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For a silent movie star, Robbie Chafitz talks a lot. His rapid-fire anecdotes pile up like pies in a Mack Sennett two-reeler. So it’s not surprising to learn that, in addition to playing the lead, the hyper Mr. C also wrote, produced, directed, and edited the film Flickers: A Silent Romantic Comedy.
It’s hard to tell how much of the 26-year-old Chafitz’s pep is natural and how much is just the high of finally being done with the project. After a year of work, Chafitz is premiering Flickers Saturday night at the Weinberg Center for the Arts, a restored art-deco picture palace in Frederick, Md.—the location where much of his movie was shot. The theater opened in 1926 with a showing of The Strong Man, one of Harry Langdon’s best comedies. Fifteen-hundred people showed up that night. After re-creating some of the spirit of that bygone era, Chafitz is buzzing with anticipation over re-creating attendance records as well. Since most of the town seems to be in the film, that seems entirely possible.
While the current fashion in independent filmmaking is to search the criminal underclass or the cruelly dispossessed for stories of raw violence and passion, Chafitz looked back 70 years for his inspiration—to the gauzy innocence of Hollywood’s Golden Age, before movies became so blasphemously chatty. Cinema pioneer Hal Roach observed that films evolved exactly backward. What began as a universal art form became utterly provincial when actors starting speaking exclusively in their own language. Chafitz saw the truth of that one night in Russia.
“Moscow was really and truly depressing,” says Chafitz, who was in the formerly evil empire teaching at the Moscow International Film School in 1993. After weeks of cold and gray drudgery, a screening of “an old, rough copy” of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights was scheduled. “People come into the theater and they’re pushing and shoving,” he recalls. But once the lights went down, “totally honest—people were laughing so hard they were falling out of their seats crying.”
The Moscow audience had taken the Little Tramp as one of their own. “I’m thinking, “Great, silent films still appeal to everyone!’ ” Realizing that silence is still golden, Chafitz decided to dust off an old script, remove all the dialogue, and make his own movie. “I was thinking, I’ve traveled so much, why don’t I make a film I can take back to some of these places. It’s my first film, so I can risk it now.”
But Flickers is risky only in its lack of dialogue. The plot and sentiment are rigidly traditional, owing much to Chaplin’s brand of bighearted pathos. City Lights is a particular model, as is Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. As in both films, there is a case of mistaken identity, and as in the latter, Flickers‘ hero is a movie projectionist. Eddie, Chafitz’s character, is taken for a homeless man by an attractive social worker. Naturally, the misunderstandings escalate into chase scenes and pratfalls. One refreshing choice is that all of Eddie’s love interests remain unrequited. “I didn’t want a traditional happy ending, boy-gets-girl ending, because I didn’t think they’d end up together,” explains Chafitz.
Though the style is antique, the setting is modern. Chafitz “wanted to have an older feel without trying to fool anyone.” That was one reason for filming entirely in Frederick, which provided suitably old/new backgrounds as well as a largely amateur but eager cast and crew—even the assistance of the fire department. While Chafitz’s slapstick antics are effectively retro, at least one gag relies on an up-to-date, radio-controlled prop. The nicely realized piano score by Larry Cione, a member of the Peabody Ragtime Ensemble, makes the 45-minute film seem to move even faster.
In making Flickers, Chafitz drew on experience working on and hanging around such big-time productions as Awakenings, Avalon, Green Card, and Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery. Not wishing to be too “artsy,” or to “make a huge statement,” Chafitz wanted to create “a film the family could come to, they could read it to their kids, they could talk about it.”
The problems of making a modern silent film became apparent in the editing room. “I was catering to a modern audience who are used to fast cuts. And I didn’t want fast cuts,” says Chafitz. “So people are going to have to sit for a while, and read, too.” This leads to the question of how long to leave title cards on the screen. “In the old days, they left them for a while because people were a little slower,” says Chafitz with quick, though uncertain, authority. “Sometimes it’s scary to linger on a camera shot for a while, because it’s like, “OK, what’s next, what’s next?’ I was trying to keep myself from falling into that MTV [style].”
Including marketing costs—print, posters, klieg lights, and a block of cement for imprinting hands at the premier—Flickers will cost about $30,000. Not the most expensive film ever made, but still a hefty chunk of change. The money came from friends, family, and a bank loan from a very understanding bank president—the First Bank of Frederick is featured prominently on the poster.
“People think if you’re making a film, you must be really rich,” says Chafitz, with some annoyance. “It’s the opposite. I still need to recoup money for this film.” Thus, he plans to make a pitch for donations at the premiere—but “in a nice way.” If the public proves stingy, “I’m not sure what I’m gonna do,” he says. “I’m gonna start signing up for Johns Hopkins medical experiments or something….I’m going to have to start selling kidneys, or have several first-born children.”
That last option may prove difficult because, in manically flitting between Baltimore, Frederick, and D.C., and attending to the 7 million last-minute bits of minutiae, Chafitz—like his onscreen alter-ego—has managed to miss one significant detail. “I don’t even have a date to my own film premiere,” he laughs. “Isn’t that sad?”
For ticket information, call the Weinberg Center for the Arts, (301) 694-8585.