Thursday, August 11, 2011

Even More Buster Keaton and Live Musical Accompaniment at the Somerville Theater

Previous posts
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 for his schedule. Special thank you to Jeff Rapsis and the Somerville Theater for this amazing evening.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Ninotchka (1939) at the Somerville Theater

Ninotchka (1939) was screened this past Sunday at the Somerville Theater as part of their Summer Classic Film Series. I singled out the two lesser known films in the series, Captain's Courageous and Ninotchka, to watch and made the trek out to Somerville on Sunday mornings to see them both.

I propose that this movie have a new subtitle. I would call it Ninotchka: A Capitalist Love Story. This film is a great example of American propaganda in the form of entertainment. Even though the story takes place in France, Russia and Turkey, the main star Greta Garbo was from Sweden and the director Ernst Lubitsch was from Germany, this is an American film with an American message in mind for it's American audience. Or is it?

The story starts with 3 emissaries from Russia who travel to Paris in order to sell royal Russian jewels in exchange for money that they can bring back to support their country's cause. The three loveable Soviet Comrades get a little caught up in the titillating life in Paris. Turns out, the jewels actually belong to the deposed Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), whose boyfriend is Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas). The Duchess wants her jewels back but the three Soviets need to sell them. Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) is sent to Paris to fix the whole mess. She arrives to discover that her 3 comrades are staying in the most expensive suite in the most expensive hotel in Paris. Staying in the room for a one week is equal to purchasing 7 whole cows in Soviet Russia, and she imagines how much many people that would feed. Ninotchka, at first very repulsed by the Capitalist lifestyle of excess that she sees in France, falls for Melvyn Douglas' Leon, who is the epitome of upper class excess. Can she sell the jewels before the Duchess gets to them? Will she go back to Soviet Russia or will she stay in Capitalist France with Leon (Melvyn Douglas).

The witty back-and-forth between stern Garbo and free spirited Douglas is very funny (Billy Wilder was one of the writers). The two characters are polar opposites of each other so it's amusing to watch them clash as they fall hopelessly in love. The over-arching political message dampens the humor of the film a bit. At it's foundation, this film is really pitting Capitalism against Socialism/Communism. While it doesn't show Capitalism in the best light, it shows Communism in the worst. Why can't Garbo have her hat, her champagne and her 7 cow hotel room? Why can't she have the silk negligee and the love letters from France? How dare the Soviets deny her of this! Is the pro-Capitalism message something that MGM felt they needed to reinforce or was it just supporting an already established belief in the good of Capitalism that America held during WWII. Capitalism is great for the Duchess and the Count, but what about the Count's Butler. The one that Garbo calls "little father"? The Butler is at an advanced age, has been working without pay for 2 months and as the beck and call of the Count. Is this the fruits of Capitalism? Like many films from the late 1930s, there is a major "fix" in the film. It corrects any notion you may have of Capitalism being bad by showing you how the Soviets feed off of Capitalism in other countries for their own welfare. Any subversive message about negative aspects of Capitalism are quickly corrected with a nice final fix. Besides, it's a love story. How dare those Soviets get in the way. Capitalism will show him who is boss!

I'm not political. Really I'm not. However, I kept thinking of the American debt crisis while I was watching this film. And the fact that I had read that Apple has more cash than the United States (eek!). How would modern audiences interpret the representation of Capitalism in this film? Especially those scenes in which the older butler (past retirement age), is working without pay for Count Leon (Douglas) who himself has no money and lives off his title and the illusion of wealth that he created and perpetuates. I don't feel right exploring this topic further because as I said, I'm not very political. However, it's food for thought.

Leon: What kind of a girl are you, anyway?
Ninotchka: Just what you see. A tiny cog in the great wheel of evolution.
Leon: You're the most adorable cog I've ever seen.

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!

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