It’s the next best thing to time travel – composer/performer Jeff Rapsis can take you back to the silent film era and make you feel like you’re living it. Buster Keaton, Lillian Gish, Charlie Chaplin – they’re all there. Rapsis re-creates those times in select theaters with nights of big-screen silent films and his old-time musical accompaniment. Before long, you’ll be hissing at the villain just like the people of yesteryear.
Rapsis’ avocation (he’s also a journalist and newspaper publisher) began in junior high school when he was smitten by the silent films that were shown in study hall. He combined his newfound love with the piano lessons he’d been taking off and on from a young age and began his scoring of silent films. He says, “It’s like chocolate and peanut butter – two things I already enjoyed that were even better together.”
What kind of reaction do you get from audiences? People hoot, holler, laugh out loud and really do cheer the hero and hiss the villain, without any prompting. Many who come to our screenings have never experienced silent film, but they quickly get caught up in the spirit of the experience.
How important is the accompanying score to the experience? Music can make or break a silent film. An effective score can help a mediocre movie take flight. And an insensitive score can ruin a masterpiece. You try to create music to underscore building of tension, to signal a mood change, to help cue an audience about the emotional flow of a scene.
Why is it important to keep the experience alive? For the same reasons we preserve and study great works of art in other forms. They’re important cultural artifacts and they contain the DNA of so much of today’s visually oriented pop culture. And they’re also a lot of fun.
Why do you like silent films so much? Like opera, they’re all about the big emotions – love, hate, lust, greed, envy and so on. At their best, silent films allow you to tap into that place that really feels things, I think, in a way that’s more personal compared to when everything is done for you in a movie. It’s like old-time radio, where you have to bring your imagination to the table.
Do you like talkies, too? Yes! But it’s hard to compare the two because sound film and silent film are like, say, painting and sculpture – related in some ways, but quite different modes of expression.
Any N.H. connection to silents? Some. One of them is the famous scene of Lillian Gish out on the ice floes in D.W. Griffith’s “Way Down East” (1920) that was filmed partly on the Connecticut River near Lebanon. No CGI effects back then.
Would you like to have lived in the silent film era? Well, sure, I suppose. But one of the most fascinating aspects of silents is how they show many ways in which basic life was more difficult. This includes everything from no refrigeration to open racial prejudice. I like my creature comforts, and I’m glad we’ve transcended some unfortunate stereotypes.