Tuesday, April 10, 2018

When Walkers Ruled the Streets

No, smart ass, I haven't moved.

My train didn't come in until almost 5:00, then I had emails to answer because the wifi on the train hadn't been working for three hours, so by the time I got cleaned up and found my way to Vasen Brewing (incidentally my first time at that particular brewery), the first film of the double feature was already playing.

I'd missed the last couple Silent Music Revivals, a fact made clear when I walked into Vasen and SMR organizer Jameson greeted me with a hug and a quick quip while the movie played overhead. "Oh, I thought you moved. It's been a while."

Hardee har-har.

He left out the part about how he and his partner Laney - wearing a maxi-skirt closely related to one I wore in the early '70s - had been touring all winter and not even in Richmond (luckily she pointed it out) but it just goes to prove that some friends are hilarious. The next familiar face was Dave Watkins, who was providing the soundtrack to tonight's second film, and who graciously took up residence next to me at the bar where we had a great view of the film "Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis" depicting all kinds of scenes - transportation, nightlife, children, sports, dancing, you name it - from 1927 Berlin.

Crafting an improvised soundtrack was St. Petersburg's Infinite Third, aka Billy Mays, a one man guitar looping machine in the mode of Dave himself and I have to say his spot-on and sprawling accompaniment provided the emotion for a film that came across liker an artistic documentary without commentary. One with no story but one where everyone wore hats, all little girls pushed doll carriages and it was apparently in vogue to spend a lot of camera time lingering on women's legs.

As a devoted student of cultural history, I found one of the most interesting scenes to be a shot of an intersection with motorcars, horse-drawn carriages and people standing in the intersection having extended conversations while traffic nonchalantly moved around them.

Oh, to have been alive when pedestrians ruled the streets like that.

When it finished, Jameson provided a fitting descriptor, saying that if we liked "peaceful, people-watching films," that this was one of a series on different cities done in the '20s. No kidding, I'm sure I'd enjoy seeing some of the others just for the look at how real people were dressing, acting, living.

Thanking the brewery crowd for their attention, he acknowledged a table celebrating a birthday, but Mays took it a step further, inviting the whole table up to collaborate on a birthday song, albeit not a traditional one. Laney kicked it off by singing a soulful happy birthday phrase into the mic and then passed it on to the others from the table so Mays could create a song by looping whatever birthday sentiment or noise they made in with the rest.

Let's just say I don't think the celebrant will be forgetting this year's birthday song anytime soon.

Next up was Dave Watkins, notable because after all these years seeing him play the acoustic and electric dulcitars, tonight we were being treated to his first performance on his latest handmade musical extravaganza: a synthesizer with enough pedals and gadgets to expand his sonic palette in all kinds of new directions. Brilliantly, of course.

That's not to say he didn't play some dulcitar and run it through it, but he also made music solely on the synthesizer, playing keys and turning knobs to complement what we were seeing onscreen with the 1920 German expressionist film "From Morning to Midnight."

In his pre-film chat, Jameson shared that the film was from the same period as "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," a classic silent film I've seen several times and that was patently obvious. Same flat plane kind of effect, same cardboard-looking sets (doors couldn't have appeared any flimsier), same dramatic lighting.

"From Morning to Midnight," though, did have a story that revolved around a beautiful Italian woman needing money and the poor bank clerk who steals it in hopes she'll want to marry him (spoiler alert: she doesn't) once he delivers.

I was especially impressed with how she pulled a letter of credit out of her enormous fur muff (sable would be my guess), causing me to ponder what else she might have stored there. Never underestimate the power of a muff would have been my early 20th century takeaway.

After ditching his good and honest family, he takes the cash and tries to buy happiness (spoiler alert: it doesn't work) by visiting a house of ill repute and betting big time on cycle races, resulting in the film's raciest dialog.

"I want passion for my money!" he demands, slapping $100,000 prize money (from an "anonymous donor") down. When that doesn't satisfy his jones, he slaps $500,000 down and exclaims, "I want to push passion until it's nude!"

Just when I was thinking how racy that must have been for 1920s Germany, a friend pointed out that gay porn got its start there about the same time. No big deal, in other words.

Dave, meanwhile, had shared with me pre-film that after all this winter spent building this new instrument, he'd only gone as far as turning it on to make sure it worked before tonight's show. No practice, no noodling, no nothing.

Which, as anyone who's ever seen a Dave Watkins show knows, means from the moment the film began, he was weaving an audio spell over the crowd with his virtuosity while effortlessly improvising just the right soundtrack for the action, whether our deceitful hero was battling fake snow that appeared to be being thrown by the handfuls, seeing skulls where women's faces really were or redeeming himself with the Salvation Army.

Between my absences at the Silent Music Revival and the months that had passed since I'd last seen Dave play, one thing was painfully clear. It wasn't just that it had been a while, it had been way too long.

Time to get on board with pushing passion until it's nude. Or at least blushing.

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