Wading Into 'The Unknown'
A live score, fancy eats, and circus feats accompany a silent film masterpiece
There's a scene in Tod Browning's film The Unknown in which Lon Chaney plays the guitar with his feet. This scene got the Alamo Drafthouse's Tim League, who played classical guitar as kid, thinking about a guitar-based score to accompany the film. The 1927 silent takes place in Spain, and Chaney plays a knife-throwing circus performer with no arms. The film only gets stranger from there.
League asked Matt Hinsley, president and founder of the Austin Classical Guitar Society, if he might be interested in writing an original score for the film. The idea had appeal, but Hinsley was not sure he wanted to take on the task himself. However, he had just hired the Europe-based guitar duo, Les Frères Méduses, to perform in Austin over the summer. A partnership between Randall Avers and Benoît Albert, Les Frères Méduses is known for its light-hearted humor and playful theatricality.
"Randy has an uncanny knack for comedy in music, and Benoît is a true composer who also has a feel for dance and performance," says Hinsley. He reasoned that if anyone could write a score for a movie set in a traveling circus, they could. He sent them a copy of the film and asked if they would be willing to take on the job. Their response was an emphatic "yes."
Things fell into place pretty rapidly from there, as good ideas tend to do. Avers and Albert were thoroughly energized by the project. The score that they wrote features some of their own original compositions, as well as variations on well-known guitar pieces like Joaquín Rodrigo's "Tonadilla." Violinist Will Fedkenheuer, of the Miró Quartet, will accompany them on a gypsy-inspired romp into a bizarre film world of mystery and freak shows that makes Water for Elephants look like a Ringling Bros. commercial.
Meanwhile, Hinsley, ever the ringmaster, has concocted a complete circus ambience surrounding the event. He's hired knife throwers, circus performers, hula hoop artists, and even a klezmer band (Mazel Tov Kocktail Hour) for the aftershow.
John Bullington, the Alamo Drafthouse's executive chef, developed a menu of passed appetizers and plated dishes to be served before and during the screening. Working within Hinsley's general parameters (vegetarian options and gluten-free friendly), Bullington's menu is an homage to Spain's vibrant flavors. Roasted summer vegetables accompanied by romesco sauce, citrusy squid escabeche, and mushrooms stuffed with manchego and chorizo are among the culinary delights designed to transport guests into the weird world of The Unknown. For the more carnivorous among the guests, there will be smoked beef with blue cheese and Vidalia onion jam. Wines have been chosen to pair with the meal. The entire event promises to be brimming with musical fantasy, film, food, and fun.
The Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow, Austin Classical Guitar Society, and AMOA-Arthouse will screen The Unknown at Laguna Gloria on Friday, June 22. See www.drafthouse.com for ticket info.