Film Preview: Death and Desire at the Circus — “Varieté” at the Coolidge Corner Theatre
Varieté will be the tenth score composed by a Sheldon Mirowitz class and played by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra as part of the Coolidge’s Sounds of Silents® series.
By Betsy Sherman
E.A. Dupont’s Varieté is one of those elusive silent film classics that’s been more heard-about than seen. Boston is a good place to be for silent film fans, yet I don’t know when it was last shown in a theater here. How fitting, then, that its arrival at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Monday, May 2, will have so much to recommend it. It will be the area premiere of a newly restored version of the 1925 film, with the debut of an original score by Berklee students played live by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra.
A tantalizing preview was had on April 21 at the master class “Settling the Score: Composing Music for the Silent Classic Varieté,” given by Berklee Professor Sheldon Mirowitz at the Coolidge’s upstairs theater. Some spoilers were let slip, but it was all in the interest of giving the attendees an inside look at how the score was approached, composed, and will be conducted, by the class of six student composers.
This will be the tenth score composed by a Mirowitz class and played by the BSFO as part of the Coolidge’s Sounds of Silents® series. Dr. Martin Norman and Becki Norman, not long after they co-founded the series in 2007, approached Berklee’s Film Scoring Department about becoming involved. A class called Scoring Silent Films was developed with longtime film composer Mirowitz at the helm. Each group that undertakes the scoring of a silent film, over the course of a 15-week term, consists of about five or six students. The ensemble that plays the score at a Coolidge screening — musicians from Berklee and Boston Conservatory — number about a dozen.
Leaning athletically into a subject matter in which he obviously has a consuming interest, Mirowitz shared his credo that a movie is not just a succession of pictures: a movie is its story, and music must enhance the story. In that way, a silent film is no different than any other film (Mirowitz’s credits include Outside Providence). Each student on a project gets a 15-18 minute portion (or “reel”) that he or she is responsible for scoring. It works out to composing around 2-3 minutes of music per week. There are multiple rounds of in-class critiques and revisions.
This will be the Berklee group’s second tackling of an E.A. Dupont work. An earlier class of Mirowitz’s scored Picadilly (1928), a story set in London’s cabaret world starring Anna May Wong. The 1925 Varieté is another behind-the-tinsel drama, this one squarely within the divinely decadent context of Weimar Republic Germany. It stars one of silent cinema’s most accomplished performers, Emil Jannings (The Last Laugh), and Lya De Putti, with cinematography by the great Karl Freund. The film opens with the Jannings character, circus barker “Boss” Huller, in jail, and unfolds in flashback, showing how the family man entered into a tempestuous affair with a teen girl he and his wife had taken in. Matters are further complicated by a dastardly trapeze artist. When Varieté opened in this country, it was unimaginatively re-titled Jealousy and, in light of the intense and sordid passions it recounted, it suffered at the hands of the censors. Thankfully the original version will now go into circulation.
The building blocks of a film score, said Mirowitz, are similar to those of opera in that the characters each receive a theme. He played recordings of the themes devised for Varieté’s main trio, Boss, the Girl (who has two themes) and the heavy Antinelli. There’s also a circus theme and a theme devoted to Family — that is, the family that Boss leaves behind. Boss, a former trapeze artist, and Antinelli, the current trapeze attraction, each have themes that reflect the repetition of the swinging bar. The Family theme has an intentional flatness and monotony to it, suggesting a motivation for Boss to break free. In stark contrast to those arguably “stuck” elements, the Girl—vivacious catalyst for the tale’s action—is endowed with a theme that has forward movement (she’s identified with the English horn). “We write adjectival music,” Mirowitz stressed. He then showed clips from some of the film’s key moments, to give a sense of how the discrete themes intertwine and clarify the drama. Individual composers’ styles merge into a whole, so the score can produce “emotional payoffs that are earned.”
After the sweat of composition come the butterflies of live performance. Mirowitz showed a video display of Varieté featuring vertical lines that travel across the screen from left to right. These color-coded aids to the conductor are called streamers (a short documentary about this system as used by the Scoring Silent Films class is called Punches and Streamers). The professor gave a nod to one of the headaches inherent in working with silent movies: since they were not shot at a standardized speed (sound films are 24 frames per second), it has traditionally been difficult to keep live music in synch with the images on the screen. Pro-celluloid as he is, he allowed that digital projection has regularized the process. The class gets its computer in line with the projection copy of the film and it’s good to go. Each composer conducts his or her own section of the movie. Surprisingly—speaking as one who’s been at several of these events—the first full performance of a score to the film takes place the morning of the Coolidge show.
In conclusion, Mirowitz affirmed that the program’s goal is “that you don’t notice us. That you leave saying ‘what a great movie,’ not ‘what a great score.'”
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.