Through the course of my daytime adventures/studies I have the tremendous fortune of attending a number of conferences, and more importantly festivals dedicated to the dead art of silent cinema. It baffles many people how anyone could ever be so obsessive with something so ‘primitive’ and ‘arcane’ something so abstract to what we know and love, what with the All-Singing All-Dancing Technicolour Widescreen Real-D Surround Sound Cinema of today.
Many would be quick to rebuff any such harsh judgements, but of course I see where the layman might be coming from. Grubby unclear films, with little people running around at supernatural speeds to the merry plink and plonk of the honky-tonk piano can easily seem pretty Neanderthal.
Needless to say this is a pretty cruel vision of silents, coloured by decades of worn prints being show at 50% the speed they should be running at, with picked-out-of-a-basket soundtracks slapped on to fill the silence. Silent film festivals are about reversing that, reviving living soundtracks with both improvised and especially scored music, showcasing some of the finest film restorations from across the world. Films that demonstrate the birth of a medium at one end, and the perfection of it at the other.
It baffles me that anyone who claims to love film could possibly keep themselves away!
Last weekend saw the annual British Silent Film Festival set up shop in the imposing Barbican centre in central London, and for 3 (and a half) days the organisers did an excellent job of putting on some amazing talks and performances around some know, and some lesser know films from the silent era. The topic of ‘Sound’ was the focus of the festival, looking both at the early experiments with sounded motion pictures, as well as looking at the issues faced by modern musicians tasked with accompanying these films. The latter in particular proves a fascinating meeting point for film historians and improvisational musicians.
A presentation by Toby Haggith of the Imperial War Museum and the musician Stephen Horne looked at the arguments for and against the use of cue sheets provided with the First World War propaganda film Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks. Is it right to impose a modern score which might colour a film as elegiac? A soundtrack to the living dead marching off to what we widely regard today as a futile battle? The film was shot with optimism that the war could now be won, and that the tank in particular was the one device which could potentially break The Hun. Cue sheets from the time can be equally problematic, with no connection to the action on screen, and sometimes with unwittingly dangerous associations to the modern ear. One reel of The Ancre cited Entrance of the Gladiators as the appropriate backing music, yet little did music arrangers in 1917 appreciate quite the clownishly insensitive connotations this would have in the latter part of the century.
Other musical treats in the festival included a morning of bizarre early sound experiments showcased by film historian Tony Fletcher (Teddy Brown and his Xylophone being my particular favourite), a screening of Britain’s first complete sound feature Under the Greenwood Tree (a curious if occasionally quite stilted take on Hardy’s classic), an orchestrally accompanied screening of Griffith’s classic damsels-on-ice-floes-thriller Way Down East (complete with crash-bang-wallop radio style sound effects), as well as a one off performance of the silent western White Oak accompanied by Five Live’s own Mark Kermode, The Dodge Brothers and Neil Brand!
If the quiff and the double bass wasn’t a big enough indicator: That’s him to the far left. He’s even been so generous as to slam modern bombastic cinema (a la Michael Bay) for having forgotten the ‘melody of melodrama’ so apparrent in silents. To hear his reflections on Moderns vs Silents, as well as the White Oak performance click HERE.
Kermode’s promised more shows in the future, and I can’t wait. Not so much to hear some more bass-slappin’, string-pickin’ Americana to my silents but also to help drag in some more Kermode fan-boys and girls into the slightly hidden world of silents. I had the opportunity to tempt two of my ‘normal’ film friends to two of the evenings performances and they absolutely loved it. The varied tempo, the melodrama and the occassionally baffling plot lines can be hard work at first, but once you settle into it you really do get a brilliantly unique, fascinating, and often gripping film experience.
The Barbican play regular host silent screenings throughout the year, and a number are regularly doing the rounds on art house cinema circuits around the country. If you hear of one coming to town with a budding musician or two in tow then really do go out of your way to check it out.
It may well be a notch or two outside most peoples comfort zone, but how can you continue to live oblivious of an era where square-jawed male heroes could regularly cry with relief for romantic and narrative resolution, and where dogs were regularly used as the ultimate Deus ex Machina? If that isn’t amazing, then I don’t know what is.