8th Hippodrome Silent Film Festival, Bo’ness

Directed by Alison Strauss, 8th annual Hippodrome Silent Film Festival was full of discoveries and exceptional performances- in my experience, the best year yet!  The convergence of international musical talent, new restorations and previously unseen films, presented under the heavenly dome of Scotland’s oldest cinema make Hippfest a highly anticipated and unique event, worth clearing your calendar for.  There is nothing quite like the live Silent era experience, bringing reinterpretation of cinema at its most ground-breaking and innovative to contemporary audiences.  The Hippfest celebration of music and movies in a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere is a restorative breath of fresh air. I always come away feeling connected to an expanded world of human creativity, experience and perception. This isn’t just about a film nerd finding her tribe, but the thrill of the new, the magic that happens when the right accompanist(s) align with the vision of a film and its emotional centre, responding to it in real time. You don’t need a degree in film studies to revel in it.  This is where Silent Film accompaniment comes into its own, not as a historical curio, but as a living Artform transforming how and what we see, not just inside the cinema but in the wider world. Being part of that flow of energy between the filmmaker(s), the stories projected on screen, accompanying musicians and fellow audience members is something very special that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the digital world.

Silent comedian Billie Ritchie

Among this year’s discoveries was Silent comedian Billie Ritchie. Who knew that this Glasgow born international star pre-dated Chaplin as “The man Who Makes the World Laugh”, appearing in 70 Hollywood productions from 1914 to 1920. Trevor Griffiths, author of the soon to be released Early Cinema in Scotland, delivered an intriguing introduction to Ritchie’s work in his Friday afternoon talk, prompting the question of how and what enables an artist to remain in public consciousness. With Forrester Pyke accompanying on piano, the audience were treated to tantalising snippets of surviving film, revealing Ritchie’s anarchic brand of humour. These glimpses left me wanting to see more and wondering where in the world Ritchie’s many lost works might be uncovered. There is certainly more work to be done in researching, celebrating and bringing Billie Ritchie home as an artist in the public imagination.

Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Hiedelberg (1927), starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer.

The Hippfest Friday Night Gala is always buzzing, with people getting into the 1920’s party spirit. Fancy dress, pre-screening drinks, canapés and authentic live music, this year by the toe tapping Red Hot Minute Brass Band, are all part of the annual festivities. Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Hiedelberg (1927), starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer was accompanied by Neil Brand on piano, delivering the perfect balance of charm, romance and drama. Hugely popular on its release, the story of an inexperienced, dashing crown prince falling in love with an honest barmaid was (and clearly still is) an appealing leveller. Brand’s music sensitively conveyed this human baseline of love, loss and regret. His enthusiastic presentation of the preceding archival short and main feature heightened the sense of occasion. Brand is a consummate showman with a broad reach, a passionate advocate for Silent Film and the expressive role of music in Cinema, seen in his television series and live performances. He always brings context to Silent Film as art and entertainment, the perfect match for Lubitsch’s highly accomplished and crowd-pleasing film.

Brand provided equally sparkling accompaniment for the Saturday morning Jeely Jar Double Bill, continuing the tradition started by the Hippodrome’s original proprietor Louis Dickson of discounted cinema tickets in exchange for empty glass jars. (In 2018, 2 for 1 tickets with a clean jam jar and lid, with the jars used for local honey). At the heart of both films are feisty, irrepressible and independent young women in the making, something still rarely seen in mainstream films and popular culture in the 21st Century. Dorothy Devore stars in the 22 min comedy of errors Saving Sister Susie (1921), as a younger sister forced to dress as a child by her mother, so that her older sibling can find a fiancée. Devore plays a character who is completely forthright and a free spirit – not at all the model of demure, feminine passivity expected by her Mother’s late Nineteenth Century generation.  In The Kid Reporter (1924, 20 mins) four and a half year old Baby Peggy plays an expert stenographer, crime solving sleuth and budding editor in chief! In his introduction Neil Brand revealed that Baby Peggy, who later became a reporter and critic, is still alive, well and living in LA where he interviewed her.

Baby Peggy in The Kid Reporter (1924)

I have a low tolerance for cuteness, especially of the saccharine, Hollywood studio system variety, but Baby Peggy is something else in this film- four and a half going on forty in terms of her sharp expressions of thought and amazing execution of comic setups. Dressing like a professional male reporter and declaring that “if you want something done there is only one woman!”, she has real presence and personality on screen, convincingly carrying the film. The Kid Reporter was unexpectedly funny, progressive and contradictory in its depiction of a child/woman very competently in charge. Although the Jeely Jar Double Bill is comedy pitched for children/ families, there’s still plenty for adults to enjoy too. Seeing Baby Peggy in a film built entirely around her reveals the shortcomings of our own “liberated” age, where it wouldn’t be enough for her to be an intelligent girl with comic timing. Ironically the field of reference in the proceeding age of technicolour has progressively shrunk, fenced in by pink or blue- tinted expectations, which is what makes Baby Peggy’s sassy self- determination so refreshing! I can’t think of an equivalent character, certainly not one that young, in film or TV today.

Striving /Fen Dou (1932)

Initiating international musical collaborations and cultural partnerships is one of Hippfest’s great strengths, something that can only be created and sustained by proactive development and continuity of funding. The European Premiere of Striving /Fen Dou (1932) a new restoration from the China Archive accompanied by Stephen Horne (Piano, flute, accordion, melody harp) and Frank Bockius (Percussion) is a brilliant example of inspired international collaboration. Supported by the Confucius Institute for Scotland and the University of Edinburgh, this screening combined interpretative skill and musical transcendence, crossing multiple borders. Directed by Shi Dongshan, the story of a young woman, Swallow (played by 16-year-old Chen Yanyan) and her struggle to find happiness is a loyal work of Nationalist propaganda, humanised by musical interpretation in this live performance. Made during a time of internal political turmoil and escalating conflict with Japan, Striving was clearly intended to carry the moral message of virtue and nobility in serving the nation. The pairing at this screening of a BFI National archive short film newsreel, rallying young men in Trafalgar Square to serve their country, provided an interesting perspective on propaganda and nationalism on home soil. The Hippfest tradition of pairing archival shorts with features often provoke important questions about our relationship with history, film, collective memory and current affairs. These archival films can sometimes be just a minute long, but they provide an important pause and a lens for the feature, with the audience free to make their own connections. The perceptive distance between cultures, the time that the film was made and our own effectively shrinks, whilst the emotional field of reference expands due to the finest musical accompaniment.

Whenever I have seen Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius accompany Silent Film I’ve been floored by their vitality, incredible musicianship, understanding of film as human expression and ability to communicate with audiences.  The energy they create in performance is pure, intuitive and totally transports the viewer, changing the way you watch, perceive and appreciate films of any period. They always enhance and elevate the films they are paired with based on respect, trust and total commitment to serving the film. Taking your cues from the film happens on many levels and both musicians dig deep. They allow the full range of their instruments, capabilities as soloists and a duo, to channel the film in such a unified way that the audience is carried away, beyond and within themselves. Seeing a film for the first time accompanied by Horne and Bockius is the best introduction you could possibly hope for in Cinema. They’re not serving their egos as performers, but the story, what is projected thematically on screen and the connective function of music, taking the art of Silent Film accompaniment to an entirely new level.  With Striving they effectively placed the audience in the emotional centre of the action.  Whilst this might sound very cerebral, there’s also a physical/ haptic aspect in performance that translates directly to the viewer. We experience the film spatially-like virtual reality, but in more dimensions than just three! It’s the difference between applying sound effects or a musical soundtrack over a film and highly skilled, unconscious interpretation through the nervous system- what we are all essentially hardwired for and what both artists resoundingly deliver.

Stephen Horne’s use of the interior workings of the piano, harnessing its expressive range, creates a sense of gravity, understanding and tension. He is able to ground the audience; physically, psychologically and emotionally. The muffled, rumbling lower register tension of a fight taking place upstairs, or the scraped wires of a slap/ fingernail scratch across the face transform the piano into physically articulate percussion. However, it’s the sonic recognition of what’s happening beneath the surface, in the heart and mind of a scene, that Horne really excels at. The musical suggestion of thought, attitude, character, motivation and feeling, powerful use of sound and silence, enables the audience to inhabit the world of the film and empathically project themselves into it. You don’t achieve that depth of experience with typical thematic manipulation, simply triggering a cause and effect emotive response.

Percussion is often used with all the subtlety of a hammer to the knee reflex in mainstream Cinema scoring, seeing Frank Bockius perform it becomes something else entirely. The human body becomes the percussive, resonant instrument of awareness, not just driving the pace of the action on screen but reimagining it. Arms, elbows, palms and fingertips, brushes, rods, sticks and the most unexpectedly delicate use of cymbals, extend the reach and depth of sound. We can experience foreboding, an abstract concept, as a reality, part of the wider story arc and as an emotional space the main character is living in, before we see/ are shown the abusive relationship between adoptive father and daughter. Crucially- we feel it first, and this guides our human response to the unfolding drama, providing the perfect counterfoil to the rather didactic intertitles and time/ culturally specific political agenda. The musical improvisation aligns with the pure visual storytelling of Silent Film and the art of cinematography, which are all about show don’t tell.

In the hands of these two musicians the clash of cymbals and major key striving of the piano isn’t a nationalistic celebration, but one of life itself. With years of experience and refined technique they can capture with the lightest touch, the trembling hesitation, shifting emotion and burgeoning awareness of two young lovers, or the furious trauma of war, branded “glorious” by the intertitles, sonically subverted. In moments of intimacy the alignment of both musicians is with the painted light of cinematography, the pin point illumination in the eyes of actors, becoming the projected light of Film and the human spirit. There is no orchestra or editing, yet we experience on a symphonic scale, visceral sounds of cannon fire and reverberating bullets that blister the skin of the drums/ viewer, while the piano shudders like a conductive pool of water on the battlefield at our feet. Anyone who imagines (and many people do) that Silent Film accompaniment is simply decoratively tinkling the ivories along to aged memory would have that myth exploded here. The connection is very powerfully made between the seemingly distant world of China circa 1932 and our own. Silent Film is the original art of global communication. It’s no wonder that contemporary filmmakers are increasingly being drawn to it to hone their craft.

Franz Osten’s Shiraz, A Romance of India (1928)

Another highlight of my Hippfest weekend was John Sweeney’s rapturous interpretation of Franz Osten’s Shiraz, A Romance of India (1928), a British-Indian-German co production, recently restored by the BFI. With an entirely Indian cast, including Himansu Rai, Enkashi Rama Rao Charu Roy, Seeta Devi and shot on location using natural light, this is a beautiful film and an epic love story. The tale of how the Taj Mahal came to be built has all the drama and intrigue of a Shakespearean tragedy, with the purity and agony of love at the heart of the film. John Sweeney’s highly sensitive lyricism as a pianist was the perfect accompaniment, seamlessly and magically morphing the piano into a sitar. The combination of rhythms and accents from Classical Indian music with the expressive capabilities of the piano, the ultimate musical embodiment of Western Romanticism, was simply stunning. Like an alchemist, Sweeney melded pinnacles of artistic expression from both cultures into gold, responding to the film and its themes with profound empathy. It was music fallen naturally from the stars, capturing human aspiration and adoration in full alignment with the architecture.

The love triangle between Selima, a lost princess raised from childhood with her adoptive brother Shiraz and the Emperor Shah Jehan is a complex one of class, fate, sacrifice and unrequited love. Ultimately it is Shiraz’s love and humility, that builds the monument and is the foundation of the film, rather than a story of two star crossed lovers finding each other. Crucially the piano dignifies and illuminates the design so that we see the inner trajectory of the devotional as a mirror- “not stone and mortar, but faith and longing”. When Shiraz attends the palace gate, leaning against a pillar, a single hand on the piano communicates his loneliness and the weight of sorrow he’s carrying as he returns to catch glimpses of Selima’s happiness, gradually losing his sight. Musical shimmers of light communicate the selfless acceptance of Selima not being his, it’s the blindness and helplessness of unrequited love.  What Sweeney’s understated accompaniment allows us to feel is the integrity of Shiraz’s soul. Glimmers of sunshine are played with supreme gentleness on the piano, befitting the invisibly raw, vulnerable state of a character who has given his whole self to a woman who can only love him as a brother. That emotive distance between Shiraz and his beloved is achingly acute in Sweeney’s music, because like the character he doesn’t announce these moments of passion and loss, instead they emerge out of the unconscious timbre of the music and into heightened awareness. Like Shiraz handing the amulet back to Selima, Sweeney passes the sonic core of the film to the audience and what a precious, heartfelt gift it is. This performance had me in tears, because it tapped into a baseline of experience and memory in such a humane way. Although the premiere of the BFI restoration of Shiraz at the 2017 London Film Festival with a commissioned score by Anoushka Shankar was much celebrated, you could really hope for no better live accompaniment to this heartbreakingly exquisite film than John Sweeney on piano.

Saturday night’s magnificent Silent Horror double bill featured the great Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920), accompanied by a newly commissioned Hippfest score from Graeme Stephen (guitar) & Pete Harvey (cello). This was followed by the riotously bizarre Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), directed by Benjamin Christensen (Häxan), brilliantly accompanied by Jane Gardner (piano) and Roddy Long (violin).

I must confess that I have  (to date) a difficult relationship with newly commissioned scores for Silent Film, doubly so at a Silent festival where they are premiered alongside the work of musicians whose extensive experience and career focus is Silent accompaniment. The commissioned musicians chosen are usually fantastic in their own right and no doubt bring their existing followers to a screening, however the biggest pitfall for musicians doing Silents is this isn’t a concert or a music festival. It isn’t enough to simply get up there and do what you already know how to- the film is the thing you’re serving, not yourself or your fans. In this context it’s rare that a non-specialist musician (or musicians), however fashionable or acclaimed in their own genre, don’t fall short. To be fair, my expectations in a Hippfest context are incredibly high and I know that often, the actual time allowable for musical commissions is short. However, entering the medium of film and pushing the boat out musically are a state of mind, independent of time. Accompanying Silent film demands nothing less than imagination, if a musician isn’t engaged with theirs and with the film then the audience won’t be either. 

The Penalty (1920) starring Lon Chaney

The Penalty is a cracking film, full of psychological twists, ambiguities and moral dilemmas, it deals with the light and dark of the soul, the nature of creation, destruction and what makes a human being. Lon Chaney is “an evil mask of a great soul” and delivers a compelling, dynamic performance as the crippled, sadistic underworld boss “Blizzard”. There’s distilled malevolence, a fallen angel, an injured child and wounded humanity in his character. He’s a man physically and mentally crippled by greed, revenge, envy and loss. The pairing of classical guitar and cello was a missed opportunity in this new commission, not due to the instrumentation but the safe, concert-like quality of it, which outside the cinema wouldn’t be a criticism. Where this film takes you visually, thematically and psychologically isn’t congruent for example, with repetitively comforting guitar strumming while a violent act is committed- unless you’re being ironic, and my guts, together with the rest of the score, tells me it wasn’t. If you’re going to score for guitar and cello, a full exploration of both instruments, like the human content, is an imperative with this film. This doesn’t mean extreme sound necessarily, but giving the underutilised cello its voice back, taking your guitar into uncharted territory and getting under the skin of your audience. Beautifully played sound just isn’t enough on a cinema stage if it fails to connect with the nature of the characters and story. We all read films differently, but there are central themes in The Penalty that are unmissable for an accompanist, aligned with what the film shows us visually about ourselves as human beings. It’s this emotional tonality and complexity of human behaviour that Graeme Stephen’s doesn’t seem to pick up on. For me that’s what makes this film so rich and fascinating, even with a cop out ending of evil explained away by science. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the film and the musical performance, I wasn’t convinced by them being brought together. The scoring of guitar and cello lacked imagination and there were times when I wondered whether we were watching the same film, Stephen’s score for Nosferatu had a similar effect. Having these thoughts about the music whilst watching the film pulls you out of it to some extent, which is a shame considering such promising material, however Chaney’s marvel of twisted humanity and the visual exploration of themes kept pulling me back in. It could have been an amazing, transformative live performance, but there wasn’t a sense of the musicians becoming an essential part of the film and freeing themselves in the process.

Seven Footprints to Satan (1929)

In contrast Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) totally embraced the vision on screen, faithfully serving the “Carry On Devil Worship crossed with The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and Lynchian Twin Peaks spirit of the film. Starring Thelma Todd, Crighton Hale and Sheldon Lewis the story begins in familiar, late 20’s high society territory and then explodes it completely. Gardner and Long’s harmonic, rhythmic and tonal descent into escalating weirdness was genius! Together they captured the humour and dream-like chaos of bizarre characters and scenarios encountered by a society couple, abducted and imprisoned in a house belonging to the Devil. As David Cairns describes in his Hippfest film notes, the “succession of thugs, dwarfs, fiendish orientals, sinister cripples, phony gorillas, ludicrous grotesques and exotic women, all entering and exiting through secret panels, usually carrying pistols” “and uttering baffling warnings, plays like a Fu Manchu movie through an opium haze.” The transference of sound between piano and electronic keyboard heightened the sense of moving into another realm and Long’s inventive inflections on the violin conveyed an increasingly altered state of reality using all parts of the bow. The Surreal visual/ musical journey from fiery gypsy rhythms and gentile melody to sonically warped time and space was magnificently paced with the accelerating action. Seven Footprints to Satan has all the makings of a cult classic, aided by Gardner and Long who were clearly having as much fun as the audience. Their energy in performance was totally infectious and the audience buzzing from the laugh out loud, audacious and wildly entertaining marriage of sound and image. This late-night Horror was an absolute joy and the most fun I’ve had at the cinema in a long time!  It would definitely make an outstanding repeat screening in any Film House (or mansion) and would be the perfect basis for event cinema.

Underground (1928) directed by Anthony Asquith,  British Film Institute

I’m always a bit sad when Sunday night comes around at Hippfest, a feeling hapilly dispelled by the closing night gala screening. This year Anthony Asquith’s Underground (1928) starring Brian Aherne, Elissa Landi, Cyril McLaglen and Norah Baring, accompanied by Stephen Horne (piano, accordion, flute) and Frank Bockius (percussion) positively raised the roof, closing the festival superbly.  The lives of four working class Londoners are tragically entwined in this unexpectedly gorgeous and darkly emotive film, restored by the BFI National Archive. I was especially glad to have seen it for the first time on the Hippodrome big screen with such adept accompaniment. What struck me visually was Stanley Rodwell’s cinematography, the way shadow play is used imaginatively in the film, from the illuminated bustle and ceaseless movement of the city, to projections of will and desire in the confined space of an underground stairwell. (Rodwell also shot Shooting Stars (1928) and A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) with Asquith.) It’s an interesting departure from the realist tradition of British cinema and brings a more European, expressionistic sensibility to the screen, minus extreme stylistic angularity.  Emotionally it’s permissible intimacy British style, with shadows merging into a surrendering embrace. The prospective lovers are brought closer together than they are physically. We see (and hear) what is unsaid in that moment; what one character is feeling, or projecting onto another. This typically constrained passion makes the flip side of jealousy and revenge an interesting driver in the story.

Another driver is the city, synonymous with the underground itself, sensed and felt in Bockius’s handling of percussion, always moving through a tunnel of darkness towards light. In the opening scenes we see the underground as a melting pot of life, with gestures, glances and exchanges between passengers beautifully animated by sound and the musical conversation flowing just as naturally in collaboration. There’s tremendous sensitivity in the unfolding interpretation of relationships at the heart of the story. For example, Nell’s gradual discovery of Bert’s deceit expands as a musical question with suspicion circling in her mind like the turn of the brush in Bockius’s hand. This growing awareness of the vengeful web Bert has woven around Nell, Kate and Bill is mirrored in Stephen Horne’s gently tentative, pressing shift in awareness on piano. This isn’t a case of simply illustrating an actor’s expression but enables the audience to feel the thought process and emotional state behind it in anticipation. The sound element encourages the audience to drive the realisation and consequent action forward in their own minds. It’s the beauty of accompaniment which creeps up on you in unexpected ways, imaginatively tapping into the motivation and internal movement of a scene.

When Kate discovers that Bert has betrayed her and her mind starts to unravel, the accordion breathes in this emptiness and counter clockwise movement on the skin of the drum amplifies the conflict in her imaginative orbit, of what could or should be. Her responses like the sound of the xylophone become increasingly vulnerable and childlike. The scarf round her neck which she bought to impress Bert scratches at her throat like scraped piano wires. Then the depth of the piano confronts the audience with the refined cause of this primitive, reactive state. She is mad with love and lost herself entirely, a casualty of Bert’s vengeful desire and gross indifference. The sense of oppression in Bert’s hold over Kate becomes an image of modernity, conveyed in the towering silhouette of the power station with its smoking chimneys dwarfing her. As she runs in a frenzy of need to see him, the sequence of movement becomes a blur like a train going past, with the audience as passengers. Throughout the unfolding story, the musical accompaniment provided untold levels of insight, eclipsing time. Underground may not be a film at the forefront of public consciousness, but in the moment, through this performance it became universal. Being able to communicate in this way matters. It crosses all borders and boundaries in such an exciting, enlightening way that the energy within the audience changes, seeing the world with fresh eyes, in the living presence of a miraculous, 90-year-old film and two astonishing musicians. What a festival and what a finish!

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/default.aspx

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/docs/brochure/2018%20Festival%20Brochure.pdf

A New Era

SCOTTISH MODERN ART 1900-1950

2 December 2017 – 10 June 2018

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

Charles PULSFORD (1912-89)
Three Angels, 1949
Painting, oil on board, 91.4 x 174 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland
© The Estate of Charles Pulsford
Photo: John McKenzie

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s latest exhibition A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900-1950 examines how Scottish artists “responded to the great movements of European modern art, including Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism and Abstraction.”  Featuring over 100 works by 51 artists, drawn from public and private collections in the UK, it’s a show that shines a light on Scottish Modernism.  The bold “New Era” of Scottish Modern Art is perhaps a time when a broader range of artists are publicly recognised, less for their relativity to European “Masters” and more for what they uniquely bring to our understanding of the period and ourselves.

There are many forces past and present in art training, collecting, curation and politics which define the “most progressive” artists of this period- or any other. Even after SNGMA’s Modern Scottish Women (2015) exhibition, the overarching cultural statement of progressiveness in this show is predominantly male. In the context of a period in Scottish Art where female artists weren’t permitted to attend life class at the ECA until after 1910, (effectively barring them from elevated professional status) the representative ratio of 7 female to 44 male Scottish Modernists isn’t surprising. As early policy towards female art college staff demonstrates, you only had an artistic profession until marriage and motherhood forced you to resign. The promising careers of some female artists were also cut short by becoming widows during WWI and WWII, being the sole breadwinner and raising children on their own. When Scottish Colourists “JD Fergusson (1874-1961) and SJ Peploe (1871-1935) experienced first-hand the radical new work produced in Paris by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse,” their position was of relative privilege aligned with professional status and gender. Leaving the country to have contact with the European Avant- Garde was pivotal in terms of how their work developed, but what interested me most in this exhibition was grappling with the nature of that liberation.

William Watson PEPLOE (1869-1933)
Orchestral: Study in Radiation, about 1915
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1990
Drawing, pen, brush and ink on card, 28 x 23.6 cm

Rapid industrialisation, the carnage of two World Wars and the collapse of Western civilization were potent catalysts for the radical art movements of the early 20th Century. Too often the canonical roll call of famous creative male geniuses, with talent delivered from on high, clouds perception of how vital an act of survival, resistance and change Art can be. It’s true that the radicalism of Scottish Modernists springs from a more conservative foundation than that found in Paris in the early 20th Century. William Watson Peploe’s Orchestral: Study in Radiation (c.1915 Pen, brush and ink on card, 28 x 23.6cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1990) springs to mind, with its explosive waves of sound and angular shards of beautifully composed beige and black. It infused with manners, despite the obvious energy Peploe celebrates.

John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961)
Étude de Rhythme, 1910
Oil on board, 60.9 x 49.9cm
Collection: The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991
The conservation of this work has been supported by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation
© The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland

I’ve always found the label “Scottish Colourist” a very complex proposition. As a uniquely Scottish group, the implied expressive freedom and celebration of colour (on every level) feels muted. To these contemporary, Antipodean eyes, the self-conscious, reductive pink fleshiness of JD Fergusson’s nudes feel strangely at odds with the idea of unbridled female sexuality he is often celebrated for. He is above all true to himself, seen in the emboldened black lines and heightened abstraction of Étude Rhythm (1910, Oil on board, 60.9 x 49.9cm The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991). It’s an image of sex in terms of male dominance, form and light; a stained-glass convergence of masculine desire, heat and energy, receding to the edges of the frame in crimson, fragmented blue and green. The female form is the background locus of desire, with the male form literally thrust centre stage, curiously adopting abstraction for modesty in a moment of climatic immersion. Although a daring work for 1910 in subject matter and style, there is something maskingly self-referential about it, which holds the image in the time it was made, rather than transcending it.

One of the unexpected highlights of the show was gaining an appreciation of Fergusson’s strength of composition, founded on associations of his own making. What was so compelling wasn’t looking for the influence of French painting on his work, but seeing how Fergusson addresses his own radicalisation, emotionally, psychologically and technically, led by human relationships. The dominant Feminine in his life was his partner, pioneering dancer and choreographer Margaret Morris, seen in Éastre (Hymn to the Sun) (1924 (cast 1971) Brass, 41.8 x 22 x 22.5cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1972). It’s a symbolic and representational work- a realisation of the Saxon Goddess of Spring and a portrait bust of Morris. Highly polished, rounded brass forms, create circular bursts of radiance and refracted light. It’s an object of love, worship and renewal, as Modern as a Brancusi sculpture and as ancient as the mythology that inspired it.

In La Terrasse Café d’ Harcourt (1908, Oil on canvas, 108.6 x 122cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: On loan from a Private Collection) relationships between men and women are cast with skill and intrigue, in black silhouette, between rose pink blooms and ripening, acidic green lit tables. Standing at the centre of the composition is a young woman in a large, curved hat regarding the artist/ viewer and holding her own in the scene. Aligned with the rose at her breast is the face of a man in the background, like a mirror image of the artist. We can’t see her eyes, they are characteristically in shadow, but her stance tells us that she feels his gaze and 110 years later, so do we. The serpentine sweep of line and form draws us seductively to the heart of the painting and in that moment of connection, Fergusson creates the most exquisitely balanced composition, based on the primacy of his attraction. In painterly terms it’s faultless and as our gaze expands beyond the central protagonist, relationships between the surrounding couples begin to emerge, spinning their own narratives.

In At My Art Studio Window (1910, Oil on canvas, 157.5 x 123cm The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991) the female model holds the frame/ canopy aloft with a burst of yellow- green rounded foliage behind her. She is rendered as part of cyclical Nature. Fergusson’s attention is drawn to the torso, the rounded breasts and belly, accented by a crimson sway of mark extending to her thighs. It’s an interesting, veilled mark, which at first feels like reluctance to go a step too far, to paint her entire body with equal definition. The effect is a strange smear, at odds with the rest of the paint handling, but accentuating womanly fertility. Like all of Fergusson’s women, attitude through body language is the primary means of communication, rather than facial expression. Here it’s the tilt of the head beholding the artist/ viewer and the way she supports the picture plain like an internal caryatid, dominating the frame. As a professional model she’s naturally at ease with the full-frontal positioning of the body, stepping into the metaphorical light of the artist’s studio. However, there’s something essentially decorative and therefore contradictory in Fergusson’s vision of the Feminine, a pink patterned accent of desire seen in so many of his paintings, drawing the masculine eye. She is Fergusson’s type of woman and muse, but she is also cast as an undeniable force of Nature.

Conflicting forces of Nature, human nature and industrialisation are the catalyst for all artistic “isms” of the 20th Century. Stephen Gilbert’s Dog, (c.1945 Oil on paper laid on board, 71 x 51cm Private Collection) an expression of pure Zeitgeist in stark, canine form, ravaged by hunger and living on instinct. It’s a painting reminiscent of the Australian artist Albert Tucker, notably his Images of Modern Evil series, painted during the WWII blackouts in Melbourne. Base human instinct comes to the fore in the darkness and psychological onslaught of an age defined by industrial scale warfare, genocide and the atomic bomb. Merlyn Evans’ Cyclops, (early 1940s Serpentine stone, 28 x 45 x 13cm Private Collection), is a modernist manifestation of Classical mythology and collective fears. This works encapsulates the true origin of horror, a monstrous hybrid of man and industrial geometry, consuming humanity.

Eric Robertson (1887-1941)
Cartwheels, c.1920
Oil on canvas, 103 x 144cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 2007
Image: Antonia Reeve

Eric Robertson (1887-1941), an artist who served in the Friends Ambulance Unit during WWI, navigates his own path through the horrors of war. Shellburst (c.1919 Oil on canvas, 71.2 x 83.8cm City Art Centre, Edinburgh Museums and Galleries: Purchased 1976) has a particularly British, Vorticist aesthetic, finding beauty and dynamism, even here on the battlefield. It is a strange, stilled painting, perhaps an exercise in self-preservation with the stylised, corkscrew auditory whirl of falling bombs overhead and the geometrical trajectory of the blast. There’s a sense of placing a template of controlled design over the annihilating violence, with the curvature of soldier’s helmets and bodies leaning into the earth for protection.  Cartwheels (Cartwheels, c.1920 Oil on canvas, 103 x 144cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2007) depicts a group of young people enjoying a day out in a Scottish Mountain landscape, shafts of shifting light and the shorthand spin of legs animating the scene. Robertson’s protective aesthetics are akin to his wartime battlefield scene, albeit with an injection of peacetime Joy de vivre, in the eternally grounded presence of the mountain.

William MCCANCE (1894-1970)
Abstract Cat, about 1922 – 1924
Sculpture, clayslip, glazed, 9.4 x 15.2 x 8.6 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, given by Dr Margaret McCance 1992
© Margaret McCance
Photo: John McKenzie

Painter, printmaker and sculptor William McCance (1894-1970) together with fellow artist and partner Agnes Miller Parker (1895-1980) based themselves in London during the 1920’s. McCance’s sculpture Abstract Cat (c.1922-24 Clayslip, glazed, 9.4 x 15.2 x 8.6cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Presented by Dr Margaret McCance 1992) echoes Franz Marc in its claw-like curved geometry and natural feline suppleness. Using the cheapest material available and of a hand-held scale, it is an expression of potential. His series of carved lino blocks, including a study for the adjacent painting Mediterranean Hill Town, (1923, Oil on canvas, 92.1 x 61cm Dundee City Council (Dundee’s Art Galleries and Museums) give fascinating insight into his interdisciplinary practice. McCance’s Study for a Colossal Steel Head (1926 Black chalk on paper, 53.8 x 37.8cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1988) dehumanises the traditional portrait bust, whilst the narrative of masculine sexuality in The Awakening (1925, Oil on board, 61 x 46cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2007) is a more humane vision of self-discovery. The influence of Cubism via Picasso and Picabia is easily seen in McCance’s work. However, it’s the artist’s visual grappling with contradictory impulses and aspects of self, finding his line in an increasingly fragmented Modern world, that really speaks.

William MCCANCE (1894-1970)
Study for a Colossal Steel Head, 1926
Drawing, black chalk on paper, 53.8 x 37.8 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1988
© Margaret McCance
Photo: John McKenzie

As “a pioneer of British Abstraction”, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s Upper Glacier, (1950 Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 62.9cm Courtesy of the British Council Collection) goes further, directing the Modernist gaze inside Nature in a work composed of thin washes and vibrant drawn marks. The artist’s direct experience of the Grindwald Glaciers in Switzerland is realised in shifting ice greens, blues and smoothed, interlocking forms. Barns-Graham describes the way that she was naturally led to a different way of seeing by the landscape;

“The likeness to glass transparency combined with solid, rough ridges made me wish to combine in a work all angles at once, from above, through and all round, as a bird flies, a total experience.”

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004)
Upper Glacier, 1950
Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 62.9cm
Collection: British Council Collection.
Purchased from the artist 1950.
© The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust

The total experience of art is also expressed in Eduardo Paolozzi’s Table Sculpture (Growth), (1949 Bronze, 83 x 60.5 x 39cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1988). It’s the multidimensional concept of creative process, above and below everyday consciousness, pierced by thought and practical action. Hand-made tools are the legs of the table, holding the structure up and joining the unconscious layer below to what is seen or experienced above the surface. It feels like the visionary integration of traditionally separate realms of heaven and earth, transgressed by imagination in solid bronze.

Charles Pulsford’s (1912-89) Three Angels, (1949 Oil on board, 91.4 x 174cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2012) is a particularly arresting image. It feels like standing on the post-war wreckage of the earth, with a triptych of figures, wings enfolding their bodies like sarcophagi, set against an Armageddon cadmium red sky. The central figure encompasses a trinity of circular light. A clashing palette red, green and black outlines and the sequence of figures have an assaultive quality, like Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) halted in petrification. As described in the accompanying exhibition text, the poet Norman MacCaig also identified the apocalyptic quality of the painting in an unpublished poem, “Three Angels (a picture) April 1952. It begins; “Three in a row and each one mad/ looking with innocence upon/ the smiling, cruel and gaily sad/their witless eyes beam down/ on struggling song and word and stone/ each bears a blinding crown…” Pulsford creates a deeply confrontational image of hope and deliverance stripped away by the harsh reality of survival post WWII. Heaven has crashed to earth and the unnerving solidity of these winged visions communicates the collective trauma. It’s an image with no national borders around it.

Edward Baird (1904-49)
Unidentified Aircraft (over Montrose), 1942
Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4cm
Collection: Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: Purchased 1943.
© Graham Stephen

There’s an eerie feeling of suspension in Edward Baird’s (1904-49) Unidentified Aircraft (over Montrose), (1941-42, Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4cm Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: Purchased 1943), not just in the hovering clouds or in the anticipatory, upturned gaze of the central protagonists. The church spire pointing towards the heaven and the island world of the town, connected to our foreground space by a bridge (which is also the painting) is held protectively in the mind. Bands of white and deep blue ultramarine define a moment of wilful preservation from the ongoing threat of German bombers. The unease created by the cut-off figures, decapitated and disarmed, is accentuated by a single raised hand and the head of the central figure. With the neck uncomfortably tilted back, it appears as if this were a collaged Christ from a Northern Renaissance crucifixion and simultaneously, an everyman civilian or soldier about to fall into shadow. The human subject is emotively pushed right to the edge, beneath the picture plane. This isn’t just looking up but within, a response rooted in the psychic resistance of Surrealism, not as a style, but a way of seeing and surviving. Sitting between the mouths of two rivers, the Scottish town of Montrose was targeted as a training ground for fighter pilots. However, Baird’s painting also suggests a struggle which eclipses the locality. It is the faithful, heightened reality of Surrealism that Baird employs in this image of human fear, resistance and comfort. It’s not just a scene of Montrose, but an image of the world.

William TURNBULL (1922-2012)
Untitled (aquarium), 1950
Painting, oil on canvas, 71 x 91 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland
Purchased from the Henry and Sula Walton Fund with help from the Art Fund, 2014
© Estate of William Turnbull. All rights reserved, DACS 2017.
Photo: Antonia Reeve

From James Cowie’s sublime Evening Star, (c.1940-44 Oil on canvas, 137.5 x 133.4cm, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections) to the monochrome abstraction of William Turnball’s Untitled (Aquarium) (1950, Oil on canvas, National Galleries of Scotland), the exhibition offers many surprises, found in the works of known artists and in new discoveries. With many Scottish artists working outside Scotland during this turbulent period, bringing them together is a crucial step in terms of reappraisal. Rather than being cast in eternal relativity, perhaps Scottish Art and artists can finally step out of the shadows and stand where they have always been, consciously and unapologetically, on a world stage.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/new-era-scottish-modern-art-1900-1950

BEHIND THE DOOR

Newly restored and re-released on DVD/ Blu-ray 4th April, 2017

*This review contains spoilers

I’m always excited by the miraculous survival of early films and the international collaborations that make restoration and re-release possible. Sadly we’ve lost an enormous amount of Silent Era film production, but amazingly material is still being discovered, in private collections, archives, vaults and attics. The establishment of global networks and conventions to help bring this scattered material together also makes me eternally hopeful of Silent treasures still out there waiting to be found. The transformation of these fragments through restoration, honouring the vision of the original filmmakers and providing scope for reinterpretation, contribute significantly to how we see the world and ourselves.

The newly restored DVD/ Blu-Ray release of Behind the Door (1919) by Flicker Alley is the result of an inspiring international collaboration between the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), the Library of Congress and the Gosfilmfond (Russian national archive), with a new score composed and performed by one of the world’s leading Silent Film accompanists Stephen Horne.  It is a magnificent achievement in the preservation of international film heritage, crafted with care, attention to detail and with humanity as the baseline of musical interpretation. The level of skill from film restorers and the composer in serving the film, creating an emotionally intelligent and multi-layered experience for audiences is extraordinary and heartfelt. Behind the Door will be a surprising discovery for contemporary viewers in terms of how the shocking nature of the story is compassionately nuanced by colour, composition and sound. This isn’t just a post WWI propaganda film or one dimensional shock Horror but something more satisfyingly complex in its original Craft, contemporary restoration and brilliantly insightful musical score.

Hobart Bosworth and Jane Novak in “Behind the Door”, image courtesy of Flicker Alley and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

The restoration of Behind the Door is the blessed sum of surviving elements.  An incomplete 35mm print, a roll of outtakes and a small roll of shots from the estate of lead actor Hobart Bosworth preserved by the Library of Congress were brought together with an edited export print conserved by Gosfilmofund, Russia and a copy of director Irvin Willat’s original continuity script loaned by Film Historian Robert Birchard. In the words of restorer Robert Byrne the director’s script was a significant discovery in ensuring “that the reconstruction matched the original editing sequence”, providing “a reference for the reel missing its English-language intertitles. The original colour tinting scheme [was] also restored, based on analysis of the film leaders and the structure of the printing rolls.” What we can now enjoy is “the most complete version of the film” seen since its original release almost a century ago and I hope that cinemas and festivals will enable audiences worldwide to discover it on the big screen.

In addition to the US feature restored by Robert Byrne, James Cozart, Seth Miller, Lori Raskin and Anne Marie Smatla, the DVD/Blu-ray release also includes the Russian version of the film re-edited and re-titled, documentaries on the restoration and the career of director Irvin Willat by celebrated Film Historian Kevin Brownlow, outtakes, stills and a booklet featuring essays by Film Restorer Robert Byrne, Film Historian Jay Weissburg and composer Stephen Horne. Regardless of your level of interest, there are multiple routes into the story, making, context and preservation of the film that add value to the release and shed light on why restoration is so valuable, vital and relevant in a digital world.

Hobart Bosworth and Jane Novak in “Behind the Door” image courtesy of Flicker Alley and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Behind the Door was a revelation to me on multiple levels and I’m sure that it will provide potent inspiration for contemporary artists. It also presents an opportunity for reappraisal of our relationship to early film, our understanding of history, human behaviour and current events. To some extent the film’s reputation precedes the experience of watching it. The expectations of contemporary audiences in terms of what is considered “shocking” , “gruesome” or violent doesn’t prepare viewers for the emotional impact of what is not graphically depicted on screen.  When Behind the Door was first released in 1919 it was a box office success and highly praised by critics with favourable comparisons to the work of D.W.Griffith. The sensationalism of the story and the whole notion of Horror, rooted in the traumatic aftermath of WWI transcends the period in which it was made, aided considerably by the contemporary score. Behind the Door and its sensitive restoration demonstrate beautifully that Silent Films aren’t primitive relics or the remnants of a bygone age but a living, breathing Art. The plight of the central character Oscar Krug (played by the wonderfully expressive Hobart Bosworth) as “other” has resonance on many levels, particularly in a rising tide of xenophobia circa 2017.

Jo Taylor’s photography together with the depth and emotional texture of colour tinting, a practice which was widespread at the time, enhances the tone of the film beautifully. In the opening sequence when we witness Krug’s return to the windswept coast of Maine, the hilltop scene is aglow with the pink setting sun, contrasted with the silhouettes of gravestones in deeply immersive indigo. That setting sun/ end of life colouration together with the mercifully tender voice of solo piano frames the character and gently foreshadows the arc of the story about to unfold. Later in the opening sequence the evocation of night in inky ultramarine soothes like the texture of velvet and the glockenspiel aligns with that feeling, introducing an otherworldly sense of a man revisiting the life and love he once had amidst the decaying ruin of his taxidermist shop.  The sparing, plucked sound is as fragile and vulnerable as the character we see before and within us. As Krug lights a candle the yellow glow of the interior provides an atmosphere of compassion and remembrance. “Alone, forlorn and forgotten” he sees the handkerchief of his beloved Alice and we feel as he does, in the delicately mysterious melody of the flute, the state of holding on to someone long after they’ve passed. This melody is fluidly expanded by the piano, leading us on “a back trail through the haunted lanes of yesterday”, into Krug’s past, to the town of Bartlett, Maine, 1917.  The seamless pacing of the score is perfectly in tune with the emotional gravitas of each scene and integral to our empathy with the central protagonist. Horne’s music renders the character in flesh, blood and consciousness, emerging out of the dire circumstances he finds himself in and becoming a more sympathetic character than we might have imagined.

Hobart Bosworth in “Behind the Door” Image courtesy of Flicker Alley and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Although he is a demonised figure, the focus of anti- German propaganda and ultimately a murderer, Krug is also an expression of collective loss and it is the subtle restraint of the music that enables us to feel that underlying truth. This reinterpretation through sound is one of the defining features of the restoration. The scale of mechanised carnage during WWI had never been seen before. Made just one year after the war ended, an entire generation of shattered lives was the reality with mental and physical scars still painfully raw. In this context the film is arguably not shocking at all. It is that psychological perspective and historical hindsight that bring perceptive shifts to the interpretation, illuminated through sound. Krug’s extreme actions feel like a manifestation of the pain, loss and rage so many would have felt at the time. The Horror in this film is lived rather than imagined and I suspect that this, together with the propaganda element helped the film make it past the censors. In killing a German Commander, someone with whom he shares language and ancestry, Krug kills part of himself, in turn becoming the barbaric, brutal, vengeful, cruel and despised figure the townsfolk have cast him as. But surprisingly Oscar Krug is overwhelmingly a figure of grief rather than a monster. In the end love redeems him in being reunited with his beloved wife Alice (played with great conviction and sincerity by Jane Novak). That tempering of judgement towards what could so easily have been a one dimensional villain is expanded by the score. The empathy we feel for Krug almost eclipses his crime because it is effectively given a wider, deeper frame of reference. Krug’s final actions are an expression of the worst that human beings are capable of.  Whilst that is anchored to the historical horrors of war, it is also timelessly rooted in the human condition and what fundamentally drives us. The unhinged capacity for vengeance is fatally partnered with love. In early scenes Krug is portrayed as an obsessively passionate man and a true patriot willing to defend himself, his home and his principles with his bare fists if necessary. The fight that ensues is startlingly real as the escalating energy of the mob spirals out of control. The suggestion from the massed townsfolk is that propensity for violence is in Krug’s blood, accompanied by the derogatory label of “Hun”, but the lack of civilization is in the home grown lynch mob who turn on a member of their community as “other” with frightening speed.

“Behind the Door” Image courtesy of Flicker Alley and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Even with the anti-German sentiment of the time, it is hard not to imagine potential identification with the suffering of Oscar Krug and returned survivors of WWI. Although part of the navy rather than serving in the trenches in the story, his shaking hands echo the tremors of shellshock. When we first meet him he is clearly a broken, destitute man engulfed in shadows, as so many were in the aftermath of the Great War. That unspoken Horror becomes the unconscious driver of his revenge for the violation and death of his wife Alice. Surprisingly here in 1919, a largely hidden war crime is depicted. Although certainly used to portray the enemy as sadistic, amoral animals devoid of human empathy, the unspeakable violence inflicted upon Alice is also on some level an acknowledgement of the wartime experiences of generations of women.  Sexual violence is a policy and a weapon still being used around the world today that cannot be relegated to history. More often than not the image of the devoted sweetheart/ wife / mother keeping the home fires burning is the one we see, with the suffering of women as casualties of war rarely given screen time. In Behind the Door Alice isn’t simply a passive love interest but a woman who chooses Krug against her father’s wishes and community, follows him to sea and becomes an innocent victim of circumstances beyond her control. We see in her interactions with the suitor her father has chosen that she has made up her own mind about her destiny and future happiness before the madness of war intervenes. Although in 1919 the atrocities of rape, torture and murder in Behind the Door were undoubtedly used as a vehicle for propaganda, for this contemporary viewer the suggestion of violence in being unseen is what powerfully takes hold. We are so accustomed to violence and gore depicted graphically on screen, that visual storytelling placing Horror behind the door for the audience to imagine is stronger and more affecting than anything the director could have shown us. Contemporary directors and screenwriters take note!

Stephen Horne’s score is resoundingly led by the film and its “visceral”, cathartically emotional” core. With characteristic grace and skill he refrains from over the top declarations of drama or pushing obvious, emotive musical buttons. His multi instrumental approach utilising the full expressive range of piano including the inner strings, thumb piano, glockenspiel, accordion and flute, provides scope for multi-layered exploration of the story, the characters and their motivations. Even in highly dramatic scenes his control is enviable with Horror communicated in a haptic way, in the finely scraped inner strings like the glint of light on a scalpel being drawn across the viewer’s skin. Sound isn’t used as a ham fisted statement of rage illustrating action, but as an exchange between the idea, the emotional core of the story and the motivations of human beings portrayed on screen. Equally the tenderness of Krug’s promise to Alice; “after the war we’ll go back to my shop” flowing into a faded rose tinted dream where love, hope and memory are entwined is conveyed by the fragile, ethereal timbre of the flute. What we feel in that moment is the characters’ shared vision and something more vulnerably real than the forced emotion and sonic illustration that dominates mainstream cinema. When interpreted in such a way Silent Film communicates a different way of seeing /being in the world and an expansively innovative creative vision. The re-release of Behind the Door is defined by the inspired alignment of the surviving film, its loving restoration and sensitive score now preserved complete for future generations.

www.flickeralley.com

www.silentfilm.org San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF)

www.stephenhorne.co.uk

7th Hippodrome Silent Film Festival

Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart in “Chicago” (1927)

Bo’ness, 22- 26 March 2017

“I am a woman and I’m full of viewpoints!” ‘Patricia’ /Marion Davies in The Patsy (1928)

After my first Hipp Fest experience last year I was delighted at the prospect of returning to Bo’ness for another sustained dose of Silent movie heaven! Regrettably I could only attend the final 3 days of the festival, but what I experienced was truly exceptional, joyously entertaining and totally immersive.  Under the starry domed ceiling of the historic Hippodrome we were transported by the quality of musical accompaniment and the wonderful discoveries, creative innovation and artistry to be found when delving into the Silent era. Every performance is unique and as a member of the audience the thrilling immediacy of the whole live experience simply cannot be bettered. There are many ways into film, but the most potent trigger for love, appreciation and preservation of our global film heritage is the big screen experience. At Hipp Fest this is supported by highly experienced musicians responding directly to human stories, characters and themes projected before them in real time. This year audiences were blessed with the combined talents of some of the best Silent Film accompanists in the world including Frank Bockius and Günter Buchwald from Germany, Filmorchestra The Sprockets from the Netherlands, Stephen Horne, John Sweeney, Forrester Pyke, Mike Nolan, Neil Brand, Jane Gardner & Co and acclaimed musicians Raymond MacDonald, Christian Ferlaino and R.M. Hubbert.

Beyond the annual festival the universality of Silent Film which crosses all borders feels like a very timely focus politically, socially and culturally. Collaborative partnerships between Hipp Fest and its director Alison Strauss, the Goethe-Institut Glasgow, the Confucius Institute for Scotland, academic institutions and archives are vitally important in terms of sharing international film heritage and enabling cultural exchange. Bringing together never seen before films, restorations, live music and local audiences is one of the best ways of preserving film for future generations by making it proudly and publicly visible. In recent years the mainstream film industry has been justifiably criticised for its lack of equality and diversity. Ironically when the industry was still in its infancy there were more creative opportunities for women and studios were assembling the finest international casts and crews to challenge Hollywood dominance. In the Silent era women were much more powerful and visibly active behind and in front of the camera than they are in mainstream cinema today, working as directors, producers, writers and actors. Pioneers of the new medium creatively developed their techniques through experimentation, with the eternal baseline of visual storytelling in light and shadow. Although Silent Film is sometimes thought of as “niche”, “historical”, or “vintage” with the tone passing fashion, every Hipp Fest screening reveals that it is so much more in terms of being progressively modern, illuminating and visionary.

My first event was a talk The Last Silent Picture Show by Geoff Brown (film historian, critic, Chief Researcher on the AHRC-funded project ‘British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound, 1927-1933’ and a Research Fellow at the Cinema and Television History Research Centre, De Montfort University), examining the British Film Industry’s response to the advent of sound in 1929. The discussion caused me to reconsider the gains and losses from rapid technological advances in film production and publicity.  Illustrated with clips from Hitchcock’s Blackmail, “the sentimental drama Kitty, the steamy White Cargo”, and “the tartan nightmare of The Lady of the Lake” this period of transition from Silent to Sound (1927-33) is fascinating in terms of stripping the medium back to its most essential, enduring elements. The development of sound may have been inevitable, but the overnight result was thousands of musicians and international actors out of work, with the insistence that stories must be told in the “the Mother tongue”. Arguably the most successful transitions from Silent to Sound were by artists like Hitchcock, grounded in the Silent Art of storytelling. Significantly Hitchcock’s approach to the new technology was not to have it dictate the vision, but to use it as another tool for the inner trajectory of the story and its characters. As Brown suggested, in Blackmail for example a conversation round the breakfast table emphasises the heroine’s state of mind focusing repeatedly on the word “knife”. Dialogue is a vehicle for suspense in that moment, on one level ratcheting up the tension with repetition; however on a deeper, psychological level it’s the character’s guilt that speaks to the audience rather than the word itself. Silent Film has a huge amount to teach contemporary artists about crafting moving images. Technology can’t do that on its own. The gift of now, regardless of future advances, is in retaining choices about how cinematic stories can be told. Brown’s talk on Silent, sound and hybrid productions raised many pertinent questions about current technology, artistic intent and what leads 21st century film production.

Marion Davies (Centre) in “The Patsy”.

Friday night’s gala screening of King Vidor’s The Patsy (1928), starring Marion Davies, Orville Caldwell and Marie Dressler was the perfect film for getting into the 1920’s spirit and many members of the audience came along in Gatsby style fancy dress. Cloche, bowler and top hats, suits, tails and ties, feather boas, fans, sequinned and fringed Flapper dresses, gloves, black eye liner, beauty spots and pin curls helped set the scene with a friendly, welcoming buzz around the venue. The Patsy’s sparkling free spirited comedy was complimented beautifully by Filmorchestra The Sprockets: Daphne Balvers (soprano sax), Frido ter Beek (baritone, altsax), Marco Ludemann (mandolin, banjo, guitar), Jasper Somsen (double bass), Rombout Stoffers (percussion, accordion) and Maud Nelissen (piano), who also composed the score. Neilissen’s music brought a distinctive quality of worldly, feminine knowing to the central characters and their predicament, revealing musically the great unsaid in familial and romantic relationships. Brassy, exuberant Jazz was used to great effect in giving appropriate accent to the comedy on screen. This celebratory sound was charmingly contrasted with quieter, lovingly composed moments of intimacy on piano and mandolin.

The Patsy is a hugely appealing film due to the amazing comedic talent of Marion Davies, who film historian Kevin Brownlow aptly described as a woman whose “memory is clouded in myth”. History often assigns female artists the dubious honour of enduring fame by association with male partners. Davies is better known as William Randolph Hearst’s mistress and her fictitious alter ego-Susan Alexander in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane than for her talent as an actress. Davies’ 35 year relationship with Hearst was very real, but it is only in contemporary audiences seeing her work that she has the opportunity to step out of the shadow of tabloid infamy and male genius to be what she truly was, a gifted artist in her own right.  The audience response to the film resoundingly affirmed that quality, delighting in her attempts to “get a personality”, find her confident self and win the only man she has eyes for. Pat’s/ Davie’s impersonations of Mae Murray, Pola Negri and Lillian Gish, trying on the feminine stereotypes of vampish Femme Fatale or saintly goody two shoes are discarded in the end for something more authentic. Pat is constantly picked on by her proper dragon of a mother and spoiled sister, who is two timing Tony (the man Pat loves) and playboy Billy Caldwell. Her hen pecked father is seemingly the only person who sees her for the good natured, intelligent, witty and spirited young woman she is. Although she dreams of being as much admired as a stocking model, in the end all she has to be is her honest, down to earth self. This is a film of magnificent clowning and plenty of laughter, punctuated by genuine sweetness and sincerity, especially in the exchanges between father and daughter.

Silent Film provides surprising challenges to accepted norms of conditioning behaviour which are all too often frighteningly absent in contemporary mainstream content. Interestingly it is the mother figure who insists on Pat being relegated to a seen and not heard domestic role, while the masculine parental influence is infinitely more nurturing- rather like the relationship between Elizabeth Bennett and her Father in Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. The visual gesture and intertitle dialogue between father and daughter makes it clear that they regard each other as equals, sharing humour and emotional intelligence. Part of the joy of this film is the juxtaposition of manners with physical comedy and freedom of expression, revealing human hypocrisy and foibles we all know and recognise. The heroine is a feisty, independent alternative to the passive set decoration women are so often assigned on screen. Davies and her character Pat convincingly carry the film, offering a Silent reappraisal of gender roles and challenging the regressively persistent idea that brains and entertainment in Film are mutually exclusive. In The Patsy masculinity can be as tender as it is strong and femininity can be a three dimensional possibility rather than a polarised cliché of self-denial and sacrifice. The Patsy or scapegoat, someone cheated of their rightful place or taken advantage of, is actually women as represented in mainstream contemporary film. This charming, 1928 crowd pleaser delivers irrepressibly buoyant fun, but also the opportunity for reflection on what constitutes box office gold in our own century.

Ruan Lingyu in “The Goddess /Shen nu” (1934)

Twenty seven year old director Wu Yonggang’s 1934 debut feature The Goddess (Shen nu) presents a very different view of Femininity in the story of a mother’s love and self-sacrifice for her child. It is a film confronting the harsh realities of poverty, corruption, class oppression and moral decay through a Social Realist / party political lens. In the background of the opening intertitle cards we’re introduced to a Feminine ideal via the low relief Neo-Classical sculpture of a woman leaning down to the child at her feet. Tellingly her body is bent double, compressed into the rectangular frame, overwritten with the idea of the “double face” of a “Goddess struggling with life”. We are then quietly introduced through small everyday details to the central female protagonist, a prostitute by night and devoted mother by day. As the sun goes down the camera moves through her rented room, lingering on her two dresses hanging from a peg on the wall, her trade makeup, a doll and baby basket. As she tentatively looks in the mirror and dresses for the evening of work ahead the camera doesn’t judge her, it humanises and dignifies her as she prepares to walk the streets to earn a living beneath the harsh neon of 1930’s Shanghai. That empathic view was supported perfectly by John Sweeney’s accompaniment, well suited to the understated grace and presence of the unnamed central character who carries the entire film. She is presented as a noble figure battling reduced circumstances, trying to ensure that her son has a better future through education, a right denied to him by those in authority because of his mother’s profession.

The sympathetic portrayal of a woman condemned by her position in life and social hypocrisy is testament to Ruan Lingyu’s highly sensitive performance. The actress herself was the victim of crippling double standards and was literally hounded to death by the paparazzi. In Art and in life the public/media moral compass was tipped towards mass consumption of adulterous scandal and generation of headlines, rather than any interest in justice or humanity. The director Yonggang was inspired by D.W. Griffith’s tale of a wronged woman Way Down East (1920), which starred Lillian Gish as an innocent girl tricked into a sham marriage by a wealthy seducer and having to bear the shame of an illegitimate child. Yonggang’s central character is invested with subtlety and compassion, equalled by the marvellous cinematography of Hong Weilie and the understated skill of the accompaniment. John Sweeney consistently excels in capturing the emotional tonality of what we see on screen and was the perfect interpretative match for this film. His natural, gentle lyricism as a musician communicated the intimacy and trust between mother and son at the heart of the story. The rare opportunity to see this recently restored film was enabled by the partnership between Hipp Fest and the Confucius Institute for Scotland, supported by the China Film Archive. The special focus on Chinese Cinema through talks, screenings and performance provided an outstanding opportunity for local audiences to explore films and a cinematic tradition that is largely undiscovered in the UK and not easily accessed outside the festival.

Conrad Veidt in “The Hands of Orlac / Orlacs Hände” (1924)

It was a great privilege to see two of Germany’s finest Silent Film accompanists Frank Bockius (percussion) & Günter Buchwald (piano & violin) performing Robert Weine’s fantastic 1924 psychological horror/ thriller The Hands of Orlac /Orlacs Hände. The feature was very appropriately paired with the 1908 short The Thieving Hand from the Eastman archive, featuring pioneering special effects and accompanied by the wonderful Forrester Pyke on piano. The ghoulish, seemingly supernatural subject matter of disembodied hands having a monstrous, amoral life of their own is actually a grounded concept given the time the film was made. The Hands of Orlac stars Alexandra Sorina, Fritz Strassny and Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, The Man Who Laughs, The Thief of Bagdad, Casablanca) as Paul Orlac, a renowned concert pianist who loses his hands in a terrible accident.  His devoted wife pleads for surgery so he will not lose his gift for music, but after new hands are grafted on, he learns that they belonged to an executed murderer and the nightmare begins! He starts to believe that the hands and will of the dead man possess him and that he too will become a murderer. It’s a film where belief, action, reason and the unconscious converge in unexpected ways. Having seen Frank Bockius perform for the first time at last year’s festival, I had hoped that we would again have the opportunity to experience his great talent and musical expertise. This year we were indeed fortunate to have two touring musicians from Germany with the continued support of the Goethe Institut Glasgow, expanding the possibilities for musical collaboration over several different screenings. What these performances communicated with such energy, intuition, precision and style was that Film History is resoundingly a living tradition! I hope that many more audiences in the UK will have the opportunity to experience Silent Film live as a result of this exciting and very fruitful partnership.  Post Brexit continuing to nurture collaborative relationships and cultural exchange is now more vital than ever. The audience clearly enjoyed the psychological depth of the film, courtesy of the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Archive and its adept multi-textured accompaniment.

The opening melody, from the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No1 in B flat minor, immediately established the voice of solo piano and the virtuosic stature of the central character. This grand, commanding theme supported by triumphant cymbals and drums evoked the scale of the concert hall in a highly charged, dramatic introduction. As the film progressed the sweepingly epic melody became increasingly deconstructed and fragmented as the darker aspects of the psyche started to take hold. When this melodic phrase is first introduced it is staid, classical, familiar and authoritative, but there is also a shadow present.  It’s the shimmering uncertainty we hear in the gentle swish of cymbals and the otherworldly suggestion of phantom strummed piano wires that undermines the certainty of what we think we know. Sound is our most primal sense and the introduction of this quietly subtle undercurrent operated just like the sound that you hear in the dark, lurking just beyond your peripheral vision. As the fear of what the hands are capable of grows in the mind of the central character, the theme morphs into diabolical variation and full Body Horror takes over with the stabbing down stroke of the violin and drumming used in later scenes. The scope of percussion to propel, amplify and inform our internal reading of a scene was deftly handled throughout. An early scene where Paul’s wife reads his letter and awaits her beloved husband’s return is accompanied by a progressive, heartbeat-like rhythm communicating the emotional current between them. There is something undeniably human, shared by the audience in that essential, percussive beat we know within our own bodies. That deceptively simple sound triggers memory, engages empathy and imaginatively connects the viewer to the story and its characters, no matter how fantastical they may appear.

Although it would be easy to lay obvious “Horror” music on top of a film like this, the handling was much more compelling due to the sound approach of the fear that lies beneath. The accelerated crescendo of the train wreck with its bursts of light and sound was tempered by gentler suspense. The main melodic theme is modified into a dreadful question mark as Paul’s wife searches for him- is he still alive? In the aftermath of the accident semi abstract compositions of dark and light, machinery, debris and human figures in silhouette emerging through smoke, invoke the Horror of an ordinary day and homecoming turned into a scene of devastation. The cinematography by Hans Androschin and Günter Krampf is striking, moving between the language of realism, expressionism and surreality. The Art Direction by Stefan Wessely and Hans Rouc brings elements of expressionistic angularity and unsettling ambiguities of scale into domestic settings. These small details like the oversized geometry of a drawing room rug or elongated fairy tale-like chairs combine with the lighting to enhance our sense of entering into a heightened reality, somewhere between the conscious and unconscious.

In the nightmare of Paul’s foggy bedroom we see the vulnerable human figure dwarfed by a giant fist threatening to crush him. It is a powerful example of visceral horror through sound and image which has distinct political associations. Accompanying this scene Frank Bockius used his elbow, compressing the air inside the drum to create an inner depth of sound of frightening physicality. Within that sound was the feeling of compression in the chest cavity triggered by Paul’s fear of the murderer Vasseur’s hands which have become his own. Something from the real/physical world is fighting for his soul and murderous, unconscious instinct is masquerading as the supernatural. The sounds created by the hand played strings of the open upright piano expose the psychology of the character, with the controlled, circular motion of brush on drum intensifying our felt sense of unease. There were times when this technique took on a spatial dimension, entering into a mind cave of madness. It was then brilliantly taken to a whole other level in a scene where the ghostly dead criminal instructs Paul’s maid to “seduce his hands” and the circling movement of brushes intensifies as she crawls towards him on all fours. The piano is introduced as Paul places his hands on her head, one hand of the piano pitted against the other, with the plucked tension of violin and piano strings internalising the struggle between good and evil.

The technique of using a drumstick inside the piano and hand played drum were particularly effective in creating a sense of dread, being overwhelmed by the will of Vasseur’s “cursed, damned hands!” Strangely I hadn’t really considered the piano as a percussive instrument before but it is all hammers and wired tautness, something Buchwald exploited to the full as a manifestation of the film’s moral dilemmas.  Paul symbolically hides the knife inside the piano and metaphorically inside his heart, but as the professor reminds him; head, heart and hands make a human being. “The hands don’t control the man”, the mind has ultimate control. In the context of the Weimar period this statement takes on prophetic relevance and profound irony. It is therefore not surprising that the doppelgänger emerges as a strong archetypal figure in the film. Whilst many cultures have tales of apparitions or the double of a living person associated with bad omens, the dark Romanticism of ETA Hoffman, Grimm’s fairy tales and Germanic folklore provide particularly fertile ground for exploration of the human psyche. The Hands of Orlac is a story about the power of belief which can bring damnation or redemption. When rationality usurps madness, Paul moves into the light declaring that his hands are clean.  I thoroughly enjoyed the spellbinding, imaginative scope of this film, equalled by Bockius and Buchwald’s arresting musical accompaniment.

“By the Law /Po Zakonu” (1926) Directed by Lev Kuleshov.

Whilst it is unrealistic to expect the same level of experience from a first time commissioned musician, as in all Art intention is everything. If an artist is fully engaged not just with their own performance but with the story on screen, then the audience will resoundingly feel it. This has nothing to do with musical style but the channelling of creative energy into something bigger than your own signature sound. Multi-award-winning, post-rock, Scottish composer and song-writer R.M. Hubbert (aka Hubby) is clearly a gifted guitarist and I enjoyed his acoustic sound, the problem was that often it had little to do with what was on screen. His newly commissioned score for the Soviet film By the Law /Po Zakonu (1926) relied too heavily on what I expect the artist already has in his back pocket when the imagery, themes and story demanded more. The film’s most striking sequences of human figures silhouetted against the luminous expanse of frozen landscape or the raw angularity of human faces in anguished close up, don’t chime with musical sequences of repetitive arpeggios and plodding rhythms. There’s real conflict in this film, in its moral dilemmas, its themes of man against nature and his/her own nature and the justice of law and religion, that is ripe for interpretation. Commissioned musicians have a unique opportunity to take an audience deeper into what they see on screen in new and innovative ways. The whole point is stepping out of your comfort zone and taking the audience on that journey of discovery with you-whether they’ve never seen the film before or have watched it multiple times. I felt as though I had discovered a film and a talented musician- just not together! Ultimately it was the visuals rather than the synthesis of sound and image that stayed with me. For this type of performance they have to equal each other, anything less than that is just a concert and in the context of a dedicated Silent Festival the difference is glaringly obvious.

“The Informer” (1929) Directed by Arthur Robinson.

Newly restored by the BFI, The Informer (1929) was a great example of international collaboration both in its original production and in live performance at its Hipp Fest Scottish premiere. Filmed at Elstree Studios by British International Pictures the creative production team included German/ American director Arthur Robinson, Swedish Actor Lars Hanson, British actor Carl Harbord and Hungarian actress Lya de Putti, with design and cinematography by J.Elder Wills, Werner Brandes and Theodor Sparkuhl. The artistic roots and filmic techniques of German Expressionism inform the depiction of 1920’s Dublin and the internal conflicts of the characters perfectly. It’s a Noirish world of light and shadow gripped by social, cultural and religious upheaval. Personal and political motives are pitted against each other and the smallest actions have life changing consequences. The semi improvised collaboration between British and German musicians Stephen Horne (piano & accordion) and Günter Buchwald (violin) was an excellent match for this technically and artistically sophisticated drama. Set in the newly independent Ireland of 1922, the story centres on a group of revolutionary activists and a fateful love triangle. It’s a brilliant Proto-Noir, fuelled by jealousy and betrayal where each character progressively becomes an informer, pursued by their fateful shadow selves and caught in a descending spiral of cross and double cross. In this first adaptation of Liam O’Flaherty’s novel the inescapable consequences of being a flawed human being are cinematically heightened.

As a film of the transition to sound period the decision to restore The Informer as a pure Silent, retaining the texture and visual depth of the original purple tint undoubtedly brings audience closer to the story. Developed in Silent mode without the static restrictions of sound recording, the camera is free to move and follow the characters, not just in terms of external action but getting inside their heads. Conscious and unconscious motivations are revealed without the addition of clunky explanatory dialogue. What Silent visual language and great musical accompaniment does best is to immerse us in the entire human predicament in a way that frees us to construct our own inner dialogues. This is a whole lot more fun than being told a story via talking heads or pushing emotional buttons through a predictably conventional soundtrack! It is also what human beings are hard wired for- to construct meaning and narrative through imagination. The sonic expression of that principle is found in the work of the best Silent Film accompanists who don’t just provide illustration and sound effects but lead us deeper into the moving image, the story and ourselves.

Horne and Buchwald’s live accompaniment took its cues very skilfully from the film’s central protagonists and their fatalistic trajectory. This musical foreshadowing is felt almost unconsciously in the opening theme, with the lilting spirit of a Gaelic lament. The melody immediately conveys an atmosphere of inevitable loss, setting the tone for the unfolding drama. Musically it anchors the story to place, the identity of the characters and the soul of Irish (and Scottish) Folk music, whose double face is sublime sorrow in song, coupled with life affirming dance rhythms. That fiery vitality transforms the main theme in the opening scene at party HQ, where the strong down stroke of the violin aligns with the hand on table gesture in close up, insistent on life through liberty. Here the main melodic theme inspires action rather than reflection, mirroring the nature and intentions of the gathering. Whilst theme and variations can be a vehicle for obvious dramatic effect in less experienced hands, there was a deeper emotional investment in play in direct synthesis with the projected image. In the very next moment we are subtly introduced to the dynamics of the central love triangle, quietly revealing itself in the solo piano as Gypo offers Katie a cigarette. It’s an everyday gesture transformed into a moment of recognition by what we see and hear musically, leading us to our own conclusions about the nature of the relationships between the three friends.  Sitting across the table from Katie who is arm in arm with his best friend, we share a moment of tender regard with Gypo that casts the die.  That quiet repose is shattered by a gunfight utilising the rumbling depths and high wired tension of the piano’s full expressive range. In the chaos that ensues, the ricochet of bullets in broken minor stabs of shrieking violin and tinkling ivories of broken glass underscore the violence. When the fateful shot is fired and Francis descends the staircase the melody follows him like his shadow on the wall, echoing his darkening destiny. As he takes to the hills looking back in a high sweet fade of pianistic regret, the flute then takes over as the lone voice of the fugitive in hiding. The choice of instrumentation and timbre comes to the fore in terms of the inner emotional state of the protagonist and the audience’s ability to empathise with him in that moment.

The idea that this story will not end well is an integral part of the film’s suspense. When the ultimate destination is revealed to the audience we anticipate the arrival without knowing the road that’s going to take us there, which is what makes the ride so gripping!  This progression towards the inevitable enters another interpretative level and emotional gear shift in a false scene of betrayal. The traditional melody She Moved Through the Fair is introduced on the accordion as Katie puts needle to the record to muffle the sounds of Francis’s escape. As the camera moves between action in different rooms of the apartment, variations in volume create a sense of physical space but also a haunted, distant quality in relation to the melody. The final notes that end the song lead the audience sonically and poetically into the ground/ grave. Even without ever having heard that song or having memory of the lyrics, its sound arc is ethereally fragile and resolves in loss. That sense of foreboding of death and lost love, moving in and out of time, is juxtaposed with what the character sees as proof of his sweetheart’s deceit, scratching away at his innards like the Buchwald’s violin bow. The filming of this sequence, where Gypo sees Katie helping Francis to escape in a mirror depth shot is immediately discordant, plunging us into his conclusion of guilt where in that moment there is none. The musical accompaniment informs what we see and increasingly feel, as jealousy overtakes him and the smoothly insidious sound of the violin takes over. He tests Katie and when she lies about not having seen Francis we see her shadow on the wall and from that frame onward we know that their three fates are tragically entwined. We feel it without being told or having it explained to us in words. Light, shadow and sound convey what is most essential in the scene. The artistry and understanding of Craft necessary to read and reinterpret film through sound is the accompanist’s greatest gift to the audience. The psychology of the music aligns with the inner world of the characters because of the musician’s honest, human and supremely skilled response to the film.

There are breath taking visual sequences in The Informer such as Gypo’s path to betrayal, the moment he sees the wanted/ reward poster and the violin staggers as  he does towards what he about to do to his best friend. The camera/ audience follow him close behind, into streets teeming with life, his fixed purpose harnessed by a harsher variation of melody as his flawed self emerges.  The sound moves through our consciousness as he moves through the world, on a certain path to destruction. When the deed is done and Gypo protests that he “didn’t do it for the money” the piano creeps softly into his conscience, perfectly in sync with the pace and emotional tone of his walk, carried in the body and his attendant shadow self. There are beautifully crafted visual elements of what might have been in the reflection of a smiling male mannequin in the shop window, contrasted with the actual exchange between Katie and Gypo underpinning another double cross of their hearts as she aids his escape. In conclusion the film’s cinematography and lighting together with the score transforms his sin into absolution through forgiveness. In the final frame we see the shadow of perfect sacrifice beneath the askew, prostrate body, like flawed humanity underpinned by divine grace. The BFI restore one film per year and I’m very glad they chose this one, however I’m even gladder that I saw it for the first time with such astute accompanists!

By way of introduction to The Informer the Hipp Fest tradition of accompanying features with shorts provided an opportunity for reflection on historical fictions and how archival footage can reveal our changing relationship with the past. A three minute British newsreel from 6th May 1916, filmed one week after the Easter rising in the fight for a free Irish state was accompanied very subtlety by Mike Nolan on piano. Viewing the sobering footage of British soldiers and smoking buildings conveying authority without explanation or justification was informed by the alternative voice of the piano. The accompaniment introduced emotional intelligence and powers of hindsight to the clip. The fake news on this day was the imagery of marching troops asserting colonial authority and control, deemed sufficient reportage on its own to reassure the British public. Seeing such events through an archival lens often forces us to re-examine attitudes and behaviours in the present, rather than simply assuming that now =progress. As a backdrop to the feature it was not just a historically linked news story but a timely reflective pause.

Laurel and Hardy in “The Battle of the Century”.

The ever popular Laurel and Hardy Triple Bill is an annual Hipp Fest tradition that always demands an encore. The universal appeal of Silent Film comedians such as Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin with their visual/ physical comedy setups crosses all generations, borders and potential language barriers. The entire world loves to laugh and there is nothing better or more restorative to the soul than collective laughter. Stan’s “thought free innocence” partnered with Ollie’s adult pomposity is a wondrous recipe for glee.  The selection of three 19 minute shorts from 1927-28 accompanied by the superb John Sweeney on piano provided a gloriously sunny afternoon’s entertainment, equal to the unbelievably bright Spring weather outside. In Putting Pants on Philip Stan Laurel plays the visiting Scottish cousin of J. Piedmont Mumblethunder (Oliver Hardy) who tries to convince him (unsuccessfully) to wear pants instead of his kilt and stop chasing women.  In The Finishing Touch Stan and Ollie are unleashed as unlikely house builders, falling foul of the law, the local sanatorium and causing unwitting destruction and hilarity. However the best was saved till last with the Scottish premiere of the complete two reel version of The Battle of the Century, recently restored by Lobster Films in France using newly discovered footage. It is always miraculous when missing film is discovered, because it can then be rediscovered by contemporary audiences with timeless enthusiasm and delight. What’s not to love about a progressively escalating finale featuring Stan, Ollie, a parked LA Pie Co van, the inhabitants of an entire town and 4000 custard pies?!

Phyllis Haver in “Chicago” (1927)

The closing night gala brought together Stephen Horne (piano, accordion, flute) and Frank Bockius (percussion) for a superlative performance of Chicago (1927). Sometimes in performance masterful musicianship, pure intuition, expert timing and unique rapport all combine to deliver something very special. Clearly they were having great fun accompanying this film and that invigorating energy was completely infectious. The bold, brassy tale of media darling and murderess Roxie Hart (magnificently played by Phyllis Haver) is a rich source of satirical comedy, even more strikingly relevant today than when the film was made. Directed by Frank Urson and Cecil.B.DeMille the story of Chicago is based on Maurine Dallas Watkins 1926 Broadway play, inspired by two separate real life murder cases Watkins covered as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune in 1924. The tone is glitzy and sensational but also very cynically grounded in an age of mass media where being famous, pretty or both is enough to get away with murder.

The upbeat musical introduction set the scene for a party loving atmosphere of bright lights, big city with brash cymbals, jaunty phrasing and instrumental rhythmic refrain of “Chicago!” “Chicago!” That free-spirited optimism is paired with the intertitle reference to “a little girl who was all wrong”. The child/ woman in question is Roxie Hart who we first meet while she’s still asleep, lovingly observed by her doting husband who is busy doing chores and making her breakfast. The voice of the solo piano leaves us in no doubt as to his genuine love for his wife. As she slyly opens her eyes the sassy movement of brushes on the snare drum and the tinny sound of her garter bells her husband picks up off the floor lead us to the conclusion, without a word of dialogue, that her relationship with him is entirely one of convenience. The sonic judgement is that she is both cunning and shamelessly hollow. As Roxie’s husband Amos leaves for work he meets their young cleaning lady Katie on the stairs and trembling percussion reveals what’s in her heart. This quietly subtle, unexpected instrumentation heightens our sense of the brief, awkward exchange between them. The man with Roxie’s other garter is her rich older lover who tired of receiving endless bills for perfume, clothes and lingerie decides he’s had enough and threatens to leave her. In this apartment scene a portable keyboard above the piano stands in for the fairground –like sound of the pianola (self-playing piano) imitating joviality. The period dance tune “Ain’t She Sweet” aligns with Roxie’s annoyingly persuasive baby talk, the profusion of kewpie dolls in the apartment and is revived with mocking irony when she’s throwing a tantrum, deviously trying to get her own way or trying to throttle a rival in a hilarious prison cat fight. That capacity to tap into a character’s motivation and musically comment on it, sometimes in sharp contrast to what the character is doing to convince themselves or others around them on screen is a masterful skill.

When her usual seductive tactics fail and it becomes apparent that her human wad of cash is about to walk out the door, Roxie’s eyes narrow as piano and drum plumb the depths of her vindictive outrage. She picks up the gun and shoots her lover, then turns on the melodrama to mask her adultery in phoning her husband to come and rescue her. When he finds Roxie’s garter in the dead man’s pocket the deception becomes clear, unfurling like the inner range of the piano which deepens with his expression. As he throws the garter to the floor, silence is the strongest accent of dramatic recognition in that moment and it is intuitively given. Stephen Horne’s accompaniment for Silent Film is characteristically insightful and ingenious. The human story on screen is distilled in his music with emotional investment and thoughtful restraint. Both silence and sound have value and if high drama enters the frame then it is never translated into a clumsy, illustrative musical cliché, but something far more humanely nuanced and relatable. Frank Bockius is an equally versatile and accomplished musician, achieving percussive textures that take the audience beneath Chicago’s jazzy surface to a far more interesting psychological and imaginative space. Together these two musicians were astonishing to watch, like two halves of one mind in total unision. Their semi improvised approach allowed considered reflection within the story and freedom of expression with all parts equal to the spirit of the film. It’s the energy, artistry, imagination and commitment I hope for every time I go to a live Silent, which admittedly sets a very high bar, not just in performance but interpretation.

The range, depth and versatility of both musicians is quite extraordinary. When we see one of Roxie’s fellow prison inmates Charleston Lou (“who knifed her sweetie”) reading a book of Standard Etiquette with the chapter heading “Correct use of a knife” a pressured drum stick drawn across a cymbal helps deliver the joke.  Corrupt lawyer Billy Flynn is introduced to us by the sound of the accordion adopting his seasoned, well-heeled swagger and the flute is used, not for sweet ethereal airs but as an instrument of licentious persuasion when Roxie needs to bat her eyelashes to get what she wants. When Roxie’s husband is reduced to stealing money from Flynn to pay his wife’s legal bill, breaking a vase in his night-time raid and alerting Flynn’s butler, percussive precision takes the audience to the centre of the action. Hollow wooden beats and the hand used across the breadth of the drum surface allows us to viscerally move with them in the struggle.  Flynn’s highly amusing coaching of Roxie in how to behave during her trial is wryly aided by the plotting calculation of the piano. Instructed to wear masks of bravery, innocence, virtue and “droop” when attacked by the prosecution the sound of the kazoo accompanies her act of purity in the comical farce of the courtroom. The all-male jury are way too busy eyeing Roxie’s legs to listen to the evidence and when her defence appeals to them as “men of intelligence” the piano comments to the contrary. In Flynn’s closing argument “Heavenly bells” of judgement are actually cow bells on a passing cart outside and Roxie walks out of court scot-free, continuing to milk the publicity and posing for photographs. However she soon becomes yesterday’s news when Two Gun Rosy enters the courthouse and her husband finally comes to his senses and throws her out. The Kewpie doll and porcelain clown on the mantelpiece are smashed along with Amos’s image of himself in the mirror. On the rainy street outside Roxie sees her trial headlines trodden underfoot, a sequence borrowed by Michel Hazanavicius in his 2011 Silent film The Artist. She watches as her fame and fortune is swept into the gutter and down a storm drain. But all is not lost for husband Amos when Katie comes in to tidily console him and we are assured by the rousing, instrumental refrain of “Chicago!” “Chicago!” that happiness is just around the corner. In twelve months’ time (and counting) another Hipp Fest will be too!

Hipp Fest Website:

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/

Hipp Fest 2017 Programme:

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/docs/Hippodrome_Silent_Film_Festival_2017.pdf