The Sound Behind Silent Films

Each month, Ben Model provides moviegoers with a distinctive experience when he plays live music at the Cinema Arts Centre's "Anything But Silent" series.

Silent films were never really silent—there was usually live music in movie theaters back in the silent era, so in addition to a film, you were seeing a live musical performance.

Each month at the , Ben Model provides live musical accompaniment to silent film classics, performing music he creates on  plays on the Miditzer Theater Organ as he watches the film.

Model started watching silent films on TV when he was growing up and later got private screenings at the home of collector and film critic Walter Kerr, who later wrote the book, "The Silent Clowns."

He got his start in this unusual occupation at NYU where he majored in film production. "I had come to this as a filmmaker as opposed to being a musician and saw an opportunity to play for it, so my approach is both musical and from a filmmaking point of view," Model explained.

Model has a unique perspective on his work. "I try to take the films as seriously as the people who made them," Model said.  "The music acts as a bridge between the silent era and today to help contemporary audiences take the film as seriously as it's meant to be. The idea is to take a back seat and to support the onscreen action or drama or comedy so we enjoy what's up on the screen."

The traditional music that is played at silent films, full of sound effects and song title puns, comes across as "corny" these days, so Model tries to provide a different experience that contemporary audiences will appreciate.

He usually watches the film at least once before a performance and makes some notes to help him prepare.  There is a lot going on in Model's mind when he performs a live score for a silent film. "I am in the present moment watching the film and experiencing it with the audience," he said. "I am also thinking ahead to what's coming next.  I'm also remembering what I did last time for this film or in similar situations and I'm also staying open to my own instincts. That's the advantage of not working from a written score.  I can constantly improve what I'm doing."

The experience of watching silent films is a unique one, especially in this day and age of computers and constant information.  "It's a much more satisfying experience for the audience and for me as well," Model said. "Your imagination is employed.  You're much more engaged.  I think it's more satisfying that you get to fill in all the details." 

"It's hard to put into words but I do know people I talk to after shows who have come to see a silent movie for the first time they always say the same thing: I had way more fun than I thought I was going to," Model added. "And what they're missing out on is the amount of fun that a silent film is whether it's a comedy or a deep, depressing drama or a melodrama or whatever it is, you get involved with it in a way you don't get involved with anything else."

The experience at the Cinema Arts Centre is a unique one for Model due to the variety of silent films that are shown and because at least one silent film is showed every month, as opposed to a festival where so many films are presented in a very short time. 

"It's there and if you can make it, great and if you can bring somebody who's never come, even better," Model said.  "I think that exhibition is an important part of film preservation and the audience participation is part of that as well.  If you bring somebody whether it's a date or kids, you're helping to build the audience for these great films."

The next edition of "Anything But Silent" at the will be on Jan. 25 when it will be showing "Piccadilly" starring Anna May Wong. 


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