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Ken Gordon screens old movies at the Central Library

As his piano gently weeps: Silent-film buff brings old celluloid to life

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His is a very quiet labor of love.

A Midwood man has spent the past 17 years bringing silent films to life through free screenings. If you watch the flicks closely enough, you can hear a lot, the film buff says.

“Silent films have incredibly loud voices,” said Ken Gordon, who curates a twice annual-silent-film series at the Central Library. “I want these films to be seen.”

Gordon first began organizing silent-film screenings in 1997 at the Brooklyn Museum. A few years later, he moved the shows to the library, where he now runs series in the spring and fall. He said it is important to preserve the movies and to introduce them to new audiences.

“They’re all timeless,” said Gordon. “They tell our story. They’re about human beings.”

He also loves the idea of hosting cultural events in his home borough, because he remembers growing up when finding “the arts” meant trekking across the East River.

“We always schlepped into Manhattan to get our culture,” Gordon said. “I wanted to give Brooklynites an excuse to not have to go.”

Many of the screenings are accompanied by a live pianist who plays along with the film. This, Gordon said, is an art in itself. The musician has to create the right mood for every scene without overshadowing the visual experience. And finding these movie maestros is no easy task.

“If you’re successful, you’re almost invisible,” he said. “The really good ones are few and far between.”

Gordon started out as a filmmaker, but, after eight years of working in the movie industry, mostly on other people’s projects, he became frustrated at not having the resources to make his own flicks. He then decided to focus his energy on screening movies instead. Now he makes a living conducting research, writing, and showing classic cinema.

“I see it as if I’m a chef, and I’m serving people a feast,” he said.

Gordon’s favorite entrees are silent films. He feels that people today are intimidated by the old-school moving pictures because they are so used to more sensory forms of media. But if they give his shows a shot, they might find themselves drawn into a whole new kind of experience, he said

“Technology is something people become addicted to,” Gordon said. “But if you get past all that stuff, you realize these films are even a little hypnotic.”

The Library of Congress estimates that 11,000 silent films were made in America, most between 1912 and 1929. In a report released last year, it said 70 percent — or 7,700 — of those titles have been lost. Gordon wants to make sure people get to see the ones that survived.

He also wants fans to have a chance to view the mute movies outside the house.

“When we get together in the [Central Library’s] Dweck Center, that space becomes an art-house theater,” Gordon said.

He knows his passion is in danger of extinction, but he hopes to keep the shows going on. More than 120 years is not a bad run for a medium, he pointed out.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260-8310. E-mail him at mperlman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
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