At 8:30 pm on Saturday, May 24, Buster Keaton’s silent comedy-adventure The General will show outdoors at a rather unusual venue for a night at the movies–the Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery at Lake Street and Cedar Avenue. The event, a fundraiser for the historic cemetery, is part of the Cinema in the Cemetery series, co-presented by Take-Up Productions, the Trylon Microcinema, allstarvideo.org, and the Friends of the Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery.
Local musicians Dreamland Faces will accompany the film with a live, original score, and food trucks will be on hand to stave off moviegoers’ hunger pangs. Admission is $8 in advance, $10 at the gate, with advance tickets available at take-up.org. Holders of Take-Up Discount cards get free admission but pay $2 for the music. Children under 12 are free, but donations from all attendees are appreciated. Gates will open by 7 pm. The event’s rain date is May 31.
The General may be almost ninety years old, but it’s the kind of timeless movie that draws viewers in whether they’re seeing the film for the first time or the dozenth. As critic Gary Giddins once wrote of The General, “Yeah, it’s silent. So what? You’ll barely notice. It’s that good.”
Keaton’s film tells the story of Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer who gets turned down by the Confederate army because he’s more valuable as an engineer. His girlfriend Annabelle and her family assume Johnnie’s a coward, but he proves himself when Northern saboteurs steal his beloved train The General and accidentally kidnap Annabelle. While making the film, Buster Keaton reportedly urged his film crew to make the film’s period details “so authentic it hurts.”
The Civil War-themed film is an especially fitting choice for the event’s location. The Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery, established in 1853, is one of the oldest integrated cemeteries in the United States, with abolitionists, Civil War veterans, and prominent early Minneapolitans buried side by side. Funds raised by the Cinema in the Cemetery events go toward restoring the cemetery’s steel picket and limestone fence and replacing graves that have become illegible or cracked. The night of the film, the cemetery will feature a smart phone history hunt for visitors to learn more about the cemetery’s important role in Minneapolis history.
The Cinema in the Cemetery series was the brainstorm of John Moret, a programming volunteer at Take-Up Productions’ Trylon Microcinema at 3258 Minnehaha, not far from the cemetery.
Moret was walking past the cemetery on Lake Street one evening in spring 2013. The sun was about to set, casting the cemetery in a dramatic, slightly eerie light. It struck Moret that the cemetery would be an amazing place for an outdoor film showing.
Historian Sue Hunter Weir, a longtime cemetery advocate and volunteer with the Friends of the Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery, was immediately receptive to the idea. The cemetery had also hosted concerts headlined by Jeremy Messersmith and Low, so a movie series didn’t seem like too big a leap.
“If you think of the cemetery as an outdoor museum,” Sue Hunter Weir says, special events like movie showings and concerts are a great way to entice people in. “You’re inviting people to come in and learn about their city,” Hunter Weir observes, adding, “It is a fundraiser for sure, but even if it weren’t, I’d still want to do it, because it brings people into the cemetery.”
The series kicked off in October 2013 with a showing of the 1932 Spanish language version of Dracula. The original event had to be postponed for a week due to spookily appropriate rain, lightning, and high winds, but the rescheduled showing managed to attract about 250 people.
Aaron Hanauer, a Minneapolis city planner and volunteer who’s worked on grant proposals for the cemetery’s restoration, says the events help show potential funders that people care about the cemetery and that it is still a vital part of the community. He notes that though there were a few people who felt that holding concerts and movie events at the cemetery was disrespectful, positive responses have far outweighed negative ones.
According to Sue Hunter Weir, holding a festive public event at the cemetery on Memorial Day weekend is actually quite historically appropriate. At the turn of the century, Hunter Weir notes, it was common for families to take picnic lunches to cemeteries on Memorial Day and spend the day tidying up loved ones’ graves, relaxing together while remembering those who were gone. Hunter Weir says many of those traditions fell away in the wake of the bitter controversies of the Vietnam War.
Hunter Weir believes events like Cinema in the Cemetery bring back some of the old atmosphere of festivity and remembrance, as well as offering a bit of the feeling of going to a drive-in movie and watching a film under the stars.
This particular screening carries on another almost lost cultural tradition–the tradition of live musical accompaniment with silent movies. In the early days of films, live music was an expected part of every moviegoing experience, whether the music came from a full orchestra or a lone musician plunking away on a standup piano.
Accompanying a silent film is an art form of its own, with its own unique challenges. Over the last ten years, Andy McCormick and Karen Majewicz of Dreamland Faces have collaborated on scores for over fifty silent films, including several films by Buster Keaton. They perform at screenings across the Midwest, incorporating accordion, upright bass, piano, and musical saw into their scores.
They’ll be joined at the May 24 Buster Keaton showing by percussionist Ryan Billig and cornetist Philip Potyondy.
For McCormick and Majewicz and their collaborators, creating a score for a silent movie involves many hours of composing and plenty of re-viewings of films.
“We spend a lot of time mapping it out really closely,” Karen Majewicz explains. She uses spreadsheets to track recurrent musical themes and plan out how to musically complement a film’s dramatic and comic high points. At the same time, the band leaves plenty of room for spontaneity, since every film showing is a little bit different. “It has to be looser than my spreadsheets might indicate,” Majewicz admits with a laugh.
Moviegoing has become an increasingly private activity, with people investing in their own home projectors and big screens. For John Moret, part of the appeal of the Cinema in the Cemetery series is that it revives the communal feeling of early moviegoing, creating that communal experience in a one-of-a-kind setting.
As Moret puts it, “It’s nothing you forget, watching a movie in a cemetery.”
And for any prospective moviegoers who find the idea of watching a movie in a cemetery a bit spooky, Sue Hunter Weir offers a little reassurance about the cemetery’s denizens.
“These are nice ghosts,” she says, “and they know that we’re coming here to take care of them.”