To a packed house, of mostly older filmgoers, the Alloy Orchestra performed musical accompaniment to the classic Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera. Personally, I am a bit confused as to which version of the film was played. Perhaps it was the 1925 version or the 1929 version. Rumors were spread that perhaps the Boston based band had re-worked the film to best suit their music, but I could find no proof of such speculation, nor do I have the time or desire to track down the real story or compare multiple versions of the film. I have always found the Phantom of the Opera to one of my least favorite horror/macabre stories. Brian DePalma’s tongue-in-cheek rock opera Phantom of the Paradise is my favorite reworking of this much told tale. I could personally care less which version of the film was being projected or if the band had tinkered with the editing. I’m normally a purist, but I know that most film historians will agree that there is no definitive version of this film.
Telling the story of a ghoulish figure that lurks beneath the Paris Opera house in a lair of catacombs dating back to a less civilized time, this early version of the film does little to explain the Phantom’s origin or to portray him as a spurned musician – a characterization that has now become classic. The Phantom’s support and longing for a young understudy propels the plot. First he eliminates her professional competition and then he strong arms her into ditching her lover. Of course, once she learns what lies behind the Phantom’s mask she’ll do anything to free herself from his grasp. The Phantom has some right to feel spurned, having helped this woman with her singing and getting her the lead in Faust only to find out that love is not blind. Of course, the Phantom’s evil ways, his the deadly traps and torture devices make him patently evil and Lon Chaney revels in this sinister portraiture.
The films use of Technicolor, the two-strip variety, for one particular sequence makes for an interesting, if not flawed moment. During a masquerade ball the Phantom, dressed as red death makes his way down the grand staircase of the opera house. Today, the sequence seems showy and out of place, pure spectacle. Far more effective are the moments when only a portion of the image has been hand-tinted, like the Phantom’s cape as he stands a top the opera house’s roof. The bold use of Technicolor comes as a abrupt shock, especially to an audience so familiar with color. Once it might have been reason to get people into the seats, now it just makes people fidget in their seats as they wonder why the film jumps to color for one brief segment. Today, it takes musical accompaniment to get people to pack a theater.
The Alloy Orchestra does a very good job of adding their own touch to a film and bringing a silent work to life. Purists may complain that they are deviating too far from an original score, but most people in the audience are not purists and Alloy Orchestra never proclaims to be pure. They are performance and their performance packs the house. I am certain that a simple projection of The Phantom of the Opera would not draw such a crowd, not even over a week long run. That’s the sad state of silent cinema in America. For all the purists in the world and all the so-called film fans who decry the death of cinema and the death of film, few are willing to venture outside their home to see a film projected.
Then there are those who come out, but seem to have little or no respect for old films, performing artist, or other film-goers. I’m a huge fan of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, mainly because I had already seen a lot of the films they tear to pieces and I’m continually impressed with the depth of their pop-culture miscellany. However, I cannot stand it when someone feels that the only appropriate response to any old film is to pretend that they are trapped aboard Satellite of Love. These yuckity-yucks forget that the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) have watched a film many times over, they have worked and reworked jokes, and they have scripted everything out, timing it all perfectly. They are not just trying to impress their knucklehead friend with a breadth of cultural knowledge that extends back to 1982 and doesn’t stretch past television, movies, or music. Still, this seems to be the general response of so many attention starved yokels. I’m all for this sort of fun, inter-active film viewing when it’s you and your friends in the comfort of your own home or maybe at a dollar theater (if any still exist) where you are willing to pay back everyone else in the theatre who may not want you ridiculing the latest Ashton Kutcher masterpiece. But, why would anyone do this during a classic silent film, especially one with live musical accompaniment? You had to pay extra for the ticket. Sure, nine dollars isn’t much, so maybe they should up the ticket price to persuade people to shut up or stay at home. You don’t hear people heckling the opera. Hell, you don’t even hear people heckling a high school performance or a kid’s ballet recital and those are full of laughable events. So, why the disrespect for old films? Is MST3K to blame? Or are the idiots who can’t tell the difference between live performance and recorded television program to blame?