Ancient Images

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The newest technologies of movies, such as 3-D and special digital effects, make it easy to forget that the projection of moving images began more than 100 years ago. The Detroit Film Theatre and the Michigan Theater recently transported their audiences back to the early days of cinema, with movies released before World War I.

On Thursday, October 11, 2012, the DFT launched a series of Russian films from the 1910s, in conjunction with the new Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition Fabergé: The Rise and Fall. The next night, Friday, October 12, the Michigan presented a 1912 movie about the first Queen Elizabeth.

The films were accompanied by two different kinds of musical acts who coincidentally are both based in Chicago—pianist David Drazin at the DFT, and the five-member Newberry Consort at the Michigan. It was a good chance to closely compare the different ways that a silent film is enhanced by musical accompaniment.

While listening to David, it struck me how closely the sound of a piano correlates to black and white images. The precise, dynamic enunciation of each piano note is similar to the detail that is brought out by the contrast between the black and white shades of film. And of course, the black and white keys of the piano add to the effect.

With the Newberry Consort, the effect was more atmospheric and less personal. Four viols combined to create a somber, multilayered sound whose echoes helped transport us back to the time of the first Queen Elizabeth. The fifth Consort member, a violinist, provided the kind of lyricism that David Drazin created with the piano.

Both artists used songs to sustain the mood of their accompaniment. David used a playful but still reverent version of “Silent Night” during one of the four Russian films, Christmas Eve.

The Newberry Consort’s accompaniment was a series of short songs from the Elizabethan period, often timed to be in sync with the intertitles of Queen Elizabeth. Also contributing to the Consort’s performance was vocal work by soprano Ellen Hargis, in a three-song performance before the movie began and a return performance at the end of the film.

Theatrical Touches

Whenever I research films of the silent era, I always notice the prominence of live theater during the silent movie era. There is sometimes more advertising for theaters than for movies.

New York Times, June 27, 1920

New York Times, June 27, 1920

Of course, theater pre-dates film by many hundreds of years, and still continues to be a powerful source of entertainment, often in theaters that once showed movies, like the Fox and Fisher theaters in Detroit.

But during the silent era, movies often fought for attention as they competed with the older art form. The DFT and Michigan movies from the 1910s were informative examples of how film in part grew out of the theater.

The DFT event included two live action movies, The Queen of Spades (1910) and The House in Kolomna (1913), both based on stories by Alexander Pushkin. Both of these films and Queen Elizabeth often felt like filmed stage productions, with straightforward camera setups and minimal camera movement. Queen Elizabeth was presented without dialogue intertitles, and used narrative intertitles that often seemed like display cards that someone might have walked across a stage to inform the audience about the plot of a live play.

Queen Elizabeth starred the legendary Sarah Bernhardt, late in a career that began in the 1800s, and only 10 years before her death. This might be the only glimpse that future audiences get of her acting, which was flamboyant by today’s standards, but also carried a presence and authority that showed why Bernhardt drew crowds wherever she appeared.

The DFT event also included two animated films, The Cinematographer’s Revenge (1912) and Christmas Eve (1911). They were done with the kind of skill and imagination and resourcefulness that didn’t make them feel old-fashioned. The two live action films at the DFT included cinematic touches that showed how film was breaking free from the dominant influences of older arts to forge its own identity. Those touches included special effects and quick edits between scenes.

The relative crudeness of old films often gives them a documentary effect. The images can feel like real people who are acting like characters in a movie, instead of skillful illusions of fictional personalities. But movies were still a new form of entertainment, and you might wonder about the impressions of these films on their original audiences, and imagine them being as amazed as the patrons of early cinema in the 2011 movie Hugo.

Preserving the Past

Helping audiences rediscover the wonders of silent movies is one of most important missions of the Detroit Film Theatre, Michigan Theater, and Redford Theatre. This month brings an impressive fulfillment of that mission, which started with the appearance of the Alloy Orchestra at the DFT on October 5-7. The Twilight of the Tsars Russian film series at the DFT continues on many Thursday evenings until November 29, with David Drazin appearing at all shows.

And for Halloween, there’s a double feature of horror classics with organ accompaniment. At the Michigan on October 25, Steven Ball adds dark, fearful tones to the 1920 movie Nosferatu. At the Redford on October 27, Tony O’Brien gives a mysterious musical touch to the 1927 film The Cat and the Canary.

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Copyright © 2012 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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