The Symbol of the Unconquered
Silent Film Screening w/live accompaniment by William Hooker, May 24, 7:30 p.m., Q&A to follow, $5-$12, Trinity-on-Main, 69 Main St., New Britain, (860) 229-2072, trinityonmain.org
Drummer William Hooker's commitment to improving the arts scene in his native New Britain became evident last October, when he hosted an all-day jazz summit at the now-defunct Tools Bar and Grill. He takes that commitment a step further this Friday, when he brings The Symbol of the Unconquered, a 1920 silent film by pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, to Trinity-on-Main.
Hooker, an accomplished jazz drummer who got his start playing the Hartford club scene in the early 1970s, will accompany the screening with a live performance. Afterward, he'll host a Q&A session with WHUS DJ Chris Sampson.
"I'm motivated by a few things," Hooker told the Advocate. "I want to present this in New Britain because the film is historic. I think a lot of people should be in touch with not only jazz and improvisation, whatever boxes those fit in, but also how people like myself are connecting film with improvisational work in the auditory sense. That's what I want to turn on to New Britain and this whole area."
Pairing silent film with live music is an old idea, stretching back to the early days of cinema. You know the cliches: a horse rides up, clomp, clomp, clomp goes the soundtrack. You've heard the pianist who can't resist giving the mustachioed villain the tension-filled diminished chord treatment, subsquently parodied in cartoons and talkies.
Hooker isn't having any of that. "I'm using the visual images to spark certain feelings inside myself, which I interpret improvisationally," he said.
Talking with Hooker, 66, you realize he's as much a silent film scholar as he is a percussionist. "I'm part of a group called Text of Light," he said. "We were granted the rights to interpret [non-narrative filmmaker] Stan Brakhage's films. That was my first real foray into live music and silent film. I didn't do it as a soundtrack because he told us he never wanted music or sound put to films at all, just total silence."
From Brakhage, Hooker dove deeper and found Micheaux, who independently produced more than 40 race films — both silent and talkies — before his death in 1951. "I realized this person was the very first precursor to all Black film," Hooker said. "He's the precursor to all films interpreted for African-Americans. They speak to the African-American experience in this country."
Micheaux, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, never gained the name recognition of D.W. Griffith, whose racist 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, with its positive treatment of the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and the days of slavery, is widely heralded for its pioneering filmmaking and narrative techniques. Hooker wants to change that.
"People study that D.W. Griffith film as one of the best of the period," Hooker said. "It's the epitome of racism, the highest point of racism I've ever seen in my life. It's literally disgusting, completely against everything we know of, and it's being studied by everybody." If you understand Micheaux, Hooker said, he's creating this incredible body of work, "against everything on earth that could be against him... I want people to acknowledge why he's so great, against all odds."
Micheaux portrayed African-Americans as real people, at a time when that was rare. "He's depicting African-Americans for who they are: industrious, responsible, just trying to make it and to do better, to create economic interdependence between themselves, society and big cities. He depicts this in a very human way, and he was the first to do it."
Hooker previously staged performances of The Symbol of the Unconquered in Belgium, New York, Cologne, and even once before in Hartford at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Perhaps best known for his free-jazz playing alongside Sonic Youth guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, saxophonists David Murray, Roy Nathanson and David S. Ware, and turntablists DJ Olive and Christian Marclay, Hooker can add both rhythmic and free, "rhythm-less" elements to the accompaniment. "I can intersperse the two. I can do all of that, and I'm free to do that. I have a narrative. It gives me freedom."
At Trinity-on-Main — a beautiful, large church on Main Street in New Britain that seats about 300 people — Hooker will perform facing the screen, with his back to the audience, his kit lit from above so that interested audience members can see what he's doing. He designed three lighting schemes to mark the evening's events, from walking in and finding a seat, to watching the performance and participating in the Q&A session with Hooker and Sampson.
"It's like doing a live installation," Hooker said. "Light changes the mood... You can get a person's attentiveness to get them to ask certain questions... I want to talk to [the audience] about how they feel... I look at it as not only as live music/silent film situation. From the time the people walk in, the performance has begun."