Feel like a movie? Sure, you can take in the latest eardrum-ripping Batman adventure or you can sit under the stars and undergo a totally different cinema experience--silence.
For the 10th year, Paramount Ranch in Agoura is the setting for the mini silent-film festival Silents Under the Stars, opening Sunday with "The Beloved Rogue," starring screen idol John Barrymore.
This 1927 classic may be silent, but viewing it won't be. Moviegoers will hear the chirps of crickets and an occasional coyote as the plot unfolds on the outdoor screen at the old movie ranch nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains.
And, as always, composer Michael Mortilla will be at the keyboard of his electric piano, improvising an astonishing range of music and sounds as he watches the film--usually for the first time.
You can see another silent gem alfresco, this one in the courtyard of Ventura's historic Olivas Adobe. On Aug. 9 the city's "Music Under the Stars" series will showcase the 1925 film "Phantom of the Opera."
Don't expect to hear Andrew Lloyd Webber's music--this film long preceded the popular score. But the film will be accompanied by a score written and performed for the event by Dan Redfeld, 26, a composer from Sherman Oaks.
Today's whiz-bang special effects pack in audiences, but the old silent films are still a heavy draw.
"The crowds are bigger than they've ever been," said Randy Haberkamp, chairman of the Silent Society of Hollywood Heritage, which sponsors the Paramount Ranch program with the National Park Service. "People keep coming back and bringing friends."
Sunday's film is the first of two to be shown this summer in the Paramount Ranch's open-sided building known as the Pavilion. It was built by the studio during the 1920s and 1930s when the movie ranch was in its heyday.
The silent films are a chance for parents--or grandparents--to show younger generations another time and style. It's a refreshing break from today's movies, which "all start to look alike," Haberkamp said.
He tries to choose films that are appealing to most viewers, usually adventure stories or comedies, nothing too arty. People generally have the impression that silent films are all "Keystone Cops," he said.
But "they were quite complex," he said. "A great deal of thought and time went into their construction." Depending on where they were shown, the movies might have been accompanied by a single pianist or organist or, in some locations, a full orchestra.
"The Beloved Rogue" is the story of Francois Villon, a 15th-century French poet and wandering thief. Villon, played by Barrymore, matches wits with Louis XI (Conrad Veidt) and in true swashbuckling style romances a damsel in distress (Marceline Day).
The movie, described as a witty romantic costume drama, shows the handsome Barrymore at his best. Known at the time as the "Great Profile," the star was part of the famous Barrymore theatrical family and a major box-office attraction in Hollywood.
The movie starts at 8 p.m. Admission is $6. The second feature, on Aug. 17, is "Casey at the Bat," starring Wallace Beery and ZaSu Pitts.
Fans often come to this popular mini film series as much for the improvisational talents of Mortilla as for the films. Mortilla, a senior musician for the department of dramatic art and dance at UC Santa Barbara, can compose as fast as the movie unfolds.
He credits this knack to his years in New York City as an accompanist for dance great Martha Graham. But music isn't the only sound he creates. With his computerized equipment, he can evoke everything from a baby crying to a whip cracking.
Playing outside has its drawbacks--he swats moths that flicker around his lights. But the biggest hurdle is composing for a movie he hasn't seen. Amazingly, there have been few gaffes in the 10 years he has accompanied the films.
"I've never been totally fooled by a film," he said. There was the comedy he thought was a drama when it started out, and the one he kept thinking was going to end but never did.
"I kept going and going and nothing happened," he said. Even if he can preview the film, there is still not enough time to plot out a score. "But at least you know whether or not the gun is going to go off."
For the "Phantom of the Opera," Redfeld is taking time to compose the entire score--but not much time. "I've got some themes sketched," he said last week. He intends to incorporate music from the opera "Faust" and perhaps include a vocalist for the Aug. 9 performance, along with piano and synthesizer accompaniment.
Of course, opera figures into this famous silent movie. Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, it features Lon Chaney in the role of the Phantom, Erik, the freakish madman and musical genius who lives in the bowels of the Paris Opera House.
Universal Pictures budgeted $1 million for the production, which was state of the art. The ballroom scene in the black-and-white movie was filmed using a hand-tinted coloring process.
Chaney used ingenious mechanical devices to give his face a grotesque look, which isn't revealed to the audience until the movie is half over.
"It was very painful for him," Redfeld said, describing the wire hooks and other devices that gave Chaney's nose a freakish upturn and his eyes a sunken look.
Movie studio executives kept the Phantom's appearance a secret until the movie was released. But, fearing audiences couldn't handle the shock, theaters took extra precautions.
"They stocked smelling salts in case people fainted," Redfeld said.
Silents Under the Stars. "Beloved Rogue," 8 p.m. Sunday at Paramount Ranch, Agoura. (Take the Kanan Road exit off the Ventura Freeway, go south three-fourths of a mile. Left on Cornell Road, go 2 1/2 miles.) $6. (818) 597-9192.
Music Under the Stars. "Phantom of the Opera," 7 p.m. Aug. 9 at Olivas Adobe, 4200 Olivas Park Drive. $8; $6 children. 658-4726.