Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Coming Sunday, July 10: Buster Keaton in 35mm

I've been watching and rewatching Buster Keaton's films since the days of mail ordering 8mm prints of 'Cops' (1922), 'One Week' (1920), and other shorts from Blackhawk Films in the 1970s. But I now realize that I've never really seen Keaton until just this very month.

What opened my eyes was our first 35mm show of Keaton films earlier this month, on Sunday, June 5 at the Somerville (Mass.) Theatre. The head projectionist there, David, is a fanatic for authentic 35mm presentation (which is rapidly becoming a lost art) and I was very impressed with what I saw at a science fiction marathon there last February.

So in programming the Somerville's Keaton series for this summer, I didn't start with any specific titles in mind. Instead, I asked around to find the very best 35mm prints, and went from there. Tim Lanza of Douris Corp. was kind enough to send an inventory of what he has in 35mm, and from there we selected three features ('Our Hospitality,' 'Seven Chances,' and 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.') and six shorts.

I wasn't sure what to expect. But what I saw at our June 5 screening just blew me away. The print of 'One Week' looked terrific, and 'The Scarecrow' was even better: razor sharp clarity, great constrast and tonal range, and an extremely bright image flooding the theater's giant screen. The print of 'Our Hospitality,' with Rohauer titles from the 1970s (which differ somewhat from the originals) was a little murkier, but still top-notch. The whole program was a pleasure to take in, and a chance to really see Keaton as I never had before, even while doing the music live.

And in that sense, it really was like seeing these films for the first time. I can't describe to you how delightful it is to witness Buster's work really as it was intended to be seen, or as close to that as possible in an age where carbon arc projection is virtually non-existent and so many other variables get in the way of recreating the experience. Projected larger than life but crystal clear, and seen with an audience, Buster's work takes on outsized dimensions that must have been part of the silent era's myth-making, something that we don't get on our home entertainment centers.

But enough from me. The message here is, whether you're a lifelong Keaton buff or a complete newbie, get thee to the Somerville Theater on Sunday, July 10 (and again on Sunday, Aug. 7), where Buster will once again fill the screen in a way that will knock your socks off, even if you've seen the films a hundred times before. Here's the press release:


Buster Keaton silent comedies to be shown with live music at Somerville Theatre

All-35mm program on Sunday, July 10 includes feature ‘Seven Chances’ (1925) plus short films

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—Silent film returns to the big screen at the Somerville Theatre in July with a program of classic Buster Keaton comedies accompanied by live music.

The screening, set for Sunday, July 10 at 7 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass., will include Keaton’s classic feature film ‘Seven Chances’ (1925) as well as two short comedies, ‘Neighbors’ (1920) and ‘The Goat’ (1921). General admission is $12 per person, $8 for students/seniors.

All films will be shown in the best available 35mm prints and accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis.

‘Seven Chances’ gives Keaton just seven hours to get married and inherit a fortune. Can he find the right woman and make it to the church on time? This classic comedy is highlighted by an extended chase finale in which Keaton, forced to flee from downtown Los Angeles into the open countryside, finds himself at the center of one of the most uproarious climaxes of the entire silent era.

‘Neighbors’ (1920) and ‘The Goat’ (1921) rank among Keaton’s best short films, made shortly before he made the leap into full-length feature film production. ‘Neighbors’ is highlighted by extensive physical stunt work (all done by Keaton himself without using a double), while ‘The Goat’ is a hilarious comedy of mistaken identity that spirals out of control.

Keaton, who grew up performing with the family vaudeville act, was known for never smiling on camera, an important element of his comic identity. A trained acrobat who learned at an early age how to take a fall, Keaton was also famous for doing all his own stunts on camera in the era before post-production special effects became common.

Critics continue to hail Keaton’s timeless comedy as well as his intuitive filmmaking genius. In 2002, Roger Ebert wrote of Keaton that “in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, he worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.” Keaton, who never attended school, did not think of himself as an artist but as an entertainer using the new medium of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.

The Somerville Theatre’s commitment to 35mm film presentation in both contemporary and classic movies means a rare chance to see Keaton’s work in its original format, in the best available prints.

“This show is a great opportunity to experience the magic of silent film as it was intended to be shown -- on the big screen, in high-quality prints, with live music and with an audience,” said Ian Judge, the Somerville Theatre’s general manager. “With so many theaters converting to digital, we’re pleased to continue to present films in 35mm, the standard format for more than a century. There’s nothing like it, and that’s especially true for films of the silent era.”

Music for the Keaton screenings will be performed by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based musician who accompanies silent film screenings at venues across New England. Rapsis works without sheet music, instead creating an improvised score on the spot. He uses a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound and helping link today’s audiences to films of the silent era.

In creating an improvised score, Rapsis tries to use music to amplify audience reaction, a key element of the silent film experience.

“These films were not meant to be seen by people alone or at home,” Rapsis said. “They were created to be experienced by large crowds in a theater like the Somerville, and getting swept up in the audience reaction is one of the great things about silent film. When it happens, either in a comedy or drama or any kind of film, it can be almost cathartic.”

‘Seven Chances’ and Keaton short comedies will be shown on Sunday, July 10 at 7 p.m. the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. (617) 625-5700. Admission is $12 adults, $8 students/seniors, general admission seating. For more information, call (617) 625-5700 or visit http://www.somervilletheatreonline.com. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Upcoming silent film screenings at the Somerville Theatre include an additional all-Keaton program in August:

• Sunday, Aug. 7 at 7 p.m.: ‘Steamboat Bill, Jr.’ (1928). Buster’s last independent silent feature finds him as the bumbling son of a rundown riverboat’s rough captain. When a rival brings a newer boat to town, the family is forced to face competition, just as Buster is forced to face down a cyclone that blows through town. One of Buster’s best. Shown with Keaton comedy shorts: ‘The High Sign’ (1921) and ‘Cops’ (1922). All films in 35mm; live music by Jeff Rapsis.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Constance Talmadge: Va va va voom and all that

Two shockers from yesterday's screening of 'Her Sister From Paris' (1925) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. 1: We had a sizable audience! (Attendance tends to atrophy on summer weekends.) And 2: They really reacted!

Not that they shouldn't react, but I'm always tickled when a silent film with a totally forgotten performer can connect with an audience, as happened yesterday. In this case, it was Constance Talmadge, a popular star of light comedies in the 1920s, but an all-but-unknown today.

Connie, in a dual performance as an insecure wife and her worldly twin sister (yes, from Paris), had our audience in the palm of her hand right from the start. Good reaction all the way through, especially in scenes where Connie played both sisters at the same time. (Just roll with it, folks.) Incredible acting chops on display, and wonderful interplay with co-star Ronald Colman, who's one that folks do still remember.

Was Connie's celebrity merely a '20s fad? Well, any star's popularity is based somewhat on familiarity at the time, I think -- people enjoy her, recognize her, and keep going to her films to see her next adventure. So a particular film, taken out of this context, can often seem utterly baffling to a modern audience. This is the case with Harry Langdon, I think, whose comic style was in part a reaction to other comedies at the time, and so depends on a familiarity that today's audiences don't have.

But not so with Connie. 'Her Sister From Paris' shows a performer with a remarkable acting range, a lively sense of humor, and an ability to win an audience over all in one shot, which is what she did. The film produced gales of laughter at all the right moments, and was a pleasure to score.

On that, I must say the film's Vienna local creates a great milieu for music. The temptation is to go heavy on waltzes and 3/4 time, and indeed, the 'Blue Danube' specifically plays a key part, to the point of the sheet music being shown on screen.

But given the now 'old world' feel of the film (1920s Vienna), I went with a harpsichord setting and maintained it throughout the film. Though not historically accurate, I think it created the right mood overall for our audience. And for waltzes, yes, I worked in 'Blue Danube' and other tunes in 3/4, but put them in a blender depending on the flow of the scene. In some cases, it wound up sounding more like Ravel's 'La Valse' than anything else.

But a key to helping this film come to life, at least in terms of music, was to use a steady 4/4 rhythm and a minor 6th chord whenever the influence of the 'worldly' sister from Paris was in evidence. Not just when she was on the screen, but when her other sister was pretending to be her during the many plot convolutions. We got laughs just from that music showing up when you knew it was what the characters were thinking on the screen. Still, this was definitely a film where less was more -- once the action starts, it needs very little music to get across, and I tried to stay out of the way so audience reaction could flow unimpeded.

Back to Connie: Her performance of two siblings with different personalities reminded me, of all things, of the way Nicholas Cage played the dual roles of Charlie and Donald Kaufmann in the much-later film 'Adaptation.' In the later film, I remember being impressed at how Cage could play both roles, but always make it clear which brother was which.

Likewise in 'Her Sister From Paris' -- although Connie doesn't share nearly as much onscreen time with herself as Cage did in 'Adaptation,' it's never less than completely, instantly clear which sibling we're looking at on screen, just by the way she carries herself and, I'm sure, other details way too subtle for me to notice.

And kudos to the filmmakers for doing the split screen scenes (with two Connies) so seamlessly in 1925. It was pretty much flawless. There were a few moments where both characters are onscreen, but one is sobbing with her head away from the camera, and you think it's gotta be a double, but then she raises her head, and it's also Connie!

And I have to say, though what's considered attractive in women (and clothes and hairstyles and all that) can go in and out of style, Connie had a timeless, lively beauty that still comes through loud and clear, nearly nine decades later. In stills (such as this one), she often looks a little dowdy, I think. But in her films, at least in 'Her Sister from Paris,' she really comes to life in a way that photos don't seem to capture. Those eyes, that face. As they used to say on the machine shop floor, va va va voom!

As evidence at how beguiling 'Her Sister from Paris' is, after the screening I was talking to a newspaper colleague of mine who pointed out an inanity that I was totally oblivious to: that a single mole on the cheek could utterly confuse everyone about a person's identity, including a woman's husband and her trusted maid. Right! But my critical faculties were do disarmed by it all, I didn't even think of it.

He also pointed out that if the stage show that Connie stars in is any indication, the people of Vienna were producing entertainment that pre-dated Bollywood extravaganzas by at least half a century.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sunday: June 26: Summer Romance!

Our three-show "summer romance" silent film series at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre is pretty neat, I think. First, we're showing rarely seen features starring the Talmadge sisters, Constance and Norma, two of the biggest stars of the 1920s, but who are all but forgotten today. Also, we're showing their sister Natalie's one big role, as the female lead in her husband Buster Keaton's family feud film, 'Our Hospitality' (1923). And finally, the series gives today's audiences a chance to see how diverse silent film was: not just slapstick, but all flavors of comedy.

I've been curious about Constance and Norma for years, and especially since encountering Joe Yranski of New York City, who invited me to the Donnell Library in 2008 to accompany 'Lessons in Love' (1921), one of Connie's features that had then just been restored. Joe is an ardent admirer of the Talmadge sisters, and his enthusiasm (as well as the surprisingly light touch of 'Lessons') whetted my appetite for more.

I got another dose of Connie in 2009 at the Kansas Silent Film Festival, where I saw 'Her Sister From Paris' (1925), a surprisingly sophisticated comedy that holds up wonderfully, and also met Melissa Talmadge Cox, Buster Keaton's granddaughter and grand-niece of Connie (whom she remembered as "Aunt Dutch") and Norma.

So in looking for something special for this summer in Wilton, I decided to take the plunge myself and do music for films starring all three Talmadge sisters, all under the heading 'Summer Romance.' It's been fun putting the music together for these and I hope you'll attend all three. First up, on Sunday, June 26 at 4:30 p.m., is 'Her Sister From Paris' (1925), with Connie playing against Ronald Coleman; it's paired with 'The Matrimaniac' (1916), costarring Constance and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. at the very start of his film career. Both nice pictures with new music by me.

Later: On Sunday, July 31 at 4:30 p.m., it's Keaton's 'Out Hospitality' (1923), co-starring Natalie Talmadge, and a couple of Keaton shorts just for laughs. I've recently rediscovered 'The Playhouse' (1921) so we'll probably show that. And then, on Sunday, Aug. 28, it's Norma Talmadge in 'Kiki' (1926), paired with another early Douglas Fairbanks, 'Flirting with Fate' (1916). Admission is free to all these screenings, though donations are encouraged to defray costs. Pray for rain on those weekends so attendance gets a bad weather boost. :)

Last week saw four screenings in five days, with several hundred miles of road time included. Notes on the long strange trip:

Wednesday, June 15: Screened a program for the residents of RiverMead, an upscale retirement community in Peterborough, N.H. with screening facilities to die for. A very appreciative audience of about 35 people enjoyed Buster Keaton's 'One Week' and other silent comedies, and a few residents recalled seeing silent films as children.

Thursday, June 16: Trekked up to the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. to play for a screening of this month's roadshow picture, Keaton's 'The General' (1926). Nice spring weather = disappointingly low turnout, about 25 people, but I was happy with how the score came out. Lots of good questions afterwards.

Saturday, June 18: Brandon. Vt. (about 150 miles away!) for 'The General' (1926), this time as part of the town's annual 'Civil War Days' celebration. Word is getting around in Brandon, where I'm doing a second season of silents with live music, as we had 115 people turn up for this, filling the Brandon Town Hall, where we stage the screenings. Extremely enthusiastic response from start to finish; 'The Playhouse' (1921) and 'The General' were met with gales of laughter as well as cheering and other strong reactions. Audience ranged from tiny tots to octogenarians. What a pleasure to do music for a film under these conditions; the score fell together effortlessly, it seemed. Nice ovation at the end, all owed to Buster's brave filmmaking from nearly a century ago now.

Sunday, June 19: Ogunquit, Maine (about 70 miles away) for another 'General,' this time in the Leavitt Theatre, a vintage 1920s summer-only seaside moviehouse that still operates today. Owner Peter Clayton and his family have embraced silent film screenings during tourist season; unfortunately, a lovely Sunday afternoon cut attendance down to about a dozen paid admissions. Still, a nice screening and again I hope for some luck (bad) with the weather.

P.S.: Prior to this spate of screenings, Vermont Public Radio's Nina Keck was nice enough to put together a piece on silent film music featuring comments and illustrations by me. It must have taken a herculean effort to edit me into intelligence, but it came out very nice, and I'm sure it helped contribute to the large turnout on Saturday night in Brandon, Vt. Thanks, Nina! To listen to it (or to read a transcript), go to the VPR Web site.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

News of screenings near and far

Cinefest 2012: I've just been on the phone with Joe Yranski of New York City, a vintage film expert and fellow Fordham graduate, who invited me to be an accompanist at the next Cinefest, to be held in March 2012 in Syracuse, N.Y. This is a great honor and I'm really looking forward to joining my colleagues Andrew Simpson and Phil Carli at the keyboard next year.

Me on Twitter?: My dormant Twitter account is being reactivated as of today, partly to promote silent film but also to get some hands-on experience for a communications course I'm teaching this fall at the University of New Hampshire. Now I'll be able to say for sure just exactly how much of a waste of time it is, or not. We'll see. Anyway, you can follow my every Twitter move at: @jeffrapsis

Next in rotation: 'The General' (1927). With three separate series running this summer in widely separated markets (Plymouth, N.H.; Ogunquit, Maine; and Brandon, Vt.), I'm running the same programs in each so as not to go crazy. This will also make show prep such as press releases a little easier. So coming up next week be Keaton's 'General,' partly because it's public domain and partly because the folks of Brandon, Vt. are staging their annual "Civil War Days" event on Saturday, June 18. So I'm doing 'General' three times in three states over four days. Check the details on the "upcoming screenings" page.

Moving to the library: We have a new series of monthly screenings for 2011-12 in Manchester, N.H. to succeed our Palace Theatre series. The 880-seat Palace was a great home for the past three years, but going forward they just don't have room in their schedule. So we're switching to a smaller venue, the 200-seat auditorium of the Carpenter Public Library, 405 Pine St., Manchester, just a few blocks away. I've selected films already but would love to hear suggestions...

From the subcontinent: Finally, look for our end-of-month screenings at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. to be augmented by the screening of an unusual silent feature from India, 'Throw of Dice' (1929) on Sunday, July 17 at 4:30 p.m. It's an outgrowth of a local Bollywood tribute held last April, and I'm very much looking forward to doing music for my first Indian flick.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Rin Tin Tin vs. Buster Keaton

In terms of silent film accompaniment, I'm living the dream.

Yesterday (Sunday, June 5) I played a Rin Tin Tin double feature matinee at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine, a moviehouse that opened in 1923 and remains virtually unchanged. And then I rushed down to Boston for an all-Buster Keaton program presented in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre, a wonderful century-old showplace in Davis Square.

Both screenings went well, as did the frantic ride between them, which was a serious concern. Ogunquit and Boston are separated by about 75 miles, but on a Sunday afternoon in tourist season (which started last week), southbound highway traffic can slow to a crawl. Thankfully, no big delays at all until the I-93 weekend bridge replacement project that greeted me within sight of the Beantown skyline.

About the films: In Ogunquit, showed 'Clash of the Wolves' (1925) and 'Lighthouse by the Sea' (1924), two Rinty adventure flicks that went over well with the audience of about 40 people, all of whom sat way in the back of the 600-seat theater. (What is this, church?) Amused at one woman who asked for the air conditioning to be turned down; got to explain how the Leavitt's well-preserved state extended to the complete lack of any kind of heating or cooling system. With the weather, in 1923 you took what you got.

The Rin Tin Tin scores came together nicely, despite a relative paucity of material to work with these two, even after multiple screenings. I have a trusty old fanfare for 'Clash' that I used a lot, and for the bad guy did a lot of "minor chord, then down four steps" moves. 'Lighthouse,' which is set on the Maine coast, used a lot of 'Over the Ocean Waves' to lend things a nautical feel, and a minor-chord syncopated thing for the bad guys in this one.

One thing I try to do, even for a double feature starring the same actor (person or dog), is to come up with completely new music for each film. I avoid carrying over anything, as I feel each film should stand as its own cinematic world, and the music can help establish that. (Or not.) On Sunday, a couple of times during 'Lighthouse,' I caught myself heading toward material from the earlier film. One of my major techniques is to recycle and reinvent and repeat material during each film, so for another film immediately following, it can take a real effort to avoid reverting back to similar moves. But I think it's important to come up with different stuff—in the Rin Tin Tin flicks, especially to acknowledge the completely separate settings, one out West and the other on the rockbound coast of Maine.

The Leavitt features a wooden floor (great acoustics!) with a fairly steep pitch right down to the base of the stage. I've played here before and never had any problem with what you might call "keyboard slippage." So, in the first big key-pounding chase sequence in 'Clash,' I wasn't expecting the whole unit (stand and keyboard) to begin sliding downhill right from under my fingers. I've done some interesting things accompanying films, but until now I had not had to deal with a moving keyboard. Thankfully, the thing stopped sliding when it hit a stud supporting the stage extension, but I was never quite sure it wouldn't totally tip over in mid-show. So things got a little sedate, I guess, though people afterwards said they didn't notice any difference.

I want to thank the Ogunquit police department for putting up with me. Not only did an acquaintance end up talking an officer out of giving me a ticket for leaving my Forester too long in a nearby lot (while I was busy playing), but another officer had to "guard" me from behind after I pulled up in front of the theater to load out, which is a no-no because it's apparently a travel lane on busy Route 1. Ah, the glamour of show biz!

In Boston, it was a delight to return to the Somerville Theater, where they continue to fight the battle against an all-digital cinematic future. Manager Ian and Projectionist David were a pleasure to deal with, and the 35mm prints supplied by Tim Lanza of Douris Corp. were superb. Screened two shorts: 'One Week' and 'Scarecrow,' and then 'Our Hospitality' (1923). The 'Scarecrow' print in particular was a stunner: clear and sharp and great tonal range, and projected on a massive scale by the theater's Norelco machines, complete with amped-up bulb courtesy David. The immensely bright image that resulted was a revelation to me, and I've known these films for most of my life. Here's hoping the rest of the 35mm material will be equally good!

One unexpected hazard at the Somerville was...mosquitos! Or actually, one pesky little one who somehow found his way into the theater (with the weather so nice, the front doors were wide open) and then, once the show started, was drawn to my piano light. It took most of Buster's train ride to finally swat him away.

The score for 'Our Hospitality' came together very satisfyingly. As the house was new to me, I used mostly older material to stitch together a score that had music for Buster, the feud, Buster/Natalie, the train ride, and so on. It all flowed quite naturally. I even had a nice little signature for the kindly old parson. I think it was mostly a function of having played two films already that same day; this makes it easier to get "into the zone" where I'm just going with the film and lose track of my surroundings, though there's always a little part of me that listens for the audience and works with the reactions. It's an interesting state of mind and I'm sure it's not long before someone wants to hook up electrodes to me during a screening and collect some data.

Back to 'Our Hospitality': One scene that music can really punch up is the walk through town that Buster takes when he arrives. Buster doesn't know that a polite man accompanying him would like to kill him, even as they stroll down the street together, chatting amiably. The man keeps dashing off to frantically (and unsuccessfully) borrow a pistol, then returning to resume the facade with Buster. Switching back and forth, from Buster's serene melody to the agitated feud music, with appropriately timed silences, produced surprisingly big laughs.

All films had their "the crowd goes wild" moments. The biggest reactions I heard was when Rin Tin Tin leaps a wide canyon in 'Clash of the Wolves,' and then when Buster performs his waterfall rescue in 'Our Hospitality.' Such times, with everyone hooting and hollering, make it all worthwhile.

I get the next weekend off (from film screenings, anyway) but then it's a busy summer. And the fall/winter is starting to shape up, too, with continuing series in Wilton and Plymouth, N.H., and a new monthly series in the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library. An updated schedule (with screenings out as far as May 2012, ouch!) is posted on the 'Upcoming Screenings' page on this blog.

One Sunday, two states, three films

Just a brief 'placeholder' note here about Sunday, June 5. Did music for a Rin Tin Tin double feature matinee at the wonderful Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine, and hauled ass down to the equally wonderful Somerville Theatre in Davis Square in Somerville, Mass. (right outside Boston) to do music for an all-35mm Keaton program that included 'Our Hospitality' (1923). Phew! Way to kill a Sunday. But nice turnout for both programs, especially considering it was one of those beautiful late spring weekends, of which we seem to get so few here in New England. More later, but just now wanted to post a note to say thank you to the management and the audiences of both venues for giving an opportunity for silent film to return to the big screen!