Monday, May 27, 2013

From Morn to Midnight with the Alloy Orchestra

Pretty simple rule of thumb: If the Alloy Orchestra is in town, you go see them. Not just because they are, as Roger Ebert once said, the best in the world at accompanying silent film, but because it's often a way to find interesting films. It's often something that tracks the venue that they're playing - when they're booked in the big rooms at the Somerville or Coolidge Corner Theatres, that generally means fairly well-known movies (not always; you sometimes get a wild-and-weird show), but when a museum books them, well, then it's time for something a little less common.

And, as mentioned in the review, it's hard to get much more obscure than From Morn to Midnight (the program and titles had "morning" instead of "morn", but every reference I found says otherwise). Apparently, despite being based on a relatively well-known play, it never opened in Germany after an initial press screening. I'm not sure how that happens - booking was very different back then, obviously, and maybe it played in some markets but it's just hard to find evidence of it, but it wound up down to one nitrate print at one point. Yikes.

That it was mostly championed in Japan made me wonder if it had managed to hook up with a really good benshi. As much as I think the movie itself is pretty good, their performance really underlined how much a quality soundtrack can add to it. This is a movie with a lot of abstractions, and their score managed the neat trick of being something familiar to hold on to and enhancing the oddness. Roger Miller's work on the keyboards, emphasizing how badly the cashier's daughter likely plays her piano, was the most obvious reminder of it. Similarly, I wonder if a benshi's acting, setting up context, and giving asides might have given the picture a boost in Japan that it didn't have elsewhere.

Anyway, if was a fun experience, so take a bow, guys:

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Terry Donahue and Ken Winokur did a quick Q&A after the show. There wasn't a whole lot to say - the audience didn't have a lot of questions about the music specifically and they didn't have much more to say about the movie's odd provenance than what was explained in the opening titles.

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Meanwhile, Roger Miller sold stuff. I kind of wish I'd stopped to look closer, because I see on their website that they've got an MP3 CD of their score to the complete Metropolis that can be synced with the Blu-ray. That's something I need.

Cropped out/unreadable: One of the greatest signs in a public performance area you'll ever see; someday I'm going to get a really good shot of it and make it my Twitter avatar or something. Also, it was kind of a bummer to see that the curtains were closed throughout, even before and after the show. The ICA's theater is one of the coolest places to see a movie in part because it can actually be opened up to let in natural light on three sides, while the screen has a lot of space behind it. It's a weird, cool, "suspended in space effect when they do some of that. Still, not as impressive when it's as damp and rainy a day as Saturday was.

Von morgens bis Mitternacht (From Morn to Midnight)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 May 2013 at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (Alloy Orchestra, video)

To say that From Morn to Midnight (Von morgens bis Mitternacht, in the original German) was not appreciated in its time is to understate the case rather severely: After a 1922 press screening, it never actually opened in Germany, though it was championed by critics in Japan, where a sole nitrate print survived long enough to be copied into a more stable format. It would likely have become obscure eventually, being a silent Expressionist film that it isn't quite in the top rank, but its unusual style and oddly compelling story makes it an interesting discovery.

A woman (Erna Morena) goes to the bank in a small German town looking for 10,000 marks in credit, the sum that her son (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) needs to purchase a painting from a second-hand shop. The bank's director (Eberhard Wrede) refuses; he has received no communication about her bona fides. The cashier (Ernst Deutsch), struck by her beauty, opts to take the money and go to her himself, with the idea of leaving his dreary home life behind - though no matter where he goes, there is always a girl (Roma Bahn) in one form or another haunting him.

The film is divided into five acts, as was often the case for feature-length silent dramas, especially those based on stage plays. which is noteworthy on the one hand because it corresponds with Roma Bahn appearing in five different roles and on the other because Georg Kaiser's original work is described as "a play in seven scenes". I wonder if the story of the Dame, her son, and the scandalous painting is finished on the stage, and whether the poor old shopkeeper with the massive beard ever got paid for his troubles. Here, they seem to vanish once they've provided a reason for the cashier to steal and go on the run, setting up a somewhat familiar arc of dissatisfaction, greed, discovering riches aren't all they're cracked up to be, and eventually pining for one's "Sweet Home" and repentance.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

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