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Talented pianist breathes life into silent films

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Posted on August 25, 2016 |
By Charmaine Lam



Silent movie smaller.jpg
Jeff Rapsis improvises his playing to each silent film that he screens. The final product is a combination of the film's narrative, the audience's reactions and his own mood in the moment. Courtesy Photo Illustration

BRANDON — The moviegoers sit up and lean in as the silver screen in the darkened Brandon Town Hall comes to life.

What is on screen isn’t a feature-length modern film with vivid colors, special effects and dialogue and a full musical score blaring from the speakers.

Instead, the large screen sparks to life with black and white images of cowboys galloping on their horses, guns in hand. Instead of actors’ voices blaring through speakers, the sounds of the audiences’ laughter fills the hall — alongside Jeff Rapsis’ live accompaniment on a piano or electronic organ.

For the past 10 years, Rapsis has been bringing an authentic silent film experience to audiences around New England. For the past six years, the New Hampshire-based pianist has staged monthly screenings at the Brandon Town Hall between May and October to breathe life into the historic art form.

“(Silent films) are movies, but completely different from the modern movie,” Rapsis said. “It’s a collaborative experience between the motion pictures, the audience and the live music.”

By providing a live accompaniment for each screening, Rapsis hopes to bridge the gap between the audience and a film created eight or nine decades ago. The first step is to recreate the way silent films were originally enjoyed — not with the cliché, tinny music and grainy images that the thought of a silent film calls up for many, but the silent film in its original form.

“I like to say that it’s like putting Humpty Dumpty back together, with the elements of an audience, a large screen and live music,” he said.

Rapsis opens each screening by telling the audience an overview of the film and its history before taking his spot at the keyboard. There, he draws from his musical knowledge, the reaction of the audience and his understanding of the film’s narrative to improvise a score that runs through the length of the film, which can span up to four hours.

“I prefer not to practice and plan things out,” he said. “I just show up and get right in the moment. It provides the best opportunity to create a show that really hits home, because everything is improvised.”

According to the pianist, playing alongside the films feels like flying a plane with the audience as his passengers. Once the plane takes off, once the movie starts, he must be mentally aware of all his controls and surroundings until landing.

“You really are flying a plane in a way,” Rapsis said. “Around 10 minutes into the film, I go into what I call a silent film zone. I forget about everything else and I’m not critical of myself. The music flows and just comes from who knows where. I’ve surprised myself sometimes.”

Rapsis considers his greatest accomplishments when his audience forgets that he is playing. He makes the films come alive, highlighting the actors’ raw emotions with his music.

The audience is another key component to bringing the silent films to life. Rapsis likened the authentic silent film experience to the shared experience of watching a play.

“You wouldn’t watch a play alone,” he said. “Just like a play, silent films are meant to provoke an audience to react together. They’re not meant to be watched sitting alone on your TV or a smartphone screen.”

In Brandon, a hundred people flock to the town hall each month for Rapsis’ screenings. The vigor of the shared experience has drawn audience members from out of state, even from as far away as Boston.

“I love the audience reactions in Brandon,” Rapsis said. “There’s an energy that makes the film come to life, and it’s why I keep coming back. The audience (there) is just great.”

Already this summer Brandon audiences have enjoyed comedies by Buster Keaton and Harold Lloydand John Ford’s “The Iron Horse” (1924), a drama about the building of the transcontinental railroad. Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 breakthrough feature film, “The Kid,” will be screened Sept. 17, and in honor of Halloween the Oct. 15 silent film will be “The Man Who Laughs,” a creepy Gothic thriller starring Conrad Veidt.

   Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky star in the 1926 classic “Son of the Sheik,” which will be screened with live musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis this Saturday, Aug. 27, at 7 p.m.  at Brandon Town Hall.

This Saturday at the Brandon Town Hall, Rapsis will accompany Rudolph Valentino’s romantic epic “Son of the Sheik,” which coincides with the 90th anniversary of silent era superstar’s tragic early death.

Valentino was the cinema’s first sex symbol, causing hordes of female moviegoers to flock to his pictures in the 1920s. He starred in films designed to show off his Latin looks, his smoldering eyes and his dancer’s body. And his untimely death in August 1926 prompted mob scenes at his funeral in New York. “Son of the Sheik” is one of Valentino’s most acclaimed films.

Like all of Rapsis’ shows in Brandon, this one starts at 7 p.m. The screening is free and open to the public. Donations are accepted to help support the town hall’s ongoing renovation and restoration.

Although Rapsis does not anticipate ever bringing silent films back into popular culture, he does hope that interest in the genre will continue to grow.

“In an age where people are increasingly by themselves on their screens, silent films are great to get everyone together,” he said. “When it works, there’s nothing like it and each time, it happens in a way that never happened before and that can’t be recreated.”

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