Lost Springs, Boll Weevil & Jocassee Valley

Every once in a while, something blips on my radar that is so incredibly magical, it never leaves. I end up thinking about it for months and years afterward. This song & this video, ‘Lost Springs‘ is one of those ‘things’:

Lost Springs By Nick Zynda

click to watch 'Lost Springs' By Nick Zynda

The song, “Boll Weevil” is a song that I’ve been obsessed for many years. It’s essentially a Moby-esque ‘folktronica‘ mashup done by the late Greg Hale Jones using the vocals, recorded 72 years ago, of early 20th century folk vocalist Vera Hall singing (acapella) the song “Boll Weevil Hollar” to which he added his own instrumentation.

The film itself is a brilliant concept which I cannot help but to compare to a scene in one of my favorite movies of all time, ‘O Brother, Where Art Tho?’. It also reminds me of an absolutely fascinating true story about a town that used to be called Jocassee Valley but is now a lake called Lake Jocassee and the hotel that still sits 300 feet beneath it. Ever since I heard about Jocassee, I can’t stop thinking of it. I’ve written songs about it. Very haunting, very magical, very…tragic.

But I digress. It’s a brilliant song and a clever video that Mr. Nick Zynda has made for it. I absolutely applaud his smart amalgamation of modern technology (green screen & underwater footage) and old-fashioned themes and classic film making techniques (by using miniatures). Hopefully this short film, Greg Hale Jones’ song & the story of Jocassee Valley will inspire you as it did me.

‘The Artist’, a modern silent film debuts this year at Cannes Film Festival

The hugely charming-looking silent film ‘Louis‘, from 2010, kind of came and went and went, the general public, have never really had the chance to see it. Interestingly enough, 2011 is turning out another new silent film called ‘The Artist’. It is a French film , shot in Los Angeles, with quirky film-veteran John Goodman and L.A. Confidential’s James Cromwell and it stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, both French. Here is the synopsis:

Hollywood, 1927. George Valentine (Jean Dujardin) is a successful silent movie star. But the advent of talking movies plunges him into oblivion and makes a young extra named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) into a huge star. This movie retraces their destinies, or how fame, pride and money can become obstacles to a love story.

It was literally a last-minute addition to the Cannes Film Festival and it’s truly been a dark horse in the race for the Palme d’Or, going from a list of out-of-competition movies to one of the most talked about films in the festival. Weinstein Co. are vying for rights to the film even before its May 15th Cannes debut. Hopefully all of this adds up to a US wide-release. It would be outstanding if the once considered ‘dead’ art form of silent pictures rose from its grave a

la Lon Cheney style and made a resurgence as a viable art form once again ~ 84 years since the talkies pushed their way into Hollywood and 75 year after the last widely considered ‘relevant’ silent film flickered on the big screen. What’s interesting to me is that, sure I’m certain the film is good, but part of what the buzz is about is the novelty of a silent film. A silent film is far from novel.

From the looks of the trailer, it looks stunning and powerful, with a killer score to match. Fingers crossed & prayers made that this film realizes it’s potential and doesn’t suffer the same fate that ‘Louis’ seems to have.

Silent Movies: why it’s hard to like them but why it’s worth it.

     I came across this post about silent horror films a bit ago on WordPress’s main page. I reposted it and you may’ve read it by now. The author hit the nail on the head…or rather hit the coffin nail into the coffin as her post dealt largely with the silent horror film Nosferatu. The blog is worth the read and the film is worth the watching and was the inspiration of this post.

    To those who know me or at least have read a few posts on this blog, you’ll gather that I love and adore old films. Specifically silent films. Silent cinema is my favorite artistic medium and I’ve even made one myself. But there is one thing that is interesting yet not all together surprising; people at large don’t generally like silent films. For the longest time I didn’t know why.  When I saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for the first time I was mesmerized.

Condrad Veidt's astounding in 'The Man Who Laughs', one of my favorite films of any genre

When I saw Buster Keaton’s The General, I was hooked for life. Interestingly it is a badge of honor among the artsier-and-fartsier-than-thou to say “oh I love silent film” yet for the average Joe and average Jane they’ll take Rush Hour over The Gold Rush any day of any week of any year.

one of silent film's finest: Buster Keaton's 'The General'

Silent movies are fatiguing though I don’t mean this is a negative way whatsoever. It’s a positive. They are fatiguing because they are engaging. They are engaging in ways that modern movies are not. For instance, you can go to the theater and chat with whoever is next to you, talk on the phone, watch the silhouettes of the people around you, check your email, send a tweet about being at the movies and still not miss a beat of what’s going on. No imagination is required either. It’s all done for you. A bunch of guys in white shirts and ties made sure that you’re spoon-fed every plot device and want to reduce the amount you’ll have to ‘work’ (i.e. think) to watch the movie. With silent film it’s a different story. There’s actually very minimal use of title cards in silent films. The filmmakers did not want to rely on title cards but rather they held fast to the “show, don’t tell” mantra. And that’s not to say that the characters in the films went around like mimes with their mouth shut trying to act out what they’re trying to communicate with broad gestures. It’s much more subtle than that. Often times characters will ‘speak’ on camera but, lo and behold, it’s up to you, dear watcher, to imagine what they’re saying based on the context and other visual cues. No title cards. For an hour or two of this, this can get fatiguing as the general public is not used to using their thinking muscles while watching Avatar. This fact, mixed with our culture’s ever-shortening 140 letter attention span, is a recipe for dismal result when you introduce thinking into one’s entertainment.

But I submit to you that this is a privilege, not a liability, for silent cinema. It’s an art form that takes, not merely gives. It’s an engaging exchange, a wordless dialog without words between the film and the film watcher. It’s an art form that commands attention like no other work of art can and it’s an art form in which you become part of the creative process. It’s entertainment that challenges you to take off your bib and put on an apron. The 3D movies that we are being force-fed come with the promise put the viewer inside the movie watching experience yet it appeals to no other senses than it did before.  Our brains can remain in the ‘off’ position from beginning to end but now we can see terrible movies in one extra dimension now! Another dimension of terrible!  How is that a privilege? How is this advancement?

Chaplin's moving final scene in City Lights

Silent film star Mary Pickford famously said, “It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of the talkies instead of the other way around”. Many of the silent film stars of the 1920’s felt that pantomime was the highest form of art and that talking pictures, first widely accepted in 1927, was a devolution of the craft of film rather than an evolution of it. Pickford is famous for her complaints against the ‘new’ talking pictures, comparing them to, “putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo”. Iconic silent film hero Charlie Chaplin echoed this sentiment in a different way by saying in 1928, “Moving pictures need sound as much as Beethoven’s symphonies need lyrics. By sheer necessity, the craft of pantomime grew and grew and silent film had quickly become a universal language.

A scene from The Passion of Joan of Arc

Actors truly honed and sharpened their craft out and for the most part didn’t have dialog to rely on. And what’s interesting is that as film went on, the actors became subtler and subtler. It’s generally understood by people who’ve never really taken the time to watch a silent film they’re  all grotesquely over-the-top, over done, and over-acted with  mandatory jangly piano accompaniment. Admittedly that may be partly true, but only in part.  Early in the history of silent film most of the actors who acted in those silent films came directly from the stage and from vaudeville. All their years of experience taught them to how to communicate with the back row of a crowded theater. As the craft of film making grew, so did the act of film acting. The crude broad strokes of acting soon gave way to extremely subtle and nuanced acting. Very powerful and moving films, such as  The Passion of Joan of Arc (a film shot almost entirely with close-ups) were produced. Even in comedy where one might expect to find crude and broad humor and Keystone Cops frantically running through every scene was, by the early 20’s, rich with subtly and nuance of character. One of the most famous comedians of the time, Buster Keaton (‘The Great Stoneface’), was most famous for not so much as cracking a smile in his films. Charlie Chaplin was re-inventing comedy as we know it by introducing pathos and heart to his comedy. Harold Lloyd was wildly popular in his day and his gimmick was really…well, that he was just a regular guy. No over-sized shoes or garish comedic facial hair but an every-man, relatable to the audience. Yes, of course there were still pratfalls and base slapstick (which I love!) but still…

Cinematography also was just starting to grow by leaps and bounds because, as I mentioned, the medium was almost completely visual without the dialog to lean on and carry the film. It became the camera’s job to “show, not tell”. Again, I know a lot of popular conceptions about silent film is that the camera is static, the shots are clumsy at best but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Take 1927’s “Sunrise; A Tale of Two Humans” by Nosferatu director, F.W. Murnau which was released right as sound made it’s way to Hollywood. Beautifully long and graceful tracking shots, hardly any title cards throughout, and some very state of the art special effects. It is the silent film that you wouldn’t expect to be a silent film. It really is a shame that the ‘talkies’ came along so early on as I feel that it slowed down the innovative direction that cinematography was heading. George Lucas even admitted that he doesn’t think film, and particularly cinematography, still to this day, has fully recovered from film’s transition to sound.

the iconic 'maria' from metropolis

Another reason (or two) why it’s oftentimes a challenge for people to watch a silent film is the absolutely horrid soundtrack that usually follows them. As mentioned, there’s a misconception that by law silent movies have to have a jangly tack-piano accompanying these flickering images. Again there is some truth to this. Smaller movies and smaller movie-houses would have had a single piano to accompany any given film but larger films in larger theaters would’ve had a full orchestra with printed scores and maybe even a Wurlitzer organ. Often times, however, what’s available now is a low quality film transfer with either a soundtrack of arbitrary tack-piano or arbitrary classical music scores thrown over the top of the film that have absolutely nothing to do with the picture. The absolute best, unbeatable way to experience a silent film would be in a crowded theater with live accompaniment written specifically for the film, played by live musicians. There is an enjoyment in that that you simply unparalleled. Especially with comedies. Granted that’s ideal but not all that practical as events like this are hard to come by (though I’m going to see Harold Lloyd’s iconic Safety Last this June at the Orpheum!). But what is practical is and will help your appreciation of silent film is find one that has an appropriate soundtrack married with the picture. Kino just re-released Buster Keaton’s ‘The General’ (one of my favorites) on DVD and BluRay and it’s got a very fantastic and  nuanced score (its on Netflix too). I highly recommend it. The Harold Lloyd Collection and The Chaplin Collection are also boxed sets that have outstanding musical scores. Oh and one more – Kino’s newly restored and complete Metropolis by Fritz Lang is available (on Netflix as well)

Wow! I covered more than I’d intended to but I suppose my passion for these films is clear and that’s really what I wanted to communicate. These films are gems and I find them to be more satisfying to experience them and I hope that more and more people will explore these films for themselves. They are the great-grandparents of every single modern film you have ever seen or ever will see. They are time-capsules. They are engaging works of art that invite you to invest in their continual creation and interpretation. They might be hard to like but they are so, so, so worth your time.


Google pays tribute to Charlie Chaplin

A clever search and a cleverly placed play button

I’m working on a post about silent film but I’m going to have to interrupt that post with another post about silent film. Google’s ever changing “google doodle” logo is paying tribute to Charlie Chaplin’s 122nd birthday with a short Chaplinesque silent film. His birthday is actually tomorrow so I’m a little confused as to why it showed up today but I digress. In place of the regular Google logo there is a small movie clip and the play button is cleverly paced right over the Chaplin-character’s tiny toothbrush mustache.

The movie itself is actually very cute though one thing is glaringly obvious: you can’t just add a b&w filter on your sped up footage and think you’re Charlie Chaplin. You don’t realize how very subtly good the likes of Chaplin, Buster & Harold were until you see someone trying to imitate them. The genius and the years spent honing their craft really shines through when held up against those who were merely inspired by them. The sheer genius of the masters is amazingly invisible on-screen, as well it should be. You notice it most when it’s not there.

It was a little bit on the spoofy side with all the clichés firmly in place but none the less I’m pleased to have YouTube and Google paying tribute to art forms of yesteryear. I have to point out ~~ that long-haired cop who bought the muffin for $2 must be mighty rich! With that price tag in 1923, he paid the equivalent of $26.14 for it! Iffy homework aside, well done Google!  Make more~! Buster Keaton’s 116th is coming up in a few months!

Meet Me in the Fields…revisited

Around the vicinity of 8 years ago I wrote a song called Meet Me in the Fields. 6 years ago my band released the song on an EP.  4 years ago we made a music video for the song and put it out into the world.  Now just recently Jacob Morales, my friend who helped shoot & direct the video took the 4-year-old green screen footage from the original video and reinterpreted it and made a new video for the song.

The singing chap in the cap is yours truly.

Thanks, Jacob!
Friends, please visit Jacob’s blog as he’s got a penchant for the antiquated, melodic and unique as well.

PS – here’s the original video. My first attempt at post production film work:

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