Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What to tell about 'Potemkin' and
what not to tell about 'Tell It To The Marines'

Who are these people? We don't really know, and that's an important element of the power of Eisenstein's 'Battleship Potemkin.'

Memorial Day weekend brought screenings of two military-themed silent films, both of which I scored for the first time. 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925) was shown on Friday, May 24 at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H., while 'Tell It To The Marines' (1926) was featured on Sunday, May 26 at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.

I know it was kind of a stretch to program 'Battleship Potemkin,' a Soviet-era propaganda movie, for Memorial Day weekend. But it's one of those big "must see" silents, and I'd never done it before, so I chose it rather than some other more obvious title such as 'Wings' (1927), which I've done many times.

As a payoff for my oddball programming notions, the turnout for 'Potemkin' was slim: a grand total of 16 people. But Eisenstein's film rose to the occasion, providing vivid images and sequences that still held power even in this video-saturated age, I thought. Even after all this time, it was possible to sense what it was about this movie that excited so many people.

I began thinking of the music about a month ago, when I heard a radio broadcast of the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition,' but in the Stokowski orchestration, not the more familiar Ravel version. Although I hadn't yet previewed 'Potemkin,' that was the sound I would go for: modal, rhythmic, and inevitable.

But I didn't do anything further until the week before, when I came up with a plaintive rising and falling theme that carried a built in "trudge" to it, which seemed perfect. The theme also included an octave leap that could be altered for development purposes, giving it all kinds of possibilities. It turned out to be versatile enough to carry the whole picture.

Our post-film discussion lasted almost as long as the picture, and produced some interesting insights. Unlike traditional films that tell a story through the eyes of specific characters, 'Potemkin' was all about the collective mass of people. The only "character," if there was one at all, was the sailor who became a martyr, and as such had more screen time dead than alive.

But as a propaganda film, 'Potemkin' had bigger issues on its mind—issues that Eisenstein clearly felt transcended the individual stories that could have been highlighted. On the Odessa steps, who was that woman with the baby carriage? We don't really know. Same thing with the guy who blames the Jews for trouble, and is then beaten by the crowd. Who is he? Where did he come from? Why does he feel this way? We are not given any information, and perhaps that's the point.

So, by keeping things in the abstract, Eisenstein made the film actually seem more universal. Because we don't have a lot of details about the woman and her baby, we are free to assign to her whatever significance we can draw from our own life. We perhaps do this even without realizing it. The guy who blamed the Jews: We've all known or seen someone display bigotry that is shocking to us.

In this case, there's a convenient mob to dispense punishment. This perhaps reinforces the idea of the collective wisdom of the crowd, which I think itself is a not-so-distant cousin of that time-honored shaper of human behavior, peer pressure. But that's a topic for another day.

Back to Eisenstein's lack of information, which is at the heart of 'Potemkin' and its power. It's the same dynamic that powers all "collaborative" art. By "collaborative," I mean forms that do not provide everything, but are incomplete and require audience members to use their imagination in some way. Radio (sound but no pictures) comes to mind. Silent film (picture, but no dialogue) is another one. But Eisenstein's film stretched this dynamic, taking it one step further by eliminating character.

The risk of doing this, of course, is that the people in the film could wind up as nothing more than cartoons or caricatures. In Eisenstein's case, it worked, I think, because the ideas behind the images were so basic and powerful. And also, the visuals had enough power to hold an audience's interest throughout the picture.

All of this makes it a great film for music, which Eisenstein recognized. Somewhere, I read that he wanted the music be rhythmic and driving throughout, and so that's what I tried to do. The film is constructed almost like a symphony: An intense opening movement (the battleship mutiny), a slow movement (the body displayed for Odessa residents), a wild scherzo (the Odessa steps sequence), and then a grand finale (the final confrontation with Russian imperial forces).

It ended up being a very satisfying experience, I thought—one of those times where the music came together just right, surprising even me in how effective it seemed to be.

Lon Chaney looks to make a man out of William Haines in a very different kind of propaganda film.

A completely different approach to filmmaking was shown two days later with MGM's 'Tell It To The Marines' (1926), a military-themed comedy/drama starring Lon Chaney (for once not made up to look like a freak), William Haines, and Eleanor Boardman. With the urgency of World War I fading, making screens safe for military pictures, the goal of this film was simple: to make money for MGM. And as the studio's second-highest grossing picture that year, it clearly accomplished that goal.

But there was a propaganda element to it after all. 'Tell It To The Marines' was made with the cooperation of the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Navy, and it certainly polished their brass, so to speak. Not only could it serve as a recruiting film, there are amazing sequences filmed at sea aboard the U.S.S. California, with what seems to be the whole Pacific fleet in tow close behind. Whatever it took for MGM to get these scenes, it was worth it, as they add a real level of excitement and authenticity to the picture, and also form a priceless record of our military in action in a bygone era.

So it was interesting to point out to our audience (about 100 people) that even though we as a nation had joined in World War I, in the 1920s the United States considered itself a nation that was not in the war business. That's so different from today's endless state of war, and the U.S. role as policeman of the world.

Back then, there was a feeling among many that after 'The Great War' (it was not yet 'World War I'), and with the establishment of the League of Nations, there would be no more need for involvement in wasteful and pointless global conflicts. Hitler and the rise of fascism was still in the future. Indeed, in 'Tell It To The Marines,' the most significant military action comes in the form of rescuing nurses and hospital personnel from the clutches of what are described as "Chinese bandits."

So there's a certain carefree spirit about 'Tell It To The Marines' that even Lon Chaney's menacing drill sergeant can't quite dispell. (Chaney, with his bulldog companion, seems to have served as a model for the character Sergeant Snorkle in the Beetle Bailey comic strip.) Despite a violent climax, 'Tell It To The Marines' is a sunny, and often funny, movie.

But there's a twist to this tale that neither the moviemakers nor the military could have anticipated, and which makes it so appropriate for Memorial Day. The U.S.S. California, pride of the Pacific Fleet and so impressive and prominently featured in this picture, would go on to be at anchor in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when it was sunk with the loss of 100 lives during the Japanese surprise attack.

The ship would later be refloated and rebuilt, and go on to serve into the 1950s. But nothing could replace the loss of those who gave their lives in service to their country. And the knowledge we have today of what would happen—that not only would the ship be sunk, but the whole planet would soon be plunged into another global conflict—lends a special poignancy to 'Tell It To The Marines,' and indeed many war films of the silent era. There's an innocence that comes through, and an idealism that's both poignant and at the same time worthy of our own contemplation, a century in the future.

I thought about this before the screening, and decided to not mention the ship's fate to our audience until after the film was over. I wanted to give people the chance to enjoy the movie on its own terms and for what it was, like audiences of the 1920s, rather than always thinking about how the ship would later be sunk in an infamous attack. As they say, ignorance is bliss. That's not always true, of course, but in the case of trying to present a silent film as it was intended, sometimes there's no other way.

It's the same thing with Harold Lloyd's missing fingers. If you mention it before a screening of 'Safety Last' (1923), all an audience member can think about as Harold lunges for the clock is "Oh my God, he's missing some fingers!" Lloyd knew this, and wisely kept his absent digits a secret for a very long time, lest they overshadow the character and the story and everything else that goes into creating the magic of cinema.

That same principle applies to William Haines, I think. Prior to showing 'Tell It To The Marines,' I described him as a leading man who at the time was as popular as, say, Tom Hanks, and let it go at that. It was only after the picture that I said that he was openly gay, and became the subject of a great deal of industry controversy in the 1930s, when he refused to enter into a studio-arranged "sham marriage" to enhance his "leading man" status with Middle America.

Haines courageously said no, refusing to live a lie, and so gave up his lucrative movie star status. And he would go on to establish, yes, a fabulously successful interior decorating business! For decades, anyone who was anyone among the Hollywood elite would have interiors done by William Haines Designs, whose clients included Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The firm is still in business, even though Haines himself died in 1973.

And of course you can't mention any of this prior to a film starring the guy because no matter what happens on screen, all people will think is, "Hey, there goes Nancy Reagan's gay interior decorator!"

Probably not the best frame of mind to take in a gung-ho picture like 'Tell It To The Marines.'

P.S. I would be remiss if I didn't thank the crew of the Londonderry, N.H. FedEx depot, without whom there would have been no screening of 'Tell It To The Marines.'

What happened was on Thursday, May 23, yours truly realized he didn't actually have a copy of the film, which had been scheduled last fall. Oops! A quick search found a seller in California who could ship it on Friday via FedEx overnight. Problem solved!

Or so I thought, until Saturday, May 25 at 3 p.m., when I checked the online tracking and found it had arrived in New Hampshire, but was being held for delivery until Tuesday, May 28!

What?! I needed it for a screening on Sunday, May 26. I couldn't get a local phone number for FedEx in Londonderry, but found it the office was open until 5 p.m. It's one town over from home base, so I barreled out there to see what was going on.

Turns out "overnight" at FedEx means next business day; for Saturday, you need to specify that and pay extra. Ooops! But wasn't my package right there? Yes, they said, but it was somewhere in several containers that weren't due to be opened until Tuesday, so finding it would be like finding, yes, a needle in a haystack.

And that was that, except I had nothing to lose by being a pest, which is what I proceeded to be, but in a nice way. It wasn't busy, so couldn't someone look for it? I finally mentioned that it was for a Memorial Day program, and so it wouldn't be any use to me on Tuesday...please?

To their credit, the FedEx folks actually heard me out, and finally agreed to try looking for it, even inviting me into the FedEx employee lounge and making me a fresh pot of coffee. It took about a half-hour before the package was found, to my great relief.

I guess it's lucky that I got there with enough time for them to find it, and also that they took pity on me. Even so, I can't say enough for their willingness to go above and beyond. FedEx, you have a customer for life. Or until the next shipping fiasco. (Just kidding!)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Musical adventures in public schools:
Accompanying silent film and a live 'Hunchback'

Buster and his army of would-be brides can still crack up the middle school crowd.

Did you know kids don't learn to read or write in cursive anymore?

Well, school is where you're supposed to learn, and that's something I learned last week during a spate of accompaniment gigs that took me to a couple of local public schools.

The revelation that kids aren't learning cursive came during a screening of Buster Keaton's 'Seven Chances' (1925) at Antrim (N.H.) Town Hall, where each spring I do a program for students at nearby Great Brook Middle School.

When Buster's girlfriend composes a simple handwritten note on-camera, I was surprised when the program's coordinator, Mrs. Maryanne Cullinan, read the note out loud "for those of you who don't know cursive."

Don't know cursive? Really? Turns out that cursive has apparently become a casualty of the keyboard. Districts in all parts of the nation have quietly abandoned the teaching of cursive, which is seen as increasingly irrelevant and not worth the time and effort. "Keyboarding" is in, cursive is out.

Wow! Onward marches the human race, I guess. But that's one more little thing that makes silent film more of a curiosity that has to be explained. (The same thing could be said about me as well!) I used to imagine myself in old age reminiscing about getting through college using a typewriter and Korect-O-Type. Now I can add "we used to read and write in cursive, too" to my old fogy repertoire.

The good news is that unfamiliarity with cursive didn't stop the students from completely embracing 'Seven Chances.' Yes, they made some funny noises when Buster and his gal kissed on-screen (it's middle school, after all), but they were fully engaged from start to finish. The last 15 minutes (culminating with the rock slide) was greeted by constant, astonished laughter, to borrow a phrase from Walter Kerr's great book 'The Silent Clowns.'

Odd that Keaton himself thought so little of 'Seven Chances,' when I've found that audiences totally buy it. It, well, rocks. I'm looking forward to doing music for it at the next Buster Keaton Festival in Iola, Kansas this coming September, when I'm slated to be the house accompanist. (Hey, another rock reference!)

Another recent public school project wasn't silent film, but a distant cousin. It was doing underscoring for a live action high school play.

Last fall, I got a call from Fran White, who's in charge of the theater program at Merrimack (N.H.) High School, which is the town next door to where I live.

For her spring production, Fran was staging a dramatic adaptation of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame,' and wanted to know if I'd provide musical underscoring to help it all hold together. She knew of me, and knew of the Lon Chaney silent film version, so I got the call.

The dates were open, so I didn't hesitate. Yes! I had just finished accompanying several presentations of 'The Moving Panorama,' a 19th century tapestry depicting the story of John Bunyan's 'A Pilgrim's Progress.' Presented by a museum in Saco, Maine, it was an interesting change of pace from silent film accompaniment, and I thought the high school production of 'Notre Dame' would be equally absorbing.

So next thing I knew, it was May, and I was being fingerprinted in the basement of the superintendent of school's office, a prerequisite for working with kids in the public schools these days. They'd been rehearsing for a couple of months, so the show was pretty much all together by the time I came on scene.

Some of the 'Hunchback' cast on stage prior to a run-through.

All it took was one session with Fran to go over where music was required (scene changes and the like), and then she left the rest up to me. So I set up my Korg synthesizer and there I was, doing what I usually do in a darkened theater, only now with real live actors and actresses on stage, and actually speaking lines!

And I found that the same dramatic instincts developed in supporting silent film also apply to stage productions, with the exception of the need for continuous music. And a little goes a long way: just throwing a bass note underneath an ominous scene can add a whole extra dimension to what's happening onstage.

So sometimes it's more like sound effects or atmosphere rather than full musical accompaniment. Interesting, and something I'd like to work on back in the silent film arena.

Because it was a stage play and not a musical, I had to be careful to avoid overdoing the music. And I had to be extra careful about not covering up any spoken lines, which I did by trying to keep any underscoring in different ranges than the voices of the characters. After we'd run through the show a couple of times, the only request Fran had was for me to not do any music during scenes with just two characters.

I really liked the way she put it: that the music was so strong and had such a presence that it was like a whole additional character, and so was too much for those scenes. Now there's someone who should work for the state department!

And the kids were great! Many cast members were seniors, and so the end-of-year sense of excitement was palpable. I'd lost track of what that felt like, but there it was! The whole scene brought back the best vibes of when I did a lot of theater, including playing Billy Bigelow in my senior class production of 'Carousel.' (I had hoped we would do Sweeney Todd, but no dice.)

My God, was that 30 years ago? But there we were all over again, reinvented as students at Merrimack High School, and now putting on 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame.'

If you worry or wonder about young people today, do what I did. Find a way to be involved in a local high school. It'll reaffirm the idea that most kids are capable and considerate young people with good heads on their shoulders and as full of dreams and possibilities as you were at that stage in life. (And I hope you still are.)

As I say about the college classes I teach, I get as much if not more from the students than they get from me. The same thing was true about doing 'Hunchback' at Merrimack High School. It was a very rewarding experience, and a thrill to help them put on a show that drew strong audience reaction for all three performances.

So best of luck to the graduates! I really enjoyed working with everyone, I hope you have a great summer, and to those going into the healthcare field, I really look forward to someday reminiscing about my typewriter while you care for me in some nursing home of the future. :)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Four days, three states, three screenings:
On the road with Spies, Peter, Thief in 35mm

Here's me posing with 'The Thief of Bagdad' ready to roll in one of the Somerville's two Norelco 35mm projectors.

A few notes from a crazy burst of accompaniment: one that saw three big shows in four days. And in three separate states no less. And all this while I'm in the midst of doing underscoring for a high school production of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' at a nearby high school. So before it all disappears in a blur, a thought or two...

• Thursday, May 9 brought Fritz Lang's 'Spies' (1928) at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H., about a hour's drive north of home base. Healthy crowd of about 45 on hand for a film that's not one of the big titles, but I think should be. It's certainly a big film for music, not just in terms of length (2½ hours) but also in terms of possibilities. In scoring it, basically I wrung the hell out of two main themes: an "espionage" motif that I thought of as the "male" theme, and a nice flowing tune I recently come up with that worked great as the "female" melody.

The music fell together quite nicely, with lots of powerful modal stuff lending an elemental quality to the whole thing. Afterwards, two separate people came up and said they'd never been to a silent film screening with live music in a theater before, and had no idea at the level of tension and excitement that was possible. Indeed, 'Spies' is structured so that the last half hour is one exciting sequence after another. So overall, very satisfying.

• Saturday, May 11 saw 'Peter Pan' (1924) as the opening title in this season's silent film series at Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall, which is a 2½-hour haul one-way. But I don't mind because it's a great place for silent films, the organizers and the audience are all terrific people, and I love Sal's, an excellent little Italian restaurant I found on West Street in downtown Rutland. (Prior to the show, I had the chicken corn chowder.)

Usually attendance at the first screening of the season is light, but this time we more than doubled last year's figure with about 80 people on hand. A lot of kids came, including one little girl who sat right behind me and, shortly after the film began, dumped a whole bag of Skittles onto the wooden floor. Some rolled under me, but no harm done. First time I've ever had to deal with candy during a performance!

I don't know what it is, but Brandon is such an easy place to do accompaniment. I feel so comfortable there, and easily fall into the "zone." Saturday night was no exception: I've done 'Peter Pan' many times and have what I think is a good set of material for it. But even so, it was one of those nights where one good moment followed another. And that "audience participation" sequence, where Peter urges the audience to clap to save Tinkerbell, went over big time! It was all top-notch, everything worked out great, and people were so appreciative. It was a wonderful reminder of why I continue to do this.

• And the non Sunday, May 12 (Mother's Day!), I did music for a screening of 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924) in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. (Just outside Boston, about an hour south for me.) Another 2½-hour epic, but this time projected on actual film (the print was from noted film scholar and restorationist David Shepard) via the expert booth technique of David Kornfeld, projectionist extraordinaire.

The show—the opening installment in what we hope will be a monthly series of silents in 35mm with live music—attracted a relatively sparse crowd (it's a big theater) of maybe 60 or 70 people. But they were a lively group, and it was a pleasure to hear the reaction to "Thief," which I think is a great film for an audience.

Unfortunately, for this one, I wasn't in the zone as much as I like to be. I don't know if it was performance fatigue or what, but I just wasn't on top of the film in several places. Also, it took me awhile to settle on material; I eventually wound up using some of the 'Spies' material from a few nights earlier, which to me is taking the easy way out. :(

Also, we hooked up the sound in a different way this time, and I wasn't quite happy with the levels and balance. David, way up in the balcony, said it sounded fine, and that was as far as we got, as he had a million other things to attend to beyond working with me. But I felt the on-stage speakers (responsible for 80 percent of the sound, it seemed) were distorting the low notes played at any volume. And the overall sound quality just wasn't as crisp as I like it.

We didn't have a lot of time pre-show to futz with anything, so I just went with it. But I can say now—if you do anything for 2½ hours, make sure it's something you enjoy doing. The fact that I couldn't just forget about the sound, and was always somewhat bothered by it, served to crowd out the music-making part of my brain, and I'm afraid the inspiration was occasionally somewhat lacking.

Note to self: Skittles don't matter. Quality of sound does.

Next up: This Friday, doing my annual silent film show at Antrim (N.H.) Town Hall for students of Great Brook Middle School. it's the fourth year, and these kids are turning into real silent film aficianados. (Note to programmers: Keaton wins hands down in popularity.) Also, in a change of pace, I'm doing musical underscoring for three performances of a stage version of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' at Merrimack (N.H.) High School. It's like accompanying silent film, except instead of film, it's real live people, and instead of them being silent, they talk. So the challenge is to keep the music low enough so it doesn't cover any dialogue, and also to support the story and shifts of mood. Should be a great show!

And then later this month I have two "new" films—new to me, that is, in the sense that I've never done live music for them. On Friday, May 24, it's 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925) at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H., and on Sunday, May 26, it's 'Tell It To The Marines' (1926) starring Lon Chaney, in our annual Memorial Day tribute at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. More on those later!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

This Mother's Day, give Mom...
a bare-chested Douglas Fairbanks!

One word for it is 'synchronicity.' Another might be 'overscheduling.'

Whatever term you use, three big films in four days is a lot. But then you can never have too much of good silent film, I think, and the three coming up (in three different states, no less) are real doozies. And I mean that in a good way.

Here's a quick roster, followed by the complete press release for the first one up:

• Thursday, May 9, I'm doing music for a screening of Fritz Lang's 'Spies' (1928), the prototype of all espionage films. Showtime is 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. This is a terrific audience film and I'm really looking forward to scoring it live, as I think I finally understand all the various plot strands and how they intersect. Admission $10 per person.

• Saturday, May 11, it's music for 'Peter Pan' (1924), the original film adaptation of J.M. Barrie's immortal stage play. Showtime is 7 p.m. at the lovely Brandon Town Hall in Brandon, Vt. Free admission, but donations are accepted to help ongoing renovations. It's the opening night of this year's monthly silent film series at Brandon Town Hall, a great place to take in a vintage movie. Acoustics are splendid, and practically the whole town turns out!

• Sunday, May 12, it's down to the big city to do music for a 1 p.m. matinee of 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924), the epic fantasy starring Douglas Fairbanks, to be screened in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square. (Somerville is part of Boston, Mass.) Very excited about this, as it's the first of another monthly silent film series, this one involving only 35mm prints. Best tag line of the year: "This Mother's Day, Treat Mom to Two and a Half Hours of a Barechested Douglas Fairbanks."

In the middle of all this, I'm working with students at Merrimack (N.H.) High School to create music for their stage production of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame.' We'll do three performances next week, but rehearsals are nearing an end so I'm over there several more times this week and next.

Synchronity? Over-scheduling? Here's a better term: Crazy.

And here's the full press release for tomorrow night's screening of 'Spies' (1928). If you've never seen this one in a theater, it's worth the drive up to Plymouth.

* * *

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237jeffrapsis@gmail.com

'Spies' (1928) to screen with live music on Thursday, May 9 at Flying Monkey

Silent film thriller was model for James Bond; called "granddaddy" of all espionage movies

PLYMOUTH, N.H. — It was the movie that pioneered the espionage genre, complete with secret documents, hi-tech gadgets, an evil mastermind, and a beautiful but dangerous woman. It was 'Spies' (1928), an action-packed silent thiller, and will be shown with live music for one screening only on Thursday, May 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.

Live music will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is $10 per person.

'Spies,' made by German director Fritz Lang at the end of the silent era, served as a blueprint for all espionage story-telling to come in movies and, later, on television. It is especially notable for the many ways it anticipated the James Bond films, in which a government's secret agent matches wits with a criminal mastermind.

Newly restored to its original length, 'Spies' has emerged as a flawlessly constructed spy thriller from the peak of the silent film era. Hugely influential, Lang's passion for meticulous detail combines with masterful storytelling and editing skills to form a relentless story of intrigue, espionage, and blackmail.

An international spy ring, headed by Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), uses technology, threats, and murder to obtain government secrets. As master spy and also president of a bank, Haghi leads a double life, using instruments of modern technology to spearhead a mad rush for secrets to assert his power over others.

Battling Haghi is the government's Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch), himself a master of disguise. Can Agent 326 stop Haghi's plot before it disrupts the world's balance of power?

Putting on the screen for the first time many elements of the modern spy thriller, 'Spies' remains remarkably fresh and captivating more than 80 years since its first release. Lang carefully reveals the elaborate methods of the spies as they move through his unknown city, no doubt creating a mirror of troubled Weimar Germany, where the film was shot.

Made by Lang's own production company and, like the classic films 'M' (1931) and Metropolis (1927), written by Lang with his wife Thea von Harbou, 'Spies' is "the granddaddy of decades of intrigue epics. In its rigorous austerity, it remains the most modern of the bunch," wrote Elliott Stein of The Village Voice.

'Spies' features many of the same performers featured in 'Metropolis,' Lang's famous futuristic fantasy, including Klein-Rogge, who portrayed the scientist 'Rotwang' in the earlier movie. 'Spies' also stars Austrian actress Gerda Maurus as the mysterious woman who could prove to be the undoing of Agent 326.

The Flying Monkey originally opened a silent film moviehouse in the 1920s, and showed first-run Hollywood films to generations of area residents until closing several years ago. The theater has since been renovated by Alex Ray, owner of the Common Man restaurants, who created a performance space that hosts a wide variety of music acts.

Movies of all types, however, are still a big part of the Flying Monkey's offerings, and the silent film series is a way for the theater to remain connected to its roots.

Live music for 'Spies' will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound and texture of the full orchestra.

"'Spies' is a wonderful film for music," said Rapsis, who improvises accompaniment using themes or melodies he composes beforehand. "In addition to telling great stories, Lang's films are also visually interesting, and so they lend themselves to music to heighten the drama and tension," Rapsis said.

'Spies' is appropriate for family audiences, although it includes intense scenes that may frighten very small children. The film is two-and-a-half hours long.

The screening of 'Spies' is part of the Flying Monkey's monthly silent film series, which gives today's audiences a chance to experience the great films of Hollywood's early years as they were intended: in restored prints, in a theater on the big screen, and with live music and an audience.

"If you've never seen a silent film in a theater with live music and an audience, this is a great way to experience the medium at its best," Rapsis said. "When you put all the elements together, silent film still has an ability to stir up an audience in a way that no other medium can."

Upcoming silent films at the Flying Monkey include:

• Thursday, June 13, 6:30 p.m.: "The Gaucho" (1927). The leader of a band of outlaws in Argentina must help save a religious shrine from being taken over and closed by a corrupt general. Audience favorite and change of pace for acclaimed swashbuckling superstar Douglas Fairbanks, who tries his hand playing a darker role than usual. Admission $10 per person.

'Spies' (1928) will be screened on Thursday, May 9 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. For more information, visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com or call (603) 536-2551.

The Flying Monkey runs silent film programs with live music each month. For more information about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

Catching up with author Walter Kerr
at a screening of 'The Chaser' (1928)

Some time ago, I discovered one way to drive a lot of traffic to a blog—mention "Jesus Christ" somewhere in the text. Boy, the hits just start piling up!

The occasion was a write-up of 'The Strong Man' (1926), in which I compared silent film comedian Harry Langdon to, yes, Mr. Christ. I even found two headshots that bore a resemblance.

Well, last night I accompanied another Langdon film, 'The Chaser' (1928), and comparisons to Christ are unlikely, other than to say that perhaps Harry's decision to direct himself was a form of self-crucifixion.

The film, screened at the Manchester (N.H.) City Library, drew some laughs, and the audience of about 40 passing strangers seemed to get Langdon's character, despite conventional wisdom that he's an acquired taste.

Afterwards, however, everyone sort of agreed that although 'The Chaser' was an interesting film, it wasn't about to prompt one of those transcendent silent film experiences that sometimes happen. (There I go with the religious stuff again!)

Comments ranged from "it shows how much he needed Frank Capra" to "that was an awful lot of poison he had in that kitchen." When they're wondering about the amount of poison in the cupboard, you know a film is in trouble.

And parts of the film simply don't make any sense at all, at least to modern eyes. Example: When Harry, dressed in his absurd lodge costume, proceeds to kiss women at a beach party, rendering them unconscious with desire.

Maybe there's something about the Langdon character and the now-absent 1920s zeitgeist that we really don't get after all these years.

Harry seems to be enjoying 'The Chaser' more than our audience did.

I wanted to run this rarely screened film in part to see how an audience would react, but also to finally see for myself something that critic Walter Kerr pointed out so long ago in his genre-defining book 'The Silent Clowns.'

At one point in 'The Chaser' (the part with all the poison), Harry attempts suicide, but mistakenly doses himself with castor oil. He then lies down on the kitchen floor, and the camera lingers. And lingers. The joke, such as it is, is embodied in that single shot being sustained beyond all reasonability. And, seen in live performance, it really is, at least for a time. Against all odds, it starts to become funny.

But then Langdon CUTS to a close-in shot. Nothing has changed, but he just sabotaged the root and reason of the joke, according to Kerr. A surer hand—say that of his former collaborator Capra—would have not made that mistake.

Really? I wasn't really sure what Kerr meant, but the certainty with which he said it has stayed with me all these years since first reading 'The Silent Clowns' in the 1970s. It made me wonder: were there things about life that were so obvious to others that I couldn't see as well?

But now that I've seen 'The Chaser' with an audience, I know exactly what Kerr meant. The longer that sustained shot is held, the funnier it gets. But just as the hilarity is starting to build, the cut to the close-in shot short-circuits the audience reaction, setting things back to the starting place.

Finally, the film returns to the original shot for Harry's almost inevitable reaction: instead of dying, he suddenly must leap up and run to the bathroom. I can't imagine a less dignified (or funnier) way of being reminded that one is definitely still alive. But the joke is muted by the editing. What should have been a classic Langdon sequence instead becomes a mildly amusing fade-out.

You were right, Mr. Kerr!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Report from Cincinnati:
Buster's 'The General' scores a victory

Well, no matter what else happens in my life, I can always say I got a standing ovation in Cincinnati.

It happened on Thursday, May 2, when I did music for a screening of Buster Keaton's 'The General' (1927) at the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center in Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.

Built as a library, the Carnegie is now home to galleries and a wonderful small theater that boasts a full calendar of shows and events. Silent film with live music is a recent addition, and 'The General' is what brought me in from New Hampshire. Because I was using the Korg and all my sound equipment, I drove. (It's just under 1,000 miles—nothing at all, really.)

I pulled into Cincinnati mid-afternoon the day of show, crossing the big bridge that carries I-71 over the Ohio and descending an alarmingly steep ramp that deposited me in the narrow streets of Covington.

Surprise! The area was filled with block after block of historic brick buildings. I imagine the town long played second fiddle to the big city across the river, but these days Covington looks pretty good: small businesses, restaurants, gentrification. It's a place worth exploring.

But there was a show to do. Backing the Subaru up to the Carnegie's stage door, I was just in time to meet "Blue," my helpful tech guy. Load-in was quick and before I knew it, we were ready to go.

Here's the center, with a statue of benefactor Carnegie himself standing guard out front. 

Another surprise: They not only wanted me up on stage in full view of the audience, but also lit from above with a spotlight, which I imagine looked like some sort of transporter beam to the audience.

I asked about moving to a less visible place, as I always feel my efforts should support the movie, and not draw attention to myself. But no—they wanted me up there, in plain sight, to emphasize the "live-ness" of the music. Unusual, but it's their show, so no problem.

The two-level Otto M. Budig Theater is a wonderful small-sized venue. (The above photo was taken from the balcony.) It reminded me of some of those great small theaters in London's West End. The picture above, with the lower level filled with people, made me think of the Muppet Show theater.

Considering how many things could have gone wrong in a 1,000-mile journey (car trouble, construction delays, getting lost), my timing was pretty much right on, which for once made me feel something like professional.

Indeed, I had enough time for an unhurried drive back over to Cincinnati to check in at the Garfield Suites, where I showered and changed before heading back to the Carnegie for the evening's performance. You'd think I was always this organized. I even had time to stop in and speak with the ushers. Here they are below, a handsome crew!

Well, the lack of pre-show stress and anxiety paid off, apparently. The show was at 7:30 p.m., and so climbed up onstage and sat down at about 6:50 p.m. to start some music going. Almost immediately, I felt comfortable and confident, in the zone, and never really looked back.

Sometimes that happens, and it's great when it does.

The house opened at 7 p.m., but I barely noticed. Im warming up, I had expected to stick with a simple organ setting so as to make the sound of the film score that much more impressive and dramatic when the movie started, but instead I used the full orchestra right off the bat, and found myself getting into some heavy and dramatic stuff, mostly based on 'Dixie' and 'Yankee Doodle,' which I sometimes draw from in accompanying 'The General.'

Finally, Blue poked his head from somewhere and gave me a two-minute warning. I rolled things up to a dramatic finish, then ducked behind the curtain to wait for Joshua Steele, the Carnegie's theater manager (and who arranged my booking), to say a few words.

And there he was, backstage as planned! Don't you love it when things go like this? But it was turning into that kind of night. I pulled back the curtain for his entrance to introduce me, and the next thing I know, I'm greeting a theater full (well, not quite full) of folks there to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown—in a theater on the big screen, with live music and (most importantly) an audience.

When 'The General' started, the flow continued unbroken. Music fell right into place during the credits, and stayed on track (har!) from the opening sequence onward. I was careful to hold back, which is important for most films, especially comedies and especially for Buster's, as too much too soon can inhibit the audience reaction.

But that wasn't a problem. Response was strong right from the beginning. You know it's going to be a good screening when the little march of Buster and the two kids, followed by Marion Mack, up to the front door produces giggles, and then a belly laugh when Buster turns around to find his girl outside the house, standing behind him.

Seeing (and hearing) that, I settled in for a good ride, still being careful to keep things under control so as not to step on the film. In 'The General,' things really start to click, I think, when the scene switches to the Northern encampment. It's a straight dramatic scene, and the right kind of music (ominous, foreboding) can add quite a dimension to it.

This sequence, played entirely straight, serves to raise the stakes, making everything Buster does afterwards more thrilling and exciting, I think, because an underscoring of life-or-death danger has been introduced. That's what I see on the screen, anyway, so it's what I aim to reflect in the music.

And that's the tone I try to hold for the rest of the picture, throughout the out-and-back double-ended train chase that forms the heart of the film, and especially during the quiet scene behind enemy lines, which functions kind of like an eye in a storm (for once, no trains are moving) but actually has just as much tension as anything else in 'The General.'

In terms of reaction, you couldn't ask for more from an audience. We had full-throated cheers even during the "outbound" chase, such as when Buster's cannon fires and by accident hits the train he's pursuing. (Staged in a single shot, it's one of the miracle scenes in all of silent film, I think.)

So musically, it's a paradox. 'The General' is filled with elaborate Keaton gags intended to produce laughter. And it does. But for my taste, the film seems to work even better—both as a comedy and as a story we care about—when the music is essentially serious. The music doesn't need to be funny by itself: better for it to be like Keaton's face.

Also, I do my best to keep it moving, just as Keaton the director keeps the trains in motion. So I chug along in dramatic mode, throwing in scraps of 'Yankee Doodle' in a minor key, or stretched out double or quadruple length in the bass or way high up.

But get this: Once we're well into the film, islands of business occur where the music can be funny. Example: during the "inbound" chase, when Marion Mack tries sweeping up the locomotive's grimy cab, and then rejects a log because of a knot and instead tosses a twig into the firebox, I think the sequence plays better when the music turns light and whimsical.

I think this is partly a question of balance and contrast. Keaton's character has been through so much already, and the tension has been non-stop, so throwing in some lighter music functions as a breath of fresh air, which keeps the audience from wearing out or possibly wandering.

Wow—and as I write this, I have to point out that all of this decision-making happens in the moment, musically, as the film unfolds. It's what feels right. This is just deconstructing it after the fact.

So we had a real three-way conversation going there for the better part of an hour: Buster, the audience, and me. And yes, it got to that point where you're getting close to the end, and you know it's gone well, and you actually project through to the finish and almost know what you're going to play for the remaining minutes, and at that point you can relax a little and take pleasure in something that's gone well even as it's still playing out.

There it is: The End. And I keep the music building, giving a sense of a journey completed, and even indulge in a little false chord cadence before closing things up with a good strong finish.

And what a reaction! People hooting and hollering! Cheering, even! And it doesn't stop. I take a bow. The house lights come up. Another bow. I move to center stage, wipe my forehead, and take yet another bow, and still the ovation continues.

I know it's really for the picture—and for Buster. But I'm so pleased to help bring it to life in this manner, with all these collaborators. We did it together, and it's immensely gratifying to me when it goes like this.

And still they were applauding! I finally tip-toed back to my keyboard and picked up the camera I had there with my other stuff and scooted back to center stage. The applause started to fade, but I pointed the camera out into the audience and yelled "Wait, don't stop now!", getting a big laugh.

And I snapped the shutter, and the photo is what you saw at the beginning of this little essay. It's screenings like these that make all the effort worthwhile, and I'm so grateful to everyone at the Carnegie and the Covington/Cincinnati community for making this possible. Hope I can return there for another show at some point in the future!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Hello, Cincinnati!

This evening I'll be doing music for Buster Keaton's great film 'The General' (1927) at the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center in Covington, Kentucky -- just across the river from Cincinnati. I've never done a screening in this part of the country before, so I wanted to take a second to say hello and introduce myself.


Thanks to all in the Cincinnati area who've shown such enthusiasm for tonight's screening. The talented folks at the Carnegie have done a great job getting out the word; in recent weeks I've found ticket giveaways on everything from the 'Adventure Mom' blog to a blog that promotes family-friendly activities in the region. Nice!

One idea I'd never seen before: on the 'Family Friendly Cincinnati' Web site, they ran a contest that asked entrants to say whether they'd prefer to be a hero or villain. Interesting answers! (My own answer carried shades of Jack Benny confronted by the robber in the park: "It all depends...")

And in a great article by Steven Rosen in CityBeat, I was surprised to learn that Cincinnati has been behind the curve in terms of screening silent films with live music. I'm so happy to be helping the community solve this very serious cultural situation. :)

Thanks to everyone at the Carnegie and beyond for drumming up so much excitement for 'The General.' Projecting ahead: If you enjoyed tonight's performance I encourage you to seek out other screenings in the area with live music. It's the only way to really experience the full power of silent film.

And if you liked Buster Keaton, you're really in luck, because there's another Keaton film being screened in Cincinnati next week. 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928) will be screened next week, on Thursday, May 9. Some details:
CINCINNATI, OH – The Society for the Preservation of Music Hall (SPMH) presents its first silent film – Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr., featuring the Mighty Wurlitzer and acclaimed theatre organist Clark Wilson – at Cincinnati’s Music Hall Ballroom on Thursday, May 9 at 10:30 AM and 7:00 PM. The event is being presented in cooperation with the Ohio Valley Chapter of the American Organ Society.

Tickets are on sale now at www.CincinnatiArts.org, (513) 621-ARTS [2787], and the Aronoff Center or Music Hall Ticket Office. For groups of ten or more, call (513) 977-4157.

Music Hall Ballroom's Mighty Wurlitzer accompanies Buster Keaton in his acclaimed 1928 feature-length comedy silent movie, considered by many film critics as a masterpiece of its era. Originally installed in the ornate Albee Theater on Fountain Square in December 1927, The Mighty Wurlitzer was one of only 2,200 theatre-organs produced at that time to accompany silent feature films. Don't miss this rare opportunity to experience The Mighty Wurlitzer as it was meant to be heard – as a live soundtrack for the world’s first movies! FREE POPCORN will be available for munching during the movie!
Wow, free popcorn! How can you beat that?