Monday, May 31, 2010

Here Comes 'The Big Parade' (1925)

Tomorrow brings a screening of King Vidor's big World War I epic 'The Big Parade' (1925). We're screening it on Tuesday, June 1 at 5:30 p.m. at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library's handsome Carpenter Auditorium. Though it's in honor of Memorial Day, the weird time/date is because I was planning to be out of town for the actual weekend (which didn't happen) and the library is open only until 8:30 p.m., so we have to start a bit early to get the whole two-and-a-half-hour film in.

I have high hopes for this screening, as the film seems to lend itself to music and we got strong reactions from people when we screened it at the Palace Theatre in 2008. I first saw the picture a few years back at the Kansas Silent Film Festival, and could not believe the scale of this tale: as the film unreeled, it just kept growing and growing in scope.

I think it was a genius move on Vidor's part to set up the story almost in two parts: the first half lets us get to know the guys as real people, and has a surprising amount of humor in it. But this makes it all the more nerve-wracking when, a little more than half-way through the film, they're called up to the front, and the big action begins. The little trap that Vidor set can't help but still snare an audience even today, I think, and it must have really mesmerized people when cinema was new. I keep referring to 'The Big Parade' as the 'Saving Private Ryan' of its time, and it really stands apart as the first film to really take audiences into the realities of battle, trench-warfare style.

So 'The Big Parade' is just as intense as before, and maybe more so. Maybe it's just a sign of how times have changed, but seeing Karl Dane's character constantly chew tobacco and spit the juice out everywhere is now equally blood-curdling.

As for music, I have some good stuff, I think, including a nicely flowing romantic melody with a lot of little pieces to it that will help glue everything together. I'm using a few classic army tunes as well ('You're in the Army Now' appears in the film, so that's that) and a few things I made up. And I better not get La Marseillaise wrong, as Manchester is still very much a French town, at least in terms of heritage.

A word or two about the screening: it's to benefit a fund to help repair vandalism to the city's recently dedicated World War II Memorial. I know, 'The Big Parade' is about World War I, but there aren't many silent films about World War II, so what are you going to do?

I wish all a peaceful and reflective Memorial Day, and hope to see you at tomorrow's screening!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Report on 'The Last Command' (1928)

We had about a half-filled house for 'The Last Command' (1928) on Sunday, May 23, not bad considering it was a fine summer-like afternoon with plenty of reasons for people to stay outside a darkened theater. Typically, attendance for our monthly screenings at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre seems to peak in the winter months and then lags during summer, no matter what films we show. It's not for lack of promotion, though: theater manager Dennis Markaverich goes out of his way to put our film titles on several message boards around town (see photos), and even on the entrance to the theater, which is a nice touch. We got some good press in the local papers, and had an ad in HippoPress with this memorable headline: SEE EMIL JANNINGS GO BERSERK!

We opened with 'That's My Wife' (1929), a Laurel & Hardy two-reeler that I've always had a fondness for but which doesn't seem to ever generate big laughs the way you'd expect it to. Could be the music I do just doesn't make it work, but I've tried different things and nothing seems to ever make it happen. I even wrote out a score for this film (chamber group) for a festival a few years ago, so I've thought about it. Maybe that's the problem. :) Anyway, I figured it would be a reasonable lead-in for the heaviness of 'Command,' given that it's not antic hyperkinetic slapstick.

'Command' is an incredibly rich film that really does reveal more layers in multiple viewings. (Or maybe I'm just too dense to get everything in one go.) For instance, at first I didn't pick up on the way cigarette smoke is used as an expressive and even ironic element as the story progresses. But then, if you watch for it, smoke is used throughout the picture as a way to communicate many things. Watch for this and you'll see it all over the place. (There's no way the Lung Association will ever sponsor a screening of this picture.)

I was moderately happy with the music. Some things worked, some didn't. For material, I made use of the Czarist Russia national anthem (the one Tchaikovsky quotes in the 1812 Overture) and came up with a few themes of my own, including a minor key "passionate intensity" melody that came in handy and a reworked version of the "eating music" from a recent screening of 'Greed' that fit a lot of places, such as the wonderful shots of studio extras being assigned costumes in assembly line style near the film's beginning.

The challenge in doing this kind of accompaniment is to not just play the tunes in complete form, but to break them into little pieces or cells and then weave the notes into a sonic tapestry that flows and complements the dramatic action. "Sonic tapestry" is a pretty fancy term, but what I mean is to use the elements dramatically, such as with different harmonies or as a bass line or varying the rhythm or repeating elements, and so on. Sometimes you get stretches of the melody, yes, but sometimes just a little bit before it lands on an odd note (sometimes intentional, sometimes not!) and then goes somewhere else.

For this to work best, usually the complete tunes get heard in full form only two or maybe three times, at key moments, which I think generally adds drama to the experience. (It also prevents everyone from getting sick of the same two or three melodies.) It's kind of what composer Charles Ives would do in some of his scores: in the beginning, you'd hear snatches of hymns or old patriotic tunes here and there as the music builds, and then finally the whole melody would emerge at the end as a kind of catharsis.

Sometimes this works, sometimes not so much. One scene, the sequence where Emil Jannings and Evelyn Brent get serious, with potentially fatal consequences, really came together amazingly well, with elements of my "passionate intensity" melody building and building in layers to create a sense of tension that really helped the scene come alive, I think. For the big revolutionary crowd scenes, I started to build a bit too soon, and so peaked early and had nowhere to go musically while plenty of big moments were soon to come. I'll need to work on this because I've been asked to do music for a screening of this picture at the next Kansas Silent Film Festival in February 2011, so at least there's time to prepare. It's a great film and a great opportunity for scoring.

In an "only at a silent film screening" moment, afterwards a gentleman approached me who said he enjoyed the screening, but he took issue with my opening remarks: the proper pronunciation of the director's name was "von SCHTERNberg," and not my pathetically anglicized "von STERNberg." He knew this because he had studied German in school, after all, and so it was important to say something so I would stop mispronouncing the poor director's name all over the place. As a veteran of Nashua High School's German language program, all I can say is "Ich heiße Lisa. Ich wohne am Schillerstraße neun und fünfzig."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Two days, two 'town hall' screenings!

Back-to-back screenings coming up this Sunday/Monday, both at New Hampshire town halls that now serve as movie theaters!

On Sunday, May 23 at 4:30 p.m., we're screening the great dramatic feature 'The Last Command' (1928) as the next attraction in our monthly silent film series at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. I wasn't familiar with this picture before now but I'm very impressed and have high hopes for how it will come across on the big screen and with a live audience. For a comedy short beforehand, Dave Stevenson and I have been going back-and-forth but I'm inclined to show one of the Laurel & Hardy silents, which I think would go well with this, as opposed to some of the more hyperactive comedies. We'll see.

I also have high hopes for a screening on Monday, May 24 at Antrim (N.H.) Town Hall for about 100 students from the Conval Regional School District. This opportunity was arranged by a very nice woman who attends the Wilton screenings and also works in the district; she thought the kids would enjoy a chance to experience silent film the way it was intended, so here we go! I've got three comedies lined up: 'One Week' (1920) starring Buster Keaton (to show visual comedy done methodically); 'A Mooney Mariner' (1927) starring Billy Dooley (to show inventive fast-paced slapstick); and finally 'Lizzies of the Field' (1924) starring Billy Bevan and others, to show mayhem and destruction. I'll post some comments on how it goes!

Monday, May 17, 2010

'When Lincoln Paid' coming to Concord, N.H.

Quick update: 'When Lincoln Paid' (1913), the recently restored film that was found in a New Hampshire barn, will be screened on Wednesday, June 2 at 6:30 p.m. at the fantastic Red River Theatre complex in Concord, N.H. I'll be doing live music in one of their two 'main' theaters for the first time (all our previous shows have been in the smaller screening room), so it'll be necessary to go up and check out how the Korg synthesizer will fit into their sound system. You can visit their Web site to get tickets. For a very thorough write-up about the film and its restoration, I recommend an article by Jon C. Hopwood, who has been attending some of the screenings we organize and did a great job in pulling together a lot of information about 'When Lincoln Paid' and its significance.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Report from 'Greed' at Palace Theatre

Our final film of the 2009-10 season at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H. was the 140-minute version of 'Greed' (1924), and it seemed only appropriate that a film legendary for difficulties would produce unexpected technical headaches for us. The Palace, in the midst of a multi-week run of 'The Full Monty' stage musical, had its house projector set up in place, so we had to use it instead of our own. We've done this before, no problem—except this evening, the Palace DVD player produced an image off our discs that did not render in the correct aspect ratio. The only solution to this was to have my wife drive into Manchester with an alternate DVD player that, thankfully, sent the correct image to the projector, so we started only about 20 minutes late.

As it was the last film of the season, we marked the occasion by taking a photo of me with the group of volunteer ushers, who turn out in large numbers at every Palace screening. Two even dress up in thick red coats to welcome patrons by opening the lobby's big front doors, which is a nice touch. These folks donate their time to make sure everything runs smoothly, and also encourage audience members to fill out comment cards after the lights come up. The ushers are a wonderful part of our support network here and it wouldn't be the same without them!

Dave Stevenson and I were surprised at the turnout, which seemed pretty good for a Monday night screening of a tough drama. About 75 people were on hand for the film, and they were very patient waiting for us to solve the projection issue. The film seemed to hold their attention, with steady reaction happening throughout.

For the music, I used a 'small ensemble' string setting for the entire movie, bumping up the level gradually until the desert climax is reached. I think this helped it all hold together, and was in keeping with director Von Stroheim's vision of the film and life in general, which seems big on restrictions and limitations. But the strings have such a rich variety of tones, from grumbling low notes to piercing sounds in the upper register, that I never felt I was limited in expressive ability.

In taking this route, I kept thinking of what Bernard Herrmann did with the score to Hitchcock's 'Psycho.' Hitch, after many rich full-color extravaganzas in the 1950s, decided to shoot 'Psycho' in black and white, and so Herrmann chose to compose a "black and white" score—all strings and devoid of any distracting colors. I think this approach really helps tighten the intensity of the drama, though of course the actual music itself makes a big difference, too. Anyway, it seemed a logical approach to lend some shape and form to my efforts to 'Greed.'

(By the way, in 'Greed' the only exception to the "all strings" approach was when the sister is seen playing the organ at the wedding, a scene that's intercut with images of a funeral passing in the street below; I had fun mixing together the traditional wedding and funeral marches as we slid around from key to key.)

I came up with a nice suite of melodic material for this film, I thought: a somewhat stern Beethoven-like main theme for McTeague, a slow tune in 12/8 with shifting major and minor harmonies that helped bring out slowly creeping lunacy; a little chromatic signature that worked really well in the deep bass underneath sustained dissonances in the treble; and my favorite, a dirge-like "eating melody" for when the family pigs out at the wedding (which brought some of the rare laughter we got), and which returned in other depictions of excess; and a whole tone signature for the caged bird images that play a role throughout 'Greed.'

Overall, sometimes I'm in the zone and sometimes I'm not, but I have to say that at this evening's screening of 'Greed,' I came up with a number of moments that seemed to flow especially fluently. So it was a satisfying night for me, and it felt good when I landed on that big unison E (for Erich!) and held it until the final fadeout.

Friday, May 7, 2010

'The Last Command' (1928) on Sunday, May 23

I'm really looking forward to our screening of 'The Last Command' (1928), set for Sunday, May 23 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. Why? Because this film, as far as I can tell from watching it alone, is one of those great silent dramas with the potential to completely sweep an audience away. Plus, it has one of the great endings in silent film, I think, with Emil Jannings turning in an amazing performance. It's no surprise he won the first-ever "Best Actor" award for this role. With the still we had for the ad (below), I couldn't resist the headline: "SEE EMIL JANNINGS GO BERSERK IN..."

As for the music, the film offers a lot of opportunities for a score to heighten the experience. And because it's so heavily Russian flavored, it seems to naturally lend itself to certain touches. The print I've been looking at makes extensive use of Tchaikovsky's 'March Slav' played in a fairly straight-forward fashion, which works okay, but seems a little obvious. I think music can also help communicate the difference between the "contemporary" 1928 Hollywood scenes and the extensive "flashback" scenes from the Russian Revolution of 1917. (That's only 11 years in the past, which is analogous to a film of 2010 referring to something as recent as, say, the 9/11 terrorist attacks.)

A couple of moments call for specific music: near the end, a pianist is asked to play "The Russian National Anthem," and you can see from what's played on the keyboard that it must be the old "God Save the Czar" melody, still an iconic tune thanks in part, I think, to its inclusion in Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture. So I looked up the music, which I'd never encountered outside of Tchaikovsky's reference, and it's a sturdy thing that I think I can make a lot of use of, in fragments in some places, but then played straight in a few key moments, such as at the film's big ending.

So yes, this is one of those silents that I think can have a surprisingly powerful effect on an audience if everything comes together. I'll do my best with the music and report back after the screening, which takes place the weekend before Memorial Day weekend.