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.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Films This Week

(Click here to read my general introduction to the 'Films This Week' series of posts.)
 
18/04/13
Went to see Edgar Wright introducing An American Werewolf in London (as his Screen Epiphany). The film holds up well as a comedy (it's very funny), but perhaps less well as a horror (it's not very scary) – though the transformation effects are still very powerful (there's a beautiful physicality to them). There's an interesting element to the film concerning the weight of guilt, but it feels a little underdeveloped. As a whole, the human drama doesn't convince – I barely believed a single moment of it. Unfortunately this leads to a lack of real engagement (which might be why the film isn't scary), but there are some moments which do really work, such as the crash sequence. There's also some very fine (and early) steadicam work. Edgar Wright's intro was a lot of fun – very effusive, and it helped to highlight the elements that make it such a cult film. It was definitely the right way for me to see the film for the first time.
 

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Films This Week

(Click here to read my general introduction to the 'Films This Week' series of posts.)
 
The Place Beyond the Pines
 
07/04/13
Watched Pasolini's Notes for an African Orestes. It was an interesting insight into his creative process, a working out of ideas and a thinking through of ideologies (a grinding of his axe, you could say). It was only slightly let down by an (unintentionally) amusing interlude of awful jazz, which quickly got tedious
 
08/04/13
In the evening I went to see The Place Beyond the Pines. Initially, I was a little disappointed when it took a turn towards crime drama (I was hoping Luke would resist the temptation), but actually it was so well handled that my reservations soon subsided (many an action director should take note of the way Cianfrance constructed his chase scenes, the best I've seen on screen for quite some time). And then came the brilliant plot twist, which was genuinely unexpected (I'm very glad I got to see the film before I knew anything about it), leaving in its wake all the psychological depth and intensity I was hoping for from the film – though it's true that the third section isn't as involving or as interesting as the middle part, which was a slight shame (it also became a little – just a touch – too histrionic). Still, it's exciting to see a nuanced character drama like this on the big screen, especially when every single element is so brilliantly constructed and performed. 
 
09/04/13
Went to see Peter Kubelka presenting Monument Film. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I know I wasn't expecting it to be quite so… visceral. Terrifying, almost (at first). The experience made me think back to my recent blog post about film as faith. As I watched, I felt like I was seeing the soul of the medium laid bare – as Kubelka said, with these films he has touched the essence of cinema. The experience felt as much religious as cinematic. So here we are again: film as religion. Kubelka spoke of film as connected to a collective memory (a similar point to that made by Scorsese) – maybe that's what I'm getting at? Either way, it was quite an experience. Kubelka himself seems like a fascinating individual: likeable, effusive and effervescent. Sure, some of his ideas come across as comical cod-philosophy, but his enthusiasm is infectious and irresistible, and some of his thoughts are genuinely interesting (like his suggestion that the windows of gothic cathedrals are the forerunners of cinema). Overall, it was a great evening which got me thinking about the physical medium in a way I haven't for quite some time. I'm excited… It's just a shame I can't afford to shoot on film!
 
11/04/13
Watched the Alice Guy disc from the Kino Gaumont collection. I enjoyed the trick films and the sly humour of the comedies, but some of the actualities (and the phonescènes) were a little dull. Actually, I generally got a little restless and bored by the end of the collection – but 64 films running over three and a half hours is a lot to take in in more-or-less one sitting. Some of them reminded me of other silent films I've seen (e.g. some of the stuff in the Cento anni fa collections), and it got me thinking about whether any of the early filmmakers (say, pre-1910) had any kind of real auteurist signature. The only one I could think of who does is Méliès (his work is unmistakeably his). Of the Guy films, I think A Sticky Woman may be my favourite. The Christ film at the centre of the collections is beautifully designed though (and quite epic for the time). It also felt like it was made with real conviction. 
 
12/04/13
Watched The Decameron, which played like a paean to bad teeth. I thought the first half was an enjoyable put down of the institution of the church, while the second was a fun – if slightly less entertaining – call to arms for decadence. It also has some pretty arresting images. I think the scenes with Pasolini's painter were the best. In the evening Dad and I watched Salò. It feels like another example of intellectual, metaphorical, unempathetic cinema (much like Theorem). There's (very deliberately) no attempt to make us emotionally involved in the proceedings, which is all well and good as a filmic device, but it means that the primary emotion I felt when watching the film was not shock, but boredom. I still maintain that boredom in cinema is not always a bad thing (it's as valid a tool as any other emotional manipulation), but in this case it results in a lack of engagement, meaning that – to an extent – the point of the film gets lost along the way. Like Theorem, the film is crammed with ideas which are great to think about, but cold and uninteresting to watch (even more so here than in Theorem, which at least had moments that feel like they're reaching towards transcendence). I'm sure that as I read more about Salò, and work my way through the special features on the DVD, I'll enjoy the intellectual rigor of it all, but none of that will improve the actual experience of watching it – an experience I didn't particularly enjoy because I wasn't challenged, I wasn't provoked into thought, I was disgusted at times, but more than anything I was bored and detached. 
 
13/04/13
Watched The Canterbury Tales this morning. It has some nice images and a few enjoyable moments, but I don't think there's much of lasting interest in there – only the final image of hell and the penultimate tale (which equates wealth and greed with death) have any real impact. I then watched Arabian Nights, which is definitely my favourite of the Pasolini's I've watched this weekend. The tone feels totally different from the other two entries in The Trilogy of Life – it's much more poetic, and far less bawdy. While it might therefore be less funny as a result, the mystical, mythical and magical overtones make it far more interesting. It's also more successful on a structural level, despite being a touch too labyrinthine at times.
 
The Decameron
 

Thursday, 11 April 2013

(A Paraphrased) Quote for the Week

Earlier this week I went to see Peter Kubelka presenting his Monument Film (more on which soon). During his talk he said something that I thought was worth making my Quote for the Week – but unfortunately I only wrote it down in my notebook in a paraphrased fashion. Still, hopefully I've captured the point he was trying to make…
 
Making and projecting films digitally is the equivalent of hanging prints (rather than paintings) in the National Galley. Film projectionists are like pianists giving a concert.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

A Kink in the Chain of Influence

(As all the films I've watched this week have been research for a new project, there will be no Films This Week, for the reasons explained here. So I thought I'd write this post instead). 
 
A recent conversation with a friend of mine got me thinking once more about Argo, which I praised here, writing: 'look, [Argo is] saying, how good mainstream films were in the 1970s – let's go back to making films like that'. In other words, as both my post and my conversation with my friend made clear, the joy of Argo seems to be the fact that it harks back to the past, to a time when the movie brats were coming of age and mainstream films were borrowing liberally from European art-house cinema. 
 
This era (1970s Hollywood), is sometimes seen as something of a 'Golden' era, a time when auteurs ran rampant before their gate of heaven collapsed. So glorious were the achievements of the filmmakers of this period, they spawned a new generation of offspring: directors who aspired to be like their heroes, and who would reference and steal from them in the same way that the movie brats were borrowing from the art-houses.
 
And now, from talking to several classes of students on my Life Just Is University tour, it would seem there is another generation on the rise: one influenced by the sons of the movie brats, who have no interest in art-house, and for whom mainstream cinema rules all. 
 
This is not a problem in and of itself, and yet… I don't wish to make so bold a claim as saying that mainstream cinema is declining in quality. There are plenty of genuinely good, big budget, commercial films still being made. And yet… Surely the fact that Argo has been so popular proves that we still have something to learn from the movie brats. Or, more precisely, from their influences… 
 
What made the films of the 70s so fresh, so exciting, so powerful, was that they were borrowing from the great art filmmakers, and in doing so were creating commercial work with artistic appeal. By dropping this influence, and seemingly only wishing to borrow from the mainstream filmmakers who have gone before them, it seems like the new generation is destined to end in erosion, with all the art slowly dissolving away. Simply put, I fear mainstream cinema will eat itself. 
 
Let's hope I'm wrong. 
 
(On a tangential note: film may eat itself in another way too. I'm amazed by the amount of young filmmakers who think it's okay to pirate films because they're poor aspiring filmmakers – and who fail to see the irony of this. So, to sum up: if any young filmmakers happen to be reading this: stop pirating films, and go and buy a Bergman boxset).

Monday, 1 April 2013

Films This Week

(Click here to read my general introduction to the 'Films This Week' series of posts.)
 
Just one this week…!
 
26/03/13
Went to see Spring Breakers this evening. It's a neon drug-fuelled haze of a movie. In some respects, it achieves a perfect synthesis of form and content (the highest form of filmmaking), but in this case it means that the film often seems as obnoxious, unpleasant and leering as its characters (there's little in the way of critique of them or their actions – perhaps the most telling sign is the reference to watching Scarface on repeat, as if Tony Montana was someone to look up to). It also means that watching the film sometimes feels like being the only sober person at a piss-up (=boring), though there were just enough interesting directorial flourishes to keep my attention (and the crime spree in the middle is one of the best uses of slow motion I can remember). The use of editing and structure kind of reminded me of The Limey (always a good thing), though the endless repetition got a little grating. The sound design was superb. Very effective. If the film had gone somewhere I think I might have really responded to it but, as it was, it all just felt a little pointless and gratuitous.