(Above: Ben Model. Source: Silentfilmmusic.com)
Has streaming, an early 21st century medium, found a new audience for an early 20th Century one – silent motion pictures?
The Savvy Screener posed that question to Ben Model, one of the nation’s leading silent film accompanists and a Visiting Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University.
For more than 30 years, Model has created and performed live scores for several hundred silent films. He is a resident film accompanist at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus Theatre, and performs at theaters, museums, schools and other venues around the US and internationally. His indie DVD label Undercrank Productions has released several discs of rare/lost silent movies, including films preserved by the Library of Congress.
Below, Model describes how streaming has helped bring silent movies to a new generation of fans.
TSS: How did film accompaniment become a passion? How long have you played piano for film screenings and how many events do you perform a year?
Model: I started playing piano when I was five. I first accompanied silents while attending NYU film school. At the time, the school screened silents with no soundtracks or accompaniment. Around then I also met William Perry at MoMA and Lee Erwin, who had been a movie organist in the 1920s. I absorbed a lot from Lee, who became my mentor and friend. I’ve been accompanying silent films for 39 years this fall. I average about 160 shows per year, not to mention scoring for films on DVD/Blu-ray.
TSS: Describe the art of film accompaniment. What preparation is involved? How much is improvisational? How do you view your role as a collaborator with the onscreen actors who delivered their performances – in many instances — over a century ago?
Model: For me, creating and performing a musical score — and I play both piano and theatre organ — is an act of helping draw the audience into the world of the film. The silent film experience is a right-brain experience. It’s what’s missing that makes these films work so well. As a viewer you unconsciously assemble the color, dialog, visual story bits and musical accompaniment in your imagination. The slight speed-up of the movement, which is how these films were originally shown, adds another otherworldly dimension. The music helps the audience decode things, as necessary, or pilot the viewer along the story’s emotional ebbs and flows. But with silent film accompaniment it’s not about the performer and composer. Lee always said the best thing anyone can tell you after a show is “I forgot you were playing.”
With silent film accompaniment, it’s not about the performer and composer. (Movie organist) Lee (Irwin) always said the best thing anyone can tell you after a show is “I forgot you were playing.” — Ben Model
To prepare, I typically watch a film once, take lots of notes, and give myself visual cues for transitions and moods. I do improvise, although I’m by no means “winging it.” You develop a musical language and vocabulary the way a jazz musician might. Some things are set, but I let things come out of my hands during a show. I studied and performed comedy improv many years ago. That really helped open me up.
TSS: Speaking of collaborators, in March you and film historian Steve Massa launched the Silent Comedy Watch Party on YouTube, a show involving live accompaniment to films screened in your apartment. What was the inspiration for Watch Party and what’s involved with producing a new show every Sunday?
Model: I flew back from doing shows in Beatrice, Nebraska on March 8 and, on March 10, watched every gig scheduled through the summer fall like dominoes. Oddly enough, I had the various pieces of tech and equipment on hand and had already been toying with the idea of a live-streamed silent film show. We did a “pilot” livestream, and it got a heck of a response right away.
My initial idea was for the show to only be live and not available on demand. My wife — who is also our camera operator — talked me out of that notion, and rightly so. We’ve unlocked every episode for people who are watching all over the planet.
We get thanks from folks via social media or emails. Families watch our show, as do teens on a Discord server. It’s become a Sunday night ritual for some classic film fans in the UK. We have regular viewers all over the US, but also in Japan, Australia, Canada, all over Europe…we just heard from someone who watches us in Morocco!
As for preparation, Steve and I plan the shows a month at a time, but we also stay flexible. Sometimes a film isn’t available on DVD. In other cases, we rewatch a film we haven’t seen in years and find it’s not as funny as we remembered. We also are mindful of content that a 2020 audience might find objectionable.
Steve and I have gotten great cooperation from those who originally produced the films for home video and from film archives like Lobster Films, the Library of Congress and the EYE Filmmuseum (Netherlands).
Technically, it’s a bit of an undertaking. For guest remotes, we do a dry run a day or two in advance. Every week, our graphic designer Marlene Weisman creates a new episode title card, and our associate producer Crystal Kui updates the show info on our website. As tech director, I load the video and image files and tune the piano. On Sunday I set up all the equipment and wiring – video projector, projector stand, three MacBooks, tripod, two iPhones (one’s on the tripod as our main camera), an iPad, mics for me and for the piano, earbud, LED video lights, ethernet cable, and all the spaghetti that connects everything. Then I wait for Steve to appear on my MacBook. Steve’s wife Susan Selig watches the show from their place and texts my wife Mana Allen about audio or other technical issues. Mana is our stage manager and cameraperson. She pans back and forth between me and the video projection on the wall.
TSS: Has your show – and streaming platforms in general – helped find a new audience for silent films? Do you think a generation of viewers weaned on CGI-generated superhero blockbusters and six-second Tik-Tok videos can relate to black-and-white films with no dialogue?
Model: I know our show has helped find a new audience for silent films. There are many people who watch our streams who live in places with no art house cinema or theaters showing silents with live music. People discovering silent movies tell us they enjoy them. Silent film really is a universal language. Plus, there’s no CGI, so you know that what you’re seeing happened. The entertainment experience is more immersive, the way a video game is.
TSS: You are presently performing live-streamed accompaniment for art houses around the country. When did that start, what shows are coming up, and where can people stream them?
Model: I started doing live-streamed accompaniment – from our living room – for other cinemas in June. I have now done shows for the Cinema Arts Centre, the Cleveland Cinematheque, the AFI Silver Theater and Renew Theaters. I will perform streaming shows on October 20 (hosted from Knoxville), October 21 (Cinema Arts Centre) and October 24 (AFI Silver Theater). These shows are all free or pay-what-you-wish. (For more information on these events, see below.)
Then, of course, there are the upcoming episodes of The Silent Comedy Watch Party. On Oct 18 we’ll showcase silent Our Gang (known to a later generation of TV viewers as The Little Rascals) comedies and Ernie Morrison, aka “Sunshine Sammy.” The series was originally built around Morrison, an African American child actor. Our special guest will be Ina Archer. Archer is a filmmaker, artist and historian, who also works as a media conservator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture. Then, on Oct 25, we will stream our Halloween show with Buster Keaton and a couple other lesser-known comedians.
TSS: For silent film newbies, what titles would you recommend?
Model: The comedies are always a great place to start. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd are tops, plus their films are available in new digital restorations on Blu-ray or HD streaming. If you’re a little more adventurous, I’d recommend the dramas Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1928).
Where to Watch Ben Model Perform With the Silents
The following online events are free or pay-what-you-wish.
Tuesday, October 20, 7:30 pm ET – Knoxferatu is a Knoxville, Tennessee-based silent horror film show, hosted by Kelly Robinson. Online access costs as little as $1, according to event organizers. For tickets, visit Eventbrite.
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