20 – 24 MARCH 2019. HIPPODROME, BO’NESS
Above all else, the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema is a joyful celebration of film and music. Speaking to other audience members, who had travelled far to Bo’ness for the unique atmosphere and live experience, it’s clear that the festival and this small town, delivers something very special. Home to the oldest cinema in Scotland, it is also a centre for national and international cinema heritage. This year’s programme offered thrills, chills, laughs, unexpected discoveries and truly memorable performances from some of the world’s finest accompanists. I arrived for the third day of the festival, staying until closing night and was delighted to see many films for the first time, introduced in the best possible way.
Hippfest’s traditional fancy-dress Friday Night Gala is always great fun, inspired this year by the glamour and military moustache twirling of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1924 Romantic Comedy-Melodrama Forbidden Paradise. This new restoration from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was vibrantly accompanied by Jane Gardner (piano), Roddy Long (violin) and Frank Bockius (percussion). The trio complimented the tone of the film brilliantly and heightened its pace, enhancing the tension of court intrigues and Lubitsch’s characteristic brand of knowing comedy. Channelling the passion of Pola Negri as vampish, authoritarian ruler Czarina Catherine, it was an enjoyable, crowd pleasing caper, well suited to the whole occasion. Pre-screening period music by The Red Hot Minute Band, accompanied by fizz and canapes, added to the party atmosphere.
Following on the heels of last year’s riotous late-night screening Seven Footsteps to Satan, Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927) starring Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale and Forrest Stanley, set the stage for more ghoulish fun. The story begins just before midnight, with scheming relatives of grand eccentric Cyrus West assembled for the reading of his will. Musicians Günter Buchwald (Piano, violin) and Frank Bockius (percussion) drew the audience into the eerie corridors of the West mansion with a startling variety of sound. The music mirrored the film’s high angle shadow play to great effect, in the hushed circular sweep of brushes on drumskin, the nervous tension of pizzicato strings, use of upper register violin whining like a cat and the spidery creep of piano. At one point, the reverberation of percussion, from drumsticks scraped over wooden notches, produced the most fantastic sound, like rasping, macabre human laughter. As Horror-Comedy, the tone of The Cat and the Canary ,reflected in the intertitles, is almost comic book and a relatively safe programming choice. With their range of musical expertise, I would love to see Buchwald and Bockius perform a darker psychological Horror/ Thriller in this late-night timeslot.
Silent Comedies remain hugely popular and there’s nothing quite like watching them as part of a live audience. Visual gags hinge on anticipation and this is palpable in an auditorium, where laughter is immediately infectious. The circular architecture of the Hippodrome really brings you into the fold in that respect. This year’s Saturday morning Jeely Jar screening The Freshman starring Harold Lloyd and Jobyna Ralston was a great choice of film, appealing to the universal human desire to be liked and the imperative of being yourself. The transformation ‘from geek to cool’ is a trope which often lacks charm in more recent films. However, in Lloyd’s hands, the likeable innocence of the central character shines through, aided in this performance by John Sweeney’s adept accompaniment. Hippfest’s annual Laurel and Hardy Triple Bill is always a sell-out and this year’s audience were treated to comedic pandemonium with Wrong Again, You’re Darn Tootin and With Love and Hisses. Sadly, there was no horse on the piano (see Wrong Again), but Jane Gardner’s wonderful accompaniment more than made up for it.
Although I thoroughly enjoy events like the comedy triple bill, what I really come to Hippfest to savour is reinterpretation of film in performance and seeing cinema I’ve never seen before. Friday afternoon’s Cuppa Talk, Peace on the Western Front was one of those highlights. Dr Toby Haggith (Senior Curator of Second World War and Mid Twentieth Century from the Imperial War Museum’s Film Department) introduced the film and provided live narration, accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano. Seeing film restoration work in progress is a rare privilege and this deeply affecting film about what war really means, told father to son, stayed with me. With 2014-2018 centenary events concluded and those who lived through the conflict no longer with us, the question remains of how we continue to commemorate international conflict and warn future generations. Like many members of the audience, I was surprised to discover such a hard hitting and compassionate battlefield pilgrimage film from 1931. ‘The role of film in
memory’ is extremely significant, not just for survivors of the Great War who saw the film on its release, but in the present act of reconstruction.
In addition to seeing Peace on the Western Front for the first time and the important questions it raised, what I loved about this event was insight into decision making process, the complex negotiation of restoring film from different archival sources and re-interpretation through sound. With the original sound discs lost from this “all talking picture”, two archival copies of the film and a variety of documents were used to reconstruct the narrative. The press book for the film provided the basis of the script, together with lip syncing interpretation, identifying locations using a Michelin guide to the battlefields and contemporary press accounts. Underpinning all restoration is the immense task of remaining true to the intent of the original, in this case, a directorial collaboration between two WWI veterans, Fred Swan and Hans Nieter, drawing on experiences from both sides. Peace on the Western Front became an unofficial film for the League of Nations Union, promoting the cause of peace and disarmament, something that I’m sure will continue through the current restoration. Like all archival film it lives before an audience, which is why festivals like Hippfest are so important, doubly so when the quality of music enhances perception to such a high degree.
Although this was a read through and the final recorded version will employ an actor for narration, the balance between the voice of the film and its soundtrack was beautifully realised. Seeing abandoned war-torn towns, the determination to rebuild and reclaim the land for living, speaks of the timeless value of film as an agent of self-reflection and growth. It’s the drive that music is made of and all the ways that human beings find to out-create destruction. Compassion is the core of this film, which enabled veterans who could not afford to return to the battlefields, a virtual experience of validation through cinema. Peace on the Western Front acknowledges their experiences, while the current restoration honours these memories. The darkened auditorium is a safe space to collectively grieve and it is also a place for audiences, then and now, to see what is possible.
The union of sound and image led the audience into a landscape of ruins and bomb blasted hollows, resting tonally on objects of horror and remembrance. A trinity of bayonets emerging from the ground marked the final resting place of three soldiers, killed where they stood. The cross fallen over them, like a figure bowed in lament, is an image held long in the mind. What we see are the dead in absence, so many never found and the rubble of civilization, like Paul Nash’s painting We are Making a New World (1918). However, Peace on the Western Front is also a hopeful vision, of people re-working the land and rebuilding their lives. The narrative explains what happened in these fields and villages, however, it’s the way that sound alights on human objects, encouraging deeper reflection on what they mean, that leaves a lasting imprint. As Stephen Horne described during the post-screening Q&A, the music enters the ‘spirit in which the film was made, rather than recreating what might have been played.’ It is ‘abstracted, serving the narrative, not focus pulling.’ This approach creates a more intimate, visceral connection with the audience, because we can’t sonically relegate what we’re seeing to a bygone era, shrouding the film in nostalgia or sentimentality to distance ourselves from uncomfortable truths.
That quality of accompaniment was also present in the screening of Lois Weber’s The Blot (1921), introduced by Pamela Hutchinson and accompanied by Lillian Henley on piano. Although the hidden history of women in film is gradually coming to light, what will enable neglected cinema to enter public consciousness (and move us closer to equality) is connecting films like this one with live audiences. Weber (1879-1939) was a writer/director who made over 40 features and hundreds of shorts. In her own time, she was the highest paid director in Hollywood, placing the myth of continuous human progress and the current gender pay gap debate into perspective. Part of South West Silents’ initiative Silent Women Film Pioneers, Henley’s skilful new score for The Blot unobtrusively merges with Weber’s vison. Her live performance wove itself into the film’s closely observed domestic spaces, complimenting the unfolding drama and serving the director’s intent perfectly.
Focusing on middle class poverty, so acutely relevant today, Weber understood film as an agent of social change and brought missionary zeal to her examination of inequality in America. Her call for a living wage is articulated through the experiences of mother and daughter, normally cast in supporting roles, but here placed centre stage. We’re all too familiar with women on film portrayed as silent agents of social cohesion and ironically, here in the Silent era, they have a greater voice than in many mainstream Hollywood films circa 2019. Seeing the Griggs and Olsen families, side by side in stark contrast, is immediately resonant, reflecting the ever-increasing divide between rich and poor on a global scale. Supplanting expectations of Romance with sharp, social critique, the collapse of Middle America is ongoing. Weber’s famed ‘feminine touch’ as a filmmaker begs closer scrutiny, as her energies were directed above and beyond her gender. What she stood for was human dignity, empathy and self- determination. There’s a tendency that goes with the whole “feminine touch” label, dismissing interior details in The Blot, like decorative elements, simply belonging to a woman’s domain and aligned with the designated role of homemaker/filmmaker. However, I’d suggest that seemingly passive imagery such as a pet cat and kitten, are more potent inclusions by Weber, suggesting eternal cycles of child bearing, linked to grinding poverty.
An image (or “blot”) that particularly struck me was that of a little girl, just learning to walk, observed by the central character Mrs Griggs (Margaret McWade). Tottering at the base of the stairs wearing one high heeled shoe, a plaything and basic item of clothing that the Griggs family cannot afford to buy, this sequence felt metaphorical rather than observational. As Pamela Hutchinson suggested in her introduction, if Weber had been a man, we’d have been having discussions about the vision of the director long ago, rather than seeing her films as reductively female. I’m quite certain, given Weber’s moral and ethical stance, that this scene in The Blot is more socially/ politically loaded than just a child playing games. Those games shape how we move through the world as adults and you can’t walk, much less climb the stairs, in one ill-fitting high heeled shoe. Although Weber delivers a strong moral message, this tempered throughout by feeling and projection, rather than grandiose sermonising. The shame of ostracism in work, the pride that tries to keep up with the Jones’s or class-based cues of dress and body language that inform how characters are made to feel, are aspects of self, shared with the audience. This is part of Weber’s life experience and congruence as a filmmaker. It’s a telling indictment that so many prominent women working in the film industry during its early years have silently disappeared from its history. Film restoration is also about reclamation, reappraisal and reinterpretation, which is why I was so glad to have seen this film as part of a live audience.
Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, Days of Wrath, Ordet) is best known for the profound seriousness and spiritual austerity of his work. The performance of a lesser known film, The Parson’s Widow (1920) demonstrated that there are many more layers to this deeply humane director, including a great sense of humour. It was an absolute pleasure to experience the sensitivity and understated brilliance of this film with an accompanist who equals it. John Sweeney has been accompanying Silent Film for over 25 years and I’m consistently moved by his ability to communicate the most vulnerable and subtle aspects of human behaviour in performance. In Sweeney’s hands, sound becomes a conduit for audience immersion in the emotional arc of the story and the predicament of the characters, rather than a simplistic trigger of emotive response. It’s why I love watching Silent Film live- it pares the art of film back to its most essential, universal language. As an audience we’re not reduced to manufactured cause and effect, but are presented with a pure, intuitive response to the film’s own trajectory in real time, that we can imaginatively project ourselves into. What Sweeney achieved in this performance was a revelation in terms of what makes Dreyer’s work so distinctive and timeless. Tapping into the human kindness, sparkling humour and humility at the heart of the story is his natural gift as an accompanist. As the relationships in the film become deeper and lessons are learned about the true nature of the main characters, Sweeney’s music embraced the lyricism, solemnity and richness of those connections. Dreyer’s conclusion of thanksgiving ‘for all the good days I have lived’ was expressed musically throughout. We begin with a story set in 17th Century Norway, where custom dictates that a young theologian must marry the previous parson’s widow to secure his position, finding a path back to ourselves by the end of the film. Deception, love, wisdom and human flaws are revealed as only Dreyer (and Sweeney) can. I can think of no finer introduction to this new Swedish Film Institute restoration of a Dreyer classic.
Another of this year’s great Silent discoveries and a festival highlight was the World Premiere of Lobster Films restoration Au Bonheur Des Dames (1930). The incredible virtuosity and rapport of accompanists Stephen Horne (piano, accordion, flute) and Frank Bockius (vibraphone, percussion) continues to elevate every performance. Paired with an intensely moving film, they delivered a dazzling performance, driven by pure intuition and consummate artistry. Adapted from a story by Emil Zola and directed by Julien Duvivier, Au Bonheur Des Dames is an immediately relevant ‘modern parable’ for the 21st Century, as we now face the global, environmental and human cost of capitalist “progress.” The film is also a poignant memorial to the ‘final days of French Silent Cinema.’ The buildings we see being demolished on screen are those of the film studio, subject to the same ‘bulk buy’ attitude to branded entertainment as that of the “Ladies Paradise” department store. Small and independent gives way to retail empire in the film, something we see daily in every town and city High Street. Although the heroine Denise Baudu (Dita Parlo) eventually succumbs to this corporate vision of progress, and annoyingly for love, the film’s imagery and musical accompaniment cuts through the plot to deliver a more critical interpretation.
The mechanisation of desire and accelerating drive towards mass consumption were communicated beautifully by the accompaniment. Vibraphone and cymbals created a mesmerising sense of being seduced by glitter in a retail cathedral. The “Ladies Paradise” is certainly an ironic title given the treatment of the shop girls by their male managers. ‘Paradise’ is a dualistic idea, which regardless of belief, is associated with a fall of biblical proportions. The association between lust and shopping projects wider social concerns. In one scene, we see a woman covetously touching her throat, surveying jewellery and another stealing a fur from the department store display. Sound conveys misplaced desire, in the use of piano strings and syncopated percussion, creating an unnatural slant on all the shiny things we might own, perfectly in keeping with the subversive imagery. Sharp intercutting during a sale scene or frenetic movements along a city street, accompanied by palpitations of percussion give us a bodily sense of being in the frame.
The cinematography by André Dantan, René Guichard, Émile Pierre and Armand Thirard is frequently poetic and clever editing juxtaposes the fate of the individual with towering corporate dominance. When Denise’s cousin Genevieve collapses, the piano guides us emotionally through the doorway, accenting her vulnerability- cut to an upwards camera pan of a demolition site and we immediately feel that she (her hopes, the family business and way of life) are being literally and metaphorically crushed. The rumbling depths of the piano and percussion are abstracted- as unconscious as breathing in that moment of absolute immersion. There’s a very special circuitry of energy in play, led entirely by the film, related to what is visually inferred rather than spoken. It’s a circle, fuelled by imagination, connecting the filmmaker(s), the art object, accompanying musicians and audience across time. Horne and Bockius understand the language of film so completely (and intuitively in tandem) that the tonal qualities of a film; visual, psychological, emotional, are translated effortlessly to sound, the most immediate of all our senses. This is Silent Film accompaniment on a whole other level of craft and sophistication. Like a sublime symphony, the beauty of the composition (or improvisation) lies in us being consciously unaware of it. Ideally sound opens a channel in the hearts and minds of the audience, which is exactly what art is for.
Au Bonheur Des Dames has a beauty that has nothing to do with Romance or glamour. We experience it in moments of human recognition, like Denise’s view as she stands alone in her uncle’s shop looking out onto the street, through a line of stripped mannequins. Outside dust and paper scatter in the wind and the sun feels like twilight. Piano chords anchor us to this moment of meditation on what is passing before our eyes. This scene reminded me very much of the early documentary stills photography of Eugène Atget (1857-1927), who tried to capture the architecture and streets of Paris before they fell to modernisation. However, in Au Bonheur Des Dames, this melancholic, end of an era feel of Atget is realised with unbridled violence. As buildings are reduced to rubble by machinery, the shattering physicality of destruction was communicated in a frenzy of articulated blows from percussion. It was expression carried mindfully through the hands and body, informing the viewer’s perception not just of the action on screen but the overwhelming forces behind it. Throughout the film, imagery and music suggested a more questioning world view than the trajectory of the plot. That tension is part of what makes this film so interesting. Shots of the department store shop floor, seen from above, take a god-like view of what humanity has designed, later scattered in panic.
On many levels, Au Bonheur Des Dames is a very contemporary film and the highly sensitive accompaniment, reserving silence for moments of the greatest gravitas, played to those strengths. Most Hippfest films are prefaced by archival shorts and I love the way these can expand frames of reference inside the feature. In this case, the short film Out for Value from the National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive was the perfect companion piece, chosen by Hippfest student placement Maeve O’Brien and accompanied by Forrester Pyke on piano. Archival footage from Isaac Menzies, Aberdeen, an Emporium taken over by House of Fraser and purchased in 2018 by mega-discounter Sports Direct, brought themes in Au Bonheur Des Dames resoundingly home. Another Scottish connection made this screening possible, with sponsorship from the Falkirk District Twinning Association, paired with Creteil, outside Paris.
Building relationships with long term partners, such as the Confucius Institute for Scotland and China Film Archive, Hippfest is able to bring rare films to the UK, such as The Red Heroine / Hongxia (1929), the oldest surviving martial arts film, largely unseen outside China. International partnerships are also instrumental in commissioning new work, promoting artistic development and cultural exchange. Co-commissioned by the Goethe Institut, Glasgow, and Hippfest, the world premiere accompaniment for Moulin Rouge (1928) by Günter Buchwald (violin), Frank Bockius (percussion) and Johnny Best (piano) recieved stellar applause from the audience. The story centres on Parysia (Olga Tschechowa), an aging cabaret dancer, universally adored for her exotic onstage persona. Her daughter Margaret returns from finishing school with her fiancé Andre, who soon becomes obsessed with his future mother in law. Director Ewald Andre Dupont was one of the early pioneers of German Cinema, best known for Varieté (1925) and Piccadilly (1929), both screened at previous Hippfests. It’s gratifying to be able to explore the work of a director over several years, a rare gift of continuity, and to see the film performed live in a collaboration between German and British musicians. This was the first time the trio of Buchwald, Bockius and Best had performed together and hopefully not the last. Günter Buchwald has been accompanying Silent Film since 1978, collaborating with Frank Bockius for over 20 years and Johnny Best, who is Director of the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival and a PHD researcher, has been accompanying Silent Film since 2014. The opportunity for musicians to learn and be inspired by each other, across borders and a variety of musical styles, is essential in preserving and developing the art of Silent Film accompaniment for future generations. The lavish production and arc of impending tragedy in Moulin Rouge was handled with great panache and gusto, hurtling towards the climatic scene at a heart-stopping pace and carrying the audience with it.
This year’s Closing Gala Hindle Wakes (1927), accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne, provided a world class conclusion to the festival, highlighting a largely unknown and strikingly progressive British Silent. Matching the right accompanist(s) with the right film is an art in itself and this performance illustrated what a skilled musician can bring to our perception of cinema. As Briony Dixon, curator of Silent Film at the BFI, London, stated in her introduction, ‘Stephen will accompany the film as only he can.’ Based on the 1910 play by Stanley Houghton and filmed by the UK’s most prolific director, Maurice Elvey, Hindle Wakes is a surprisingly radical statement of female independence. Set in a Lancashire cotton mill town, it’s a story of industrial slavery and ‘the ecstasy of freedom’, linking self-determination with a woman’s capacity to earn her own living. Accompanying the opening sequence on piano, stately, tonal pillars of expectation were contrasted with the excitement of heroine Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) and her best friend Mary, preparing for the annual mill closure and heading for the bright lights of Blackpool on holiday. Release from the drudgery of factory work into a fairy-tale world of leisure was captured by the otherworldly sound of the thumb harp, fragile music infused with human vulnerability. This sound aligned with a poignant shot of the Blackpool ballroom seen from above, a swirling mass of couples and confetti falling, as if the entire scene were held in time, inside a souvenir snow globe. Sparks of Romance and unease punctuated the soundscape, reflecting the central character navigating her way from youth to adulthood.
Horne’s ability to express the inner life of characters on screen is exceptional. When Allan and Fanny take their turn on the dancefloor amongst thousands of couples, a lesser accompanist might have simply played appropriately rhythmic period music over the sequence. Horne takes his cues directly from the frame and its visual composition, in the way that sound melts away, out of focus, creating an emotional depth of field around the couple and making the rest of the world disappear. We enter into what the dance means in that moment, and in life, temporarily suspended in reflection. This delicacy, attention and care, is what makes Horne such a master of the art and a multi award winning accompanist. Without giving too much away, the film’s conclusion doesn’t deliver what we’re conditioned to expect. The ending left me wondering at what point did stories such as this one cease being projected on screen? How many others have been lost and how many more were waiting to be discovered? Once again, a film that would be classified as Silent, historical or vintage delivers an unanticipated roar, revealing itself as more radical than many contemporary films would dare to be. Class representation, coupled with expectations of gender, make Fanny’s ultimate decision a revolutionary act, then and now. Regardless of when a film was made, if we don’t care about the characters on screen then the film is dead. The nature of Horne’s accompaniment brought reappraisal of a forgotten film to a wider audience. Bridging this gap between film archive and public consciousness is a matter of national importance. Beyond academia and dedicated organisations, the UK is slow to recognise its cinema history and champion its immense cultural value. Performances like this make the case very powerfully from the ground up, without saying a word.
In addition to the festival screening programme, workshops, talks and commissioning of new scores, Director Alison Strauss and the Hippfest team have exported the live Silent experience from Bo’ness, touring selected shows in the UK. Over the last nine years Hippfest has emerged as a national treasure and essential resource, enabling international collaboration and consistently punching far above its weight. In 2020, Hippfest will celebrate its 10th edition and I can’t wait to see what it has in store.
Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film Website:
http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/default.aspx Hippfest 2019 Programme: hhttp://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/docs/brochure/2019%20Festival%20Brochure.pdf