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Enjoy The Silence

A film festival devoted to comedies from the silent film era is coming to Arlington.

For silent film fans, Slapsticon is like Christmas, Thanksgiving and Woodstock all rolled into one.

A four-day smorgasbord of more than 60 comedies from the pre-sound era of film, Slapsticon can be a lot to take in, even for the most ardent fan.

"It takes a few days to recover after the festival," silent film buff Steve Massa said.

Massa, who lives in New York and has been attending Slapsticon in Arlington since its inception five years ago, said that he loves the festival because of its unique specialty.

"Every festival has their own theme," he said, "[But Slapsticon is] the only one that’s devoted to just early comedies."

SLAPSTICON, named after the exaggerated physical comedy style of Slapstick used frequently in films from the 20s and 30s, is the brain child of Arlington County employee Rob Farr.

A self-described "film geek," Farr was disappointed that there were no silent film festivals devoted solely to comedies.

"At other festivals, the comedy guys would get together in ballrooms [and socialize]," he said.

Based on this network of slapstick fans, Farr believed that there would be significant interest in a silent comedy film festival. He pitched the idea to Arlington’s Cultural Affairs Department and "They said ‘Try to break even,’" he recalled. "We broke even the first year because everyone was working for free."

Thanks to an ever-growing audience, as well as a partnership with the Library of Congress and the UCLA film department, Farr said that the festival has stayed pretty close to recouping its costs every year since then.

FESTIVAL PROGRAMMER Richard Roberts, a film collector who said his personal stash numbers somewhere in the quadruple digits, makes sure that Slapsticon caters towards true film connoisseurs.

Rather than showcase well-known classics by masters of the medium such as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, the festival focuses on obscure films that had been lost for decades.

"The thing most people don’t realize," Roberts said, "Is that when you start talking about silent comedy, you think about Chaplin, Keaton or Harold Lloyd. But there were literally hundreds of comedians who get no attention at all today."

One of those comedians is Larry Semon. A contemporary of Charlie Chaplin, Semon starred in silent films for years but some of his work has been lost forever. His last feature film, "Spuds," hasn’t been shown anywhere since 1927.

"The film just disappeared," Farr said.

But "Spuds" was recently discovered and restored by the UCLA film department and will be having its "world re-premiere" at this year’s Slapsticon.

BECAUSE A FILM would be nothing without a soundtrack, Slapsticon employs its own pianists to accompany all of its silent films.

At this year’s festival, Ben Model and Philip Carli will be providing the scores for all of the dozens of short and feature-length films.

In a finger-testing feat of stamina, Slapsticon requires the two pianists to play for hours on end, all of it made up on the spot.

"I haven’t seen any of [the films] before, [so I’m] working mentally in overdrive to constantly anticipate where story or gags are going," Model said. "I do the composing during the show."

"They’re just amazing," Linda Shaw, Roberts’ wife and the chair of this year’s Slapsticon, said about Model and Carli. "I don’t know how they do it."

So how does Model improvise on a piano for hours at a time, all the while providing contextual accompaniment for a film he’s never seen?

"I’m in a zone where I’m fused with the film," he said. "People say ‘How do you do this’ and I just say ‘I’m not sure.’"

WHILE SLAPSTICON’S expressed purpose is to show rare and restored silent comedies, it also acts as a de facto reunion for silent film fanatics across the globe.

Because many of the festival’s out-of-town attendees stay in the same hotel, Massa said that it is not uncommon for impromptu after-screening discussions to last until the wee hours of the morning.

"It’s like anything, [the fans are] slightly nerdy," he said.

But Roberts said that it’s all in good fun. "This is one of few places that [film] academics get to meet face to face," he said. Shaw added that, "Some people have been corresponding for 20 years and never met [until Slapsticon]."

So while the festival is assured to be a boon for anyone interested in early film comedies, casual fans may want to skip the post-film repartee.

"My wife is there and she sometimes gets glazed over pretty quickly," Massa said. "It gets pretty intense."