A Spoon Full of Penis^H^H^H^H^H Audience Makes the Public Domain Go Down

I’ve been working as a photographer for MoMA’s PopRally for the last year or so and it has quickly become one of my favorite live events to work for. Last Tuesday was “PopRally: Silent But Deadly“, and the evening’s entertainment would come in form of comedy from and about public domain films. Max Silvestri, a friend and comedian I booked for a Creative Commons Salon was the MC for the night and started off the evening explaining how he was planning on curating MoMA’s Department of Internet Funny Pictures. Above, you can see him highlighting a photo he found on the Internet of a snow penis made in a pickup truck.

What was so special about Tuesday (besides the fact that I took the time to read the instruction manual for my flash prior to showing up) was that MoMA packed the house showing restored mostly-public domain silent films with live improvised piano accompaniment by Ben Model. If you’ve ever watched a silent film, this should surprise you.

On top of that, MoMA featured awesome remixes of those films afterwards. Having taken a couple of film classes and fancying myself a basic appreciation of the history of photography, I know why silent films are historically important but I’ve always had a hard time actually sitting through them. I’ve occasionally downloaded some from the Internet Archive, but never found them particularly engaging or watchable.

But sitting and laughing with the audience at MoMA, I finally understood the appeal of the silent film — it was the presence of an audience affirming and interpreting the screen that allowed me to enjoy it. Since there was no dialog, we, the audience, had to create and share what we thought was happening on screen with our laughter and reactions.

In other words, you’re not supposed to watch silent films by yourself; they require group dynamics to really come alive. This may apply to contemporary film, and may be a reason year after year, Hollywood still breaks box office records despite panicked proclamations that the sky is falling. Theater experiences are highly rivalrous and I think this PopRally really demonstrates why theaters and real live audiences are still very important.

My favorite part of the evening were the remixes that various comedians were commissioned to do. They make less sense without first seeing the original films (none of which seem available online in their entirety), but here’s one that I think definitely works by Joe Mande:

The Knockout: 15 Years Later from Joe Mande on Vimeo.

If you’re not already signed up for PopRally, do not hesitate to join their mailing list, and buy your tickets early because they almost always sell out.

(The ^H’s in the title of this blog post are explained here.)

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