This week it's Mary Pickford's great drama 'Sparrows' (1926), which I'll accompany as part of a series of films that recently entered the public domain.
'Sparrows' will be screened on Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.
A lot more details in the press release pasted in below.
But now, a few thoughts on what I did this weekend, which was play live music for a movie 7½ hours long.
It's Louis Feuillade's sprawling crime thriller 'Les Vampires' (1915), which we showed this past Saturday and Sunday afternoon at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.
First, let's get the name spelled correctly. When I arrived Saturday, I found the theater marquee looked like this:
So I asked Dennis Markevarich, long-time owner/operator of the Town Hall Theatre, to adjust it, which he obediently did:
But then further input (including the on-screen title of the film itself) by the end of Saturday afternoon confirmed that the correct spelling is with an I, not a Y. So Dennis changed it back.
At least it was correct on the sandwich boards outside the theater:
So much for my liguistic "savoir faire."
I've read reviews warning that 'Les Vampires,' which is divided into 10 chapters of varying length, should not be seen all in one big gulp. Each chapter was released about a month apart, which is how people experienced it in its original release.
But knowing what it was, I felt this was the only way to do it—to immerse one's self into Feuillade's world of criminals and police in early 20th century Paris.
My argument: rather than a Hollywood-style serial with short chapters and cliff-hanger "find out next week" endings, 'Les Vampires' is more like a Dickens novel.
Most of the larger works of Dickens were also created, written, and released in parts: serialized for periodicals of the day.
It was only after all the parts were written and published separately that the whole of, say, 'Our Mutual Friend' would be brought out as a single novel.
For better or worse, that's the model Feuillade was following, I think. So by showing 'Les Vampires' all at once (over two days), we were doing the equivalent of tackling a big novel on that beach vacation I've never actually taken but hear so much about.
And so off we went! Back-to-back afternoons, each filled with nearly four hours of cinema.
I'm sorry, but not surprised, to report that the screenings attracted only a handful of diehard film buffs.
Maybe it was the temporary marquee misspelling. For shame!
One real reason was the weather. This past weekend, the last of summer, was blessed with sunny skies and pleasantly low humidity. So we lacked the dreary or oppressive conditions that make people say, "Gee, I'd like to spend a good part of the day immersed in the world of French criminal syndicates of 1915."
But then again, I chose to tackle 'Les Vampires' mostly for myself.
For one thing, it was kind of a test, or a way of stretching myself. Was I up to it? I've been doing improvised live scores for silent films for 15 years now, and feel ready to handle pretty much anything.
I guess I'm trying to become the Marc-André Hamelin of silent film accompaniment, in terms of a willingness to tackle the big rarely played works in the repertoire.
So in that respect, I'm more of the Jake LaMotta (left) of silent film accompaniment, which actually feels about right to me.
Also, I wanted to see what would happen to the music as the hours went by and the story tumbled on and on.
The good news is that it seemed to flow pretty naturally for the entire length of 'Les Vampires.' I started with just three or four themes to work with, but that turned out to be enough to cover any situation on screen.
Also, I did not get tired, either physically or mentally. A couple of times I felt I was "going dry," as accompanists say, which is when you're sitting at the keyboard (usually after a lot of playing) and simply nothing is coming to you, even as a film plays on screen.
But each time I was able to kick on the after-burners and power through. Both days, I made it to the finish line pretty much okay, although after each session I stood up and simply said, "Thank you very much for watching 'Les Vampires.' Now I'm going to go lie down."
Alas, I didn't get into such a trance that any surprising new melodies burbled up from my subconscious, which I hoped would be the case.
I guess the style of 'Les Vampires' lent itself to those moments—few extended scenes flow very smoothly, and there's always the chance of a gun being pulled at any moment, so you just don't get into that state.
And perhaps the sheer quantity of material has a way of intimidating the place where new music comes from, at least with me.
Surprises? Well, besides a large quantity of hard-to-anticipate fast gunshots, I wasn't prepared for the many scenes of music and dance that occur throughout 'Les Vampires.' Pretty much every chapter has a scene in a nightclub or dance hall.
I did okay for the most part, even when the criminals' nightclub hangout featured a pair of what seemed to be Celtic dancers on screen for an extended time. (How do you make that menacing?)
And I really just couldn't figure out the scenes near the end that show the Vampires gang celebrating with a party highlighted by some pretty wild dancing. Maybe after seven hours of playing, I was just played out.
But I did it. And for every scene that took an unexpected turn, there were many sequences that held together nicely, and in which I felt the music helped bring Feuillade's at-times bizarre creation to life all these years later.
Merci, M. Feuillade, from the 21st century!
Okay, details on 'Sparrows' below. Hope to see you at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth this Wednesday night!
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MONDAY, SEPT. 12, 2022 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • firstname.lastname@example.org
Flying Monkey to screen 'Sparrows,' Mary Pickford's masterpiece, on Wednesday, Sept. 21
Classic silent thriller about orphans who flee evil caretaker in swamp to be shown with live musical accompaniment
PLYMOUTH, N.H. — A landmark thriller starring the most popular actress of the silent era will return to the big screen this month.
'Sparrows' (1926) starring Mary Pickford will be screened on Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H.
Tickets are $10 in advance at www.flyingmonkeynh.com or at the door.
The screening will feature musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating live music for silent film screenings.
In 'Sparrows,' Pickford plays Molly, the eldest resident of a prison-like orphanage run by the abusive Mr. Grimes (Gustave von Seyffertitz), his neglectful wife (Charlotte Mineau) and their diabolical son, Ambrose ("Spec" O'Donnell).
When Mr. Grimes becomes involved in a kidnapping plot, Molly realizes she must somehow escape, and struggles to lead the younger children to freedom through the treacherous swamps that surround the orphanage where they have all been enslaved.
The film is highlighted by dramatic scenes of Pickford and the orphans edging their way across tree branches while alligators snap at them in waters below.
During the silent film era, Mary Pickford reigned as the most famous and powerful woman in the film business.
An industry pioneer who became Hollywood’s first movie star, Pickford enjoyed a cult-like popularity that made her a national icon and an international celebrity.
Pickford also possessed a business savvy that gave her nearly total control of her creative output, with her own production company and a partnership in a major film distribution company, all before she was 30 years old.
Dubbed "America's Sweetheart" early in her screen career, the nickname was misleading, as Pickford's popularity was rooted in her portrayal of assertive women often forced to battle for justice in a male-dominated world.
After starring in hundreds of short dramas from 1910 to 1915, Pickford's popularity led to starring roles in feature films starting in the mid-1910s.
In 1919, she joined industry icons D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in creating the United Artists studio. In 1920, she married Fairbanks, with the pair reigning as Hollywood's royal couple for the remainder of the silent era.
In the 1920s, Pickford reduced her output to one picture per year. Following 'Sparrows,' she made only one more silent, 'My Best Girl' before the industry switched to talking pictures.
Author Jeffrey Vance, writing about 'Sparrows' in 2008, called the film Pickford's "masterpiece."
“Sparrows is her most fully realized and timeless work of art," Vance wrote. "The film’s superb performances, gothic production design, and cinematography all serve a suspenseful, emotionally compelling story anchored by a central performance by Pickford herself imbued with pathos, humor, and charm.”
'Sparrows' starring Mary Pickford will be shown on Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 Main St., Plymouth, N.H.
Admission is $10 per person. For more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com.