Music / Film Review: PHOTOPLAY MUSIC: NEW WORKS FOR THE SILENT FILM ERA (HOCKET, Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff at The Nimoy)

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by Nick McCall on June 8, 2024

in Film,Music,Theater-Los Angeles


On May 21, UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance (CAP UCLA) hosted Piano Spheres and the piano duo HOCKET as they premiered three new scores for a trio of unannounced French silent films at The Nimoy. Sarah Gibson, one half of HOCKET, was unavailable, so David Kaplan joined Thomas Kotcheff. Taylor Vaughn Lasley, assistant professor in television, radio, and film at Syracuse University introduced the program, entitled Photoplay Music: New Works for the Silent Era.

First was The Starfish (L’Étoile de mer, 1928), an obtuse short by Man Ray that deals with a romance and the narrator’s musing of his girlfriend’s beauty. The new score was by José Martínez, which began with booms, thumps, and other electronic noise. Kaplan and Kotcheff were on two grand pianos and constantly were getting up to strum and pluck the insides. It was all gloomy and dissonant, more appropriate for a stylized German silent than an artsy and light French film. The pianos were amplified and, with all the rumbling and crackling, were unnecessarily loud. Funny how two grand pianos, enough to fill Disney Hall, need microphones in the tiny Nimoy.

The second movie was The Mysteries of the Castle of the Dice (Les Mystères du Château du Dé, 1929), also directed by Man Ray. Gemma Peacocke wrote this new score, the most successful of the night. It started out sparse, with little bits of randomness, just like what you’d imagine 1920s avant-garde music to sound like. Once the movie reveled itself to be a travelogue, the music turned harmonious and lush while driving through the countryside, then turning into lots of trills for the tour of the castle. However, there are large stretches where nothing much happens on screen, and Peacocke fell into the trap (which skilled silent-film musicians avoid) where the music also doesn’t do anything. There were portions where it was just a single, repeated, metronomic note on the piano, marking time until something interesting happened. About halfway through the short, phantoms (actors wearing stockings over their heads) appear and exercise and play throughout the house, taking full advantage of the lovely weather. However, the music is needlessly gloomy.

Entr’acte (1924), René Clair’s delightful comedy, concluded the program. Composer Ian Dicke provided a new score completely lacking in humor. Its florid swirls punctured by musical spikes at the start was passable, but the music then refused to go along with the visuals, such as when the toy boat “sails” over the city; chaotic imagery but calm music. Entr’acte is a movie that’s non-stop gags, but Dicke’s music is dramatic and meanders, ignoring what happens on screen. It’s as if Dicke heard “French silent avant-garde surrealism” and took it to mean “deadly serious.” Entr’acte, like so many avant-garde silents, was made by young artists goofing off and taking delight in screwing with the audience. It even goes so far as to climax with a big comedic chase, which Dicke’s score ignores. For the final scene, a gag where someone pops out of a coffin, Dicke’s music was calm and mysterious, not funny. You could count the sparse laughs in the audience on one hand. I saw Entr’acte years ago with no music, and the audience response was far more engaged than with HOCKET.

At typical screenings of silents, the musicians disappear. You can watch them if you concentrate (harder than it sounds), but, visually, they don’t call attention to themselves. Kaplan and Kotcheff were seated in front of the screen and fully lit, often times brighter than the screen. They and the pianos obstructed the bottom of the screen, and blocked even more of the picture when they had to stand up and play the pianos’ insides. Blue stage lights washed out the picture. This program was not about the movies, but the performers.

As for what was actually projected, it was mystery-meat video of middling-to-poor quality. The Starfish looked the best of the bunch. It was HD and looked like a typical, if overly compressed, Blu-ray disc. Castle had an extremely jerky frame rate and looked like a poor YouTube upload. Entr’acte fared the worst. It looked like a very old standard-definition transfer, with screen tearing and other glitches. I’d be willing to bet they were randomly downloaded off the Internet.  None of the videos were subtitled. Instead, the audience was given printed translations in the programs that, presumably, we were supposed to read. In the dark. There are free subtitling programs; it is trivial to add them to silents. How is it that the UCLA Film and Television Archive, with its small public footprint and free admission, can add subtitles, but not CAP, which charges and has access to thousands of seats?

By not announcing the titles beforehand, CAP UCLA signaled that one silent is as good as another; audiences just come for the live music. My hopes for improved presentation are dim. UCLA ripped out the film projectors and the projection booth at The Nimoy in favor of appeasing the inclusion gods with a urinal-free unisex bathroom  Instead, there is a single video projector whirring above the audience. The programming may be fascinating, but it’s so sad to us film purists that film is dead at the former Crest theater.

Photoplay Music: New Works for the Silent Era
HOCKET at The Nimoy in Westwood
presented by 
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance (CAP UCLA)
reviewed on Tuesday, May 21, 2024

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