I operate under the theory a movie should work with the sound off, and under that theory, staging becomes paramount.
Soderburgh describes this project as a process that simplifies the image, strips it down. The assumption here is that black-and-white images and contingent sound allow viewers to concentrate their minds (on staging…). However, there’s nothing all that simple about this audio-visual concoction, which brings the tools of silent cinema together with the golden age of the Hollywood blockbuster and the sounds of its collapse in the era of social media.
July was a month of endless rain, many deadlines, and one fantastic screening of early film fragments at the Woodend Barn in Banchory. The highlight of the evening was Melancholia, a rescoring and reimagining of a film from the Miles Brothers by Ross Whyte (electronics) and Richard Craig (contrabass flute). The film captures a trolley ride through Main Street, San Francisco, just days before the 1906 earthquake. It is filled with remarkable (audio and visual) moments. Keep yours eyes peeled for the child in the back of a horse-drawn carriage who pulls back the curtain and magically appears.
Laurie Anderson gave the 2012 commencement speech at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. Anderson is a multimedia artist and former Artist-in-Residence at NASA. Her talk covers work, play, politics, the necessity of art, and learning from Sol LeWitt. Her words, wit, and voice are a real pleasure to take in. But then she puts a “pillow speaker” in her mouth and things get radical:
Theodore Case invented one of the first commercial sound processes. William Fox (of Fox Films) purchased the patents in 1926; it would come to be known as “Movietone.” Here, Case tests the sound and discovers a sensory surplus. Sound is heard. And felt.
Excerpts from “Shadow Play,” a series of silent/film sound events held at the University of Aberdeen in December 2011 are available (for now) online.
The neo-Benshi performance of The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926) can be found here. My colleagues, Dr. Simon Ward (Film and Visual Culture), Dr. Laura McMahon (Film and Visual Culture), and Dr. Nate Jezzi (Philosophy) were kind enough to lend their voices. Ross Whyte provided additional sound tech and effects.
Ross Whyte’s wonderful re-score of Piccadilly (E.A. Dupont, 1929) can be found here. Keep your ears open around 6:30.
Our first evening of “Shadow Play” concluded with R.W. Paul’s final work: an industrial film promoting a new commercial whaling route between Norway and Ireland. For me, the film recalls the generic and temporal instabilities of many ethnographic hunt films. The interminable progress of the hunt (and the factory) is disrupted by death and the gruesome transformation of animal into object. The encounter between the film’s intertitles (Landing the Whale, Removing the Jaw, etc.) and its visual excesses is also strikingly disjunctive. The image overwhelms, undermines, undoes the certainty of its plain text.
But this film ends with an amazing set of final scenes. Irish and Norwegian workers “at play”: dancing together, sack racing, wrestling like animals on the ground. Not only do the boundaries between industrial, educational, and ethnographic modes collapse here, but boundaries between nations, genders, and species likewise seem to be very much in flux.
Many thanks to Ross Whyte for providing an improvised electroacoustic soundtrack that matched the complexity of the evening’s images. The glitches and stutters of the soundbox drew our attention, I think, not only to the content of these images (and the deep space that returned compositionally over and again), but to the surface of the celluloid, to its rips, gaps, tears, and imperfections. My attention was pulled in two directions: into the depth of past/historical time and across the surface of internal/archival histories.
Next Thursday: The Dying Swan, Menilmontant, and Orphans / 7-9 PM / Auris Lecture
Pete Stollery, a Professor in Composition and Electroacoustic Music at the University of Aberdeen, passed this short piece along to me a few days ago. It was composed and created by Ross Whyte, a musician and PhD student at the University of Aberdeen, whose research explores “audio-visual intermedia and multi-sensory perception in music.” You can find Whyte and more of his work here.
The film echoes the woman-on-the-stairs of Leger’s Ballet Mecanique. But it manages much more than nods to history, the pleasures of found footage, or the ghosts of mechanical reproduction. Whyte’s use of sound remakes the image(s), brings texture to these early spaces, and plays with the absurdities and excesses hiding just beyond the chase scene.
Smithereens also invites us to spend time with (several kinds of) orphans. I couldn’t help but wonder: Who is this girl? Where is she going? Did she ever get there?
Silent combines frames from five silent films: Nosferatu, Metropolis, Faust, Holy Mountain, and the Dragon Painter; the frames are (re)set to the sounds of Charles Ives’ Hallowe’en. From the artist’s description:
The frames are chosen by custom software that compares data from each of the film’s soundtracks with the data from Ives’ music. The software analyzes each film and records the audio (FFT) data and timecode for each frame. The final video is generated by processing an input soundtrack, in this case Hallowe’en, and finding the frames of film whose audio best fits that of the soundtrack.
Silent films were chosen as the source material because of their tight connection between narrative, visuals, and musical score. By using the soundtrack as the central driver of visual imagery, Silent inverts these relationships. This reversal allows forms typically associated with music-repetition, rhythm, movement-to express themselves visually.
This is a fascinating remix of film history and theory. McWilliams presents a sharp comparison between silent cinema and new media/music. In his description, silent cinema operates as a kind of handicraft, made by/for humans, narratively coherent and visually whole. McWilliams takes new media as the vibrating attraction, the automated response, the work of film art in the age of digital reproduction. Chandler didn’t have a choice or make a decision: the software decided what was best for the sound.
I wonder if there is actually an inversion or reversal at work here. It seems (more) likely that McWilliams’ film offers a return to silent film, to its visual/sound experiments. Here, the “original” and its remix seem to exist in necessary, complementary relation.