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death_cafe_corvalis_jon_dorbolo_88x31generalTake one of the best silent films ever made – add a custom contemporary soundtrack played live by professional symphony musicians – stage the showing of the film and the musicians in the location where it was produced on the evening of the 90th anniversary of it’s debut – and you get a once-in-a-lifetime event of rare quality.

Saturday August 13, 2016 was the 90th year since the debut of Buster Keaton’s The General in 1926.  The Hollywood Theater of Portland Oregon teamed with the Cottage Grove Historical Society for the showing which launched a tour of showings with the live soundtrack.

Aoife Rose and I toted lawn chairs to join a few hundred film enthusiasts in the Cottage Grove Bohemia park to watch and listen as the magic unfolded in the sultry summer night.  I met people from Los Angeles and New York who travelled to Cottage Grove for this event.  They certainly got their worth out of theiraageneral1a adventure.

The General is a story based on a historical event known as The Great Locomotive Chase which occurred when Union spies stole a train from the Confederate army in Georgia to ride North sabotaging bridges, telegraph wires, and infrastructure in their path.  Drama ensued as the Confederate army pursued the Union spies for 87 miles.

Buster Keaton wrote and directed The General (1926) as a retelling of that railroad battle, with himself as the main character who haplessly becomes ensnared in the struggle and must call on all his courage and loyalty to save the day.

Much of the film was shot in Cottage Grove Oregon – especially the climactic train and bridge collapse.  The town of Cottage Grove is proud of it’s film heritage with includes Stand By Me, Animal House, and Emperor of the North.

While not received well in Keaton’s day, The General has become recognized as one of the best silent films and has been heralded by film critic Roger Ebert as Keaton.-The-General.-Bridge-2one of top 10 movies ever made and ranked 18th on the American Film Institute’s 100 Best American Movies.

The charm of The General for contemporary audiences is in how effectively the silent film may be in telling a story.  Many movies with multi-million dollar budgets and astonishing visual effects don’t come close to the direct emotional impact that comes from Keaton’s masterpiece.

Even more affective was viewing The General accompanied by an original soundtrack played live by the composer and ensemble.  Mark Orton’s composition is uniquely charming from any musical standard.  The music is great and is well worth listening to a la carte.  When paired with the film action, the musical art is enthralling.

Orton emphasized the challenges in composing and performing in synch with a film.  A solo performer on piano or organ can improvise with the film to Buster_Keaton_The_General-train-e1412290735360accentuate moments.  The ensemble, by contrast, must stay in synch and so the score and performance has to be precise so as not to be discontinuous with the visuals.  To my ear and eye every moment was optimal.

You will likely have to wait until the centennial of The General in 2026 to catch the next film-live-soundtrack-outdoor showing.  I advise that it is worth doing and I plan to be there.

Until then, purchase a DVD of The General with Orton’s soundtrack from the Cottage Grove Historical Society.  When it comes to film/art, it does not get better than this.



rachel_259x195The blood, shouts, gun shots, raw fear and frantic chaos of violent nihilistic death took me back nearly 50 years.

At age twelve I was stunned by The Night of the Living Dead which deeply changed subsequent cinema, literature, and culture.

Last night I relived moments of the iconic film at Wait for the Blackout, a one-act drama where the conventions of undead culture played out in the flesh (which did not always remain attached to the human form).

George Romero’s classic depiction of desperate people in a farm house resisting hordes of the zombies smashed numerous social boundaries including parricide, infanticide, cannibalism, racism, and reverence for the dead.

Max Mania’s stage depiction of desperate people in a theater surrounded by undead referenced many of the ideas which have become the staples of zombie cinema.

A successful aspect of Wait for the Blackout is the use of unseen elementswftbo_poster that establishes the enveloping threat. The back stage plays a prominent role as events unseen erupt in the alley as well as the lobby and street in front. Disturbing noises from all round rendered the impending threat very real.  What was outside – whatever it was – would soon be coming inside and that would not be good.

The characters in Wait for the Blackout are the strongest aspect of the play. They are the stage crew for a work in production; all of them flawed personalities.  The effect of this work comes largely from stripping away of the characters social compensations for their flaws as the horror of the moment leaves only their raw vulnerability.  Dora’s cynical facade is corroded by the cascading violence. Rachel’s stoic optimism falters as she encounters situations that she cannot understand or adapt. Daniel makes an interesting transformation from selfish cowardice to resolute stoicism as hope drains.  Alex, the clueless Director, undergoes a more ambiguous change as he loses humanity entirely to ultimately betray his cast. Wait for the Blackout’s players explore these psycho-dramatic subtleties convincingly.

Most of the action was played for laughs and received as such. The humor came from over-the-top effects, references to clichés of the zombie genre and night_of_the_living_dead_trowel_258x239characterizations such as Daniel’s exasperating cowardice.  The film Zombieland used similar devices.  Unlike that film, Wait for the Blackout is punctuated by the abjectly unfunny such as how to treat the corpse of a friend.

Wait for the Blackout’s script had difficulty reconciling the role of the audience.  On one hand the action all takes place in an empty theater as the stag crew works on set design.  Yet as the plot ensues the actors directly address and involve audience as if engaged in a live show – which it actually is but not written as.  Since the players also address the violence that is happening outside the theater, the alternation of speaking forth from the stage is unclear.

The title, Wait for the Blackout, derives from a 1980 song of the same name by the proto-goth/punk band The Dammed.  It includes the lyrics;

“In darkness there is no sin light only brings in the fear
Nothing to corrupt the eyes there is no vision here
At first you may find it strange but do not go away
The darkness holds a power that you won’t find in the day”

In the play the lights fail over time until the power of darkness overtakes every spark of hope. Redemption is lost and those in attendance have become witness only to the doomed and the dammed.

That’s impressively fresh dramatic effect for a genre that has been worked to death.

Image Acknowledgements




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