You can tell a lot from an eyebrow.
If someone is looking at you with one raised, you’ve probably just said something really outlandish. If both are hitched up, well, now you’re being absurd.
And if the duo is dipped low, like ladles scooping manure, maybe it’s time to recant, or at the very least, pull out your smartphone and show the owner of those curdled brows the cute kitten photo that’s been circulating on Facebook this week.
When paired, eyebrows are 500 hairs packed thick with responsibility – more if you’re Brooke Shields or Groucho Marx or Frida Kahlo.
Now imagine writing a soundtrack to them.
That’s what Dean Kluesner did when Charlotte Civic Orchestra’s conductor Geoffrey Whitehead asked him to compose a piece of music to a movie of his choice.
“He didn’t give me any restrictions,” said Kluesner, 64, a business analyst by day and a composer after hours, who also serves on the orchestra’s board of directors. “He just said, ‘Find something.’ ”
Savoring the free rein, Kluesner, who lives in the Cheshunt community of University City, took his time and chose carefully.
“I thought about ‘The Great Train Robbery,’ but it’s way too short, and kinda weird,” Kluesner said of the 10-minute Western filmed in New York City back in 1903.
He considered feature-length movies and even began stacking blockbusters into his Netflix queue, but he eventually abandoned that idea, too: “I tried to picture the audience sitting through a 1 1/2 hour film.”
When he came across a cluster of 30-minute films from the 1920s, Kluesner knew he had found the perfect match: long-dormant silent films that could use a voice to pipe up for their forgotten wonderment.
Back then, films followed the same advice that ornery spinster aunts used to dole out for children: They were to be seen and not heard.
In “Never Weaken,” one of the silent shorts from that era, Harold Lloyd – a pioneer of Hollywood film comedy – starred as a young man separated from his fiancé through a series of comical obstacles. But it’s his facial expressions and body language that steal the show and convey the plot.
“Every eyebrow movement, every hand gesture seemed to have a purpose,” said Kluesner, who spent three months scoring the accompanying music and, in the process, watched the film more than 1,000 times.
“I never got tired of it,” he said. “I never got bored with (Lloyd), because you kept seeing how he set up his jokes.”
Silent films relied heavily on physical action to drive the plot along because they had to. And audiences during that era were well trained at following along, because they had to, too.
But don’t feel sorry for either. There was joy in it, and proof that silence can sometimes be golden.
Except for the occasional movie, such as 2011’s Oscar-winning silent film, “The Artist,” most audiences today don’t give a second glance to the fine performance an eyebrow can pull off all by itself. Most of those opportunities were lost after “talkies” took over in the late 1920s.
“It’s true: They don’t make them like they used to. But every once in a while, when they do, it really connects, and the audience responds to it,” film critic Sean O’Connell said of “The Artist,” which earned five Academy Awards.
O’Connell introduced the Charlotte Civic Orchestra’s performance of Kluesner’s “Never Weaken” score before the film was shown on the walls at Temple Beth El on Feb. 23.
“You’re in for a real treat,” he told the audience. “When you put the right music to the right images, it can be a blast.”
Kluesner worked hard to keep the integrity of the silent-film era intact.
“I tried very carefully to not get in the way of the joke, because some of these jokes took a long time to set up.”
His score was subtle. You won’t find a xylophone’s scattered notes when the pedestrians slip on the city’s sudsy streets, courtesy of Lloyd’s shenanigans.
You won’t hear a slide whistle as he slips along a steel girder swinging stories above, between the skyscrapers.
Instead, Kluesner built tension with horns; budding romance with woodwinds; and playfulness through the pluck of strings.
And right on cue, the audience responded every time with laughter, proving that the simplicity of past filmmaking techniques can still outshine today’s hi-tech special effects on occasion.
“You get immersed in the experience,” said O’Connell. “It’s like a time machine. It’s like outside that door, it could be the 1920s or 1930s again.”