Classic science fiction film finds a new life and a new score at Arts Center


Special to the Journal-World

A scene from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, “Metropolis.”

Past Event

Film: "Metropolis" with music by Alloy Orchestra

  • Monday, October 4, 2010, 7:30 p.m.
  • Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St., Lawrence
  • All ages / $18


It’s a chance to go back in time and be catapulted into the future, at the same time.

That’s the juxtaposition of “Metropolis,” an influential 1927 silent film set in a futuristic city.

“There are all sorts of things that owe their ideas to this movie,” says Mick Ranney, a Lawrence film buff who owns the Footprints shoe store. “‘Blade Runner’ comes to mind. ‘Star Wars’ and other things all trace elements back to ‘Metropolis.’”

So when Ranney had the opportunity to bring a “new” version of the film to Lawrence — complete with a three-piece band to accompany it — he decided to see whether a silent film could be a big draw.

That event, which Ranney hopes will be the first of many Footprints-sponsored film screenings, is at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Lawrence Arts Center. The Boston-based Alloy Orchestra, known for its use of a synthesizer and eclectic percussion instruments, will accompany the film.

“There’s nothing like ‘Metropolis’ out there,” says Ken Winokur, a percussionist with the Alloy Orchestra. “It’s one of the great science fiction films.”

At the time of its filming, “Metropolis” was both the most expensive movie ever made and had the largest cast, with about 36,000 actors taking part. Austrian-American director Fritz Lang filmed the movie in Germany.

The film is based in an art-deco city of the future, with layers of highways. The city is sharply divided between two classes of people — the “thinkers,” who plan and manage the city, and the workers, who make a more privileged life possible for the thinkers. One of the thinkers visits the underground area where the workers live and meets a woman, who predicts there will be a savior to mediate between members of the two worlds.

Despite its cost and scale, “Metropolis” was basically a flop in Germany. Paramount Pictures picked up the rights and slashed the 2 1/2-hour movie by about half an hour. That, Ranney says, made it disjointed for decades, and the original prints were lost.

“It’s like 25 percent of its continuity that’s, like, ‘Poof!’” he says. “It’s like the holy grail of filmmaking.”

That was until a few years ago, when an original version of “Metropolis” was discovered in a museum in Buenos Aires. Finally, “Metropolis” is back to its original story line.

And that opens up the possibility of watching the original movie in the way it was originally intended — with live accompaniment.

“Watching it on TV is not the same experience it was designed to be,” Ranney says.

The Alloy Orchestra has been touring the country to accompany the new version of “Metropolis.” It’s the film the group first convened to accompany in 1990, and members have repurposed their original score to accommodate the extra half-hour of footage.

“The philosophy for us is we support the film,” Winokur says. “We try to explicate the vision the director had. Of course, none of them are around to tell us right or wrong, so we can assume we’re correct.”

Winokur says the audiences are gradually changing from what they were in the early 1990s.

“When we first started 20 years ago, people would come up to use after the show with their walker or cane and say, ‘I saw this movie when I was a little girl,’” he recalls. “Unfortunately, most of that crowd has passed away.”

But younger folks with a curiosity of how entertainment was in previous generations have taken their place, Winokur says.

Ranney hopes that’s the case in Lawrence, too. He majored in film at KU in the 1970s with hopes of one day owning his own movie theater. The screening of “Metropolis” is a small way of carrying out that dream.

“I ended up in the shoe business,” he says, “instead of show business.”


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