Screening Santa 

Silent/Music Revival explores the jolly one with Paint On It.

click to enlarge A still image of Santa getting toasty from “The Night Before Christmas” (1956), one of the silent short films being played this Friday with music from Richmond band Paint On It.

A still image of Santa getting toasty from “The Night Before Christmas” (1956), one of the silent short films being played this Friday with music from Richmond band Paint On It.

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A special holiday edition of Silent/Music Revival will feature a collection of short silent films designed to help viewers get acquainted with a certain jolly red icon. Or at least how he was perceived a century ago.

"Every film has an appearance from Santa Claus," says Jameson Price, who programs the Revival, a free screening of silent movies now a regular attraction at Basic City Beer Company in Manchester. "We think of Santa as this commercial kind of thing, but there's so much mythology built around him. I'm asking audiences to wear new lenses while viewing this tradition."

Silent/Music Revival's Dec. 16 compilation of short silents will showcase the many sides of Santa, from a 1907 vignette, "A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus,'' to his otherworldly appearance in a 1930s stop-motion animation trailer. "The films will have playful moments but also stuff that seems weird to us now, especially the stop-motion animation. Watching with a modern eye, it can seem a little creepy."

The Revival pairs its vintage silent films with on-the-spot scores from local musical performers in all genres. Since he started the program in 2006, Price has enticed some of Richmond's top music-makers to supply live soundtracks, from Miramar and Ohbliv to Kenneka Cook, Yeni Nostalji, Rattlemouth, Toxic Moxie and Price's own drone-folk outfit, Lobo Marino, now Holy River. "A Collection of Holiday Shorts" will feature the music of Paint On It, formerly the Billy Bacci Band. "They are an indie rock group with songs that contain a lot of tongue-in-cheek references," Price says. "They also perform Christmas songs occasionally so these holiday films are a perfect match for them."

click to enlarge Richmond band Paint On It.
  • Richmond band Paint On It.

No peeking beforehand

There are rules to Silent/Music Revival. The bands don't see the film in advance - it's as new to them as it is to the crowd. For that reason, Price often advises players not to try to strictly improvise to the action on screen. The delayed reaction can feel clunky.

"All of the events have been magical," he says. "But the ones I've liked the best are the ones where the band plays songs that they are already good at playing, and then moments in the lyrics or the music just happen to sync up in a new way with what's on screen." This approach is fun for the audience too, he adds. "The fans of the performer have an opportunity to experience the songs in new ways and make new memories with them."

The Revival, for years a fixture at Gallery5, survived the upheaval of COVID in 2020 by going virtual. Price, who first staged the event in his home with a film projector, handed over the reins to others for a time when he was traveling. What's made Silent/Music Revival such a consistent treat is his expert curation.

click to enlarge “ A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus” (1907)
  • “ A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus” (1907)

Over the years, Price has programmed many acknowledged "art of film" classics like "Vampyr," "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," and "Un Chien Andalou" along with rarely screened movies by early fabulist Georges Méliès. There have been experimental works by Maya Deren and Man Ray, and numerous early animated films. One favorite pairing, he says, was a 2014 screening of the 1930 Paul Robeson mixed-race drama, "Borderline," with reggae band Mighty Joshua providing the score.

Some films, like these holiday-themed silents, are extremely hard-to-find, even on YouTube. To locate the impossibly rare, Price has to call in the big guns - namely Coleman Jennings of the nonprofit James River Film Society, which sponsors the Revival. "He's brilliant about finding old films. I'll do the research and write down the titles and Coleman will help me track them down."

All Revival screenings are free, with a suggested donation. There's a reason for that, Price says. "These films being shown are in the public domain but that doesn't mean I get to charge people to see them. That's not really legal." All of the donated money goes to the band, he stresses.

The whole point of Silent/Music Revival is to expose new audiences to silent cinema, Price says. "Our event may be turning someone on to silent movies for the first time. And who knows? Maybe they'll be interested enough to want to see more."

Silent/Music Revival's "A Collection of Holiday Shorts (1913-1932)" w/ live score by Paint On It will be held at Basic City Beer Company on Friday, Dec.16 at 8 p.m. 212 W 6th St. in old town Manchester. 447-4735. The event is free with a suggested donation.



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