Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Tubas and pot luck and movies, oh my! Plus thoughts on scoring 'Woman in the Moon' at this year's Boston Sci-Fi Marathon

First, if you're wondering what a concert looks like from the perspective of a tuba player, here you go:

On the podium is Dani Rimoni, director of the Dino Anagnost Youth Symphony Orchestra of New Hampshire. We're just finishing the first movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, which has no tuba part, which allowed me to take the picture.

This is at a concert on Saturday, Feb. 2 at the Manchester (N.H.) Community Music School in which my Yamaha concert bass tuba and I sat in with the low brass during the group's winter performance.

I'm technically not qualified to be in the youth orchestra, as I'm not a youth. (Also, I don't play nearly at the level as these kids do!) But there's apparently a something of a shortage of low brass players, and it must be truly severe if they called me to sit in.

And although there's no tuba in Beethoven's 5th, there IS in the Academic Festival Overture by Brahms, which was also on the program. And so I got to bomp along with the trombones when Brahms got frisky with his orchestration.

Also on the program was a medley of music from 'West Side Story,' but somehow no tuba part was printed. So I played off a string bass part, coming in judiciously to avoid making it sound like an oompah band during "I Feel Pretty."

Maestro Rimoni, conducting from a piano score, seemed to like what I was doing: at rehearsal, at one point during a soft transition, I hit it just right doubling the double bass, and he mentioned later that it sounded really powerful.

But I had no time to bask in the glow of the only compliment I've ever received for my tuba playing, as I had to dash an hour north to make it in time for the Campton Historical Society's annual Pot Luck and Silent Film event!

Yes, this is what winter in New Hampshire looks like, both scenically and culturally.

I was there to accompany the silent film, which was Buster Keaton's 'Our Hospitality' (1923).

But the pot luck supper is a highlight, and there's always a few surprises. This time it was a shepherd's pie in which taco sauce was used. It worked!

Buster killed, as usual. As the years go by, I've found that of all the Keaton features, 'Our Hospitality' seems to get perhaps the strongest overall response from audiences.

Yes, 'The General' and 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' are popular and always get a reaction. 'The Navigator' is among my personal favorites, but only once have I seen it produce a sustained laugh-out-loud response. And whatever else happens, 'Seven Chances' always springs to life when the brides start marching down the streets.

But 'Our Hospitality' has emerged as the most all-around sure-fire Keaton opus. Why? Well, it's a great balance of story and comedy, and a great introduction to Buster's unique visual humor, and perhaps its historic setting (in the 1820s) helps it seem somehow universal and accessible to our modern eyes. ('The General,' set in the 1860s, has this going for it as well.)

Well, for whatever reason, it happened again last Saturday night. 'Our Hospitality' was greeted with constant outbursts of astonished laughter (to use Walter Kerr's phrase), and a foot-stomping ovation at the waterfall rescue. I mean, it just really works.

This weekend brings a pre-Valentines Day screening of Rudolph Valentino is 'The Eagle' (1925), and then the weekend after that brings a screening that represents the culmination of eight years of badgering.

Ever since I discovered Fritz Lang's 'Woman in the Moon' (1929) and the Boston Sci-Fi Marathon (held every Presidents Day weekend, now in its 44th year), I've wanted to bring them together.

And now, after eight years of badgering, and wheedling, and imploring, and other words I'm too lazy to look up in a thesaurus, my dream is finally happening.

On Sunday, Feb. 17, I will enter the Somerville Theatre sometime after 6 p.m to accompany 'Woman in the Moon' before an audience of 700 hard core sci-fi fanatics.

It's not your usual silent film crowd. But that's the point!

Some people dream of getting the Congressional Medal of Honor. Some people just want their kids to respect them. For me, this is it — for years now, accompanying 'Woman in the Moon' at the Boston Sci-Fi Marathon is all I've ever aspired to do.

And now it's about to happen. And if you'd like to be on hand to witness this transit, I'm pasting in a press release below that has all the info.

For me, I'm elated. I'm ecstatic. I'm, I'm...hey, get me that thesaurus!

* * *

A promotional poster for 'Frau im Mond' (1929).

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

Boston Sci-Fi Marathon highlighted by early silent German space travel epic that predicted Apollo program

'Woman in the Moon,' Fritz Lang's pioneer fantasy about mankind's first lunar voyage, to be shown with live music during 44th annual Presidents Day weekend event

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—A sci-fi adventure hailed as the first feature film to depict realistic space travel will be screened this month as part of the annual Boston Sci-Fi Marathon over Presidents Day weekend.

'Woman in the Moon' (1929), directed by German filmmaker Fritz Lang ('Metropolis,' 1927), will be shown with live music during the 24-hour event, which starts at noon on Sunday, Feb. 17 at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville.

The screening is a highlight of the 44th year of the Science Fiction Marathon, which bills itself as the nation's longest-running genre film event. This year's marathon includes a total of 11 feature films, many presented using 35mm or 70mm prints from studio vaults.

In addition to 'Woman in the Moon,' titles include 'Rollerball' (1975), 'Andromeda Strain' (1991), and 'Inner Space' (1987), and Dr. Cyclops (1940).

'Woman in the Moon' holds a special place in this year's line-up, in part because of the 50th anniversary of the actual Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, which it anticipated in many remarkable ways.

On the lunar surface: 'Woman in the Moon.'

" 'Woman in the Moon' is a great and at-times bizarre film, one that must be seen to be believed," said Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who will create live music for the screening.

Director Fritz Lang, responsible for the groundbreaking sci-fi epic 'Metropolis' (1927), planned 'Woman in the Moon' as another step in his quest to stretch cinema's visual, story-telling, and imaginative capabilities.

The rarely seen full-length version of 'Woman in the Moon' follows an intrepid band of German space pioneers as they attempt mankind's first voyage to the lunar surface, where they hope to find large deposits of gold.

The film, made with German rocket experts as technical advisers, anticipated many of the techniques used by NASA for the Apollo moon launch program 40 years later. For example, a multi-stage rocket is employed to escape Earth's gravity, and a separate capsule is used to reach the lunar surface.

Willy Fritsch prepares to pull the lever.

The film is also noted for introducing the idea of a dramatic "countdown" prior to launch, which later became standard procedure in actual space flight. Critics regard the film's extended launch sequence as a masterpiece of editing and dramatic tension.

But 'Woman in the Moon,' with its melodramatic plot, also stands as the forerunner of many sci-fi soap opera elements that quickly became clichés: the brilliant but misunderstood professor; a love triangle involving a female scientist and her two male colleagues; a plucky young boy who yearns to join the expedition; fistfights and gunfire and treachery on the lunar surface.

Added to the mix is a vision of the moon (created entirely on a massive studio set in Berlin, Germany) that features a breathable atmosphere, giant sand dunes, distant mountain peaks, and bubbling mud pits.

The moon as imagined by Fritz Lang.

"Including 'Woman in the Moon' in this year's Sci-Fi Marathon, with its foreshadowing of the Apollo program, is a great way to acknowledge this year's 50th anniversary of mankind's actual landing on the moon," Rapsis said.

"And as a past vision of a future that didn't quite come to be, it really gets you thinking of time and how we perceive it."

Rapsis, a resident of Bedford, N.H., will improvise live musical accompaniment during the screening, using a digital synthesizer to recreate the sound of a full orchestra and other more exotic textures.

'Woman in the Moon,' a full-length feature than runs more than 2½ hours, should not be confused with the much earlier film 'A Trip to Moon,' a primitive "trick" short movie made by French filmmaker George Méliès in 1902 and famous for the image of a space capsule hitting the eye of an imaginary moon man.

"Unlike the Méliès film, there's nothing primitive about 'Woman in the Moon,' " Rapsis said. "It's silent film story-telling at the peak of its eloquence, with lively performances, imaginative camera angles, and superb photography."

Bad timing is one reason that 'Woman in the Moon' (titled 'Frau im Mond' in German) is not as well known today as 'Metropolis,' its legendary predecessor. Lang completed 'Woman in the Moon' just as the silent film era was coming to a close.

As one of the last silent films of German cinema, 'Woman in the Moon' was unable to compete with new talking pictures then in theaters, making it a box office flop at its premiere in October, 1929.

However, German rocket scientist Hermann Oberth worked as an adviser on the movie, and it developed cult status among the rocket scientists in Wernher von Braun's circle starting in the 1930s. During World War II, the first successfully launched V-2 rocket at the German rocket facility in Peenemünde had the "Woman in the Moon" logo painted on its base.

During the war, the Nazis tried to recall and destroy all prints of 'Woman in the Moon' due to its detailed depiction of state-of-the-art rocket propulsion technology; in later years, this served to make the film even more hard to find. For many years, the film was available only in cut-down 16mm versions that ran as short as one hour.

But pristine and complete 35mm copies of 'Woman in the Moon' did survive in several European archives. Today, restored prints are amazingly clear and sharp, Rapsis said.

" 'Woman in the Moon' is technically one of the best-looking silent films I've ever seen," he said. "If you think all silent films are grainy and scratchy-looking, 'Woman in the Moon' will change your mind. It's like an Ansel Adams photograph come to life."

"Although 'Woman in the Moon' is available for home viewing, this is a motion picture that should be experienced as intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience," Rapsis said. "There's nothing like it."

'Woman in the Moon' will be shown as part of the 44th Annual Boston Science Fiction Marathon, which begins on Sunday, Feb. 17 at noon at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.

Tickets to the 24-hour marathon are $90 per person and available at www.bostonscifi.com. Tickets for individual movies shown during the Sci-Fi Marathon are not available.

No comments:

Post a Comment