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."

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