Doxa : silent cinema was symbolic art

July 19, 2009 § Leave a comment

Is this a traditional French view ? Alain Masson’s L’Image et la parole (note the capital I to Image) is built on the premisse that silent cinema had become largely a symbolist affair by the end of the 1920s, and sound cinema was to easily overthrow this by the immediacy, the concrete and easy realism of its sound environment. This view was also taken up by Edgar Morin back in the 1950s and 1960s, with his sociological studies of cinema’s imaginary workings. And it seems to have been Sadoul’s opinion too:

Sadoul “mettait en cause l’extrême raffinement des derniers films muets”
(Masson p. 15)

This may have been standard doctrine under Lea Jacob’s contrarian study, The End of Sentiment. This is a particularly clear expression of that view, from Edgar Morin’s 1957 Les stars (p. 22 in the 1972 re-edition).

Music, Robin Hood ! An International Conference

May 4, 2009 § Leave a comment

Wish I could be there (check out the musical program ! Check out the exhibitions !)

Robin Hood: Media Creature An International Conference, 22-25 October 2009

The International Association for Robin Hood Studies will sponsor the Seventh Biennial Conference on Robin Hood, to be held 22-25 October 2009 at the University of Rochester, Rochester NY (USA). Scholars from North America, Europe, and Asia will present papers on well-established and perennially controversial aspects of the outlaw hero, and will offer new views and understandings as well. Participants will be drawn from scholars and intellectuals in all fields of academic, artistic, and popular culture, with no limits on time period, media, or national literatures. Though film, media, and the popular and performing arts will have a featured role, sessions will include a broad range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary interests, including medieval and early modern historical studies, literary criticism, folklore, musicology and music practice, children’s literature, cultural studies, anthropology, film and media studies, performance art and oral recitations, art history, literary theory, and philosophy. Deadline for abstracts is 15 June 2009.

Ms. Gillian Anderson (Bologna), internationally renowned composer, conductor, and musicologist, has participated in the reconstruction and performance of some thirty-four orchestral scores from silent films, author of four books, founding editor of the new journal, Music and the Moving Image (University of Illinois Press). Website:

Plenary events: Twenty-First Century “World Premiere” of Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (United Artists, 1922). A new 35mm tinted print, restored by the Museum of Modern Art and George Eastman House / International Museum of Film and Photography, will be screened 24 October 2009 (Saturday) before an audience of 500 at the Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House. Live Accompaniment for Robin Hood. Gillian Anderson will conduct a live orchestra playing the newly reconstructed score of Robin Hood. The showing – which will duplicate the experience of audiences who attended the first-ever Hollywood premier, and of those in early twentieth-century movie palaces – will be introduced by Patrick Loughney, Head, National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, Library of Congress (Packard Campus).

East Coast Premier of Robin Hood (Éclair America, 1912), the earliest surviving film featuring the outlaw hero, in a recently restored print (shown so far only once, in LA) from the Fort Lee Film Commission. With solo musical accompaniment by Philip Carli, distinguished film expert and musicologist who has accompanied silent films at the Pordenone Festival in Italy, and elsewhere in Europe and North America.

Concert of Early Lute Music. Grammy-Award winner Paul O’Dette (Eastman School of Music) will offer a recital of Elizabethan Greenwood and Robin Hood-related lute music, drawing upon the repertoire he established in albums including Robin is to the Greenwood Gone (1992) and Robin Hood: Elizabethan Ballad Settings (2001).

Operetta in Performance. Steven Daigle (Chair, Strings, Eastman School of Music, and Artistic Director, Ohio Light Opera) has organized an evening of arias and songs from Robin Hood musicals, spanning the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. This presentation will occur the evening of 22 October 2009 (Thursday) , and will feature musicians and singers from the Ohio Light Opera, as well as faculty and students from the Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester.

Events and Exhibitions: “An Impression of the Middle Ages”: Productions Stills from Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood. A major exhibition drawing upon an archive of nearly 1000 negatives at the George Eastman House, most never exhibited or examined before. The exhibition will also include original posters and lobby cards, and the boots which Fairbanks wore in the film. Support and contributions from the George Eastman House Motion Picture Department, and the University of Rochester Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.The Americanization of Robin Hood, 1883-1923. A focused exhibition, tracing the development of American images of Robin Hood which have permanently changed the outlaw’s status in international popular culture. Incorporating the Fairbanks photographs from “An Impression of the Middle Ages,” it will provide a lavishly documented account of the impact and history of Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, and present music, lyrics, advertisements, programs, and photographs associated with the operettas of Reginald De Koven, including Robin Hood (1891) and Maid Marian (1901). Support and contributions from the George Eastman House, the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, the Sibley Music Library, and a private collection. Robin Hood: Media Creature: An exhibition of Robin Hood-related materials, ranging from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries, in all media – selected from thousands of items in paper media (printed books, sheets, ephemera, cartoons, comic books, boys’ serials, garlands, prose lives, “histories,” posters from well known and obscure films and TV), film and TV recordings (DVDs, VCR tapes, various film formats of commercial, public, and cable productions), musical recordings (popular song, operettas, rock and roll, rap, soundtracks, spoken word, and more), photographs (including a selection from previously un-exhibited “keybooks” for The Adventures of Robin Hood [1938] with Errol Flynn), along with other artifacts such as games, puzzles, viewmaster reels, teapots and plates, and more. Support and contributions from the Strong National Museum of Play, the George Eastman House, the Rossell Hope Robbins Library, Rush Rhees Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, and a private collection.

For further information on Conference Registration and full call for papers, go to Send paper abstracts (limit 300 words) in MS Word or compatible formats to Thomas Hahn, The deadline for submissions is 15 June 2009.

Theatrical asides in silent films

November 14, 2008 § Leave a comment

Think of that scene you’ve seen countless times: A character is in a room (sitting at a desk, busy doing something), and B character walks in. A character does not react until B has crossed the whole length of the room, and is standing right next to him. Why not ? Could it be that silent films are indeed ridiculous in their stilted, un-natural ways ?

In this sequence from The Delicious Little Devil (1919), Barney does not hear his brother walking in:

Or could it be that this is a theatrical aside: since space does not carry sounds in silent films (or at least, not always), the possibility exists to have several actions take place at the same time, in the same frame, but remain distinct, as in the theatrical aside. And just as in the theatrical asides, the secondary action comes to comment on the principal action (in our example above, it creates a little dramatic suspense in delaying the beginning of the next scene, where both characters sit together to eat; it also nicely hints at the uncomfortable situation of the brother who’s come, basically, to eat Barney’s food).

This theatrical aside technique is often used in the early 1920s. As more “naturalistic” acting and staging techniques are deployed by the end of the 1920s (thus giving a leg to the argument that sound cinema was not so much an invention by 1927 as a fulfillment of stylistic expectations(1)), these asides tend to disappear from the repertoire of stylistic devices in non-slapstick Hollywood films. By the late 1920s, a knock on the door is heard by actors in the film – though the audience still can’t make it out.

See how Garbo (foreground) has heard Gilbert (deep-focus background) coming into the room way, way back there.



(1) Ainsi par exemple COMOLLI Jean-Louis: “Technique et idéologie.” Cahiers du cinéma. n. 214, sept.-oct. 1972, pp. 23:

“Les histoires du cinéma remarquent (pour s’en étonner naïvement) que les cinéastes hollywoodiens du muet se sont d’emblée et mieux “adaptés” au parlant que les européens et les soviétiques. C’est qu’à Hollywood le parlant au niveau des formes ne tombait pas du ciel, s’insérait dans des structures, dans des cases à peu près déjà constitués, dont il était à la fois le produit et le perfectionnement.”

HAGGITH Toby (2002)

October 29, 2008 § 1 Comment

HAGGITH Toby: “Reconstructing the Musical Arrangement for “The Battle of the Somme” (1916).” Film History. 14, no. 1, 2002: 11-24.

Toby Haggith a reconstitué l’accompagnement suggéré par J. Morton Hutcheson (colonne “Music in the Cinema” publiée à l’époque dans la revue The Bioscope), en tentant d’identifier et de retrouver toutes les partitions (pas toujours facile: certaines ont disparu, d’autres survivent mais dans d’autres arrangements…). Hutcheson recommande pas moins de 33 morceaux différents, et choisit surtout des morceaux que le public pourra reconnaître (seuls 9 morceaux du 19è siècle).

Comparaison avec d’autres arrangements, modernes (notamment du pianiste Andrew Youdell qui avait enregistré la musique du DVD du film en 1993): plus de musiques différentes dans la version de Hutcheson, plus de marches militaires, un message portant sur la nécessité du sacrifice plus clair, mais aussi des passages tout autant élégiaques, ou émouvants, notamment sur les images des morts. 

Rôle de la musique pas négligeable: aide le message de propagande (la nécessité, la noblesse du sacrifice consenti gaiement), et aide la structure du film (en renforçant la narration: la musique permet d’éviter notamment un sentiment de répétition entre Part 1 et Part 5).

Battle Music

October 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

From Pictures and the Picturegoer, 7 oct. 1916, p. 25, Fred Adlington’s take on the music for Battle of the Somme (1916):

Pordenone diary – day seven

October 23, 2008 § 1 Comment

More music in silent film stuff.

Count me in as one of those that wasn’t overtly impressed by Michael Nyman’s playing for either Jean Vigo’s A propos de Nice or Dziga Vertov’s Kino Pravda. A propos de Nice, a naughty, irreverent and poetic piece, I had seen last year already, with, per force, a different accompaniment. I can’t say the four or five musical themes that Nyman brought to the film and kept on repeating time after time after time did much for me. On some dreamy plane they did fit the film, but I suspect it’s because of the inherent nostalgic feeling most black and white silent films create in viewers. The repetition of lush musical themes will nicely contribute to the same feeling. But there was something utterly mechanistic about Nyman’s accompaniment, where one musical theme was tightly identified with one theme in the film (music for workers; music for people strolling; etc.). And to read, the next day, in the local newspaper, an interview where the maestro explained how what he wanted to do, with his music, was to surprise the listener…that’s too much for me to bear.

But then, I don’t have much feeling for celebrities. I like the old Hollywood adage: 

you’re as good as your last film.

which Stroheim used as a sign of Hollywood’s utter philistinism (Stroheim enjoyed being lionized for his past achievements in Europe). I only wish it would apply to more professions…

Now day 7 for me: nothing about Shiryaev here. Couldn’t get past the social context, of a rich Russian enjoying life filming himself and his family in little summer playlets while Cossacks and poverty went raging through the land, and therefore I still fail to see the significance of all this

(but, as Urbanora said, “we’ll all be wiser” by the end of the festival…)

So I went to see the 1916 British newsreel/documentary film The Battle of the Somme. There was an introduction to this by the restoration team from the Victoria and Albert War Museum, with the keynote address being, for me, from pianist (and composer) Stephen Horne (the only pianist playing at Pordenone to have a groupies’ website on Facebook ?). How to restore the original score for the film ? 

Indeed the film had premiered with the 1916 score at Pordenone in 2006, and the restoration DVD will feature both that score and a new score by Laura Rossi (her goal: to find music that fits the mood of the soldiers shown on film). But the film, while very moving, was also essentially a propaganda piece at the time, and the music was supposed to reflect the upbeat, optimistic mind frame that military authorities were trying to project on what was a very bloody battle. To me the interesting point was how to gauge audience reaction by the music: did musicians in 1916 all play the upbeat music provided by the British Bioscope ? New Yorkers seem to have reacted to the devastation portrayed in the film with horror…would they have accepted a gay march to accompany the film ? Definitely more research in the reception of this film (or more reading!) is required.

Next: our last Pordenone day: Fields, Marion Davies, and Griffith, ever the visionary, starts the last film he ever made with a strong Obama endorsement.

why we’ve always loved movies

October 22, 2008 § Leave a comment

I mentionned the song “Take Your Girlie To The Movies” as sung by Joanna Seaton with Don. Sosin accompanying, during the Pordenone festival.

(from Indiana University Sheet Music Collection)

This is Billy Murray in 1919:


And this is a recent youtube version of the song, by Frederick Hodges (the last chorus is changed but it’s all in good fun):

You talking to me ?

February 21, 2007 § Leave a comment

Any idea as to what those two birds are saying to each other ?

a silent film as a musical ?

February 15, 2007 § Leave a comment

Music, costumes, scenery, dancing, all meshed into a gloriously dreamy whole: this was already a possibility back in 1922.

Another of those pleasing Music Films is at the Rialto, also. It is called “Arabian Duet,” and was produced under the direction of J. F. Leventhal, with a setting by Claude Millard and choreography by Ted Shawn. The dancing, done by Martha Graham and Charles Millard, does not seem as graceful as that of Lillian Powell and Miss Graham in the “Bubble” and “Egyptian” pictures, but the setting is effective and the colors, reproduced by the Prizma process, are clear and bright without being harsh. So the eye is satisfied.
There Music Films are, indeed, something more than a novelty on the screen. As compositions of movement, color, mass and line, they are cinematographic creations, entertaining in themselves and significant of the beauty and expressiveness which may be achieved through the medium of kinetic photography. An additional value possessed by them is that they may be shown accompanied by music played in time to the dancing, wherever a screen and one or more instruments can be brought together, because the arms of a director beating time are shown in the foreground of each picture and, according to Mr. Leventhal, all the musicians have to do is follow the lead of this figure on the screen. If this is the case, however, the films have not been exhibited to the best advantage at the Rivoli and Rialto, for, instead of sitting down and letting the orchestras follow the leader in the pictures, the real leaders at these houses have remained on their platforms and directed as usual. As a result, spectators have been disconcerted by seeing simultaneously the unsynchronized movements of two leaders.
(“The Screen”, New York Times, 15 may 1922, p. 24)

What’s a Silent Movie, Dr. Plonk (2007) ?

January 29, 2007 § 1 Comment

Dr. Plonk (2007)

Apparently this has finished filming.

reputedly in the slapstick style of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton…shot with a hand-cranked camera

When’s it out on DVD ?

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