Thursday, October 13, 2011

Contractions of a Nation: The Worst Theatre Experience of My Life

So, a funny thing happened the other day. Actually, it was really more tragic than funny. Anyway, last week I had gotten wind of a theatrical showing of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (for those who don't know, Birth of a Nation is a monumental, and somewhat controversial silent film, which has become synonymous with that era of Hollywood). Details on this showing were few, save for the time, the place, and the promise of a live orchestra. Well, naturally, a film fan couldn't pass up that offer: an epic silent feature on the big screen... with live music? It'd be just like seeing the film at a picture palace when it was first released, I said to myself.

I must admit there were some puzzling things about this bulletin right from the start though. The event was scheduled to start at 6:00 pm and end at 7:30. Now there had been several different versions of this film (what with different home video releases through the years, the old frame-rate problems that always crop up with releases of silent cinema), so at first I thought it was just a different cut. I had never heard of a 90 minute version of the film before, but, oh well, I thought. I had to see this movie on the big screen. truncated version or no.

So, I made arrangements, invited a friend, called the theatre to double check the times, and then sallied forth to go see this epic film. There was some pretty heavy traffic on the way, and I ended up running late... 15 minutes late. I got to the location, hopped from the car, friend in tow, and ran into the theatre. The production hadn't started yet. After asking around I discovered I had been misinformed. The production started at 6:30. I was 15 minutes early. This was a nice twist. I got to find my seat, relax, wait for the movie to start, catch up with my friend on what he's been up to... and then, the orchestra filed into place; not a large affair. There was a cello, bass, two clarinets, a flute, drums, guitar, euphonium, trumpet, and piano... about what I expected.

So, the conductor walks out in front of everyone.

"Hello, and welcome to tonight's musical presentation." (What?) "Today we are going to be showing some scenes from D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation" (I'm sorry, what?) "with both the original score and new music composed by some of our promising music students." (Wait... WHAT?) "Now we are obviously not going to be showing the complete film tonight. That movie is over three hours long."

At this bit there was some "knowing" laughter from the audience, as if to say "Yeah, who would EVER want to watch a 3 hour silent movie?". So, yeah, there wasn't any Birth of a Nation screening. In fact, the thing was pretty much a music recital. We did get to see three scenes from it though, each about 2 and a half minutes in length. And the guy manning the laptop they were playing the DVD from clearly didn't give a crap either. He left the cursor right in the middle of the screen for most of the presentation.

Anyway, the conductor continued his introduction, talking a little about the movie we weren't going to see, and then went on to talk about the film's original score. Said score, composed by Joseph Carl Breil, was, while perhaps not being the greatest thing ever composed for the screen, really a great soundtrack, and added much to the visuals. So naturally the conductor cracked jokes about how Germanic it sounded, calling it "Strauss-lite".

So, yeah, we sat through through three rescored scenes, politely applauded the unremarkable new music, and drove home in the rain. Thankfully, Netflix had Birth of a Nation on instant watch, so we did get to see it that night, just not in the grandeur we so dearly anticipated.

End of line.

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