Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Never Silent

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival
July 12-15, 2012  
Castro Theatre, San Francisco

“Silent film” is a misnomer. Although the films created before the advent of the “talkies” didn’t have a synchronized soundtrack, they were accompanied by live music, sometimes sound effects and even narration. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has selected a varied collection of musical artists to bring to each screening a substantive accompaniment that will complement and amplify the visuals of each film.   By choosing artists who utilize both traditional and innovative accompaniment, the festival highlights the diversity of its programming.

Organist Dennis James takes a bow at the SFSFF 2011 Winter Event
An organist coaxing an astonishing variety of music and sounds from a pipe organ is probably the most traditional accompaniment for a silent film (or at least the most familiar to modern audiences). Musician Dennis James embodies this archetype. Hearing him passionately accompany a lush Hollywood blockbuster on the Castro’s Mighty Wulitzer transports the viewer to the golden age of silent films when movie palaces possessed magnificent built in organs. James employees the technique and music of the film’s period and, when possible, uses the musical score sent out by studios with the film’s print to the theatres.  Appropriately this year, James will accompany Ernst Lubitsch’s biblical epic, The Loves of the Pharos (1922) and Fred Niblo’s The Mark of Zorro (1920) starring the irrepressible Douglas Fairbanks.

The solo pianist playing a prearranged or improvised score was, and still is, another common style of accompaniment for silent films. The gifted silent film pianist is able to modify his style to match the tone of the film he’s accompanying and to bring to each scene music that deepens the emotion of the action. This year’s festival includes the return of two outstanding pianists, Donald Sosin and Stephen Horne. Sosin, who also scores silent films for archival prints and DVD release, will display his musical agility by playing for two stylistically divergent films.  He will accompany Sun Yu’s Little Toys (1933) set during the political turmoil of China in the 1920s, as well as Josef von Sternberg’s gritty Docks of New York (1928), an important antecedent to film noir.

Similarly Horne, the BFI’s house pianist, will accompany a trio of dissimilar narratives. He’ll accompany Victor Flemings high-spirited Mantrap (1926), William Beaudine’s adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s dramatic romance The Canadian (1926) and the original screen adaption of Stella Dallas  (1925) directed by Henry King. Horne often turns his solo performances into ensembles with his impressive ability to simultaneous accompany his own piano playing with the flute or accordion.

Pianist Stephen Horne accompanies himself on the flute at the Cheltenham Film Festival
In the silent era, larger movie houses often employed ensembles, and even  orchestras, to provide film accompaniment.  Two ensembles, with quite different styles, will be featured this year. The Swedish based Matti Bye ensemble will present a fresh score to the newly restored print of Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s expressionistic masterpiece Pandora’s Box (1929), starring the iconic Louis Brooks. They will also accompany Mauritz Stiller’s Erotikon (1920), an apt choice as ensemble leader Bye scored the film for the Swedish Film Institutes restoration.

The second ensemble, a quintet of Coloradans, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, has a different approach to scoring. Instead of creating a completely new score for their accompaniment or using a studio score, the group compiles their scores from period music, a technique use by ensembles as well as pianist and organist during the silent era. Mont Alto will provide accompaniment for Hanns Schwarz’ romantic tragedy The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna in which Brigitte Helm (Maria from Metropolis) stars as the eponymous heroine who sacrifices luxury for love.

Employing another technique of the silent era, Mont Alto will collaborate with Foley artist Ben Burrt to bring together music and sound effects for the opening night film, William A. Wellman’s Wings.  On closing night, Mont Alto will play both for Buster Keaton’s final silent film, The Cameraman (1928) and for the short preceding the feature, Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon. During the latter, actor Paul McGann will read the narration that Méliès created for the short, recreating the film’s original style of auditory presentation. During the festival, McGann will also collaborate with Stephen Horne to partner words and music to images. He will read the letters of the explorer Ernest Shackleton during the screening of Frank Hurley’s documentary South. The film depicts the events of Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition to Antarctica utilizing footage shot by Hurley, the expedition’s official photographer.

The Alloy Orchestra hard at work--note the bedpan behind the percussionist.
The Alloy Orchestra will bring another kind of aural twist to the screenings. In addition to traditional percussion, wind and keyboard instruments, they use found objects and electronic instruments to create powerful and almost discordant scores for silent films. Their scores are perfect for modernist films that explored an age marked by political strife and social upheaval. Appropriately, they will accompany an avant-garde adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s nightmarish look at bureaucracy, The Overcoat (1926). In another suitable pairing of film and sound, the Toychestra, an all woman band that implements a variety of toys to create distinctive aural experience, will collaborate with Donald Sosin to accompany the program The Irrepressible Felix the Cat!—a collection of silent Felix cartoons.

Each soloist and ensemble that plays for the festival, whether employing traditional or novel styles and instruments, brings a unique soundtrack to each film.  By combining these live musical performances with pristine 35mm prints of the films and the setting of an authentic movie place, the SFSFF both recreates and expands on the traditional presentation of silent films. Presenting the films in this manner allows the audience to discover the emotional power, artistic majesty and historical importance of silent film.

1 comment:

  1. Very nicely put! I wonder if Stephen will have his hands inside the piano this time? I wish Joanna Seaton was performing with Donald, she's been missed, but this musical program (including the group I dislike) looks as full and balanced as any series the SFSFF has presented.