Tuesday, August 19, 2014

It's like seeing your kid ride a bike
for the first time without training wheels

Okay, some thoughts on this past weekend, which saw me do music for three silent film screenings in three states in three days.

Each program couldn't have been more different: the films were (in order) a drama set during the Russian Revolution; a frothy Hollywood backstage comedy; and a German sci-fi epic about mankind's first voyage to the moon.

But after each one, I found myself with similar thoughts. How is this possible? Read on.

Emil Jannings in 'The Last Command' (1928).

Friday, Aug. 15: 'The Last Command' (1928) at Red River Theatres, Concord, N.H.

Nothing like starting a weekend by watching Emil Jannings go berzerk! Even with just 19 paid admissions, this multi-layered Josef Sternberg drama delivered its usual impact, with Jannings in a towering performance that helped earn him the first-ever Best Actor Academy Award.

Doing music for 'The Last Command' was very gratifying and satisfying, allowing me to play with the Czarist-era Russian National Anthem and also to uncork my inner Mussorgsky.

Inspired by earlier screenings, I've scribbled quite a bit of detailed analysis on 'The Last Command.' But I also recall saying that it's the kind of film that prompts new new thoughts and questions every time I encounter it.

Well, that's what happened in Concord. This time, I realized another interesting thing about 'The Last Command' is how important the then-brand-new motion picture industry itself to the whole structure of the tale.

Although most of the film takes place during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and has nothing whatsoever to do with the movie biz, the story is bookended by scenes that take place in present-day (that is, 1928) Hollywood.

These sequences, set behind the scenes in a motion picture studio, provide a crucial framing device that gives 'The Last Command' a multi-faceted and fascinating complexity.

Last Friday, it struck me how dependent the story of 'The Last Command' is on cinema itself. It's not an adaptation or retelling of a tale from Shakespeare or Dickens. It's original to the movies, and it had to be, because the movies themselves play an important role in giving the story its dramatic power.

And I think that's big, as it goes to the core of one of the reasons I find the era of silent cinema so engrossing. I love the idea of people such as director Sternberg and his collaborators exploring the unique power and properties of film, and using it to reinvent and reshape reality and present it to us in ways never been seen before.

The story really was original to the times, and drawn from real-life events of the time. German director Ernst Lubitsch knew of a former Russian general who had come to the U.S. after the Revolution to open a restaurant. He then later encountered the ex-general trying to find work as a movie extra. Lubitsch mentioned the man's tale to screenwriter Lajos Bíró, who used it as the basis for 'The Last Command.'

So it shows the movies spreading their wings, and I get a lot from seeing that in so many films of the silent era. Another good example is Keaton's 'The Cameraman,' which also used the new medium of the movies to reimagine and comment on reality in ways no one had ever done before in quite the same way.

They were very much works that spoke for their era, but also for the human condition of all time. And I find myself moved by that: seeing the possibilities of this new art form made manifest right before my eyes.

It's related to the feeling you get when, say, you witness a child ride a bicycle without training wheels for the first time. As Stephen Sondheim has George Seurat say in 'Sunday in the Park with George': "So many possibilities." Like I said, it's big.

William Haines and Marion Davies encounter Charlie Chaplin, sans moustache, in 'Show People' (1928).

Saturday, Aug. 16: 'Show People' (1928) at Brandon Town Hall, Brandon, Vt.

Here's a late silent that still packs a lot of entertainment value, even if most of the cameo appearances of 1920s mega-stars go unrecognized by today's audience. (Elinor Glyn? Who's that?)

To help things along, we had a capacity crowd (more than 100 people) at Brandon Town Hall, where 'Show People' was the featured attraction for Saturday night's show.

The score came together nicely, I thought, all based on a fairly simple "show biz" melody that lent itself to being reshaped to match the tempo and pacing of the film's sequences.

Alas, it exposed me to yet another hazard of live performance: the meal that doesn't agree with you.

In this case, I hadn't eaten much all day, so indulged in a fairly big meal at this Italian place I like in Rutland, Vt., which is on the way, about 20 minutes before Brandon.

Then, seemingly right after, I was up in Brandon sitting at the keyboard. I had finished the meal—but the problem was, the meal hadn't finished with me!

Really: about half-way through 'Show People,' I felt myself all but under attack from the inside. There was no getting up to do anything about it. So all I could do was what my dear departed grandmother would probably describe as "clamping down my innards." Ah, the glamor of showbiz!

I managed to get through the film, but that wasn't the end of the evening's ordeal. Afterwards, a young girl (one of my biggest fans in Brandon! came up to give me a big hug. I got through that, but then she followed this gesture by snapping the band of her handmade bracelet, causing all the baubles to scatter under the stage.

She immediately burst into tears, of course. Somehow I got onto my hands and knees and began searching for precious bits of plastic and ceramic to help reconstitute the ruined bracelet, all the while trying NOT to pass enormous amounts of pent-up gas.

Geez! I didn't read about moments like these in the memoirs of Berlioz!

To keep from focusing on the wrong things, I kept reminding myself about how 'Show People' was such a fun romp through the movie business. I've come to think of it as director King Vidor's Valentine to an era that everybody knew was just about over. And, like 'The Last Command,' it made extensive use of the movie business itself to get most of its energy, and to tell a story that played with our notions of what's real and what's pretend.

Two very different movies, but both making use of the then-new business of motion pictures—and its unique properties—as an indispensable part of their stories. Once again I found myself thinking that a lot of the fascination I have with the silent era comes from seeing filmmakers stretch their legs and discover new possibilities in the medium.

Also, I couldn't escape this other realization: If you're going to eat a big meal, do it after a screening, not before.

The cast of 'Woman in the Moon' (1929) searches the lunar surface not for cheese, but gold.

Sunday, Aug. 17: 'Woman in the Moon' (1929) at Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge, Mass.

By attending this screening, my two college-era friends from New York City thought they would easily take the "came from the farthest distance" award.

But they were blown out of the water by a Lang fanatic who came all the way from Germany, he said, and solely to see this screening of 'Woman in the Moon.'

Seriously! His first time in the U.S., and just to be present for this rarely shown late silent sci-fi epic from the director of 'Metropolis' (1927).

And it gets better. "Leon" was actually from South Africa; he had only just arrived in Germany on holiday when he learned of the 'Woman in the Moon' screening, prompting him to buy a trans-Atlantic ticket and somehow get a U.S. visa on extremely short notice.

Wow! That's hardcore.

But then true Lang fans are a hardy bunch, I've found. It's like they know Lang's films (at least the big silent epics) won't be everyone's cup of tea, so they take it upon themselves to be faithful and loyal advocates all the more.

Case in point: also present for Sunday night's screening was an extremely knowledgeable film buff I know whose opinions deserve to be taken seriously. And yet this guy can't stand most of Lang's films (the silent ones, anyway). And sure enough, he felt 'Woman in the Moon' was as bad as the rest: overblown, preachy, nonsensical, and so on.

Wow! This is a film I've been fascinated by since discovering it a few years ago. I've come to think of it as a surprising (and neglected) major work by an important director. And as Lang's final silent film, and one of the last major ones ever made, I see it as a kind of mind-bending finale to the whole era. A three-hour silent film epic about cardboard characters going to moon to seek gold, carrying all their love triangles and hidden agendas on board the 1920s-era spacecraft.

And with this guy, the kindest thing he had to say about Lang's space opera was praise for the suit worn by actor Willy Fritsch in the first part of the film. (This is before Fritsch changes into his Alpine mountaineering outfit for the moon journey. Okay, so Lang didn't nail every detail about space travel.)

I can't disagree with my friend's opinion: 'Woman in the Moon' is not a "great" film by any traditional measures. So this got me thinking about why I'm such a fan. What is it about Lang's final silent that I respond so strongly to?

One thing is that to me, the movie is a convincing statement about how much vitality the silent film still had. Right up to the end, new possibilities were being explored. I'm really moved by that sense of discovery that I sense in 'Woman in the Moon.' If you'll allow me a poetic leap, I think it's a cousin to the basic human desire to voyage to the moon, "and do the other things," as John F. Kennedy phrased it: not because they're easy, but because they're hard.

What Lang did was hard. You try creating a three-hour epic story about space travel from scratch.

And yes, success isn't guaranteed, in neither cinema nor space travel. But I applaud Lang's audacity in bringing this wild tale to the screen. I'm responding to that, I think, while the quality of the actual finished film is something else altogether.

So perhaps I'm reacting not so much to the film itself, but to the context in which it was created. Lang clearly wanted to blow our minds, and he wasn't afraid to shoot the moon, so to speak. I love that spirit of inventiveness and creativity, which I sense throughout 'Woman in the Moon.' The desire to create something totally new and strange.

And that takes me back to the notion of seeing a kid ride without training wheels. Lang was way beyond that. In his amazing last three silents—'Metropolis' (1927), 'Spies' (1928), and 'Woman in the Moon' (1929)—Lang was using film to create whole new worlds.

In terms of the "training wheels" analogy, Lang's 'Woman in the Moon' is more akin to a professional cyclist in the Tour de France.

And yes, even they take their share of spills.

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