Monday, October 5, 2020

This weekend: from 'A Woman in Grey' to 'Woman in the Moon' at New England UFO Conference

Exploring the lunar surface in 'Woman in the Moon' (1929).

Coming this weekend: we blast off as part of the "Greater New England UFO Conference and Film Festival," with a screening of Fritz Lang's lunar epic 'Woman in the Moon' (1929).

Screening is on Saturday, Oct. 10 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.  Admission to the screening is free, with donations accepted to help defray expenses. (The rest of the UFO festival requires purchase of a ticket.) 

More on all that below. For now, here's a report on an experiment we tried this past weekend at the same venue: over two days, we ran all 15 chapters of 'A Woman in Grey' (1920), a rare example of a silent-era serial that survives complete. 

Arline Pretty gives a restrained performance in 'A Woman in Grey.' 

At about 15 minutes per chapter, that's nearly four hours of film! So we broke it into two parts: the first eight chapters ran on Saturday, with the final seven (including the thrilling climax!) on Sunday.

These were never intended to be shown back-to-back, of course. But by doing so, I think we created a new form of cinematic story-telling: every 15 minutes or so, leading lady Arline Pretty would get into some kind of life-threatening peril, at which the whole thing would stop.

And we'd see the same "see the next episode" title, and then a momentary black screen, and then the opening titles for the next chapter. And then we'd get a synopsis of the action so far, and then a few scenes from "last week" to bring us up to speed. 

It was a weird kind of ritualistic experience, in that the rhythms of the story were chained to this climax-every-15-minutes rhythm in a way you don't usually see. 

I wanted to do this partly just to try it, and also because I didn't think running the 15-part story one chapter at a time would work very well in any venue where I regularly perform, where the pace is generally once a month at best. 

I also wanted to do it because 'A Woman in Grey' was filmed in the area of Wilkes-Barre, Penn. by the Serico Producing Co., which promptly went bankrupt after completing this, its one big production. A hundred years later, I thought that's an achievement worth celebrating by running it on the big screen.

For the music, I created a mysterious-sounding main theme that would serve to underscore the opening titles of every episode, and which could be adapted to the action and character interplay as needed. 

So at the end of each episode, just when leading lady Arline Pretty was about to fall to her death or be run over by a train, I'd stop the big dramatic agitato underscoring. Beneath the "don't miss next week's episode" title, I'd finish out the cadence quietly and bring things to a halt.

And then, whatever key I ended up in, when the opening titles for the next chapter appeared, I'd go up a half-step and start the main theme, which otherwise would be played exactly the same way each time, chapter after chapter after chapter.

I have to say, the cumulative effect of this was really quite special. Every chapter, here we go again! It almost seemed to say, without words, to the audience: "You are watching something that is designed solely to manipulate you," which of course was self-evident in any case. 

But the repetitive title music seemed to celebrate that somehow: to make it worth reveling in, submitting to, just letting it happen. It almost became ritualistic, if really anything can be ritualistic within the span of a few hours. 

How did the audience react? We had about 25 brave souls who turned out for both days. (A few only saw Day 1, and two people came only for Day 2.) Reaction was quite strong: lots of laughter at some of the more improbable goings-on, but I sensed genuine engagement throughout as the somewhat tangled plot unfurled.

I think seeing a repeated synopsis of what happened so far was really helpful in keeping track of who was doing what to whom. In today's age of short attention spans, maybe it's something that contemporary films could try doing. Every 15 minutes, remind everyone what's happened so we're better able to follow the story. 

The most interesting thing, to me: each day, after the first chapter ended, the audience burst out laughing at the notion that we'd have to wait until "next week" to see what happens. After that, the convention was just accepted for the rest of the afternoon. That told me that people were engaged in the film to the point where the "wait until next week" break did actually come as something of a surprise, at least at first. 

The sense I felt with the laughter was "okay, now I see what they're doing."

One thing about our screening was disc problems caused some tense moments as we tried to smooth out some rough spots where the image kept freezing. So it was even more of a cliffhanger than we anticipated!

But overall, it was a worthwhile experiment, and everyone who attended said they'd be interested in seeing another one in that format. So if you'd like to experience this, I'll probably do another one sometime later next year. As they say in another medium, stay tuned!

Okay, looking ahead: screenings this weekend of 'Woman in the Moon' (1929) on Saturday, Oct. 10 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H., and then 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1919) on Sunday, Oct. 11 at 6 p.m. at the Center for the Arts in Natick, Mass.

The Natick screening of 'Caligari' is limited to 25 people per Massachusetts Covid-19 pre-cautions, and tickets are available only online and in advance at their Web site.

For 'Woman in the Moon' on Saturday, Oct. 10: yes, it's part of the "Greater New England UFO Conference and Film Festival," an event I've only just heard about. As an extra bonus, it also celebrates the legendary "Big Foot" creature. 

For details on the whole three-day gathering, check out 

As for 'Woman in the Moon,' it's one of my favorite silents, and also one of my favorites to accompany, as the story, tone, and action all seem to fit the kind of music I do. 

If you'd like to attend, below is the press release with way more information. Hope t osee you there, unless you get abducted by a UFO or Big Foot...

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Original German poster for 'Woman in the Moon' (1929). 

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • 

Silent sci-fi adventure thriller on Saturday, Oct. 10 at Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

'Woman in the Moon,' Fritz Lang's pioneer space drama about mankind's first lunar voyage, to be screened with live musical accompaniment during three-day UFO festival

WILTON, N.H.—A sci-fi adventure hailed as the first feature film to depict realistic space travel will be screened as part of a three-day UFO/Big Foot Film Festival this weekend at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

'Woman in the Moon' (1929), directed by German filmmaker Fritz Lang ('Metropolis,' 1927), will be screened with live music on Saturday, Oct. 10 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

Admission is free and the screening is open to the public; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to help defray expenses.

The screening is part of the Greater New England UFO Conference and Film Festival, which runs from Friday, Oct. 9 through Sunday, Oct. 11 at the Town Hall Theatre. For more information on the three-day festival, which also focuses on the legendary 'Big Foot' creature, visit

The rarely seen full-length version of 'Woman in the Moon' follows an intrepid band of 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.

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.

The cast of 'Woman in the Moon' awaits lunar touchdown.

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 crewmates; 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.

"This 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.

"It's as entertaining as any spy-thriller," 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."

Exploring the lunar surface, as created on a huge indoor stage in Berlin, Germany.

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.

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 with live music on Saturday, Oct. 10 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free and the screening is open to the public; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to help defray expenses. For more info, visit or call (603) 654-3456.

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