The most expensive scene in silent film history belongs to Buster Keaton's The General, the highly acclaimed locomotive obsessed caper about a man and his beloved train (and his fiancé, or whatever) at the breakout of the Civil War. The scene involved a single-take of 500 horse-mounted extras from the Oregon National Guard, a dummy engineer and the very real explosion of a train and bridge near Cottage Grove, Ore. The remaining wreckage in the riverbed below became a local tourist attraction for nearly 20 years until it was scrapped during WWII.
Beat that, Chaplin.
The members of Quasar Wut-Wut, Chicago's self-proclaimed third best band, are well acquainted with the film, they've seen it an estimated 70 times each while writing and scoring the 1926 comedy with Matt Schwarz on guitar and keyboards, Jordan Frank on bass, Brent Sulek on guitar and Tom Giers on drums. The indie rock band and avid film buffs create an astounding ambiance for the black-and-white masterpiece, perhaps developing out of Schwarz's early obsession with silent films.
"There was a Burger King in the town where I grew up (Belleville, Michigan) that was decorated with all these huge film stills of Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, the Marx Brothers and I was just enthralled with them," remembered Schwarz. "They looked so alien to my 6-year-old mind. I saw my first Chaplin short films and I was so blown away. I started staying up real late to see if the Canadian public TV station would play them in the middle of the night."
Years later, after Frank and Schwarz attended film school together, scored several of their own short films and paid homage to the origins of cinema in their video for "Wunderbra," the band was approached by the Block Museum at Northwestern University and asked to score a silent film of their choice and perform it live.
"We took in a lot of great movies during college, but the one that stayed with us was this little silent nugget called The General," explained Schwarz. "We were worried that with a lighter film (The General is a comedy) it might be hard to get the dynamics of mood that we were looking for. We quickly figured out that Keaton's film had an emotional depth that was not obvious at first. I think it may have something to do with it being set during The Civil War. Because he's on the rebel side of the line, there is a tragic undercurrent to his escapades. You're rooting for him in his personal struggle to get his train back, but in the end you know he's on the losing team."
The film had three original scores ranging from ragtime to orchestral. A score by Carl Davis, Schwarz mentions, is particularly epic.
"It's interesting how a different score can really change the experience of a film," said Schwarz. "His score gives the film a heavier, more regal feel. Which definitely works. Ours, for the most part, has a more kinetic, swift-footed feel. Both good, I think, but worlds apart."
Quasar Wut-Wut isn't completely flipping the script, the band keeps elements of traditional melodies and era-appropriate instruments to retain authenticity in the score.
"Ghost-like forms of songs like "Dixie" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" appear in the score, and so do melodies faintly reminiscent of the Tin Pan Alley folks: Gershwin and Porter and company," said Schwarz. "We also employed period instruments like organ, mandolin, glockenspiel and accordion, alongside our electric guitars and drums."
And despite seeing the film nearly 100 times, Schwarz said that Keaton's magnum opus holds up.
"I'm honestly not bored of it, and I really should be at this point. It's a testament to some sort of perfect balance that Keaton achieved with The General. In fact, the entire film is an example of symmetrical construction," said Schawarz. "You have the first half with him chasing after the bad guys to get his train back, then at the balancing point halfway through the film you have a night scene where there's a quiet lull, and then the second half picks up and pretty much mimics the first half in reverse. It's beautiful in its simplicity, but he manages to stuff it with great visual gags, stunts and tricks of the eye. It's my favorite film for all these reasons."
Quasar Wut-Wut score The General
Fri., July 25
Volcanic Theatre Pub, 70 SW Century Dr.