by Dan DeMaggio
In recent years The Alloy Orchestra’s appearance at the Detroit Film Theatre has become a springtime rite that film and music freaks anticipate like gardeners waiting for their bulbs to bloom. The three-man ensemble writes and performs original musical scores for lost cinematic gems and restored classics. The first such work came in 1991, when they took on Fritz Lang’s science-fiction masterpiece Metropolis without the help of Pat Benatar and Bonnie Tyler, who inexplicably were once part of a “rockin’” sound track to an 1980s re-release of the picture. From that moment on, the Alloy Orchestra has allowed us to experience such classics as F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) in a brand-new way, filtering the films through a brilliant tangle of found-object sound effects and deeply wrought musical scoring.
The Alloy Orchestra features Roger C. Miller on synthesizer, Ken Winokur on junk percussion and clarinet, and Terry Donahue on junk percussion/accordion/saw/ banjo. Performing to one side of the stage, the orchestra cues moments of love and happiness and tragedy with verve, capturing the aural mayhem of slapstick and speeding trains and explosions. The only criticism one can extend is that their work is so stunning, so powerful, that the musicians occasionally eclipse the film they embellish. They also offer a collateral benefit: The audience is allowed the opportunity to see films from the dawn of the big screen in their intended medium, instead of on some video or classic movie channel.
This time around, the orchestra will accompany The General, Speedy and Dans la Nuit.
The General (1926)
Starring the expressionless and acrobatic silent era icon Buster Keaton as Johnny Gray, a mild-mannered train engineer in love with Southern belle Anabelle Lee, the film takes place just prior to the attack on Fort Sumter. When the call to arms commences after the attack, Johnny is rejected from military service because of his value as an engineer. Anabelle Lee, whose father and brother enlist successfully, rejects Johnny, telling him he must wear a uniform the next time she sees him or he’s history.
When Johnny’s train, The General, is hijacked by Union spies intent on blowing up rail bridges on their escape North, Johnny gives chase to reclaim his beloved engine, which also houses the kidnapped Annabelle.
Don’t expect a tour-de-slapstick-force with this film. Besides the many small comedic gestures of Keaton, most of which rely on some pratfall or clumsy move, The General is a classic adventure film with wood-powered locomotives chasing each other and Keaton bouncing and dancing all over them with a grace and precision that rivals any ballet dancer’s.
One scene, in which a train crashes through a suspension bridge, is said to be the most expensive stunt of the silent film era.
Harold Lloyd’s film also features a man trying to save the day and win the girl. It also involves trains and chases and battles with evil men. Speedy, however, couldn’t be more different in tone or temperament from The General.
Lloyd is definitely going for the laugh, and most of the time he gets it. He plays Speedy (Lloyd’s real nickname), a hapless slacker who can’t seem to hold down a job for more than a day. Whether soda jerk or cab driver, the gods and the odds are always against him. The railroads want to buy his girlfriend’s father’s horse-drawn trolley track so they can consolidate their monopolistic grip on the city, but Speedy is not going to let it happen. Lloyd’s trip to Coney Island with his girlfriend is a classic example of the actor’s brilliant physical humor. Babe Ruth makes a cool cameo playing himself in a terrifying ride in the back of Speedy’s cab.
Dans la Nuit (1929)
The film begins with a wedding in a French mining town. Charles Vanel plays “the worker” and Sandra Milovanoff plays “his wife.” The wedding is a grand drunken affair and the whole village seems to be celebrating. Then “the worker” has a face-deforming accident at the mine, quickly turning the happy home into a dark and lonely place.
Vanel wears a silver mask around the house, one of two that mysteriously arrive by mail one day. His wife catches the eye of another man and the film becomes an even darker and more sinister affair. The film is chock-full of arty fades and shots of clouds and watery camera tricks. It’s a gloomy, psychological piece and the ending may just piss some people off. Ah, the French.
The General (restored) plays at Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7:30 p.m. April 9 and 3 p.m. April 11; Dans La Nuit plays April 10 at 7:30 p.m.; Speedy plays April 11 at 6 p.m. Call 313-833-32
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.