Monday, February 24, 2014

Can silent films connect with an audience
even in a less-than-optimal environment?

Buster Keaton endures some less-than-optimal conditions in 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928)

Three screenings in four days took me to a library basement, a college coffeeshop, and a theater where we had no choice but to show a sub-standard print of a silent classic.

Well, whatever it takes to breathe life into this unjustly neglected art form, I think, as I load up the station wagon with my gear for yet another gig.

But the results of this latest run have left me wondering if these films are perhaps hardier than I sometimes give them credit for.

Thursday, Feb. 20 brought me to Kelley Library in Salem, N.H., where I had to pleasure of presenting a Buster Keaton program as part of their film series.

Like a lot of smaller libraries, its screening facility is not really a theater. Instead, it's a low-ceilinged basement conference room, with the projector on an AV cart and the screen about as big as a living room window.

But it went really, really well! About two dozen people braved sleet and freezing rain to see Buster in 'One Week' (1920) and 'Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), and reaction was strong throughout. Afterwards, people were clearly enthused and we had more questions than we had time for. (The library closes at 9 p.m.)

So maybe I don't give these pictures enuogh credit. I'm forever saying that in order to really understand and enjoy silent films, you need to see them in a theater, on a big screen, with live music, and with a live audience—the bigger, the better.

Well, the Kelley Library basement conference room wasn't anything like a theater. The screen was smaller than many home entertainment set-ups, and two dozen people isn't exactly what you'd call a crowd.

But still, Keaton worked! Even in less-than-optimal conditions, both the short and the feature produced gales of laughter.

So I wonder: at what point does the environment take away from a silent movie?

One of my first experiences with vintage film was at the Shakey's Pizza Parlor on D.W. Highway in Nashua, where 8mm prints of silent comedies were run on the walls. It was nothing like a theater setting: the "olde time" movies were treated as little more than moving wallpaper to distract patrons waiting for their orders. Yet it was enough to hook me.

What would happen if you tried to show a silent film at, say, a Starbucks? Two days later, I got to investigate that very same question.

The entrance to 'After Hours' at Northeastern University is down a steep flight of stairs.

Saturday, Feb. 22 found me as guest of the Northeastern University Film Enthusiasts Club, which included a screening of Harold Lloyd's great comedy 'Safety Last' (1923) as part of this semester's programming.

In the back-and-forth that led to my visit, I was curious about the venue. Rather than a theater or a lecture room, it was a coffeeshop called "After Hours." Part of the campus student center, it was a Starbucks that hosted various live acts on a small stage, with people free to come and go during the performance. Also, it would be in the afternoon.

What? I wasn't sure this would work very well with a silent film. But organizers (all sweethearts, by the way) assured me all would be fine, so ahead we went. And thus I found myself navigating Huntington Ave. in Boston last Saturday, trying to find the right campus entrance to reach the venue.

I found "After Hours" to be, yes, a quite busy basement Starbucks outlet packed with students poring over laptops. And over on one side was a stage and a screen, right next to an internally lit "After Hours" sign.

I still had my doubts, but everyone was so nice to work with, I just went with it. The only request I made of them was to not feed the film to all the other video screens arrayed around the shop, as a silent film would be best served by the audience focusing on one screen rather than treating it like a baseball game in a sports bar.

After plugging in my keyboard, all it took was a few notes over the house sound for the coffeeshop denizens around us to close their laptaps and beat a hasty retreat. Apparently this is a common occurrence. And then, yes, about two dozen students came together to sit in a couple of rows of chairs that had been set up. Introductions were made, lights came down, and off we went.

And once again, the film prevailed. As Harold's adventures unfolded, the coffeeshop seemed to disappear, and at one point I thought it had actually closed for the day! (Apparently, it just went into hibernation during the screening.)

Another strong reaction, even under less-than-ideal circumstances. And this was before Lloyd got as far as his iconic 'Safety Last' building climb. They were with him from the opening sight gag, where what seems to be a prison is revealed to be a train station. And the spell held throughout.

So, in another experiment in what amounts to destructive testing, a well-made silent film prevailed. Perhaps they aren't such delicate and fragile creates after all. Too bad there isn't a Shakey's Pizza around anymore so I could really push the limits.

In 'The Count of Monte Cristo,' John Gilbert (right) has learned much from fellow prisoner Spottiswoode Aitken, except perhaps the location of the prison barbershop.

Sunday, Feb. 23 saw no such limits being pushed as I did music for 'The Count of Monte Cristo' (1922) at the good old Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H., where I've been accompanying silents for seven years now and which I consider home base.

But wait! 'Monte Cristo' exists only in the form of a worn, choppy print discovered in the Czech Republic. It's been restored and is reasonably complete, but still looks nothing like it really should. Would this be enough of a barrier to limit audience engagement?

Hardly! On Sunday, a good-sized crowd of more than 100 reacted to the film with abandon, loudly cheering the escape of Dantes from prison and then lustily reveling in his elaborate revenge. The print quality didn't seem to diminish this excitement at all.

I must say, too, that this kind of film seems to bring out whatever strengths I have as an accompanist. It's a broad, sweeping drama, which allows you to take a few relatively simple themes or ideas and transform them in many ways as the story progresses. And it's also filled with what I think of as "revelatory" moments, where characters learn of long-held secrets and such and the audience gets to see the reaction. Music can really intensify these kinds of scenes, I think.

So I felt in the zone for just about all of 'Monte Cristo,' with one strong moment after another: keeping the drama at a boil using a wide variety of techniques, bringing out the humor in how Dantes manipulates people in the latter half of the movie, and making the most of the film's few tender moments.

It just felt good all the way through, and I love it when that happens. And it only occurs to me now that it all happened even though the print was sub-standard. So once again, the power of the art form transcended the limitations.

And then I remembered a screening of 'Wings' (1927) a little while ago, where the folks running the projector couldn't get the aspect ratio right and the film had to be shown all stretched out. It didn't seem to mute the impact of the movie one bit!

I'm not saying that you shouldn't make every effort to show these films as they were originally intended. But maybe I should stop worrying so much and give them a little credit for being hardier creatures than I sometimes think.

After 'Monte Cristo,' I was delighted to be introduced to a 103-year-old gentleman who had attended the screening. Looking rather like Igor Stravinsky in his later years, the guy had enjoyed the show, and recalled that the very first movie he had ever attended was 'The Thundering Herd' in 1925.

Wow! As time passes, you just don't expect to meet many people who were present when silent film was current coin. So it's a real honoor and delight to connect with anyone present at the creation, so to speak.

I told him that we planned to do a series of animal films this summer in Wilton, and that I would gladly include 'The Thundering Herd' in his honor.

Well, I've since learned that the 1925 version of this Zane Grey story is among the 80 percent of silent film considered missing. Rats!

Silent film may be able to survive less-than-optimal presentation conditions. But in terms of benchmarks, you still do need the film itself in order to go forward.

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