Tuesday, December 18, 2007

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?


* * *

Links:

-- 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.

40 Comments:

Blogger Tucker said...

Two nights ago I watched Sherlock Jr. with my daughter. We liked the film, but I couldn't stand the music. It had so obviously been added in later and just did not fit. We should have watched it with the sound off.

Back in the day (college that is) we watched silent films in silence for our film history classes. Maybe this was “snobbish” but I grew to like that very much.

Two other reasons that music might be added to a silent film that you don't mention: 1) people are uncomfortable sitting in silence and being silent. It feels odd to do so. Music can break up that tension. 2) During the silent era music may have been added because people were compelled to do so for somewhat subconscious reasons. Like some argue that the creation of photography, and later the motion picture, emerged because of a certain inevitability, so musical accompaniment may have prefigured the inevitabilities that eventually led to the creation of sound films.

December 19, 2007 12:09 AM  
Blogger Ted said...

I see a good deal of silent films at the MoMA and their practices in regards to sound are very interesting. The pianist at all the silents I've seen there has always been the same and, for the most part, he includes all the same selections of music into each performance.

An anecdote:
At the screening of Verdun: Visions d'Histoire, the pianist was speaking with an older woman before the film began. She, a regular, requested he include a piece by Mozart that he's played before and which she's a fan of. He said he'd try. Someone else asked if he'd seen the film before and he said that he hadn't. When introducing the film, the curator of the MoMA mentioned the pianist and how he'd be playing an original score.

Often while watching silents at the MoMA I wonder how the music is affecting our viewing of the film. The pianist there is very good at what he does, but I question how appropriate the music he plays at each film is.

December 19, 2007 12:21 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I used to be purist on this issue, but I came to realize that silent films were coherent enough visually, not to be disturbed by music accompaniment. The eye and the ear are independent and able to intake 2 channels of information without interferences.

Like you mention, there was no rule back then. Silence is a invention of purists. Remember that there was no auteurs at the time, nobody in control of the artistic direction from end to end. Filmmakers didn't have control over the music or the distribution circuit. And cinema was a mere spectacle to entertain a crowd, not an art exhibition like it is now, since it's called the 7th Art. So we can only speculate on what is most appropriate to which film... most of the time there is probably no definite answer and never has been.
When you say the period of reference is the second half, it happens that it's the one giving us most of the silent films surviving today. The first-period silent films are never projected.

December 19, 2007 3:10 AM  
Blogger David said...

It's funny that you mention Man with a Movie Camera, which I've been watching over and over this past week. The first time I saw the film, I saw it on DVD with the Alloy Orchestra accompaniment; I liked it well enough, and especially liked the score. The second time I saw it, I saw it with a simulated soundtrack of what music from the time might actually have been--also a perfectly good experience. But the third, fourth, and fifth times I saw it I saw it silent, and it was only then that I decided it was a masterpiece, maybe the greatest silent film of all. As much as a Markopoulos film, Vertov is obsessed with rhythm, and there's absolutely no need to listen to a soundtrack; to do so is to miss the way Vertov really means for the film itself to be a substitute for music (as seen in the noise collage at the end of the film).

Of course, Vertov did expect musicians to play--this is why we get the brilliant tongue-in-cheek prologue, as a theater fills, and the orchestra members lean perched over their instruments, ready for the film to begin. In real life, Vertov requested that actual orchestras accompanying the film not start until the musicians on screen start playing their instruments, about 5 or 10 minutes in. But this is all missed when you listen to the Alloy Orchestra accompaniment which, as I said, I like.

Man with a Movie Camera is obviously unlike almost every other silent film in its anticipation of music on so many levels, but with the exception of some comedies--Keaton really benefits from a good score--I've taken to watching silents silent. The big issue for me is the failed attempts of so many musicians to both replicate a 20s-style score with modern instrumentation and influences. It's an issue well glossed in Martin Scorsese's new short film, to be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5nAxzH4OPs. What I wish DVD companies would try to do would be to find recordings from the era--probably now available in the public domain--and throw those on instead. Transitions might be clumsy, but I'd prefer the authenticity to these simulacra. Perhaps they could research directors' favorite music.

On the other hand, there are performances like Ben Model's virtual organ accompaniment for Spies, which I caught last summer. I doubt virtual organs were the norm in the 20s, but the final carnival-waltz music Model contributed left me exhilarated--a perfect synthesis between sound and image. Of course, the image of a clown performing nearly demands music, and I had found a lot of the rest of the score quite distracting, as I usually do; perhaps what's needed, not that anybody would listen to them, are soundtracks that only provide sound when the image demands it. But then other diegetic sounds will probably prove necessary as well. I feel like there aren't any answers but wrong ones.

Thanks for this post; this is actually something I think about quite a lot, though not with too many thoughts. I know Dan Sallitt's been writing on this one as well.

December 19, 2007 3:25 AM  
Blogger Peter said...

Did Fritz Lang dream of the day when the wailings of Bonnie Tyler could be heard with Metropolis? Probably not.

Then there is the minute of silence in Band of Outsiders that seems longer than it is, and does make some audience members uncomfortable.

In some countries, silent films not only had music, but people whose job it was to explain the action to the audience. While there were relatively standardized practices in the US and Western Europe, presentation of silent films in Asia had some of its own specific rules, particularly as countries such as Thailand and Japan continued to produce silent films into the Thirties.

I saw Potemkin with a small avant-garde band in Denver a few years ago which enlivened this very familiar film.

I also like the scores commission by TCM for the silent films that the show.

December 19, 2007 10:23 AM  
Anonymous Marilyn said...

What I think is really great about silent films is that they do boast a great variety approaches to the challenge of a hearing audience. I've seen silent films with a wide variety of approaches:

The Passion of Joan of Arc and At Land completely silent.

I Was Born, But... with a benshi narrator

The Black Pirate and others with a full, live orchestra

Potemkin with a small, electronic combo called Concrete

Safety Last! with the Alloy Orchesta

Numerous films with the live solo piano of Dave Drazin

Numerous films with live organ accompaniment

Numerous films with anonymous scorers on DVD

Numerous films with TCM Young Composer winners' scores on TV

City Lights with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducting Chaplin's original score, including sound effects

I like them all (except for some of the DVD scores that some Muzak programmer must have put together for a swift release).

Why? Filmmakers of today use a variety of sound devices, from mood music to multitrack mixes that add a kinetic quality to the film. Contemporary music is used in period pieces. Repetitive sound effects signal state of mind. Silence to enforce visual attention. Etc etc etc.

How wonderful that the creative impulse in the days before soundtracks were possible reached for so many of these possibilities as well. There is no reason NOT to have music or sound effects; indeed, if a consummate artist and notorious creative control freak like Chaplin saw fit to write his own scores (albiet for premieres, but this would not prevent piano transcriptions of parts of the score from being written and distributed), you can be sure that music and sound have their place in the silents.

Pianist and organist who write their own scores for older films add their layer of interpretation to the films, and this can be very interesting--like watching new adaptations of Shakespeare. Some, like the TCM composers, Concrete, Alloy Orchestra, and some live solo accompanists I've heard, are very skilled. It almost sounds as though I can hear voices when I listen to them.

Dave Drazin is an amazing improviser we are lucky enough to have play for most of the silent films shown in Chicago. His on-the-spot creativity is like watching Charlie Parker wail. And yet he's not intrusive. I never find myself listening to the music instead of watching the film.

Complete silence forces me to engage with the image much more intensely. This is akin to going to an art gallery, but taking in a predetermined narrative (except in the case of experimental films that leave themselves open to interpretation). It's harder to relax when one sense is so much more taxed, and is, I think, an acquired skill.

So, to me, there is no "problem" with silent films and their sound companions. Each experience can be rewarding.

December 19, 2007 10:50 AM  
Blogger nitesh said...

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December 19, 2007 10:56 AM  
Blogger dave said...

Silent accompaniment is hit or miss, sometimes enriching the mood of the film, other times detracting from it (The same could be said of soundtracks in talkies, by the way). I've had experiences on both ends of the spectrum: Yo la Tengo with Painlevé's films was good, but has nothing on Pere Ubu's improvised score to The Man with X-Ray Eyes, in which they combined an improvisatory score with snippets of their repertoire. I've had a few chances to see The Alloy Orchestra perform but have somehow missed all of them.

Recently I saw Pandora's Box with an unspectacular score; it was a disappointment. I've also seen some early 'popular' cinema (Griffith's Hearts of the World, Sjostrom's The Scarlet Letter) with piano accompaniment in ways that have really enriched the experience.

As for silence, I think music has the added benefit of keeping me awake. I think silent films are more cinematically interesting, but I'm not always well enough rested to make it through a whole silent feature without a nap in the third reel.

I like Richard Einhorn's opera/oratorio Voices of Light, which was included on Criterion's release of The Passion of Joan of Arc, but I can't say it helps the movie much, which I would rather watch without sound. And when I saw Passio at this year's NYFF, my complicated response involves the thought that I would rather have heard just Arvo Part's Passio in that venue without the projection of the film.

December 19, 2007 11:04 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

I'm with Dave, I find the effect and impact of accompaniment very hit or miss. On the whole, however, I would say I tend to enjoy silent films silent on home video and silent films projected theatrically or publically with accompaniment.

Part of the reason for the latter is that these days the hushed respectfulness (or disinterest) of a crowd at a literally silent silent film in no way resembles the way an unaccompanied silent film experience would have been like in the 1910s and 1920s. It just seems too awkward and unnaturally restrained.

December 19, 2007 11:20 AM  
Blogger nitesh said...

A couple of months back, I had a rare opportunity to watch Kenji Mizoguchi “The Water Magician” accompanied by a live Benshi performance, and I must confess it added a lot to the already classic silent film. Even though one could not interpret her narration, but the way she conveyed and evoked different emotions along with the image, it
touched chords with everyone. I’m sure if the movie ran without the Live Benshi performance most people would have fallen asleep.

And quite frankly watching The Water Magician accompanied by the live Benshi performance was one magical moment, and it did add a lot to this wonderful silent film.


Just a passing thought, recently when I suggested and forced my classmates to watch Buster Keaton’s The General(luckily the original DVD/VCD are available here in India), even before the movie ended, only four people remained in a class of hundred, so much so for the sad affair’s of silence and silent movies, sound or no sound.

December 19, 2007 11:22 AM  
Blogger Ed Howard said...

I'm not sure I can think of a case when musical accompaniment to a silent film has been anything better than a distraction, but then I've never had a live accompaniment experience, so that might change my mind. In general, though, I prefer to watch silent films silently, unless there's a director-approved score that's in some way integral to the film. I think the impact of The Passion of Joan of Arc is completely changed, and not in a good way, by the addition of the bombastic score on the Criterion DVD. The film is so moving precisely because of its intimacy with Joan and her suffering, and the score only serves to increase the distance with its grandiosity.

Ultra-modern scores pose even more of a problem. I quite like the Alloy Orchestra's score for Man With the Movie Camera, but it really dictates the film's rhythms rather than allowing Vertov's editing to set the pace. I like the score as music, and it even goes well with the film, but at the same time it definitely alters the experience of the film from Vertov's intentions. In contrast, the newly composed scores on virtually all the films on Kino's two Avant Garde sets are both horrible as music and disrupting as accompaniment, truly worthless.

December 19, 2007 11:50 AM  
Blogger Michael Kerpan said...

As to Mizoguchi's "The Water Magician", this has been released on DVD in Japan -- with not one but two benshi narration tracks -- with the narration subtitled in English:

http://www.digital-meme.com/en/our_products/dvds/index.html

Add me to the hit and miss camp, too. However, when done right, the music can be very effective. New releases of Eisenstein's "Potemkin" (with Meisel's original score) and Kozintsev & Trauberg's "New Babylon" and "Alone" (with Shostakovich's original scores re-recorded and re-synchronized) are quite fine.

As to Ozu's and Naruse's silent films, I'm growing more and more used to pure silence. Especially as to Ozu, his implied, virtual soundtracks are often undermined by having to pay attention to music. Some of his silents are very noisy (e.g., the incessant rattling by of trains in "I Was Born But") and others have a lot of silent music (e.g., Dragnet Girl). Unlike Mizoguchi (who at least tolerated benshi), Ozu (and his studio -- Shochiku) opposed and resisted their intrusive presence -- and tried all sorts of ways to minimize their impact (and to ultimately eliminate them).

December 19, 2007 3:20 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

I'm not a purist about silence: I'm open to the idea of a new art work that fuses the existing movie with a score; and I've enjoyed some silent accompaniment. For me, the big problem is that we have a tradition of accompaniment that draws heavily on the sentimental and the nostalgic, perpetuating and enshrining the same destructive simplifications that must have tormented Sternberg and Murnau lovers even in the 20s and 30s. Sometimes it seens that the only thing on the accompanist's agenda is to underline and exaggerate the swings of the plot, drowning out all complexity and turning the movie into something that the audience has already seen and knows how to respond to.

When musicians try to create a distinctive experience and banish generic music cues, I'm game to give them a chance, especially if I know I'll have future opportunities to see the film. But I'm getting older, and I feel that I don't have enough time left to waste screenings in wholesale lots anymore.

I know it's difficult for audiences to have to listen to silence during a movie, and I sympathize. But I got used to truly silent movies long ago, thanks to my old-school, "pure cinema" college teachers; and now I'm content to let the rhythm of the film create its own music.

Unfortunately, most audiences seem to love accompaniment. I think that most people see a movie as second-rate, fall-back, cut-rate entertainment, and are delighted when they get an event, a live performance, and not just a screening.

December 19, 2007 5:14 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, everyone, for this great variety of perspectives! David, thanks for the link to Scorsese's short, "Key to Reserva". I hadn't seen it.

Here's something I found interesting. In Rick Altman's essay, he mentions that one of the early champions of silent projection was the poet and early film critic/theorist Vachel Lindsay. But Lindsay's reasons for silence were fascinating and a bit proto/pre-Brechtian (if also unusual!). He's being perfectly serious here and isn't kidding when he proposes a never realized form of silent film exhibition practice he calls "Conversational Theatre" that would encourage critical activity on the part of spectators. He writes in 1915:

"The orchestra is in part a blundering effort by the local manager to supply the human-magnetic which he feels is lacking in the pictures on which the producer has not left his autograph. But there is a much more economic and magnetic accompaniment, the before-mentioned buzzing commentary of the audience. There will be some people who disturb the neighbors in front, but the average crowd has developed its manners in this particular, and when the orchestra is silent, murmurs like a pleasant brook.

"Local manager, why not an advertising campaign in your town that says: "Beginning Monday and henceforth, ours shall be known as the Conversational Theatre"? At the door let each person be handed the following card:

""You are encouraged to discuss the picture with the friend who accompanies you to this place.""

One of the supposed reasons for the original use of silent movie accompaniment was to cover up the sound of the projector, so Altman writes:

"Silent film exists not so much to cover the mechanical whirring of the projector, Lindsay suggests, but to preclude the intellectual whirring of separate minds engaged in critical activity."

December 19, 2007 6:01 PM  
Blogger girish said...

-- Bloggers interviewed at FilmInFocus: David Hudson and Andrew Grant aka Filmbrain.
-- Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell's own voyage to Italy.

December 19, 2007 6:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Er, apologies for the error but that last paragraph should read:
""Silent film music exists not so much to cover the mechanical whirring of the projector, Lindsay suggests, but to preclude the intellectual whirring of separate minds engaged in critical activity.""

December 19, 2007 10:48 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

You've gotten plenty of comments on a very worthwhile post. I have to chime in, though.

The recently released Kino DVD set "Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and '30s" has TERRIBLE music!! I was so disappointed. I was excited about the release of the Rohauer collection on DVD but they should have just left the films silent. After all, they were avant-garde films!!! How many people actually saw them??? I bet most of the screenings were silent.

Not that I'm opposed to including music in general, but you're absolutely right about there needing to be some reason, be it aesthetic or whatever. I could see Brian Eno doing a deep tryyper score for these films from the 1920s and totally re-inventing them (by the way, I think Bonnie Tyler updating Fritz Lang is cool too). But at least make it interesting. The keyboard-inflected faux period music on the Kino DVD is just crap.

Anyway, a good example of a DVD that should have just left it silent. In the live setting, I think, accompaniment of some kind always makes things better (unless, I guess, you are watching La Région Centrale).

December 20, 2007 12:54 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

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December 20, 2007 6:42 AM  
Blogger Thom said...

I'm with you Girish: for my blog I watched nearly all of the films in the 1895-1927 period with the sound off because I found that the music added to DVD version is generally incongruous and/or distracting when not downright annoying. The harshest experience came when I forgot to mute L'Inferno (1911) and Tangerine Dream came blasting out of the speakers. I'm sure there are some exceptions, but silence is still a viewing option that works for me.

One question springs to mind that concerns differences in scores for various markets--perhaps this is part of Altman's article Girish (I have it here somewhere, but if it's right in front of you...). Few early silent films were distributed with scores featuring original arrangements. Far more of the early scores were made up of tunes well-known to audiences, and accompanists, that would reflect certain moments and changes in the action on the screen. So I wonder, when films with such scores were distributed abroad did local film offices have new scores with music more familiar to local audiences created? For example, would the score made up of tunes familiar to French audiences watching Pathé's latest flick in 1909 be the same score played by accompanists when the film was exhibited in the U.S., Russian, or Mexican markets? Or would new or adapted scores be used according to the musical traditions and tastes of each market?

December 20, 2007 11:39 AM  
Blogger jmac said...

These are interesting questions, and because I'm currently questioning "word vs. image" on my blog (please help!) I'd like to bring up some observations on "sound vs. image."

The way we respond and remember music in cinema is very subjective. Most of the time, after a screening I only remember the images! However, I've noticed that with my film, "The Garden Dissolves into Air," novices and expert cinephiles alike will approach me right away to comment on the beauty of the music! The music was composed by Brian Eno, & I actually put no work into the soundtrack, but I put like a year at least into the image, which was very carefully crafted. It's somewhat frustrating for people to notice the music over the image. But music is so visceral! Why fight that, you know?

This brings me to a question that ties in with your example of Yo La Tengo accompanying the Painleve films. (Love the illustration!) I'm a big fan of Yo La Tengo, but I cannot help resent the fact that we screen those Painleve films here in NY, and not many people really notice, you know? But if a pop band is placed with these beautiful films, suddenly they seem to be so much more "legitimized." Painleve's films really are not exhibited on their own, unless we count institutions like The Whitney & other museums, and invisible underground experimental film programs. Why is that? Furthermore, what cinematic iconography has the most prominence right now? Maybe the still of Cate Blanchett from "I'm Not There." To me this is just a photo of a beautiful celeb posing as another beautiful artist as icon celeb. :)Seriously, I'm a photo editor, filmmaker, curator, & blogger -- & I don't get it! :)

Thanks for this forum.

P.S. Girish, wishing you a beautiful time in India with your family!

December 20, 2007 12:01 PM  
Blogger shahn said...

i've raved and ranted about this several times already on my own blog, so i'll spare everyone here. the problem seems to be in matching the tone of the picture with the tone of the music. why people would put avant garde music over a melodrama or match rock and roll to something slow and lyrical is really beyond my comprehension. a successful marriage of sight and sound is a skill and a talent few musicians today have, even if they are famous. two things keep up my hope: there are many accompanyists diligently digging up original written scores; and musicians such as stephen horne creating original and harmonious pieces that blend well - rent "a cottage on dartmoor" and have your expectations expanded.

December 20, 2007 12:34 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

This shows my DVD illiteracy. Thom, how many films from the 1895-1915 period are available to the public? It's unfortunate that it looks like a "direct-to-video release", I mean it's costless to put out on DVD films from the public domain, but that doesn't mean they resurect on the big screen circuit. Are they even shown in festival events?
If we are lucky Kristin Thompson would blog about Girish's topic (magical wishful thinking)

December 21, 2007 7:42 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Thom, Jen, Shahn and Harry!

Jen -- Even though I loved the live experience of Painleve's films with the band, the films, in my opinion, need no accompaniment! I've watched them since also on DVD (silent) and this time I was able to pay greater, sharper attention to the films themselves (which they richly demand). Qualitatively, they were two totally different experiences, both rewarding.

What IS de rigueur 'accompaniment' is the wonderful book on Painleve and his work, Science is Fiction...

Thom --Those are excellent questions! Altman's article focuses almost exclusively on the USA, except this one brief bit, in the context of lack of accompaniment:

"[T]he American press did sporadically report on the use or lack of music in foreign movie theaters. In 1909, for example, the Film Index reported that in Malaga, Spain, "There is no music and no lecturer, and none seems wanted." Some time later, after the U.S. industry had already converted to sound, the film critic Harry Alan Potamkin noted that Russian audiences and critics were still accustomed to musicless film projections."

I suspect that Altman's book, Silent Film Sound (I linked to a description/table of contents in the links section of the post), might take up the subject in greater detail.

December 21, 2007 8:45 AM  
Blogger girish said...

The 2007 IndieWire Critics Poll master list. The top 20 films are:

1. There Will Be Blood
2. Zodiac
3. No Country for Old Men
4. Syndromes and a Century
5. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
6. I'm Not There
7. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
8. Colossal Youth
9. Killer of Sheep
10. Offside
11. Black Book
12. Once
13. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
14. Eastern Promises
15. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone
16. Regular Lovers
17. The Host
18. Southland Tales
19. Into the Wild
20. Ratatouille

Here are lists of the critics who participated (and their ballots) and the list of best undistributed films.

December 21, 2007 8:57 AM  
Blogger Ed Howard said...

Wow, really interesting (and gratifying) to see Southland Tales show up on at least one critics' poll, albeit towards the bottom. That film seems to have pissed off just about everyone.

December 21, 2007 9:21 AM  
Blogger Thom said...

Harry - I've no idea about current revival circuit or festival exhibitions of films from the early silent period, but I suppose my questions about scores for accompaniment possibly differing from location to location in the past would still be valid if such scores still exist for revivals of silent films shown today. And to help out with that "DVD illiteracy" I'll add that quite a number of films from the period you mention, 1895-1915, are available on various DVD collections (though these account for only a tiny fraction of the actual number of movies made and released, of course). A few examples of DVD collections with films from the early silent period are: Lumiere Brothers' First Films, Melies the Magician, Edison: The Invention of the Movies, Milestone Collection: Silent Shakespeare, Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, Biograph Shorts, Thanhouser Collection, Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer, Slapstick Masters and The Essential Chaplin.

Girish - It seems logical that exhibition with no accompaniment, as one option among many accompaniment options, would have a worldwide tradition. I'll have to add a copy of Altman's book to my holiday wishlist. Meanwhile, I'll see what else I can find out about differences in scores with regard to international distribution back in the day. Thanks, G.

December 21, 2007 11:03 AM  
Blogger Gareth said...

There are a few intriguing references - no more - to non-US practices during the silent era in the book I'm currently reading, American Films Abroad: Hollywood's Domination of the World's Movie Screens from the 1890s to the Present, by Kerry Segrave.

In addition to the fairly ubiquitous practice of benshi narration in Japan in the 1920s, many cinemas in India apparently employed "official readers or demonstrators." The particularly widespread use of such narrators in Japan was used as a justification for not bothering to provide Japanese-language subtitles/intertitles (others suggested that providing such materials in local languages in China would greatly increase interest in American films/stars in that country).

The coming of sound provoked particular concern in Argentina, where there were worries about the employment prospects for film orchestras, a fixture in movie theatres; the issue was important enough that it prompted newspaper editorials. However, there are no details about what kind of music was played; one could only conclude that musical accompaniment was apparently the norm in Argentina, without knowing whether the music played was similar to that in the US.

December 21, 2007 11:23 AM  
Anonymous Jim Flannery said...

There's a bunch of fairly interesting squabbling over the issue of musical accompaniment of Brakhage silents (including comments from Marilyn Brakhage) in the frameworks-l archive for summer 2004 if anyone's interested enough to root around ... the subject lines keep mutating (it keeps coming back, like a dose of valerian) but most of them have something to do with "Brakhage" or "Text of Light".

OTOH some "silent" experimental films are intended to allow the opportunity for freshly improvised/composed live accompaniment for each screening: Eric Theise's Hojas de Maíz for example. The penultimate paragraph of his statement is particularly apropos.

The best experience I've had with the "new soundtrack for old silent" scenario was a screening of A Page of Madness at Pacific Film Archive back in the mid-90s, with a live score performed by Henry Kaiser, Danielle DeGruttola, Greg Goodman and Miya Masaoka -- but then, that was a pretty dang avant-garde film so the avant-garde soundtrack was a bit more appropriate than it would've been for, say, Sherlock Jr. (Finally seeing the film at the correct projection speed of 20fps helped too :-D).

December 21, 2007 3:18 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Intentions aren't the last word on this subject. I presume, for instance, that Murnau intended Sunrise to screen with the recorded score that we always hear. But I suspect that the score simplifies the film anyway - someday I'll rent a DVD, turn the volume down, and investigate.

December 21, 2007 3:27 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

This is an interesting issue. It’s quite possible that I’d enjoy a lot of silents more without their (often quite bad) scores. But I can’t get past the fact that they’re meant to be seen with sound. I like to see films in the closest historical context possible and when they were released they would always have had accompaniment. But I must admit that watching Renoir’s Charleston with no score recently was utterly magical.

Re CF showing silents, er.. silent. When it was the Cercle du Cinema, Langlois always had accompaniment (Kosma was the pianist, who composed for Renoir!). Eventually, he could no longer afford accompaniment and as Roud says, “convinced” himself that silents were meant to be seen silent. But the reality is, in the silent era, no matter how flea-ridden the cinema, there was always accompaniment. Don’t, whatever you do, let auteurism play a role! The directors who’d mind you watching their films with a score are probably few and far between (Brakhage?). Silence was only an option for the “primitives and pioneers”, and even then, not a much favoured one by most accounts.

The score for Fantomas is probably my favourite silent score.


Fantastic blog by the way.

December 21, 2007 5:07 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Oh and is Harry Tuttle kidding?! No auteurs in the silent era.... We must have a very, very different definition of what an auteur is.

December 21, 2007 5:30 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I meant the word and the concept didn't exist yet, not in the minds, not in the practice. We know now they worked just like auteurs (from whatever creative control they had), but hindsight is 20/20. ;)
We wish the primitive filmmakers were respected like artists, and their production projected properly and their reels preserved for posterity. But it didn't happen that way, and reels were disposed after they ran tired, like single-serving commodities, replaced by the newest show.
Precisely it took Langlois to save those reels for art sake.

December 21, 2007 7:02 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I too often watch DVDs with no soundtrack, at least the first time through. I'm always glad when there's an option of a score (or even better, more than one option) on the disc though. Hopefully a good one, but even a perfunctory one is better than nothing because it provides an option (I've yet to encounter a DVD player without a 'mute' function)

For theatrical presentation of silent films, which has become my overwhelming preference for viewing them, I'm an unabashed supported of musical accompaniment. Langlois' approach has its place, but for many reasons I'd hate to see it become the favored option. My own rare experiences seeing silent-era films projected in complete silence have been mixed; when I saw a pair of Sessue Hayakawa action movies at the Library of Congress with no accompanying score, they felt naked. But a Dimitri Kirsanov film presented by SF Cinematheque worked its magic with the sound off.

Addressing your concerns, girish: 1) Thinking of silence as nothing but a 'void' to be filled is a big 'if', and I don't think it's fair to assume it's correct. The images in many silent films, from Metropolis to Phantom of the Opera to the Student Prince of Old Heildelberg to the Story of Floating Weeds, fairly cry out for musical accompaniment. 2) I wouldn't rest the argument on a Thalberg quote, but I would say that, whether it always occurred or not, silent films in the feature-film era were expected to be shown with musical accompaniment. 3) is where the argument really gets interesting though. I would agree that it's certainly possible for music to interfere with image, but would add that in the majority of cases, silence creates another interference.

I agree with your speculative thoughts up to a point. Perhaps we West Coasters are lucky in having more thoughtful presentations of silent film than the norm, because only very rarely have I ever felt that there was much extemporaneity involved in a local silent film accompaniment. Now, sometimes I've felt that a score was prepared in a faulty manner, especially if it's a novice putting it together. But there is an impressive roster of true professionals who live in the Bay Area or visit on a regular basis and though they may have great skill in improvising, they don't fall back on that and skimp on the careful composition and assembly of themes. My involvement as a volunteer for the SFSFF has allowed me enough of a peek into the process to know that preparation is very important to these seasoned accompanists. I don't know what it might be like on the East Coast or elsewhere though.

As for the auteurism issue, I have two responses: one, that auteurism works best for me as a lens for viewing and interpreting cinema, not as an explanation of its creation, so that aspects of a film that are not fully approved by a director do not have to get in the way of auteurist appreciation (and if that weren't the case, think of how few directors would really qualify as full-fledged auteurs?); one more in the form of an unapproved musical score doesn't have to pose a problem. Secondly, since many directors were involved in the process of putting together the scores and cue sheets for their films, and those that weren't (after 1912 or so, anyway) would have at least expected their films to be shown with some kind of music, it may arguably be more of a betrayal of director intentions to watch their films silent. There are exceptions of course, like Carl Dreyer who is said to have preferred the Passion of Joan of Arc to be screened in silence, but these exceptions should not default to the rule.

I think what it comes down to is personal choice. People should do what feels right to them.

December 21, 2007 11:20 PM  
Blogger dave said...

I sometimes watch sound films without the audio as well, which can heighten my attention to visual choices in a film (not the first time through, but maybe the 3rd or 4th). It's interesting to have this dilemma with silents - how much does the sound ditract, or amplify, the authorial choices in the film? How does sound change or contribute to the experience of the visuals in an audio-visual medium? In a primarily visual one (i.e., silents)?

December 22, 2007 12:20 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

I'm curious: Would Hitchcock's Vertigo -- essentially a silent film with brief periods of dialog -- be as powerful an experience without Bernard Herrmann's score?

December 22, 2007 12:37 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

"I'm curious: Would Hitchcock's Vertigo -- essentially a silent film with brief periods of dialog -- be as powerful an experience without Bernard Herrmann's score?"

Considering Hermann's score is one of the most powerful in all of cinema, I'd imagine not.

As to watching sound films without sound, Scorsese says he does this, specifically with 2001.

December 22, 2007 5:25 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, everyone!

Brian, thanks for patiently and thoughtfully addressing my post point by point.

Let me clarify one point: You and I are in complete agreement about what 'auteurism' means. I've always thought it silly that auteurism is sometimes equated with the notion that the director is both the sole creator of a film and also its sole source of 'meaning'. (By contrast, in the post, I alluded to the auteurist notion of "the director as a key source of ‘meaning’ in a film.") Instead, I think you and I both agree that auteurism is a particular reading strategy. I guess what I meant to say in the post was that an externally generated and added musical score (without knowledge or involvment of the director) doesn't necessarily help an auteurist reading of the film.

I should reiterate that my post has a slightly skeptical, polemical flavor born partly from my particular viewing circumstances. I see 99% of the silents on DVD and have almost zero opportunities in my city to see them with musical accomapniment. I can only wonder if and how different my take would be if I lived, e.g. in the Bay Area...

Flickhead, you raise a good question. From what I've read, Hitch had a pretty good idea of the kind of music he wanted from Herrmann in Vertigo and furthermore was intimately involved, during post-production and editing, in the way that this specific music was fused with the images. The music was, I suspect, integral to Hitch's vision of the film. Such intimate involvement of the director with musical accompaniment was, I'm guessing, relatively less common in the silent era (although Brian points out above that directors were involved in the process of choosing or putting together cue sheets and scores.)

Also: the conversation about didactic cinema continues in the comments of the previous post.

December 22, 2007 8:51 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Girish, I meant to acknowledge the way that the skepticism in your post worked well at opening up a discussion on this issue. I know you weren't trying to pronounce your final opinion on this dilemma, but tease out various issues around it. I do think our auteurist approaches line up very closely.

I'd be very curious to hear specific reasons why you felt the live scores you heard for the Fejos and Painlevé films worked so well. I haven't seen Lonesome but your mention of the term "city symphony" makes me wonder if you find silent film scores to work better when accompanying films emphasizing documentary over drama...

Even better, come out to San Francisco next July for the film festival and we can compare experiences in person! ;)

December 23, 2007 8:12 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian, I think you're on to something in your X-raying of my proclivities! I hadn't thought about this myself but your question makes for some self-interrogation.

Both Painleve's films and Lonesome were accompanied by aggressively modernist scores, with unusual instrumentation--all manner of interesting percussion and synth by Alloy Orchestra; and running the guitar-textural gamut from tender to asssaultive by Yo La Tengo. The sound added a completely different, even alien, layer to the image, and made the experience both more complex (affectively), and also more 'sensational' (as in arousing a large variety of sensations).

Lonesome starts out with a stunning city symphony montage of a typical day in New York City and then eases into the narrative. I haven't seen enough silent films with accompaniment to state what kinds of films it might suit better, but I suspect (as you suggest) that I might indeed prefer them in the case of nonfiction films...

I'm off from teaching in the summer each year, so I just might take you up on that idea sometime, Brian!

December 25, 2007 10:45 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Girish, if you do make it to San Francisco, you better be prepared to rumble!!

Well, never the one to try to squeeze the last word in, Brian Darr has nonetheless managed to knock the wind out of me with his erudite response to the rare (musically-accompanied) screening of Intolerance.

December 30, 2007 2:11 PM  

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