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.

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