Silent Film Music and other Sounding Off

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bologna silents

Bologna's annual Cinema Ritrovato was the typical whirlwind of films in the Lumière, catching up with friends, walks in the hot sunny Italian summer to our favorite gelato place to cool off, balmy nights in the Piazza Maggiore every night. I managed to see a paltry 27 programs during the week in addition to the 10 I played for. Gotta eat, gotta meditate...

I had the pleasure of meeting Joseph von Sternberg's son Nick, and we had a few nice conversations about his father's work. What came through was a quiet admiration for the quality and scope of his dad's achievements, which we grew to appreciate a great deal as the week unfolded. Joanna's cousin Nancy, who had grown up with a friend who lived across the hall from Marlene Dietrich, joined us for the week and saw six of her films: MOROCCO, BLONDE VENUS, DISHONORED, THE SCARLET EMPRESS, SHANGHAI EXPRESS, and THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN. I guess SCARLET EMPRESS was my favorite from the standpoint of a riveting blend of images and film. It seemed that fully half the picture was a silent film with a score compiled from practically everything Tchaikowsky wrote, nicely woven together for the most part (some strange musical edits from symphonies to March Slav, if memory serves. It's a month since viewing, almost. Also seemed as though much of the action in these scenes had been timed to the music, rather than music edited to action. Horses and soldiers arrived on cue. Were they playing music on set, or someone using a metronome and cueing the horsemen?

The lighting effects: nets, grids, shadows, looked splendid on the big screen at the Arlecchino, and I got to play for DOCKS OF NEW YORK in the piazza on July 4 for a crowd of around 2500. The evening began with our friend Gabriel Thibaudeau playing a delightful score for THE IMMIGRANT, bringing out lots of humor that can pass by in a more generic accompaniment. The throwing of the dice, the contrast between the view of the Statue of Liberty and the subsequent roping in of the passengers, and the café scene antics were all wonderfully supported. Bravo, Gabriel!

I worked all week and some of the week before, when we were in Portugal, on DOCKS, creating a number of themes for the characters and trying to find the right feel for the film. (Kept wanting to play ON THE WATERFRONT...) I don't know if I succeeded, but the audience liked the film, and as a former teacher once said, "Well, you started and ended together, that's the main thing..."

I felt better about my work for CHILDREN OF DIVORCE, a lovely romantic drama with Clara Bow and Gary Cooper, as well as Sternberg's first silent feature, SALVATION HUNTERS, a stark portrayal of poverty and street life, with the recurring image of a huge dredge that gives the picture a documentary quality much of the time. Where I gave CHILDREN a more typical romantic tone, here I went in the Copland-y direction that I used for MANHATTA, despite misgivings. It's a tough audience in Bologna, crowd reactions during the day are often very muted and it's hard to get a sense of how things are going. Sometimes I feel like I'm a surgeon performing an operation with a crowd of students in the gallery...

But people did comment positively afterwards on these scores, as well as those for the three programs of 1908 shorts that I did, the usual mix of fiction, docs and some trick films that were very enjoyable to see. Outstanding were some Swiss gymnastics shorts that kept me guessing about tempi and lengths of shots. Fun to do.

All in all, a great week, and I'll write more about other films soon, as well as describing the San Francisco festival, which followed the next weekend.

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