Ben Model is a leading silent film accompanist and has been a resident film pianist at the Museum of Modern Art since 1984. Recently Model released a collection of rare, lost silent films from his 16mm archive to DVD. The 16mm format celebrates its 90th anniversary this year and this compilation is called Accidentally Preserved: Rare & Lost Silent Films from Vintage 16mm Prints. Your occasional actor author recently had a chance to chat with Model. Here is the complete interview:
Phoenix: Thanks for taking time to talk to me and my regular readers. For the benefit of my newer readers who may not know much about you and your work, please tell them a bit about yourself and your work at present, you know, who you are now and what you do today.
Model: I’m a silent film accompanist and historian, and play both piano and theatre organ to accompany silent movies. I compose and improvise all my own scores, and play music that honors and is influenced by the era and also acknowledges a contemporary audience’s expectation of film music. We film accompanists act as a bridge across the two eras, a cultural gap of about 90 years.
I aim to create an atmosphere that helps a contemporary audience appreciate and enjoy the film to the same effect that the original filmmakers would want them to. I think this is largely because I was a serious filmmaker already when I started accompanying silents. I’ve been playing at MoMA for almost 3 decades, and also produce the “Silent Clowns Film Series” in NYC, now in its 16th year.
I play at theatres, festivals, schools, museums and more around the U.S. (plus a cool silent film fest in Tromsø, Norway annually). I’ve also scored a lot of silents for Kino, TCM, Milestone, ReelclassicDVD and now my own label. Silent film accompaniment is my full-time job.
I’m also archivist for the Ernie Kovacs/Edie Adams collection, and programmed the two “Ernie Kovacs Collection” DVD box sets that were released by Shout! Factory recently.
Phoenix: Cool. I wrote some stuff on Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams not too long ago. OK. I read the press release but for those who didn’t please explain what is meant by the phrase “accidentally preserved”.
Model: A lot of silent films exist today only because copies were made in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s on 16mm safety film for home rentals. It was like Netflix for the Art Deco era. The 35mm nitrate prints on a lot of these aren’t anymore, but the 16mm home use prints survive.
It’s like they were accidentally preserved. The silent Hunchback of Notre Dame and the original, complete 1925 release of The Phantom of the Opera only exist because there are a couple copies of the Universal Show-At-Home Library 16mm prints in the hands of collectors.
Phoenix: Now I’ve seen the previews you e-mailed me some time ago. What I want to know is do you think they are the best shorts in the collection? If not, which are in your opinion the best? Do you think everyone of the shorts hold up in terms of being universal or do you think some stand up better than others?
Model: If by “in the collection” you’re referring to the whole collection of 16mm films I plan to release on the just-released DVD, on volume 2 and onward, I picked and chose a mix. I knew I wanted a strong start, but there are a couple cool items I held back on so that volume 2 would have a strong appeal as well . . . like a very rare 1927 two-reeler starring Lloyd Hamilton, for instance.
I don’t know that there are certain films that are better than others. There are films that I didn’t think were going to come off as strong as I thought, but reviewer comments on Amazon have proved otherwise. It’s pretty gratifying to see that regardless of what my own opinions are, the audience for these is entertained by the films. Which was the whole point of the project – to get the films out of cans sitting on a shelf and back on to screens so they can be enjoyed.
The Elgin watch company film is not exactly Keaton’s “One Week”, but even antique watch experts I’ve been in touch with have never heard of it, so it was something important to include because of its rarity; until I turned up the film it was both unknown and lost.
The comedies, overall, stand up better, and as many of these one-reelers were turned out on a regular schedule some are better than others. Silent comedy shorts were made on a similar production schedule to sit-coms, and I’m sure there are episodes of “Seinfeld”, “Green Acres”, “Big Bang Theory” and “Mr. Peepers” that are better than others during a given season. They’re all pretty universal, and some have better gags or comic personalities. It’s been fun to read comments from reviewers who’ve discovered and enjoyed Jack Duffy, Wallace Lupino and Monte Collins from watching the DVD.
Phoenix: What would you consider your best work on this collection? What do you consider the best work you’ve done so far?
Model: It’s very difficult for me to listen to my own music, as I imagine is the case with many composers and artists. There are films I’ve scored where I’ve worked real hard on the score and gotten zero recognition, and things I’ve felt I’d done an adequate job on and been complemented highly on (often to the point where I’ll ask the person, “Did I score that DVD? Are you sure?”) I’m rarely satisfied with the work, and I’m always trying to expand my technique and musical vocabulary.
Ironically, when I play a show and feel the score’s gone particularly poorly, I get a bigger hand at the end and more complements about the music than usual. I learned as part of the process – and believe me recording is a different (and slightly more painful) animal than performing live – that at some point I have to be satisfied with a take, and move on to the next film. Otherwise I’d still be working on the 30+ shorts I scored in 2003 for Kino’s “Thomas Edison: the Invention of the Movies” box set.
Phoenix: As someone who collected comics for literally decades I am familiar with Max Fleischer’s “Superman” cartoons. They inspire artists even to this day including the folks who did the Batman: The Animated Series not too long ago. Are you a fan of his or did you just stumble across some of his work accidentally? Are cartoons more fun to work with than the live shorts? What do you think?
Model: The Fleischer cartoons of the 1930s, especially the first half of the decade, are incredibly imaginative. I first found them on TV in the 70s, and then through collectors. The surrealism and metamorphosis gags that are rampant in these are so much fun, since they create their own universe.
Silent cartoons are actually a bigger challenge to accompany than the live-action shorts. I wish I could explain or articulate why, but they just are. The Felix shorts are a little easier than most silent cartoons, because Felix has a more thorough personality.
Phoenix: Okay, this one takes some imagination. Imagine I have a magic wand and I can make your fondest wishes come true. IF you could work with anyone—living or dead—whom would it be and why?
Model: Lots of people, but Chaplin, Keaton and Kovacs would be at the top of the list. These were guys who had an innate understanding of screen comedy in their medium – Chaplin and Keaton with film, Kovacs with television – before the comedy language and technique was established. They seem to have known what you can do with film or TV before everyone’s figured it out.
I think that’s what I’ve always responded to in their work, that they just seemed to know better than everyone else doing what they were doing. Charley Chase is another, as was Roscoe Arbuckle. Blake Edwards is another comedy filmmaker like that, someone who just knew how to stage, pace and cut visual or physical humor, but was doing it in the 2nd half of the 20th century. Tati is another; he had this idea that was completely out of left field of what you could do with comedy film and observation of human behavior, but really works.
These were people who had a strong talent who were also able to work in a way that, when allowed to take their ideas to film (or TV, in Kovacs’ case) without much interference, created something that advanced the medium. Edie Adams told me she referred to Ernie’s work as “back of the head comedy”, meaning an idea would flash on a screen in the back of Ernie’s head and he’d just make it happen on a television screen. I’d want to soak that up and be inspired.
Phoenix: OK. Here is the part where I basically let you discuss ANYthing you wish. Promote a project, your favorite charity, discuss your childhood, speak of sins committed as adolescents, (smiling) promote your daughter’s latest project . . . whatever you wish. The floor is yours.
Model: I’d like to plug youtube.com/silentfilmspeed – my YouTube channel where I’ve posted several studies of the way silent film comedians utilized the speed-up of silent film to create gags and comedy that can not exist in real-time. I am convinced silent film makers and performers knew the films they were making were being shown at a faster speed than the one they were shot at. They adjusted the way they moved so their performances would read better, the way they would have when performing in a huge theatre.
They also were able to create gags, stunts and comedy that could not be accomplished in real-time. It’s what they really lost when sound came in. It wasn’t just adding talk; they were losing a whole strata of gags that could only exist in this sped-up universe. Think about it: when you speed up regular film it looks too fast, but silent film is run too fast, and yet you can still follow it. Nobody’s really discovered or explored this, and everyone I’ve shown this to has gone, “How did we miss that?!”
Everyone from your basic silent movie fans to historians and scholars I’ve presented a talk on this to at an international Chaplin conference and recently at the “Mostly Lost” conference at the Library of Congress. We’ve all known the films look better faster, but this whole use of the speed-up by silent era performers explains why.
Phoenix: (laughing) That’s true! Wow, I never thought about that. Well, I’d like to thank you for spending time with me and my readers.
There you have it, guys and dolls, an interview with film accompanist and historian Ben Model. Also, check out one of his latest projects, a series released in 1916 and 1917 called “The Mishaps of Musty Suffer”. As per usual, here’s hoping you found the interview both informative and entertaining!
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.