‘The Docks of New York,’ with live musical accompaniment, comes to Epsilon Spires

BRATTLEBORO — One of the last films of the silent era, Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York (1929, 75 minutes) will be shown at Epsilon Spires on Friday, June 2, at 8:30 p.m. The screening will feature live accompaniment from pianist Donald Sosin and soprano Joanna Seaton, who are the musicians commissioned by Criterion Collection to create the soundtrack for the 2010 reissue of the film.

“Miles of docks wait day and night for strange cargo - and stranger men,” the film begins. Organizers say it is “an elegant and haunting love story about battered souls at the bottom of the barrel.” A ship's stoker (George Bancroft) on shore leave rescues a sex worker (Betty Compson) who has jumped into the water. Can these two weary souls find their own slice of happiness in dark, foreboding places?

“From the opening scene of men stoking coal furnaces in suffocating heat, The Docks of New York evocatively portrays the lives of the working class of that era,” Jamie Mohr, executive director of Epsilon Spires, said in a news release. “The fatalism of the film speaks to the backbreaking work and lives of endless strife that people in the position of the characters in the film would have endured.”

The Docks of New York features striking expressionist-style sets of a seedy waterfront dive and raucous flophouse which are expertly lit and filmed by cinematographer Harold Rosson, who went on to serve as cinematographer for The Wizard of Oz.

“What Rosson was able to achieve with the film stock of that era is a kind of alchemy, which could convey subtle elements like fog and shadow on the screen in a way that is unparalleled,” Mohr said.

Live musical accompaniment will be provided by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton, who have been performing original musical accompaniment for classic silent films for more than 20 years. They have created scores for more than 60 silent film DVDs for major labels with keyboards, vocals, and percussion to film festivals and venues such as the New York Film Festival, MoMA, and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Seaton, who has a theater arts degree from Cornell University, has appeared in more than eighty theater productions and been called a “silvery soprano” by The New York Times. Sosin, who studied composition at Columbia, has played on Broadway for many years and had his music appear in films and TV on channels such as PBS and Turner Classic Movies.

To make their events financially accessible, tickets are priced on a sliding scale, from $5 to $20, and are available at Two dollars from every ticket goes directly toward the historic preservation of the venue. Refreshments will be provided.

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