Thursday, October 19, 2006

Soundtracks for Silent Film

As much as I love silent film, it is not the easiest or most accessible style of the art out there. If a silent film is made today (and there are a few, although they are direct throwbacks instead of an attempt at anything new), it is considered strictly as art-film and not commercially viable at all. Trying to get an uninitiated person to sit and watch a silent is no easy task, for many reasons. The odd generational and technological issues associated and, especially, the changes in politics and bigotry (for example, characters named "Chin the Chinaman") from when these films were produced to the present can account for a lot of it, but I think the main reason is an artistic and, specifically, a musical one.

Originally, an orchestral score written by someone from the studio accompanied many of the large budget films of the era. However, an orchestra can only perform where there is room to house both 25-40 players as well as an audience. A theater would never sacrifice attendance revenue for musical purposes so, in place of the orchestra, especially in the smaller venues in more rural areas, the musical accompaniment would come from an organ. Sometimes, again for large budget features, the orchestral scores would be arranged for the organ, giving the player something to work from but, more often than not, there would be no arrangement and the organist would be left to his own devices, playing a score based on the action onscreen and some scant cues sent by the studios, giving a good example of early musical improvisation. I saw The Phantom of the Opera, the one silent I was able to see in the theater, this way. A Wurlitzer organ in San Francisco at one of the oldest still standing theaters on the west coast was the way to see it, and a unique experience that I recommend anytime anyone gets the chance.

While I could, I suppose, plink out a tune on a keyboard while I watch a movie, I really don’t have the energy for it and I’m not so good at the instrument. This only leaves me with two options, though. The first, and the one that destroys a lot of people’s enjoyment of these movies, is the scores that are presented with the film. As a rule, I hate these scores. It seems that they’re made to appeal exclusively to people who saw the movies originally in the theaters. They’re completely inoffensive, its true, but they’re horribly derivative, stodgy, and boring. Not only that, it takes away any of the improvisational aspects and canonizes a modern score to a nearly century old movie. Take, for example, The Thief of Baghdad, which I’d previously reviewed. Carl Davis, the biggest offender and possibly the most backward-looking film composer working today, composed the score for a small orchestra and…surprise…the music has a Middle Eastern feel. No doubt, some second-rate Arabic style sounds will put viewers in the time and place much more fully than the massive sets and elaborate period costuming do. There is a scene in which a group rings a huge gong and…surprise…the score has bell sounds. WOW!!!!!!!! A shocking turn! It’s almost like it’s a sound film. Give me a break. The piano scores are much more offensive in the sheer boredom they elicit, and there are only a few listenable scores imprinted on any of the copies of silent films I’ve ever seen.

My solution is to turn the sound off completely and play something of my own, be it a soundtrack to a different film, a piece of classical music, or whatever I randomly pull out of a box. It serves two purposes. First, I’m going to be listening to music I actually like, which goes a long way to my enjoyment of any situation. Second, and more importantly, there is synchronicity in laying disparate things on top of each other. This goes back to the rather silly combination of Wizard of Oz and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. While I have a very hard time believing that the band intentionally wrote the album to coincide with the movie, the connections are undeniably there. At its heart, film music is emotive and often manipulative, in existence almost exclusively to subconsciously move the viewer’s mind toward an emotion that reflects the action onscreen. The music, without the screen images, is just as emotive if more ambiguous in where it’s supposed to lead you. So, I take a film score, say, the soundtrack to Son of Kong by Max Steiner and start the music at the first title of, say, Tod Browning’s The Unknown starring Lon Chaney (my personal favorite of all the silents). The huge orchestral numbers of the score do not directly reflect anything that goes on plot-wise in this small, lurid circus film. Instead, the hugeness of the music reflects a significant amount of irony on the action, turning it, at times, quite hilarious and, at times, truly disturbing. None of this is intended and, were I to start the music a minute earlier or later, the synchronicities would change, or they wouldn’t be there at all. Not just that, I can reflect differently on the movie watching it a second time with, say, Morricone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly soundtrack, turning much of the film decidedly creepy. It, for any movie, lends an element of randomness to it all and puts the brain in a place that is not as obvious as where the included score will take it. It’s not a perfect method, but I have had more success exposing people to the style this way than the alternative. I’ll take random over stale any day and I recommend giving it a shot.