Monday, February 28, 2011

Kansas Silent Film Festival, 2011

I've just returned from what's turned into an annual pilgrimage to Topeka, Kansas for the latest edition of the Kansas Silent Film Festival. I've been attending this every year since 2000, making 12 years in a row, and I keep returning because it's simply one of the most pleasant and satisfying silent film experiences I know of.

For this year's festival, which ran from Friday, Feb. 25 to Sunday, Feb. 27, I got to play for three films, plus a set of intermission slides and also the opening titles on Friday night. One of the films I played was a Felix the Cat cartoon, and out of that came the weekend's most noteworthy trivia: that the familiar 'Felix the Cat' theme is a melody taken from a woodwind quintet composed in the 1810s by Czech-born composer Anton Reicha, a contemporary of Beethoven? A nice older gentleman who once played French horn took me aside during a break to tell me this.

And with that, we close the book on what's been a very busy month. No screenings until Sunday, March 27, when we'll show 'Mark of Zorro' (1921) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. Hope to see you then!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A few notes on 'It' and off to Kansas...

Yesterday (Tuesday, Feb. 22) I accompanied a screening of 'It' (1927) for a class at the University of New Hampshire/Manchester led by Jeff Klenotic, a film studies professor. I hadn't played this film before, and somehow had never even seen it in all these years, so it was a good opportunity to check out one of the silent era's iconic titles. That fact that it was full of Clara Bow didn't hurt, either.

To my surprise, I found the film...well, rather insubstantial. It was a light romantic comedy, and there's nothing wrong with that, but for some reason I had been expecting something a bit more cataclysmic, or at least scandalous, along the lines of the film version of 'Chicago' released at about the same time. I mean, after, what kind of assumptions would you make about film whose title is one big fat euphemism?

Instead, we get Clara Bow stringing along her wealthy boss, with not much really at stake for either of them as they play cat and mouse from the dining room of the Ritz to the boss man's luxury yacht. Not a bad film, I guess, but not a very visual one, I think. It could have just as easily been a stage play.

The one compelling element of the fatherless baby is treated as a mere plot complication of the mistaken-appearance variety, which causes the moments of drama that we DO witness seem out of place, and it also fails to raise the stakes of the budding romance. (Will the kid get a better life somehow if they tie the knot?)

However, 'It' does have a certain polish and some nice touches to recommend it, including a clever surprise visual that comes up unexpectedly right at the very end. It must have sent audiences out of the theater smiling, just as I found myself doing as I went for the final cadences.

For the music, I got to play a very tough Yamaha grand piano that I know quite well by virtue of my MBA classes in earlier years at that school. By tough, I mean it has a heavy action and it's really, really tiring to play. After about 30 minutes, I found I had absolutely no spring left in my fingers, and it was rough going for a while.

Still, it was good preparation for the next adventure: a trip out to Topeka, Kansas for the Kansas Silent Film Festival. I'm doing some music there, and it's also on a grand piano, but this one a much easier beast to play. I've found that accompanying a film on a piano of any sort is a completely different experience from the digital synthesizer (especially with regard to sustained notes), so it seemed wise to get back to an acoustic keyboard prior to heading out to Kansas. We'll see.

For the music, I made heavy use of a little ragtime melody I came up with the night before. It seemed to fit as a good all purpose tune. Other than that, it was extensive recycling of pre-existing material, including a few snatches of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" during the yacht scenes and a large amount of what I intend to play as the "Overture" on Friday night in Kansas.

'It' is a fun film for music, though, because it really is rooted in the spirit of the 1920s in a way that's still recognizable even today, all this time later. Somehow it comes through, and so a good score might have a good chance at enhancing it. Or 'It.'

Good reaction from UNH students and some of the general public who turned out to take in 'It.' Nice to hear some of them say they expected it to be about exciting as watching paint dry, but in the end found it absorbing on several levels.

Monday, February 21, 2011

One day, two very different screenings

Time travel may not be possible just yet, but yesterday (Sunday, Feb. 20) I did the nearest thing to it. At 2 p.m., I played a score for the 1916 version of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' before about 500 people as part of the 36th annual Boston Science Fiction Film Marathon. And then, at 6:30 p.m., I played music for Harold Lloyd's 1926 feature 'For Heaven's Sake' in a church hall in Manchester, N.H. after a service and pot luck supper.

Well, it wasn't time travel, but surely some kind of massive environmental swing. How else can you characterize going from a theater filled with good-natured but rowdy sci-fi junkies (many armed with ray guns) in Somerville, Mass. to a quiet and respectful church group on a side street in New Hampshire? And from a futuristic film based on the visions of Jules Verne to a sweet romantic story about a rich man and a preacher's daughter?

Though both films are from another era, they each presented very different challenges for scoring, especially when performed within hours. For '20,000 Leagues,' given the setting (a 24-hour science fiction marathon that is still going on as I write this), I felt free to push the digital synthesizer into fairly exotic territory for me. Virtually the entire score was made up of patches taken from the "world music" category, with rumbling pitched gongs and melodic lines played by calliope-like flute settings that seemed to bridge the gap between then and now.

Though I'm never quite satisfied with what I do, I was actually quite pleased with the music for the long underwater sequences: as on the Thursday before, it took the form of an extended tribute to Philip Glass. The synth setting was a preprogrammed one called "Trip to Bali" something-or-other; when the percussion rhythm was turned off, it created a wonderfully rich "crystalline" sound in the higher registers which to me seemed just perfect for the underwater scenes as I cycled through different keys to keep a sense of forward motion going.

The nicest thing about the whole experience was how the audience was with the film the entire way. Yes, it was treated as camp, but at the same time there was a level of celebration of the film's pioneering achievements mixed in with it. But as good as the film print was (though, alas, it was missing the octopus or squid scene!), and as good as the theater was, and as much as I may have been in the zone, it was the audience that made it.

Which kinda makes sense, when you think of it. It was 500 science fiction fans in a theater for a 24-hour cinematic adventure, and '20,000' was the second film on the program, so they were all pretty stoked. I mean, where else would Jules Verne get a raucous impromptu cheer in a film's opening titles?

Anyway, I really didn't know what to expect going into this, but it made for one of the best silent film music experiences I've had yet in this adventure. I have to thank Jemi Broussard and Garen Daly for giving me the chance to do this on short notice, and for the chance to meet folks such as Dave the projectionist and Ian Judge, the theater's manager, who it turns out is a protogee of Larry Benaquist at Keene State College. Small world!

Ian and I chatted a bit about doing more silent film there, and I hope it's possible. They have the Alloy Orchestra doing 'Metropolis' on March 5, and I hope to make it down for that, but for me it would probably be something on a smaller scale in one of their screening rooms. We'll see.

And then, once '20,000 Leagues' was over, we had just enough time to hurriedly load all the gear into the car and high-tail it out of Boston and up to Manchester. There, the screening of 'For Heaven's Sake' commenced at 6:30 p.m. at Grace Episcopal Church, following a pot luck supper held by the outreach committee. It was another good experience, but so different in character from what transpired in Boston just a short time before that it was actually difficult to adjust.

'For Heaven's Sake' was the last major Lloyd I had left to do in live performance. (Oh wait, I still haven't done 'Hot Water.') It has a reputation as one of his thinner efforts, and I can see why, but I was still eager to see what kind of crowd reaction it got. The verdict: big laughs in the 'cake-eating' scene, and for some of the titles, which seem a little verbose for my tastes. Not so much for Harold's efforts at rounding up hoodlums to attend church, but things perked up again when the guy pulled the pearls out of his mouth while Harold was taking up the collection.

I'm afraid I started ramping up too early on the final "race to the wedding" sequence and may have killed some of the impact, but this is a tough one because Harold has already called Jobyna on the phone and she's totally aware he's coming, so there's nothing like the suspense of the "race to the finish" climaxes in 'Girl Shy' (where she's about to marry the wrong man) or 'Speedy' (where Pops is about to lose the streetcar franchise). But at the same time, 'Safety Last' manages to create intense suspense during Harold's climb despite the audience having no doubt about Mildred's affection for him. (Maybe the fact that he was pretending to be a store executive could have created the energy, though.)

If I was brought on as a story consultant on 'For Heaven's Sake,' I'd have told Harold that what would have made the climax of the film more effective was for him to somehow be in danger of losing his fortune. This would not only have created suspense, but would have also put him in the position of making choices of character in which he is shown committing to love over money. And of course he winds up getting his fortune back in some way, which is icing on the cake. But I wasn't around in 1926, so it's a little late to be offering this advice.

Anyway, my thanks to Sharon Ruatto of Grace Episcopal Church, who won me in an auction held awhile back by the Manchester Community Music School, where I'm on the board of directors. And thanks to Suzanne Lloyd out in California for permission to show this film to an audience of newly minted Harold Lloyd fans.

Friday, February 18, 2011

On scoring '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea'

Coupla quick notes on scoring the 1916 version of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.' I made my Boston debut last night, doing music for a screening of this film, part of this year's Boston Science Fiction film festival.

It was quite a film in its day, with underwater sequences that must have amazed original audiences. Festival organizer Garen Daly described it as "the 'Avatar' of its time," and that truly seems to have been the case.

Today's audiences have seen it all, however, so these days this version of '20,000 leagues' might come across as a little less than impressive. So music becomes that much more important, I think, in creating a spell and putting the film over.

In scoring silent films, I usually stick with a conservative orchestral texture. But because this was science fiction, and because of the nature of the festival, I felt free to call on some of the more exotic outputs of my digital synthesizer.

It was a nice change of pace, actually. And especially effective, I think, was the music I did for several long sequences of underwater viewing, which on their own are pretty tame going.

For these, I created a kind of Philip_Glass style accompaniment of slowly transforming arpeggios that gradually climb through a pattern of keys. The arpeggios sound waterlike-enough, and the key progression lends just enough forward motion to lend a sense of getting somewhere to the fairly static scenes.

The trick to making it sound dense enough is to lay on a top note in the right hand, usually played by the pinkie just holding down a note, and then in the left hand do four-note arpeggios against three-note ones in the remaining fingers of the right.

With cycles of three against cycles of two whirling against each others, and with the sustained top note to hold it all together, it adds up to one of these textures that can bring a mild state of hypnosis.

I was worried it might seem boring but afterwards no one in the audience had any specific complaints about it. So I'll keep it in for the BIG screening this Sunday. Last night's, held in a smaller screening room, attracted about 20 film buffs and the curious. But Sunday's showing is part of the festival's annual 24-hour science fiction marathon, which more than 500 people are expected to attend.

It's in the main theater, so we'll see if my speakers are up to the challenge. In any case, I can't say enough for the Somerville Theatre, and especially its head projectionist, a guy named David. He took me on a tour and I'm amazed at the capabilities of this theater.

David, who calls himself a "dinosaur," was called out of retirement by the management, but under one condition: that they build him his "dream projection booth." They've followed through, and the result is the cleanest, best-stocked most well-organized projection facility I've ever seen anywhere.

For instance: in shelves a wall, David has lenses for every 35mm format ever used, and he's closing in on 70mm as well.

It made me think of the newspaper business. We can print the best-looking paper in the world, but if no one does the unglamorous job of delivering it, it doesn't matter. Likewise, Hollywood can make a great film, but if it does not get projected properly, it's all for naught.

And there's so much to the art of projection: Aspect ratios, film stock, lighting, focus, reel changeover, sound issues, and so on. David is a long-time master at all of this, and there are fewer and fewer like him. It's a trend that I fear will only accelerate with Hollywood's ongoing switchover to digital formats—hence David's description of himself as "a dinosaur."

Let's hope he has a long tenure at the Somerville Theatre.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Scaring the audience with '7th Heaven'

Good turnout for this afternoon's screening of '7th Heaven' at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. Prior to the feature, we showed two Snub Pollard one-reelers to warm up the crowd (and the musician), and also to give movie-goers a glimpse of Marie Mosquini, who is Snub's companion in the shorts and the next-door neighbor in '7th Heaven.'

Lively reaction to '7th Heaven,' though once again there was more laughter than I expected at the serious parts. (This happened in Plymouth, N.H. on Thursday night as well.) Yes, the film is filled with comic touches and it's great to see they still produce laughter. But there's a lot of drama, too, and I don't get why audiences laugh at it.

In the scenes when Chico and his neighbor Gobin realize they'll be shipping off to war without warning, it's not meant to be funny, folks. I try to enhance the mood through music, but still it drew some laughter. I think it's the abruptness of the transition: how war breaks out JUST as they're getting married. But I buy that as part of the drama.

Oh well. To my taste, the only unintentionally funny thing is an intertitle right near the end of the film, when someone says "it must be true because the government said it was." Jeez, it really was another age, wasn't it?

After the screening, my wife told me that a woman with a young child had to leave in the middle of '7th Heaven' because the onset of war was apparently too upsetting to the kid. "Are they going to be killed?" the child asked, over and over. I feel bad, but some people come to these screenings expecting Dudley Do-Right style family entertainment, and the dramas don't really go there.

Even in a film that you'd think kids would absorb, such as Rin Tin Tin in 'Clash of the Wolves' (1925), kids got upset early in the film when one member of the wolf pack was injured in a chase, and the rest of the pack turned on him and attacked. What are you going to do?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Small audience, big reaction

About two dozen folks were on hand on Monday, Feb. 7 for a screening of 'The Beloved Rogue' (1927) at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H. Considering that the theater seats nearly 900, it might have seemed kinda empty, but for some reason it wasn't. (Maybe it was because everyone sat close together in the middle of the orchestra section.) Because any kind of an audience is essential to the silent film experience, I put the best spin on it I could: "Okay, so there are only 20 people here. That's 10 times better than two!"

I'd never played for 'The Beloved Rogue' before and was pleased to find out it's a true crowd-pleaser, with a lot of fun scenes that still hold up well today. Leading man John Barrymore, already by then known as "The Great Profile," was confident enough to indulge in mocking his own image, making his first appearance disfigured by an over-sized icicle hanging from his nose.

Shortly after, he topped that by allowing himself to be transformed into a full-on clown. My colleague Dave Stevenson, on hand for this one, felt that Barrymore's clown make-up was a dead ringer for that used by W.C. Fields, so he's wondering if Fields was on the set when that sequence was shot. Interesting.

Well, for the score, I had very little time to prepare anything elaborate, and I'd only watched the film once before, about a year ago, in deciding to program it. The day before the screening, I breezed through it again, mostly at fast forward speed, to remind myself of the overall shape of the picture. But that was it for prep.

I DID have a couple of handy melodies on hand to use as leitmotifs—one built on a rising arpeggiated chord for Barrymore himself a la "Ein Heldenleben" of Strauss, and another raucous 6/8 jig-like figure for the "mayhem in the streets" sequences, and so things built pretty nicely just with these. The love scenes between Barrymore and costar Marceline Day went like a dream. Hey, sometimes it happens. Overall, the whole thing fell together in a way that was really quite satisfying, and got a lot of good questions and comments at the end.

Next up: two screenings of '7th Heaven' for Valentine's weekend and then a very crowded rest of February, with gigs in Kennebunk, Maine; Boston, Mass.; two in Manchester, and then it's out to the Kansas Silent Film Festival. Looking forward to it all!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Take a right at the horses, then through the kitchen...

This past weekend was the occasion for what's quickly become one of my favorite silent film gigs: a mid-winter screening of silent films at the Gifford Barn at Liberty Ridge Farm in Schagticoke, N.Y. (The picture, obviously, was taken at some time other than the current winter, which has all of the northeastern U.S. completely snowbound.)

Last year, we trekked out to this picturesque recreational farm to present a show for the Giffords, who won my services in a charity raffle in Wilton, N.H. back in 2009. The Giffords elected to invite everyone in the area into the farm's function hall (a beautifully converted barn) for a mid-winter potluck supper and silent film show.

The first time, I had no idea what to expect, especially as we loaded in the synthesizer past the horse stall and through the kitchen. But as sometimes happens, everything came together wonderfully: the films, the music, and especially the reaction from the audience, which ranged from kids to senior citizens.

It went over so well, we were invited back this year, and so on Saturday, Feb. 5 we braved a three-hour drive through an ice storm out to upstate New York (about 20 miles north of Albany) to once again find the Gifford Barn packed with families eager for another dose of silent film magic.

Reaction to the films, which included Keaton's "One Week," was simply explosive—especially so at that last gag, which still gets a scream after nearly a century. And dinner was great, too!

I can't say enough for Cynthia and Robert Gifford, and all the people who organize this event, and for those who turn out. It's just plain folks, and they all seem to appreciate the communal aspect of silent films as well as the general sense of bygone days and some of the more rural traditions evident in the movies: lots of horses and wagons, etc. As a nation, we were a little closer to the earth back in those days, and I've found small town folks seem to be drawn to that.

One guy came up to me afterwards with news that he had already seen the Keaton short. "I'm a carpenter," he said, by way of explanation. Another interesting reaction was from a middle-aged woman who recalled knowing Buster only through his appearances as an older man when she was a young girl. She was astonished to see him as a young man. Probably the most hearty endorsement came from an 81-year-old man, who, at the end of the show, cried it "It beats the hell out of television!"

The Giffords were kind enough to put us up in a local hotel, making it a nice way to spend a weekend. (Thanks to my mother for taking care of our three dogs.)

I look forward to a repeat engagement next year (I hope!), and the Giffords are talking about adding a silent film component to the farm's very busy autumn event schedule. We'll see!

P.S. Another interesting gig has just turned up. As part of this year's annual Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival (held every February), a 35mm print of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1916) is being screened twice, and looks like I'll be doing the score. Suddenly February has become a very busy month! More on that as details get nailed down.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Some publicity, and a pair of silent screenings

In December, I was selected for a brief Q & A profile by the kind folks at New Hampshire Magazine. (Must be a real shortage of interesting people in the Granite State these days!) As part of the package, they had a photographer come by and take some photos of me at a piano at the Manchester Community Music School. The photographer, P.T. Sullivan, set it up so the shot could include me as well as the projected image of a frame featuring a notable silent film: I chose a shot of Buster Keaton from the last reel of 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924). P.T. got a nice shot, which was used in the magazine piece (out this month) and is included here with his permission. Check out the piece in the February edition of New Hampshire Magazine.

Speaking of 'Sherlock Jr.': it was one of two silent films presented with live music this past week to a film studies class at Southern New Hampshire University right here in Manchester, N.H. The other was Tod Browning's 'The Unknown' (1927) starring Lon Chaney. Both were selected not only because they're great pictures that evoke strong reactions even today, but they're both less than an hour long, meaning we could fit them in a classroom period.

New Hampshire-based filmmaker Bill Millios is the instructor. I did the music for his 2005 independent feature 'Dangerous Crosswinds,' and Bill occasionally involves me in other projects—in this case, teaching cinema. Showing a silent film to about 30 college students at 9:30 a.m. perhaps isn't the best recipe to get a big reaction, but they seemed interested and I got some good questions and comments at the end. Many thanks to Bill for going the extra mile for silent film and trying to give students the real thing.

Later this month, I'm doing music for a screening of 'It' (1927) as part of a film studies class at the University of New Hampshire/Manchester, and I'm looking forward to that. Even if the effort sparks an interest or awareness on the part of one student, I think it's worth it. I just corresponded with a teacher at Great Brook Middle School in Antrim, N.H., and it looks like we're on for another silent film program there this coming spring. We did it last year and they were a great audience, so I'm really looking forward to a return engagement!