Screening Report: Laughing and Jammin’ with the Silents in Brandon, Vermont

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I live in the middle of nowhere. Hope it doesn’t shatter any illusions for you, dear readers, that I’m not sitting by the pool of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel with a Piña Colada.

I follow the screening reports of my blogger friends Will of Cinematically Insane and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen with interest and, if I’m honest, a fair dose of loving envy.

So, needless to say, when film culture comes to this sleepy neck of the woods, I do my best to be there.

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Each summer, writer-educator-composer-awesome-guy Jeff Rapsis enriches the little town of Brandon with a series of silent films and shows them as they were meant to be enjoyed: on a big screen with live accompaniment. Last night, Rapsis lent his musical talents to improvising along with Harold Lloyd’s Dr. Jack and Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances on his 70-pound musical synthesizer.

In a recent interview with the Rutland Herald, Rapsis likened his original performances to “‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ for movies. When it works well, nothing is better—you can’t write down the kind of music you come up with when it’s working right. I don’t even know where it comes from sometimes, I sit there as amazed as anybody when it comes together.”

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It certainly came together in Brandon Town Hall last night. The best screen comedy continues to feel fresh and imminent even years after its release—as though the ending might turn out different every time, as if Harold Lloyd might not win the girl, as if one of those great big papier-mâché boulders really might wipe out poor Buster. Rapsis’s splendidly paced improvisations enhanced that sense of risky timing, creating the illusion that the gags and pratfalls were unfolding spontaneously.

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For several years, the town of Brandon has been restoring its majestic town hall, which Rapsis praises for its beautiful acoustics. This marks my third summer travelling there to watch Rapsis perform along with a varying selection of silent films, from The General to The Phantom of the Opera.

The hall’s idiosyncratic projection system occasionally adds extra nail-biting tension to the screenings. When the picture started to skip and freeze during the poker scene in Dr. Jack last night, I nearly cracked under the pressure. Fortunately, the hall has no heating, and a pre-autumn draft quickly cooled me down. However, such foibles only make the experience more pleasurable and genuine. Today’s technical difficulties just substitute for the projection room mishaps of the 1920s.

vlcsnap-2013-09-15-22h20m49s254I love that the packed audiences filling the town hall echo the crowds that a Keaton or Lloyd film would’ve drawn back in the 1920s—people of all ages, looking for a good laugh. I mean, I’ve watched silents in total silence with a pretentious crew of proto-Godard hipsters at the Cinémathèque Français, and I infinitely prefer the down-to-earth glee of Brandon’s audience members, who go because it’s fun, not because it’s trendy. It warms the cockles of my heart to sit there chuckling along with whole families, from toddlers to grandparents, at movies made almost 100 years ago. I frequently worry that silent movies will only become more and more distant to today’s public, but the screening last night confirmed the universality of silent comedy and dispelled my fears.

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Hey, Buster, lighten up! We all still love you!

Jeff Rapsis not only provided delightful keyboard accompaniment for each film, but also said a few words to contextualize the two comedies. Offering a brief plot summary of Dr. Jack, he explained, “It takes place in a little town… which I always think of as Brandon, Vermont.” Sure enough, when Harold Lloyd encountered a roadblock of cows (what we call Vermont gridlock), the audience roared with laughs of recognition. Now, if I can just find a reasonable Dr. Jack equivalent in my town to cure my ills…

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Although I’d say the audience howled equally at each film, Dr. Jack seemed like the revelation of the night. I could perceive viewer reactions shifting from “Harold Who?” to “I LOVE him!” Unfortunately Lloyd’s own sensitivity about how and when his films could be shown have kept his masterpieces in relative obscurity. As Rapsis noted, “He kind of lost his audience over the years, but now he’s being rediscovered by a new generation.” Thanks to the evocative music, spectators quickly got into the spirit of the proceedings. The first big laugh actually came in response to an intertitle, for crying out loud! 

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Rapsis channeled Dr. Jack’s charming blend of sly trickery and quaint goodwill. I marvel at how the live score alternated between creating ambiance, commenting on the action, and even taking the place of sound effects—as with the thundering chords to punctuate the football that lands Dr. Von Saulsbourg’s hat in his own soup. The music also amped up the frenetic humor of vampire-ish Harold Lloyd as “Humpy” the escaped convict and the manic hijinks of the household he terrorizes to “cure” imaginary invalid Mildred Davis.

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Throughout Seven Chances, the score included a number of funny variations of Wagner’s Wedding March from Lohengrin. The upbeat tune, better known as “Here Comes the Bride” comically sounded out in ominous keys during James Shannon’s many marital strike-outs, as he rushes to get married in a matter of hours to inherit a fortune. However, when Buster finally walks off with the girl he loves, it was Mendelssohn’s joyful march that we heard. I was particularly impressed by how Rapsis sustained suspense throughout the climactic mob of brides chase sequence, which, just as it seems like it can’t get more absurd, somehow does.

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In a few weeks, on September 28, Jeff Rapsis will again be performing a live score for Seven Chances at the 21st Annual Buster Keaton Celebration in Buster’s birthplace of Iola, Kansas, so it was a real privilege for me to enjoy a taste, an intimate preview, of that wonderful event without having to fly across the country. Although he has provided a live score for the movie before, Rapsis told me that he specifically chose Seven Chances for the Brandon program far in advance, as an opportunity to “warm up” and “get the movie in my head” shortly before the big day in Kansas.

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 5.25.59 PM The electric combination of a brilliant recorded performance and a pitch-perfect, astonishingly synchronized live performance not only impressed me last night, but also will doubtlessly make Dr. Jack and Seven Chances feel a bit more alive when I watch them next—albeit with less interesting scores! Screenings like those at the town hall were the first to help me understand why every movie theater needed at least a violin and a pianist to provide live music in the silent era. You haven’t really seen comedies like Dr. Jack and Seven Chances until you’ve seen ’em this way. So, last night the quiet little town of Brandon vibrated with laughter, proving that silent comedies were never really silent—and neither were their audiences.

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3 thoughts on “Screening Report: Laughing and Jammin’ with the Silents in Brandon, Vermont

  1. Please do try to come to the Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola sometime. It’s both entertaining & educational. I’m looking forward to returning again this year. But I’m so happy you were able to catch a glimpse of that experience without having to trek to what is truly the MIDDLE of nowhere to do so!

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