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Murnau's 'Faust' screens in Santa Cruz and Monterey with a brand-new score

By Scott MacClelland

The screening this weekend of Faust, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's 1926 silent classic, represents a convoluted convergence of unexpected partners, an "alignment of planets" as rare as it is serendipitous. Though the German director's Faust is not as widely known as his Nosferatu, the former gets a higher rating than the latter in popular opinion, according to IMDB.com. That same revered film lover's resource shows that Faust has already attracted at least four contemporary musical scores to follow its scenes and action.

When the film is shown Saturday at the restored Golden State Theatre in downtown Monterey, and Sunday at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz, it will be accompanied live by contrabassist Pietro Lusvardi's Italian ensemble Gatto Marte in the world premiere of a new score composed by Lusvardi. (El Gatto Marte--the Cat Mars--came from the title of a concerto with actor also by Lusvardi.) Now headquartered in London, Lusvardi is no stranger to the Central Coast, having lived in Monterey and played classical and jazz in the area. His band--violin, contrabass, bassoon and piano--will be joined by prominent percussionist Michael Strunk.

Most of Gatto Marte's music begins with improvisation, then is arranged by Lusvardi and polished by his musicians. Their CDs reveal a charm of jazz-inflected chamber music, rich with savory themes, smoothly at ease in its sound world, and sweet, often witty to the ear.

"The music for Faust is completely new," says Lusvardi. "It is easier for us to watch the film several times and get inspiration from it rather than do a collage from our previous compositions."

Some scores for this film were obviously composed scene by scene. "We try not to treat the film like a cartoon and certainly the score is not a running commentary," says Lusvardi. "The score begins with a Cavalcata, matching the scene where the Devil and the other Demons are riding their ghost horses. A second theme starts when the plague arrives in town. Our intent is to describe, underline and emphasize the psychological feeling of the moment. It sometimes lasts several minutes; sometimes the change takes only few seconds. I would say that for Faust it's more like music written for a ballet rather than a descriptive symphonic poem. The dancers are the images and violin, bassoon, piano and double bass are the orchestra."

This collaboration with Faust started with Lusvardi, who has created scores for other silent films in recent years. Anyone familiar with Murnau's Nosferatu already knows the director's talent for gripping cinema in spite of extremely limited technologies. His actors of course do a lot of melodramatic mugging since they are silent. His use of lighting, like his palette of gray tones, is often astonishing. He uses contrast dynamically, sometimes with misty softness, other times with sharply etched blacks and whites. His camera's depth of field for distances achieves a virtual 3-D effect. His close-ups magnify emotional force. Faust has a real medieval tone to it, made supernatural by images of the town under the giant shadow of Mephisto, a metaphor for the plague. The scene of Faust and Mephisto flying from Germany over the Alps to Italy on a cape is a special effects tour de force. This is an unforgettable film, and plainly had a huge influence on later directors.

The screening in Monterey is the first feature film to be shown at the historic Golden State Theatre--it opened in the same year as Murnau's Faust--now restored to its original glory. The occasion will use a restored 33 mm film print, and is produced by Elise Rotchford of Entertainment Concert Promotion of Pacific Grove, who brought the idea to the attention of John Orlando of Cabrillo College's Distinguished Artists Concert and Lecture Series. In turn, Orlando approached the Santa Cruz Film Festival in search of a co-sponsor for the showing at the Rio Theatre--using a DVD restoration--and found a willing partner in Jane Sullivan who sees it as a way to build enthusiasm for next May's festival.

For Orlando, this event draws the current DACL season to a close, right after its annual fundraising dinner and silent auction, Friday, Jan. 21, at 6pm at Holy Cross Parish Hall in Santa Cruz, titled "A Carnival of Venice." Music will be provided by Gatto Marte with Carla Almanza performing ballet that features her collection of Venetian masks. Six of Santa Cruz's best Italian restaurants will offer their cuisine, and five of the best bakeries in town will serve dessert. Tickets are available at the Cabrillo Box Office (call 831.479.6331) for $79 per person. Proceeds support the DACL and the purchase of a new Steinway for Cabrillo College.

Faust will screen Saturday, Jan. 22, at 8pm at the Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey, tickets $20/general, $16/students, available at Bay Books (Monterey), Book Mark (Pacific Grove) & Logos Books & Records (Santa Cruz); and Sunday, Jan. 23, at 7pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, $22/premium reserved, $20/seniors; unreserved $18/general, $14/seniors and students, available at Cabrillo Box Office, 831.479.6331, and Logos, 831.427.5100.

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From the January 19-26, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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