As movie viewers, we’ve lost the ability to enjoy silent films. That’s not even a criticism, really. Unless you first came to films in the silent era, those movie-watching muscles just haven’t developed. There’s a whole other language to silent films, a way of storytelling that, accustomed as we are to the dialogue and sound-heavy film experience, can seem distancing, even dull.
Of course, silent films were rarely silent. By the time movies took hold of the public imagination, silents were accompanied by music—sometimes recorded, oftentimes played live. Scores were written specifically for the purpose, with some directors like Charles Chaplin writing their own music in order to ensure their cinematic vision. Other times, a house organist or orchestra was left to interpret the film as they saw fit, scoring the images on the screen according to their own musical interpretation.
“Metropolis,” director Fritz Lang’s gloriously loopy 1927 allegorical sci-fi silent masterpiece, screening on Sunday at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium, promises a restoration of the best of the silent movie-going experience. Accompanying Lang’s operatic fable of a totalitarian society where workers dwell deep underground fueling the lifestyle of the decadent rich who live atop impossibly huge skyscrapers, acclaimed conductor and organist Peter Krasinski will play an original organ score all through the film’s two-and-a-half hour running time. And “Metropolis” is no place for the weak, musically speaking. Local musician Samuel James, who performed a similar gig accompanying Buster Keaton’s 1926 silent classic “The General” (on guitar, banjo, and harmonica) in Portland a few years ago, calls the experience “Easily the most difficult thing I’ve done musically,” adding, “Playing for 80 minutes straight ain’t no joke.” And “Metropolis” is fully an hour longer.
The story of a wealthy layabout from above who falls in love with a heroic, impoverished teacher from the working classes, “Metropolis” is a mammoth, expansive allegory, filled with Lang’s still-fantastic, futuristic sets (he pioneered the use of miniatures for his massive cityscapes), mad scientists, full-scale class warfare, Biblical interludes, jaw-dropping dream sequences (including the ubiquitous, dangerous machines transforming into a worker-devouring demon), and what is still one of cinema’s greatest robots. Chases, love scenes, riots, explosions, floods, fires — Krasinski’s got his work cut out for him.
Of course, in its nearly 100 year cinematic history, “Metropolis” is no stranger to musicians brave (or foolhardy) enough to rise to the challenge. Gottfried Huppertz’s original theatrical score was suitably Wagnerian in tone, but the film has inspired everything from sprawling tecnho scores to experimental works to jazz. Strangest perhaps was pop producer and musician Goirgio Moroder’s 1984 theatrical reissue, where a pared-down, color-tinted version of the film flashed by to a pounding rock score from the likes of Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar, and Loverboy, among other unlikely candidates. (In rewatching the movie, I tried pairing it up with artists as disparate as Brian Eno, Tom Waits, Billy Bragg, and a few others. Oddly, The Wu-Tang Clan seemed to synch up most often. Huh.)
Regardless of the music — and, all experimentation aside, Krasinski’s improvisational scores are widely praised — “Metropolis” remains one of the most influential films of all time. It’s politics might be on the simplistic side — class warfare’s no match for love — but the film’s impact has been potent (and flexibly vague) enough to see it championed by socialists and dictatorships alike. (The Jewish Lang fled for America immediately upon learning that Hitler was a huge fan.) And you can see its impact in science fiction films as disparate as “Blade Runner” and “Star Wars,” with the film’s iconic female robot, Maria, echoing through cinematic robot design from C-3PO right up through the conflicted artificial heroine of last year’s “Ex Machina.” Especially when paired with the right music, a showing of “Metropolis” can be an immersive, awe-inspiring time at the movies.
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, Portland
HOW MUCH: $18, free for children 12 (although a ticket is required)
PMA Films — Portland Museum of Art
Friday: “Mustang.” An Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film this year, this Turkish drama follows the lives of five young Turkish sisters whose innocent indiscretion sees their conservative parents sequestering them from modern life until they can be married off. Their sisterly will to resist makes for a stirring and inspirational debut feature from director Deniz Gamze Ergüven.
Tuesday: “Theeb.” Another of this year’s Oscar nominees, this Jordanian period piece sees two young Bedouin brothers find trouble when they agree to lead a pair of soldiers to a secret well during the 1916 war in the Ottoman Empire.