Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Rediscover magic in 'The Lost World' (1925)
on Friday, April 3 at Red River Theatres

It's the original dinosaur movie!

And when released in 1925, 'The Lost World' was one of those pictures that really must have blown people's minds. One reason is, of course, that it's a really entertaining movie, as well as a really visual one. There's a lot to see. Just look at that poster!

But it also blew people's minds, I think, by coming out at just the right time for people to go crazy over seeing dinosaurs up on the big screen.

And in doing so, I think it has something to teach us about balance between reality and fantasy, even all these years later.

What can we learn? Well, to borrow a turn of phrase from the late great Rod Serling, consider the notion of dinosaurs in the 1920s...

Yes, there had been stories about prehistoric creatures, including the very tale by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on which 'The Lost World' was based.

And yes, there had been drawings and paintings and images of pre-historic beasts that once roamed the Earth's surface. Amazing, right?

But never had anyone seen dinosaurs in action, being dinosaurs, right before their eyes. (Not counting Windsor McKay's early 'Gertie the Dinosaur' animated cartoons.)

Not until 'The Lost World' (1925)—a motion picture filled with not only dinosaurs, but a veritable field guide of prehistoric creatures brought to life through the then-new magic of the movies.

Yes, 'The Lost World' was a big commercial hit. But more than most pictures, it must have given audiences a sense of the limitless ability of the motion picture to transport us to places we could never visit on our own.

And not just places, but different epochs in history, and also to induce intense states of mind and emotion: fear, joy, panic, awe, and so many other big emotions.

Part of what fueled this magic, I think, was that early audiences were drawn to the cinema in part due to a basic and innate belief in the fidelity of the camera. What they saw on the screen had to be photographed by a camera, so the underlying assumption was that it had to have really happened.

Yes, films were edited and put together to tell a story, and everyone understood that. But the camera itself did not lie.

It could be fooled, as when Buster Keaton would mask one side of the lens, then rewind the film and mask the other side, allowing two Buster Keatons to dance alongside each other in 'The Playhouse,' a 1921 comedy short. But what it photographed was understood to be real.

Hence the reports from screenings of 'The Lost World' of people really believing explorers had actually discovered dinosaurs still alive somewhere. How else could they have been photographed? How else could they be in a movie, seen marauding through the streets of London, right before our eyes?

Well, of course there were no dinosaurs, so they could not be photographed or filmed. This made their appearance in 'The Lost World' all the more magical, especially at a time when the fidelity of film was a firmly entrenched idea.

At the dawn of special effects, the effects were truly "special" because they were so unusual and so startling, especially to audiences whose basic understood belief was that the camera was an impartial witness to reality.

Bessie Love shares the screen with a pre-historic scene-stealer in 'The Lost World.'

Movies, of course, have come a long way since 1925. Nowadays, filmmakers can create entire worlds on a hard drive, without exposing one frame of film to a living thing or inanimate object. What can be done is simply amazing. But is it magical in the same way a movie such as 'The Lost World' must have been?

Maybe it's possible to have too much of a good thing. Maybe today's abundance of creative possibilities—the ability to digitally conjure worlds where superheros effortlessly ignore the law of gravity as the "camera" swirls all around them from impossible angles—has diluted the basic bond of believability that helped mesmerize people back at the beginning.

This bond, I think, is what made the movies seem so compelling to early audiences. And I think that somewhere deep down, it's what draws us to them still: we want to see ourselves.

Yes, we love having our mind blown by the infinite possibilities of cinema. But that happens at the most intense levels only when the two desires are in balance—the desire to see ourselves as well as the limitless and mind-boggling nature of cinema to take us anywhere in time and space.

Maybe it's like Beethoven. One reason for the lasting and intense power of his music, as I see (or hear) it, is that Beethoven balanced the classical restraint and form of Mozart and Haydn (in the near past) with the unrestrained freedom of 19th century romanticism to come, as typified by Lizst and Wagner.

Beethoven, by virtue of his time and gifts, got the balance just right—and in many works, triggered infinity in the process.

I think 'The Lost World,' for all its seemingly primitive special effects, gets the balance just right. Consider: the film runs for a good half-hour with just humans (photographed in their natural habitat by the ever-honest camera) before we embark on a journey to exotic South America.

And even then, it takes its sweet time before we finally get our first glimpse of a dinosaur. And then, for the remainder of the film, nearly every time we see a dinosaur or similar primitive creature, it's nearly always in the context of interacting with the people that we've gotten to know already.

Part of this is the solid nature of Conan Doyle's original story. The guy knew how to structure a tale.

But a big part of it is that the special effects, as primitive as they are, are all done in service to the story. The whole strange plateau that they inhabit is only there so that humans we have come to know a bit can discover it and be awed by it and get scared by it and run away from it.

That, when underpinned by the essential belief that the camera did not lie, must have made for a really powerful combination for movie audiences of the time.

And you know what? In doing music for repeated screenings of this film, I've found it still can produce that effect. The balance is so well calculated that even now, almost a century later, it can conjure a sense of why people first fell hard for the movies.

See for yourself by joining us on Friday, April 3 for a screening with live music (by me) at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H.

More info about the show is in the press release below, which also includes info about the whole year's schedule of silent film screenings at Red River. Hope to see you there!

* * *

One of my favorite pieces of movie promotional material of all time.

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

Adventure, comedy, romance, suspense
— but no dialogue!

Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. announces 2015 silent film series; all shows to feature live musical accompaniment

CONCORD, N.H.—Clara Bow, Buster Keaton, and Lillian Gish are among the stars returning to the silver screen this year as part of Red River's 2015 silent film line-up.

The series opens in April with the restored classic silent film version of 'The Lost World' (1925), hailed as Hollywood's first-ever dinosaur movie.

The schedule includes Clara Bow in the era-defining romantic comedy 'It' (1927) in May; D.W. Griffith's French Revolution epic 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921) in July; and Buster Keaton's uproarious comedy 'The Cameraman' (1928) in September.

Halloween will bring a visit from 'The Lodger' (1927), a creepy early British thriller directed by a very young Alfred Hitchcock.

All films in Red River's silent movie series will feature live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist and composer.

"We're thrilled to once again include silent film with live music in this year's programming," said Shelly Hudson, executive director of Red River Theatres.

"These films are audience favorites, and people continue to be surprised at how engrossing and exhilarating they can be when shown as they were intended: in a theater, and with live music."

Red River Theatres, an independent cinema, is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to screening a diverse program of first-run independent films, cult favorites, classics, local and regional film projects, and foreign films.

The member-supported theater’s mission is to present film and the discussion of film as a way to entertain, broaden horizons and deepen appreciation of life for New Hampshire audiences of all ages.

Our pre-historic hero shakes up modern London in 'The Lost World.'

First up in this year's line-up is a screening of 'The Lost World' (1925) on Friday, April 3 at 7 p.m. Admission is $10 per person.

'The Lost World' is a silent fantasy adventure film and an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel of the same name. The movie was produced by First National Pictures, a precursor to Warner Brothers, and stars Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger.

The movie, a blockbuster hit when released in 1925, paved the way for Hollywood's enduring fascination with stories pitting mankind against larger-than-life creatures in films such as 'King Kong' and 'Jurassic Park.'

'The Lost World' is a silent fantasy adventure film and an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel of the same name. The movie was produced by First National Pictures, a precursor to Warner Brothers, and stars Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger.

The film was directed by Harry O. Hoyt and featured pioneering stop motion special effects by Willis O'Brien, who would go on to create the effects used to bring 'King Kong' to the screen in 1933.

'The Lost World' tells the tale of a British exploration team that journeys to South America to confirm reports of long-extinct creatures still roaming a remote high plateau deep in the jungle.

The landscape they discover, filled with a wide range of dinosaurs and other fantastic creatures, was enough to astonish movie-goers when 'The Lost World' first hit movie screens in February 1925. Scenes of a brontosaurus on the loose in central London broke new ground in terms of cinema's visual story-telling possibilities.

Early viewers of the film were especially impressed by special effects breakthroughs that allowed live actors to appear simultaneously on-screen with stop motion models of prehistoric creatures. This led to rumors that the filmmakers had actually discovered living prehistoric creatures.

Despite the film's popularity, only incomplete copies of 'The Lost World' survived from its initial run in the silent era. In recent years, historians have been piecing together 'The Lost World' from fragments found scattered among the world's film archives.

The version to be shown at Red River includes footage from eight different prints. At 93 minutes in length, it's the most complete version of 'The Lost World' available. The edition includes rare footage of Arthur Conan Doyle that has been missing from most prints since the film's original release.

To accompany 'The Lost World,' Rapsis will use a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra. The score is created live in real time as the movie is screened. Rather than focus on authentic music of the period, Rapsis creates new music for silent films that draws from movie scoring techniques that today's audiences expect from the cinema.

Other dates and titles in the Red River silent film series include:

• Friday, May 15, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'It' (1927) starring Clara Bow. The hugely popular romantic comedy about a shopgirl who falls in love with the owner of a huge department store. The film that made Clara Bow a major star and came to epitomize the Jazz age.

• Friday, July 10, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921). Just in time for Bastille Day, D.W. Griffith's sweeping story of two sisters (Lillian and Dorothy Gish) caught up in the throes of the French revolution. Griffith's last major box office success fills the screen with a succession of iconic images.

• Friday, Sept. 11, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'The Cameraman' (1928) starring Buster Keaton. To impress the girl of his dreams, mild-mannered portrait photographer Buster takes up the glamorous profession of newsreel cameraman. One of the best comedies of the silent era.

• Friday, Oct. 30, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'The Lodger' (1927). A serial killer is on the loose in fog-bound London. Will the murderer be caught before yet another victim is claimed? Just in time for Halloween, suspenseful British thriller directed by a very young Alfred Hitchcock.

Red River Theatres' 2015 Silent Film Series will start with a screening of 'The Lost World’ on Friday, April 3 at 7 p.m. in the Jaclyn Simchik Screening Room at Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H. Admission is $10 per person; for more info, call (603) 224-4600 or visit www.redrivertheatres.org. For more information about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

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