Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sherlock Holmes, with John Barrymore

June 7 -- I was hired by Kino in March to record a score for the silent film of Sherlock Holmes (1922) starring John Barrymore, and got my promo copy of the Barrymore box set that it's part of the other day. Packaging and esp the artwork is very nice, and this should prove to be a nice set for the overlooked silent film work of John Barrymore.

One thing I appreciated about the call was the request that I do the score on theatre organ. This was another opportunity to help make the sound of the organ part of the silent-film-on-DVD landscape as well as to show off the Miditzer. The other scores on the set are by Bill Perry (piano) on Beloved Rogue, Mont Alto on Dr. Jekyll.

Sherlock Holmes is not necessarily The Last Command or Orphans of the Storm or Wings, but it is definitely worth seeing. Plus it's got a great cast that includes a young mustache-free William Powell, plus Roland Young, Gustave von Seyffertitz, Reginald Denny, and the pretty-although-not-much-in-the-acting-department Carole Dempster (who I'm guessing is the reason the GEH restoration has a funding credit to Hugh Hefner).

My process for scoring a feature for DVD usually involves watching the film a few times once I get the MOS screener. First time is to watch the picture (or revisit it, if it's a familiar film), and the second and/or third is to make mental and written notes about scenes and mood shifts. If there's time, I then put it aside for a few days to digest the film and think about what the film's dramatic themes are and about the main character's journey. It's also time used to figure out the musical feel of the score, and often this is impacted by factors like transfer speed where the film will need a little more or different help.

I set up the Miditzer and improvised and worked out themes for a while, and then recorded the score in three sections. Sometimes I can get all the way through at one shot, and sometimes I hit a couple of really awfully wrong notes and will stop, back up and start recording another segment. I've learned to musically resolve what I'm playing on a fade-out, so that I have a clean edit point if I need it.

The DVD comes out in July 7th, and you can order it on Amazon by clicking here. I hope people like the score, but more importantly, I hope people like the film because of it.

Here are some frame grabs from the screener (you'll see the VTC, or visual timecode, at the bottom).

Cruel & Unusual: shows #1 - #4

Our first four Cruel and Unusual Comedy shows at MoMA have gone extremely well. We've had great houses – I'd guestimate 200+ people, and lots of new (and younger!) faces – at every program. Eileen Bowser came to our first show, and will be guest speaker at our last show on June 1st. It's the automobile program, which she spoke at when we did our class in Nov/Dec; when we were coming up with show concepts we wanted Eileen to speak and, at the time, was writing something about Mack Sennett and Henry Ford, and Sennett's adopting the assembly-line production techniques of the automobile factory. So that became one of our shows.

The films have gotten lots of laughs, especially the last two. The Gratuitous Violence and Kids and Animals programs have a lot more out-and-out slapstick in them than the drag and race programs' films did. The Violence show went extremely well, with Mack Sennett frying Ford Sterling in the electric chair and Paul Parrott and Kalla Pasha attacking each other and vomiting being big hits.

We've had great publicity as well, with Dave Kehr mentioning the series at the top of his regular Thursday "Film Series and Movie Listings" column two weeks in a row, plus the Village Voice, and several blogs including the Sundance Channel's.

Musically, it's been a little trying but having survived every single Slapsticon I've gotten used to playing for several programs of non-stop slapstick. During the pause between each film, if I haven't come up with something beforehand as a main theme to weave through the score for a short, something will either pop into my head in a split-second or sometime I just put my hands on the keys and a tune just comes out. Often I'll try to create a melody that fits the rhythm of how you'd say the title of the film, as if a piece of popular sheet music had come from/for the film. [My score for The Wonders of Magnetism on the Edison set uses a theme that goes "Tho-o-o-ma-a-as ED-i-son...hey, he's a real smart guy!"]

Sometimes, because there are only so many things one can do with comedy music, a familiar melody accidentally gets improvised in the heat of the moment. A friend who was at the 4pm show on Weds 5/27 told me afterward he caught me stuck on a theme that bore a striking (though totally inadvertent) resemblance to "What Would We Do Without You?" from Sondheim's "Company", and I've avoided the rhythm of that piece ever since, just to be safe. Sometimes you improvise something that sounds familiar to you and get right off it, and sometime it sounds similar to something someone in the audience, even without trying. At the April 19th Silent Clowns' Chaplin program someone asked me if I'd played a theme from Limelight during one of the films (I hadn't).

One happy accident that fit another one happened at the first show. In the brief pause before the Arbuckle Good Night Nurse was to start, I was trying to come up with a theme to play, and the theme I'd written years ago for the Lupino Lane Good Night Nurse popped into my head and I began playing it. I looked up from the keys to see to my -- and everyone's -- surprise...the Lupino Lane Good Night Nurse (with foreign flash titles). I heard a little groan from the audience, but didn't want to stop the show. I stopped playing for a moment and announced to the audience that this was another silent comedy called Good Night Nurse, starring Lupino Lane, and that it was really funny. Which it was, and it played really well. WDidn't really bother us, as the Arbuckle is on DVD and the Lupino Lane is rarely shown . A number of people came up to Steve and me aftwards asking about Lupino Lane and telling us how much they liked the short. We've sorted this all out now, ordered the Arbuckle, and this will open our last show so we can include this in the series.

Can't believe the series will be over on Monday!

See you at the silents!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Leonard Lopate on WNYC

May 19 – Steve and I were on the Leonard Lopate Show this afternoon. This was my third time on the show; I'd been on (solo) in 2006 for the MoMA Arbuckle series, and in 2007 as sidekick to Jessica Rosner plugging Kino's Reel Baseball DVD (which she produced). I had a great time, and it was great to see (show producer) Melissa Eagan again. I snapped this photo (above) before we went in. That's Lopate on the left, and guest Eric Sanderson (author of Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City on the right. Just pretend Steve and I are sitting where Sanderson is.

The segment went well and we covered most of the main points of the series. Managed another plug for MoMA's education programming while mentioning our course version of C&U offered last Nov/Dec, and tipped my hat to Eileen Bowser while we were discussing the "Ford vs. Sennett" program. Although Steve and I were kicking ourselves for not talking about Ron's and Charles's involvement when the topic of grouping the films by social issue came up – which was, basically, Ron's concept and was key to getting the series both organized and successfully pitched to the dept – overall, Steve and I thought the segment went well.

I arrived home, and the phone rang. My wife answered it and handed it to was Stuart Oderman, who had just heard me on the radio. Hadn't talked with him in a while and we chatted at length. He's playing on Friday at the Neversink Valley Area Museum for a progam of Gish films – the museum is near Cuddebackville, where DWG shot a lot of pictures – and I'll be there on June 26 for a similar program of Biograph shorts.

See you at MoMA!

Monday, May 18, 2009

WFMU radio interview

May 18 — Steve Massa and I were on WFMU tonight for a full hour on "The Speakeasy with Dorian", hosted by Dorian Devins and co-hosted by Bruce Bennett. Bruce is a great film writer who I reconnected with in 2000 when he wrote a profile on me and Stuart Oderman for TimeOut New York during MoMA 2000. Bruce and I went to NYU at the same time and were in the same dorm (Brittany, on 10th and Bway), and he talks about hearing me play for Bill Everson's classes during the interview. Bruce also wrote a piece for the New York Sun about the Mabel Normand Head Over Heels show I did at Walter Reade (which Steve introduced).

Below are photos I snapped of Bruce and Dorian before we got started. There wasn't time to talk a group photo afterwards, as the next show's personnel came in when we were done and we had to scoot.

Steve and I were on for the whole hour, and had a great time. I even threw in a few plugs and thank-you's for MoMA's education department, projectionists, my band score premiering in Milford CT next month et al. It was a great show, and a good dry-run for Lopate tomorrow.

listen to Steve and Ben on "The Speakeasy with Dorian" with Dorian Devins
and co-host Bruce Bennett on WFMU on May 18, 2009 (approx 1 hour)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Au Bonheur Des Dames - 2nd performance (w/audio)

May 16 (Sat) – Had two great shows of "Museum Trip" in Brooklyn with Parallel Exit, and then got a second crack at Duvivier's "Au Bonheur de Dames" at MoMA. Made some improvements in the Duvivier score second time around in terms of underscoring choices, wanting to make it play better this time and having had a chance to digest the film.

* * * *

After a run-through and two performances of The Museum Trip in Red Hook, Brooklyn, I hopped on a B61 bus and thence to an A train to MoMA; fortunately, the scrambled weekend rerouting of the subways caused the A to run part of the trip on the F line, and since the F trains were running on the E line for part of their Manhattan sojourn, my train went to 53rd and 5th, across from MoMA.

I had a 5pm show of Au Bonheur de Dames, a repeat of the film I'd played for on Weds. Having seen the film and not only had my own reaction to the film's seemingly disjointed scenario, and had that seconded by audience members I spoke with after the first performance (see previous blog posting) I was paying even closer attention to the film for foreshadowing this time. Most of the story elements that either seemed to come out of nowhere were actually planted early in the film, but just not very specifically. I was able to underscore these moments in a different way this time to help give the audience clues.

The daughter who is taken very ill at the end of the story is seen coughing a bit in early scenes, but is not given a close-up or title card to point this out. The father's going postal at the end of the film is a result of a building frustration with the competing department story and its contruction work, but this again is not shown in a pointed manner, and could easily be missed. The boss at work whom the main character seems to fall in love with despite his being a creep, can actually be seen as a mroe sympathetic character, but to American eyes perhaps, this middle aged man with a moustache looks more like a sexual threat to the young woman. Playing him with more sympathetic underscoring takes some of the lecherous edge off him (although he is already married).

Also, on a second pass after having not only played for the film but also have a few days to digest it, made the film's theme – bonheur vs. progress – clearer. After the show one of the senior regulars at the show shared with me that she'd been to the department store shown in the film – it is a real place, and not a set –and that seeing the ornate dome in real life was breathtaking.

Here's the first 7 mins of the score, starting from just after the main titles:
(music copyright © 2009 by Ben Model all rights reserved)

Tomorrow, Steve Massa and I will be on WFMU plugging Cruel and Unusual Comedy, and will be on Leonard Lopate on Tuesday doing the same. I'll post/embed these broadcasts.

See you at the silents!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Au Bonheur Des Dames (1930) - dir Julien Duvivier

I've now played for all four of the Julien Duvivier films in the series at MoMA, with two repeats to come. So far my favorite is La Vie miraculeuse de Therese Martin, perhaps because its storyline is much more simple than the other 3 pictures. All of them have stunning visuals, very nice cinematography and a great deal of use of superimpositions (often multiples or matted tryptichs) to show what is going on in the mind of a particular character. The plot lines of the other 3 are not as airtight – interesting, considering 2 of them were based on novels – and story developments appear or disappear without justification. Au Bonheur des Dames ("Women's Pleasure"), based on a Zola novel, is the loosest with characters and their storylines coming out of nowhere or being discarded. Its stunning production design, cinematography and layered visuals are smoke-and-mirrors that keep you entertained.

But it's precisely this aspect that makes the Duvivier films particularly juicy ones to accompany because there is so much visually to respond to dramatically; whether the storylines are thoroughly carried out or not there is at least a lot of drama in the scenes both in terms of the acting and the visuals. This is often a factor with film accompaniment. Some of the Russian pictures are very simple plot-wise but there is a lot of drama to work with. The toughest films are ones that have less to offer dramatically (Griffith's Dream Street comes to mind...).

I had a hard time deciding what genre/flavor the film was as I accompanied it, and as I discussed the film with some audience members after the show realized I wasn't crazy...the film does have a few different styles and plots. It starts off as a jazz age department store drama, then it's about the girl's father's failing business, then she gets a job as a model at the dept store and there is a near-catfight in lingerie among the girls in the dressing room, then some lecherous business with two different bosses trying to make a move on her, then another subplot with a Baron who is helping finance the dept store, then they all have a "let's go to Coney" sequence (only we're in France), then the girl's brother's fiancee is suddenly near-death ill, then construction on the new dept store make a lot of noise and causes the father to go nuts and shoots a bunch of people in the dept store, only to get run over...then time passes and the new dept store is finally built, the girl tells one of the lecherous bosses she's always loved him (?!) and a skywrite writes the name of the store "Au Bonheur des dames" in the sky but the "Au" fades away leaving "bonheur" or "happiness"...and fade out.

You can rent or buy the DVD of this from Facets, who also sells/rents Poil de carrotte. These DVD's are U.S. releases of the French Lobster DVD's of these films, which feature musical scores composed by Gabriel Thibedeau and performed by an octet (there is a female vocalist who sings in a number of places in Au Bonheur).

Below are a bunch of screen shots from the film, just to give you an idea of the production design and scale and the cinematography. This film repeats at MoMA on Saturday, and so I'll get another crack at this one.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Edgar Jones in "Border River" (1919)

I have just scored and uploaded to YouTube a 16mm print I picked up on eBay a year (or so) ago, called Border River (1919) starring and directed by Edgar Jones, who made dozens of films -- mainly westerns -- throughout the teens and early twenties. There are no FIAF holdings on this title, and this show-at-home print, probably made in the '40s on Dupont stock, may be the only existing print. Probably most notable about the film is the love interest role played by a 20-year-old Evelyn Brent; this was her 16th film according to her IMDB listing.

This is my third "direct-to-YouTube" release. In the past few months I've scored and uploaded my Kodascope or show-at-home prints of Neely Edwards in The Little Pest (1926) and Lige Conley in Fast and Furious (1924).

Because the film runs around 24 mins at 21 fps, I had to break it up into three sections for YouTube, which you can watch here, below. I've uploaded the film in "HQ" mode, so if you've got a good internet connection and video card you can watch it in better quality. The three sections are embedded here as a playlist, so when part 1 ends part 2 will follow, etc. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Radio City Music Hall Wurlitzer (again)

May 6 – was back at Radio City Music Hall for some practice time on the Wurlitzer today, in prep for next week's SVA graduation. Turns out I won't be using the organ at the ceremony -- nothing to do with RCMH, it's just that the sample recordings I'd sent in didn't quite fit right. I'm actually not sure the theatre organ would be right for the diploma ceremonies myself, but wanted to give it a shot.

At any rate, I did get to spend about an hour and a half playing and finding my way around the instrument. A few tour groups came through, and I made sure to play something that sound more like music than poking around and noodling where there were people in the theatre. One school group had a handful of kids who broke away from their group on stage and came over to ask about the organ.

At any rate, I'll still be playing for the graduation exercises there next Friday, and will be on the RCMH's Steinway concert grand improvising music while the grads come up to get their diplomas. Wonder who's the keynote speaker this year. (Last year it was Franch Rich.)

Here's a recording of a few minutes of my rehearsal time. Keep in mind that I'm making this all up, so there are some musical gaffes here and there. Sound quality isn't optimal because of where I put my recorder (next to the console...which is why you hear my pedalling in the quieter section); also the instrument hasn't been tuned in a few months (but it will before next week). However, you are getting to hear the RCMH Wurlitzer, and you may want to listen with headphones so you can feel that bass.

Here's a close-up of the console --

and a view of the empty theater from where the console is --

Had some screening time at MoMA this afternoon to work out the "live restoration" of Lizzies of the Field with a projectionist, before we show that film at the June 1st Cruel and Unusual. We did a trial run of the changeover from the 35mm of reel 1 to the 16mm print at its "in-point" and it looks pretty good. Bruce Lawton has done this sort of thing for a film at the Silent Clowns a few times, and that's what had given me the idea to try this at the C&U class in November. I think our audience at MoMA will get a kick out of getting to see this "complete" version of Lizzies (I know Steve and I will).

Monday, May 04, 2009

"Poil de carotte" at MoMA (2nd show)

May 4, 2009 – played for "Poil de carotte" again at MoMA this afternoon, without incident. Score went better (for me, anyhoo) as expected.

Recorded blogcast and my score, as I did yesterday (see below). Here's a chance to see how when I play for the same film twice in two consecutive days the score is different, althoug some elements, moodwise, may be similar. Blogcast outlines impressions of the show as well as some info about a screening of Lizzies of the Field at MoMA.


Score recording (pauses heard are for live, spoken translation of intertitles, which didn't get picked up by my mike)
(© 2009 by Ben Model all rights reserved)

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Poil de carrotte

May 3, 2009 - played for Poil de carotte ("Carrot Top"), the 1925 silent directed by Julien Duvivier. I recorded my blog entry as a blogcast/podcast on my digital recorder while walking home from MoMA after the show (so that's why I sound a little out of breath), rather than come home and do a lot of typing.

Below are my blog podcast and the first 6 or 7 mins of my performance. Not exactly going to give Paderewski a run for his money (note clam hit in first bar or so), but here it is "hot off the presses" nonetheless. Tomorrow's repeat will go better.


Score recording (pauses heard are for live, spoken translation of intertitles, which didn't get picked up by my mike)
(© 2009 by Ben Model all rights reserved)

The DVD, released by Lobster in Europe (and rentable from Facets here), includes a spoken intro by Serge Bromberg (don't break your mouse clicking on the image's just a screen-grab):