Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Sound of Silence

A Page of Madness
As regular readers of this blog may remember, last month I wrote about my experience of seeing A Page of Madness for the first time. In my post, I stated that I had 'been wondering if silent cinema somehow had a faster conduit to the inner lives of its characters' and that there is 'something about the purity of the medium when it was still silent, its use of a purely visual grammar, which somehow opens up the soul of its characters in a way few modern films seem to achieve'. In the comments of that post, unreceivedopinioin pointed out that it was 'important to remember [that A Page of Madness] would have been originally presented with a live benshi commentary' and that 'silent film was rarely intended as a purely visual experience'. I've been meaning to try and note down some thoughts on this topic ever since then and, having attended a screening of Ozu's 1930 film Walk Cheerfully with live benshi narration earlier this week, now seems like a good time.
I suppose a good place to start would be to formulate the two pertinent questions that seem to spring from the paragraph above:
1) Should the knowledge that silent films were rarely silent affect the way we read/watch them?
2) Does the idea of benshi narration (and other film announcers) take the emphasis off the visuals?
The first question, perhaps, needs to be qualified and dismantled. To say that silent films were rarely silent is perhaps as much of a simplification as calling them silent in the first place. My understanding, such as it is, is that trends differed from country to country, and even from cinema to cinema. Benshi narration, for instance, was a (primarily) Japanese custom and rarely practised in the West where, typically, larger theatres in bigger cities held orchestras, and smaller venues had single pianists. This latter trend, it seems to me, is not so different from the way silent films are still shown theatrically in the west today (in the last year alone I've seen films presented with both a full orchestra and a single pianist, and a number of permutations in between). And, let's not forget, some films, such as Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, were designed to be seen truly silent, with no accompaniment whatsoever. So, in this sense, it then becomes a case of reformulating the question as: should the knowledge that certain silent films were not originally presented silent affect the way we read/watch those particular films?
To this, I think the answer should perhaps be yes. I've only been privileged enough to see two films with live benshi narration. The first experience left something to be desired, as the narration was delivered in Japanese, and the lack of a rake in the venue's seating proved problematic. The English delivery of the Walk Cheerfully narration, however, proved to be quite a different experience. Perhaps the most telling reaction was from Pamela Hutchinson, who runs Silent London, and who wrote the sleeve notes for the BFI's recent DVD of the film. For Pamela, who knew the film well before the screening, a new world of humour opened up within it thanks to the benshi performance. Unfortunately, I hadn't previously seen the film so can't comment with such certainty, but it did seem to me that much of the screening's humour came from the performance, and not from the film per se – and with this in mind, we can see relatively clearly that the benshi narration changed the way the film played to an audience, and even to one that was already familiar with the film. So, how then to reconcile this with my reference to silent cinema as making 'use of a purely visual grammar'?
It seems fitting to rethink the screening of A Page of Madness, and my reaction to it. With hindsight, I suspect that the narration would have cleared up some of my confusion as to the film's narrative (which, it's worth remembering, I praised, stating that 'the film, as a portrait of madness, seems all the better – all the more effective – for the confusion'). Of course, A Page of Madness is something of an extreme example, given that the film contains no intertitles. I also don't know what the narration says, so it's possible that it would have only added to my confusion, and/or to the sensory overload already present from the visuals alone. Furthermore, without seeing A Page of Madness again with the narration, it's impossible to say to what extent that narration would detract from, or enhance, the film's visual prowess.
And yet, whatever the case, it does seem that the knowledge of the narration changes things – that by watching the film without it, we may only be seeing half the story… Though perhaps not. As much as the narration of Walk Cheerfully altered the viewing experience, I didn't get much sense that it altered the film itself – the intertitles told us everything we needed to know that the other visuals did not.
Walk Cheerfully
Perhaps unhelpfully for my interests here, Walk Cheerfully wasn't the most visually exciting film – especially when compared to A Page of Madness – which makes it harder to comment on whether the presence of the narration de-emphasises the visual aspects of the film. This got me wondering if I would have a different opinion of the film's visuals if I had watched it without the narration, so I decided to ask Pamela for a brief comment. And, while I was at it, I decided to also ask her the two questions I formulated at the start of this post. Here's what she said:
As I said on the night, watching the film with an audience is always going to make the jokes funnier, and the Benshi emphasised that, adding in her comments and dialogue. She was very witty and expressive. As a fan of silent films, there were times when I wished she didn't fill in all the gaps though. I'm used to seeing a story told via meaningful looks and pithy dialogue – and it didn't add anything to hear [the character] Kenji counting every penny into his friend's hand, for example. In that way, the narration made me take the film far less seriously. There are some gorgeous moments in that film and I think you miss them if you're hearing "later that day" or "where is Kenji I wonder?" over an Ozu pillow shot.
As regards your first question: you do have to remember when you're watching a silent that there is the film itself, the silent moving photographs and separate to that, the possibilities of exhibition. A modern soundtrack can make you look at a film differently. If, however, you were watching the film in a fleapit in 1905, with a film lecturer and a pianist following a cue sheet of contemporary music, you would have had a different experience, but not necessarily a more authentic one.
As far as the Benshi taking the emphasis away from the visuals, there are two ways that can happen. Literally, a lecturer's presence encourages your eyes to wander from the screen. More importantly, narration risks being reductive: it's a shame in a well-made film to shrink any one image to one meaning. An image of a teapot or a train in an Ozu film means a lot more than "it's time for tea" or "the trains are running".
So, it would seem, we do have to acknowledge that hearing narration over a silent film does change the way we read the film (for better or for worse). With this in mind, then, it seems that unreceivedopinioin was right to suggest my reading of A Page of Madness was somewhat incomplete: it may have been the correct subjective response to the version of the film that I saw, but – to an extent – the version that I saw was also incomplete.
The problem of 'incompleteness', of course, is rife among silent films. Many of the great works of the silent era remain only in incomplete versions, with new restorations continually seeking to reinstate them to their former glory. In this age of seeking out (striving for) such completeness, it seems interesting that narration on silent films – in the west at least – is such a rare beast. Would it really be that hard to record a film commentator and offer their narration as an alternate audio track on a DVD? (Of all the DVDs in my collection, I can only think of one which has someone talking over it in such a way). But perhaps a recording would miss the point. To return more specifically to the example of the Benshi – these people were the rock stars of their day, and the live element seems crucial to their art. So perhaps this is yet another element we need to throw into what is seemingly an increasingly complex question (and perhaps one with no clear answer).
At the risk of ending on a note totally tangential to the main thrust of this post, it does seem like another issue has been raised in my ramblings here – and, seeing as it's something else I've been thinking about since my discussions with unreceivedopinioin, I hope you'll indulge me…
It seems that, in the modern day, there's a real tendency to look at silent films as a single unit – call it a genre, if you will. Why and when this has happened is perhaps difficult to say, but it does seem (to me at least) that 'silents' are lumped together in way that 'talkies' are not (though perhaps that's only true of English-language talkies – you'd never say that you were 'off to see a talkie film', but I suspect some might say 'I'm off to see a foreign-language film', thereby lumping together everything that isn't English-language in one fell swoop). Here, it seems, I should confess that I think my comments on A Page of Madness are as guilty of this as they are of overlooking the absence of a Benshi. But the point I'm trying to make is that silent films are as diverse as their talkie equivalents. There's always going to be a need to group films together for the sake of scholarship, but I fear that silent cinema is drawing the short straw here. As this post shows, silent films, and their reception, are a dense, complicated landscape consisting of many different elements worthy of detailed, individual study.


Peter Baran said...

I suppose the question I would ask is, with the knowledge that Japanese silent film-makers had that their films would be accompanied by a Benshi, how does that affect the screenwriting and filming process. As big western releases were accompanied by scores, or scoring notes, were Benshi's given notes at the start. Were there pure improv Benshi's or did they prep excessively. I have very little idea how a Benshi would even work in A Page Of Madness.

Given that a Benshi would be doing improvised dialogue, the film-maker may aim for less ambiguity, since if the Benshi doesn't get the mood of a moment, they will confuse the entire audience.

I thought the screening was fantastic, eye-opening and equally potentially troubling in many of the ways you suggest. (It also made me wonder significantly why it wasn't done in the West - an actor/explainer would have been as cheap as a pianist).

unreceivedopinioin said...

Alex, your original response to 'A Page of Madness' was quite valid. It demonstrates the unique potency of the cinematic form. Less valid were any assertions or conclusions about 'silent film' drawn from that experience.

I suppose what I wanted to correct was the fallacy that films from this era were silent. They weren't. They were presented with musical accompaniment and - in Japan - with narration. In other languages they're known as 'mute' rather than silent, which is a much more appropriate description, I feel.

Incidentally, wasn't 'A Page of Madness' one of those films that were lost - for over half a century - the version recovered materially incomplete?

It is an amazing thing to behold.