Sunday, February 26, 2012

Notes on the 2012 Kansas Silent Film Festival

It's Sunday afternoon following this year's Kansas Silent Film Festival, so time for a few quick impressions.

What it is: The Kansas Silent Film Festival is a wonderful annual gathering of people who enjoy silent film, held the last weekend in February at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. Films are screened on Friday night and then all day Saturday. (Sometimes there are additional screenings on Sundays, but not this year.) All films are shown with live music, with the acclaimed Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra contributing several performances each year.

How they do it: Unlike most vintage film events, admission is free, and most films are selected for general interest rather than rarity or obscurity. As a result, attendance is huge: usually at least 400 and sometimes more than 700 people (mostly local folks) fill Washburn University's White Concert Hall, where the films are shown. It's a terrific chance to experience these films the way they were intended to be seen. A large audience and live music really makes a difference.

The people are great: The folks who stage this festival are a friendly bunch who go out of their way to welcome newcomers to the event and to silent film in general. The first year I came to Topeka (back in 2000, on a complete whim), I was invited to the after-festival party, and wound up carrying the prints of several of that year's films in the trunk of my rental car. My wife and I have been made to feel welcome every year since, and even now (13 years later), the organizers make an effort to welcome first-timers and include them in activities or events.

A lot of this stems, I think, from the efforts of founder Jim Rhodes (who welcomed me the first time I attended) and longtime director Bill Shaffer, who both have set a tone of friendliness that's a big part of the festival. It's shared among the many festival volunteers who make it all happen, Brigadoon-like, every year. Below, here's Bill Shaffer and longtime volunteer Enid Stendebach talking film with two fans at Bobo's Drive-In on Friday.

Also, it's a chance to socialize with silent film devotees from other parts of the country, although it's definitely not a collector-dominated gathering.

Texas film collector Jim Reid and me, in a snapshot by fellow Texan Bruce Calvert.

Interesting films: Every Kansas Silent Film Festival introduces me to at least a few worthy films that I wasn't familiar with, and this year was no exception. Leatrice Joy in 'The Clinging Vine' (1926), the featured Friday night attraction, was a revelation. What an audience reaction this gender-bender comedy got. And Fritz Lang's 'Spies' (1928), screened Saturday afternoon, was a film I would like to accompany someday as well. On Saturday night, the 1922 'Monte Cristo' featuring John Gilbert wasn't quite the barn-burner I'd hoped for, but still worth watching.

Greg Foreman accompanies the opening titles for 'Spies.' Photo by Melodie Foreman.

And you haven't really seen silent comedy unless you've seen it with a large audience. This year's program included Chaplin's 'The Cure' (1917) and 'Sugar Daddies' (1927), a pre-team Laurel & Hardy comedy actually starring James Finlayson; both were greeted by gales of rowdy laughter. Seeing the familiar films at the Kansas Silent Film Festival was like seeing them for the first time!

My "coming out" performance: In the "big news for to me" department, this year marked my debut as a feature-length accompanist at the festival. On Saturday morning, I got to sit down at the White Concert Hall's big Steinway and do music for Harry Langdon's great comedy 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' (1926).

What a kick to be on the same program with some talented accompanists! There's Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. And there's Marvin Faulwell, a theater organ enthusiast who's well known locally and an old hand at bringing silent films to life. And Greg Foreman, a pianist and organist who draws extensively from virtuoso keyboard works to create remarkable live scores. And Phil Figgs, the festival's volunteer coordinator, who also contributes music.

The musicians take a bow at the festival's conclusion. Photo by Melodie Foreman.

I'm not sure where I fit in. (In the above photo, I'm at far right.) For the past few years I've been doing "fill-in" keyboard work at the festival, happy to help with shorts and cartoons. But this year, I was thrilled to be given the chance to work up music for the Langdon film. His comedy seems to lend itself to my approach, and I figured it would be good practice for doing music at Cinefest in Syracuse, N.Y. next month.

So on Saturday, I sat down and off we went! 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' was shown via a good 16mm print, and almost immediately I got into the zone, forgetting about the audience (maybe about 400 folks, pretty good for a Saturday morning) and going with the film. It was just the movie, the keyboard, and me. Less was more: I found that by keeping things simple, I came up with what seemed to be delicate but effective underscoring for some of Langdon's antics. I think things got out of hand a little bit during the climactic cyclone sequence, but otherwise it seemed to work well, with the themes and melodies morphing quite effectively, I thought, as the film progressed.

I'm not often pleased with what I do, especially on solo piano, but this turned out quite well, I thought. I worked with a selection of a half-dozen tunes, including the "title" song, a lilting 6/8 tune for Harry himself, a stronger 4/4 melody (usually in the bass) for Harry's rival, a pompous chord progression for scenes set in a business conference room, and a theme for the romance between Harry and co-star Joan Crawford.

I also made use of an "evil" theme, though this is a picture without much evil in it. I used it only for the "landlord" scene near the beginning and for when some gun-toting deputies nab Harry for stealing a chicken. That's about it for "evil" in 'Tramp Tramp Tramp,' a film that still manages a rousing climax courtesy a cyclone.

Fellow accompanist Greg Foreman and me outside the hall. Photo by Melodie Foreman.

You don't go hungry: There may not be food allowed in the White Concert Hall, but there's plenty available outside it. In fact, so many breakfasts, brunches, lunches, and dinners are associated with the festival that I joke with Bill Shaffer that it should be renamed the "Kansas Silent Film and Food Festival. Here's me captured by festival volunteer Carol Yoho in a typical scene, about to sample apple pie with "satin freeze" (the local term for soft-serve ice cream) at Bobo's Drive-In on Friday:

It's personal: Finally, a key reason I keep coming back to Topeka is because The Kansas Silent Film Festival helped reconnect me with silent film. I've had an interest since adolescence, but hadn't been very active for quite some time until I came out to this event for the first time in 2000.

At first, I attended with the idea of writing a book that would draw heavily on the silent film era (and I still plan to), but that gradually morphed into doing music to help bring the films to life and get them in front of modern audiences. I tell my wife I've finally found my artistic niche: "collaborating with dead people." And it was the Kansas Silent Film Festival, and its concentrated dose of great films, music, and people, that pointed me in that direction.

What else can I say? Well, other than the dates are already set for the next Kansas Silent Film Festival. Mark your calendars: Friday, Feb. 22 and Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, will be here before we know it!

Oh yeah, the carpeting: I'm always mesmerized by the carpeting used in the White Concert Hall. It's an unusual pattern -- kind of like a floral variation on the international biohazard symbol -- that I've never seen elsewhere, and each year I don't really feel like I'm in Topeka until I've seen it once again.

I think it's the coolest carpeting ever. May it never need replacing.

For lots more on the Kansas Silent Film Festival, visit

Monday, February 20, 2012

In which I meet Mr. Kevin Brownlow

I'll get straight to the point. I met God! Or, in terms of silent film, I met the godfather.

Yes—on Friday, Feb. 17, I met film preservation icon Kevin Brownlow at the London office of his firm, Photoplay Productions. (The photo above is Take 1. Others are below.) We spoke for only a few minutes, as Mr. Brownlow was on his way to an event in Ireland. But it was thrilling to thank him personally for all his work on behalf of silent film, and also congratulate him on his Academy Award last year.

I'm sure I came off as a lunatic, but I imagine that's nothing that Mr. Brownlow isn't used to, given the passionate nature of much of the silent film community. But really — this man, author of books such as 'The Parade's Gone By' and creator of documentaries such as 'Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow' — has set the gold standard for showing the world the lasting value of the silent film medium.

And then there's 'Napoleon.' Brownlow has spent nearly his entire life recovering and restoring this 1927 masterpiece of French director Abel Gance. (Here's a picture of an elderly Gance and a young Brownlow back in the 1970s.) The reassembled picture now clocks in at something like 5½ hours, recreating Gance's vision and ranking as the silent film equivalent of 'Les Troyens,' the sprawling and impossibly ambitious opera by Hector Berlioz.

With its three-screen "polyvision" effects and projection demands (not to mention the need for 5½ hours of live music), few venues anywhere are equipped to properly present Brownlow's restoration. One of those is the Paramount Theater in Oakland, Calif., where this spring Brownlow and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will run 'Napoleon' with full orchestra just four times over two weekends: Saturday & Sunday, March 24 & 25 and March 31 & April 1.

These screenings, the first in the U.S. since an earlier (and shorter) version of 'Napoleon' went on tour in the early 1980s, are likely to be the only such events in North America this generation. So we're heading out for the screening on Sunday, April 1, which made the chance to actually meet Mr. Brownlow beforehand an extra special thrill.

What was I doing in London? Just in town to take in some theater and celebrate the anniversary of my proposal to my wife-to-be, which took place in February, 1995 in Hyde Park. (In front of the Peter Pan statue, if you can believe that.) But for awhile now I've been inquiring about renting some of Photoplay's 35mm prints of silents, which in some cases are the best available anywhere. One example: Brownlow's print of his own restoration of 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915), which I'd like to screen (and provide live music for) in Boston on some future Martin Luther King Day.

To do this, last summer I began corresponding via e-mail with Sophie Djian of Photoplay, who looks after the office for Brownlow and his business partner, Patrick Stanbury. We haven't settled on terms just yet, but when making plans to visit London, I figured it couldn't hurt to stop by and say hello in person.

At the time, I had no idea that the entire staff of Photoplay Productions consisted of just Sophie, Patrick, and Kevin. So when Sophie mentioned that "Kevin" would be out of the office on the day I planned to stop by, at first I didn't realize just she whom she was talking about.

Then it dawned on me — of course, it was Kevin Brownlow himself! I replied that I would still like to drop in, and Sophie graciously encouraged me to do so.

So, on Friday, Feb. 17, I found myself in a London taxi (running late for the noon meeting, no time for public transit) threading its way through the Primrose Hill neighborhood north of Regents Park, searching for 21 Princess Road. (Apparently this area is not part of the required "knowledge" for London cabbies.) We finally got as close as we could, given the tricky one-way streets, and then I hoofed the short distance to Photoplay's office — a relatively modest storefront tucked in among shops and other local businesses. Sunset Boulevard this was not.

Sophie, recognizing me from her perch inside the window, let me in the locked front door. The office had the air of an overcrowded library. Piles of cardboard document boxes rose from the floor, with walls hidden behind bookshelves, file cabinets, and vintage film posters. Here's a badly lit photo of the place, with Sophie at her desk.

Despite all there was to look at, my attention went almost immediately to a white-haired gentleman working at a desk tucked away in a back corner.

"Yes, Kevin is here," Sophie said, "but he's leaving for Ireland shortly."

Delighted with the chance to meet Mr. Brownlow, I strode right over to shake his hand and say a few words. Despite the unexpected intrusion, he was courteous and seemed appreciative as I tried (unsuccessfully) not to gush. After thanking him for work that's been a major influence on me, we chatted briefly about getting that 'Birth of a Nation' print to Boston (Mr. Brownlow immediately reminded me it required proper projection, meaning a triple-bladed shutter and variable speeed), we posed for a few quick in-office photos of Brownlow, me, and Napoleon, courtesy a poster hanging behind us. Here's one in which he has an "I've got to get to Ireland this afternoon" look on his face.

This experience produced Mr. Brownlow's most memorable remark of our brief exchange: "That camera sounds like a pigeon!" We talked about how I'm going to the April 1 screening of 'Napoleon' in California. We talked a bit about how he's scheduled to be a guest at the next "Keaton Festival," slated for September in Iola, Kansas, and how he was looking forward to it.

And by then I sensed he was really eager to get back to his work, so I thanked him and then stepped back into Sophie's care. Thus endeth my visit with Mr. Brownlow, but not to his world. I had promised Sophie lunch, and so — after she reminded her boss he was due at the airport in a very short time — we walked a few blocks to "Trojka," a local Russian restaurant and a favorite of Mr. Brownlow, apparently.

Over Ukrainian goulash (I think Sophie went for the "Gypsy Latke"), we talked silent film and Photoplay and so much else, all of it pleasant. Sophie's a lively woman, originally from France, and passionate about cinema of all eras. We then meandered back to Photoplay's office, now minus Mr. Brownlow. Sophie offered to show me around, so I got a tour.

First, here's Kevin's workdesk, where he does a lot of his writing. Notice the electric typewriter still in the position of prominence, though a fairly old model laptop occupies a competing perch.

So this is where so much magic has happened, at least since 1982, when Photoplay took up residence here. Below is a closer view of Kevin's cockpit. By the typewriter, note the boxes of index cards — once a basic organization tool for all writers, but now less commonly used.

The air of pilgrimage to holy cinematic ground intensified as we went down a narrow staircase to the basement, which houses an editing suite and the Photoplay film vaults, which are behind a glass door and climate-controlled. The basement, as in many older retail properties, extends out under the sidewalk, presumably to make it easier for deliveries to be put in storage in bygone days. This area under the sidewalk, a series of brick chambers, is where the Photoplay 35mm prints are stored.

We went through the doors for a closer look. Directly above us was the sidewalk, with light coming through glass tiles set in the pavement. (See the photo below.) While looking at the stacks of film cans of films such as 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921) and 'The Iron Horse' (1924), it was weird to occasionally glimpse the outline of people's feet overhead — I wonder if passersby realize how much film history they're stepping over.

In another space in the back, metal shelves held oversized document boxes that turned out to contain orchestra scores and parts for a large number of silent film scores. This was of special interest to me. At random, we pulled out a box containing music for 'Sunrise' (1927), the great F.W. Murnau film, and gave the conductor's score a cursory glance. It was heavily scored for full orchestra, with the pages resembling a Richard Strauss tone poem.

That's all that was possible, alas, as it was now 2:30 p.m. and I was due at a 3 p.m. performance of the brand-new staging of 'Singin' in the Rain' at the Palace Theatre on Charing Cross Road, back down in the West End.

Even the appeal of pawing over scores used by Carl Davis and other greats couldn't compete with the fear of being late for an expensive musical, so off I went, bidding Sophie goodbye and hailing a cab back into the city for 'Singin' in the Rain.' (Wow, yet another silent film-related activity! Am I in a rut?)

I hope there's at least a chance to see and greet Kevin Brownlow again in San Francisco, but odds are he'll be mobbed the entire time, and by the final showing of 'Napoleon' (the one we're attending) he'll probably be exhausted as well. But he's a link to so many of the personalities that loom so large from the silent era, having met them, interviewed them, helped restore their films, and more. Plus he seems like a genuinely nice person, and it was a pleasure to make his acquaintance. Maybe I'll get to the Keaton Festival in Iola this fall and follow up then — you never know.

If so, I'll try to keep things light. Maybe I'll ask him if he made that plane to Ireland. But if he missed it because of me, maybe that's something I don't want to find out. Perhaps it's best for me to take a cue from Mr. Brownlow's lifelong work, and just remain silent.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Completing a busy stretch of accompaniment

This past Sunday's screening of 'Sunrise' (1927) in Wilton, N.H. marked the completion of a fairly intense six weeks of silent film accompaniment. Starting with 'Metropolis' (1927) on New Year's Eve in Concord, N.H., I did 14 separate shows at venues that ranged from smalltown theatres to a sci-fi/fantasy convention in Boston, with an educational farm in New York State mixed in for good measure.

For a complete round-up, check out the 'Info on Past Screenings' page on this blog. The numbers don't add up, by the way, because the public list doesn't include two Friday morning screenings I did for a film class at Southern New Hampshire University. Silent film at 9:30 a.m.!

One reason I booked so many screenings during this time was that I'm hoping it helps me get ready for two high-profile public accompaniment gigs that are well beyond my usual orbit. The last weekend of February sees me at the Kansas Silent Film Festival, where I'll do music for Harry Langdon's 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' (1926) and some short films. And then mid-March finds me as one of a trio of accompanists at Cinefest, the large vintage film confab held each year in Syracuse, N.Y.

This last one is a bit daunting because my colleagues are two extremely capable musicians whom I consider absolutely tops in the field of silent film accompaniment: Phil Carli and Andrew Simpson. I've long admired Carli's work, which I've heard live and on many recorded scores. I'm less familiar with Simpson's music, but what I've heard has been top-notch. Still, they both hold doctorates in music and have long lists of accomplishments to their credit.

And then there's me. How do I get into these things? But still, I'm eager to go and contribute what I can, and benefit from the experience. And one way to prepare for this is what I did during the past six weeks: just play a lot of live shows and get the momentum going so there's something to work with when the big gigs arrive.

I find that it really helps. The last couple of screenings produced what I thought were splendid scores with minimal preparation. A double feature of 'The Sheik' (1921) and 'Son of the Sheik' (1926) on Thursday, Feb. 9 in Plymouth, N.H. fell together amazingly well, and 'Sunrise' (1927) on Sunday, Feb. 12 in Wilton, N.H. was a very satisfying effort. (For that one, I even managed to use my grandmother's old brass school bell to lend atmosphere for Murnau's shots of the village in sihouette.)

All of this was prompted, of course, by Valentine's Day, which is tomorrow (Tuesday, Feb. 14) as I write this. Last week's Valentino program at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse up in Plymouth drew about 35 people—not a bad figure, at least when compared to the grand total of five (five!) people who attended the January screening of 'The Birth of a Nation' at the same venue.

I had previewed 'The Sheik' that afternoon but did not prepare any special thematic material, just to see how I did playing the film 'cold.' Right off the bat, I thought I managed to set the atmosphere perfectly with a modal melody played in one of my synthesizer's 'World Music' settings, and things stayed solid from then on. With each change of scene, I shifted between World Music, Traditional Orchestra, and Strings, and each time I hit it right on the money. Created some pretty good stuff in the strings, I thought, when things begin to get hot and heavy between Valentino and Agnes Ayres—one sustained dissonance after another underneath climbing scales all based on the modal melody I started with.

I was less prepared for 'Son of the Shiek' but it still came out very well, I thought. (That's a goofy picture of me at the Flying Monkey, by the way, just to show how I don't prepare my personal appearance, either.) Most miraculously, I came up with a "running figure" for the first scenes of Valentino riding his horse, and this little figure proved to be extremely versatile, gradually becoming the heart of the score. And though as a matter of pride I try to create new material for the second picture of any double feature, because this sequel featured Valentino playing his father (the Sheik in the first film), I could justify reuse of the "sheik" theme from the first movie.

'Son' is a bit harder to score effectively, I think, because it's a richer and more confident film, with more humor embedded in it, and far less mannered than the original. But I stayed with it and tried to keep it all going throughout the program, which amounts to more than 2½ hours of film (and music) without a break.

I prefer no intermission not because I'm a sadist, but because I believe that the best silent film casts a spell, and once that spell is broken (by an intermission), it takes time to recover. So I generally like to play right through any program without a break. In terms of endurance, the Valentino double feature felt like 'The Birth of a Nation' with sand, but actually the time seems to fly. Once I'm 'in the zone' and absorbed in responding to a film musically, time ceases to exist.

This approach does have its drawbacks. Prior to 'The Birth of a Nation' in January, I had drunk maybe a half-dozen cups of tea in an unheated Chinese restaurant (ah, the glamour of New Hampshire in mid-January), and then found myself in, er, extreme discomfort starting about a half-hour into the show. (I remember thinking to myself, "Cripes, the Civil War hasn't even started yet!") So for me, 'The Birth of a Nation' was uncomfortable to watch, but not for the usual reasons.

For the Valentino double feature, I learned my lesson: fluids to a minimum, and visit the men's room just prior. And because we're comparing 'Birth,' let me point out that 'The Sheik' is full of blatant racism that's no less embarrassing than anything D.W. Griffith put before a movie cameras. In 'The Sheik,' not only are "Arabs" portrayed as uncivilized and uneducated savages (oh, but they're happy savages), but the film's love story is resolved only at the end, when Agnes Ayres observes that Valentino has "small hands for a Arab," which prompted the revelation (from Adolph Menjou, of all people)that the Sheik is actually the son of English and Spanish nobility. Oh, such joy in Western Civilization Land! Our audience couldn't help but laugh at this, and I didn't blame them.

'Sunrise' is a film I've wanted to do for a long time, but wanted to wait until I felt I had the technique and equipment and skill to do it justice. So putting it at the end of this run of screenings was kind of like my "final exam" prior to the gigs in Topeka and Syracuse. I'm proud to say that I was very satisfied with how it came out—I felt the music brought out the drama in the film, helped punctuate the big moments, but didn't get in the way. We had about 100 people on hand, and afterwards more than one gave me the ultimate compliment: that the music matched the movie so well that they forgot it was being created live. Nice!

I guess I need to find a way to easily post sound files to this site, as I would love to share the thematic material I used for 'Sunrise.' It was a very symphonic score, if I do say so, with no filled-out tunes but instead a collection of cells that all proved versatile in bringing director Murnau's visions to life for an audience in 2012. There was one especially important meldodic scrap that sounded quite insubstantial at first, but later morphed quite on its own into something menacing and heart-breaking at the same time, and was immensely useful in keeping the emotional tempo of the film going along with Murnau's at-times incredible visions.

Speaking of which: I would love to visit the city portrayed by the City Woman near the start of the film, where dance bands come equipped with a half-dozen Sousaphones all swaying in unison. What is it with Murnau and horn bells? Remember the trumpet in 'The Last Laugh' (1924)? Also, there's defintely a thing in 'Sunrise' for windows: the opening glass train shed, the windows into the dance hall, and so on.

Back to the music: the only actual "tune" in the score was a Peasant Dance that George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor do near the end of the city scenes. This tune, which keeps going through my head this morning, just came to me the morning of the show, and is related to the jingle for "Sunbeam Bread" that I had been hearing on the radio all week long prior to this. Funny how things evolve and cross-pollinate.

One thing I find interesting about 'Sunrise' was how Murnau made it seem timeless. There are very few references to contemporary culture or specific locations. The city is simply a city. The country is simply the country. Is it in Europe? America? Shangri-la? There's a lake and a row boat, and a wedding in a church—simple and basic things that we still accept today as part of the landscape around us. I think that helps lend the film a universal quality that still comes through today, even though clearly many things have changed (barbershops, photographers) in the 85 years since this picture played in theaters.

Probably the funniest reaction was from a colleague of mine, who mistook Murnau's universal urban setting as some kind of science fiction conceit, which prompted this response: "What kind of city of the future has a carnival in which you heave things to make piglets go down a slide?"

Okay, so now it's time to focus on 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' and get ready for Syracuse after that. Better get out the Hanon technical exercises...

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Last night Garbo, tomorrow Valentino!

A screening of 'The Kiss' (1929) last night (Tuesday, Feb. 7) at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library drew about 50 folks to check out Garbo's last silent. And tomorrow night, it's a Rudolph Valentino double feature at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.

Geez, can you tell Valentine's Day is coming up soon?

And so our mini-festival of silent film romance continues here in the Granite State: up to Plymouth on Thursday, Feb. 9 for 'The Sheik' (1921) and 'Son of the Sheik' (1926) starting at 6 p.m., and then to the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, Feb. 12 for a 4:30 p.m. screening of F.W. Murnau's legendary romance 'Sunrise' (1927).

I have especially high hopes for interest in 'Sunrise,' and not only because it's a good flick for Valentine's Day. What with 'The Artist' (2011) up for a slew of Oscars, and the status of 'Sunrise' as a winner in the very-first Academy Awards, it might just prompt a few curious folks out to the theater to see one of the originals. I saw 'The Artist' recently and enjoyed it, but was bothered by the low quality of the 35mm print that a local theater was running: it was on color stock and done very inconsistently, with some parts having a greenish tinge to them and others looking gold. I've heard a few people advising movie-goers to see it in digital if at all possible, where the black & white looks reasonably good. But of course most silent films weren't truly black & white in their original releases, so...well, let's not get into it here. :)

I was pleasantly surprised at the turnout for 'The Kiss,' which was well above what we've been getting at the monthly Manchester library screenings. We'll typically get about a dozen, maybe 20 people, tops. But with the Garbo film, probably 50 people piled in. As I was warming up, they kept on coming and coming, all adding up to a good crowd.

And they were with the film the whole way, reacting strongly to all parts of it, including the comedy interspersed among the serious sequences. I did the score entirely in strings, without any change in settings on the sythesizer, and I think it worked quite well, given the film's content and mood. As an added bonus, everyone stayed for a Q&A session that lasted a good half-hour, and then more conversation afterwards. All in all, a good night for silent film in 2012.

We'll see how we do with Valentino at the Flying Monkey, where attendance has also lagged this winter. I mean, last month's screening of 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) drew a total of five people, a new low. A snow squall (one of very few this season) blowing through our area that day didn't help, but still. I don't mind, really, because these screenings are valuable as opportunities to practice the craft.

But at some point, if the audience isn't turning up, you have to decide if all the effort is worthwhile. I still have hope for the monthly silent film series at the Flying Monkey, as we have some blockbusters coming up this spring and titles are scheduled through June. So we'll see.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Preparing for 'The Kiss' (1929)

I'm looking forward to tonight's screening of 'The Kiss' (1929), a late silent that I've grown to appreciate after looking at it a few times. The screening, by the way, is Tuesday, Feb. 7 at 6 p.m. at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library, 405 Pine St.; admission is free.

In preparing music for this flick, I've become very impressed with the visual story-telling in this picture, noteworthy as MGM's last silent release. Although it's not a spectacular blockbuster, it's a well made film that shows how fluent directors and actors had bcome in the silent film art by the late 1920s.

Visually, the film is filled with all manner of lively and creative shots: tracking shots, extreme close-ups, mirrors, and so on. But you get shifting tones even at the basic level of the rhythm of the performances, even without music.

The film's opening scene demonstrates that perfectly: a guide is taking visitors through an art gallery so fast as to be comical, but as the group finally sweeps out of frame, we are suddenly left in the midst of a torrid love scene with Greta Garbo and Conrad Nagel, setting the main plot immediately in action.

What a perfect way to jump-start a plot, to carry us breathlessly from our world into the story's world. It works well even without music! But I'll try to underscore it to bring out that contrast between the brisk comedy and intense romance.

Throughout the film, director Jacques Feyder (that's him on the right in the above photo) uses the camera and the medium of visual story-telling with creative flair. There are multiple exposures (in the tennis scene) and fantasy sequences in which Garbo re-enacts a scene in her mind, making it up as she goes along, with the hands of a clock spinning crazily out of control as she changes her mind.

Look how the scrawny detective, played by George Davis, trails Garbo by watching her reflection in store windows. And just as basic story-telling, the first time we see THE GUN in a opened desk drawer clearly sets the stage for bad things to come. Interestingly, later on we do NOT see the gun being used, but knowing where it is lends the scene immense power, even if it's staged behind a closed door.

Alas, it's not a great silent because it does rely a bit heavily on dialogue-driven intertitles, and the ending is kind of a let-down in my opinion. (Judge for yourself: come see the picture!) But as an example of how fluent the makers of silent film had become just as the medium was being phased out, 'The Kiss' stands as an excellent example.

And finally, if you're having a little trouble getting in the right spirit for Valentine's Day, then a film titled 'The Kiss' might help, too.