Silents & Silence
If I had to think back over the last couple of years and name two electrifying experiences in a movie theater, they would be: (1) The scientific-poetic films of Jean Painlevé accompanied live by Yo La Tengo; and (2) Paul Fejos’ city symphony/romance, Lonesome (1928), with accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.
Having said that, let me confess something: I have trouble with the idea of automatic, de rigueur musical accompaniment for silent cinema. When I watch silents on DVD, I almost always turn off the sound and watch in silence. (There are some exceptions, e.g. the Alloy Orchestra’s score for Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera.)
I remember powerfully affecting silent film retrospectives—Lang, Dreyer, Benjamin Christensen—seen with live piano accompaniment, but lately I’ve been wondering how those experiences might have been aesthetically different in silence. (Didn’t Langlois show silents in silence at the Cinémathèque Française?)
So, here are my concerns: (1) If silent film accompaniment exists primarily to fill the void of silence, we can probably agree that’s an aesthetically weak raison d'etre. (2) Irving Thalberg once said: “There never was a silent film.” Can we use this as evidence to claim that it’s natural for every silent film to be accompanied by music? The history of silent film development demonstrates this to be not so (more on this in a moment). (3) Does silent film music exist to echo or underline moods and feelings during the course of a film? If so, isn't this kind of musical accompaniment somewhat redundant? Worse, can't such an approach actively dilute the power of image-driven silent cinema?
A few speculative thoughts. First, musical accompaniment can prove valuable when it supplements the experience of the film with something new, adding fresh layers of information or sensation designed to counterpoint or elaborate, not merely underline the atmosphere or emotions in the film.
Second, the ‘aura’ of live accompaniment carries a charge, especially so with a large ensemble like an orchestra although this is even true for solo live performance, for example on piano or organ. But this aura is weakened on a recorded soundtrack on DVD in a home viewing context.
Third, in good films one is aware of a measure of care with which both the individual images and the film have been created and assembled. Analogously, does it not make sense that the musical accompaniment also be constructed with suitable care and forethought before it is joined to the image track? This is probably not what happens with most instances of live silent film accompaniment, which rely significantly on extemporaneity.
Fourth, I wonder if my nervousness about fully embracing silent film music has something to do with my auteurist sympathies. If auteurism sees the director as a key source of ‘meaning’ in a film, the often non-director-approved musical accompaniment can come to be viewed as something that is inessential (at best) or confounding (at worst).
In his article “The Silence of the Silents” (Musical Quarterly, winter 1996), Rick Altman challenges many received notions about silent film music. Drawing from extensive primary research, he demonstrates that silent film constitutes a heterogeneous period with a variety of accompaniment practices including not-infrequent absence of accompaniment. This was especially so in the first half of the silent era.
But in film-historical research, the 1920s has traditionally come to serve as the privileged model of silent film sound. Emphasizing the latter half of silent movie history and its practices in this way has obscured the multiplicity of approaches to accompaniment in the early silent film years:
Like lyceum lectures, films may call for the explanation of an elocutionist. Like music hall specialty acts, films may be accompanied by music matched to the singer’s movements. Like vaudeville comic routines, film pratfalls may require a drum roll or cymbal crash. Like vaudeville chaser acts, films are sometimes accompanied by whatever popular song the orchestra happens to have on the stand. Like lantern slide shows, films may call for the type of music being played by the musicians represented on the screen. Like travel lectures, films may need appropriate sound effects. Like the legitimate theater, films may require live dialogue. Like mid-way routines, film music may serve primarily as ballyhoo [nickelodeon music played outside the theater in order to attract customers]. Or like paintings in a museum, films may be projected in stark silence.
It wasn’t till the latter half of the silent era that accompaniment practices were reduced in variety and thus standardized. It is this narrow range of standardized practices that we now equate with silent film accompaniment. I cite Altman’s piece because it shows that (a) silence was an option in the silent era, and at the same time, (b) it was only one of an amazingly varied set of options.
My aim is not to denigrate the practice of silent film music accompaniment; I have complex feelings both pro and con on the matter. What I’m trying to do is use the lever of skepticism to open a dialogue on the subject. So, let me offer a menu of questions for you to choose from and respond to (as many or as few as you wish):
Your thoughts on silent film accompaniment in theatrical and/or home video settings? Signal silent film experiences that remain memorable for you at least partly because of musical accompaniment? Examples of silent film DVD releases with strong soundtracks? Finally, can musical accompaniment be detrimental to the experience of a silent film?
-- The new issue of Rouge includes pieces on Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales and Jose-Luis Guerin's In Sylvia's City; an interview with Paul Schrader; a tribute to the late film analyst Marie-Claire Ropars; and an early essay by Roger Tailleur on Chris Marker.
-- In the film blogosphere: Craig Keller, "In a Lonely Place"; A discussion on contemporary Spanish cinema at Dan's place; Zach on Noël Burch: "Qu'est-ce que la Nouvelle Vague?"; David Bordwell on aspect ratios and Godard; Acquarello has been filing dispatches from Spanish Cinema Now in New York; Michael Guillén interviews Walter Murch at Greencine; and Larry Aydlette, formerly the Shamus and That Little Round-Headed Boy, returns with a new blog, Welcome To L.A.
-- On Rick Altman's book, Silent Film Sound.
Yo La Tengo accompany Jean Painlevé's films: drawing by Canadian indie comics artist Seth.