I am able to count myself among the fortunate ones who attended The Byrd Theater on the Friday before Halloween and witnessed the Lon Chaney film version of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) with live organ accompaniment provided by Ray Brubacher, a legendary organist and a national treasure. This viewing and listening experience forced me to reflect upon how we, as film watchers, become accustomed to and automatically accept certain conventions and expectations regarding the technologies that deliver films to our eyes and ears. Larger screens, improved sound systems, and, increasingly, 3-D and IMAX, have become so ubiquitous that we would be perplexed if we did not encounter them at one of the giant movie theater chains. However, there still exist venues capable of providing an alternative to the corporate chains, and nights such as the one on October 29, 2010 proved that such accoutrements are not necessary and that the older technologies can prove just as enjoyable: different, but thoroughly enjoyable.
I will be honest. It takes an effort to engage with and watch a film in ways in which I am unaccustomed. This is not to say that watching a silent film is similar to biking uphill or translating Catalan into French, but there is an effort that needs to be made in order to readjust how I “expect” to see a film. Thirty some years of watching films have made an imprint upon me as to what a film should do and how it should look and sound. Reflexively, my mental image of “film” includes color, diegetic sounds, and certain deployments of the camera. So I do exert an effort in consciously changing the imprint that has been ingrained over my lifetime with another, one that understands, appreciates, and respects how films that do not conform to what I “expect” still create art in their own magnificent, unique ways.
And while I and others have such efforts rewarded with a deeper appreciation of the cinematic art and derive joy from recognizing the multitude of ways to create beauty in film, the impulse from the studios, producers, and theaters is to attract us and our dollars, and that is most efficiently done by adopting newer technologies that “improve” upon the movie-going experience and discarding those that seem “inadequate” to the task required from a twenty-first century audience. The assumption made by nearly everyone, from producers to consumers, rests on the belief that the older forms are inferior, lacking in quality, or not as beautiful.
For my part, and I recognize that I am far from alone in this observation, the Byrd’s showing of The Phantom of the Opera dispels any such assumption. The film itself is a wonder. The version shown at the Byrd had the restored Technicolor masquerade scene. The scene was ambitious, lush, and daring, and in its own way, it proved as visually pleasing as James Cameron’s best work in Avatar. (Yes, I suppose that despite any reservations I may have about Avatar, I do agree with David Denby on its visual sumptuousness.) Whereas Cameron used the gorgeous CGI scenes to highlight the vibrancy and joy of life to be found among the Na’vi, the masquerade scene highlights Phantom’s most emotionally wrenching moments by providing the vibrancy of color.
Of course, Phantom is most renowned for Lon Chaney, who is fearsomely good as the Phantom who seeks to protect and imprison his operatic darling, Christine. Covered in mask and make-up, Cheney still projects dreadful intentions as well as the Phantom’s own personal history of suffering. I was most surprised and delighted by the performance of Arthur Edmund Carewe as the Detective Ledoux. Director Rupert Julian expertly captured Carewe’s face, particularly his eyes, which perfectly communicate danger and intellect. Julian would let the camera linger, just enough, on Carewe, and Carewe, in turn, would repay his director’s attention with facial gestures of brilliant mystery. One of the wonderful facets of silent film is the emphasis on the face and eyes. Silent films require simple glances and looks to communicate an entire range of human emotions, yet when director and actor are up to the task, those emotions are as readily available as they would be with spoken dialogue.
The night’s most impressive star, however, never appeared in the film or credits. Providing the musical accompaniment on the Byrd’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ, Ray Brubacher demonstrated how the term “silent film” is an odd misnomer. The music was as memorable as the images on the screen. Indeed, “sound” was front and center; it was not there to assist in the communication of meaning, but rather to provide constant pleasure and act as an omnipresent partner to the director and actors, a shadow of glorious music. Brubacher exhibited his skill and mastery by allowing the audience to forget that the night’s music was being produced outside the confines of the actual film. Effortlessly, Brubacher allowed the score to dance around and alongside of the film but never intrude.
I am somewhat saddened by the knowledge that artists such as Brubacher and the art he performs are so rare. Yet I am gladdened that theaters such as the Byrd still exist and that it possesses an organ in perfect working condition. Furthermore, I am glad that we still have the opportunity to see artists such as Brubacher, who still remind us that the art of film has a rich and varied past. If we put in a little effort, the beauty of that art remains accessible.