Text originally published in the Financial Times, November 22nd 1986
One of the regular high spots of the London Film Festival in the past half decade has been the presentation each year of one or more silent films with a live orchestra. Sponsored by Thames Television, these performances have not only resurrected the long hidden glories of silent cinema, they have also introduced their audiences to an experience of overwhelming intensity – a far cry from most people’s perception of silent films as dusty, dated entertainments to be watched stoically to the accompaniment off on out-of-tune piano in a cold, almost empty cinema.
The moving force behind this revival consists of David Gill, a documentary director and producer at Thames; Kevin Brownlow, director and historian of the silent era; and Carl Davis, composer and conductor.
In the late 70s, Kevin Brownlow’s classic book on the early days of Hollywood, The Parade’s Gone By, inspired Jeremy Isaacs, then Director of Programs at Thames, to give the go-ahead for a series about the American pioneers of film. The aim of this series was twofold: to give a history of the early film industry, told largely in interviews with veterans of the period, and to present the actual footage of the time, be it clips, outtakes or newsreel, in as authentic and pristine a manner as was possible.
This involved finding the best possible prints (not always an easy task), projecting them at the correct speed (thus eliminating the traditional “speeded-up” image of silent film), and providing music which would genuinely enhance the visuals. Recognizing Kevin Brownlow’s dedication to the original quality of these old films, David Gill nevertheless had misgivings about how a modern audience would react to them: “I still had a slight reservation because I had been away from silent films for so long. We not only had to demonstrate these films existed and make an interesting, educational program, we had to build an audience, capture their imaginations, make it an entertainment – something they could surrender to. And the only way I could see that happening was not just by using music, but by really spending so much money on the music — composing it and being able to afford a large orchestra, something which documentaries never envisage. Then, as soon as we started seeing the results during the course of production, we were astounded by the effect it had on the film. A whole new entity appeared, and we could see it from the reaction all people who saw the programs.”
Carl Davis had already worked with David Gill on a documentary series, The World at War, and jumped at the chance to score Hollywood. “First of all I did quite a bit of research on how the film scores were created in the period. The series really ran the range of all the styles of film of the period, and involved me in thinking and creating for a great many clips.”
Davis resorted to many of the methods of the silent era: borrowing chunks of the classics, cobbling together popular pieces of the time; anything that would go with the film. Throughout he would interweave his own music, often finding inspiration in certain composers to reflect this style and mood of a film or actor in the accompanying music: Rimsky-Korsakov for Fairbanks and The Thief of Baghdad, Liszt for the soul of Garbo in A Woman of Affairs.
Not surprisingly, Davis was itching to try his hand at a full-length score for full orchestra to accompany a theatrical presentation of a silent film. The opportunity to do so did not arise until the BFI earmarked Kevin Brownlow’s reconstruction of Abel Gance’s epic Napoleon for the London Film Festival in 1980. In three months Davis had to produce five hours of music. As much out of practical as aesthetic considerations he quickly settled upon the idea of using the music of Beethoven and his contemporaries as the backbone for the score, an apt choice in view of the youthful Beethoven’s admiration for the young Napoleon. “One of the first things I learned about silent film musicians of the time, when I was working on the Hollywood series, was that they had absolutely no inhibitions about robbing, like grave robbing, and using classical compositions to support the score.”
Sometimes an important film would be distributed with a specially composed score. Whenever possible Davis has made reference to these, and has often found useful source material (various army and popular songs of World War I for The Big Parade, for example), and on one occasion has reconstructed an entire original score – for D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms.
But in the case of Napoleon in 1980, Honegger’s original score had yet to be rediscovered, so Davis found himself plundering the treasure houses of Classicism.
Yet he was careful never to use music which might jar with the film’s carefully constructed historical authenticity. “I had a notion, which I always follow, which is to try and be faithful to the period, or at least to pay service to the period it was done in. I would use Beethoven, but only up to compositions off about 1810, and I would not go into Berlioz, for instance, or Schumann or Wagner or any of those pieces which might be appropriate from a mood point of view, but which I felt would betray the spirit all of those wigs, corsets and breeches, so to speak.”
In the films which have followed Napoleon, ranging from romantic melodrama to knockabout comedy, Davis has refined his techniques and approach. Some have been recorded just for broadcast on Channel 4, which aids with the financing. Each film is approached with a fresh musical concept, and careful attention is paid to orchestration to create a distinctive and individual sound world. Structurally Davis relies on a simplified form of leitmotif technique, in which certain themes and characters are represented by easily identifiable melodies that recur throughout the score.
For the broadcast versions of the films, synchronization of picture and sound is achieved in the recording studio through close adherence to a time code printed on the film’s video copy (Davis’s guide when composing). In live performances Davis the conductor has to rely on his internal sense of time and the rhythm, along with his detailed knowledge of the film (described shot by shot in the score), to keep him and the orchestra in the right place.
This year’s Thames Silent is Greed, the ”lost” masterpiece of Erich von Stroheim – a grim study of the darker side of human nature.
Davis has drawn his inspiration from Austrian and American music of the 20s. “Though the film is set in San Francisco at the turn of the century, von Stroheim as a director is always very Germanic in his work. The thematic approach, the recurrence of themes, and the fact that the characters come from a German background even — certainly Trina’s Family does – made me lean towards German music, or rather Austrian music, of the early 20th Century. I really didn’t want the orchestra in itself to have a very sympathetic, soft or romantic sound. I wanted it to be harsh and clear – a quality which I think could also describe the way the film is. Alban Berg and von Stroheim would be quite good partners in a way because they are both full of a mixture of banal phrases with a sort of torment: soaring lines and a ‘what-lies-under-the-skin’ kind of character.”
Davis omits strings, except for an elaborate violin solo, leaving wind, brass and extensive percussion. In sequences where several planes of action are involved on screen, he has adopted an Ivesian technique of allowing simultaneous but different music to elide and clash. “For example, during the wedding service a funeral procession passes by. Now if we accept my job as being to bring out what is in the film, it seemed that there was no alternative other than to do a wedding and a funeral going on simultaneously.” Therefore Davis collides Wagner’s Wedding March from Lohengrin in B major with the Chopin Funeral March in B minor, plus a popular song of the period, O Promise Me, in F major.
“This is simply doing what the film is doing, and because of the example of Charles Ives one wasn’t afraid of the clash, one welcomed it. What von Stroheim is actually saying is – this is a wedding that is doomed – and my job then is to reinforce that idea.”
Elsewhere Davis has taken this technique a step further, to bring out what lies beneath the surface of a scene. Two friends quarrel and then make up in a seaside tea shop where a mechanical piano is playing: the steady honky-tonk prattle runs in counterpoint to their reconciliation. The music seems to say: will it last?
Kevin Brownlow comments: “The great director King Vidor says in the Hollywood series that music is 50% of the emotion, and I thought, ‘Come on! This is 30% over the top.’ But he’s right. When you see it working you realize it’s the fusion off the two, like a carbon arc, that creates that fantastic impact.”
Some examples of scenes from Thames Silents productions, all with music by Carl Davis:
Further articles on Kevin Brownlow, Napoleon, Carl Davis, and their revival of silent films with orchestral accompaniment:
I will never forget the first time I entered the unique film world of John Boorman. I was around 17 or 18. A matinee screening of Zardoz at the National Film Theatre on London’s South Bank. I wandered out of a misty Autumn day into the mist-shrouded strangeness of the opening of that film and was spellbound. A giant stone head floats across a rocky wasteland —
— and Sean Connery emerges reborn out of the ashes of his tour of 007 duty as a bare-chested, mustachioed enforcer in a post-apocalyptic society populated by actors I knew from British sitcoms.
Strange does not even begin to describe this film and yet….. Yet…..
This was film making that did not play it safe. It tackled big themes and mythological subtext was pushed to the foreground. It was artful, adventurous, and frequently fell on its face. The performances pushed the envelope. In short, it was everything that mainstream British film-making of the time mostly wasn’t: risk-taking, emotionally naked, larger-than-life, intellectually challenging, and willing to put it all on the line.
I was hooked. I sought out Boorman’s previous work in late-night screenings at the Penultimate Picture Palace on the outskirts of Oxford, my film school at university. There was Deliverance; the masterpiece Point Blank (the ONLY truly great color film noir that is also the quintessential, ground-zero genre exploration of existential angst); the extraordinary Hell in the Pacific, in which Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune play two combat soldiers from World War II still fighting the war on a remote Pacific atoll long after VJ Day.
In 1981, Excalibur was released. This was Boorman’s vast, sprawling telling of the Arthurian legends, and I was spellbound. It was (and still is) the only time that a film has utterly committed to telling myth as if it was real history, with magic and the supernatural acting as strongly on the protagonists as their own turbulent emotions. Yes, the film is occasionally wayward, and elicits giggles in some of its more on-the-nose moments, largely because of memories of Monty Python and the Holy Grail which had been released some years earlier. But then again there are images, scenes, juxtapositions which are as breathtaking as any in cinema.
And then there’s Merlin: Nicol Williamson’s entirely off-the-wall, off-kilter, playful, eccentric characterization that was savaged (and I mean savaged) by the critics of the time, but which I believed then, and certainly believe even more now, is one of the most iconoclastic and brave performances ever put on celluloid.
And a young, entirely sexy Helen Mirren as his evil nemesis.
Plus one of the most priapic, Jungian/Freudian (take your pick) sex scenes in movie history (you know the one….)
The best book written about Stanley Kubrick is by the leading critic of the French journal Positif, Michael Ciment. Which other director did he choose to write about in similarly expansive fashion? John Boorman. There’s a good reason for this. Like Kubrick, Boorman has consistently challenged our expectations of what a mainstream genre film can and should be. Both books have sat prominently on my bookshelf since they were published, and I dip into them often.
Michael Ciment (left) with John Boorman
These thoughts were much in my mind last night as I strolled into the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to see the Los Angeles premiere of John Boorman’s self-declared final film, Queen and Country, presented by the American Cinematheque.
It’s a sequel to his masterly autobiographical film about growing up during the London blitz, Hope and Glory. In attendance was Boorman himself, a spritely octogenarian, his eyes sparkling with all the wit and impishness that drives the originality and risk-taking at the heart of his work.
The author (l.) with John Boorman outside the Aero Theatre
The film itself was as fresh and surprising as any of its predecessors. It focuses on the young hero’s experiences as a conscript doing his British national army service during the Korean war. In characteristic Boorman fashion, the film serves partly as an anthropological investigation of a social group adrift from its moorings – in this case an army that is not actually fighting a war. The absurdities of the hierarchies and rituals of the institution are thrown into relief as Britain and its inhabitants reach for meaning in a post-War world.
The film ends with the hero and his girl locked in a playful embrace, sinking beneath the waters of the Thames, as his abandoned camera film the scene. It’s a lovely, perfectly apposite image on which Boorman ends his film maker’s journey, recalling the many rivers that run throughout his work, conduits of destruction and rebirth – tactile, universal, mythological.
After the screening, the director took the stage to a standing ovation. He offered insights and advice that any film maker would do well to heed, including the recommendation to seriously consider an alternative career: he reflected that he had spent more time on films that never got made than on ones that did.
And he told some great stories about working with two of the cinema’s greatest acting legends: Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune.
Boorman’s relationship with Mifune could best be described by the title of the film they were shooting: Hell in the Pacific. Boorman recounted how, at one particularly fraught juncture, he let fly with his criticisms, then insisted that the interpreter through whom they communicated repeat his words verbatim to the star. Mifune listened, then proceeded to punch and knock out the interpreter. Without missing a beat he turned to the director, smiled and nodded. At one point in the shoot, Boorman fell ill and production halted. Worried producers offered Mifune the opportunity to replace Boorman, which they thought the actor would jump at. Mifune instead insisted they stick with Boorman. It was, he said, a matter of honor.
Not a familiar concept to your average Hollywood suit, commented Boorman. The audience at the Aero ate this up.
Boorman recounted how he and Lee Marvin became close friends, and he told several wonderful stories about their friendship.
After Marvin and Boorman had completely reworked the original script for Pont Blank and it came time to start filming, Marvin literally threw the script out of the window. At a meeting with the studio brass Marvin said that he was ceding all his story and casting control to the novice director. Boorman never forgot this support. He noted that the film, about a man who is shot and left for dead, then goes in search of his killers, became a means for Marvin to confront his own demons from combat duty during the war.
Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin and John Boorman on set
On a lighter note, Boorman recalled a memorable evening out with Marvin who, by closing time, was very drunk indeed. Boorman struggled to prevent Marvin from taking the wheel of his car to drive home, finally wresting the keys from him. Marvin proceeded to jump onto the roof of the car and refused to come down. Boorman decided to drive him home anyway.
There they were, weaving their way up the Pacific Coast Highway to Marvin’s home in Malibu, Boorman at the wheel, the star clinging to the roof. Suddenly a siren sounded, and the cops pulled him over. Up walks the patrolman.
“Sir, you do realize that Lee Marvin is on the roof of your car…..?”
Long before he provided the ominous tones for Darth Vader and created the most iconic-sounding villain in screen history, James Earl Jones made his mark in a number of major productions of stage and screen. It was his role in Jean Genet’s groundbreaking play The Blacks, first staged in New York in 1961, and running for a record-breaking 1408 performances, that led to one of his most memorable early film experiences.
James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in The Blacks
Polish poster for The Comedians
Peter Glenville, a leading British director of the time who had closely collaborated with Graham Greene and Tennessee Williams, was looking for a number of black actors to take roles in his forthcoming film of Greene’s The Comedians, set amidst the turmoil of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier’s Haiti. Going to The Blacks, which was one of the top off-Broadway hits of the decade, Glenville was presented with an embarrassment of acting riches. Jones was not the only one to be cast in the film as a result of his performance in the play: joining him were Cicely Tyson, Zakes Mokae, and Roscoe Lee Brown. Also in the film was a young Gloria Foster, who later made a mark as the Oracle in the first two Matrix pictures.
For Jones, working on TheComedians was memorable both on, and off, screen. For rarely can a young actor have found himself spending time with such a luminous A-list cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, not to mention the legendary star of silent pictures, Lillian Gish.
Peter Glenville (c., standing) with the cast of The Comedians
A few years ago I produced an oral history of the life and work of Peter Glenville, and James Earl Jones kindly agreed to share his reminiscences with Susan Loewenberg, Producing Director of L.A. TheatreWorks, who commissioned the history on behalf of the Peter Glenville Foundation.
Peter Glenville directing Ustinov and Taylor
The segment about The Comedians was my favorite, enlivened by Jones’s commentary, his extraordinary presence, and that voice. (In a technical sidebar, that voice was so resonant with bass frequencies that the engineer had quite some trouble recording it without distortion).
Now you can enjoy his story too……
Narrator: Martin Jarvis. Voice of Peter Glenville: Simon Templeman.
Living and working in Hollywood one is inclined, somewhat more than the general population, to suffer from a variety of movie states of mind. After all, wanting to escape reality is what brought us to California in the first place, and the Hollywood in our heads is substantially preferable to the reality. (Have you ever been to Hollywood and Highland, where they’ve turned the gates of Babylon from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance into a mall? And that’s the upscale bit of Hollywood!).
Old Hollywood Babylon —
— and New Hollywood Babylon
Hollywood is also intrinsically hyperbolic and, since making movies is actually a pretty arduous process, I’ve heard grown men who have Oscars in their cloakrooms liken it to war. Ridiculous? Maybe not so much. A little mental meandering can be a healthy counterbalance to too much Hollywood reality. (Or unreality).
In fact, going from that blissfully innocent initial movie idea (“How about a shark terrorizing a resort? We can build a mechanical Great White, no problem, and film it in the real ocean so we don’t have to fake it. Easy!”), to actually opening a film is kind of like finding oneself in the third act of The Shining. During the required three plus years it takes to get a film made one mostly feels like that film’s seven year-old endeavoring to elude the unwanted homicidal attentions of an axe-wielding paternal figure (a Freudian mash-up of the studio, investors, critics, paying public).
The only way to offset the seemingly inevitable drop of the blade is to take one’s life into one’s own hands and, like little Danny, run out into the petrifying night, and lure the enemy into a frozen maze from which neither of you may return in one piece.
Of course I exaggerate. No one would work in movies if it was really like that. (Yes they would! They want to meet movie stars!) It’s really no worse than being a lawyer or member of Congress. (Where are the axe murderers when you really need them?).
So, getting back to my point about Hollywood’s denizens entering into Hollywood states of mind, let’s consider some possible favorite choices.
The writer – for example – is susceptible to Sunset Boulevard. He’s found himself floating face down in a swimming-pool so many times he’s forgotten how he ever got there (or how to stop it happening again).
Of course, writers live mostly in their heads anyway, and in Hollywood that can be a nice place — all that sun, sand and, well….
What’s in the box, Barton?
Yes, any writer who’s gone through what is politely called Development Hell will feel a particular empathy with Barton Fink. The prospect of seeing John Goodman’s gun-toting psycho charging down a spontaneously combusting corridor screaming “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” will almost seem like a relief compared to another round of studio notes.
The producer – a much-maligned creature in movie lore – might veer between two possible models of how to go about getting the show on the road. There’s The Bad and the Beautiful, in which a group of filmmakers reflect on how they were aided in their careers, and then terrorized, by the Machiavellian producer played by Kirk Douglas, who will charm, swarm, cajole and bully to get his way.
And then there’s The Producers, wherein the titular characters set out to make a deliberate flop out of an all-singing, all-dancing Nazi musical, and end up with a smash hit.
Just another day at the office
But which of these two films represents how one should go about being a producer? Which one is the cautionary tale, and which one the blueprint for success?
The eternal dilemma of how exactly to go about producing hit movies is played out, second-guessed and dissected in the trades after every opening weekend. However, for every producer who yearns to cut through all the crap, Get Shorty will hold a special place in his or her heart for its gangster-turned-producer hero played by John Travolta because, deep down, every producer wishes he could make the odd recalcitrant collaborator/executive/critic/second-guesser an offer he cannot refuse.
The studio executive on the wrong end of Travolta’s pistol will always have Robert Altman’s The Player to console him. Tim Robbins’s sleazy protagonist does, after all, get away with murdering a difficult writer – and ends up marrying his victim’s girlfriend. (Add this film to the writer’s list of grievances).
The director who’s knocked around a bit channels Richard Mulligan’s beleaguered auteur in Blake Edwards’ sublime satire of Hollywood, S.O.B. (short for “Standard Operational Bulls**t”).
Driven to the brink of insanity by a mega-flop, Mulligan decides to wrestle victory from the jaws of box office defeat, and Robert Vaughan’s cross-dressing studio boss —
— by reshooting for an R-rating. How does he do this? Well, he persuades his star (and ex) Julie Andrews that her wholesome family-friendly image needs retooling (literally). To accomplish this he revamps his central MGM-style musical number as a porno.
Its climax (ahem) is Mary Poppins going all spring break on us (“You like my boobies?”a squiffy Julie declaims in a state of deshabillé).
That Mulligan gets shot to death for his pains —
— and is buried at sea in a viking helmet by William Holden and his buddies (after a spot of fishing) —
— is merely a tribute to his auteur credentials.
Actors adore All about Eve, Joe Mankiewicz’s paean to theatre folk, and dissection of the naked ambition (and unsheafed knife) lurking in the sweet smile of one’s understudy.
Cinéaste actors go nuts for Les Enfants du Paradis, Marcel Carné’s Dickensian canvas of a theater troupe’s lives and loves.
Why are we so fascinated by actors and movie stars? Because life is a performance, and we’re all acting a part — as Shakespeare so pithily pointed out. Movie stars just do it bigger and better than we do. David O. Russell’s latest, American Hustle, hardwires into our pop cultural obsession with everything actorly. It finds the intersection between performance and the con in the pursuit of the American dream, and milks the results for all their worth. And as per usual Russell pushes his cast out onto an emotional high wire — the resulting thespian high jinks and precarious balancing acts are glorious to behold.
But for me the film that maybe most perfectly embodies the surrealistic double-think a screen actor must hold in his head is Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. This is the one where a daydreaming projectionist —
— wanders into the movie he is screening.
Surviving a series of jump cuts that launch him from one perilous, and hilarious, scene to another —
— he ends up solving the mystery and getting the girl, because he entered the movie. Now that’s what I call commitment to a role. What an endorsement of film’s curative powers. (For a later spin on this idea, see Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo.)
But if you had to select just one film to embody all the obsessions of Hollywood in one convenient package, I suspect that would be —
But, I hear you say, that movie has nothing to do with the movies. Au contraire, I counter. It is, in effect, the ultimate metaphor for making pictures. Consider.
Jimmy Stewart falls in love with a fabrication, an illusion of a person, who in this case happens to be Kim Novak.
“Screen siren obsession” is, in my opinion, a completely certifiable medical condition; a symptom familiar to moviegoers everywhere since the dawn of moving pictures. (Erotic fixation upon fantasy figures lies at the heart of film’s mesmeric dance of seduction). Then, when Novak “dies”, Stewart sees another woman who reminds him of the earlier one, and proceeds to refashion her into a replica of his earlier love.
What he does not know is that both women are actually one and the same.
That he’s the victim of an intricate con-job to cover up a murder is largely co-incidental, and barely relevant to what the film is really about. That crafty Hitch – he made a movie about making movies, and the danger of trying to build real-world romances upon the flickering shadows of fantasy and obsession, projected or otherwise, with death as the trickster “I do”.
“So what!”I can hear many a movie guy say. So what if the gal’s a fake, the guy’s a basket-case, and no-one gets to say “I do”. We’re making movies! How great is that! I know people who would kill to do what we do.
Yup, in Hollywood, Vertigo is the one you come home to.
BAB-Y-LON(noun): a city devoted to materialism and sensual pleasure (Origin: ancient city of Babylonia). (Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
LA LA LAND(noun): The term either refers to Hollywood, Los Angeles or a state of mind synonymous with Hollywood that is out of touch with reality, focusing on dreams, fantasies or frivolous endeavors. (Source: Urban Dictionary)
“One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: that word is love.” — Sophocles