Yes, movies aren't made without soundtracks anymore. And yes, about three-quarters of films from the silent era have completely disappeared.
But still, I'm amazed at how the field continues to produce surprises, even today.
Despite the limitations of being an obsolete medium missing a good part of its body of work, I keep discovering great stuff I've never heard of or knew about.
A great example of this is 'Woman in the Moon' (1929), which I'll be accompanying tomorrow night (Thursday, March 13) at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. (Details in the press release below.)
Like almost everyone else, I was a long-time fan of 'Metropolis' (1927), director Fritz Lang's futuristic class warfare epic. It's one of the most well-known silent films, and rightly so.
Imagine my surprise, then, to find out that Lang had afterwards produced an equally ambitious film, 'Woman in the Moon' (1929)—a movie that most people have never heard of.
That included me, until about five years ago, when I finally got around to paying attention to it.
The first time viewing it, I was thrilled! To me, it was like discovering a whole new 'Metropolis.'
Even better—here was a story about adventures in outer space told through silent film at the peak of its expressive power and technical development.
In short, it blew my mind! A 80-year-old space adventure that took silent film story-telling all the way to the surface of the moon—wow!
I was also excited because my style of scoring, I think, is a good fit for Lang's way of directing a picture in the silent era. We're both suckers for the big gesture.
So I developed some material for 'Woman in the Moon,' and now it's now one of my favorite films to present and accompany.
One of the highlights of this adventure so far, I think, was doing music for 'Woman in the Moon' at the Harvard Film Archive a few years back. They screened a beautiful 35mm print as part of a Fritz Lang retrospective, and it really all came together that night.
For me, 'Woman in the Moon' continues to stand as an important symbol of the vast unknown riches that silent film can offer.
So for all those reasons, I hope you'll join me tomorrow night at the Flying Monkey for Lang's final, and unjustly overlooked, silent epic: 'Woman in the Moon.'
TUESDAY, OCT. 4, 2016 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • email@example.com
Silent sci-fi adventure film on Thursday, 10/13
at Flying Monkey in Plymouth, N.H.
'Woman in the Moon,' Fritz Lang's pioneer space drama about mankind's first lunar voyage, to be screened with live musical accompaniment
PLYMOUTH, N.H.—A sci-fi adventure hailed as the first feature film to depict realistic space travel will be screened this month at the Flying Monkey.
'Woman in the Moon' (1929), directed by German filmmaker Fritz Lang ('Metropolis,' 1927), will be screened with live music on Thursday, Oct. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.
The screening is open to the public. Admission is $10 per person.
The rarely seen full-length version of 'Woman in the Moon' follows an intrepid band of space pioneers as they attempt mankind's first voyage to the lunar surface, where they hope to find large deposits of gold.
The film, made with German rocket experts as technical advisers, anticipated many of the techniques used by NASA for the Apollo moon launch program 40 years later. For example, a multi-stage rocket is employed to escape Earth's gravity, and a separate capsule is used to reach the lunar surface.
The film is also noted for introducing the idea of a dramatic "countdown" prior to launch, which later became standard procedure in actual space flight. Critics regard the film's extended launch sequence as a masterpiece of editing and dramatic tension.
But 'Woman in the Moon,' with its melodramatic plot, also stands as the forerunner of many sci-fi soap opera elements that quickly became clichés: the brilliant but misunderstood professor; a love triangle involving a female scientist and her two male crewmates; a plucky young boy who yearns to join the expedition; fistfights and gunfire and treachery on the lunar surface.
Added to the mix is a vision of the moon (created entirely on a massive studio set in Berlin, Germany) that features a breathable atmosphere, giant sand dunes, distant mountain peaks, and bubbling mud pits.
"This is a great and at-times bizarre film, one that must be seen to be believed," said Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who will create live music for the Flying Monkey's monthly silent film screenings.
"It's as entertaining as any spy-thriller," Rapsis said. "And as a past vision of a future that didn't quite come to be, it really gets you thinking of time and how we perceive it."
Rapsis, a resident of Bedford, N.H., will improvise live musical accompaniment during the screening, using a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound of a full orchestra and other more exotic textures.
'Woman in the Moon,' a full-length feature than runs more than 2½ hours, should not be confused with the much earlier film 'A Trip to Moon,' a primitive "trick" short movie made by French filmmaker George Méliès in 1902 and famous for the image of a space capsule hitting the eye of an imaginary moon man.
"Unlike the Méliès film, there's nothing primitive about 'Woman in the Moon,' " Rapsis said. "It's silent film story-telling at the peak of its eloquence, with lively performances, imaginative camera angles, and superb photography."
Director Fritz Lang, responsible for the groundbreaking sci-fi epic 'Metropolis' (1927), planned 'Woman in the Moon' as another step in his quest to stretch cinema's visual, story-telling, and imaginative capabilities.
Bad timing is one reason that 'Woman in the Moon' (titled 'Frau im Mond' in German) is not as well known today as 'Metropolis,' its legendary predecessor. Lang completed 'Woman in the Moon' just as the silent film era was coming to a close.
As one of the last silent films of German cinema, 'Woman in the Moon' was unable to compete with new talking pictures then in theaters, making it a box office flop at its premiere in October, 1929.
However, German rocket scientist Hermann Oberth worked as an adviser on the movie, and it developed cult status among the rocket scientists in Wernher von Braun's circle starting in the 1930s. During World War II, the first successfully launched V-2 rocket at the German rocket facility in Peenemünde had the "Woman in the Moon" logo painted on its base.
During the war, the Nazis tried to recall and destroy all prints of 'Woman in the Moon' due to its detailed depiction of state-of-the-art rocket propulsion technology; in later years, this served to make the film even more hard to find. For many years, the film was available only in cut-down 16mm versions that ran as short as one hour.
But pristine and complete 35mm copies of 'Woman in the Moon' did survive in several European archives. Today, restored prints are amazingly clear and sharp, Rapsis said.
" 'Woman in the Moon' is technically one of the best-looking silent films I've ever seen," he said. "If you think all silent films are grainy and scratchy-looking, 'Woman in the Moon' will change your mind. It's like an Ansel Adams photograph come to life."
"Although 'Woman in the Moon' is available for home viewing, this is a motion picture that should be experienced as intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience," Rapsis said. "There's nothing like it."
‘Woman in the Moon’ will be shown with live music on Thursday, Oct. 13 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.