Thursday, April 21, 2011

When Music Kills the Mood

Last October my wife and I had an awful experience with a silent film, a modern score and an idiot emcee. It was, to date, our only bad experience at the AFI. The AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, MD is a place we visit often to take in classic Hollywood and world cinema and whenever I mention it here, it's usually glowing. But this time, we took in Nosferatu the night before Halloween and things didn't go as well. We had avoided it in the past (it plays every year) because it felt like one of those rare AFI events that pulls in the dilettantes, the folks who aren't really classic movie lovers but think seeing what they perceive as an old creaky silent with a counter-intuitive modern score will fill all kinds of awesome ironic longings in their cold, smug souls.

And we were right. That's exactly how it felt.

We felt surrounded by people who didn't know the first goddamn thing about F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu, Max Schreck or silent films period. I'm not saying that is who we were surrounded by, just that it felt that way. I'm sure there were many classic film lovers there, like my wife and I, feeling the same thing we were, which was, to wit, "Who are all these interlopers?" Kind of like on St. Patrick's Day or New Year's Eve when all the amateurs come out to throw up on the bar floor and the real drinkers stay home or on Christmas and Easter when all those parishioners who didn't bother to show up on any other Sunday of the year suddenly pack the house.


"This movie's so fabulously dated! I so want a t-shirt of the bald guy!"


Then came the emcee, a local dee-jay whose name I can't remember and even if I did I wouldn't mention it here because why embarrass the guy, right? See, the thing is, he didn't know anything about silent film. Nothing. He got up on the stage in his Dracula cape and, frankly, before he even opened his mouth I felt like punching him. Then, when he opened his mouth, thoughts of punching him quickly gave way to, "How can I kill him in front of all these people and somehow make it look like the self-satisfied hipster couple in front of me did it and, hey, maybe I could figure out a way to make them die too as a bonus."

Seriously, here's what he does: He takes the emaciated, skeletal sliver of knowledge on Murnau and Nosferatu he culled from Wikipedia five minutes before going onstage and tries to turn it into some kind of Richard Pryor-esque shtick. He starts giving us details in stand-up format, like this: "Oh, so Murnau is all like 'oh no you didn't! I know you're not trying to sue me, woman! [referring to Bram Stoker's widow] and so F.W.'s all like, 'Take my movie? I'm gonna slide a copy of this film under my bed, uh-huh!" So, you can probably understand the homicidal thoughts I was having more clearly now, right?

Once the movie started, it got worse. The music took over. The movie? Oh, it was there, somewhere, struggling to compete with the ear-shattering percussion and endlessly clever found objects used as instruments that made you go, "Why that's a clever use of a wrench. I wonder how they... hey, wait a minute! I'm supposed to be focusing on the movie!"

To make matters worse, my lovely wife has less tolerance for this kind of malarkey than I do and when Count Orlock is making his way up the steps in what should be a very chilling and creepy scene and the "orchestra" is bombarding the audience with a full-on percussive assault using the kind of drum fills more appropriate for a battle sequence or John Bonham solo, I can sense her sitting next to me, steaming. I can sense it because, well, she is.


"I'm at the top of the stairs now. Cue the cannons."

In a way, though, I kind of have to hand it to the "orchestra" (sorry, I can't seem to type that word without the scare quotes) for some kind of dubious achievement in that I really can't imagine anyone else doing a better job of producing the opposite mood of what was on the screen than they did. To do so would require playing "Have you Never been Mellow" during the rape scene in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and who wants to go there?

When it was over, the lights came up and the audience erupted in thunderous applause. The couple in front of us couldn't contain themselves and started shouting, "Bravo!" and "Encore!" and "Sundance Movie Channel!" Okay, maybe not the last one. Anyway, I briefly contemplated pushing them over until Dracula took the stage again and my wife shouted, "Run!" We got the hell out of there as fast as we could. One more second of shtick from that moron and the evening would've ended with my best impersonation of the theatre climax in Inglourious Basterds with that mother fucker standing in for Hitler.

Afterwards, I thought on the experience long and hard. See, I have no problem with modern music for old films or modern music in new films that take place in the past. I've used modern music myself for montages of classic film and a film like Chariots of Fire takes place in 1924 but has a score entirely recorded on synthesizer. No problem.

My problem wasn't that it was modern music, nor was it that it didn't entirely fit. My problem was that it felt like it wasn't supposed to entirely fit. It felt like it was supposed to stick out, so you'd remember the score more than the movie. The composers weren't interested in complementing the movie, they were interested in impressing the audience with their skills and talents and endless cleverness. And that really bugged me.

Nosferatu is a great work and would have been infinitely more effective had we watched it silently, as in truly silent with no sound or music at all. I've watched it that way before. In fact, I've watched a few silent movies that way, actually. I've turned down the music on many a silent film just to watch it in silence. It's a wonderful experience and with the best silent films, can really become hypnotic.


"Wasn't the score ironic?" "Mmm-hmmm." "We should make it our ringtone."


But the point is, the music took center stage, not the movie. Last year, when I saw Upstream at The National Archives, it had a beautifully fitting piano and violin score composed for it. Some found objects were used too for sound effects but they never detracted from the film and Upstream is several rungs down the ladder from Nosferatu, with or without John Ford at the helm. Afterwards, the audience asked questions and one of them was for the pianist composer himself. He was asked what he thought about certain modern "orchestras" musical accompaniment to silent films and he said he admired their talents but they were more concerned with their scores than the movie and when you're scoring a movie, the movie comes first. The audience applauded. This was before my AFI experience (though I wrote it up afterwards in November) so I clapped out of appreciation for the idea rather than because of actual firsthand knowledge. After seeing Nosferatu, I immediately flashed back to that, though, and thought, "Damn straight."

Modern music for an old movie or a period piece is not a problem. It's become kind of a fad in recent years, in fact. The problem is music that doesn't fit the mood, or the point of a scene. It's a problem that happens from time to time with even the best of movies and exploring music in film is something I'd like to do more of here at Cinema Styles. Exploring how it fails can be just as instructive as when it succeeds. For now, I'm content to avoid any modern scoring of silent films for a little while longer until I get the bad taste out of my mouth. Of course, I'll go back to others but I think the AFI's annual Nosferatu showing and me are done. I ignored my instincts and it bit me in the ass. Lesson learned.

38 comments:

Mythical Monkey said...

I feel your pain. I'd rather watch the movie in silence than listen to a score that sounds like it was dropped in at random (and I suspect a lot of silent movie scores were dropped in at random).

I'm a big fan of the AFI Silver, but I've never done the Nosferatu on Halloween thing and now I'm sure I never will.

On the upside, Katie-Bar-The-Door and I did venture into Baltimore on Sunday to see The Gold Rush with live accompaniment by the BSO. Given that the score was written by Chaplin himself, it was no surprise how well it all worked together.

The Siren said...

This post is sheer brilliance and I laughed all the way through it. Oh, it made me wince, though, for the remembrance of bad screenings past. I still carry little tar pits of hatred in my heart for certain members of the audiences for Rocco and His Brothers, Les Amiches, the Sirk Imitation of Life, A Clockwork Orange and Broken Blossoms. A big writeup in the Times or New Yorker can bring out people who are dying to demonstrate their modern superiority to these adorable little historic signposts on the way to our superb Current Cinema. In the case of Clockwork Orange, it was a bunch of male drunks cheering and guffawing over the rape scene, and I've never been so grateful for the presence of a movie date in my life, although the poor guy spent about an hour after the movie apologizing not only for taking me, but also for the fact that he happened to be a man, too. I forgave him (I'm kidding) but in all seriousness I never did forgive the 8th Street Playhouse.

But your larger point is about what a silent-movie score should accomplish, and it's well taken. The movies were never really silent, and even on DVDs I'm sometimes appalled by how careless music can really damage a silent. I saw "I Was Born, But..." at Moma with no sound and was a bit weirded out at first, but about 10 minutes in I began to love the purity of the experience. A great score might have been better, but a bad one would have been much, much worse.

On the other hand, a lovely score can make a lesser silent gleam. TCM last year ran Beau Brummel, a good, but not great, silent with Barrymore and Astor, and it was scored by the winner of their Young Composers competition. And the music was fantastic; lovely and romantic but not a trace of sappiness, a bit of a modern edge but nothing flashy or showing off, obviously done by someone who had watched the movie and was tailoring his work to bringing out its every good point. It added immeasurably to the film, and several of my regular readers who also saw it agreed with me.

Silent Volume said...

I've heard more bad scores for Nosferatu than any other silent film, though that's partly because it's so easy to find.

Kino's NOSFERATU: Ultimate Edition features the original 1922 score, which is a revelation. It's surprisingly light--lots of woodwinds. Judging by it, Murnau intended the film to be at least partly a black comedy.

Greg said...

The Gold Rush with live accompaniment by the BSO.

MM, I'd love to take in something like that. My wife and I saw The Crowd at the AFI with the original organ score played live on the same type of organ it was written on. It was pretty amazing. But hearing Chaplin's score for full orchestra for The Gold Rush? Wow.

Marilyn said...

Great post, Greg. I'm happy to say that I have never had this kind of experience, though I will finally be seeing Upstream on Saturday, so I may be in some danger - it's playing in a college town!

I quite like modern music with silents. One of the best I've seen in a techno band called Concrete playing for Potemkin. Even my MOM liked it. And I saw The Passion of Joan of Arc without any sound, and agree that the visuals can quite put one in a trance.

I think you need to make a film of this experience - the hipsters would love their own annihilation, in an ironic way, of course.

Marilyn said...

I heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra play Chaplin's score for City Lights with the film projected in Orchestra Hall. That was the best experience I've had with silent/live music.

Greg said...

A big writeup in the Times or New Yorker can bring out people who are dying to demonstrate their modern superiority to these adorable little historic signposts on the way to our superb Current Cinema.

I think that's why the best experiences my wife and I have there are usually the monthly showings of an old Hollywood film that hasn't gotten any attention. Like our viewings of White Woman, A Foreign Affair, Mon Oncle, etc. They all had about a third filled auditorium and complete audience silence, except for the parts where you're supposed to laugh, of course. The big events, on the other hand, are usually to be avoided, although, we have had several good ones there too, like the Farley Granger Strangers on a Train one.

Beau Brummel, a good, but not great, silent with Barrymore and Astor, and it was scored by the winner of their Young Composers competition.

I remember watching The Rag Man three or so years ago on TCM, which was also scored by a winner of the contest (sadly, she later killed herself). It was excellent and made the movie much better than it was.

Ed Howard said...

I'm with Siren - that post was hilarious, one of the funniest you've ever done here.

I'm not the biggest silent guy, but when I do watch silent movies on DVD I find I often turn off the scores after a little while. I often prefer what the Siren calls the "purity" of that totally silent experience. It's kind of hypnotic. Interestingly, the Ozu silent comedies like I Was Born But... are one exception since I like the way the scores available on the Criterion DVDs reinforce the comic tone of the material. I'd imagine those would be a very different experience without any sound at all; I'll have to try it one time.

Greg said...

I've heard more bad scores for Nosferatu than any other silent film, though that's partly because it's so easy to find.

The curse of a lapsed copyright, I suppose. I have watched the Kino Nosferatu: Ultimate Edition too and had the same reaction. I wish the AFI would run that version. Hire an orchestra to play that score and I'm there!

Greg said...

I quite like modern music with silents. One of the best I've seen in a techno band called Concrete playing for Potemkin.

Marilyn, I've seen a few silents online with techno scores (I don't know if it's the same band) and I like them very much. I even like a lot of the Alloy Orchestra stuff (on they're site you can watch the movies with their scores) although that's who the pianist composer's questioneer was referring to. Still, I think they do some good stuff. The group at the AFI seemed like a bargain basement version of them and not very seasoned.

I'd love to see a full orchestra, like you and Mythical both have. Maybe soon.

And I'll start working on that hipster movie now. It's going to be sooooo ironically unironic.

Greg said...

It's kind of hypnotic. Interestingly, the Ozu silent comedies like I Was Born But... are one exception since I like the way the scores available on the Criterion DVDs reinforce the comic tone of the material.

Well, you know, Upstream is a comedy and I liked that score a lot. So is The Rag Man. Maybe comedy works better with the cues because, going back to animated shorts from the early days of sound, comedy uses sound cues to reinforce punchlines.

Also, the scores for most silent films weren't done with the director providing guidance like they were in the sound era which means even a lot of original silent film music is tiresome and counterproductive.

The Siren said...

I've always been fascinated with the fact that a number of big-budget silents were actually *filmed* to music on the set, what was played depending on what the director and stars wanted to set the mood. Mabel Normand, I recall, liked jazz played on set. What this means for scoring when they're screened is a whole different layer--if it was shot to one kind of rhythm, what sort of music is going to fit for a performance?

Marilyn said...

I saw the TCM The Rag Man and agree that was a fine score. In fact, the film was a fine film, one that really made me understand how great a child star Jackie Coogan was.

Greg said...

Siren, I know that many actors in film listen to music before doing a scene or in some cases, if there is no dialogue, will have music on playback to get their emotions to the right place. I know as an actor I have done this in the past. Listening to a piece of music can really put you in the right place emotionally but the music one chooses often has nothing to do with the actual mood of the scene. It's just what's necessary for them to feel it.

I didn't know that about Mabel Normand, that she liked listening to jazz, but I would think that the mood when scoring would be quite different than what she used to loosen up.

Greg said...

Marilyn, he was very good, wasn't he? Both Laura and I really enjoyed it. Here's the link to the story on Linda Martinez, the young composer who scored it. It's very sad.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Let us know what you think of the Criterion releases of the Josef von Sternberg silent films, as there is a choice of two different scores for each of the three films.

On a related note, if you took a look at my place, I'm writing about the newly released DVDs of silent films by Mikio Naruse. As you probably know, in Japan, silent films also were shown with a narrator, called a benshi. Through a couple of links, I discovered a small Japanese company that has ten silent movies with benshi tracks. I might get one of them, though they are kind of expensive at about $60 each.

Greg said...

Through a couple of links, I discovered a small Japanese company that has ten silent movies with benshi tracks.

That's really cool, Peter, although, I'm with you, that's a little steep. Couldn't they just do it as an mp3 you load up when the movie starts? Then they could sell them cheap. It doesn't seem like it would cost too much to do the track but I could be wrong.

As for having a choice of scores, I love that idea. I'm going to get those and check it out.

Jandy Stone said...

I saw Metropolis last year with the Alloy Orchestra, and loved it - it was just the right amount of bombast and they did it at the right places. Of course, the original Metropolis score is great, too, but a lot more lyrical.

I see silent films a lot at LA's Cinefamily, and they always have a live pianist/organist at least (except on rare occasions - they actually aren't allowed to use live accompaniment when they show Chaplin features - they're contractually obligated to use his pre-recorded scores), and often a live band. To be honest, I like the standard organist the best - he improvises along with it, sometimes bringing in specific themes if the film calls for it, but it always fits the mood perfectly. The live bands are hit and miss sometimes - we had The Club Foot Orchestra in from San Francisco last month, and a couple of their scores just really didn't work for me (like one for Steamboat Bill Jr), but a couple were great (The Godless Girl). Brian Le Barton (Beck's musical director) has done a few, which tend to be really experimental - but with films like Arsenal and Berlin: Symphony of a City, it works. So far I haven't had any totally mood-killing experiences, though.

Thankfully they have a really great emcee on silent nights, so we don't have that issue (that sounded seriously horrible at your screening). He loves his silent film, and it shows through.

Greg said...

Jandy, the issues at this showing were definitely relegated to the musicians. As I said earlier in this thread to Marilyn, they simply weren't up to the standards of the Alloy Orchestra. Like I said, though, I like the idea of using all different kinds of music for silent or sound film. The problem here was the musicians seemed unfamiliar with how to properly score a movie and just seemed to be playing over it.

Now, they may use a different band/orchestra each year but, frankly, I'm not going to chance finding out.

And like you, I like the organ scores a lot. I wish the AFI showed as many silents as LA's Cinefamily. That sounds awesome. You're very lucky to have that.

Bob Turnbull said...

I saw Mizoguchi's "The Water Magician" at last year's Shinsedai Film Festival and it was shown with a live score by a local "experimental" band. Mostly consisting of digital and analog effects and sounds (plus pulsing rhythms), I was initially a bit skeptical as the first few minutes didn't seem to really match well...But within 5-10 minutes everything just came together and even though I would glance over at the band occasionally, it wasn't due to something they just played that jarred me. Their best sequence was an extended part of the film that had a darker tone and they built up some wonderful tension.

The odd thing was that the film came with subtitles that seemed to be describing things that were happening and had lines of dialogue not shown on intertitles. It was somewhat of an annoyance to be honest, but a small detail that I was able to ignore after awhile. It wasn't until later that I realized that these were translated subtitles of what a benshi would have performed (if I had been paying closer attention to Peter's blog, I may have realized that earlier...B-) ). Apparently they bring a great deal more to the live experience than a simple narration - performing their dialogue and raising their roles to become a separate artform. Those DVDs Peter mentioned should have the option of having an additional small video window pop up with the benshi performing while the film plays. That might make it worth the $60...

And please, please tell me that emcee didn't actually say "Oh, so Murnau is all like 'oh no you didn't! I know you're not trying to sue me, woman!" and that it's simply an example of your own inimitable comedic stylings. Lie to me if you have to...

paul etcheverry said...

In my neck of the woods, attending the San Francisco Silent Film Festival or the silent movie shows at Niles might restore your faith in humanity.

Greg said...

Bob, the Benshi thing is kind of amazing and I must plead ignorance to the existence of them until I saw Peter's comments. I agree, a window showing them would be quite a bonus and would make the price worth it.

Now, as to the emcee, I cannot tell a lie. I am not, I am very sorry to say, making any of that up for comedic effect. He really was speaking like that and being "funny" throughout. I sat there with a stone cold expression on my face the entire time. He also got several things wrong though now I can't remember what exactly. But, yes, he turned the intro into a very bad stand-up routine. I hated it.

Greg said...

Paul, they're always good at the AFI too, like the showing of The Crowd I attended there which was superb. Of course, I'd love to be in San Francisco anyway, regardless, just because. Seeing a silent film there would be icing on the cake.

Fred said...

When I think of "Silent Classic" meets "Misguided Modern Music Score", Giorgio Moroder's awful Metropolis immediately springs to mind. I don't know if you remember this one, but it would have single-handedly killed Disco if it hadn't already been dead-and-buried by the one/two punch of Alan Carr's Can't Stop the Music and Bill Veeck's Chicago White Sox Disco Demolition Night. As for Fritz Lang, it was a good thing he was already dead. Compared to what Moroder did to Metropolis, you could ALMOST forgive the videographers of Queen/David Bowie's "Under Pressure" for cribbing so many scenes from Nosferatu.

Greg said...

Giorgio Moroder's awful Metropolis immediately springs to mind. I don't know if you remember this one...

Are you kidding me, of course I remember! I mean, it had songs by Adam Ant and Pat Benatar. Nothing says silent film like Benatar. That thing was huge. I saw it on VHS and then Showtime (they played it ten times a day for a while) and God, how I hated it but you couldn't not see it. Damn near ruined the film for me.

Chris Edwards said...

I caught 'The Water Magician' at Shinsedai too. Loved the film, but the band, I think, considered it weird, and were playing more to that than what they saw onscreen.

Kudos to Vowls though, for teaching me the sound of a shaken water bottle next to a microphone.

Chris Edwards said...

One more comment on watching silents in silence: It's tough to do anywhere but in the home.

I once saw a series of Man Ray experimental films in dead silence at Toronto's Jackman Hall. Small room, lots of wheezing noses and people fishing for gum.

The problem with a music-free silent is that you're made vulnerable to the those in the audience with the shortest attention spans. When their bums shift, you're out of the moment too.

Greg said...

Kudos to Vowls though, for teaching me the sound of a shaken water bottle next to a microphone.

See, now wasn't that worth it? Seriously, though, the found object thing, what the hell? I understand there is a certain amount of wow-factor at turning ordinary non-musical items into musical instruments, like this but the difference is that the gameboy song is all about creating the melody in unnatural situations. If you're scoring a film, leave the found object crap at home and score the film.

And you're right about watching a silent in silence. I've only ever done it at home. In a theatre, there would be too much noise, not loud but definitely intrusive.

Erich Kuersten said...

Silent film scores are almost always dreadful - even the ridiculous comic boing boing sound effects sometimes stuck onto Buster Keaton! Unforgivable!

That said, Greg, be grateful those insufferably smug 'event' - goers don't find out about WHITE WOMAN!
They'd probably sue to have it banned for being un-PC.

PS - For watching THE LOST WORLD, I recommend PJ Harvey's 'Rid of Me' album, and for HUNCHBACK, Metallica.

Greg said...

That said, Greg, be grateful those insufferably smug 'event' - goers don't find out about WHITE WOMAN!
They'd probably sue to have it banned for being un-PC
.

And that's precisely why the AFI doesn't turn things like that into events. They're afraid of the pc outrage.

You know what the events are like? They're like PBS fundraising time where all you want to do is see your favorite shows but they're showing all this other stuff to get new people in. I'm avoiding the big events from now on.

Christopher said...

I have a bit of nostalgia for the scores in the Robert Youngson compilations of the 60s..cheesy and fun,especially the faux flapper music hilighting many a vamping or wild party scene that endearingly mocks the generation of flaming youth.Also some of the old library music of the 50s and 60s that were tacked onto these great films when they were being re-discovered and run on early early morning showings and public broadcasting..Dosen't always work(the circus scenes in He Who Gets Slapped,on the Warner Archives disc which is the old PBS version, come to mind) but there is a rather haunting quality about it,relics of when the ghosts first performed for a new audience

Stacia said...

I've always speculated that many people in the retrospective or festival business are frankly bored with the films they screen after a few viewings; or perhaps they see silents as inherently dull even before they've viewed them. The insistence on doing something new and different simply because it can be done is tiresome. Then again, I think your observation that this is fund-raising, attention-getting time for AFI is right on point, and the cause of most of the trouble.

I'm very lucky in that the only scores I've hated were those I heard at home, easily dismissed with the press of a button.

Greg said...

Christopher, I don't know if I'm familiar with those compilations. I'll have to look into it and check them out.

Greg said...

or perhaps they see silents as inherently dull even before they've viewed them.

Stacia, that probably is a big part of it. I mean, even TCM which started out in the 90's showing a silent in the primetime slot once a week has long since relegated them to the early morning hours of Sunday night. Too bad because a good silent with even a decent piano or organ score can be an engaging film watching experience.

Jandy Stone said...

When Cinefamily took over the Silent Movie Theatre they initially played silents on Wednesday nights out of respect for the cinema's origins as a rep cinema for silent film (as far back as the 1940s!). They retooled a bit last year, and actually asked their subscribers if they wanted to keep the silent series going - thank goodness enough people said yes (and come out to the screenings) that they kept it. The problem with silents (or any rep stuff, actually) is that you can get big crowds for the big-name stuff - Metropolis, Nosferatu, Caligari, Chaplin, Keaton, but it drops off quickly once you get into lesser-known stuff. Cinefamily has done a great job promoting the series so we get sell-outs often, but it's still a mixed bag. The programmers actually love doing lesser-known stuff personally, but they have to do the big ones periodically to pay for the small ones. Getting live scores is part of that - being able to advertise a limited run by a live band gets a lot more people in the door. Too bad they can't always be GOOD. :)

Greg said...

The problem with silents (or any rep stuff, actually) is that you can get big crowds for the big-name stuff - Metropolis, Nosferatu, Caligari, Chaplin, Keaton, but it drops off quickly once you get into lesser-known stuff.

The funny thing is, I love the lesser known shows precisely because so few people do show up. I suppose as long as the big name stuff draws a big crowd and keeps the funds flowing, I can always enjoy the lesser known stuff with my fellow cinephiles.

Jason Michelitch said...

Just discovered your blog and have been enjoying it. Found this post and thought I'd drop a note to say that, this past Halloween, AFI actually got the Alloy orchestra in for their Nosferatu screening, and it was quite good - though, I thought, not 100% fitting. Alloy also scored a screening of Phantom of the Opera that same night, and THAT score was fantastically matched.

The deejay -- I think his name is James White? -- is there every year, I think, and is a genuine horror buff. He definitely has a very "deejay" style, though, so, y'know, if it turns you off it turns you off...not my favorite either but not so egregious that I can't just shine it on.

Greg said...

Jason, up further in the comments I state that I like The Alloy Orchestra and, boy, how I wish they'd done it the year I went. The DJ got on my nerves, for sure, but I feel better knowing he is a horror buff. It will probably be a few years before I see it again at the AFI but I'll definitely make sure when I do that it's someone like Alloy Orchestra instead.