Monday, July 26, 2010

Silent Films for the 21st Century

The earliest origins of Hollywood's silent film era can be traced to a pair of studios at Sunset & Gower (Nestor Studios, 1911) and Selma & Vine (1914, Lasky-DeMille Barn). So it seems only fitting that the intersection where Rex Harsin was inspired to make Haphazard Happenings with Purdie and Friends was the slapstick stone's throw location of Sunset & Ivar.

That's where the now 26-year-old Tupelo, MS native attended a one-year program of classes at the Los Angeles Film School in 2004-2005. Intriguingly, his initial enchantment with the characters and storytelling techniques of such stalwarts as Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy came not in the classroom but via the Los Angeles Public Library system.

A film school launched by Thom Mount

"I primarily was getting DVDs from the [downtown] L.A. Central Library," Harsin explains during an interview with FilmStew. "It was only two train stops down from my apartment and they had the best collection. I visited the Hollywood branch as well; everything was free."

Unlike most people who try to duplicate the vintage look of old silent films when revisiting the non-dialog format all these years later, Harsin brings an unabashed modern flavor to his feature film and pair of shorts, scheduled for initial screenings this weekend in Oxford (July 29), Tupelo (July 30) and Memphis (July 31). Just about all the action is in color, with no attempts made to disguise any of the 21st century props.

"I do not remember ever wanting to do a vintage look and style," says Harsin. "I'm an antique kind of guy, but I like old things done new. You're never going to connect with an audience if they're constantly bombarded with a style they are not familiar with or can't relate to. You need a foundation, and that foundation is this case is our world, modern times. All I really want to carry over from the silent era is the way they told stories."

A Purdie dilemma

"I received a lot of knowledge and encouragement from some of the L.A. Film School staff, including John Hora (cinematographer on The Howling), Donn Cambern (editor, Easy Rider) and in particular Jeff Young (author, Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films)," he adds. "Mr. Young was and is a particularly strong influence on me."

Sporting a get-up that was clearly inspired by Johnny Depp's Benny and Joon, Harsin prances around as Purdie to the strains of piano, banjo and string soundtracks in 12-minute A Hole in the Bucket, 20-minute Classified Love and 25-minute Girl Trouble. All three films are being screened along with musical entertainment under the heading "Live Silent Film Shows."

Of course, another reason for shooting a film without dialog is that it greatly reduces the production overhead. However, given some enthusiastic early local reviews, subsequent screenings set for Tennessee and future Haphazard Happenings episodes already in production, that part of the equation is quickly mattering less and less.

"I have no L.A. show scheduled right now, but we're getting there," says Harsin. "Purdie started in L.A. and I'd like to take him back there soon."

[Haphazard Happenings with Purdie and Friends]

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