Aside from the 2011 hit “The Artist,” the 1935 Paramount International movie “Legong: Dance of the Virgins” was the last silent film to be released by a major Hollywood studio. Ben Model is one of a few cinema lovers and musicians keeping the silent film world alive and well for audiences around the globe.
For over 35 years, Model has been curating silent film screenings and carrying on a tradition he learned from organist Lee Erwin (1919-2000) by creating and performing live scores for hundreds of films. Additionally, he’s a resident film accompanist at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus Theatre in Virginia.
As many performers and lovers of the arts have done in this time of self-isolation, Ben Model and Steve Massa are taking their talents to the internet with livestreamed silent films and live piano accompaniment. This Sunday, March 22 at 3 p.m., the duo will present the premiere episode of “The Silent Comedy Watch Party,” three rare slapstick comedy shorts. Set a reminder on the YouTube video above and visit the ALL ARTS homepage this Sunday to watch with us!
Ahead of this Sunday’s performance, we chatted via email with Model about his love for silent film and what to expect this weekend.
How did you first get interested in silent films?
I am told by my folks that I discovered Charlie Chaplin on TV when I was a toddler, and that was it. For some kids it’s trains, for me it was silent comedy. I started collecting in 8 mm when I was in grade school and religiously watched “The Silent Years” on Channel THIRTEEN.
What is it about silent films that is of particular interest to you?
I’ve always been innately drawn to them. Who knows why? Why would someone become drawn to magic or astronomy or anything at a young age? Sometimes it just happens. What’s become my main fascination are two things. One is the way that it’s actually what’s missing — color, sound, real-time speed — that is the very reason silent film holds up so well, and with people of all ages and all over the world. The other is speed-up, the fact that silent film is supposed to be shown faster than the speed it was shot at. People making the films were aware of this and compensated or utilized it to their advantage. All these facets engage your right brain in a different way than regular film does, and it’s a human thing.
Can you tell us about the performances and film showings you’ve done around the country?
It’s a wide range of stuff. From the TCM Classic Film Festival to a community theater’s playhouse in Beatrice, Nebraska, from the Egyptian in Boise to a class of 4th graders at an NYC school. I do a monthly series at the Cinema Arts Centre on Long Island. I got to play almost daily for a nine-week series at MoMA this past October through December. that was a tribute to Iris Barry, the woman who started the museum’s film library and which eventually became its Department of Film. Any place someone wants to turn off the lights and show these great films, I’m game.
What’s your favorite spot (in non-COVID-19 times) for silent film?
Believe it or not, I don’t spend a lot of time watching silent movies, unless it’s something I’m preparing to play for. But there’s always TCM’s “Silent Sunday Nights,” and the Criterion Channel has quite a few things.
Any favorite performance experiences over the years that come to mind?
That’s easy. A few years ago, I got to play the piano-celeste part for Chaplin’s “City Lights” with the Arctic Philharmonic, conducted by Timothy Brock, for four performances in northern Norway, in Tromsø and in Bødo. It was one of the most stressful gigs — I’m not a conservatory player, mind you — and also one of the most rewarding. I have even more respect for Chaplin’s score for that film and for his sense of silent film comedy scoring.
You’ve worked with the MoMA Department of Film. What have you done with them, and how has that experience been for you?
I played my first show at MoMA right after I got out of film school. I’ve gotten to play for hundreds and hundreds of films there, but I’ve also had opportunities to program there. In 2006, I co-organized a two-month Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle retrospective there together with my friend, silent comedy film historian Steve Massa, and with MoMA film curator Ron Magliozzi.
We also did a number of iterations of a series we created called “Cruel and Unusual Comedy” that highlighted the hundreds of rare slapstick shorts in the collection. What was great, in particular, about those shows is that we got to work with Eileen Bowser, MoMA Films’ archive director emeritus, in preparing the shows in the series. We lost Eileen in December, just shy of her 91st birthday, and it was an honor to be able to get these rare comedies that were preserved as part of a multi-year project of hers in the 1970s up on the screen for audiences.
What gave you the idea to do the livestreams?
For me, playing shows is more than just a music gig that involves movies I really like. It’s become an active way of sharing these films with people. So, when all my gigs for March and April fell like dominoes last week, there was still that urge to share silent films with people. I had already acquired and tried out the tech for this, so it wasn’t too complicated to assemble.
But it occurred to me that — more than my not playing those shows — there were audiences of people who were not going to get to attend those shows and festivals. And I also figured people could use a lift of spirits and a break from the news and worry. There really is something about the experience of watching silent film that draws you into a different state of mind, where you are absorbed with the entertainment you’re engaged in. I think it’s the same way with circus or with gaming, etc.
Why did you pick the music and films in this week’s showing?
To be honest, Steve Massa and I are still fine-tuning the line-up, but I can tell you we’ll be repeating one film, a one-reeler called “An Eye for Figures” (1920), starring Hank Mann. People I heard from by email, Facebook and Twitter really liked it. Plus, they were the first audience to see it in about a hundred years. We showed a 16 mm print of it that I won on eBay a few years ago and that was scanned recently by the Library of Congress’ “Silent Film Project.” My print, best we can tell, is the only one on the planet. Plus, it’s a really funny short. Since it’s not available anywhere, we’ll run that one again.
Anything we should keep in mind about the music or films as we’re watching this week?
Be ready to have a good time! And if you’ve never seen a silent film, especially with live accompaniment, give it a shot. Usually, what first-timers say afterward is: “This was way more fun than I thought it was going to be!”
The conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.