“As If It Is A Masterpiece”

A conversation with the musicians of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto
by Victoria Sturtevant

I love the aesthetic qualities of silent film:  the lingering close-ups, the luminous black and white, the clackety mechanical beauty of the hand-cranked camerawork, the delicately mimetic acting, the direct sensual joys of live music playing in the dark.  It all has a kind of operatic intensity--a hypnotic, rapturous hold on the viewer, on me.  With a good silent film, I will go into a kind of trance, far more potent than talkies can produce.  The images are gorgeous, magical, and I am so easily seduced.

One of the particular joys of my first Giornate del Cinema Muto has been the ways that the festival takes seriously the experience of losing oneself in a silent film.  The elements are right--the film is real celluloid, the theater is a proper movie palace with plush red seats (and it’s really dark), the audiences are respectful and passionately involved with the films, and most importantly, the music is right.  It is live, it is beautifully performed, and it is often improvised, capturing the spirit of a moment.  The festival is not just about studying historical artifacts or curiosities, but about celebrating them.  We are here not just seeking knowledge, but willing and hoping to be moved.

There are moments, though, when I feel myself coming out of that trance--suddenly, and with a sense of having been betrayed--when a film reminds me that it was made in the past--a past whose political norms and social values are discordant with my own.  Of course the most potent example of this experience for me is D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915).  I can be completely caught up in the story of love and duty and political terror.  And then along comes one of Griffith’s blackface characters to jolt me out of the story world and into a position of deeply political critical detachment, anger even.  As a feminist, I find that most films provoke a variety of responses at the same time--I can be swept away by a brilliant performance from Lillian Gish or Mabel Normand, even while resisting and resenting the ways that they sometimes simper or coo, in fantasies of femininity that have gone out of political favor.  Frankly, I have the same response to even the most outstanding contemporary films from time to time.  But in the world of silent film, this element of resistance changes the experience of rapture that seems to define the silent film for me.  Contemporary spectators both can and can not bridge that gap between ourselves and the values that the films proffer.  In less consciously political ways, I think many contemporary spectators feel a certain distance from some elements of these films.  A heroine who may have seemed appealingly virtuous and delicate to an audience of 1911 can appear insipid or merely wishy-washy to an audience today.  They are simply not our narratives, but narratives of an increasingly distant past that we lovingly celebrate--because of some differences, and in spite of others.

During the last two days of the 2001 festival, I spoke to three of the Giornate’s internationally recognized accompanists, Neil Brand, Günter Buchwald, and Phil Carli about their role in playing through that distance.  I was particularly interested in how they approach the temporal gap between themselves and the films that they are accompanying.  They practice a profession that was put out of business in the 1930s, but do so with a proficiency and an artistry that give enormous vitality to the films we see, that turn celluloid artifacts and historical curiosities into vibrant performances, marked by the live-ness of the music as much as by the precious antique-ness of the films.

I talked to Neil Brand about his perception of the cultural gap between the films and the audiences, and how he understood his role in bridging it.  Particularly, I was interested in the very palpable differences between viewing silent films on video or DVD and viewing them in live venues, with proper music.  I mentioned that I noticed that audiences are much more likely to find a film quaint or silly if it is playing with recorded music.  The moments of exaggerated melodrama, of tenuously suspended disbelief, and of outmoded cultural convention always risk allowing the audience to treat the film as camp, rather than drama. 

I do see it as a gap, and a gap that needs bridging.  Right from the start, I knew I didn’t want to produce music contemporary to the film, I wanted to produce music that was contemporary to the audience...That quaintness is something you sometimes have to play against.  You have to kill the laugh--to smooth over the bumpier moments … There is an organic relationship between the music, the film, and the audience … Music for silent films changes for every generation.  These films, although they are products of their time, have timeless elements.  You have to look for what is relevant to us.  It’s mythic storytelling.  In drawing from historical events, the only point is to address something real and contemporary to the audience.

One of the ideas that came up several times in our conversation was the necessity of regarding each screening of the film as an expressive performance, rather than “putting a glass case around a historical document.”  One of the guiding metaphors of our discussion was the idea that contemporary performances of silent films are like contemporary performances of Shakespeare’s plays:  “You can do Shakespeare in any costume--and what the performers see in it, and what the audience gets out of it will always change in light of world events.”  Brand argues that this vitality and currency are necessary to the celebration of the films:  “Silent films are not valid historical documents until they’re in front of an audience.”

Günter Buchwald also emphasized the necessity of music in bringing life and dimension to the film:

It’s a very important point.  Music brings somehow the corporal feeling of emotion.  I wouldn’t say the film has no emotion, it wants to express emotions, but you cannot feel it corporally.  But as soon as you have music, as you look at the film, you get this corporal feeling, and maybe that gives you less the need to laugh, to let out some of that tension.

He expressed the idea that music is vibration, that you can feel in your body what the musician is adding to the film.  The music affects your heart rate, and touches your skin.  That understanding of the role of music places a particularly strong responsibility on the shoulders of the accompanist.  Music can radically, and physically, alter our experiences of a film.

Phil Carli took a complementary view (I should mention that I was speaking to each musician individually, and not in a group).  His touchstone is an encyclopedic knowledge of the time period he is accompanying.  Günter Buchwald calls Carli “the expert on music made before 1920.”  Carli looks for the film’s intentions, its own terms:

(The accompaniment will help the audience understand the film) if the music is absolutely as serious, and as earnest as the sentiments being expressed, which may go against your own inclinations, but that’s part of acting, or part of any performance…. You do your best by the films on their own terms.

One of the most remarkable things about my conversation with Phil Carli was the way he always found the answers to a film’s contradictions in the specific historical circumstances of the film’s cultural background.  When I expressed my struggle with some of the representations of women in the Griffith films or the Japanese melodramas, he responded by bringing up the need for flexibility and a respect for history in our judgments about a text’s politics:

PC:  You’re looking at it in a very specific gender identification way. 

VS:  I can’t not--I’m a contemporary spectator.

PC:  Really? …. As a contemporary spectator I’m always thinking--well, as a contemporary spectator I’m not completely informed as to what they’re thinking, or what the situation is.  And to impose my own views-- it’s interesting, I’m not saying it’s unjust, but I’m saying we miss something if we impose too much into it, if you see what I mean.

I did, of course, and I’m particularly aware of how my interpretation of the Japanese films has been limited by my lack of knowledge of that culture.  The narratives of those films showed women in constant peril—of rape, of abduction, of destitution and moral collapse.  In some ways far more political than their American counterparts, some of the Japanese films nonetheless seemed to me to fetishize the traumas of subjugation that were facing these female characters. 

Günter Buchwald, who has particularly broad experience in accompanying Japanese silents, argued for those images as an ideological tool of enormous power, within their own cultural context.  He described the experience of writing a score for Suzuki Shigeyoshi’s 1929 film, Nani ga kanojo o s? saseta ka (What Made Her Do It?), another film that explicitly centers around the victimization of a young woman:

What was the reaction of the people?  In Tokyo where it was shown in ‘29, people went out of the cinema demonstrating and crying and saying “Down with capitalism.”  Just to show the single fate of a person and it provokes a reaction of a mass movement.  You wouldn’t create that reaction in a European or American film.  If you want to make a mass movement, you will certainly show a huge crowd, but in Japan it works differently.

His music, he said, picked up some of the fury that the he experienced in watching the woman’s victimization, and thereby tapped into some of the film’s rich history of provoking outrage, rather than simple pity.

Closer to home for me, this year’s Oscar Micheaux program brought to mind the fascinating and pernicious tradition of stereotypes that has plagued representations of African Americans in U.S. cinema.  Although the Micheaux films themselves were designed to resist and unravel those stereotypes, some of the earliest films in the program, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1914)—I’m particularly thinking of the scenes involving the character Topsy--showed much more fidelity to some of the uglier aspects of the minstrel tradition.  My most pressing question for these three was how does a musician respond to an image that s/he finds actually offensive, or feels passionately about in a negative way?  What kind of response can respect both the reality of the social conditions that produced the picture, and the justifiable discomfort that a contemporary audience will experience when confronted with a film that embraces a stereotype?  Neil Brand:  “Those films are the hardest because they are not real.  Audiences have trouble with those as well.  You have to fulfill their expectations without pandering to them.  Give them what they want, but not in the way they want it.” 

For instance, Brand indicated that in playing along with the ride of the KKK in TheBirth of a Nation, he would play the dramatic excitement that Griffith puts into the image.  But he would also maybe underscore that excitement with a sound like funeral bells or a dirge, playing beneath the surface, to capture the mourning that contemporary spectators do experience, because of our knowledge of the social terrorism that is being celebrated.  Or when accompanying William Wellman’s Wings (1927), during the flying sequences, he did not use the score that had originally been composed to celebrate those images, a balletic score.  Instead “I tried to give it a harsher sense of the brutality of war.”  He even draws upon musical references that may be ahistorical, relative to the film, if those references will capture an image for a contemporary audience.  For instance, he says that in accompanying Wings, he used some of the rhythms of John Williams’ score for Superman (1978), a reference that will evoke the right feeling for a contemporary audience, in a very subtle way, even if it doesn’t precisely fit the historical moment of the film’s production.

Phil Carli was uncomfortable with the idea of using music in a way that contradicts or undermines a film’s images, regardless of the ideological content of the film:

PC:  If you create an irony or dissonance, you’re not being true to the film.  You have to have a responsibility to that.  It’s not up to us to reinterpret the film.  That’s why I always use the phrase “film accompanist.”  We’re partnered.  But the most important thing is the film.  The minute you set up to deny what the film is, you put yourself and the film in danger of ridicule. 

VS:  Why?

PC:  Because frankly, it’s snotty.  It’s putting the accompaniment and the music above our purpose.  The performer is never more important than the film.  And if you impose your own opinions contrary to the film, that’s very very dangerous.  It’s not fair to the audience for one thing, because they can’t draw their own conclusions from what the film is trying to present.  I always think of it as a bridge so that the interpretation might be easier.  That doesn’t mean that you’re slavish about it, but I’ve played films that are at odds ideologically with what I believe in. And the other thing is that (although some) films do draw upon the minstrel tradition, I don’t look at it, for instance as obnoxious, partly because it’s historical, and it’s part of American theatrical history, and there are a lot of things which came out of it.  In fact, it’s a sensitive point to make, but there’s a lot of things you have to do, and allow for history, and say, “This is the way it is; and we don’t do this anymore.”  But to deny it, or to denigrate it sets us up as somehow superior, which I’m never quite sure is the right thing to do if we’re trying to get a balanced view of what the artifact is.  You don’t do it right at the top.

All the musicians I spoke to raised this point about the primary responsibility of the accompanist being to serve the film—never to put the music above the film in importance.  Neil Brand noted that, “The one thing I hate is music that draws attention to itself, or musicians who draw attention to themselves.”

Günter Buchwald raised a slightly different view of the audience, and their relationship to the screen.  He was more comfortable with the idea of a political commentary (or other kind of commentary) being expressed in the music, as long as it doesn’t threaten the integrity of the film.  Again, the film comes first.

The music should contribute a comment on something.  We should not only play the feeling that is on the screen, but also to make comments.  But we have to take care about the film.... I could maybe destroy the film in certain ways, if I only make comments.  My duty as a musician for film is first of all to help this film to be seen.  And at the next level I can say, “In my opinion, as a musician, as an interpreter of this film,” because I’m an interpreter like you when you’re sitting in the public.  But I speak  aloud; I give my comments aloud.  So I have to take care, I have to think about what I comment.  It’s very easy to say, “This is a ridiculous scene” or something like that; we have to take care.  We must be conscious of the fact that whatever note we play, we make an interpretation. 

He specifically argued that it is ideal for the musician to be able to see the film before playing it, so that a coherent and thoughtful interpretation can be developed.  When the accompanist sees a film for the first time during a performance, he noted that the musician is always behind the film, trying to keep up, rather than guiding the viewer. 

With the films he has accompanied many times, Buchwald has worked on finding subtle and respectful ways to insert a level of interpretation.  In Buster Keaton’s The General (1927), for instance, he is uncomfortable with the final battle scene.

I always have difficulties because it is comic what he is playing, but people are dying one or the other way--it’s cruel.  And especially when I play it in the presence of kids, I would like to calm down the whole scene.  But this is my own feeling on the scene.  I’m tense in that way. 

The idea that there could be children in the audience underscores this sense of responsibility.  Spectators come to a silent film with varying degrees of critical savvy.  The music has to walk a careful line in offering an interpretation of the film, of taking the spectator’s hand in a way, without oversimplifying.  Similarly, with some other battle scenes:

I didn’t give the battle the sound of a battle, but played a chorale.  So the music said, “Well we have a battle going on, but we would like to have peace.”  Like last night when Donald Sosin accompanied Tremblement de Terre (en Italie, 1905), he just played a kind of chorale music, with all these destroyed houses, and the people on the street.  He just wanted to say to the people in the film, and to say to us, “Life will continue somehow and take it as it is.”

Buchwald has a slightly more resistant approach to the final scene of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), framed by a warning that any such choices which explicitly revise or contradict the film’s apparent intentions must be taken with extreme care:

We comment, but how strong can you be?  It’s not our duty--I would never say, “Look at that film, it’s so boring.”  You shouldn’t make music which destroys it.  If I don’t agree with the story, then either I decide not to accompany that film or … I will do my very best to come around.  For example Metropolis: I don’t agree with the ending, like Fritz Lang didn’t.  It’s not the political way to have the solution.  So I just make a break at that moment when the capitalist, Freder, and the workman are shaking hands, and it’s very emotional.  I just make a break; I always stop playing.  I saw that film with Wagner music and I thought that was overdone.  Even if it fits well with the film, I say “No,” my comment is I say just nothing; think about it. 

Making us think, of course, is the whole point.  The music gives us the opportunity to think, to care, to be moved and surprised.  The music lets the films work their magic, to seduce, but also to challenge and to inform.  Neil Brand notes that silent films, especially the less-known and recently discovered films, deserve that chance to enrapture us:  “You have to play it as if it is a masterpiece, until it proves it isn’t.”

The Sound of Music - recent impressions from the birth of Cinema
By Mihai Chirilov

- I saw Un chien andalou on MTV.

A pause. Feeling - all of a sudden - elated I had found the right sentence, just the perfect sentence to begin a novel (about what, I haven't the faintest idea; perhaps, something SF-ish about the death of sound cinema and the return to silent films...), I go back to my demonstration. Being all the more convinced of what I am saying as I see the growing reticence and irony of those around me. Still, I refrain from pushing the boundaries of my intent: Had he lived today, Buñuel would have directed music videos for Radiohead...

Sacile, the last day. The day of first impressions.

For the last 20 years, Sacile has been the headquarters of the most important silent film festival - the only one, nowadays; in a few years from now, in my SF novel, one of the tens of such festivals. But now, surely, THE most important: a sort of Cannes of the silent film. It's true that my fellow collegians, who are mostly the same age as myself, look at me less suspiciously than at the beginning. We all are at the end of an 8-day film-marathon and 6-day panels on the silent films seen nonstop from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. - no lunch break included... (Considering we are in Italy!)

Some seem to begin to like my short improvised speech, which I didn't believe in so much at first. It was just something I felt one had to do in order to break the routine. To get me back to the present from a past in which, with a little imagination (or blasphemy), I felt I could belong as I belong to the present day. To stop feeling as if I were in a museum, but in a moviehouse, Coke bottle - socket included. Just like when you've seen too much Hollywood: you long for a little something European or Asian. The opposite being entirely true as well.

When you see too much and you don't hear a thing - except pianos, pianos and pianos; an orchestra, sometimes - you long for cues such as "You can drink all you like, as long as it's Corona." Spoken cues, not written ones. It's a sure bet you ain't gonna have'em. Or, perhaps, you can have them, but spoken only in Japanese by a s/he-"benshi": those accompanying voices (on stage, opposite the piano-player) which explained - live - what one could not get through the image; which were dubbing the actors and, sometimes, the sounds from what, later on, would be called soundtrack; which were reading the inserts and which - in the middle of the action - would open a large parenthesis to inform the audience that the character who had just popped in in the story is played by the actor X, also starring in the film Y which could be seen until last week in the moviehouse Z. Those sure victims of a cinema hurried to an execution called "sound".

OK, you can't do anything to get the beer you want; but you can still "do smth about" the sound. You can "do smth about" music. You can "do" sampling. You can do unexpected - even risky - connections; just like Kubrick's father (moviehouse pianist at the time of the Silent Film) felt the need to go into a cheerful tune every time the characters on the screen were about to start up on a drinking party. Or, if you happen to be the hired pianist, you can peep and eavesdrop on MTV, associating a wedding scene not with the "by-numbers" marital march, but with some chords from Like a Virgin, automatically bringing before your eyes the bridal dress worn by Madonna in the video.

- Gee, you sound like you're a fan of Moulin Rouge...

Baz Luhrmann likes silent films too. Moulin Rouge is simply a tribute to those - in colour.

Méliès and Madonna. Micheaux (Oscar; the most important coloured filmmaker of the silent era who worked within the system; Sacile 2001 paid tribute to him with a retrospective and an impressive album) and Michael (Jackson, to be sure).

Why not?

Yeah; how come no?

Smashing Pumpkins brought the Méliès moon and his explosive tricks in the Tonight, Tonight video. In Isobel, Michel Gondry turned Björk into the Scandinavian goddess of the silent film: "Every time I'm looking at old films, I'm simply fascinated by their texture, their depth and sensuousness. For Isobel, I longed to recapture something of that. It was out of the question to use modern tricks for this video. The only camera allowing you to do fondus and enchainés directly is the Mitchell, which is terribly heavy and huge. We had to go back and back and back and re-expose the filmed images, just like the cameramen of the silent cinema." (Franck Dupont, "Michel Gondry: le petit chimiste", Cahiers du Cinema 1089: 113.) Why - then - should the silent film not return the favour, receiving in its sanctuary Michael Jackson's Thriller and Britney Spears's Baby One More Time? At least experimentally. Imagine Murnau's Nosferatu walking on his toes on the first measures of Thriller - remixed accordingly, of course!

A few years back, one of the veteran pianists of the festival took the liberty of throwing in some bits of Beatles in his improvisation. I salute the initiative even if it were gratuitious - which I'm sure it was not. It was simply an attempt to test the audience's openness. To give it a recognizable equivalent instead of the usual routine, "digestibly" impersonal (even though each piano-player has his/her own style), reasonably pale behind the images which have to steal the show. The result of that: the mixture was considered more than inadequate. One reason being that the film was suddenly being pushed in the background by a more attractive - because more popular - protagonist, and another one because such - inadequate! - company could only be seen as an outrage to the taboo martial-bearing of the work of art.

Since then, the mentalities seem to have evolved: at the latest (2001) edition of the Sacile festival we could see a gem by Teinosuke Kinugasa, Kurutta Ippeiji (1926), which is a masterpiece of the Japanese avantgarde, with live techno music. The only elements missing from the setting were the stroboscopes, the mirroring globe hung to the ceiling and all those who could not resist sitting & got up & danced. But nobody danced, of course; the majority resigned to a steady beat of heads, hands and feet. It was precisely this which made it an inadequate evento musicale - not because there was no alchemy between the images and the "soundtrack". On the contrary, the film emerged victorious from this unusual clash; its extreme modernity (the revolutionary style of editing and shooting) had a rather pale contender in the person of electro-composer Taho Teardo - one more evidence for those who stick to the prevalence of the image. A failed, but interesting, experiment. As interesting as the other musical events of the festival: Orochi (1925; yet another Japanese film - accompanied, this time, by traditional Japanese orchestra - and, even more surprisingly, the traditional, Western piano accompanying the other Japanese films in the festival), Was ist los im Zirkus Beely (1926; a German thriller whose action takes place in the backstage of a circus, but whose fascinatingly somber "soundtrack" had nothing to do with the awful joyfulness of vintage circus music) and, especially, East Side, West Side (1927; flimsy American melodrama, deliciously ridiculous, "dubbed" by a jazz band but "saved" by the consciously over-the-top be-bop of the singer - which struck me as the best comment to the film itself).

What's left to be done is simple: those in charge should update their archive with fresh CDs and DVDs. One of the pianists from Sacile (the youngest) assured me he sees no obstacle - in principle - to the implementation of the "Moulin Rouge method"; but, in the fever of the improvisation for this or that film (films he hasn't see before), the connexions between music & image tend to be simultaneous and mechanical, prone to primary reflexes. Although it seems - and may well be - as simplistic and mechanical, the musical illustration of a dream-sequence with the eight key-notes from the chorus of Abba's  I Have a Dream is far from being such a reflex. But perhaps, after a deep plunge in MTV and other musical channels, you see the world differently. Pop music has the great quality (which sometimes becomes a flaw) of being not only easily reproducible, but equally hard to be erased from one's mind. Still, it's the easiest way to get yourself a brand new set of reflexes.

I really don't know what might be the "sound" of this "back-to-the-present" proposal in real life. In my SF novel, it works marvelously: for instance, the grand battle scene from Abel Gance's Napoleon is illustrated with a remix from Prodigy, while Blur and R.E.M. are ensuring - alternately - the background for the whole D.W. Griffith. There is no taboo, therefore remix versions (remakes, if you prefer) of silent films also exist - obtained as a result of an image-treatment very similar to the sampling of a DJ. And, also in the novel, there is a music video section of the Sacile festival: what is a music video if not a 5-minute silent film with musical soundtrack? - the defining difference being that the Image comes second to Music, and not vice versa.

But novels, just like the films shown in Sacile, are silent.

Unless you start reading them aloud while the TV set is on...