Phil Serling on the Cinefest Pianists
In last month’s issue, Offscreen published what might be considered Phil Serling’s last interview, conducted in March 2001. Serling was the founder of Cinefest film festival and responsible for running this entire event every year since 1980. In March 2000 (during Cinefest 20), while preparing a documentary on film music composer Gabriel Thibaudeau, Phil Serling was proud of commenting on one of his favorite film accompanist in the following interview. The context for this interview was Thibaudeau, but it also made me realize how much admiration Phil Serling had for the art of musical accompaniment as well as his sincere and profound interest for silent film and people –just like him- who were still trying to revive the silent cinema and make it as immortal as it was during the Silver Era.
First of all, can you tell us what makes your festival so special?
The Cinefest is an international film festival held every March here in Syracuse and we have people who will come, hopefully, from all over the world to see our films. Basically what we are into is showing rare films, silent films and early talkies. And people come and they sit and they watch. It’s continuous film screenings. From 9 o’clock in the morning until 1, 1 :30 the next morning, then they start again at 9. On the Saturday we do 35 [mm] screenings at the Loew’s Landmark Theater, a 3000 seat restored movie palace. We all bus down and watch 35 mm films provided usually by the George Eastman House and the Library of Congress. Generally the other films that are shown, a lot of them are provided by the Library of Congress, the George Eastman House, Columbia Pictures and a lot of private collections. The private collectors are very good to us and consequently we can show films that you won’t ordinarily see any place else, much less on television or on video. So it is sort of a unique situation here, a unique kind of festival. The New Yorker Magazine calls us “the unknown film festival” because we don’t advertise. People come, it’s generally word of mouth, and if you come you come here to see films. And of course there is a lot of camaraderie, people see their friends and there is networking going on, deals being made and things like that, but it’s all part of a whole lot of fun and we enjoy doing it. And we have been doing it rather successfully, I think, for the last twenty years! Hopefully we can do it for another twenty years.
How would you qualify the musical accompaniment of the silent films shown here at Cinefest?
Well, a very strong part of it is that we are very fortunate of having three of the greatest musical accompanists, I think, in the world with us : Jon Mirsalis, Phil Carli, and Gabriel Thibaudeau. These are the three best. It does not come any better. There are a lot of – maybe – better musicians than they, bigger names, but these people can’t sit down and play a film, a silent film, having never seen it before and sitting there cold and just playing. It’s a very difficult thing to do. And these people are masters, literally, they are masters of what they do, playing for a silent film that they may not have seen before –which is required- because many of the stuff we show, or most of it, are films that they have never seen before. So it takes quite a bit of a talent, we think, to do that. Because silent films were never made to be shown silent, and we do not show silent films “silent” ! They must have an accompaniment. And the least we can do is a good piano with a great pianist and that’s what we try to do here every year.
In October 1999, one of these three pianists, Gabriel Thibaudeau, conducted the Octuor de France ensemble at the 37th New York Film Festival during the film screening of Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928). Do you sometimes attend such special events ?
Yes. As a matter of fact, I went down to the Lincoln Center in New York City. Gabriel Thibaudeau was doing The Man Who Laughs with an orchestra and I went down to see it, which was quite an experience. It happens also that The Man Who Laughs happens to be my favorite silent film. That helps, of course..! But Gabriel wrote a marvelous score and conducted a – I think it was a 12 piece orchestra – but they sounded like a lot more. They sounded bigger, much bigger, and it was a gorgeous score. And it’s the way films should be shown, you know. If it was up to me, I would love to show all my silent films with an orchestra. It’s prohibitive, I mean you can’t do it, because of the money… But every once in a while something special comes along like Gabriel doing The Man Who Laughs. It was just extremely special and I could not wait to go down to New York to see it. And many of the people that we know from New York also went down to see it. As I recall, I think he did two performances and sold both of them out. Wonderful, just absolutely wonderful !
What about the other festivals that you attended through the years ?
Well, I have tried to attend our sister festival, the one in Pordenone [in Italy]. Of course, it’s a little more extensive than what we do. But it’s also the same thing and there, generally, it’s all silent films. Where the only difference with us is that we throw in some early talkies. And I have been to some of the others: the Cinecon (it’s in Hollywood), and there is one in Columbus (Ohio) and there is one in Sagenaw (Michigan). As I say, ours is a little different, because of the fact that we don’t have stars. In the Cinecon, in Hollywood, they have a lot of stars and I think it’s, you know, it’s wonderful… It’s just that it’s not our thing. Our thing is the showing of the films and we don’t want the stars to get in the way ! [Laugh..] I mean, there is nothing wrong with the stars, it’s great, it’s wonderful, it’s just not our thing, that’s all ! That’s the difference between us and a lot of the other film festivals that are around the country. Or other festivals will show Wizard of Oz or Citizen Kane or things like that. We are not interested in that kind of thing. We would not show films like that. Again, ours is based on unique, rare films and we sort of build our reputation on that and that’s what we do here. And as I said so far we have been doing it for twenty years and hopefully we can do it a couple of more years.
But when we attend your festival, we are in fact surrounded by « stars ».
That’s true. Yeah. A lot of people feel that the stars are the pianists, and also we have Leonard Maltin of Entertainment Tonight who does the auction, these are who you might consider stars. But the films are the stars and the people who play for them are stars –if you want to call them stars – and people like Leonard Maltin who come from California and the people who come from all over the world. But it’s a very unique type of situation because we don’t consider that. We consider ourselves old friends and we can’t wait every year to get together here in March in Syracuse.