Friday, July 15, 2011

Dramas and westerns and epics, oh my!

Entering a busy stretch of accompanying some very different types of silent film, and here's a few notes.

• Screened double feature of 'Tol'able David' (1921) and 'Hell's Hinges' (1916) last night at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. Small mid-summer turnout, mostly because of competing events, including a big music festival. But those on hand saw a terrific pair of movies.

Spoiler alert! Of the two films, 'David' is the tougher to score at the climax, primarily because of the frequent cross-cutting that takes place between the battle in the cabin and scenes at the town store where people are innocently waiting for the mail hack. The sequence has the potential for immense power if the music is on top of the cuts. But if it's off even just a little, it draws attention to itself and the whole thing collapses, I think. The task is complicated further when Esther arrives in town and a posse starts forming. This means the town music needs to then start stirring up its own drama, but it needs to be separate from the music that follows David's battle out in the cabin and then his courageous ride into town. And then it all has to come together when David arrives. It worked okay last night, but I'm looking forward to other chances to do this film later this month, in Brandon, Vt. and Ogunquit, Maine.

'Hell's Hinges' is a real "what you see is what you get" film, meaning there's not a lot of layers or subtlely to it, so scoring can be pretty straightforward. The movie produced five themes: a religious hymn associated with the pastor, a "love" melody for his sister, a syncopated signature for the saloon owner (and for general debauchery), a motif for William S. Hart, and some seductive music for the gal who preys upon the minister. And that was enough to build a film score in real time -- one that I thought helped bring it to life in a way that surprised even me.

What happened was as the film played, I found all of the themes combining in unexpected ways that helped move the drama forward. For instance, the minister and his sister riding the stagecoach to his new post worked well with a rhythmic "horse trot" version of the religious hymn. Their arrival is the first time William S. Hart lays eyes on the sister, and so both those themes got worked in, even as the religous hymn's chord structure was still underneath. And then the reaction of the crowd made use of the saloon owner's syncopation, which broke apart as they realized that Hart wasn't going to scare the bejesus out of the newcomers. All that in just a small sequence!

Another part that came together really well was near the end, when the town's religious people flee into the country and meet with Hart, returning from afar. They tell him what's happened, and the look on Hart's face is amazing. He then leaps onto his horse in fine early movie fashion and rides off the to the rescue. The mixture of desperation and heroic action, using primarily the religious hymn and Hart's motif, helped the sequence jump to life in the same way Hart did on the screen!

• I have an interesting challenge this Sunday, July 17 in doing music for 'A Throw of Dice' (1929), a rare epic silent film from India that we're showing at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre at 4:30 p.m. (If you're in the area, please come!) It's interesting because the main characters (two princes competing for the woman) look very much alike to me, so much so that I had trouble following the plot when I first watched it. Not sure what that says about my cultural sensitivity, but I have to assume others will have the same problem. The solution? Music! I plan to use completely different textures for each of the two guys, which I hope will eliminate any potential confusion, as long as I can keep the characters straight myself.

Will it work? Come by and see for yourself. Should be a fun screening of a rarely seen film that looks fantastic in the restoration we have. The story of the film's making, and how it contributed to the foundation for today's massive Bollywood industry, is equally interesting, and my colleague Dan Szczesny will be on hand to talk a bit about that.

And finally, as an added treat for the screening on Sunday, July 17, we have an unannounced film that's a good example of Hollywood's depiction of the Indian subcontinent in the 1920s. Guess I shouldn't worry too much about my own cultural sensitivity, but you'll see. All I can say is thank God it's a comedy and you're supposed to laugh.

• Finally, a review of our screening of 'Seven Chances' (1925) at the Somerville (Mass.) Theatre on Sunday, July 10 has been posted online. Writer Jay Seaver covered it in two gulps. His blog has a write-up of the shorts, while the Web site has a longer analysis of 'Seven Chances' with some insights I hadn't seen before. Thanks, Jay!

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