Friday, January 4, 2013

Coming this month: Fields, Keaton
and a repeat of 'Woman in the Moon'

Happy New Year! we all move just a little bit further away from the time when movies came without soundtracks. In fact, so much time has passed since the silent film era that we're now approaching the centennial of some big titles: D.W. Griffith's 'Birth of a Nation' (1915) turns 100 in just a couple of years.

But for now, January 2013 brings with it some worthy screenings. We're doing a less-well-known Griffith title, 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925) starring W.C. Fields, of all people, on Thursday, Jan. 10 at the Flying Monkey moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H., and then Buster Keaton's underrated (I think) boxing comedy 'Battling Butler' (1926) on Tuesday, Jan. 15 at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library.

I'll post more info on these films a bit closer to their screenings; for now, details are available on the "Upcoming Screenings" calendar page on your right.

What I'm most excited right now about is the screening of Fritz Lang's epic lunar voyage adventure, 'Woman in the Moon' (1929), that we did on New Year's Eve at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. It was a sell-out! People were actually turned away—so we're doing an encore presentation on Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 7 p.m.

I can't tell you how pleased I am by this, because I've been wondering about 'Woman in the Moon' since I first discovered it several years ago. I've had an interest in silent film nearly my whole life, but somehow hadn't heard about this one. A sci-fi adventure to the moon by Fritz Lang? Why wasn't it more well known? What could be wrong with it?

Turns out a lot of things worked against it. 'Woman in the Moon' came at the very end of the silent film era (October, 1929) when all the public wanted were talkies. Like other Murnau epics, it got edited down to versions as short as one hour, making nonsense of the plot. And finally, the Nazis did their best to pull it out of circulation because of all the on-screen rocketry, which had military importance.

So it remained unseen, even as many of its elements filtered down through the wave of sci-fi films starting in the early 1950s with movies such as 'Destination Moon' (1950). Meanwhile, Lang's silent epic 'Metropolis' had achieved cult status, continually shown and embraced by succeeding generations.

And the years rolled by, and we actually went to the moon in 1969, using some of the techniques shown in 'Woman on the Moon' some 40 years later. But the film didn't get much attention even then—perhaps because not enough time had passed for it to become as oddly interesting as I find it today.

But 'Woman in the Moon' wasn't totally forgotten. About 10 years ago, the Murnau Stiftung in Germany undertook a remastering from the best surviving 35mm elements. The result was a pristine-looking restoration available on DVD with an excellent score by silent film accompanist Jon C. Mirsalis.

After reading about the film a few years ago, I was curious about what it was really like, so got myself a copy in the winter of 2010-11. The night I watched it, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was really, really impressive filmmaking about a monumental subject by one of the great silent directors. To me, it was like the sudden discovery of another symphony by Beethoven, or another play by Shakespeare!

Since then, I've waited to program the film, mostly for the right opportunity and also so I felt my musicianship was up to it. But all along, I've been really curious about how 'Woman in the Moon' would play with an audience. Would it hold together as a mind-bending space adventure from a bygone era? Or would it just seem ridiculous, silly, and trivial? Or worse, boring?

You never know. Until you actually show a silent film to an audience in a theater with live music, you just never know.

Well, New Year's Eve is the perfect occasion for a film like this: an excursion into the past to explore a future that would never come to be. And I'm pleased to report that at our screening on Monday, Dec. 31, 'Woman in the Moon' was a complete triumph. The audience loved it!

It held people's attention from the start, with the villain 'Walter Turner' (played by Fritz Rasp sporting an Adolph Hitler haircut) getting a particularly strong reaction during the extended exposition prior to the actual moon voyage.

What surprised everyone, I think, was the amount of comedy that's threaded throughout this ultimately serious film. I'm talking intentional comedy, too—not stuff of the "wink wink, we know better now" variety, but stuff Lang clearly intended as comic relief for the more serious doings.

I tried to bring this out with the music, which I think it helped. Not with funny ha ha music, but just lighter in texture and obviously "different" from the serious elements. Otherwise, I think many folks today would not automatically be sure they should laugh at what they see.

A good example is the pop-eyed neighbor who lets Willy Fritsch use his phone, and then faints dead away at the sight of what Fritsch has done to the plant on his desk.

But 'Woman in the Moon' really takes off (har!) during the extended launch sequence, which is just one great scene after another, all building to the actual blast off, which produced gasps of astonishment.

And then it's back to comedy, with a young stowaway being discovered and then the scenes in zero gravity, which are played for laughs. It was all welcome relief after the intense launch scenes and the equally dramatic landing sequence, which builds quickly. The images of the scientist glued to the window, raising his arms in exultation as the lunar surface races by outside, ought to be one of the master scenes from the silent film era, I think.

And the scene of the crash landing itself produced perhaps the biggest reaction of all—another astonished gasp, with one guy crying "Oooow!" And even when things were at their most serious, such as the decision on who will stay on the surface, Lang would insert light touches such as the kid keeping score with a piece of chalk. And it all worked wonderfully.

So in terms of pacing, Lang and screenwriter (and his soon-to-be-ex-wife) Thea von Harbou really knew what they were doing. We discovered 'Woman in the Moon' to be a film that's full of amazing images and faces that have only grown more interesting with time, and constructed as sturdily as the space ship that's fired off to the moon. It was one of the great silent film experiences I've had, and I'm so pleased to be presenting it again on Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. For more info, please visit Hope to see you there!

One postscript: Afterwards, we sang "Auld Lang Syne" to ring in the New Year, and only now do I realize how appropriate that title is, given the director of 'Woman in the Moon.' And last year, we showed 'Metropolis,' so there's a pattern here.

Auld "Fritz Lang" Syne; the director (at right) on the set of 'Woman in the Moon.

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