The Wonder of a Silent Film Accompanied by a Large Pipe Organ

Silent Film Organist Dorothy Papadakos en costume!

After my many decades in film, I finally got to see a silent film accompanied live by a large pipe organ.  The pipe organ has always been my favorite instrument.  Probably because it is so loud, has so many different sounds, and one note can be duplicated a dozens times in dozens of different voices.  Large pipe organs are huge, with 10,000+ pipes, mounted in rooms hundreds of square feet in size each with an individual switch connected to a massive console. 

Many organs have pipes 32 feet long (a three- story building) requiring ceiling heights of 40+ feet.  The massive “earthquake” pipe creates such low tones, that they are felt, not heard, and risk collapsing buildings with subsonic pressure waves.  Most interesting, this analog technology is hundreds of years old. 

In the digital world, many people believe a circuit chip and a set of $100 headphones can emulate a large pipe organ. Many churches have replaced pipe organs with 4-piece rock bands.  As if there weren’t already enough places to hear 4-piece rock bands—like the grocery store.

I have been to many organ concerts across the US.  Sometimes they can be bland, as the organists spend too much time noodling across the keyboard making mellow meditative tones, seemingly shy about what a big organ can really produce. But the performance I attended last night was an all-out organ assault.

Dorothy Papadakos, an incredible performer and artist, is famous as the first woman organist at New York City’s Cathedral of St. John The Devine, among other gigs.  For years, she has found a comfortable niche accompanying 100-year old silent films, around the world in churches  and theaters with huge organs in huge spaces.   She writes all her own music, which guides her through fantastic improvisations. 

I saw her last night accompanying the 1920 version of the iconic “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” starring John Barrymore.  The melodies pitted the ferocious against the sublime, reflecting the dual personalities of the protagonist.  Her improvisations enhanced the action, growing in volume and complexity as Dr. Jekyll unravels from a generous, kind doctor, to a demon addicted to hurting people. 

When Papadakos “pulls out all the stops,” (which she does frequently), the walls shake.  She seems to be physically crawling over the organ in acrobatic kicks, swirls, stretches and flourishes to enhance the intense images.  I love watching organists racing across the keyboards with both hands and feet, as the volume swells, and the tempo jumps by leaps and bounds.  I swear that more than once, she actually threw her whole body onto the three keyboards, attempting to hit every note at once. 

Actually, the organ did shut down a couple times, crying “uncle,” (never seen that before), but she coolly rebooted, missing hardly a beat.  After the show she asked if I noticed when the organ “began to play by itself.”  I sure did—and I sympathized with it.

For the first time I realized the genius of the silent film makers who introduced the pipe organ as the ideal instrument to accompany their big screen films. 

Papadakos made it a point to say that she did not perform on the classic “theater” organs like the Mighty Wurlitzers that included, gongs, cymbals, snare drums, trombones, and xylophones, and organ pipes designed to “sound just like” oboes, clarinets, and cellos, but were very bland compared to the actual instruments.  For some reason, they usually used a heavy vibrato on every note— a ‘special effect,’ that gets old very quickly.  They were meant to mimic a live orchestra.  They never did a great job of it, especially since they were meant to mimic a more expensive orchestra, take away musicians’ jobs, and save the theater owners money.  I guess,  they’re just—cheezy.

Ultimately, church organs—without all the theatrical bells and whistles—are ideal partners for silent films, seen on a large screen, in a large hall, the way they were meant to be. They are original instruments with unique, complex, thought-provoking sounds.  And the performers who play them, are in harmony with the sense and presence of the ‘silent’ cinematic experience.  

I wish every town had a repertory cinema that regularly played the silents with a grand organ. 

For more info about Dorothy and her magical world of music https://www.dorothypapadakos.com/index-2.html

Film Appreciation Course at The Warehouse PAC Institute Begins Wednesday Nov. 7

This seminar includes five uniquely cinematic films. They are thought-provoking “art films” that explore filmmaking’s greatest potential in acting, music, sound, cinematography, and innovative storytelling. They are multi-award winners, critically acclaimed, and very watchable.

The films will be shown in The Warehouse PAC theater in Cornelius, on its 10 x 20 ft. screen with 5.1 Dolby surround sound, to provide an authentic large screen experience. 

Each film will be introduced, screened, and followed by Q&A and discussion.

Films and class schedule:
All classes 6:00pm-8:30pm

Wed Nov 7 TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL Documentary, US Independent, dir Jeffrey Schwartz 2015

Wed Nov 28 MOLLY’S GAMEDrama, US, accurate reenactment of a woman’s venture into the ‘male’ business world; Jessica Chastain, dir. Aaron Sorkin 2015

Wed Jan 16 KING OF MARVIN GARDENSDrama, US, 1960’s ground-breaking indie film about small-time crooks. Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, dir. Bob Rafelson 1972

Wed Jan 30 HUNTER GATHERERDrama/Comedy, US Independent African/American theme dir. Joshua Locy 2016 

Wed Feb 20 THE GREAT BEAUTYDrama, Italy, Oscar Best Foreign Language Film, in Italian w/English subtitles 2015

Seminar leader, Robert Maier, is a founder of the Davidson Film Club, Studio C Cinema, and The Warehouse PAC Cinema. He worked 30 years in film production as a writer, producer, director, and was chair of the broadcasting department at Gaston College. Maier has published three books on film production, and writes and lectures on cinema. 

Class size limited– early registration recommended.

To register, please contact Robert at rgm234@gmail.comor 704-996-7724.

Cost is $45.00 including all films.

Great, but Hard-To-Find Films on Netflix

Netflix has some great non-mainstream cinema to offer, but it can hard to find in the thousands of ever-shifting titles. Google “best films on Netflix”, and you’ll get dozens of returns. Like so much Internet junk, many just use algorithms of the most popular titles, counting stars, likes, etc.– not very helpful. Others are click bait saturated with ads that make it nearly impossible to get any useful information– frustrating.

I don’t like most algorithms, so by actually watching films, I’ve found many hidden gems, so here’s my first list of titles, to help others find unusual, engaging, and informative pieces of cinema that are very well done.

RECOMMENDED FILMS ON NETFLIX
Camp X-Ray

What Happened Miss Simone?
Slow West
Hostiles
Wind River
The Constant Gardner
All The Queens Horses
Chappaquiddick
The Angel
Finding Vivian Maier
Karl Marx City
A Perfect Day
The Trader
13th

To immerse yourself in a series for a month, try these two. Turn, a drama, puts a different spin on the American Revolution.  Life Below Zero follows several people who choose to live in Arctic Alaska, and contrasts their lives with the cushy average suburban American’s experience.

Turn
Life Below Zero

Negatives of the Share Culture – Pt. 1:  Ride Share

City Lights bookstore threshold mosaic, San Francisco.

San Francisco has the greatest share culture I’ve seen.  Everyone uses Uber, Lyft, scooters, bikes, and Air bnb. Here are some thoughts.

On arrival at the airport, everyone said ride shares, not taxis were the way to go.  Problem was we didn’t know where the ride share pickup points were, and we had read critiques that the horde of ride share drivers had turned the airport into a mass of confusion to the point of nearly being banned.

So we took a taxi from the well-marked taxi stand.  It was a great ride with a driver from Ukraine who had lived in SF for ten years.  Very informative and friendly.  He drove a direct route way to our hotel in the Presidio, driving safely and courteously.  It cost about $50, just a few dollars more than a ride share, and we would soon find out, it was a good decision.

On my first Uber ride,  a year earlier, it was difficult to find the driver.  Finally he arrived.  We were four, but the driver asked if he could pick up another on the way.  That meant squeezing another in the back seat.  It was rush hour on one of San Francisco’s busiest streets, and the driver said he had to go the other direction.  There was a tiny gap in oncoming traffic, so he floored into a u-turn, barely missing being clipped.

I said woh! Is that legal in San Francisco?  He grinned and said he learned to drive in Syria.  Since it was legal there, it was ok for him.  Looked like anyone could participate in a “ride-share” culture, with zero credentials. Next, they’ll be driving down the sidewalks, like they do in Kabul.  Made a mental note to take a taxi next time.

Next morning, back at the hotel, the clerk strongly suggested we use Lyft on our next trip to the Alcatraz dock.  He said they were cheaper than both Taxis and Uber, and it was a San Francisco-based company.  After the Uber experience, I was ready for something new, but preferred the taxi. Using the taxi app, we hailed a cab that said it was 10 minutes away.  Lyft showed about the same.  12 minutes later, no taxi, so we looked at Lyft again and saw a driver was just 2 minutes away, so we hailed that.  The taxi arrived about 5 seconds after the Lyft.  I told the driver we had a reservation at the Alcatraz ferry, and thought he had gotten lost.  He apologized with a knowing smile.

The Lyft diver was a trip.  He rambled about his personal life and poor health.  He lived an hour outside SF, and was between jobs, so driving ride share, but not making much at it.  He got lost a few times on the ride to the ferry dock, one of the most famous places in the world.  When we finally got close, we were on the wrong side of 6 lanes of rush hour traffic.  He said we should get out and cross the street, even though there wasn’t a crosswalk.  When I said I couldn’t see the ferry dock, he insisted it was right behind the warehouse across the street.  Not wanting to risk crossing, I demanded that he drive us to the exact location.  This had to take a couple side streets and zig zag his way back to drive in the opposite direction.  Not being Syrian-trained, he demurred making a u-turn.

As soon as he negotiated the last turn, he pulled over, saying “the dock is here.”  But we couldn’t see it.  We actually got into an argument, because it was obviously not the dock.  It was a warehouse with no signage, parking, or sign of a tourist entity.  Finally, he got confused about the fare, and charged us an extra $5.  We were now late, obviously in the wrong spot, and dealing with a disturbed individual.  So we took off on foot.  Three long blocks later we arrived at the dock, just in time.

The Alcatraz tour was truly amazing, but getting there was a lesson in the share culture, that we would learn more about in the coming days.  The big problem is that the sharing culture consists of part-timers with no professional training.  So you’re expected to have low expectations to justify the low price—which delivers low quality, often from bumblers who don’t practice their trade frequently enough to really understand it, and deliver good service.  But the logic is, hey, you saved $4, so go buy yourself a latte.

The Beauty of Analog Audio

I teach an on-line Introduction to Broadcasting course, and my teenage-20s students discussed vinyl vs. digital recordings in an assignment. I was surprised how many loved vinyl, because it created an emotional response in them that the music alone did not. The sight and sound of the visible mechanics were more important and heart-felt than the ease and convenience of Echo, i-phone, etc.

I mean, where is the emotional payoff to shouting a song title across the room and having a robot play it?  About the same as eating a McDonald’s hamburger, I suppose.

When I was a teen, 33.3 vinyl hi-fi stereo was it. The physical ritual of unpacking the LP, respectfully  putting it on the platter, carefully placing the arm  on the disc and watching it’s leisurely spin was an important part of the music experience.

In high school, I bought one of these hand-crank non-electric phonographs and a stack of 78s for pennies at an antique store. We’d take it on picnics and be astonished — this was way before Walkman. The first time we heard “I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, on a 78, all scratchy and tinny, dependent on cranks and gears and belts and springs, and… no electricity. It was a different world. It was life-changing.  It opened new doors of perception.

I get what my students, 50 years later, are feeling, and I like it.

Advice to High School Graduates

I read an article this morning about how unpaid internships may be the collapse  of modern civilization.  I get this, but on the other hand, sometimes an unpaid internship is a good route to a career. People spend hundreds of thousands of dollars at universities that may not result a paid gig in the field you think you’ll like.

It’s possible that a long unpaid internship will deliver the same or better benefits as a BA. As a working professional and college instructor, the most honest advice I give to some students is drop out of school, then research the best company that is busy doing what you think you want to do in life. Go to that company and ask if you can pay them to mentor you in their field– a ‘reverse paid internship’, except the intern pays the company, so you don’t feel guilty about taking their time for detailed instruction, when needed.  If you’re not hired you after 2 months, you’re probably not right for the field, or you chose a company that is not very successful, and it’s time to move on.  You’ll have to figure how to work this, because loan institutions only want to give educational loans to standard institutions.  But that’s part of the education.  It usually means leaning on family, or a flexible part-time job.

This won’t work in many fields, because degrees are a short-cut for HR departments– a cookie cutter measurement that may not show how good an employee will be. Colleges can be filled with unmotivated, self-entitled souls who prefer to kick back rather than do– and that’s the last thing competitive companies want.

When I was hiring entry-level people, I paid more attention to the menial jobs they had while in college than the name of the college, like Starbucks, pizza delivery, retail clerk, car mechanic, or call center. They had learned how to get along in the real world, and were ready for a real job. They proved they could be resilient enough to learn all they needed with on-the-job training.

Needless to say, this is not a popular viewpoint. But it is worth consideration.  So many jobs I’ve had never cared to see my diploma, my course list, grades, attendance record, or letters of recommendation.  Only the colleges!

Humvees FAIL

Soldiers spend a lot of time taking vehicles to the motor pool for repair. The streets are rough, and Humvees are surprisingly susceptible to problems. Power steering hoses pop, and you lose control—not good.

The engine’s moving parts are connected by one long serpentine belt. If it breaks—which is common, they’re completely out of commission. It must be a pretty anxious moment to break down on an Iraqi street. I read a lot in the press how much of the army’s equipment has broken down, so I’m not surprised.

The Humvee was designed during the Cold War to cruise the cool or snow-bound paved highways of Central Europe, not the pock-marked 120 degree gravel paths of the Iraqi desert. The words of Captain Donald Rumsfeld, ring in my ears, when complained to by a soldier that the gear was inadequate, if not downright unsafe for the job: “Sometimes you have to fight a war with what you have, not what you want.” Same goes for leadership, I suppose.

Young Afghan Journalists and Continual Death Threats Against Them

Amin Wahidi, 25 year old journalist, filmmaker, and free-speech advocate was recently granted refugee status in Italy after attending the Venice International Film Festival and participating in a Summer School on Cinema and Human Rights at the European Inter-university Center for Human Rights and Democratization. He is currently living in a refugee shelter in Milan, Italy.

Wahidi has spent his whole life in Afghanistan, but after recent numerous death threats has decided to remain in Italy. A series of comments left on Wahidi’s blog from a self-proclaimed Taliban said a suicide bomber would meet Wahidi’s plane when it landed in Kabul. His family recently fled Kabul due to similar threats against them.

Wahidi’s experience is but one example of a widening pattern of violence against young Afghan media workers and journalists. It is part of an alarming relapse back to the days of the Taliban and warlords. Young activists are facing increasing violence and censorship—some from within the U.S. supported Afghan government. They have been threatened, arrested, jailed, kidnapped, had their studios vandalized, and been beaten.

Several young media personalities, including women, have been murdered in the past three years. This year, two have been killed, and they are held up as examples of what will happen to others who attempt to speak out. As a result, many educated, creative media people are fleeing Afghanistan, making it easier for the violent fundamentalists and criminal gangs to have their way.

Though fearing for his safety, Wahidi wants to tell the true story of how Afghanistan is slipping backwards, despite the efforts of many concerned countries and organizations such as NATO, the U.S., and the UN. Like many Afghans, he feels these efforts are insufficient and that Afghanistan is being forgotten by the world once again.

In the short term, Wahidi wants to come to the U.S. to finish his university education, and make films and documentaries about conditions in Afghanistan. He also wants to be a lifeline to colleagues remaining in Afghanistan through the Afghan Academy of Arts and Cinema Education and The Filmmakers Union of Afghanistan. Most important, he wants to return to Afghanistan to work for re-building a democratic, just, and productive society there. His primary interest is to make films on the difficulty of establishing freedom of expression, justice, and human rights in his country.

In early 2005, Wahidi was hired as one of the first writer/producer/director/presenters at the new Ariana Television and Radio Network (ATN), based in Kabul. It was the first independent network to broadcast across Afghanistan, and quickly added coverage via satellite to North America, Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and across South Asia to the Pacific.

Wahidi produced and hosted three concurrent television programs for ATN: a magazine-style news series on world cinema, an English language instructional series, and a cultural history series focusing on music. He also worked in network promotion and was the assistant programmer for a time. After leaving ATN in 2007, he worked in the production and news departments of two other Afghan broadcast networks, Nureen and Farda.

Prior to working in broadcast, Wahidi developed strong English language skills. In 2004 he was a lead translator/interpreter for the U.S. Army’s Office of Military Co-operation for Afghanistan, in Kabul. He has worked for other translation companies, able to conduct simultaneous English/Farsi-Dari interpretations and document translation.

Wahidi’s ethnic background is Hazara, a consistently persecuted Afghan minority. His father, a Hazara activist, has been arrested and threatened for organizing demonstrations and speaking out against mistreatment of not just Hazara, but all Afghans.

After the ouster of the Taliban in 2002, there was hope for Afghanistan. Cinemas re-opened, Independent TV and radio stations went on the air, scores of newspapers and magazines began to publish, art galleries and performance spaces became active, schools opened, and women returned to work in media, education, healthcare, and government. The country which had endured 30 years of brutal occupation and civil war began to breathe again, a situation especially welcomed by a young generation eager to join the modern world. Now these gains are losing ground, and this sad story is almost invisible to the American public.

See more about Amin Wahidi and subscribe to his blog at www.aminwahidi.blogspot.com

Blowing Up Doors

In In Kuwait, there is a training site where soldiers learn how to open doors. Since much of their work involves acting on tips from locals regarding buildings where militants may be hiding weapons caches, bomb factories, or themselves, the soldiers need to learn this. They use various methods to open doors. Sometimes a simple knock will do, but sometimes the information is so urgent that bursting through a door is best.

The training site features a long masonry wall with multiple doorways hung with doors of different materials, strengths and styles. The soldiers go from door to door opening them with either a crowbar, maybe a shotgun blast, or an explosive charge that blows the door off its hinges.

At the end of the row, the soldiers take a break while a local contractor and crew cleans up the mess. They jump down from their truck which is piled high with new doors, and make quick work of hanging and locking them for the next go around. They do this all day long, but hey, it’s work.

The Lap of Luxury? No thanks.

I stayed at a 4 Diamond hotel for a few days last week, and it was nice, but excessive to the point of discomfort. My travels have led me to a number of similar big name luxury spots, mostly at Hotwire.com rates where $300/night rooms were discounted to $60– not much more than the smelly Comfort Inn with the grinding AC under the window.

I’ve found that the more expensive the room’s rack rate (usually $250-350), the more the hotel nickels and dimes its customers; like charging $15 a day for Internet, $20 for parking, $8.50 for the bottle of European water in the room, a laughable $4.50 for a 50 cent snickers from the mini-bar, $25 for a room service continental breakfast,  and $15 for a movie.

I’d rather stay in a Holiday Inn, where Internet, parking,bottle of Dasani, and Internet and HBO are all free, and a hot  breakfast across the street is $10.00.