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Ex-"Television" leader Tom Verlaine takes to the stage with original scores for silent films.

Reel Riffs


Visionary guitarist Tom Verlaine is back on the road, but you won't find him hanging with his cutting-edge cohorts from the seminal '70s punk band Television. This time he's touring with some really old artists, the likes of Man Ray, Gregg Toland and Fernand Leger.

The legendary guitarist has composed original scores to seven classic silent films, which he's performing live in select cities. On April 16, Verlaine brings his "Music on Film" to the Byrd Theatre as part of the closing festivities to this year's James River Film Festival.

While the music is pure Verlaine, the idea for the project comes from Tim Lanza. As head of the Columbus, Ohio-based, Rohauer Collection, one of the largest and best collections of film art, Lanza had been producing annual performances featuring regional musicians creating live soundtracks to silent films.

"When I started thinking about a national project," says Lanza, "Tom Verlaine was the first person I thought of. Not only is his work appropriate for films, he's an amazing talent." At the time, Verlaine was thinking along somewhat similar lines; he'd just finished scoring the feature film "Love and a .45" and had enjoyed the change.

"What makes Tom so perfect for scoring films," explains Lanza, "is that he is fantastic at creating moods. He's also incredibly intelligent, much more like a jazz musician than the usual three-chord rock school player."

Once Verlaine signed on to the project, the next step was selecting the films. With more than 600 films and shorts to choose from in the Rohauer Collection, Lanza made the first cut.

"We decided a series of short films would allow him to have a variety of sounds," Lanza says. "So I sent him tapes of possible shorts and he made the final selection."

The seven films Verlaine chose to score are a treat by themselves for any film buff or student. Add to the mix Verlaine's trademark tremolo-filled guitar work and "Music on Film" becomes a crossover hit.

Which is exactly what Lanza hoped. "One of my goals with this national project," says Lanza, "is to introduce — or reintroduce — to audiences who may not have had the opportunity or the inclination to experience silent films. This kind of presentation takes the movies outside of the traditional museum screening or film class discussion in an exciting way."

When Verlaine performs at the James River Film Fest, longtime accompanist and fellow guitarist Jimmy Rip will be there as well. "When Tom and I talked, he told me he had been playing his longer pieces as a duo for about 15 years. While I didn't recognize Rip's name," says Lanza, "I certainly knew his work. He's played on all of Verlaine's solo albums.

"The way it works," Lanza explains, "is that Tom writes the musical structure of the score and Jimmy adds the accents." And those accents prove vital to the scores of several of the films. "In 'The Fall of the House of Usher' there's a woman's piercing wail; that's Rip's guitar. In one of the Man Ray shorts, paper is repeatedly being torn; Rip's guitar also provides that sound."

But don't get carried away with the chance to hear Verlaine and Rip and ignore the films, warns Lanza. "Tom is very adamant that 'Music on Film' is a film program with live music. When the project premiered in Brooklyn, it was billed as something of an evening with Tom Verlaine-type concert and he was very displeased."

Silent But Revolutionary
Seven short silent-films will be screened during Tom Verlaine's "Music on Film." They are:

"The Fall of the House of Usher" (1928) — Based on the Edgar Allan Poe classic, this 12-minute short is by Dr. James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, whom most consider the first truly avant-garde American filmmakers. Reducing the tale to its essential elements, traditional sets and props are nowhere to be found. Instead, settings are suggested by light and the patterns made by folded paper.

"The Life and Death of 9413 - A Hollywood Extra" (1927) — Produced reportedly for $96 and shot primarily in the kitchen of Slavko Vorkapich, this is a satirical fantasy about a man who yearns to be a movie star. Co-written, produced and directed by Vorkapich and Robert Florey with photography by Gregg Toland, this 11-minute film is one of the first to show the influence of German expressionism and the French avant-garde films of the '20s.

"Emak" (1928) and "Star of the Sea" (1928) — These two films by Man Ray demonstrate the artist's strict conformity to surrealism. While "Emak" opens with a series of seemingly unrelated images, a car theme begins to dominate as the film progresses. For "Star of the Sea," Man Ray uses the theme of a love affair to unite all of his surrealistic images.

"Autumn Mist" (1928) — Directed by Dimitri Kirsanoff and starring Nadia Sibirskaya, this 12-minute short seems a visual poem to Nadia's face. A moody, atmospheric piece, it's about a woman who recalls her past. As she burns some old love letters, her memories are shown on the screen.

"Ballet Mecanique" (1924) — The only film by the cubist Fernand Leger, it is considered one of the most influential works in the history of experimental film. Those familiar with Leger's two-dimensional works will instantly recognize the connection to the fragmented and multiplying images on screen.

"They Caught the Ferry" (1943) — Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, this World War II era short was commissioned by the Danish Government. Intended as a cautionary public service film about the unnecessary loss of lives due to reckless driving, the actual film becomes an Impressionist tale chronicling a young couple's race with death.

— M.B.

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