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‘An Extraordinary Affinity Between Music And Cinema’ At The Silent Movies

Denver Silent Film Festival
Actors Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford in a scene from the 1927 silent film "The Unknown." Its among the films being screened at the Denver Silent Film Festival.

Silent film has a long history in Colorado. The popularity of Wild West themed films meant many were shot here in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But don’t call them old.

“I sort of reject the notion of ‘old movies,’” said Denver Silent Film Festival co-founder and artistic director Howie Movshovitz. “I reject that notion entirely. I think that this is full-fledged, absolute legitimate cinema and when people come and watch it they are knocked out by it.”

Credit Denver Silent Film Festival
Howie Movshovtiz, right, director of the Denver Silent Film Festival.

Now in its third year the Denver Silent Film Festival aims to bring these films back in the spotlight. Once a popular genre, the advent of so-called “talkies” pushed the films and their characteristic piano accompaniment aside.

Some film historians assert piano music, as paired with silent film, was an attempt to drown out the loud whir late 19th century film projectors. Movshovitz said while true to an extent, he posits the music played then was intentionally paired and is as integral to the film as the actors themselves.

Music scores do exist for piano players that accompany silent films. However, Denver-based piano accompanist Hank Troy learned early in his career page turning was not for him.

“It’s too cumbersome to use a score, to watch the movie and look at the score and keep track of where my hands are it’s just too much for me,” said Troy, who is slated to play at the festival.

Instead, Troy opts to improvise, live, as the film - often 60 to 90 minutes in length - rolls. As he played during a recent interview, he recalled films such as The Patsy and The Unknown. He hummed gently and his face jumped with emotion.

There’s appreciation for Troy’s ability from Moshovitz who has worked with him for more than 30 years.

“A mutual friend said what happens when [Troy] accompanies a film is, it goes from the screen, to his eye, and to his heart and then into the piano, and I think that is true,” said Moshovitz.

Whether recalled from memory or spurred on by the films, Troy said he plays music that stirs him in the moment.

“It has never occurred to me to play an accompaniment for a silent film to tell people what to feel,” said Troy. Rather, his goal is to play in “gradations,” to have an intensity of sound that compliments the emotion on screen. “I try to kind of be like the wallpaper.”

If it is wallpaper, it would never be painted over in Movshovitz’s house.

“There is, I think, an extraordinary affinity between music and cinema, as in silent cinema, because they are both wordless and if you see silent film with good accompaniment you feel that connection.”

Arts District is a collaboration of KUNC, RMPBS, and KUVO. Howie Movshovitz is the film critic for KUNC.

A native of Stamford, VT, I call(ed) the Berkshires of western Massachusetts my home. The Berkshires are a culturally rich area -- I’m talking pass the butter and heavy cream -- rich.
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