Saturday, June 16, 2018

Traveling with the silent film time machine, plus Buster Keaton tonight in my hometown

'The Cameraman' (1928) is on the program on Saturday, June 16 at 7 p.m. at the First Church in Nashua, N.H.

Tonight marks a singular occasion: my first-ever silent film gig in my hometown of Nashua, N.H., where I first took piano lessons and sang in church choirs and played sousaphone in the high school marching band.

(Full name: The Nashua High School Royal Purple Panthers Marching Band. Our mascot was the rare and elusive purple panther.)

This evening's program is a Buster Keaton double feature: 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The Cameraman' (1928). Showtime is 7 p.m.—and in the "small world" department, it's at the First Congregational Church, one of the places where I sang as a teenager.

Yes: growing up, I was a choir gypsy, singing with my friends in a Protestant church while serving as a lector at the Catholic parish I grew up in, but which didn't have much of a music program.

So many a Sunday would see me at 9 a.m. Mass at St. Stanislaus Church on Franklin Street, then running up Library Hill to the First Church on Concord Street, often making it just in time for the prelude.

Anyway, here I come again, all these years later. More on tonight's screening in the press release below.

But now let me know skip back to yesterday, when I accompanied a silent film program for one of my favorite recurring gigs: the end-of-the-year assembly at Great Brook Middle School in Antrim, N.H.

This is the eighth year I've done this, which means this year's 8th graders were just starting in public school when this tradition began.

But here we were again: kids scrambling up the stairs and spilling into the auditorium, setting up chairs on the wooden floor while I played piano rag music to help set the mood.

It says something about the energy of middle-schoolers that ragtime serves to actually calm them down.

We've tried different programs over the years, but the kids have made it clear about their favorite: Mr. Buster Keaton.

And so this year's big attraction was 'Our Hospitality' (1923), Buster's film about an old-time family feud set in the 1830s.

This prompted some thought-provoking confusion. We were about to watch a film that was nearly 100 years old, and the film itself was set about 100 years before that.

Mrs. Maryanne Cullinan, a faculty member who organizes the screenings, mentioned this weirdness to the kids so they'd be prepared.

But then I chimed in, telling kids we were about to embark on the closest thing possible to actual time travel.

And that seemed to connect. So I stuck with it, explaining that old cinema itself is like time travel, but then sometimes you get an extra bonus trip when the film is set in an another time.

And the "another time" can be in the past, as with Buster's film. Or it can be in the future, such as in 'Metropolis' (1927)—which could mean we'd be seeing an alternate reality view of today.

The screening went over like gangbusters. In my experience with 'Our Hospitality,' once Buster steps aboard the recreated early train pulled by the Stephenson Rocket, there's no turning back.

Yesterday was no exception: the kids responded strongly, even as much of the comedy was derived from the rather dark predicament of people trying to shoot and kill our hero. (Alas, we live in an era where gun violence is an especially sensitive issue in public schools.)

Afterwards, I kept thinking about time travel. Might that not be another underlying reason for the fascination with (and value of) of early cinema?

WE can time travel. Just attend a silent film screening.

And just your luck, there's one tonight in Nashua, N.H. Details below. Hope to see you there!

* * *

Buster Keaton and friend in 'The Cameraman' (1928).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton double feature at Nashua's First Church on Saturday, June 16

Classic silent film comedy masterpieces to be screened with live musical accompaniment by Nashua native

NASHUA, N.H.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s.

See for yourself with a screening of 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The Cameraman' (1928), two of Keaton's landmark feature films, at the First Church, 1 Concord St., Nashua, N.H. on Saturday, June 16 at 7 p.m.

The program is a fundraising event for First Church; admission $12 adults, $10 seniors. Students are free, and childcare is available for kids 6 and under. Tickets will be available at the door.

The program will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis.

In 'Sherlock Jr.,' Buster plays a small-town movie projectionist who dreams of working as a detective. But then Buster's romantic rival frames him for stealing a watch from his girlfriend's father. Fortunately, the situation mirrors the plot of the movie currently playing at Buster's theater. Inspired by the movie, can Buster find the real thief and win back his girl?

'The Cameraman' tells the story of a young man (Keaton) who tries to impress the girl of his dreams (Marceline Day) by working as a freelance newsreel cameraman. His efforts result in spectacular failure, but then a lucky break gives him an unexpected chance to make his mark. Can Buster parlay the scoop of the year into a secure job and successful romance?

Both films focus on exploring the potentials of the motion picture, then a brand-new medium.

Buster romances Marceline Day in unconventional fashion in 'The Cameraman' (1928).

In 'The Cameraman,' Keaton uses the movie business itself to create comedy that plays with the nature of film and reality.

Both movies will be screened in the meeting room in the church's lower level.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands as one of the three great clowns of the silent screen. Many critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age. He spent his entire childhood and adolescence on stage, attending school for exactly one day.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions ranging from sadness to surprise. In an era when movies had few special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents meant he performed all his own stunts.

All those talents are on display in 'Sherlock Jr.' and 'The Cameraman,' which was selected in 2005 for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

"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," said Rapsis, a Nashua native who in high school played sousaphone and baritone under long-time Nashua High School band director Steven Norris. Today, Rapsis uses his keyboard to accompany more than 100 screenings each year at venues around the nation and abroad.

Rapsis, who lives in Bedford, N.H., improvises live scores for silent films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra.

"It's kind of a high wire act," Rapsis said. "But for me, the energy of live performance is an essential part of the silent film experience."

'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The Cameraman' (1928) will be shown with live music on Saturday, June 16 at 7 p.m. at the First Church, 1 Concord St., Nashua, N.H. A church fundraising event, tickets at the door are $12 adults, $10 seniors. Students are free, and childcare is available for kids 6 and under.

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