« Gone | Main | What information will look like -- In The Future! »

And now for something less gruesome.

"Do you mind if I have another idea?" -- Stan Laurel, Way Out West

Tomorrow night, I'll be in Ann Arbor, watching the restored version of Metropolis. With live music.

You know, being a movie freak is like being Rip Van Winkle, for two hours at a time. You go to sleep. You wake up. You discover that your friends and competitors are two hours further along with their lives and accomplishments and lack thereof. Your beard and lawn are two hours shaggier. While you haven't gone anywhere.

But what dreams you've had.

Movies are remarkable dreams. You can share them with someone else. Even dead people can tell you their dreams. Brought to life, of course, by the living.

I have to admire the ingenuity that silent cinema has displayed in adapting itself to our times. Not everybody sees this. Even people who write books about silent film, and love it, talk about it as something finished. I'm not so sure. Here's why.

Silent movies were never only visual experiences. They were musical experiences too, in a way only approximated by a recorded soundtrack.

In the twenties, movie theaters tried to move beyond the tinkly-piano phase of their development. Many theaters at the very least acquired an organ. And if they were even a little ambitious, they had an orchestra. The truly ambitious theaters employed up to seventy musicians.

However, few silent movies came with complete musical scores. They might have a specific theme or two, but mainly they had cue sheets. These described the type of music to play during each scene.

But what music? A theater like the Rialto in New York might have a library of up to twenty thousand scores, indexed by type and mood, to pull out at a moment's notice, match to the cue sheet and work into a film.

But when the sun of synchronized soundtracks rose over the land, theater orchestras evaporated. If they were lucky, they got hired by a studio. Otherwise, exhibitors were happy to dispense with all those mouths to feed, and the public was happy to hear the charming patter of Jimmy Durante as he browbeat Buster Keaton to death. Silent movies lost their audience and their voice.

But now some people are saying, Hey. We might have dissed this silence thing a little too hard. Let's take another look. But when they look, what do they listen to? Those seventy-piece orchestras and giant music libraries can't be threaded through a projector and made to play again.

Enter modern musicians, like Richard Einhorn or the Alloy Orchestra. They compose or improvise scores for films that, until now, haven't had any special music to accompany them. And the results can be really something. Watch the Kino release of F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh, with Timothy Brock's new score. The movie is silent and has exactly one title card, but the cello gives it the only voice it needs. Or, if you prefer something that will make your head vibrate for days, watch Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc with Richard Einhorn's score, Voices of Light.

But even the magic of contemporary technology, making music out of one and zero, can't reproduce the experience of real notes reaching your ears from real live musicians. Sometimes, to catch what's going on in a silent film, you have to use your ears. And your ears need all the help they can get.

Enter, again, the Alloy Orchestra, and others like them who perform live with films. Tomorrow, in Ann Arbor, the Alloy Orchestra will perform their score for the restored version of Metropolis.

If the movie looks anything like the Kino DVD of the restored version -- but even bigger and clearer -- and if it had no other additions, no music or sound of any kind, this movie would be something to remember for years or decades. It's that gorgeous. It looks new.

But then they went and did more. The Murnau Foundation scraped together all the lost sequences of Metropolis they could find: all the story elements deemed expendable for the American cut. Compare and contrast...

The American Release:

The Master of Metropolis: Mad scientist, why did you build a mechanical woman?
Mad Scientist: Because I'm mad, I tell you! Mad! Bwahahaha!
The Master of Metropolis: Fine. Let's kill the workers and call it a day.

The Restored Version:

The Master of Metropolis: Mad scientist, why did you build a mechanical woman?
Mad Scientist: I have my reasons, which are more compelling than those presented in the American release of Metropolis, and which provide clearer motivation throughout the film. However, I shall keep my secrets until you see the film for yourselves.
The Master of Metropolis: Fine. Let's kill the workers and call it a day.

Somehow, in the Kino release, even the acting is different. Before, it was easy to see all the performances as histrionics directed at the deaf grandma in the last row, by actors who were forgetting they'd be eighteen feet tall onscreen. Not to mention mute. But in the restored version it becomes clearer what's going on. Partly, Metropolis is a parable, and everyone in a parable has a distinct role to play. The acting distinguishes each role. Further, it's not so over the top. Watch Alfred Abel as the Master of Metropolis. What a magnificently icy performance. The smaller the flick of his finger, the greater the frenzy of fear and obesiance he inspires in those around him.

The performances are a kind of human architecture, to go with the monumental architecture of the city. Everyone poses grandly but precisely. Brigitte Helm, in particular, required a contortionist's skill to play her role as the robot.

But then there's the music. Live music. Something you will never hear in a multiplex, unless you sneak in your slide whistle.

As I mentioned, few silent movies came with complete original scores. Oddly, Metropolis was one of the few. But the score was hardly ever used because so much of the movie's running time got cut.

Tomorrow night, the original score is not on tap. But the Alloy's own score brings out some powerful flavors. There's nothing like the scene where Rotwang chases Maria through the catacombs, to the accompaniment of seat-shivering percussion. Since there's nothing like it within 350 miles, I'm driving to Ann Arbor to see it.

This is how silent movies are coming back from the dead. What's on the screen is pretty well set in stone, but as musical canvases they are wide open. Musicians with time and even a little imagination are making music with the old masters. Turner Classic Movies is even holding a contest to see who can write the prizewinning score for Souls for Sale. It's all going down, right here and now.

But please, let this be our secret. Don't tell Hollywood. Or, next thing you know, the Alloy Orchestra's score will be optioned for the remake of Metropolis, directed by Tim Burton and scripted by authentic circus clowns.

The remake will be called Metropolitan. It will open on the Masters of Metropolitan, riding rich and carefree on the roof of a clown car. But then one of them will fall through the sunroof, and discover the dark world of drudgery that existed just beneath his giant clown knickers. Driver clowns, forced to cram themselves into the Metropolitan for ten hours a day. "Greaser" clowns lubricate the engine with the greasepaint on their faces, while "piston" clowns drive the engine by having trick cigars explode in their face hundreds of times a second.

When the workday is over, the clowns slog home to the trunk.

The remake has several key differences from the original. For instance, there is no robot. But there is a guy with scissors for hands, illustrating the inhumanity of cutting appliances.

Don't let this happen. Instead, support Kino and the Alloy Orchestra wherever you find them. Like in Ann Arbor.

Want to come?