The sounds of silents

My teenage son has entered what I call "the loud years." He has recently grown to favor loud music, raucous basketball games, and raising his voice to make a point.

I find this fascinating. One of Alyosha's sweetest qualities, in my eyes, has always been his "silent center." By this I mean his ability to sit quietly for long periods of time, drawing, snacking, or serenely watching the ocean from a granite perch. During a summer visit to our Maine home, a well-meaning older friend of mine remarked, "Your son is an unusually quiet child."

No longer. He has rushed headlong into teenagerhood, with flags waving and trumpets blaring. There are times when I've thought that softly playing Haydn in the background of our home all these years was for naught.

Thus it was that I received the announcement of an "early classics" film night at the old Bangor Opera House with mixed feelings. At first blush, my heart leapt at the opportunity to be part of an audience watching two cinematic masterpieces: "The Phantom of the Opera," with Lon Chaney, and "The Gold Rush," starring Charlie Chaplin.

And then my elation relented a bit when I considered that Alyosha, who would benefit most from this cultural outing, would resist when he learned that the films were not only black and white, but - gulp - silent.

"What do you mean, 'silent'?" he asked with quickening suspicion.

"They're old-time films," I explained, "made before they knew how to record sound along with the pictures." Alyosha's eyes sparked.

"You mean back in the '60s?"

Clearly, this was a boy in sore need of orientation to the history of film. Before he could raise significant protest, I packed him into the truck, and we headed to Bangor under a cover of light snow. When we arrived at the theater, there was already a modest crowd milling about the lobby. "I don't see any kids," Alyosha lamented.

A moment later, a contingent of teens did show up, albeit a bit older than my son, and he took a modicum of comfort in not being the token representative of his peer group. We took our seats in the almost-full theater and waited for the show.

The wash of conversation that filled the air suddenly faded as the house lights dimmed and the first flickerings of the movie danced on the screen. This is normally where one expects a blare of theme music. Instead, there was the most compelling air of almost monastic quiet as the "short" - a 1910-vintage cartoon - worked its five-minute spell. There we were, a hushed audience watching silent imagery, the only sounds being the click and whirr of the projector. In an age where music - and Muzak - fill every void, from elevators to supermarkets, it was poignant to be part of a crowd where silence reigned.

As the short drew to a close, I sneaked a glance at my son, who was staring at the screen, serenely shoving popcorn into his maw. It was hard to read anything in his eyes yet, but at least he had not bolted for the exit.

"The Phantom of the Opera" (1925) was next. The audience watched attentively as a young man in a red blazer walked up to a piano just beneath the screen. He bowed, took his seat, and waited with the rest of us. Once again, the lights went down and the screen began to glow. But this time, instead of stunning silence, there was a piano trill suggestive of terror. For the next hour the pianist kept his gaze on the screen, following every scene, every mood, every emotional nuance of the film. Never missing a note, he was nothing less than a conductor, and we his instruments.

I continued to steal sidelong glances at my son as he took in the on-screen action. Despite himself, he seemed to be enjoying the film. And he was doing his best to read the dialogue captions.

THE gem of the evening was the Chaplin. For this one, the pianist chose a rollicking, syncopated ragtime theme, which he modulated and embellished as the mood of "The Gold Rush" dictated. In truth, I had feared that this film, moreso than the Phantom, would turn Alyosha off. How, after all, could the quiet antics of a sheepish Chaplin compare with the explosive, contrived humor offered up by television?

As soon as Chaplin appeared on screen - ambling up the side of a snowy mountain in his classic penguin-style waddle - that question was answered. The audience roared from the outset, and if one listened very carefully, one could hear my son's high-pitched, early-adolescent cackle.

As we drove home that evening, I found it remarkable that Alyosha had sat through three hours of silent cinema without a complaint. "Did you have a good time?" I asked him.

"Yeah, I guess," he admitted. "But do me a favor, Dad," he implored. "Don't tell any of my friends."

I readily agreed to respect his need to save face. Having done so, we eased back in our seats and drove home in silence, through the silent night.

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