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Film series highlights new direction for art house theaters

Not-so-silent films, shown with live accompaniment from local musicians, are among the varied offerings at the Gold Town

Posted: November 29, 2012 - 1:01am

Collette Costa, manager of the Gold Town Nickelodeon Theater, is a woman of many passions, two of which are being channeled through the theater’s ongoing “Not So Silent Film Series.” One, obviously, is silent film. The other is keeping the Nickelodeon, and independent cinema houses in general, from going extinct.

It’s tough to run an independent cinema. From what Costa and others tell me, movies are expensive to distribute and show. Theaters do not make money off movies. (Does this qualify as “irony”? I’m never sure.) Conventional movie houses use high concession costs to stay in business. Independent cinema has to go another route.

Costa’s route is to move from “being a 90 percent movie theater and 10 percent special-event venue to being something closer to a 50/50 split.” That means producing new and unusual movie-related entertainment that will entice Juneauites to put down their media devices, brave the cold, and come over to the Nickelodeon for something really special. This shift into “eventizing” the cinema is one that can be seen in art house theaters all over the country, as they struggle to stay relevant — a change Costa considers to be revolutionary.

“It’s like the biggest thing to happen to movies since the invention of sound!” she said.

Sometimes, being new means venerating the old.

Costa has spent years figuring out how to share silent film with Juneau. Then “The Artist” happened.

“(It) was such a smash, I decided to use it as a slingshot for this series ... to give modern audiences a chance to discover how amazing silent films can be,” she said.

Thus the “Not So Silent Film Series” began. Costa’s goal is six to eight shows a year, showcasing a diversity of films. Each show will feature different local musicians. The first in Costa’s series was the old vampire flick “Nosferatu” shown to the musical accompaniment of George and Bridget Kuhar of Playboy Spaceman, who composed an original soundtrack for the film

The next film — to be shown this Saturday — is Buster Keaton’s 1926 classic “The General.” “The General” receives a 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, which lends credence to Costa’s assertion the film is considered by critics to be “one of — if not THE — best silent film ever made.”

Keaton co-wrote and co-directed “The General”. He also performed his own stunts — and broke his neck at one point. The film features “some of the most daring, exciting, unbelievable stunts ever put to film,” Costa said. There were few special effects then. If something crazy happens in the movie, it’s because an actor did something crazy.

“When you see him run across the top of the speeding train, then jump onto a water tower, he actually did it,” she said.

“The General” begins as the Civil War is declared. Keaton plays a southern railroad engineer who loves his train engine named “The General.” Through a series of outlandish situations, Keaton chases a train, thwarts the Yanks and gets the girl. At the time, this was one of the more expensive movies ever made. There are full scale Civil War battle recreations and real trains wrecked. Through it all is Keaton’s trademark deadpan humor and stony face.

Local old-time band Rumblefish will provide the music for “The General,” a pairing Costa said is particularly apt considering that many old-time songs were written during the film’s Civil War-era setting. Rumblefish includes Andy Ferguson, Erik Chadwell, Sergei Morosan, and my daughter’s first grade teacher, Jack Fontanella. In addition to music, they will incorporate sound effects for the movie such as noise makers and percussion, a common practice in the silent film days.

“There was often nothing silent about these movies,” Costa said.

Many people probably assume silent films are dull, dated, and boring. Certainly I was one of those types. I never considered silent film an option until I stumbled upon a showing of “Metropolis” at the Grand Illusion, Seattle’s venerable independent cinema. The film was engaging. It was recently scored by Queen. It wasn’t, as I’d often assumed of silent film, boring.

I am excited to see Costa bring the best of the era to Juneau. She challenges anyone who thinks they do not like silent movies, or thinks they are boring and unwatchable, to come see “The General.” For the sake of silent film, for independent cinema for that matter, perhaps you should take up the challenge.

“The General” shows Saturday Dec. 1 at 4 p.m., 7 p.m., and 9:30 p.m.. Saturday’s 4 p.m. showing will be a Family Show, so bring the kids. The evening shows are all-ages but a no-host bar will be set up with specialty cocktails. Tickets are $15 in advance at Rainy Retreat Books or online at www.goldtownnick.com, or $18 at the door.

• Clint J. Farr can be reached at cjfarr@hotmail.com.

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