I accompanied Abel Gance's 'J'Accuse' (1919) at the Harvard Film Archive. We didn't meet then, but it led to her interest in having me stop by Toronto sometime if accompaniment was called for.
Today's program is Fritz Lang's 'Woman in the Moon' (1929), and this is why I'm now cruising for a parking space on a side street and hoping I can use their bathroom even though I'm three hours early.
At the Revue, I meet Eric Veillette, who describes himself as a "recovering journalist" and who manages the place.
About which: with more than a century of movie-going to its credit, the Revue has character. It's all you'd ever want in a movie theater, I think: just imagine the opposite of everything you'd find at a chain-owned multiplex, and you'll probably come up with something close to the Revue.
I don't know what it says about me, but I can somehow sense when a theater has been well-loved. Somehow, there's something about decades of movie screenings that accumulates over time. (And I'm not talking about the sticky floors.) There's a kind of magic that slowly takes hold, and eventually becomes palpable.
I felt that in the lobby of the Revue. Or maybe it was just that I had to use the bathroom. (Which, by the way, also had character.)
Being part of a dense cityscape, the Revue is not blessed with plenty o'free parking. To load in, I had to navigate up a narrow dead-end alley used by restaurants that do a lot of frying, judging from the grease barrels out back. Ah, the glamour of show biz!
But Eric and Alicia helped muscle my gear down the steep concrete slope into the theater, and set-up went quickly. It had to, as there wasn't too much time between films.
I began playing to warm up, and the next thing I knew, Alicia was on stage welcoming everyone. And boom, off we went!
The version of 'Woman in the Moon' was a 16mm print of the abridged version, which runs a little over two hours.
Basically, a great deal of the "conspiracy" plot is missing, and we get right to Lang's impressive launch sequence.
It all seemed to go well. But having played for the longer version many times now, I can see how viewers of the condensed version might not understand what Lang and his collaborator Thea von Harbou were trying to achieve.
Still, you could tell the audience was into it, and things really came together once the cast made their ton-of-bricks landing on the lunar surface, where the air is breathable and gold is there for the taking, of course.
Despite the lack of exposition, it seemed logical (and perhaps helpful) to use distinctive themes for each of the characters. And I was able to layer it all into a grand symphonic texture that held together pretty well in the big moments, I thought.
Great ending, big ovation, thank you very much. And the next thing I knew, we were out among the grease barrels loading out my equipment. And then, after a quick dinner at a place next to the theater, I was walking Alicia to her streetcar stop before hitting the road myself. Bye!
It was 8 p.m. in Toronto, and I was due back at work in New Hampshire first thing Monday morning. Who planned this, anyway? (I know the answer.)
So off I went, crossing back into the U.S. without any problem ("Sure, sure, you're a silent film musician.") and driving as far as Syracuse before stopping for some shuteye at a Super 8 motel one exit away from the long-time home of Cinefest, where I've been fortunate enough to play many times.
Weird to have come so far, and to still have so far to go, but to be so familiar with the area.
As I crashed, I thought about something I mentioned to Alicia after the movie.
In thanking her for the engagement, I wanted her to know that at this point in my life, I never expected to be making music in this way, and for it to be heard and enjoyed (I hope) by so many people.
I once felt that for me, the music train had left the station a long, long time ago.
But it hadn't. The train was there all the time. I had just wandered out of the station for awhile, that's all.
And now that I am making music in places like Covington, Cleveland, and Toronto, and so many other places, I can't help but be grateful for the support and encouragement of everyone who made it possible.
That includes the people who arranged these shows, and the people who read this blog, and all the audiences I've played for.
It's been a great year. And I'm really looking forward to more excellent adventures in 2016 and beyond.