• Rutland Herald Feature, Sept. 2013

Here's the text of a feature story by writer Janelle Faignant published in the Rutland (Vt.) Herald on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013.

Posting it here because she included a quote from me about my "big-ass keyboard," which I sometimes say but I didn't expect to make it into the story. :)

But did I really use the word "pedantic?"

Before the ‘Talkies’: Silent film returns
to Brandon, with improvised soundtrack

By Janelle Faignant
Staff Writer | September 12, 2013

The switch from silent films to talkies marked the end of an era with the release of “The Jazz Singer,” the first film presented with sound in 1927. But now, more than 80 years later, silent films are experiencing a resurgence in popularity.

Brandon Town Hall has been featuring silent films shown with live music for the past three years, in support of its renovation. This Saturday, Sept. 14 you can catch a silent film comedy double feature, the way it was originally meant to be experienced, with live music by accompanist Jeff Rapsis at 7 p.m.

“My job is collaborating with dead people,” Rapsis joked in a recent interview. A resident of Bedford, N.H., he is one of the country’s leading silent film musicians, and one of the things that makes his contribution to the films so remarkable is the fact that his soundtracks are completely improvised. In each screening you’re getting a one-of-a-kind original score.

“It’s like ‘Who’s Line Is It Anyway’ for movies,” Rapsis said. “When it works well, nothing is better — you can’t write down the kind of music you come up with when it’s working right. I don’t even know where it comes from sometimes, I sit there as amazed as anybody when it comes together.”

Rapsis chose films featuring comic icons Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton in the two classics screening on Saturday. Lloyd plays the lead in “Dr. Jack,” a 1922 slapstick comedy about a well-liked altruistic doctor with common-sense cures, produced by Hal Roach, directed by Fred Newmeyer and written by Jean Havez, Hal Roach, and Sam Taylor.

And Keaton directed and stars in “Seven Chances,” which was based on a play by Roi Cooper Megrue, produced in 1916. The premise of the 1925 film revolves around Keaton’s character, stockbroker Jimmy Shannon’s impending financial disaster, and the sudden news that if he marries by 7 p.m. that night, he’ll inherit seven million dollars. Critics praised the film as one of the best silent film comedy endings ever.

An article by Susan King in the Los Angeles Times references “Singing in the Rain” — a film whose story is built around the transition from silent film to talkies — as incorrectly portraying what really happened during that changeover. Rather than the panic and pandemonium in the film during the change, UCLA Film & Television Archive programmer Paul Malcolm said it was actually “a very rational, ordered decision to move forward with sound production, and they did it in a very rational and orderly way.” It, in fact, involved the studios making multiple versions of the same film, a silent version and a sound version.

After “The Jazz Singer” introduced talkies to the masses, silent films became an outdated thing of the past, like record players and TVs without remote controls. However the feel-good sense of nostalgia, innocence and time slowing down comes through even just in watching a seven minute clip online of one of Lloyd’s films, “Safety Last,” suggesting why audiences are eager for the experience.

Rapsis started doing silent film screenings almost as a lark, as a way to keep a place for his creative energy and found that he really enjoyed doing it. And it was helping these films find new audiences.

“It got all swept away and pretty much forgotten for a couple generations,” Rapsis said. “Now it lives because it’s so old and so different that it’s new to us. It’s a fresh experience seeing a motion picture that doesn’t have a soundtrack. And because the music is improvised — I make it up right on the spot.”

He uses a digital synthesizer, “basically a big-ass keyboard” that weighs close to 70 pounds.

“It does everything,” he explained. “I can pretty much go anywhere I want (musically), whatever the film seems to be wanting at the time.”

Which he says ranges from very quiet to busy, overwhelming sound when the action onscreen demands it.

“If a big emotional love scene is reaching a crescendo and somehow I hit just the right series of dissonances and chord progression to really amp up the action and the emotion, it’s just thrilling. I’m kind of a junkie for (it).”

His pre-screening preparation, when he does it, involves watching a film only once, sometimes in fast-forward just to get a sense of the arc of the story, when it slows down and speeds up and when the big scenes are. And that’s it.

“I found that if I try to prepare too much I don’t do as well as if I’m on the spot. It seems to work better for me when I have to do it live,” he said. “You get into this mental state, (a) flow.”

People come from all over the state and as far away as Massachusetts and New York to experience these films the way they were intended to be shown — on a big screen, in a theater with live music.

“A lot of people get the idea that silent film is primitive and sort of silly and pedantic,” Rapsis says. “But when it’s done right you might be surprised how much life they still have in them.”

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