Interview with Jeff Rapsis
Buster Keaton and Live Musical Accompaniment at the Somerville Theater
What an excellent opportunity it was to be able to watch 3 more Buster Keaton films (2 shorts and a full-length film) on the big screen with the uber-talented Jeff Rapsis accompanying the films with his special brand of improvisational music. Jeff doesn't just play music to the films. He talks to us about the films before and after the screening. I think his speech before is most crucial for the audience's appreciation and enjoyment of the film. Jeff takes the time to talk to us about what he does and why it's important to watch these silent films on the big screen, with an audience, with live music, on 35mm and with the correct aspect ratio. He also gives us background on Buster Keaton and he contextualizes the films by giving us some information that helps us understand key scenes. Sometimes we are blinded my 21st century perspectives and we lose some of the understanding of early films over time. Mostly because society, customs, fads and culture all change as the decades pass. And while we can laugh at Buster Keaton's excellent skills as a physical comedian, there are some things that are trapped in the 1920s that we in the 2010s can't quite understand.
In the first film Cops (1922) , Buster Keaton plays a young man in love with the mayor's daughter. She won't marry him because he's not a well-to-do business man. Keaton sets off looking to make something off himself but instead gets tricked into taking on all this furniture (which he thinks he purchased but really he was swindled). He buys a horse for $5 (another swindle) and has the horse pull the cart full of furniture to his intended destination. But it's a big load for the horse to carry and mid-way the travel becomes a struggle. Keaton and the horse just happen to stop in front of a Goat Gland Specialist shop. Keaton looks at the sign out front, thinks for a moment and drags the horse in to the office only to be kicked out almost immediately upon entering. In 1922, this scene would have been hilarious but in 2011 it's just a head-scratcher. What the heck is a Goat Gland specialist and why did Keaton bring the horse there? This is where Jeff Rapsis comes in. Before the screening, he told us that Goat Glands were the 1920s answer to Viagara. These specialists would insert Goat Glands (ick) into men in order to revitalize the man's virility. Rapsis didn't tell us why we needed to know this but once we got to the Goat Gland-Keaton-Horse scene, it all made sense. And we knew why it was funny. Keaton brought the horse to the specialist in hopes that an operation and new-found virility would make the horse more effective in pulling his cart. Ha! Hilarious.
Jeff Rapsis gave us some information about all three films screened: Cops (1922), The High Sign (1921) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). We learned that in the early 1920s, Americans feared anarchists in the same way we fear terrorists today. This explains a crucial scene in Cops. We also learned that gangs in the 1920s often had secret hand signs like in The High Sign and that Keaton did all his own stunts and served as a stunt double for other actors in his own films (neat!). After the screening of Steamboat Bill Jr., we learned that the film had no script, just a basic concept and some key stunt scenes and the story just developed from there.
The screening was a lot of fun. It was a packed house of at least 200 or more people. More than double from the last time. I was so happy to see this and I hope my blogging efforts helped put a few people in those seats (I know I at least got myself, Carlos and my good friend Kevin there). After the screening, Jeff got a huge round of applause which was very well-deserved. We went to speak to him afterwards but had to wait awhile until all the "groupies" got to him first. Jeff got lots of questions and I overheard a few. I learned that he'll only watch a film once or twice before he performs so that he doesn't anticipate things. This allows for more freedom in improvisation.
Jeff will be back in the Fall to the Somerville Theater to play more silent films with live music. So make sure you check out his website JeffRapsis.com for his schedule. Special thank you to Jeff Rapsis and the Somerville Theater for this amazing evening.