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...