Sunday, January 22, 2012

Things heating up for Valentine's Day

We had a good crowd at a screening of 'Metropolis' (1927) last night (Saturday, Jan. 21) at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H., but I'm already pondering the busy schedule for late January/early February: seven features in three weeks, and three of them I've never played before. (One of them is 'Sunrise' (1927), with George O'Brien and Margaret Livingston, pictured above.) I also have two screenings for a film class at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, N.H. taught by my good friend, director Bill Millios.

And on top of that, I'm doing piano music for a DVD release of 'The Bells' (1926), a feature starring Lionel Barrymore that's being issued by Mark Roth of It's a very exciting project and I look forward to getting some tracks put down to help bring this interesting film to life.

In terms of live performance, however, the big news is Valentine's Day. The week before this holiday (on Tuesday, Feb. 14) brings a bouquet of silent tear-jerkers and romantic dramas, all in honor of a holiday that's all about big emotions. So take your sweetie to a silent film, if nothing else to remind him or her that actions do speak louder than words.

The full schedule of screenings is on the Upcoming Silent Film Screenings page of this Web site. But for those looking for a different way to celebrate Valentine's Day, here's the top three screenings for romantics:

• Tuesday, Feb. 7 at 6 p.m.: 'The Kiss' (1929) starring Greta Garbo. That face! The Great Garbo's last silent film for MGM, a romantic drama that generates plenty of passion even without Garbo's husky Swedish voice. Free admission; at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library, 405 Pine St., Manchester, N.H.

• Thursday, Feb. 9 at 6:30 p.m.: 'The Sheik' (1921) and 'Son of the Sheik' (1926). A double feature starring Rudolph Valentino, the original Latin Lover and the screen's first superstar. Admission $10; at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

• Sunday, Feb. 12 at 4:30 p.m.: 'Sunrise' (1927). Take someone special to see the romantic drama often ranked as the best silent film ever made. A love story that achieves profundity through simplicity. Kleenexes provided. Free admission; at the Wllton Town Hall Theatre, 60 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Once again, 'Metropolis' (1927)

An encore presentation of the restored 'Metropolis' (1927) is up for tonight at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. Our screening on New Year's Eve was a sell-out, and so the folks there were kind enough to schedule a follow-up to give others a chance to see this great picture with live music.

What's unusual about this screening is that 'The Artist' (2011) is now playing at Red River, which means that tonight, two out of the theater's three screens will be running silent film. Never thought I'd expect to see that happen, but it is kind of a nice piece of synchronicity.

I do look forward to doing it again tonight. The press release that went out earlier this month is below, but here are a few additional notes.

For one thing, I continue to marvel at the strong interest in relatively limited science fiction section of the silent film library. 'Metropolis' has always been popular, but last year I did music for a 1916 version of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' for the Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, and the folks at Arisia, another sci-fi/fantasy gathering in Beantown, are talking about running 'The Lost World' (1925) at their 2013 gathering. And Fritz Lang's 'Woman in the Moon' (1929) is a film I would love to score someday. It all seems so counter-intuitive: an obsolete art form (silent film) telling futuristic tales. But the folks who are into it are really into it.

One thing about presenting silent films with live music is that every venue has its own characteristics, and I'm never sure how things are going to sound, even from screening to screening. So many variables go into it, including what season it is. If it's winter, then heavy coats tend to absorb sound. In a small room, that can make quite a difference.

With my synthesizer's stereo output and my two Roland speakers, it seems the sound is at its best when a room has some reverb and also there's some distance for the two channels to mix. A lot of old New England town hall auditoriums work great. But modern function rooms, with their low ceilings and carpeting, not so much.

Acoustically, Red River is a challenging place to do a silent film, at least with my equipment. The place we do them in, the "screening room," has carpeting and fabric on the walls and it all just soaks up sound. And because the room is so small (maximum capacity 60 people) and has a low ceiling, if there's any kind of audience, that further absorbs the sound. Also, when playing, I have to be off to the right side, so I'm not hearing what others hear. So all in all, it's a tough room.

A big problem is getting the sound volume right. Because of the smallness of the room and all the issues problems listed above, things can easily seem too loud, especially over the course of a two-and-a-half hour film. And Metropolis, with its extended three-part climax, can easily add up to too much in terms of music. So it'll be really important to pace myself at tonight's screening - to not go too far too fast in the opening scenes, however tempting, because I need to have places to go later in the movie.

Here's the press release. Hope you can make it tonight! It's a snowy day today in our part of the world, so if nothing else we'll see if 'Metropolis' is more of a bad weather draw than 'Birth of a Nation' in Plymouth, N.H., which attracted all of five people last week after a day of steady snow.

For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Red River Theaters to run encore screening of restored 'Metropolis'

Landmark sci-fi fantasy movie to be shown with live music at Concord, N.H. cinema on Saturday, Jan. 21

CONCORD, N.H.—A silent film hailed as the grandfather of all science fiction fantasy movies will be screened with live music on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012 at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. The encore screening was scheduled after a New Year's Eve showing sold out. The show starts at 7 p.m. and tickets are $15 general admission.

'Metropolis' (1927), regarded as German director Fritz Lang's masterpiece, is set in a futuristic city where a privileged elite pursue lives of leisure while the masses toil on vast machines and live deep underground. The film, with its visions of futuristic factories and underground communities, set new standards for visual design and inspired generations of dystopian fantasies from Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner' to Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil.'

The story centers on an upper class young man who falls in love with a woman who ministers to the oppressed workers, and encompasses mad scientists, human-like robots, and industrial espionage, all set in a society divided between haves and have-nots.

The version of 'Metropolis' to be screened at Red River is a newly restored edition that includes nearly a half-hour of missing footage cut following the film's premiere in 1927. The footage, discovered in 2008 in an archive in Argentina, has since been added to the existing 'Metropolis,' allowing plot threads and characters to be developed more fully.

The restored 'Metropolis,' now 2½ hours in length, will be accompanied by a score created live by New Hampshire-based silent film musician and composer Jeff Rapsis.

When 'Metropolis' was first screened in Berlin, Germany on Jan. 10, 1927, the sci-fi epic ran an estimated 153 minutes. After its premiere engagement, the film's distributors (including Paramount in the U.S.) drastically shortened 'Metropolis' to maximize the film's commercial potential. By the time it debuted in the U.S. later that year, the film ran about 90 minutes.

Even in its shortened form, 'Metropolis' become one of the cornerstones of science fiction cinema. Due to its enduring popularity, the film has undergone several restorations in the intervening decades in attempts to recover Lang's original vision.

In 1984, the film was reissued with additional footage, color tints, and a pop rock score by music producer Giorgio Moroder. An archival restoration was completed in 1987, under the direction of Enno Patalas of the Munich Film Archive, in which missing scenes were represented with title cards and still photographs. More recently, a 2001 restoration combined footage from four archives and ran 124 minutes.

It was widely believed that this would be the most complete version of Lang's film that contemporary audiences could ever hope to see. But, in the summer of 2008, the curator of the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine discovered a 16mm dupe negative of 'Metropolis' that was considerably longer than any existing print. It included not merely a few additional snippets, but 25 minutes of "lost" footage, about a fifth of the film, that had not been seen since its Berlin debut.

The discovery of such a significant amount of material called for yet another restoration, which debuted in 2010 to widespread acclaim. It's this fully restored version that will be screened at Red River Theatres.

"The 'encore' screening will give local fans to see 'Metropolis as it should be seen: on the big screen and with live music," said Jeff Rapsis, who provides live accompaniment to silent film screenings throughout New England. "'Metropolis' stands as an stunning example of the power of silent film to tell a compelling story without words, and reach across the generations to touch movie-goers from the real future that came to pass, which means us."

To accompany a silent film, Rapsis uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra. The score is created live in real time as the movie is screened. Rather than focus exclusively on authentic music of the period, Rapsis creates new music for silent films that draws from movie scoring techniques that today's audiences expect from the cinema.

The restored 'Metropolis' will be shown on Saturday, Dec. 31 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. General admission tickets are $15 per person. For more information, call (603) 224-4600 or visit For more information on the music, visit


“'Metropolis' does what many great films do, creating a time, place and characters so striking that they become part of our arsenal of images for imagining the world.”
—Roger Ebert, 2010, The Chicago Sun-Times

“If it comes anywhere near your town, go see it and thank the movie Gods that it even exists. There’s no star rating high enough.”
—Brian Tallerico,

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For more info, contact:
Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •
Images attached.
More high-resolution digital images available upon request.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and...Buster Keaton?

It was perhaps the most improbable silent film screening I've done yet: Buster Keaton's Civil War epic 'The General' (1927) as part of a massive annual science fiction and fantasy convention at Boston's Westin Hotel. But there it is (above), on the very packed schedule-of-events grid, in the film screening room on Friday, Jan. 13 at 10 p.m., just after the portentous documentary 'Future Shock' (narrated by Orson Welles) and just prior to a midnight showing of the dystopian epic 'Soylent Green' (1973).

The event, "Arisia 2012: Where Science and Adventure Come Together," is billed as "New England's largest and most diverse science fiction and fantasy convention," a claim I have no reason to doubt. On the coldest night of this winter so far, I found myself schlepping my sound gear into a hotel lobby swarming with conventioneers dressed in extravagant and sometimes outlandish costumes: mermaids, warlocks, necromancers, wizards, time lords, trekkies, and maybe a few silent film stars. (I hoped.) It was all I could do to keep from gawking at the passing parade, a surreal mid-winter vision, one composed of pirates from the past and courtesans from the future, where mismatched tube socks and leather corsets and furry beaver hats are apparently the in style. Hey, you heard it here first.

But never mind fashion trends to come. I had never heard of this event, which each year attracts thousands of fantasy devotees to four days of seminars, parties, discussions, celebrations, and public displays of everyone's inner and outer geek, and quite a few bare mid-riffs in the bargain.

I found it strange that a convention devoted to fantasy would take place in such a non-descript modern conference center, with events apportioned into carpeted ballrooms and meeting rooms filled with padded chairs in neutral colors, and with pitchers of ice water lurking on folding trays in the corners, but that didn't seem to faze anyone. If anything, the Westin's bland decor served to make the convention's outrageousness stand out in high relief, which I noticed as non-convention hotel guests made their way through the lobby.

Not being a fellow traveler, I really didn't know what to make of it all. I kept expecting Triumph the Insult Comic Dog to show up and start berating the participants. Look! Here comes a guy with a YOU DON'T KNOW SITH t-shirt. Look! There goes a guy wearing a fez and a kilt. Who are these people, and where do they come from? I didn't know. But it was clear that this was their destination.

Everywhere I turned was something unexpected. Take, for instance, the guy in this picture, whose get-up was highlighted by a mustache produced on a 3-D printer. Apparently the layers of some kind of polymer build up to the point where a three-dimensional object is produced -- in this case, a handsome old-time mustache made out of what appeared to be futuristic puffed wheat and complete with functional nasal clips, which he demonstrated by removing and then reattaching the mustache with the greatest of ease.

In trying to find the film room and load in my gear and stow the car and find the bathroom, I didn't have a chance to grab many pictures. Below is the pirate sword on which I was nearly impaled when going up an escalator. Back in the day, I can only assume the real pirates would have developed some kind of sword etiquette for escalators had they encountered them. Just because they were pirates didn't mean they weren't practical.

And below is a gal who is apparently something of a celebrity among the faithful. I asked if I could take her picture because of her unusual hair augmentation, which looked to me like a collection of those plastic tubes that you can whip around your head and they make a sound. But it turned out she was a featured model in a convention-related blood drive calendar produced last year, and so was quite accustomed to being hounded by the paparazzi.

And then there were intriguing paradoxes to consider, such as a panel discussion on what makes up a good panel discussion. Science fiction or not, I thought this triggered infinity as effectively as any Dr. Who episode:

And how about this self-referencing notice about the sticky issue of blue tape, affixed to the convention center wall by you-know-what:

And this? Maybe that guy printed out too much mustache?

What was I doing there? Well, turns out the Arisia gathering (to find out more about that name, visit is the only science fiction/fantasy festival in the United States that still runs actual film as part of its programming. Imagine that! Another odd thing, that a science fiction festival would cling to what's becoming an obsolete format, at least in terms of current films. But I'm not complaining. Update on 1/25/12: subsequent traffic on other message boards has revealed at least one other festival that shows film: an event called Lunacon.

This year, continuous screenings of prints, some 35mm and others in 16mm, were held in the Otis Room, a conference space that's large enough to house a big screen at one end and a makeshift projection booth at the other:

One of the traditions of Arisia is to run a silent picture with live accompaniment, which is why film programmers Scott Norwood and Scott Dorsey got in touch with me a few months ago. They'd heard me do music for several Keaton screenings at the Somerville (Mass.) Theater this past summer, and offered me the honor of being the accompanist for this year's silent feature, Buster Keaton's 'The General.'

I said sure, not quite understanding what an unusual event this is. What was Buster's Civil War epic doing at a sci-fi/fantasy convention? It was primarily a matter of print availability, it seems, but the more I think about it afterwards, the more it makes sense. All silent film is a fantasy of sorts, and early railroad locomotives were the high tech monsters of their time, an original expression of the "Steampunk" mindset.

As an added attraction, last year one of the two Scotts (Scott Dorsey, nicknamed 'Kludge') used what he said was a "Soviet newsreel camera" to film scenes on the 2011 convention on silent 16mm color stock. The result was a 15-minute collection of silent footage with a distinctly "home movie" feel to it, and music was needed. I obliged with tinkly-bell Philip Glass-like accompaniment, primarily so it would contrast effectively with the more traditional orchestra score to follow with 'The General.'

Everyone was awfully nice: the two Scotts, the audience, curious look-inners. After scenes of last year's convention looking like they were from a 1970s TV newscast, Scott Dorsey got up and introduced the General, and off we went. Audience of about 25 people, but pretty lively. The 16mm print was wound on two reels and other than a few rough splicy sections, looked pretty good. I hadn't previewed the film prior to the show, but the score fell into place pretty easily. Not sure why, but that sometimes happens -- maybe it's the lack of pretension or expectations.

And sure enough, even when surrounded by sessions on Larping and Dr. Molotovcocktail's High Tea Party, Buster's filmmaking resonated. Reaction grew as the film unspooled, and by the end they were cheering Buster as much as any gathering of Confederate battle re-enactors would have. I was pleased to get a nice ovation at the end, too.

I can't say enough for guys such as Scott and Scott. Their commitment to film and their knowledge of it makes me feel confident that the medium will be around for a very long time, even if it does get relegated to the commercial fringe. Their offer of a free pass to the entire four-day convention was very generous, and if I do manage to get asked to return next year, I'll try to arrange my schedule to attend.

But alas, as the clock struck midnight, I had to pack up my things and head out, causing me to miss parties such as this:

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Snowstorm vs. 'Birth of a Nation': Snowstorm wins

There's been a noticeable lack of snow in our part of the world (northern New England, U.S.A.) this year—until today, when about 3 to 6 inches finally fell across New Hampshire. And that led to a noticeable lack of audience for this evening's screening of 'The Birth of a Nation' in Plymouth, N.H.: a grand total of FIVE people showed up, even though the snow had stopped by early afternoon.

We haven't been getting big turnouts for the Plymouth screenings, which take place at a renovated venue called the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performing Arts Center. But even so, five people is pretty dismal. It probably was the storm, but other factors entered into it as well: the local college (Plymouth State University) is on winter break; everyone here is still recovering from New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary this past Tuesday; race is not exactly a hot-button issue in New Hampshire, which has about 12 black people in it.

Still, the show must go on. Or should it? One thing we emphasize is that for silent films to have their intended impact, they really must be screened with an audience—the larger, the better. Well, five people is better than four or three, I suppose, but still it ain't much to work with.

So we took a poll. Before the screening, I asked our attendees (who all sat way in the back of the 400-seat theater for some reason) if they'd like to agree to come back on another date when we might have a better chance at a bigger turnout. I mean, we sometimes do get sizeable audiences in Plymouth—most recently a healthy crowd of 100+ for a pre-Halloween screening of 'Nosferatu' (1922).

We talked it over, but my sense of the room was that they had ventured out to see 'The Birth of a Nation' and, by gum, that's what they were going to see. So off we went!

I don't mind playing for such a small crowd, really, but with an audience that small, the reactions tended to be non-existent. And because of that, the screening had a kind of "if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a noise?" feeling to it. It really wasn't the same as what happens with a bigger crowd is on hand.

I was also reminded of the importance of using the bathroom prior to embarking on a 2½-hour film. Prior to the screening, I sauntered down the block to the Mandarin Taste Restaurant, where I had Chicken Lo Mein and something like six cups of tea. (I had the whole pot to myself, and I was cold, and the tea was warm. What can I say?) Then, about an hour into 'Birth of a Nation,' it hit me—I had to pee really bad, but we were still fighting the Civil War onscreen, and weren't even close to Lincoln's Assassination. Damn!

So I just coped as best I could, that's all, though the playing might have had a slightly rushed quality to it. While all this was going on, I remember thinking to myself about one consolation: "Well, if I end up wetting myself, at least it'll only be in front of five people."

And now I've just checked my fortune from the fortune cookie I received at the end of the meal. It says this: "Only tears can bring a dreamer back to earth."

Thursday, January 5, 2012

'Birth of a Nation' (1915) on Thursday, Jan. 12 at Flying Monkey Theatre in Plymouth, N.H.

When I tell people that we're screening 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) in honor of the U.S. holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., I am sometimes greeted with raised eyebrows. Why would we screen this film, infamous for its blatant racism, to mark a day honoring the racial tolerance and progress advocated by Dr. King? What kind of tribute to his legacy is a film in which the Ku Klux Klan comes riding to the rescue?

Well, the simple answer is that 'The Birth of Nation' vividly shows how far we've come since it was first released. More specifically, what Dr. King and so many other advocates for racial justice were up against. And as someone with an interest in vintage film, I can't think of a better way to commemorate this holiday. 'The Birth of a Nation' is a great chance for anyone watching it to examine his or her own attitudes about racism. A phrase suggests itself: "Lest We Forget."

Ironically, the phrase is from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, an old-fashioned British imperialist, and not exactly known for his commitment to racial tolerance. For a time in the 1890s, Kipling lived in our corner of the world, on a farm in Brattleboro, Vt., where he started writing the Jungle Books. There he is on the left. But I digress.

Back to 'The Birth of a Nation.' I think the film falls into that category of silent movies that have become more interesting with the passage of time. Why? Because while we've changed, it remains just as it was when it was first shown in 1915. Seeing it now, a hundred years in the future, can provide invaluable insight into where we've come from as a people, what we are today, and what we might possibly become tomorrow. As Roger Ebert wrote about the film (quoted below in the press release) in 2003:
"...the film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all. That is worth knowing. ... That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values.”
I hadn't been eager to see this film, and so wasn't familiar with it until I did music for a screening last year. I must say I was swept away by Griffith's almost giddy indulgence on a large scale of all the story-telling techniques he'd been developing in much shorter films in the previous decade. Somehow the film still radiates an excitement on this level that even the blatant racism can't totally destroy.

Hope you can join us at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth, N.H. and see for yourself. Speaking of the press release, here it is in all its glory...

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

‘Birth of a Nation’: Silent film masterpiece or racist artifact?

Landmark movie to be screened with live music for MLK Day on Jan. 12 in Plymouth, N.H.

PLYMOUTH, N.H.—What if a movie was acclaimed as a masterpiece, but portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes? What if a movie aimed to show the realities of life during the Civil War, and yet used white actors playing roles in blackface? What does it say if a movie was clearly racist, depicting blacks as an inferior sub-species to whites, but was still a box office smash?

Those are among the questions posed by ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915), the ground-breaking epic film from director D.W. Griffith, which continues to inspire controversy nearly a century after its initial release.

In honor of Martin Luther King Day this year, a restored print of the film will be screened with live music at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. The screening, part of the Flying Monkey’s silent film series, will take place on Thursday, Jan. 12 at 6:30 p.m. General admission tickets are $10 per person.

Organizers of the Flying Monkey’s film series specifically chose the occasion of Martin Luther King Day to screen ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ long regarded as a masterpiece of early cinema but tarnished by racism and prejudice.

“Although ‘The Birth of a Nation’ has been reviled for its blatant and pervasive racism, it was a huge hit in its day and was accepted as one of the landmarks of early cinema,” said Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire silent film musician who will perform a live score for the movie.

“Screening this compromised classic to honor Martin Luther King Day is a chance for today’s audiences to appreciate how far we’ve come, and to also ponder how many of the prejudices on display in this film that we may still harbor, even unconsciously,” Rapsis said.

As the first-ever Hollywood blockbuster, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ thrilled audiences in 1915 with its large-scale wartime action sequences, its recreation of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and spectacular photography by cameraman G.W. Bitzer.

Even at the time of its release, the movie was regarded as monumentally insensitive to issues of race, depicting blacks as a sub-race inferior to whites and portraying Ku Klux Klan members as heroes. Conceived by Griffith, a native Southerner, as a saga of two families caught up in the Civil War and its aftermath, many viewers and critics regarded the film as a prolonged statement of cinematic bigotry.

Seen today, the film abounds with offensive racial comments and imagery both overt and implied. To complicate matters for contemporary audiences, Griffith had all leading roles of black characters played by white actors in blackface; black actors were kept in the background or used only for crowd scenes, which lends the film a surreal quality to modern viewers.

Despite the racism, the film’s innovative and powerful story-telling techniques, as well as its massive scale, opened Hollywood’s eyes to the full potential of cinema as an art form, exerting a powerful influence on generations of filmmakers to come.

The film’s pervasive influence extended beyond theaters, at times in unfortunate ways. As an unintended consequence, ’The Birth of a Nation’ inspired a revival of the then-dormant Klan, which flourished anew in the south thorough the 1920s, making extensive use of Griffith’s film for propaganda purposes.

The controversy continues today, with ‘Birth of a Nation’ inspiring passions nearly a century after its release. Has enough time passed for today’s audiences to regard this landmark film as an artifact of its time, or an indication of enduring prejudice? This Martin Luther King’s Day, decide for yourself how far we’ve come with a screening of a restored print of this tarnished American classic the way it was intended to be seen: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

The film stars Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, and dozens of other silent-era performers. Gish, who died in 1993 at age 99, continued to act in films as late as 1987, when she appeared in ‘The Whales of August.’ Her later work includes an appearance on the TV series ‘The Love Boat’ in 1981.

All movies in the Flying Monkey’s silent film series were popular when first released, but are rarely screened today in a way that allows them to be seen at their best. They were not made to be shown on television; to revive them, organizers aim to show the films at the Flying Monkey as they were intended—in top quality restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

‘The Birth of a Nation’ will be shown in honor of Martin Luther King Day on Thursday, Jan. 12, at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $10 per person, general admission seating. Tickets available at the door or in advance by calling the Flying Monkey box office, (603) 536-2551 or online at


“...the film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all. That is worth knowing. Blacks already knew that, had known it for a long time, witnessed it painfully again every day, but "The Birth of a Nation" demonstrated it in clear view, and the importance of the film includes the clarity of its demonstration. That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values.”
—Roger Ebert, 2003, The Chicago Sun-Times

“If one can put the racial overtones aside, this is quuote probably the most accurate celluloid representation of Civil War times to exist. It was made only 50 years after the Civil War ended, when many people who had actually been through the war were still alive to give first hand accounts.”
—Robert K. Klepper, ‘Silent Films,’ (1999)

“More than a hugely successful spectacle, it was a masterpiece—using Griffith’s trademark cinematic techniques and combinging emotional intensity and epic sweep—but it was a deeply tainted one. Its racism—consciously intended by the filmmaker or not—makes parts of ‘Birth’ extremely difficult to watch today.”
—Peter Kobel, ‘Silent Movies,’ (2007)

I am in awe of 'Man With A Movie Camera'

I just can't get over it. It's the kind of thing I respond to emotionally. It's real life rearranged into fascinating patterns—something like music, but augmented for the eyes. And it's really gotten to me.

Two days ago, I scored this 1929 film from the Soviet Union, created by Dziga Vertov (see above, with his co-star) in that remarkable era of artistic experimentation before Stalin commandeered the arts for his own purposes. 'Man With A Movie Camera' is a wonderful film to score, with its startling montages and shifting cutting rhythms and so many other elements that lend themselves to music.

Vertov, in demonstrating the possibilities of the movie camera, showed the potential for cinema to reimagine life itself, and releasing an avalanche of raw creativity in the process. 'Man With A Movie Camera' shows us life in ways no one had ever experienced before.

And in doing this, Vertov produced a strutting celebration of life as it is experienced by most people, a piece of art that immortalizes the ordinary all around us by transforming it into something extraordinary. And I find this very moving, especially so in the wild and frentic last five minutes of the picture, the equivalent to the "grand finale." Something about it reaches out and grabs me and makes me feel glad to be alive, and gives me a sense of limitless possibilities.

Of course not everyone will respond to 'Man With A Movie Camera' in this way. So at the conclusion of Tuesday night's screening, I asked our relatively small audience (maybe 15 souls) for reactions. Without hesitating, one of my regular attendees blurted out, "It was AWFUL!" She was, alas, expecting a typical Hollywood story, which 'Man With A Movie Camera' is not.

And so we talked a bit about her response, and it forced me to try to express why I responded so strongly to the film. And I kept coming back to that "music for the eyes" idea. 'Man With A Movie Camera' is really built like a big Mahler symphony, with peaks and valleys, sometimes woven out of the most ordinary material, just like Mahler would sometimes do. (For example: building a funeral march out of a children's nursery song in his Symphony No. 1.)

But it was Mahler who told his pupil Bruno Walter that a symphony must form an entire world, and that's what Vertov accomplished in making 'Man With A Movie Camera.' Vertov used footage of real life to refashion something like a whole new world, or at least a world that would be new to viewers, both then and now.

And I found myself telling our audience that 'Man With A Movie Camera' was one of those silents to which the passage of time has added an important new layer of interest. The film, made more than eight decades ago now, allows us to see what has changed -- and, more importantly, what hasn't. Our gadgets may be different, but the rhythms of life that make up our lives in many ways continue unaltered. We still fall in love, get married or get divorced, grow old, and die. And we know this because Vertov shows it to us.

And in watching this on screen and playing music to support it, I feel connected not just to all those in my own age, but to all those who have gone before me, and who will come after me, too. We're all phrases and notes in a big symphony that started long ago and will not finish for a long time, if ever. Vertov compresses and restructures reality, as captured in 1920s Russia, in a way that helps me sense that even today.

It's enough for me to feel overcome, the same way I remember feeling in the Indian holy city of Varanasi a few years back, when I lit a floating candle for my ancestors and released it on the waters of the Ganges. Circumstances conspired to make me feel truly alive then, and part of something much bigger than myself. And the genius of Vertov's film is that it inspires the same feeling.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

'Man With a Movie Camera' (1929) in Manchester, N.H.

One reason to show Dziga Vertov's experimental avant-garde film 'Man With A Movie Camera' (1929) is all the incredible posters that were done to promote it. They're from that wonderful period of artistic inventiveness in the then-brand new Soviet Union—chiefly the 1920s, before Stalin took control of things and commandeered the creative arts to serve his own purposes. We're showing 'Man With a Movie Camera' on Tuesday, Jan. 3 at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library (free admission!), and get a load of some of these eye-popping designs from the original release:

The movie itself is a real trip — a blueprint for the much later film 'Koyaanisqatsi' (1983), although filmed in Odessa and in black-and-white. I had known about 'Man With a Movie Camera' for years but had not had a chance to sit down and watch it until just recently, in preparation for the screening we're doing on Tuesday, Jan. 3. (Yikes! That's tonight!)

A lot has been written about this innovative film. My own take is that it's a great example of a silent film that has become more interesting as time passes, as what Vertov captured receds further and further into the past. Seeing the film today allows us to contemplate not only what Vertov put on the screen, but also how much has changed, and (more importantly) how much hasn't.

I think it can be very rewarding—and grounding and comforting, too—to see how people lived some time ago, before the age of automobiles and gadgets and distractions that we now live in. And I think the rhythms and images that Vertov captured and assembled are perfect for this kind of contemplation.

And I hope the music that I do enchances this experience. I plan to break out my best faux Philip Glass, with the goal of using repetition to create that kind of hypnotic effect that I think works so well with Vertov's idea of cinema needing a new visual language. Just as a sculpture celebrates, say, the human form captured in a moment for us all to appreciate, Vertov's film captures "modern" life in a way that allows us to step back and ponder our own life and how we fit into the crazy quilt that he weaves on screen. And music, ideally, enhances that process, providing I don't screw it up.

And, as I said before, the passage of time has added another layer of richness to this contemplation. How much of what is depicted in Odessa nearly nine decades ago is similar to our own experience today? What perspective can we gain on our own sense of life as it rushes by, day after day, seemingly faster and faster?

Come to think of it, that makes 'Man With A Movie Camera' a great film to show as we pass from one year into yet another. Check your watch, turn the calendar, and sit back and think about the part you've been playing in the symphony of life—and what kind of music will be in the next movement.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

'Metropolis' and 'The Circus': Two days, two sell-outs!

Two sold-out screenings in two days: not a bad way to start 2012!

On New Year's Eve, a screening of 'Metropolis' (1927) at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. proved popular enough for us to schedule an encore screening later in January. That way people who were turned away would have at least a chance to catch the film later: specifically, on Saturday, Jan. 21 at 7 p.m. Admission is $15. At that point, Red River will also be showing 'The Artist' (2011), so for one night, two of the theater's three screens will be silent films. Imagine that!

Then, on New Year's Day, this afternoon's screening of Chaplin's 'The Circus' (1928) at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre attracted a standing-room-only crowd, the largest audience ever for our monthly silent film series there. It was a nice way to celebration the opening of the theater's big anniversary year. They've been showing films there since 1912, so this year marks the start of Wilton's second century of cinema.

In both cases, I think the energy of the crowd somehow got translated into the music that came out of me. (For 'The Circus,' we used Chaplin's own score, but I accompanied two short subjects beforehand, Keaton's 'One Week' and Laurel & Hardy in 'Big Business.') There's something about a full house that makes you want the accompaniment to be first rate, or at least that's the case with me. And I found that both screenings were pretty successful.

'Metropolis' is a massive film to do music for, but I had strong material (some from an earlier screening, some I developed new) and that helped it all hold together. The most important was what I thought of as the "mediator" theme -- important not only because it goes with Fredrick, the male lead, but because it's an aspirational melody which helps set the tone anytime any character wants something. Plus, the tune is built mostly out of arpeggiated chords, meaning it could easily function as accompaniment or counterpoint to other tunes I used: a "machine" melody with five rising and falling notes, a "hedonistic nightclub" tune used to represent base emotions, the Dies Irae from the Catholic Mass for the Dead (handy in any forboding situation, and fun to harmonize in various ways), and a kind of tick-tock melody for Freder's father, the master of Metropolis, helpful in capturing his character and in illustrating any situation in which someone is facing options or difficulties that are somehow related to him. (Which means anything, really.)

In relatively quiet sections, I'm surprised how all of this music can somehow fit together and play a role in scoring the emotional path of a scene. One theme will morph into another, sometimes in a weird key modulation, and then trail off in another direction, always to illustrate the ebb and flow of what's happening on the screen: not physical actions so much as the emotional temperature of a scene.

Because 'Metropolis' is set in THE FUTURE, I pushed the synthesizer into unusual territory for me, though nothing outrageous. Instead of the usual orchestral texture, a few sequences were done with some semi-weird combo settings to create the right atmosphere.

The most successful example of this is the famous laboratory scene where Rotwang transfers Maria's personality to his "Machine Man." For this, I used a setting called "Random Blocks" that has a kind of bubbly xylophone texture to it, and also a prominent echo every time a note is struck. By continuing to strike the note in rhythm with its own echo, or playing a melodic line with this going on, it's possible to get a very eerie soundscape going. This happened quite effectively on Saturday night and I was very pleased with how it came out, especially because tension was created not through volume but by quietly stacking chords, pulling in and out of dissonances, and generally adding patterns that had more and more notes.

On the down side, I think I peaked too early. 'Metropolis' has an extended triple climax. Three big scenes follow in succession -- the workers destroying the machines, the underground city getting flooded, and then the final confrontations in the streets and the cathedral -- any one of which would serve as a satisfying silent movie climax. But in 'Metropolis,' they follow one after another, and if you push too far too early, you're left with nowhere to go while there's still plenty of film left. I'm afraid I ran into this problem, and because I didn't pace it right, the last parts of the film may not have had the impact that they otherwise might.

Overall, I gave myself a B-, mostly because I felt I didn't plan it out well enough to help build excitement in the final sequences. Instead, I went too far too fast, which tends to tire out people's ears and this diminishes the film's impact. (Also, I messed up playing 'Auld Lang Syne' during the New Year's Eve champagne toast afterwards.)

As for 'The Circus' in Wilton, N.H.: I spend so much time accompanying programs in this venue, so it's instructive to just attend a screening and listen once in awhile. One thing that struck me was how sparse Chaplin's music could be at times: often just a little rhythmic vamp, and sometimes even less than that, especially in a big comic scene. It's a good lesson. Overall, I find Chaplin's silent film scores (the original ones for 'City Lights' (1931) and 'Modern Times' (1936), as well as ones he did later such as for 'The Circus') to be effective, but not very daring harmonically. But he knew what he wanted and it's a treat to hear what he came up with, even if in the case of 'The Circus' it was four decades after making the picture.

Alas, our screening was marred by a technical glitch. The disc, when projected at the 4:3 ratio, had everyone on screen squished vertically. I ran back and asked Dennis Markevarich to fix it, which he did by changing the setting to 16:9! This corrected the proportions, but the resulting image was missing about 10 percent from the top and from the bottom. Rats! Why does this happen? The good news is that most people seem not to have noticed, and there only a few key scenes in which the whole image was necessary, including shots of Chaplin on the tightrope.

Still, it's difficult enough to revive a silent film and show it properly to an audience. With all the things that can go wrong, it's a miracle that we can show 'The Circus' at all!