Thursday, August 4, 2011

Interview with Silent Film Accompanist Jeff Rapsis

Recently, I had the opportunity to watch 2 Buster Keaton shorts and 1 full-length film on the big screen with live musical accompaniment (read more about the experience here). The music was courtesy of Silent Film Accompanist Jeff Rapsis who travels all over the Northeast of the US screening silent films and playing his own original music to them. Jeff is very talented and is providing film enthusiasts with a great service by screening and accompanying these silent classics the way they were meant to be experienced.

Jeff graciously accepted my request for an interview. In coming up with the ten questions for the interview, I enlisted some help from my fellow classic film fans on Twitter (you can follow me there as @QuelleLove or @ClassicFilmRead ) and got some great questions in return. Thank you to all who participated and to Jeff Rapsis for taking the time out to do this interview.

For those of you in the Boston area, Jeff Rapsis will be back at the Somerville Theater on Sunday August 7th at 7:00 pm for another Buster Keaton screening. He'll be showing the Buster Keaton shorts The High Sign (1921) and Cops (1922) and one of my favorite Keaton full-length films Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). Don't miss out on this opportunity!


1) @TPJost asks- What first got you interested in silent films?

I had a music teacher in junior high who was also a film collector, and he'd bring in 16mm prints of short comedies such as the Chaplin Mutuals and screen them in study hall. I remember the very first one I saw was 'One A.M.' and something about the film caught my interest. I then started checking out books from the local library, including Walter Kerr's then-new 'Silent Clowns,' and I never looked back. Before long, I was saving my allowance and birthday money to order 8mm prints from Blackhawk Films in Iowa. I've maintained an interest ever since, but only started accompanying films in the past five years or so. I had studied music and played keyboard, and I found that doing music and film together was like chocolate and peanut butter for me.

2) @BiscuitKitten from the blog Sittin' on a Backyard Fence  asks - What was the first movie you accompanied?

The first full-length feature was a Halloween screening of 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925) at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H. in 2007. I had no time to prepare, but quickly came up with a few themes that were useful throughout the film, and it went pretty successfully. This encouraged me to tackle other films, and I've been at it ever since. Although I've had a lifelong interest in silent film, and I studied music separately, I had never considered accompanying silent film until I got a chance to score an independent feature film called 'Dangerous Crosswinds,' which was released in 2005. Prior to that, my only experience in creating music for silent film was accompanying short comedies here and there, including one time in a barn for a family gathering where the screen was an actual bedsheet.

3) @Walking26 asks - How do you decide what music to play?

One ground rule for me is that I use my own made-up material rather than songs or period pieces of the era. For each film, what I typically do is create four or five melodies or chord sequences, each with a different character -- one might be a main theme, then a secondary "love" theme, and maybe a forboding series of chords to help signal something important, and so on. Then, while the movie runs, I draw on this "bank" of material to improvise music that supports the film in real time. Because it's being done live, it also reflects the audience response as well as my own personal reactions, and so there's a kind of unpredictable energy present that I think is very different from when a score is all planned out and written in advance. It's a bit of a high wire act, but I think it's an important element in bringing these films back to life for modern audiences.

4) @pebbleinmyshoe from Gina: Blogs Books in Translation  and @diandapanda from Classic Movie Blog want to know about how you prepare and what you improvise. Is your performance practiced a lot in advance,do you wing it and is it the same music each time or is there wiggle room to improvise for the mood of a scene?

Generally, each performance is improvised live on the spot, although I try to create enough useful musical material beforehand to have a consistent musical vocabulary to work with that allows a score to hold together. To prepare for a film, I'll try to view it once beforehand to get a sense of the overall arc of the movie -- when the big scenes are, and any important moments like the firing of a gun. While I do this, I kind of doodle on the piano, and when I come up with something useful, I stop and jot down a scrap of melody or a distinctive harmony. It builds organically from there. And usually that's it for advance preparation, although for big films that I'm not too familiar with, I might watch them again with the DVD player on fast forward just to remind myself of the order of the narrative, which helps in terms of pacing the score in performance.

5) @NiamhVintageKid from Born in the Wrong Decade  asks - Do you ever feel like being completely contradictory and playing horror music during a romantic moment and vice versa?

Yes, but only when it's justified. Fundamentally, my job is to create music to help bring a vintage film to life for an audience today. Ideally, if what I'm doing is successful, audiences should not be really hearing the music separately, but should be absorbed in the film as a total experience. However, I find that using unexpected music can sometimes add real depth to a scene by contributing subtext to what's on screen. Say you have a love scene played between two people who are secretly scheming to kill each other; music can do a lot to bring out both of those seemingly contradictory emotions at the same time. Also, I feel the best silent film comedy does not need "funny" music, but works best when played straight. And in terms of the all-important audience reaction, you need to be really careful not to overplay or play too loud for a comedy, because that keeps audience members from hearing each other react, and that contagious audience reaction is one of the great glories of silent film. They were made to be seen by large crowds in a theater, and music should help induce or trigger that reaction, rather than stifle it.

6) @filmclassics asks - Do you ever get emotional during a performance?

Yes. One film that always gets to me is 'Wings' (1927), the big World War I flying epic. I've done it maybe four times in performance, and it's hard not to get all choked up at some moments near the end. My father was a pilot from the old school, which may have something to do with this. But it's not just me -- once we screened 'Wings' for the New Hampshire Aviation Museum, and a large contingent of old flyboys showed up, and at the end all these tough guys were bawling and blowing their noses! I find one of the great things about silent film is that it's often about the big emotions: lust, anger, triumph, revenge, and so on. It's like opera in that regard, but even more so because silent film is more abstract, and therefore you project more of yourself into it. So if you buy into a film and let it cast its spell on you, it can be very intense, almost cathartic. I try to supply music that helps that process happen, and I personally respond to this kind of art, so it shouldn't be surprising that I get caught up in things every now and then.

Now onto some questions from me!

7) Where do you perform?

I've played films everywhere from big traditional theaters and concert halls to nursing home function rooms and noisy school assemblies. Because most of my work has been outside the big cities, audiences rarely exceed 150 people, so I find the best locations seem to be smaller venues (200 to 400 seats) so there's a kind of critical mass of energy with the audience. I also prefer places with good acoustics for the music, which is a major factor in me being able to work effectively, I think. The only unsatisfying gigs are when someone plans a 1920s-themed party (not very often these days) and they ask me about showing silent films as background entertainment or as atmosphere. This unfortunately tends to reinforce many of the negative stereotypes that persist about silent film, so I try to talk them out of it.

8) Is there a film you want to screen/accompany but haven't yet?

I would love to try some of the big Abel Gance epics such as 'J'Accuse,' 'La Roue,' or even 'Napoleon.' I've never done any of the silent Hitchcock films and I think those would be interesting. Also, I have yet to tackle several of the big Griffith epics, including 'Intolerance' and 'Broken Blossoms,' but I'm looking forward to doing them because the Griffith films seem to match my approach and my kind of music. 'The Birth of a Nation,' while regrettably racist, really comes to life with a score that works to support Griffith's story-telling. There are other more obscure features, such as 'The Johnstown Flood' (1926) and 'The Great K & A Train Robbery' (1926) that I'd like to do -- really, any railroad-themed film, let me at it. I love the big Biblical epics, too; I've yet to do the original 'Ten Commandments' (1923), but I will get a chance to do music for the epic (and weird) part-talkie 'Noah's Ark' (1928) for screenings around Easter 2012.

9) Why are silent films important to you?

First, I think they're a neglected and misunderstood art form that still contains a lot of expressive power if the right conditions are present: good prints, the big screen, live music, and an audience. For me personally, silent films tell stories and depict life in a way that I really respond to, and my efforts to create music for them and screen them stems from a desire to share this experience with others, I think. To me, it's amazing artistic accident that the technical limit of no synchronized soundtrack caused filmmakers to tell stories in a way that turned out to be so universal. And so they have a kind of timelessness woven into them, meaning they can still produce a strong impact all this time later. They're really a different art form than motion pictures today: not that they're more primitive, but they're different in terms of how stories were told and how a viewer contributes his or her own voices and bonds with characters (either consciously or unconsciously), thus personalizing the experience, and how the variable of live music can keep the films fresh and bridge the gap between the time of their making and a contemporary screening. To me, the idea of supplying music to enhance the experience of a film is a remarkable creative opportunity, as long as the goal is to respect the integrity of the film's vision. So I sometimes joke that I've finally found my niche: collaborating with dead people! Also, with the passage of time, even the most ordinary of silent films have another level of interest now, in that they depict so much about life that's changed since they were made. We just screened 'Tol'able David' (1921), which was filmed in rural Virginia, and in the film it looks as if life hadn't changed much since Colonial days! No automobiles, no electricity, no iPads. By watching silent films, it's possible to get a sense of what's transient and what's timeless about your own life and times, and I find it deeply rewarding to experience this myself and to share the experience with others.

10) Why should we watch silent films with live music, an audience, the correct aspect ratio, a good print, etc.?

Because that's how they were intended to be shown. The people who made these films, good or bad, did so with all these factors in mind, either consciously or unconsciously: the music, the big screen, the communal experience of the audience. They were baked into the films during planning, shooting, and editing. The films were never intended to be experienced, say, on a home entertainment center by just you alone or with your dog. They were created to be shown in theaters to audiences (the larger the better) and live music, and to discount these factors is to rob a film of much of its intended impact. I've seen it happen many times: a film that bored me when I watched it alone produced a surprisingly intense reaction when screened for an audience. D.W. Griffith's 'Way Down East' (1920) is a good example: In developing music for it, I thought the first two hours were so slow and creaky that they'd be a very tough go for an audience. But we got a good crowd for the screening and they reacted strongly right from the start, whether it was laughing good-naturedly at the moralistic titles or energetically booing the Lowell Sherman character once he showed his true colors. And when Richard Barthelmess rescued Lillian Gish from the waterfall, they went absolutely nuts!

Thank you Jeff for this interview!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Summer of Classic Films in Boston ~ August 2011

Why would I ever leave this great city of mine? Look at the amazing selection of classic films being shown in Boston this month!


Tickets are $9, $7 for Students and Senior Citizens. Some screenings are $12 or even free (check the website)! Cash only folks. Don't bring the credit card. And you can NOT buy in advance so show up early.

Ride in the Whirlwind (1965)
August 5th (Friday) - 9:00 pm

Back Door to Hell (1964) 
August 7th (Sunday) - 5:00 pm

The Shooting (1968) 
August 7th (Sunday) - 7:00 pm
Special Event price of $12.00
Director Monte Hellman in attendance

Flight to Fury (1964)
August 15th (Monday) - 7:00 pm

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
August 19th (Friday) 7:00 pm
August 21st (Sunday) - 5:00 pm

Dragonwyck (1946)
August 19th (Friday) - 9:15 pm

Cleopatra (1963)
August 20th (Saturday) - 7:00 pm

5 Fingers (1952) 
August 21st (Sunday) - 7:00 pm

House of Strangers (1949) 
August 22nd (Monday) - 7:00 pm

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
August 26th (Friday) - 7:00 pm
August 28th (Sunday) - 5:00 pm

The Quiet American (1958)
August 26th (Friday) - 9:00 pm

Julius Caesar (1953) 
August 29th (Monday) - 7:00 pm


Brattle Theater - Cambridge

Tickets are $9.75, Matinees before 5 pm are $7.75. Students $7.75 with ID. Seniors $6.75. Children under 12 $6.75. You can also purchase one of many different membership packages.

Double Feature!
North by Northwest (1959)
August 2nd (Tuesday) - 2:30pm and 7:30pm
Vertigo (1958)
August 2nd (Tuesday) - 5:00 pm and 10:00 pm

These Amazing Shadows (2011) Documentary
See my review of it here and more about my experience here.
August 5th (Friday) - 5:30 pm and 7:30 pm
August 6th (Saturday) - Noon and 5:00 pm
August 7th (Sunday) - 7:30 pm

Double Feature!
It's a Gift (1934)
August 7th (Sunday) - 12:30 pm and 4:00 pm
Baby Face (1933)
August 7th (Sunday) - 2:15 pm and 5:45 pm

Double Feature! With Robert Mitchum!
On Dangerous Ground (1952)
August 8th (Monday) - 3:30pm
August 9th (Tuesday) - 5:30 pm and 9:30 pm
Cape Fear (1962) (new 35mm print)
August 8th (Monday) - 5:30pm

August 9th (Tuesday) - 3:30 pm and 7:30 pm

3:10 to Yuma (1957)
August 13th (Saturday) and 14th (Sunday) - 1:30 pm, 3:30 pm, 5:30 pm, 7:30 pm
August 15th (Monday) - 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm

Double Feature!
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
August 15th (Monday) - 3:00 pm
August 16th (Tuesday) - 3:00 pm and 7:15pm 
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
August 15th (Monday) - 5:15pm
August 16th (Tuesday) - 5:00 pm and 9:15 pm

Double Feature!
Romeo and Juliet (1968)
August 18th (Thursday) - 3:15 pm and 8:30 pm
The Taming of the Shrew (1967)
August 18th (Thursday) - 6:00 pm

Double Feature!
Amarcord (1973)
August 25th (Thursday) - 2:30 pm and 7:00 pm
The Clowns (1970)
August 25th (Thursday) - 5:00 pm and 9:30 pm

Double Feature! (tentative)
Citizen Kane (1941)
August 29th (Monday) - 2:15 pm
August 30th (Tuesday) - 2:15 pm and 7:00 pm
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
August 29th (Monday) - 4:45 pm
August 30th (Tuesday) - 4:45 pm and 9:30 pm


Somerville Theater - Somerville

Weekday matinees (before 5pm and not including Holidays) are $5. Saturday, Sunday and  Holiday matinees (before 6pm) are $7.00. All other times are $8.00. There are discounts for Senior Citizens and children under 12.

Jeff Rapsis - Silent Film Accompanist presents Buster Keaton with Live Music!
The High Sign (1921)
Cops (1922)
Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
August 7th (Sunday) - 7:00 pm
Special event pricing is $12 and $8 for students and seniors


Tickets are $9.75 for Adults and Matinees before 4 pm are $7.75. Children, Seniors (62+) and T.A.P. Card holders pay $6.75 Monday through Thursday and $7.75 Friday through Sunday. Membership is available and members pay $6.75 for all shows. $0.75 of each admission goes to the Capital Campaign Renovation fund.

August 8th (Monday) - 7:00 pm

August 15th (Monday) - 7:00 pm

August 29th (Monday) - 7:00 pm

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart by Nell Shipman

The Silent Screen & My Talking Heart
by Nell Shipman
Third Revised Edition - 2001

Nell's secret for working with wild animals who could sense and would react dangerously to human fear:

"Truth is, I was afraid to be scared. I operated on fear like a surgeon and somehow managed to cut it from the hidden recesses of my Id or boiled out the malignancy from my consciousness... I abolished it."

It is a fact that Nell Shipman was an incredible woman. She was an actress, animal trainer and activist, filmmaker, producer, mother, wife, adventurer, stunt woman, business woman, traveler and free spirit. After having seen The Grub-Stake (1923) and reading about her life and work online I wanted some more information. There were two books in print and I decided to go with Nell Shipman's autobiography The Silent Screen & My Talking Heart because I really wanted to read about her life from her own words.

Nell Shipman was born as Helen Foster-Barham in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada in 1892. Nell became a nickname she acquired later on and Shipman is the surname of her first husband. Nell Shipman stuck ever since. Her autobiography starts from the point of birth when her mother and father are about to bury her because she turned bright blue and stopped breathing. Then by some miracle she revived just before they arrived at the burial plot. Nell liked to think she was a changeling and that a free roaming spirit switched places with the original soul in the body. With that, Nell Shipman was off to an auspicious start. She had an early love for acting which her mother encouraged. At a very young age, she performed in theater and traveled and lived with other actors. While she had a pretty decent stage career, Shipman's real talent lied in the fact that she was comfortable in nature, could perform dangerous stunts and had a way with animals. This made her perfect for playing "The Girl" roles in movies that were filmed outdoors. She married at the tender age of 18 to Ernest Shipman who was a theatrical producer. The book chronicles her early life, her marriage, her career and the early years of her first son. It goes from 1892 until 1924 even though Shipman wrote the autobiography much later in her life (she passed away in 1970).

The title of the book suits it very well. Nell Shipman was a silent film actress and so while we don't hear her voice she definitely gets her chance to talk in this book. In fact, the book is very hard to follow because it reads as one very long rant. Nell Shipman recounts each film shoot and each adventure with lots of details but only a little insight. Nell rambles on and on as she teases out each memory out of the recesses of her mind. I found myself skimming over a few parts because frankly they didn't interest me. Some of the more action filled parts made me slow down. I really want to read this book, not skim it, so trudging through the rambling was a chore but worth the effort.

There are some memorable insights. Nell Shipman was a writer after all and some of her language was quite beautiful. I was very intrigued by how she referred to the loss of her virginity on the marital bed as "a painful gymnastic". I've never heard or read a phrase that described that moment from a young woman's point of view in better terms than that one. Also, the book has pictures of Nell in various stages of life and career which give us a different kind of peek into her life that the writing does not.

What interested me most in reading this book was the film The Grub-Stake (1923). It's financial failure single-handedly brought down her career, her movie studio Nell Shipman Productions, her home and took all her beloved animals away from her. Nell devotes a good amount of time to this but not all the details are there. There are a lot of holes but you do learn about how much she loved animals, her talent for training them and interacting with them and how much of a loss it was when she had to close down the famous Lionhead Lodge (her haven in Priest Lake Idaho that housed a lodge, barns, tents, homes for her animals, trails, etc., the book includes maps of the Lake and the Lodge) and send her animals off to the San Diego Zoo. She spoke a lot about her beloved black bear Brownie who was one of the most well-behaved animals she had. She also talks about her rambunctious bobcats Bobs and Babs and Tresore, her Great Dane watchdog who was heartlessly poisoned. Throughout the book, especially the latter half you really get a sense that she had a wonderful talent for working with animals.

So why didn't she become an animal trainer, a circus performer or a zoo keeper? Her greatest passion was acting. Later on in life, she found that she still had stories to tell but those opportunities for her to act them on film were few and far between. Throughout the rest of her life she wrote plays, short stories, novels, screenplays and children's books. She even wrote the story that would become the film Wings in the Dark (1934) which starred Myrna Loy and Cary Grant.

This book is flawed. Even her son Barry Shipman, who wrote the afterword and was also the one to encourage his mom to write the book, admits that not everything is here. We are missing all the interesting post-1924 years. The writing is beautiful at some points and a bit robotic at others. And you really have to mine for the insights because they are hidden in midst of a lot of rambling. There is an essay at the end of the book written by Peter Morris which contextualizes Nell Shipman's work and life into feminist history. That also adds something to strengthen the weak book.

If you are really interested in Nell Shipman or in early film history it's worth the effort it takes to read it. She was a very fascinating woman and like the many men who were drawn to her over the years you'll be charmed by her too. I purchased the last new copy of the Third Revised Edition from and I'm feeling a bit guilty about this. Barnes & Noble doesn't carry it and Borders (which is currently going out of business) never carried it. It was part of the Hemingway Western Studies Series published by Boise State University and their Bronco Store seems to be selling new copies of the Third Revised Edition. Google Books has a preview of the book you can see here. I'm curious about reading her collection of letters and The Girl from God's Country: Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema by Kay Armatage. Maybe I'll learn more about Shipman from these two books than I did her autobiography.

I just want to thank John of Robert Frost's Banjo once again for introducing me to Nell Shipman. He composed and performed music for the DVD release of the film The Grub-Stake (1923). Also, please take a moment to read my review of The Grub-Stake which was part of my IOU Series. If you want to watch any of Nell Shipman's films, the 3 volumes of The Nell Shipman Collection are available to purchase online.

Full Disclosure: If you didn't read it above, I bought the last new copy had. Darn it!

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