Random scenes from doing live music for five silent film screenings in five days in four different states.
• Last Wednesday, I was mistaken for a Catholic priest. Because I often wear a black shirt for accompanying a film, I'm surprised this doesn't happen more often.
What was really surprising was that this happened in the men's room of the Rogers Center for the Performing Arts at Merrimack College, where I accompanied 'The Lost World' (1925).
"Father, I want to talk to you," said an elderly gentleman as we both went to wash hands.
Before I could explain I wasn't a man of the cloth (if anything, a man of the paper towel at the moment), he had confessed that he hadn't received his college diploma, but instead went on a trek to the North Pole.
"Sounds like you made a great decision," I said, thus making it his turn to be surprised.
Interesting and somewhat sad, too. But also the cause of this smart remark: "I'd have thought that if any composer was going to turn green, it would be Giuseppe Verdi."
• Another line that just came out of me at the Western New York Film Expo, held earlier this month: "It's fitting that we're running silent film in Buffalo, famous for its wings, because I'll be completely winging the score for this next movie."
• A turnout of 145 people made last Saturday night's screening of Chaplin's 'The Kid' the most-attended show in six seasons of silent film at the Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall and Community Center.
And it almost didn't happen because the old DVD-R disc on which I have Chaplin's original cut of the film would not cooperate with the town hall's fancy new Blu-Ray player.
After we fiddled with it for what seemed like ages, I resigned myself to going out to the car to get a substitute film. (I always carry spares in case this happens.)
So imagine my surprise (and relief) when I came back in the building and the opening title to 'The Kid' was up there filling the big screen.
"How did you do it?" I asked Dennis Marsden, who manages the town hall's events and its ongoing restoration.
"I just kept pressing buttons until finally I saw 'The Kid' up there on the screen."
• The Chaplin screening was one of those magical evenings where audience response is strong right out of the gate.
First up was the First National sort 'A Dog's Life' (1918), and people were laughing just at the sight of Chaplin, asleep next to a drafty fence.
The very first gag—Chaplin plugging a knothole to keep out the chill—produced a belly laugh. And it went on from there.
So with comedies, when everything's clicking, there are times when you hardly have to play at all.
That happened in the lunch counter scene, where Chaplin matches wits with half-brother Syd over stack of griddle cakes.
For this, I played only the slightest wisp of a melody in 3/4 time, and then went totally silent each time Syd turned to catch Charlie stealing food.
I've done this scene before, and it never seems to get the laughs it deserves.
So in Brandon, I went completely silent. And a funny thing happened to the reaction: after a moment of silence, with both Charlie and Syd holding their poses, the laughter came.
It just took that pause to give the audience a chance to react, and to help bring out the comedy.
Sometimes less really is more.
• I had the pleasure of returning to the Harvard Film Archive on Sunday, Sept. 18 to do music for two rarely screened Russian silent features: 'The Queen of Spades' (1917) and 'Father Sergis' (1918).
What a pleasure to do music in such a first-class venue. And by that, I mean just music: no projection worries, no publicity chores, no light cuing issues, and so on. For what I do, it's a needed glimpse of a better world. Heck, they even had a native Russian speaker on hand to project translated intertitles on screen!
I was unfamiliar with both films, and had only a chance to quickly preview 'Spades' just before the screening. But both dramas lent themselves to the material I chose to work with and my general style of accompaniment.
For 'Spades,' I used a strings-only texture, and was able to stitch together a compelling score (I thought) out of a pair of motives that transformed themselves and evolved as the story progressed.
Most effective, I thought, was a fantasy sequence in which an elderly woman dreams of herself as a young woman being courted by a dashingly handsome man, only to waken (and returned to old age) when a young man actually does arrive.
For that, I was able to use the simple motifs, but add in strange harmonies and use other techniques such as keeping the rhythm but changing the intervals of the melody. It built up to a nice climax.
With 'Father Sergius,' all I knew was that the Czar was in it, and also that the title character would be tempted by lust and at one point would cut off his finger. For contrast and to up the musical ante, I switch to a full orchestra texture, complete with timpani and cymbal crashes when needed.
For the Czar, I figured I could use the old Russian Imperial Anthem, well-known outside Russia mostly because of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Using a familiar tune is always a question in music for silent film, because you don't want to take an audience out of a film's spell and start having them play 'Name That Tune.'
But in this case, it worked as a way to project the power and authority of the Czar.
Because 'Father Sergius' is set among the Russian aristocracy, a silent film accompanist should expect some kind of gala ball. And sure enough, there it was, right at the start—and with on-screen references to certain specific dances, no less. Before I knew it, I was running through one fake mazurka after another!
And what about that finger slicing? (This has special significance to anyone at the keyboard.) Well, I had no idea how I would handle it, but it helped to know it was coming.
What I felt the music would need to do, ideally, is express three things at once: the on-screen female temptation, the rising feelings of uncontrollable lust in Father Sergius, and also the inevitability of the ongoing collision.
So it was a kind of musical "ménage à trois"—okay, not the best imagery for the on-screen temptation of a Russian Orthodox clergyman.
To my surprise, it all came together in a way that really worked, I felt.
For the on-screen temptation, I used Dominant 7th chords in the mid-range of the keyboard, holding them for a bit and then sliding one half-step either up or down, and then cut.
This would be followed by a simple but ominous "thud" from deep in the bass, representing the clergyman's lust.
For the left hand, the thumb played a steadily repeating single note, while the pinkie held down the same note an octave above to help hold it all together. Hey, presto: inevitability!
So I kept this going, gradually cycling through all 12 notes in the chromatic scale, and being very careful to resist my own temptation to increase the volume (or the tempo) too fast too soon.
And for variety and to make it fit in with the rest of the score, I actually worked in snatches of the other melodies with the right hand.
And it worked!
Something like this doesn't always come together. And you can't plan it in advance because that robs it of the magic and flexibility of spontaneity.
But when it does, there's nothing like it.
So thanks for to the Harvard Film Archive and Prof. Daria Khitrova of the Slavic Language Department for programming these unusual titles. A good time was had by all, except perhaps Father Sergius.
Looking ahead: it can't be football season without a screening of Harold Lloyd's classic gridiron comedy 'The Freshman' (1925).
Get your fix this Thursday, Sept. 22 when we screen the picture (courtesy the Harold Lloyd Trust) at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.
Kickoff time is 6:30 p.m. and tickets are $10 per person.
Worth putting this one on your list because there's nothing like a Harold Lloyd film screened as originally intended: in a theater, with live music, and (most importantly) with a large audience.
This means you! More info in the press release below. Hope to see you there as Harold tackles college life, romance, and...well, you know.
MONDAY, AUG. 22, 2016 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • firstname.lastname@example.org
Silent film classic 'The Freshman' on Thursday, Sept. 22 at Flying Monkey in Plymouth, N.H.
Celebrate football season with Harold Lloyd's comic masterpiece about college life, with live music
PLYMOUTH, N.H.—What happens when a first-year student's dreams of college collide with the realities of campus life?
The result is Harold Lloyd in 'The Freshman' (1925), one of the most popular comedies of the silent film era. Filled with classic scenes and a great story, 'The Freshman' endures as one of Lloyd's most crowd-pleasing movies.
See for yourself with a screening of 'The Freshman' (1925) on Thursday, Sept. 22 at 6:30 p.m.at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.
The program will be shown with live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist. General admission is $10 per person.
The program is the latest in the Flying Monkey's popular silent film series, which offers audiences a chance to experience silent film as it was intended: on the big screen, with live music, and in a theater with an audience.
"Put the whole experience back together, and you can see why people first fell in love with the movies," Rapsis said.
'The Freshman,' the most successful film of Lloyd's career, was an enormous box office smash. Its release sparked a craze for college films that lasted well beyond the 1920s, and even a popular hit song, the collegiate fox trot "Freshie."
The story follows Lloyd, small town newbie, to Tate College, where he hopes to achieve fame as Big Man on Campus. Instead, his quest to win popularity becomes a humiliating college-wide joke, with Harold getting tricked by upperclassmen into hosting the school's annual "Fall Frolic" at his own expense.
Realizing he's an outcast, Lloyd decides he can make his mark on the college football team, where he holds the lowly position of waterboy and serves as tackling dummy. On the day of the Big Game, can the bespectacled "freshie" somehow save the day and bring gridiron glory to dear old Tate?
For football fans, the film's climactic game sequence was shot on the field at the actual Rose Bowl in 1924. The crowd scenes were shot at halftime at California Memorial Stadium during the November 1924 "Big Game" between UC Berkeley and Stanford University. Other exterior scenes were filmed near the USC campus in Los Angeles.
Beyond its comic appeal, 'The Freshman' today has acquired an additional layer of interest in its depiction of college life in the 1920s—a time of raccoon coats, ukeleles, and many other long-gone fads and fashions.
"It was long before television, the Internet, cellphones, or Facebook," said Rapsis. "To us today, it looks like college on another planet, which I think adds to the appeal of a film like 'The Freshman.' But at its core, 'The Freshman' is still a great story about people, and that's why it remains such an entertaining experience today, especially when shown as Lloyd intended it."
In 1990, 'The Freshman' was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," named in only the second year of voting and one of the first 50 films to receive such an honor.
Lloyd, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, is recognized as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Lloyd's character, a young go-getter ready to struggle to win the day, proved hugely popular in the 1920s. While Chaplin and Keaton were always critical favorites, Lloyd's films reigned as the top-grossing comedies throughout the period.
However, Lloyd's public image faded after his retirement in the 1930s, when he turned his energies to charitable causes such as the Shriners. He retained control over his films, refusing to release them for television and only rarely allowing them to be screened at revivals, fearing modern audiences wouldn't know how to respond to his work or to silent films in general. He died in 1971.
In recent years, Lloyd's family has taken steps to restore Harold's reputation and public image. They've released his work on DVD, and arranged for more frequent screenings of his films in the environment for which they were made: in theaters with live music and a large audience.
Despite the passage of time, audiences continue to respond just as strongly as when the films were new, with features such as 'The Freshman' embraced as timeless achievements from the golden era of silent film comedy.
Critics review 'The Freshman':
"Regarded as the quintessential Harold Lloyd vehicle.”
"Gag for gag, Lloyd was the funniest screen comic of his time. Passionately recommended. "
—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader
Upcoming programs in the Flying Monkey's silent film series include:
• Thursday, Oct. 13, 6:30 p.m.: 'Woman in the Moon' (1929). The final silent film of director Fritz Lang ('Metropolis') is an amazing sci-fi epic about mankind's first-ever lunar voyage, complete with espionage, romance, stowaways, and spectacular visual design.
• Thursday, Nov. 10, 6:30 p.m.: 'Her Sister From Paris' (1925). The scene: Europe. The cast: Rich people. Get swept off your feet by not one but two privileged ladies, both played by amazing actress Constance Talmadge, who was Buster Keaton's sister-in-law.
• Thursday, Dec. 8, 6:30 p.m.: 'The Kiss' (1929) starring Greta Garbo. Take a break from holiday shopping with this steamy romance and courtroom thriller. Will Garbo resort to murder, risking everything for love? Garbo's last silent role and the final silent film released by MGM.
Head back to school with Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman' (1925), to be shown on Thursday, Sept. 22 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. General admission $10 per person. For more info, visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com or call (603) 536-2551.