Tuesday, March 19, 2013

From the piano: 33rd Annual Cinefest
vintage film confab March 14-17, 2013

My usual state between films at Cinefest.

What happens when several hundred movie buffs get together to enjoy four straight days of obscure vintage cinema?

By "straight," I mean from 9 a.m. to midnight Thursday through Saturday, followed by a lighter schedule of just 9 hours of viewing on Sunday. And by "vintage," I mean little-known flicks from way back in the silent and early sound era.

What happens is you get Cinefest, one of the high points of the vintage entertainment calendar. Every March, the film faithful gather at a Holiday Inn outside Syracuse, N.Y. for a multi-day buffet of comedies, dramas, westerns, thrillers, propaganda films, musicals, home movies of Curly Howard, and more. They're often bizarre, but they're always interesting.

To learn more about this annual confab, check out a write-up by critic and author Leonard Maltin, who attends every year with his wife Alice.

Hey! That's me with Leonard Maltin and Alice.

But for a more limited view—my perspective from the piano bench as one of the accompanists, or just wandering the halls—read on.

It might seem a little disjointed, but that's what happens when you score five completely different films (and plenty of shorts) in a few days. Reality begins blurring with what occurred on screen. Also, the place where the music comes from is tapped so often and steadily that it becomes hard to turn off, or starts to behave like a leaky faucet. You begin imagining music while, say, walking across the parking lot to the pharmacy to buy beer or headache tablets.

Thursday, March 14: Day One of Cinefest was proceeded by the previous night's customary trip to the hospitality suite, where I scarfed a couple of sandwiches and helped carry in Leonard Maltin's luggage across the hall. Ah, show business.

Also in the musical line-up: Andrew Simpson, who was here last year, and Jon Mirsalis, one of the big names in the field and someone whose work I really admire. What a privilege to be playing on the same program with two heavy hitters!

And also a little intimidating. But I've found that my own style is what it is. So I can't get too self-conscious or try to be something I'm not — specifically, a concert pianist. Heck, I'd even make a lousy rehearsal pianist! Helpfully, Jon recounted how he felt he was terrible when he started out, which I actually found comforting.

On Thursday morning, accompaniment duties began at 10:45 a.m. with the first installment of 'Lame Brains and Lunatics,' a program of obscure silent short comedies from the Library of Congress compiled by Rob Stone and Steve Massa. Andrew took the lead on this; I followed along with tunes for a couple of shorts in between. Jon had asked to be excused from playing for silent film comedies, which seem to be pretty low on his list of good ways to spend what time we have on this planet, and I can understand.

After lunch, I got to hear Jon play (for me, the first time live) for 'Wild Beauty' (1926), an absurd horse drama that Jon's music transformed into compelling cinema. In live performance, Jon's style and musical vocabulary are instantly recognizable. I kept thinking: present at the creation. It's why people visit Niagara Falls in person rather just look at pictures of it. I was especially impressed with some deep and consistent rumbling that Jon produced for a stampede sequence — it all seemed to be coming from the bottom octave of the keyboard. Later, Jon said the effect was produced by "a lot of notes."

Andrew drew a difficult drama, 'The Whip,' (1917), another horse-related story (more about the humans) but a hodgepodge of scenes that didn't quite make sense and in some cases were clearly in the wrong order. He made it bearable with some great playing, I thought. Things fell together for him much more naturally in 'My Boy' (1921), a melodrama featuring child star Jackie Coogan, then fresh off his triumph in Chaplin's 'The Kid' the year before.

Andrew, with his quadro-textured Italian suitcoat, warms up for 'My Boy' on Thursday afternoon. Note the four buttons in different colors on his coat sleeve.

As cute as Coogan is as a child actor, my problem is that I can't help thinking of him as Uncle Fester in old 'The Addams Family' TV show. (As seen on right.) But Andrew's music helped sweep all that away, creating a score that wrung maximum emotional value from the film.

When the lights came up at the end, I was surprised to see Andrew in tears! How great to witness such genuine emotion, for a silent film or for anything, really. He mentioned that thoughts of his own two-year-old son prompted the response, and the film really got to him. Wow! In the presence of some powerful stuff there.

And me? I'd just spent the whole day listening to two masterful accompanists, with occasional breaks to wonder what I was doing on the same program.

But there I was. And my first at-bat came Thursday night after dinner, with music for a program of seldom-screened Mary Pickford pics: the short 'So Near and Yet So Far' (1912) and the early feature 'The Foundling' (1916), an unusual film because it was made twice — the original footage burned in a fire before the picture was released, so they went back and shot it all over again!

Alas, I was really all over the place for the short. Neither film nor accompanist seemed to settle down. But I had some "A List" ideas ready for 'The Foundling,' and once it started, I was relieved when things came together pretty quickly. The film was easy to follow, so I never lost the story thread, which makes a big difference. Things kept clicking, with one nice moment after another. As we approached the two-thirds mark, I got the feeling I was nailing it, and so headed into the last part playing with confidence.

And yes, at the big climax, I uncorked the full treatment of my main theme, cycling the first two bars of it (C Major and E minor) until Mary revealed her true identity to her father, which was my cue to push the melody forward to what Rachmaninoff would identify as the "purple moment," that one high point that everything else is leading to, in one way or another. It was one of those moments that worked out in a way that would have been impossible to plan for in advance, and I thought it was a fitting way to handle what was clearly the big emotional moment.

As the film ended, I rolled into a closing cadence and finished with a flourish. Lights up, generous applause, and the great relief that in my initial outing, I'd hit a home run. So many nice comments afterwards, especially from the Pickford people, who hadn't realized I was improvising the score and had never seen the picture before. And I was especially pleased when Jon Miralis said he thought the music was "haunting." Wow!

Afterwards, a kindly older gentleman complimented me on the way I had used a theme from a Schubert string quartet. This was surprising because I hadn't used one—well, at least not that I was aware of. But it's entirely possible that some fragment of melody I heard long ago lodged somewhere in my head and was only jarred loose by Mary Pickford's curls. You never know. Hey, with only 12 notes to work with, things are bound to sound similar once in awhile.

Andrew and Jon during the first day.

Friday, March 15: Long day for me, making up for the drought on Thursday: two features plus another round of short comedies from the Library of Congress under the 'Lame Brains and Lunatics' banner. I lucked out on the first feature, 'Ladies of Leisure' (1926), a generally light comedy with a few serious scenes salted in, but ultimately played for laughs. The material I picked for this seemed to fit well, and also got to do some faux-minimalist stuff during the dramatic scenes, which were pretty predictable. When the distraught woman hails a streetcar that says "To Brooklyn Bridge," you know what's going to happen. So the score held together, but just barely. By the ending, I was ready for lunch.

For that, we hauled down the road to Heidi's of Liverpool, an iconic hot dog stand, where I accidentally stuck my foot in wet cement in fine silent comedy style. After that adventure, I was next up for 'Bolshevism on Trial' (1919), a strange propaganda film for which I had high hopes. But entering the darkened room about 15 minutes before showtime, I was thrown when I found the audience watching a silent film being projected with no music! What?! Was I supposed to be up there? What was happening?

I made my way up to the front, thinking I'd somehow disappointed everyone by not being on hand, and was just about to sit down at the keyboard when the film clip ended, and then started again, this time with recorded sound. I immediately realized that the previous clip was unrestored film that lacked the synchronized discs, and was just being shown to give audiences an idea of what the materials looked like before they were put back together.

Still, it was enough to rattle me so that I had trouble finding my groove for the propaganda film. It ought to have been easy to play for, as the plot was transparent and the action entirely predictable. But the material I'd chosen to work with just wasn't a good match, and my efforts todo things like twist around phrases of the Star-Spangled Banner didn't generate much energy, either. I was glad when it ended, and felt it had been my low point so far. (Three features down, two to go.)

The highlight of Friday, I thought, was Jon Mirsalis playing for 'The Ice Flood' (1926), a Universal drama centered on exactly that: a big ice jam in logging country in the Pacific Northwest. Not any kind of classic, but the kind of picture you can imagine people getting really excited about when this was first released. It's in the same category of the fire film that Kevin Brownlow uses to start off his great "Pioneers" documentary of silent film.

Film archivist Bruce Lawton and me in the sprawling dealers' room.

After dinner, another session of 'Lame Brains and Lunatics' short comedies, and I wasn't happy with how this worked out, either. Andrew is a natural for this sort of thing, spinning out honky-tonk accompaniment without apparent effort, and I gain a lot from hearing what he does. I think I just need to sit and do one or two of these a day just to get into the habit of responding to them. Maybe it's just nerves—the unfamiliar room and the big and knowledgeable audience made it that much harder to forget myself and get inside these films.

Friday night gabfast in the Holiday Inn lobby. In plaid is Rob Stone from the Library of Congress; at his left is silent comedy guru Steve Massa, about to be author of 'Lame Brains and Lunatics,' a newly published book on the field.

Saturday, March 16: An early day. Hearty breakfast at Carl's Kountry Kitchen on Teall Avenue, then fellow accompanist Andrew Simpson and I arrived at the Palace Theater on James Street at 8 a.m. for a day of 35mm prints. Me, I was in what I can now identify as my 'mid-Cinefest funk' — that place where you feel you've done your best work and it's going to be tough to try to summon up the energy (and the ideas) to equal or surpass the mark.

As organizer Joe Yranski jokes, a theater sporting the name 'Palace' is often anything but. And yes, the Palace on James Street is far from grand. It's a modest one-screen affair in a funky neighborhood that somehow endured into the age of the multiplex, and only this past May ceased running first-run films when the economics finally gave out.

But I like the place, which wears the understated quirkiness of another era. Inside, there's just enough architectural schmaltz to make it endearing without being ridiculous. And the 38th anniversary wishes to Leonard and Alice Maltin on the marquee was a nice touch.

However, since they pulled the plug on first-run shows, the projection booth discipline has apparently deteriorated somewhat. We had films out of order and appear when they weren't supposed to, including one I was supposed to play, 'Come On Over,' a 1922 Colleen Moore vehicle about a gal from the Emerald Isle. 'Come On Over' started in the middle of a collection of technicolor fragments that Jon Mirsalis was playing. When it came on, Jon sat and waited, but when it was apparent the Moore film wasn't going to stop, he invited me to jump in, which I did.

Not the best set-up for effective film scoring, but I had some material in mind and was surprised when I picked up the film no problem and things began to jell. (I later joked that I'm one-quarter Irish, and the score reflected about that ratio.) I kept it light, as the film itself was light as a feather, driven by misunderstandings and with no real villain. Plot threads were tied up without much drama, and then it was time to party.

Joe Yranski had tipped me off in advance that 'Come On Over' contained an Irish jig near the end. Sure enough, when the old guy with the bagpipes was brought in, I was ready with open fifths droning in the bass and 6/8 figures whirling above, with a sharped fourth to add a little sparkle to the racket.

What surprised me, however, was the jig was not just a scene, but turned out to be the actual ending of the film. I didn't expect this, but as it unfolded and kept going, it became increasingly clear that we were done with the story and now it was time for everyone to dance. And one by one, they each got a turn—young folks, old folks, everyone. It was structured like a Bollywood movie!

This realization dawned on me at about the time the Colleen Moore character brought out a door to dance on as her final statement of jig superiority. This is the film's real climax! I had been holding back, but at that point I sensed it was time to amp things up, so began building to a climax, with the right hand working its way up the keyboard.

And sure enough, just as I got the place where there ain't no place else to go, the frantic jig scene faded out to 'The End.' So I poured on what little I had left, keeping the energy going for a few more bars to finish out with a clanging 6/8 flourish, tone clusters and all, including that sharped fourth. And as I realized I'd nailed it, I was overcome with a happiness and satisfaction that's hard to describe. But I can say that it ranks as one of the most satisfying moments I've had in accompanying silent films.

I even ended with a showy downward glissando!

And before I move on, let me tip my non-existent cap to Andrew Simpson, who opened the morning with a completely polished and totally compelling score for 'Three Women' (1924), a sophisticated Ernst Lubitsch drama. I thought this was Andrew's very best stuff of the event, a flawless match of music and movie.

After 'Come On Over,' we then played round robin for the Library of Congress 'Mostly Lost' presentation, with me drawing a Hank Mann comedy and a fragment of a Western that I thought was a comedy for the first few minutes until I realized it was being played straight. Luckily, I had chosen a strategy of "straight music" instead of comic in the hopes that it would bring out the comedy, so I wasn't in too bad a place when the comedy never came.

I went back to the hotel for the afternoon, and so missed one of the great moments of Cinefest 2013. Jon Mirsalis was accompanying the Norma Talmadge drama 'The Woman Disputed' (1928), and during a climactic battle scene, somehow the lamp fell off the keyboard. Not only that — it crashed onto the microphone that had been set up behind the keyboard, causing the bulb to break with a resounding smash that was broadcast to the entire theater.

Amazingly, all this happened in exact synchronization with a huge on-screen explosion, making it one of the most well-timed technical disasters in the history of live film scores. When we reconvened at the hotel on Saturday night, I had the honor of saying a few words to the crowd, and presented Jon a new bulb to make up for the one lost during his performance.

Accompanist Jon Mirsalis holds up his replacement light bulb.

Back at the hotel that night, my last feature was 'Partners Again' (1926), a "middle class Jewish" comedy that I don't think I had the right material for. But I kept things light and staccato throughout, which helped, and then did my best to lend some high velocity thrills to an airborne climax that seemed to last about five minutes longer than really necessary. Later, I was amazed to learn that I was playing for the first public screening of this film since its original release in 1926!

Still, I sensed I wasn't quite pulling off the approach I had chosen, so not the most satisfying experience of the event. As Groucho Marx said, "Sorry folks, they can't all be gems."

But afterwards, I was surprised when no less a film authority than Scott Margolin, who leads the Vitaphone Project, came over and congratulated me on what he said was a superb performance! I was grateful for his remarks, which were a reminder that people hear and respond to a score in many different ways.

Jon then sat down for a bravura score to 'Behind the Door' (1919), an intense 'atrocity' film from the Ince studios. Highlighted by incredible photography (especially at sea) and appallingly gruesome subject matter, Jon's music to this was the highlight of the festival for me.

Andrew finished the night with 'The Quarterback' (1926), a college football comedy starring Richard Dix and Esther Ralston. Andrew had started the day at 8:30 a.m. at the Palace, and here he was playing the last flick of the day, starting after 11 p.m. At some point this ceases to be fun, and as the opening titles rolled for 'The Quarterback,' I got the sense that we'd reached that spot. Still, Andrew turned in an energetic "rah rah" football score, which really impressed me with its effectiveness as well as its musicianship.

Your three accompanists: Jon, Andrew, and someone who should know better than to wear that much black. (Festival organizer Gerry Orlando is in back.)

Sunday, March 17: I had to get an early start back to home base in New Hampshire, so bid everyone goodbye without attending events of screenings. (Jon handled the one silent film that afternoon.) Surprisingly, I found myself reluctant to leave. Despite the ups and downs of wrestling with accompaniment, I had come to feel at home in this environment. What if this was really my job and I had to do this every day? If it was like the most recent Cinefest, I wouldn't mind at all!

But for now, I'll have to wait until March 13, 2014 to return for the final installment of my three-year engagement. Better start practicing.


  1. Jeff - It's interesting to hear your thoughts on your playing over the weekend. I think you did an excellent job with each of the films you accompanied.
    I saw most of the films and I believe you got the strongest applause of the weekend for your playing for The Foundling.
    Since Partners Again didn't impress me that much as a film I was able to pay more attention to your music. I agree with Scott Margolin - your playing fit the film perfectly.
    It was nice to get to meet and talk to you for a few minutes. I am looking forward to seeing (and hearing) you again next year.
    Russ Arnold

  2. Hi Russ,

    Thank you so much for sharing your impressions about Cinefest 33! I really appreciate your kind words, and it was great to meet you and chat with you a bit in between films. I'm thrilled that you and Scott and others thought what I did helped the films come across. That's the highest sort of compliment I could hope for, so thanks. Please don't be shy about keeping in touch and I hope to see you at screenings in the coming year and at next year's Cinefest as well. All the best!