‘It brings people together’: The General silent film to play at Red River with live music

  • Buster Keaton stars in “The General” (1926), the silent film comic’s epic tale about a Confederate train engineer during the U.S. Civil War. Courtesy of Jeff Rapsis

  • Buster Keaton stars in “The General” (1926), the silent film comic’s epic tale about a Confederate train engineer during the Civil War. The classic adventure movie, rated among the top films ever made of any era, will be shown with live music on Thursday at Red River Theatres. Courtesy of Jeff Rapsis

  • Buster Keaton stars in "The General" (1926), the silent film comic's epic tale about a Confederate train engineer during the U.S. Civil War. The classic adventure movie, rated among the top films ever made of any era, will be shown with live music on Thursday at Red River Theatres. —Courtesy of Jeff Rapsis

  • “The General” stars Buster Keaton in a role where he must steal back his locomotive and his girlfriend. Courtesy of Jeff Rapsis

Monitor staff
Published: 8/22/2018 4:35:23 PM

If you haven’t seen a silent film with live musical accompaniment, then you haven’t really seen a silent film.

That’s what Jeff Rapsis wants people to know before they go see Buster Keaton’s The General at Red River Theatres on Thursday.

Rapsis, of Bedford, has been accompanying live showings of silent films with his keyboard and digital synthesizer for about 10 years. He does 120 performances a year to Charlie Chaplin, Fritz Lang and Rudolph Valentino all around New Hampshire and New England.

When silent films were made with force in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were always shown with live music – usually a full orchestra, Rapsis said. With his keyboard, Rapsis said he is able to recreate that sound, giving viewers the full silent film experience.

Rapsis said he does this in hopes that viewers will enjoy silent films as much as he does.

“I find that with the films from that time when there was no dialogue, the impression most people have is that it’s a primitive time from the past,” Rapsis said. “I always felt different about it. For me, in silent films there is no shortage of emotion and energy and drama and creative excitement.”

‘The General’

Keaton’s Civil War railroading adventure film, The General, is largely lauded as comic moviemaker’s masterpiece, Rapsis said.

The General, set during the U.S. Civil War, tells the story of a southern locomotive engineer, played by Keaton, whose engine, The General, is hijacked by Northern spies with his girlfriend onboard.

Keaton, commandeering another train, races north in pursuit behind enemy lines in an attempt to rescue his lover and recapture his locomotive in time to make it back to warn of a coming Northern attack.

Rapsis said Keaton’s use of creative stunts, camera angles and authentic period detail make The General a stand out in its time.

Keaton was especially ahead of his time in his approach to camera work, Rapsis said. While most silent film stars of Keaton’s time used straight-on indoor shots, Keaton was one of the first to bring the camera outdoors and use other angles.

Rapsis said this approach to film inspired much of modern filmmaking. Because of this, Keaton’s films still feel relevant to viewers today.

“He made films that have a comedy that is timeless and still works today, 100 years later,” Rapsis said.

A communal experience

Silent films were not made to be watched alone, Rapsis said. In order to fully appreciate a silent film, audiences have to watch them with others.

“You can watch them curled up at home with your dog, but to understand why everyone was so excited about these movies back then, you have to put the whole scene back together with the big screen, live music and, most importantly, the audience,” he said.

Rapsis said silent films were designed to specifically be experienced by large audiences. They were a huge form of popular culture in their day, he said, one that a modern audience can learn a lot from.

“Today we spend a lot of time consuming media on our own, and we’re all kind of isolated,” Rapsis said. “Silent film was an art form that flourished 100 years ago and was to meant bring people together. It’s more important now than ever that we find avenues that enable us to do that.”




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