Think back for a second. “City of Angels”; “The Legends of the Fall”; “Chariots of Fire”; history is littered with movies that would’ve been much better if only you couldn’t hear the actors speak. That’s why foreign movies are such a relief – because even though you can hear the actors speak, you can’t tell what they’re saying.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned in our first hundred years or so of the cinema, it’s that it’s a lot easier to get things to look good than to sound intelligent; seventy-five years after movies first added sound, we’re still trying to figure out what to do with it.
Silent movies have always been close to my heart, going back to when I was a kid. Part of it was just the fascination of them being so damned old, and wondering if all the actors were dead -like walking through an animated graveyard! Perhaps the real resonance, though, came from the simplicity and directness of the acting and the starkness of the black and white, both somehow conjuring up unexpected degrees of subtlety and nuance, so primitive yet so complicated. (The pie fights were good, too.)
You rarely get a chance to see silent movies today, even on TV, so the Woods Hole Film Festival’s presentation tomorrow (Saturday, June 8th) of “Masters of Slapstick”, a trio of classic two reel comedies that includes Chaplin’s “Easy Street”, Buster Keaton’s “One Week”, and Laurel and Hardy’s “Big Business”, as a well as a mostly silent contemporary by Jane Gillooley, “Dragonflies, The Baby Cries”, with live music provided by the Alloy Orchestra at the Boch Center for the Performing Arts at the Mashpee High School Auditorium, is a rare and most welcome event.
Not to mention a really weird yet obviously very satisfying gig for the musicians involved, including drummer/clarinetist Ken Winokur, with whom I spoke last week. Weird because they play in the dark while the audience’s attentions are directed elsewhere, but satisfying because, as Winokur says, “every show goes great; for one thing, these movies have been great for 75 years already, which does take some of the pressure off.”
Those expecting your basic tack piano accompaniment may be in for a shock, as the Alloy Orchestra is actually a trio made up of two drummers, Winokur and Terry Donahue (who also double on clarinet and accordion respectively), and a synthesizer player, in this case Roger Miller, who is also a member of both Birdsongs of the Mezozoic and the lately much-heralded Mission of Burma (and by the way, just what is going on with all that heralding? Burma are a swell little band and all, but the last time I saw this much critical overkill was on the Doors, who we’re still trying to get rid of. And Mission of Burma don’t even have one dead guy! What gives?)
Other instruments include bedpan, horse shoes, plumber’s pipe, and “the rack of junk.” Winokur says that the variety and eccentricity of their instrumentation once totally overwhelmed an Italian customs inspector as they were crossing into Slovenia -apparently, he just gave up. The band travels a lot -90 to 100 gigs a year, all over this country and others as well, Lincoln Center, Telluride, etc -they’re, like, famous. Roger Ebert calls them “the best in the world at accompanying silent films.”
I loved Winokur’s story of the band’s creation: he says that the Coolidge Corner was showing the Giorgio Moroder version of “Metropolis”, but were understandably dying to find some substitute for the dreadful modern rock score the seventies disco icon had added, and presto, the Alloy Orchestra was born!
Anyway, go see ’em -it’s not a chance you’re likely to get that often, and the movies are great ones. (For more info, go to www.alloyorchestra.com -or read the excellent story by my colleague Rebecca Alvin in last week’s Codder.)
As long as we’re on a movie tear, don’t forget that the Provincetown Film Festival is almost upon us as well; it kicks off Thursday, June 13th, with an outdoor block party in front of Spiritus on Commercial St.with the always photogenic Chandler Travis Philharmonic presiding.
I always love the film fest; unfortunately, I went on and on about the Alloy Orchestra so long I’m almost out of room! Suffice to say that this year’s effort looks like a particularly good one, with personal appearances expected from a diverse group of celebs including Marcia Gay Harden, Gus Van Sant, John Waters, and Elvira (!!), not to mention a whole host (or at least half a host) of other celebrities we’ve probably never even heard of!
There will also be rare showings of films from both Martin Scorcese and former Codder editor Seth Rolbein; plus “Provincetown artist/activist Jay Critchley continues his obsession with septic tanks in his new short “Toilet Treatments”, a ‘dank’ comedy described as ‘David Lynch meets ‘Alice in Wonderland.'” Don’t worry, there’s some mainstream Hollywood fare too (and Elvira!!!)
Music fans will be amused to note the showing of a variety of music bios, including films on They Might Be Giants, Phranc, and the Cockettes. Needless to say, the blindingly radiant Mrs. Kelp and I will be on duty, trying to pretend we know famous people, throughout the entire weekend.