Lon Chaney- the man of 1000 faces

Last night Isabella and I went to Davies Symphony Hall to hear Cameron Carpenter in a live accompaniment to Rupert Julian's classic 1925 horror film masterpiece The Phantom of the Opera. Performing his own score on the largest organ in the Americas, there is no doubt Carpenter is a virtuoso performer-  his opening recital of a Bach piece proved that much, even if it was ironically offset by his sprightly, Billy Idolesque appearance. However, his accompaniment for the film (performed, like the Bach, without a score) left much to be desired in many regards. Not that the music was uninteresting or poorly played- it just didn't serve the film more often than not. Many of the big moments of the film (the removal of the mask, the crashing of the chandelier, the ball scene and the crowd pursuit at the end) lacked a certain dramatic oomph which should have been mandatory. I suspect Cameron wanted to steer clear of cliched musical phrases and tropes, but in a film as iconic as this one, cliches are meant to be updated and improved upon, and yes, at times embraced- not shied away from (Exhibit A from the and now for something totally different field is the look on Jack White's face as he's playing "Whole Lotta Love" while seated directly in front of Jimmy Page in the great documentary It Might Get Loud).

Now, I know a lot more about horror movies than I do organ playing, so let's move on to the movie, shall we?

Starring the incomparable Lon Chaney in his most iconic role (though I would argue not his best- that would have to be The Unknown, though certainly there are at least half a dozen contenders from among his 161 films), it always impresses me how well Chaney's films hold up. I hadn't seen this film in at least two decades and after the slow opening I was quickly absorbed in not only the story, but the craftsmanship of Julian's ambitious film making. The sets are absolutely stunning (it was filmed at Universal Studios, not the Paris Opera House), the crowd scenes are huge affairs which must have been a nightmare to choreograph. The camera angles are always dead-on, adding to the drama and the mystery- no small feat because as Cameron noted when he introduced the film, cinema, compared to other art mediums, is still in its infancy- and in 1925 it was barely out of the womb. That we can look back and enjoy so many films from the 1920's says more about the film makers than it does about ourselves- I'm not sure which has changed more in the last 90 years- the culture or the medium, and yet cinema perhaps more than any art form apart from music, is inextricable from the culture in which it's created.

Chaney, who did his own make-up, manages to convey so much through body language, movement, and the small gesture. The object of his desire, Christine (Mary Philbin), is never really more than a representation of desire for its own sake (not that I don't understand that- believe me I do), as we never are given a reason why Erik (the Phantom) desires her or what he sees in her beyond a talent obviously not heard in a silent film. Philbin, like the rest of the cast, is acting in style of the day- that is to say melodramatic without shame and the bigger the gesture the better, though she does manage to convince if for no other reason that she's beautifully captured by the camera. I wouldn't want her, but I can see why Erik would. His particular desire for this woman, with its tragic consequences, is timeless.

The photography is stunning, even if the print the Symphony had was less than optimal. One thing both Isabella and I were unaware of until checking it out later was the color in the film is original- we both though it a Turner-esque, and unnecessary choice, but it was indeed part of the original plan of it all.

To put it plainly, while I could think of more frightening films to watch tonight, this one is well worth revisiting and if you've never seen it consider it a must. The 1929 re-issue had a soundtrack and is probably the more readily available version, but either way I don't think you can go wrong.

The audience (skewing much younger than usual on this night) plainly enjoyed it, and many were in costume for the evening. We were especially intrigued by the last DoDo Hunter and his wife- Little Bo Beep with her sacrificial lamb- guts splayed of course, with their two children in tow. The San Francisco Symphony has presented at least one classic film program each season recently and they've been hugely entertaining and rewarding evenings- I hope they keep it up.