Saturday, March 28, 2009

Newsday article on Joan of Arc show

This is an article/interview from 3/19/09's issue of Newsday promoting the Cinema Arts Centre show of The Passion of Joan of Arc which we did on 3/24/09. Click on the image to see it larger.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wild Bill Hickok and The Passion of Joan of Arc

Tuesday morning, after a day off to rest and recover from Cinefest, I was at MoMA for a press screening of Wild Bill Hickok (1923) starring William S. Hart. At right is a still I found online of Hart as Hickok, with Abraham Lincoln and General Custer (well, actors playing Lincoln and Custer). The running time is 55 mins, but it was released at 7 reels – Anne Morra told me it was released at this length but was edited down soon after it was released.

This was a Hart I'd not seen before, and the press screening was being held as part of a press conference to promote a new photography exhibit at MoMA about the old west. There's a film series to go with it, and this is the silent film in the group. It's a good film, full of what you expect from Hart: gunfights, unrequited love, friendship with his horse, tears from old Bill (of course), and some great Western stuff.

This was a nice chance to preview the film before playing for it next week (April 1, 2 and 3 at 1:30 in the Bartos Theater, on Miditzer). Not that I wouldn't have a problem playing for it "cold" at the first show, but it gave me the chance to find out ahead of time that I need to look up the melody for "Old Dand Tucker". Hart sings it to his horse at the beginning of the film, and is seen later in the film playing the tune on a fife. I may bring it around a 3rd time when he and his horse ride off into the sunset.

Here's a video of the tune found on YouTube, played on a fife, as a demo of rudimentary drumming:

And here's another video, with the lyrics:

After the show, went home, took care of some "agent business" (bookings, etc.) packed up my laptop and Miditzer peripherals and headed out to the LIRR for the evening's show of Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc at the CAC in Huntington. Image of Dreyer seen at right is from the Carl Dreyer website – click on the image to go to the site, which is hosted by the Danish Film Institute.

Print was the 35mm from the BFI. It's a real nice, sharp print, and has the film's original Danish intertitles with English subtitles supered over them. The film went over extremely well, even for me. I find sometimes that Dreyer's Joan can be like watching paint dry, but I think the combination of our running it at 24fps and accompanying it on (theatre) organ helped me really connect emotionally with the story and Joan's journey, and I really liked the film this time.

Had a chance to use percussion, sparingly, and had a couple nice moments where the chimes were very effective. I'm never sure about using these, but I had a few comments from audience members afterward about what an emotional effect they had. Sometimes the tuned percussion can be shticky, something I'm always concerned about. We had a nice big crowd for the show, and they all really enjoyed the film. I'm looking forward to next month's show of Arbuckle-Keaton shorts.

I'm finding that in accompanying films on the organ in some cases I go on the journey with the characters on a deeper level emotionally than I do with piano. Depends on the film. Some pictures, like Old Ironsides and Underworld, where I'm not getting as much from the performers, I don't necessarily notice it. But a couple months ago I played for The Last Command a couple times at MoMA and found myself spent at the end of the film, moreso than usual. I hope audiences are having the same reaction.

Still managing to book or confirm something nearly every day, and am still playing catch-up a little after being out of town for Cinefest. Sunday is Foolish Wives at the Silent Clowns series; Bruce always programs a drama in each season as a nice change of pace. I watched the DVD of it the other day. I don't think I've seen the film since I played for it in Everson's class back in the early '80s. Bruce is picking a comedy short with Mae Busch in it to open for the feature.

See you at the silents!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Cinefest 2009 in Syracuse

March 20-22: Syracuse, NY – I'm killing some time before my JetBlue flight outta Syr, and thought I'd post here. Just finished 3 days at the 29th annual Cinefest here in Syracuse. The festival runs 4 days, but I couldn't get here for the first day, because I had a show of Broken Blossoms in New Rochelle on the 19th. That show went well; audience was all seniors but we had a nice crowd (including my mom and a couple of other relatives), and the film played really well.
At Cinefest friday night, I wound up playing for a silent called The Circle, based on the Somerset Maugham play. A nice late '20s melodrama with one of my favorite character men in it, Creighton Hale, to keep things light. Saturday's 35mm show at the Palace Theater (hey, ma, I finally played the Palace!) was great. All silents, all but one of which were from LOC. We each played for one or two of the six features screened between 8:30 and 3:30, using Philip's Kawai digital keyboard and amp. The theater is a historic one, built in the late 1920s and is a great place to see silents and older films. It's one of the aesthetic things I enjoyed about Cinefest, and which I really like about the Cinesation in Ohio, where all the film screenings are held in the town's 1916 Lincoln Theater, originally built as a Triangle.

Pictured above are the four accompanists for the 2009 Cinefest: (left to right: Donald Sosin, Makia Matsumura, Ben Model and Philip Carli.

I wound up mostly seeing the silents that were screened, back at the hotel (Holiday Inn), and spent the rest of the time either napping or hanging out and schmoozing. One of the great things about Cinefest is that it was a great chance to meet a lot of people I only knew over e-mail, both classic film afficionados and archive/industry folks. I also got to chat with a lot of people who read this blog and who have downloaded my altscore scores. This was very satisfying – you put things "out there" online and there's no real way to find out who's reading this or if it's of interest to anyone. Google analytics gives you numbers, if you set up the code on your site correctly, but it's nice to meet some of my "readers". There were also a number of people from the NYC contingent who I usually only see for 10-15 minutes before and/or after a show, and this was a nice chance to hang out with them (especially since I wasn't in charge of anything here).
While there weren't any standouts among the silents for me, I think it's because they were all really good films, all slightly obscure titles (for me, anyway) that I was glad I got to see. I think I did all right on my playing. The piano at the hotel was a Yamaha Clavinova, another nice instrument with a good sound, provided by a local Yamaha dealer (thanks to Makia). I'll post photos of the Palace Theater in a separate post, so you can get a good look at the place.

Tuesday I'm playing for a press screening of the William S. Hart Wild Bill Hickok at MoMA in the morning, and then that night I'm in Huntington for Dreyer's Joan of Arc. Rest of the week will be more "office" work and other projects. Mostly, I'm looking forward to being home with Mana and Molly.

See you at the silents!

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Mar 6: The Freshman at MoMA

Mar 6: played for Lloyd's The Freshman at MoMA. Had a pretty full house and the film went over really well. This is the 3rd time I've gotten to play for it in the last several months. While it's one if the iconic Lloyd films, I still like Kid Brother and a couple others a little better. Still, The Freshman doesn't really get shown that much and it should. I was surprised that, during the whole Adam Sandler lawsuit thing over his The Water Boy, no one seized on the free publicity for The Freshman and showed it then.

When I played for it last July during MoMA's "Dali Laughs" series, my wife and daughter and a friend of hers came to the show. Afterwards the three of them were trying to do Lloyd's little "call me Speedy" jig and just couldn't get it. They're all theatrical, dancey gals and I realized the reason they couldn't do it was because it can't be performed in real life the way it appears on screen. At the time I was preparing my talk on "undercranking" for the NY Clown Theatre Festival and slowed the jig down to real-time speed to see what the jig looked like.

Playing for this film reminded me that I've been meaning to upload the clip to YouTube, and so I've just done that. Here it is:

Mar 5: Underworld at MoMA

Mar 5 - arrived at MoMA early to throw the Miditzer together for a show of Josef von Sternberg's Underworld with George Bancroft, Evelyn Brent and Clive Brook. Oh, yeah, and Larry Semon in a character part. Brook comes off better than Bancroft as an actor, and Brook's screen presence is great for silents; perhaps that's why Bancroft did better in sound films. Still, it's fun picture, and Larry Semon does a nice job as comedy reliefe, as does Jerry Mandy as one of the other "mugs". I have an old show-at-home of a 1919 "mountie" 2-reeler starring and directed by Edgar Jones with Brent in a supporting role. The show was well-attended.

The print looked okay, about the same as the print we got from Paramount when we ran it at the Cinema Arts Centre last year. At the CAC show I brought a 16mm of Golf with Larry Semon to open, just to show people who Semon was, and the film played really well. I haven't seen the new print(s?) of Underworld that were done by Paramount a year or two ago, but I'd imagine/hope they're a bit sharper than these two 35mm's I've now seen, which seem a tad dupey in parts.

Mar 4: Beau Brummel & The Iron Horse

Mar 4 - I can't put my finger on why, but Valentino's Monsieur Beaucaire and Barrymore's Beau Brummel are two of my least favorite mid-20's silent dramas. Perhaps there's something about putting either of these two dynamic personas in a European powdered-wig melodrama. Beau Brummel also ends a few times. Don't get me wrong – I'd never turn down a chance to play for either of these pictures...a gig is a gig, after all.

My day started with a matinee of Beau Brummel at MoMA, part of the series connected with the Madalena poster exhibit. Accomp was on Miditzer, as these 1:30 W-Th-Fr matinees are held in Bartos, where there is no piano (yet). Barrymore has a number of nice moments, though and at 12 reels you really appreciate these charm moments when they happen.

Next, I was off to Grand Central to head off to Ossining to play for John Ford's The Iron Horse at the Ossining Public Library. The film was being shown as part of a Ford series, with lecture & discussions by Mark Hasskarl, director of the Danbury Public Library. I'd done a Sherlock Jr. show with Mark a few years ago for a series he'd done at the now-defunct Northern Westchester Center for the Arts, back when he was at the Chappaqua library. Ironically, it was not this connection that led to this show...rather, Ossining's programming person Bonnie Katz had met me at the Burns Film Center last September when I played for Lang's Destiny and when Mark wanted to include The Iron Horse she contacted me for live piano, rather than just run the film with the score that's on the disc.

The new "Ford at Fox" DVD of The Iron Horse looks great, and a lot of digital clean-up and image stabilization was done. Unfortunately the film looks like it was transferred at around 20 fps, a bit slow for a 1924 release, and you can lip-read everthing, plus the comedy bits with J. Warren Kerrigan don't play right and didn't get laughs during the show.

The Ossining Library is a beautiful new building and the auditorium boasts brand new DVD player, a/v, projection, a nice big screen and a well-maintained Steinway D grand. The show went well, and the people who came really enjoyed it. I shifted into my "playing-for-a-film-being-run-a-bit-too-slow" mode, and the score went fine. Unfortunately, I had to scoot to catch my train back to NYC and had to miss Mark's talk. He's very knowledgeable and his intro to the film was quite good. The nice thing about the commute to and from Ossining is that it's about an hour, and I got in two much-needed naps courtesy of Metro North.

I'll be playing for The Iron Horse again in November at the Cinema Arts Centre, with a 35mm print from Fox.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Mar 3: The Whirl of Life - Vernon and Irene Castle

Tues, March 3 – played for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910) and The Whirl of Life (1915) at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, where the Donnell programming is now presented. This was part of a series of films curated by Joe Yransky related to the "Curtain Call" exhibit at the Lincoln Center Library. Both films were presented in 16mm and, while a bit fast at 24fps, variable speed is not possibel there...but faster is always better than too slow.

Here's a clip from the middle of the score for Oz, which I recorded with my Zoom H4 sitting on the piano's folded down music rack, pointing into the piano (with the lid on short stick):

Both films really came to life during the show. The Whirl of Life, which stars Vernon and Irene Castle, has a melodramatic plot device in which Irene is kidnapped by a rival producer bent on ruining the Castle's so his show will be a hit. The whole storyline seemed a bit silly to me when I screened this, but the audience was really with it, cheering for Vernon, as well as for his dog and a squad of marines, during the rescue and chases, and I took this and the audience's vibe into consideration and really went for it. Joe told me later this storyline was deliberately done as tongue-in-cheek, and we were both pleased at how well the audience (consciously or not) picked up on this and really enjoyed it.

I recorded the whole show, and the sound quality came out quite well. I'm really impressed with the H4. Afterwards, since I was at the library, I returned a few silent film DVD's I'd borrowed to prepare for shows. Have I mentioned what an amazing resource the NYPL is for silent film on video? I believe I have...

Mar 2: NYU Cinema Studies - Antonia Lant's class

Monday, March 2 – I played for a selection of animated shorts and films made by women at Antonia Lant's film history class at NYU. Antonia came to a Silent Clowns show several years ago and introduced herself, and I've played once a year at her class ever since. Antonia's book (co-editor) Red Velvet Seat: Women's Writings on the First Fifty Years of Cinema is shown at right. Click on the cover image to buy it online.

When I come to Antonia's class to accompany films, she gives me a bit of time to talk about the history and tradition of silent film music and about my work, and to take questions from the students. This year's group were pretty vocal and had a lot of good questions. I also like playing for Antonia's class because I learn a lot from her lecture. I play for a different session each year, usually because of my availability; prior years have been experimental film, Danish film, early cinema and Biograph shorts, etc.

This time it was a pair of Emile Cohl animations, and then Winsor McKay's How a Mosquito Operates, Gertie the Dinosaur and The Sinking of the Lusitania. I hadn't seen Mosquito since I was in college, at a showing at the old Thalia (Steve Sterner was probably at the piano), and same for Lusitania which I saw as part of John Canemaker's animation history class. All the films in the class were screened from DVD's, and unfortunately the editon of Gertie was incredibly slow...maybe transferred at 16-18fps.

The fact that it was the regular release version, with the wraparound story of fellow cartoonists betting McKay that he couldn't make a drawn dinosaur move, and then the Gertie segment with intertitles cut in, reminded me that I'd been meaning to upload the video of Steve Massa's reenactment of the original vaudeville act to YouTube. I mentioned the difference between the film screened at the class and the "live" version, and how I really got what was such a big deal about the Gertie act when I saw it this way.

I had actually just the other day come across a VHS of this while looking for something else, and have transferred it and uploaded it. I sent the link to Antonia, whose T.A. will post it on the class's "Blackboard" page. Here it is:

The films by or featuring women were Lois Weber's Suspense, an episode of The Hazards of Helen, and Asta Nielsen in Afundgren ("The Abyss"). Again, all three of these had slow transfer speeds (the Nielson was particularly slow, definitely around 16fps). Great for lip-reading, but tough on the accompanist. One of the downsides of DVDs is that one has no control over projection speed. Doesn't matter too much to me, as I've now developed a second manner of accompanying for films run slower than they should be (IMHO).

And as usual the end title for The Abyss got an inadvertent laugh. If you don't know the picture, it's basically a tale of a nice girl running off from her society friends to join a travelling circus, performs a very suggestive gyrating tango, has some awful romantic complications, kills her lover, is taken off to jail, and then the title comes up: "Slut". Which is Danish for "The End" or "Finis", and is pronounced sloot, but to us "Yanks" it still looks like a commentary abour Asta's character.

It was nice to get to play the piano, (see earlier post about the instrument) and it was still in tune from last week's tuning. It needs some regulation work (loss of motion, repetition springs) and could use a polish, but it was nice getting to play an instrument that had a special meaning for my accompaniment work.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

White Fawn's Devotion - DVD score

Last Friday I recorded a piano score for the 1910 1-reeler White Fawn's Devotion which will be an extra on Milestone's upcoming DVD of The Exiles. White Fawn was recently added to the National Film Registry, and this scoring opportunity gave me the chance to see the film. I missed Young Deer's Attack of the Indians (1911) when it was been shown at the Cinesation last September.

The film stars James Young Deer and his wife, as well as several Native Americans (billed in the main title as "red indians"). Young Deer and his wife were of the Winnebago tribe originally, from Nebraska. The film is set somewhere out west, although the film was shot in New Jersey.

I wanted to do a little research musically, so I wasn't just playing typical "indian"-sounding music. I've always meant to do this, and after playing for a couple of Fairbanks pre-Zorro comedies that had scenes of Hopi indians I went online and found the Smithsonian-Folkways website to be an amazing resource.

Remember all those Folkways records of field recording of folk songs, delta blues, whaling songs, etc etc etc? I know I saw these in every library I've ever been in. The collection was acquired by the Smithsonian (a deal I only recently found out that was orchestrated by my late uncle), and is now available online. You can download entire albums ($9.99) or individual tracks (99¢), like iTunes. I found 4 tribal chants of Winnebago indians to download and listen to to create a sound-alike.

What I found interesting is that all four of these, including the tribal war chant, were in major keys. I used this sound, and the scale I heard in all of these vocal recordings, to create White Fawn's theme.

The film was transferred at, I'm guessing, 16 or 18fps, and while the first shot of the film is right at real time (you can lip-read everything, and the gestures seem a little big and deliberate), the remainder of the film seems a tad faster. This works well because there's a lot of action in the rest of the picture.

This was another one of those early dramas where people stand around talking and gesturing, and I find that playing to the gestures and faces helps define for the audience what exactly the drama of the scene is. Click here to read a post from 2007 when I scored an Edwin S. Porter western for the Kino disc of Before the Nickelodeon to see a detailed discussion of this.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Safety Last in Hewlett-Woodmere (Long Island)

Okay, this is a photo of the beautiful 200-seat auditorium at the Hewlett-Woodmere library before everybody showed up for today's show of Safety Last. If I'd remembered to charge my camera battery there'd be a photo or two of me and Philip Harwood to post here as well.

Piano was a beautiful Steinway B which, as luck would have it, was just worked over by a local technician who had worked for Steinway for a few decades. The instrument was a delight to play, and the artist bench (padded, adjustable height piano bench) went high enough to be right for me, even though the piano was on casters.

Philip's talk went very well. He had notes to read from but never used them...could've fooled me, with all the dates and details he had mentally at his fingertips. Did a great job of setting the film up and giving some interesting background on Lloyd and the other players. We had around 100 people, primarily seniors, and everyone had a great time.

We ran Ask Father – which my wife and daughter call "the one with the pillow" (I have a real nice 16mm of this one), and From Hand To Mouth, both of which are on the same disc that SL is on. I'd done this same pair of shorts as openers – for the same reason, no disc juggling necessary – at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor in October 2007. Ask Father is one of the better one-reelers, plus there's a moment when Lloyd climbs up the side of a building (just one story), and H2M is Mildred's first with Harold...and SL is her last.

Scores went fine, but this feature kinda takes care of itself, and once Lloyd heads up the building I'm playing to the audience as much as I'm playing to the film.

Tomorrow finds me at my old stomping grounds...NYU film school, playing for Antonia Lant's film history class. For the last two years the piano has been unavailable because of renovations to the screening room, and I have brought my keyboard. This year everything is done and I'll be able to use the piano. It's a Baldwin Acrosonic, one which I picked out back in '82 or '83 when I was playing for classes at NYU while going to film school. Everson had gotten the department to buy a piano and I was told to go to a piano dealer in the village and try out a bunch and pick one. I really liked the Acrosonic; it's got a richer sound than most consoles and, as I've learned from my tuning/tech teacher, it really holds a tuning. The instrument was tuned last week for Stephen Horne's talk/performance at NYU, so it'll sound good too.