Silent film festival to come to campus

By Kate Sullivan, The Dartmouth Staff | 2/1/13 3:00am

Featuring a selection of five screenings ranging from silent era masterpieces to small shorts, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival will come to the Black Family Visual Arts Center Friday. All of the screenings will feature live musical accompaniment, making Pordenone truly a unique cinematic experience for any cinephile.

The musical accompaniment will feature the critically-acclaimed Alloy Orchestra. This marks another return visit for the three-man ensemble; the group performed the musical score of Buster Keaton masterpiece “The General” in fall 2011. The Alloy Orchestra will accompany the Joseph von Sternberg film “Underworld” as well as the New York City romp “Speedy.”

Bob Merrill, a local pianist who has provided live musical accompaniment to many silent films screened at Dartmouth for over two decades, will provide the live score to a selection of shorts, including an animated short by Walt Disney, Hal Roach’s “Pass the Gravy,” and the tsarist Russian film “Daydreams.” Merrill will also deliver a musical soundtrack for King Vidor’s “Show People,” a satire of Hollywood fame.

Carlos Dominguez, a graduate student in Digital Musics, will make his debut in scoring silent film with a live, improvised laptop performance during William Wellman’s “Beggars of Life.”

While the process of composing for a silent film was different from other musical work he has done, there were still many similar elements to the creative process, Dominguez said.

“The process was more like how do I balance the effects of what I want to do as an artist and what kind of fits the film,” Dominguez said.

Dominguez created a program that allowed him to control certain sounds and elements.

“It took maybe three weeks in total to find the sounds, to implement them in a musical way, but then also to manipulate them so they’re not exact representations of sound.”

Composing for a silent film is similar to musical improvisation in jazz, or even his childhood experience in playing the drums, he said.

“The normal thing is to play whatever and then look around to see what other people are doing, hearing what other people are doing, and just communicating through your sounds,” Dominguez said. “So the reason why I choose to look at the [film] screen and react in my own way kind of relates to that same idea.”

The Pordenone Silent Film Festival was founded in 1982 by Paolo Cherchi-Usai, who is currently the George Eastman House Senior Curator. The George Eastman House is an international museum of photography and film and has a school which teaches the art of film restoration. Cherchi-Usai will introduce several of the films that are being screened this weekend.

Recognizing silent film beyond the thinking of it as perhaps an antiquated art form of film presentation is important, Cherchi-Usai said. The recent success of “The Artist” and “Hugo” has facilitated this focus, he said.

“The treasures of silent cinema will really highlight the beauty and glory and make people discover that early cinema [was] not primitive at all,” Cherchi-Usai said.

Though in silent film presentation there are two separate entities — the film medium and the musical performance — Cherchi-Usai stressed the importance of the fusion of the two and an appreciation for engaging with the dialogue of the film.

“It is an art, a physical art and an exciting art, both for the performers and for the audience,” Cherchi-Usai said. “It’s something that requires a deep knowledge of the style and aesthetics of the film being shown.”

For the festival this upcoming weekend, Cherchi-Usai has played the role of facilitator in helping all of the involved musicians understand the musical requirements for each film.

“It is a matter of taste. There are many possible ways to engage, it does not have to be traditional melodic music,” Cherchi-Usai said. “But what matters is the need to make sure that the music never loses touch with the details of the film.”

He expressed that making a silent film is often a more nuanced process than other types of filmmaking.

“[It] is difficult because how do you tell a story without the spoken word?” Cherchi-Usai said. “Making a silent film requires a great deal of discipline.”

Bob Merrill explained that what makes silent film presentation exciting is that playing live music for a film can be an ever-changing process since at each screening, the music has the potential to be played differently.

“One of the things [with silent film] is that when it’s done, it’s done,” Merrill said. “That particular audience will have a unique experience they’ll never get again.”

Merrill reflected on films he’s played the music for multiple times and repeated a similar sentiment.

“There’s no doubt I’ve played the music completely differently every time,” Merrill said.

The Pordenone Silent Film Festival is presented as part of the Hopkins Center for the Arts’ “Best in Show” series which has saluted a variety of international film festivals of 2012 and 2013.

Kate Sullivan, The Dartmouth Staff