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How do you watch (or listen to) silent films?

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    Vili Maunula

    I have been watching quite a number of silent films this past year, and now that we are about to start our Silent Ozu Month tomorrow, I wanted to ask how you people prefer to watch your silent films — without any sound, with the provided music track (which has usually been composed and recorded decades after the original film was released), or with some other music playing on the background?

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    Chris

    It’s funny you should ask this. Three nights ago I watched F.W. Murnau’s Nosfersatu. (This was followed two nights ago by my watching Werner Herzog’s fantastic version.) So it is fresh in my mind.

    I always watch with the provided scores on the DVDs. Many silent films seemed to have been shown with improvised scores anyway, so the filmmakers probably had little to say in the music. The ones that were not (like Eisenstein) are always shown with the original scores on DVD, so there’s seemingly no loss in the filmmaker’s vision.

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    Longstone

    Hi

    I have always used the soundtracks provided on the DVDs which have usually been fine, it never really crossed my mind to try other music . I guess I assumed that usually the musicians used for new scores were trying to invoke the sound of the era or as Chris suggests above recreate the improvised feel of live musicians reacting to the film.

    cheers

    Mike

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    Ugetsu

    I’ve been scouring small ads for a private benshi I could hire, but can’t find one so I guess I’ll have to rely on the soundtrack instead 😉

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    cocoskyavitch

    Great question, Vili. Naturally, the music will change the feel of the film. When I-movie came out loaded with the G4 laptop about a decade ago, I used it to make presentations for exam reviews. I would take images of the students at the sites, take closeups of particular works of art, architectural details, etc., and then the score really was what made it into a film and gave the images context and feel.

    I remember I used Lou Reed’s “Bus Load of Faith” for a long, 18 hour bus ride in India, with the traveling images, the dashboard linga, the city vendors surrounding the bus, moving out into the green and golden countryside, then, our arival in Khajuraho and the temples…as the music transitioned into Chris Isaak’s “Blue Hotel”. It worked very well, though I am tired of Chris Isaak these days.

    Kurosawa knew how critical the soundtrack was…! His simple idea of using counterpoint and “mutual multiplying” effects is still worthwhile advice. Music can transport, change your perception, work you into a mood.

    I am aware of this, and generally use the provided soundtrack for Ozu. For Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, I used no soundtrack.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for your views! Ugetsu’s made me laugh out loud. 😆 You will never give up trying to put yourself into the shoes of the films’ contemporary audiences, will you, Ugetsu? 😛

    Chris, I love Nosferatu (the 1922 film, not so much the Herzog one)! Have you seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? It’s another marvellous example of German expressionist cinema from the early 1920s, and definitely something I would recommend for everyone.

    Coco, one of the films that originally got me to think about all this was in fact The Passion of Joan of Arc! I, too, watched it without sound and found it really powerful, an absolutely brilliant film.

    I tend to find silent film scores really boring, and the exact opposite of a “counterpoint” use — the way the music follows the action on the screen is usually disturbingly one-to-one, making me feel that I’m spoon-fed stuff. Not all scores are like that of course — Chaplin had wonderful scores, while the early 1980s prints of Metropolis had seemingly nothing to do with the action on screen, but all the same made my ears bleed with the synthpop soundtrack that someone thought was a good idea.

    It is curious to note that for the Silent Ozu box set, Criterion’s default choice in the menus is actually to play the films without sound. That in fact is what prompted me to ask what your preferences are.

    I know some people would find it sacrilege, but I actually watched I Was Born, But… while pop queen Rihanna’s latest album was booming from my living room stereos. It actually fit the film surprisingly well, although the human brain is of course marvellous at finding connections in random occurrences.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Vili said:

    “…the human brain is of course marvellous at finding connections in random occurrences”.

    Right on.

    In art, the aesthetic of the incomplete kicks in when we mentally complete something missing in a sculpture, painting, etc., Caravaggio’s lost and found boundaries are dependent on us filling in the “blanks”. So, silent can be fantastic.

    … and sometimes random sundtracks can be fantastic, too, for just the reason you’ve stated, Vili. In art we might look to the Surrealists or Duchamps’ “standard stoppages” to see how randomness can be incorporated into art…( http://www.toutfait.com/unmaking_the_museum/Standard%20Stoppages.html)

    Today’s (August 3, 2010) Achewood starts with a discussion on this topic! http://achewood.com/

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    Chris

    I’ve noticed that many film fans prefer to watch Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera without any soundtrack as some feel music of any kind distracts from the film’s visual impact.

    Incidentally, an entirely silent copy of that film is available at the Internet Archives.

    I guess ultimately the choice of whether or not to watch a silent film with a soundtrack should be made on a film by film basis.

    (Vili, by the way, I adore The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Such wonderful visuals! 😀 )

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    Vili Maunula

    The copy from which I saw Man With a Movie Camera actually had quite a good soundtrack, I thought. I just can’t for the life of me remember whose print it was.

    In any case, I fully agree with you Chris that the choice is best made on a film-by-film basis, and obviously also based on the preferences of the viewer!

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    know some people would find it sacrilege, but I actually watched I Was Born, But… while pop queen Rihanna’s latest album was booming from my living room stereos. It actually fit the film surprisingly well, although the human brain is of course marvellous at finding connections in random occurrences.

    I just watched it while playing The Best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. I have to say my brain didn’t make any connections, random or otherwise, although maybe next time I see some cute Japanese kids I’ll end up thinking of Kylie Minogue getting murdered….

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