Saturday, August 2, 2008

Friday Night at Prospect Park: Charlie Chaplin Shorts, Composer-Conductor Carl Davis & Crooner Christina Courtin at Celebrate Brooklyn

There’s only one more weekend left of Celebrate Brooklyn, and last night we got to the bandshell just in time for a change, before any of the night’s event had started.

In an audience consisting mostly of people who were able to vote for Bill Clinton at least once, our hipster-detector was mostly silent all night as opposed to the constant buzzing the device made during recent shows featuring Deerhoof and Ghostland Observatory.

We arrived just as local state Assembly members Jim Brennan and Joan Millman, casually dressed, were saluting the great Jack Walsh for producing 27 of the 30 seasons of the terrific seasons of Celebrate Brooklyn.

The night’s first performance was by the Juilliard-trained classical violinist Christina Courtin, a member of the young, energetic chamber orchestra The Knights. But she had no violin strings attached ash she did her singer-songwriter thing which has been getting so much buzz.

Christina has recorded an album for Nonesuch that is due in early 2009 and had an EP on sale at the Celebrate Brooklyn general store. She said she lives just a hop, skip and a jump from the bandshell but we bet she just walked over in her nice summery off-white dress.

With songs like the haunting “February” and “Foreign Country,” which manages to be both bouncy and a little smoky, we can understand why Christina’s been compared to both Janis Joplin and Antony in her vocal dexterity. Time Out said she’s “like Norah Jones, but with more brawn,” and her voice was so infectiously engaging that we thought her set was too short.

Christina called the bandshell audience “maybe my most attentive audience ever” but people were enraptured. At first we thought the twentysomething couple in our row were too dense to appreciate her when they got up after two songs, but they soon came back with some fragrant jambalaya-ish dishes from the Two Boots stand and applauded loudly at the end.

During intermission, we a curious sight: a long line of people apparently eager to ride a stationary bicycle that powered a blender making Starbucks Frappucinos. The barista supervising this odd activity would begin by ringing the childish bell on the bike handle and then encouraging riders to pedal ever faster to make the drink foamier and foamier.

To us, this corporate feat seemed akin to getting seventeenth-century Africans to line up excitedly for the Middle Passage or getting people in the Ottoman Empire to volunteer as galley slaves to get their nourishment. Perhaps this is Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s latest brainstorm to cut costs: using caffeine-fueled customers to provide the energy that will increase his company’s profits and stock prices.

If this had been in effect months ago, perhaps the coffee bar chain could have kept one of its four Bay Ridge stores open, thus saving our poor friend Andrew El-Kadi from walking ten extra blocks up or down Third Avenue for his morning latte. At least on a “fender blender,” Andrew’s excess legwork could be put to more productive use making foamy beverages.

After intermission came the night’s main event, featuring the early twentieth century comic genius Christina Courtin called “the night’s other C.C” – Calvin Coolidge. Er, no, we mean Charlie Chaplin, of course. (The way to tell the difference is that when confronted by Keystone Kops, Coolidge does not choose to run but fires all of them for striking.)

The distinguished London-based musical genius Carl Davis – who is not only a Brooklyn native but whose mother in 1937 sat with him in utero under a tree just a few yards from the bandshell – was Chaplin’s partner for the evening as Davis conducted The Knights chamber orchestra in performing the soundtracks he composed for the "Charlie Chaplin Mutuals."

(Carl Davis discusses how he composed these soundtracks on WNYC's Soundcheck.)

Back in 1916 the American Mutual Film Corporation paid the young Chaplin $670,000 to come to Hollywood and produce a dozen two-reel comedies. With near complete artistic control, these twelve shorts rank among the most influential comedy films in cinema, paving the way for Chaplin's later full-length masterpieces.

First up was The Immigrant, such a strong film that Davis says it’s still being shown to new immigrants to America. Shot in 1917, the short begins on the boat to America, and is remembered most for its shot of Chaplin, as the little tramp, and his fellow immigrants as they get their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.

In addition to all the wonderful slapstick and sight gags executed with consummate skill, The Immigrant also highlights Chaplin's social conscience as the little Englishman with the bowler hat and cane wins a card game on his way to America but puts the money into the bag of a poverty-stricken young girl and her sick mother.

Fresh off the boat in New York, a penniless Charlie goes into a café and has to cope with finding some money, losing the money, bullying waiters, and meeting the love of his life by accident.

As Davis has said of The Immigrant, “It's absolutely marvelous, and if I needed the perfect introduction to this form of entertainment that would be it" – leaving unsaid what was obvious to last night’s audience, that Davis’s skillful and diverting score was the perfect accompaniment to the film.

The second Chaplin film, The Rink, is about a roller-skating rink and . . . well, you can imagine. Chaplin’s graceful dexterity on wheels is truly amazing as well as rollickingly funny.

There’s also more funny business in a restaurant (the IN and OUT doors leading to the kitchen provide some wonderful moments), this dining establishment being a more upscale one than the joint in The Immigrant. Chaplin is an inept and feisty little waiter who in his off-hours pretends to be the upper-class Sir Cecil Seltzer, C.O.D., to win the heart of sweet Edna Purviance, who also played his love interest in the earlier short.

The other performers in Chaplin’s stock repertory company are also great, particularly in the roller rink scenes, where tangled limbs combine with tangled relationships. Henry Bergman is particularly hilarious in drag as Mrs. Stout, a flirty matron.

Davis scores each film with such fluency and charm that it seems improvisational, and The Knights were more than up to the task of conveying the music’s versatility and verve. We had to leave before the third and final short, but we’re sure it was as good as the first two.

On our way home, stopping at the Seventh Avenue Barnes & Noble to use the men’s room downstairs, we discovered a party in progress that would last until midnight.

The shindig seemed to be a prom for the early-teen undead in celebration of the release of Breaking Dawn, our Arizona neighbor Stephanie Meyer’s fourth and final book in her cool Twilight vampire-romance series.

It was our first time seeing giggly corsage-wearing vampires posing for Polaroids. Isn’t life wonderful!

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