How Music Can Change a Silent Film

My wife and I went to the Pacific Film Archive Friday night to see two great late silent dramas, The Crowd and Sunrise. We were both familiar with The Crowd, having watched it together about a year ago on Turner Classic Movies. But this time, the ending was different–more upbeat. The televised version left us feeling that while the characters were happy at the moment, they weren’t going to stay that way for long. But the 35mm print screened at the PFA reassured us that everything was going to be okay.

No, it wasn’t a different cut of the movie. Only the music had changed. The video version has a symphonic score by one of the video age’s stars of silent film accompaniment, Carl Davis. The PFA presented the film with live piano accompaniment by a less-known local treasure, Judith Rosenberg. Both scores were terrific, but very different, especially in their interpretation of King Vidor’s ambiguous ending.

All of which brings me to one of my favorite aspects of silent movies: They aren’t quite complete until someone adds music. This incompleteness makes them alive in a way that sound films can never be. Stage plays are alive that way. Hamlet gets recreated with every new production, with different actors, designers, and musicians reinterpreting Shakespeare’s words. Citizen Kane, on the other hand, is a done deal; there’s nothing you can do except watch it–and preserve it. Silent films fall somewhere in between. You can’t recast or redesign Sunrise, but you can always rescore it.

And that leads to a problem with silent films on video. Once you buy a silent movie on DVD (or VHS or Laserdisc), it’s very easy for that particular score to become, in your own mind, the soundtrack for the film. But, of course, it isn’t. It’s only one score for the film. You have to remember that.

One solution is to own more than one copy of a favorite silent movie, but frankly, that seems a bit obsessive. (I do own two copies of The General, a Laserdisc with a Carl Davis score, and DVD scored by Robert Israel, but that was a matter of buying the DVD to replace the Laserdisc, and then deciding to keep both.) DVDs can carry multiple soundtracks, making it possible for them to carry more than one score. Unfortunately, economic realities make multi-scored DVDs a rarity. But a few are out there.

This week’s footnotes:

The Film and the Lotus
Buddhism is in the air, these days. The International Buddhist Film Festival opens Friday at the Castro before long runs in Berkeley and San Rafael, and the Pacific Film Archive starts its own Monday afternoon Buddhism and Film series (actually an undergraduate class open to the public). And what are they starting the series off with? Film–a strange collaboration between Samuel Becket and Buster Keaton (yes, you read that right). I’ve been wanting to see this short for years. Unfortunately, 3:00 on Monday afternoon isn’t really practical for me.

The Art of the Double Bill
I have not seen either I Wake Up Screaming or In a Lonely Place, showing Wednesday night at the Balboa’s Noir festival. But I just have to compliment Eddie Muller for putting these two titles together (I’m not talking about the movies here, just the titles). Wouldn’t you be intrigued by a show called “I Wake Up Screaming in a Lonely Place?”

The Paramount is Back
If you’ve never been to a Movies Classics night at Oakland’s Paramount theater, you’re in for a treat. And if you have…well, you’re still in for a treat. The Paramount is a beautiful old picture palace lovingly restored, and is home to Oakland’s Symphony and Ballet. But about 20 times a year, it offers a movie night complete with organ concert, cartoons, an old newsreel, a raffle, and a classic film–all for $6.00. The winter movie series starts this Friday night with The Maltese Falcon. The doors open at 7:00–a full hour before the show. And that’s an hour you can spend exploring the nooks and crannies of this amazing theater.

And So is Ray Harryhausen
Do I really have to say more than that An Evening with Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years sounds like a lot of fun. If you’re familiar with Harryhausen’s work, you already know that. And if you’re not familiar with the only special effects expert who can truly be called an auteur (a Harryhausen film is a Harryhausen film, regardless of who directed it), go rent the original Jason and the Argonauts (not the recent TV remake) and discover what all the fuss is about.

Other recommendations:

  • On the Waterfront plays the Castro Monday through Thursday.

  • The Noir City festival concludes this week at the Balboa.

  • The Shop Around the Corner comes around to the Pacific Film Archive tonight. The second feature, Shampoo, is good, but not in the same class.

  • Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia comes to the archive on Thursday.

  • Ray and The Incredibles continue their run at the Parkway.

  • The Red Vic is showing Gimme Shelter Thursday night. If you ever wonder why the 60’s didn’t last, come and see the flip side of Woodstock.