Silent film accompanist Ben Model talks with Mark Asch
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The L: First of all, how does one become a silent film accompanist? Ben Model: Well, I got into it for the same reason everybody gets into it: It’s a great way to meet girls. I don’t know how you get into something like this. I did it almost out of an act of preservation, because the films were being shown at NYU without any music when I was there, and I had grown up watching these films. It bothered me to watch Fairbanks and Eisenstein and Chaplin just bomb in front of 500 film students every week, and so I started out volunteering, and the following semester I started getting paid at NYU film school, and I wound up playing for two or three classes a week for the next four or five years.
The L: What’s the process you go through for accompanying a film? BM: There are a few different processes. One of them is where it’s a film I know really well and I have some themes worked out, and I can just go in and play for it. A lot of the comedy shorts I know really well because I’ve been playing them for years and years. A second scenario is when it’s a film I’ve not seen before, I will screen it in advance, either in a screening room or on tape, and make some notes on the story, so I can musically anticipate story points and dramatic action, and I’ll come up with a few themes for key characters or dramatic elements in the story, leitmotifs, it’s a device borrowed from opera, and then they’re all woven together through improvisation during the show. A third scenario is one where there’s no way to screen the film in advance, occasionally we’ll have foreign titles that are translated live during the show or not at all.
The L: What’s that experience like? BM: It’s fine. In my mind I’m leaning forward a little bit, paying more attention and trying to guess what’s going to happen next. And the music, it fits the film, but it’s not so incredibly specific that if the film surprises me, the music will be completely out of whack with the film.
The L: Let’s talk about the Roscoe Arbuckle retrospective at MoMa. Is this the largest one retrospective in a while? BM: It’s the most comprehensive. There have been smaller-scale retrospectives, something done over a couple of weekends. But this is certainly the most comprehensive look at his work ever, as far as I know. My role in the retrospective is more than an accompanist, I’m one of the curators, so I see just about everything that we’re showing. It’s 54 films. And there’ll be two or three other accompanists playing, just to break it up.
The L: Do you have any preference as far as what type of film you like to accompany? BM: No, as an accompanist, I have no preference…
The L: As a filmgoer? BM: I don’t know about as a filmgoer, but as a film presenter, my passion is with the comedies, and especially when I work with theaters outside of New York City, which I do a lot. Schools, libraries, museums, what have you, usually, when they’re trying to build up an audience, the best things to start with are comedies. Everybody knows who Buster Keaton is, and people will turn out for that. As a presenter, that’s the way in for me. But as an accompanist, I’ll play anything.
The L: In the time that you’ve been doing this, has the culture of silent movies changed much? BM: When I started, during the 80s and early 90s, silent film was being shown less and less, and then really at some point in the mid 90s, because of the internet, and home video, people were finding these things and telling their friends about it, because, what had happened was, silent film was shown on television, and you could flip through the dial and find it by accident. People don’t know who Laurel and Hardy are anymore because their films aren’t shown on Channel 11 every day after school. And so the way for that to spread was for people who found these things on tape, or had them on tape, to tell their friends by email and create websites, and really in the last ten years, there’s been a steady increase in the DVD market, and with film restoration being “hip” all of a sudden — if you put the words “New Print” on an advertisement, people will show up, even if it’s the same print, just as sharp as the one that’s been floating around for six years, if you say “New Print,” it sounds better.
The L: It ties it to that whole movement of preservation. BM: Yeah, exactly. Saving stuff, and preservation, that’s been the main thing. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, Every year it’s more and more. I average about a dozen shows a month, combined inside the city and outside the city, and the response from schools is great too, because the people who are teachers at these schools saw these films in the 70s and 80s and know what they are. In the past couple years, because silent films have been shown more on cable, people are less afraid, or they’re more open to trying a silent film show, and I’ve found theaters and schools and libraries more open.