Filmmakers Seek Future in Past: Silent Film Revival.

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This looks great, a revival of silent film. I have to see the 2005 silent version of Cthuhlu.

Filmmakers Seek Future in Past


By John Brownlee
02:00 AM Feb, 23, 2007

Silent film was never meant to be silent. It was meant to be heard. Orchestras swelled in the pits of the cinemas, crescendoing their strings when Chaplin's Tramp gave his girl a daisy, or smashing their cymbals when Buster Keaton fell down a flight of stairs.

So, when the modern silent Passio premieres Friday at the Adelaide Film Festival in Australia, it will be accompanied not by the spooling whir of film feeding through the projector of an otherwise quiet theater but by a symphony orchestra and dozens of singers.

The work is one of the most recent and ambitious in a revival of silent film -- a medium killed nearly 80 years ago by advances in sound recording. Over the past two decades, artists have explored the legacy of silent cinema, not as a dusty anachronism but as a rich medium from which lessons about music, performance and art can be drawn.

Prolific modern-day directors like Guy Maddin work largely in the medium of silent film to convey postmodern tales. Silent film festivals are held annually around the world: from San Francisco to Kansas, from Italy to Australia. The Chilean subways are plastered with thousands of still images, coming to life as contiguous strips of film as the trains rumble by. And numerous groups throughout the United States have been inspired to compose and perform live original scores to silent film.

One of the groups most responsible for the renaissance in silent film musical performance is Alloy Orchestra, a Massachusetts-based group specializing in performing original accompaniments. Using an eclectic array of instruments, ranging from gongs to musical saws to junk percussion, the Alloy Orchestra performs scores to more than 21 feature films and 19 shorts around the world.

But when the ensemble started performing, the silent film musical scene hardly existed. Ken Winokur, director and percussionist of the Alloy Orchestra, was surprised by the group's success.

"After the silent film era ended in 1930, silent films were just put away, or even thrown away in many cases," says Winokur. "They were hardly ever performed live. It wasn't until the advent of video and then DVD that silent film could actually be seen again. Previous to that, unless someone organized a showing at a museum, you couldn't see a silent film."

With a silent-cinema resurgence sparked by video, interest grew in seeing silent films as they were intended: accompanied by an orchestra. Although the Alloy's first score was done largely as an experimental lark, Winokur soon realized the group was on a wave of silent film revivalism, largely driven by an enthusiasm for the fusion between silent film and performance.

"The response we were getting was so overwhelmingly positive that we began wondering why the experience was so powerful," he says. "I think it has a lot to do with the medium: a beautiful 35-mm image along with a gorgeous live score makes movies alive. Now, in every city, there's a few different groups doing performances at a couple different theaters. It's become a crowded and competitive field."

Silent film revivalism doesn't stop with music: Many artists are inspired by managing difficult works within the restrictions of the genre.

Consider Lulu. The production, by Silent Theatre Company of Chicago, has re-imagined Frank Wedekind's Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora through the filter of G.W. Pabst and Louise Brooks' sensuous 1929 masterpiece, Pandora's Box.

Silent Theatre wanted to produce such an outlandish project as an all-silent, black-and-white play for practical reasons. "The Wedekind plays both read at about three and a half hours each," says Tonika Todorova, director of the Silent Theatre Company. "Additionally, the English translations tend not to be very good: They are filled with stilted, unnatural language. So when I came across the plays, I was very interested in the story, but I didn't feel that we could handle the text."

Todorova researched the history of Wedekind adaptations: "I looked up Pabst's films, including Pandora's Box," she says, "and I thought, 'Why not tape the two plays together, using Pabst as a template, and just do it as a black-and-white silent film onstage?'"

The end result is a critically acclaimed theater experience that compresses seven hours' worth of plot into a tight 70 minutes. The actors perform in silver makeup and monochrome wardrobes, to the accompaniment of a ragtime piano performer. Projected titles convey a minimum of dialogue.

A strong motivator of the revivalism is that silent film can convey material that would somehow be clumsy or compromised by sound. A good example is the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's 2005 adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu. It takes Lovecraft's best-known tale of cosmic evil and interprets it as a "lost" 1929 silent film -- the makers were able to stay true to the text of a story that many had long considered unfilmable.

"One of the really challenging things about Lovecraft is that he doesn't write stories about people and relationships; he writes stories about ideas and concepts," says Sean Branney, co-producer of Call of Cthulhu. "You don't have a Lovecraft story where people go for a cup of coffee and chat. A lot of times his characters don't have names or relationships or any other of the things that are the hallmarks of modern cinema. For me, adding those things was going to take away the quality that makes Lovecraft different from other types of authors."

Filming Call of Cthulhu as a silent eliminated the need for blasphemous plot additions (not to mention the need for actors to pronounce "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn"). Instead, silence allowed Branney the ability to focus on faithfully translating the quality that has made Lovecraft such an enduring writer: "The very bleak, nihilist view that we are little bits of dust standing on other bits of dust whirling around in a vast sea and surrounded by cosmic evil."

Paolo Cherchi Usai's Passio fuses an Arvo Pärt libretto with found footage from film archives around the world. It's more about ideas than plot, and is clearly meant as a critique of contemporary visual culture. "It is my way of saying that our sense of sight has become sanitized," explains Cherchi Usai, director of Australia's National Film and Sound Archive.

Cherchi Usai expects audiences to experience the film, not just watch it. He believes it must only be seen as part of a live performance in a theater. To that end, he has destroyed all masters and vowed never to release it on video.

"The question Passio asks is how we are going to deal with the change of visual culture -- a change for which I think we are profoundly unprepared," he says.

Curiously, it is in the ubiquitous digital advertising displays littering modern cities that Cherchi Usai sees the future of silent film, pointing to the Going Underground film festival, a weeklong event in January where silents from local filmmakers were shown in Berlin's subways.

"Silent cinema is penetrating our lives in new, unpredictable ways," says Cherchi Usai. "There is a paradigm shift. This is an evolution of the silent film experience into a completely different technology. And it could not have happened before."

http://www.wired.com/news/culture/1,72766-0.html
 
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