Sunday, June 27, 2010

Report from Keaton double feature June 27

A few quick notes on today's screening of 'Sherlock, Jr.' (1924) and 'Go West' (1925) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. Didn't seem to get too much outside publicity on this one but Buster pulled them in as usual; the theater appeared to be a little more than half full, pretty good for a summer Sunday afternoon. Great audience, very responsive to both films, staying with the parts of 'Go West' that are quieter rather than full of big laughs.

With music, I tried something different this time. 'Sherlock, Jr.' was done with a full orchestral texture and worked itself up into a frenetic climax. But with 'Go West,' I opened with a guitar patch, which actually sounds quite good on the Korg Triton LE synthesizer, I think. And I stayed with the guitar-only sound for about 3/4 of the film, only switching back to a full orchestral patch when the train with the cattle (and Buster) is pulling out.

I think it worked, as the guitar sound provided a much-needed "come down" from the full-on roller coaster of 'Sherlock, Jr.', and also it had enough variety to bring to life many kinds of textures: strumming, plucking, chords in rhythm, all from the keyboard, and all useful in supporting the film's action. Plus, it just naturally fit the film's ranch sequences and helped anchor the whole story right from the beginning, I think. (Much like the title does and also the statue of Horace Greeley -- who was from Amherst, N.H., by the way.)

I was very pleased with 'Sherlock, Jr.,' for which the music fell together quite effectively and the climactic chase worked out just great. I felt I had some problems of focus with 'Go West' but in the end it worked out. Lots of reaction to little touches, such as playing an excerpt from 'The Barber of Seville' during the sequence when Buster shaves the branding mark into Brown Eyes' coat. Thank you, Carl Stalling!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

'When Lincoln Paid' in Brandon, Vt. June 19

The recently rediscovered Francis Ford film 'When Lincoln Paid' (1913) made its way to to Brandon, Vermont this past weekend, screened as part of 'Marching Through Brandon,' an event honoring the town's Civil War heritage. Though no actual Civil War battles were fought in the Green Mountain State, Brandon itself was a center of abolitionist activity in the years leading up the conflict, and played a major role in the Underground Railroad. It's also the birthplace of noted 19th century politician Stephen A. Douglas, who later moved to Illinois and is remembered for debating Abraham Lincoln.

The film was screened on Saturday, June 19 in Brandon Town Hall (the Greek-temple-like building at right in the photo), which was recently outfitted with a nifty big screen and back-projection set up, which worked quite well once the aspect ratio for the film was rendered correctly. Larry Benaquist, a professor at Keene (N.H.) State College who organized the restoration, thought the image was too small, and I know what he meant, but it still seemed to work well.

Acoustics were a nice surprise. The town hall has a cavernous two-story interior with wooden floors, providing just enough reverb to make the output from the two speakers I use sound very robust. I love playing in this kind of an environment, as opposed to rooms with low suspended ceilings, fabric on the chairs, and carpeting, which all add up to death for sound.

For this screening, I switched to a "small ensemble" string setting for most of the quiet parts, and it was very effective, especially in contrast to the full-throated battle music. After warming up for a bit, several people in the hall came up and said it sounded too loud, so I adjusted a bit, though also explained that the battle scenes would still be on the noisy side.

We had a good crowd of non-silent-film folks on hand for what was expected to be a novelty, and reaction was tremendous. Nice folks all around, including one woman who raised a lot of interesting questions about the horsemanship on display in the film, which is something that both Larry and I do not have an eye for, but it's apparently very impressive. I even got interviewed by the editor of the local paper!

So even though it's a three-hour haul from my New Hampshire base, it's a great town and a great hall, and I'd love to do some full-scale silent film programs there. We'll see. The proper authorities have been alerted, anyway...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Keaton double feature on Sunday, June 27

A double dose of Buster Keaton kicks off a summer silent comedy series at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theater. For this screening, we've got two of Buster's best: 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'Go West' (1925), two features that we haven't screened before.

I think this will be a fun pairing because although both films are great Keatons, they're quite different. 'Sherlock Jr.' is a gag-filled fast-paced detective story (and short, too—less than 50 minutes), while 'Go West' flows at a more leisurely pace, I think, and is different in that it's Keaton's attempt to bring a bit of pathos to his stone-faced silent film character.

What would be really interesting would be to pair Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush' (1925) with 'Go West,' to show how Chaplin incorporated pathos seriously while Keaton (who was making 'Go West' when 'The Gold Rush' was in release and sweeping the nation) actually parodied it. But the Chaplin estate won't allow 'Gold Rush' to be screened for reasonable terms, so sorry.

Musically, the challenge will be to create two separate worlds for these films, which take place in very different places. The issue of "place" is interesting in 'Sherlock Jr.' because a large chunk of the film takes place as a movie within a movie, which provides a great opportunity for music to underscore this transformation, and also reinforce the return to reality afterwards. Both approaches can be interwoven for the finish, which is one of the great laugh-producing endings in all of silent film, I think.

'Go West' is an outdoorsy film, and so I'll do my best to bring that sense to the music. Besides the locale, though, the film follows a personal story line for Buster, and so the music that we start with (before he actually gets out west for the bulk of the film) should ideally have within it the seeds of his later transformation. Fine-sounding theories, so we'll see what happens in the theatre.

After accompanying films for awhile now, I have a stockpile of themes I can draw upon to make a movie come to life without having to create something new, if I don't have an opportunity. But both of these films really demand their own music, I think, so I'm working up some melodic material for each. Hope to see you in Wilton on Sunday, June 27 at 4:30 p.m.

Also, we'll be testing new speakers that my colleague Dave Stevenson picked up recently. My current speakers are beginning to sound a bit stressed, especially after last January's take-no-prisoners score to 'The Black Pirate' in Wilton. I'm working on getting new ones that allow the full range of the mighty Korg synthesizer to come across without distortion, and this is one step in that process.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

New silent film series in Plymouth, N.H.

I'm thrilled to announce that starting in August, we're running a monthly silent film series at the newly restored "Flying Monkey Theatre" in Plymouth, N.H. The series will be similar to what we're doing at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre: once a month (on the second Thursday night), we'll screen a program of great silent films as they were meant to be seen: one the big screen, in good prints, with live music, and with an audience!

The former "Plymouth Theatre" for many years was a first-run moviehouse in the college town that's home to Plymouth State University. After closing last year, the building was purchased at auction by Alex Ray, owner of the successful Common Man family of restaurants here in New Hampshire. Alex has an interest in rehabbing historic urban structures, most recently transforming an abandoned mill building into a showpiece Common Man restaurant and inn in Claremont, N.H. Now, with the Flying Monkey, he's turning his attention to creating a community gathering place capable of hosting all manner of music, events, and, of course, movies.

To that end, he's hired Lisa Lovett (that's Lisa and Alex in the photo, taken by local journalist Roger Amsden), who's been busy booking acts while Alex and his crew have been busy totally rehabbing the theater. Really! I stopped by about a month ago and the building's interior was in the process of being completely gutted. But the blueprints (available here) show an ambitious plan for a wonderful 400-seat theater that combines the building's historic past with modern amenities. If what he's done in the past is any indication, Alex will have the place in great shape by opening night, which is July 23. For more info, see the Flying Monkey portion of the Common Man's Web site.

(The 'Flying Monkey' name, by the way, came from Alex Ray's performance in that role in a local theater production of the 'The Wizard of Oz,' one in which Lovett played the Wicked Witch. Talented people we got here in New Hampshire!)

I was impressed with what I heard of this project, so I approached Lisa about including a monthly series of silent films as a gesture to the roots of the "Flying Monkey" as a moviehouse, and she welcomed the idea. So we're opening on Thursday, Aug. 12 at 7:30 p.m. with "Grandma's Boy" (1922), Harold Lloyd's classic coming-of-age tale and one that seems to never fail with an audience. After that, we'll continue with a few comedy programs as the new semester starts (including Keaton's 'College' (1927) in September) and then vary things with a few dramas and other kinds of films.

More about this series as it develops, but I look forward to working with Lisa on building an audience for this unique art form, especially in a college town. And thanks are due again to Alex Ray for his vision and willingness to take on tough projects that help bring back worthy buildings around our state and restore them with respect to their former glory, which sure beats having them become parking lots.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Report: 'When Lincoln Paid' on June 2

Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. was the site of the most recent screening of 'When Lincoln Paid' (1913), a formerly lost film recently discovered in a barn in Nelson, N.H. and restored under the guidance of Larry Benaquist, professor of film studies at Keene (N.H.) State College. In staging the premiere of this Francis-Ford directed drama last April, Larry allowed me a chance to supply live music; this follow-up screening in Concord was another great opportunity to help bring the film to life, and it went fairly well.

Our screening on Tuesday, June 2 was in the "Stonyfield" Theatre (named for a local yogurt manufacturer), and was my first time playing in one of Red River's two main theaters, which have first-class facilities, including steeply sloping rows of comfortable reclining seats. (Previously, we've shown silents in the smaller "screening room," which sits about 60 folks in hard-backed chairs on one level and offers only DVD projection.) I wasn't sure how my speakers would work in this environment, which has a lot of fabric on the walls that tends to suck in sound and deaden it, but most people said it seemed fine. One thing that makes a short film such as this a musical challenge is that there's little chance to really warm up. It usually takes me about 15 minutes to sink into the "trance" where I feel at one with the movie, and so a short film such as 'When Lincoln Paid' doesn't usually benefit from me getting in the zone, so to speak. But being aware of that reality is half the work of overcoming it, I think.

Though the film is only about a half-hour long, Larry's comments before, and a lively question-and-answer period afterwards, stretched the whole program out to about 90 minutes, I think. We filled slightly less than half the theater by my count, but the audience included several notables, including Van McLeod, the state's commissioner of cultural affairs, and Susan Leidy of the Currier Museum of Manchester, N.H. It wasn't the sell-out Red River was hoping for, perhaps, but enough to cover the expenses (at $10 a ticket) and for theater managers Connie Rosemont and Barry Steelman to mention that they'd like to explore showing more silent films, which would be great. Stay tuned on that one.

Larry and I next take our roadshow to Bradford, Vt. on Saturday, June 19 for a private screening of 'When Lincoln Paid' for a Civil War-themed weekend celebration. By the way, the pictures posted here from the June 2 screening were taken by Jemi Broussard, who helps out at Red River and is married to Rick Broussard, editor of New Hampshire Magazine and a former colleague of mine. Both are big supporters of showing silent films as they were intended, so thank you to them for all their efforts, which have included Jemi supplying authentic West Point tunes for a screening of the Bill Haines film 'West Point' (1927) in Wilton, N.H. last fall.

And this last photo was taken after the screening, when I was delighted to find former AP newsman Adolphe Bernotas in the audience. Adolphe, a fellow Lithuanian and music-lover, retired from the AP's Concord bureau a few years ago and reports he's enjoying the good life. Adolphe is a long-time opera buff known for wearing a full-fledged tuxedo to Opera New Hampshire performances at Manchester's Palace Theatre, and so we had a nice chat about the similarities of silent film and opera, which happen to be many, I think. They're both all about the big emotions such as lust, revenge, greed, and so on, and music plays an important role in telling the story.

Lots more to talk about on that subject... And to see more of Jemi's photos, check out the very active Red River Facebook page.

Report on 'The Big Parade' on June 1

We had a nice crowd on hand for this screening, which took place on Tuesday, June 1 at the Manchester Public Library's classy Carpenter Auditorium. The 5:30 p.m. start, plus it being the first work day after Memorial Day weekend, limited attendance, I think, but we had enough for the silent film experience to kick in. Though the film is about World War I, the screening was a fund-raiser to help repair the city's vandalized World War II monument. As my father and uncles all served in the "Big One," it's my way of honoring that sacrifice.

This is the kind of screening that I seem to do well on: a long film with a lot of varied drama and action. Once I get into "the zone," which usually takes 15 minutes or so, if everything else is right, then the music just flows out of me, and I'm hardly aware of time passing. In fact, I remember looking up at one point mid-way through the film, and seeing the auditorium clock in the dim shadows on the opposite wall reading 7:20 p.m., and being surprised that so much time had passed.

'The Big Parade' has a few big moments that came out well, I thought. The scene where John Gilbert attends a reading of patriotic speeches at Renee Adoré's home worked well by playing clumsy and deliberate renditions of "La Marseillaise" to accompany the long-winded speeches, and I was able to avoid making too much fuss about the fight that ensues in the wine cellar and then out in the street, as it's still all quite light-hearted compared to what's soon to come. (Same thing with the scene by the river that precedes it, with Gilbert and his buddies each taking their increasingly clumsy turns at flirting with Adoré.)

I was only half-pleased with big "troops being called up" scene in which the two lovers search for each other amid the chaos of the pull-out; something didn't click right from the start and it didn't build very well at all. But in the big scene that follows, the slow march through a forest filled with snipers, really fell together and built nicely, with a slowly churning chromatic bass stopping when the soldiers stopped, then starting up when the march resumed. The climactic battle scene, with Gilbert in the foxhole with his freshly dead companion, was a thrill to play for, in that director King Vidor really did cut it the way a good fireworks show is arranged, with a grand finale full of explosions prior to it all winding down. Got to use the "bass drum and cymbals" key quite a bit.

Lots of great discussions with the audience afterwards, ended only by the tyranny of the clock, as the library closed at 5:30 p.m. and we hadda be outta there. Alas, the grand total we raised for the WWII Memorial was the relatively paltry sum of $78, but that's better than nothing, and I want to thank Gene Mackie and Mike Lopez, both of whom work tirelessly for veterans in our area, for supporting this experiment.