Dr. Caligari + Moving Machines = not so Silent Film
By Daniel W. Boone
Silent films were never silent. From the early days, live music was performed to accompany the images. Sometimes written, but often improvised, the music was a complement, a completion of the film. When sound pictures became the norm, the element of live performance at the movies was largely abandoned. There was no need.
Not everyone believed sound was the best idea for the movies. The great Alfred Hitchcock thought the art of storytelling inherent in film was hampered by the necessity of recording the actors voices and background sounds. He referred to the new sound films as "photographs of people talking." Even though most of the "limitations" of sound have been long been eliminated, the potential power of the image in "silent" film remains.
Recent years have seen a resurgence in silent films accompanied by live musicans. High profile projects like Carmine Coppola’s orchestral accompaniment to Abel Gance’s Napoleon and Richard Einhorn’s shimmering Voices of Light paired with Dryer’s Passion of Joan of Arc are only two of many examples. At festivals groups like The Alloy Orchestra have performed many scores to films such as Tod Browning’s Dracula, and Paul Fejo’s Lonesome.
In 2012, the year that a silent film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, we decided it is time for a live music / silent film event in Vicksburg. On Halloween, Wednesday, October 31 the German classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari will be presented at the Strand Theatre in downtown Vicksburg with live original music by Palmer Shiers and Jeff Gough, known collectively as Moving Machines.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was filmed in 1919 and is known as the first expressionist film and maybe the first horror film. It is a psychological thriller about a mad doctor who is the keeper of a carnival attraction: a sonambulist. Suspicious activities occur during the night in the vicinity of the carnival, and the doctor and his charge are suspected. The sets of the film were all painted, and designed to emphasize tilting angles and heavy shadows in the expressionist style. The nonrealistic sets help give the film the feeling of a nightmare.
Palmer and Jeff, who have been performing together for more than a year, both play electric stringed instruments: guitar and bass, using a technique they sometimes refer to as "treated guitar." The term describes the fact that much manipulation of the sound is employed, including multiple effects pedals and sometimes distortion in an effort to create music that will evoke emotions. "I wanted to devote myself to experimental music without lyrics, because I thought I could communicate feelings better that way," Palmer Shiers said. "We feel that even with no drums or other instruments, our music has no boundaries. We can make music that is moving to the listener and to us."
When approached about the prospect of essentially creating a score for a film made over 90 years ago, Palmer was instantly intrigued and game for the challenge. "I have often thought of our music in terms of film. It’s something I have wanted to do, so I couldn’t say no."
"We watched the film and I was struck by how weird it is. I realized with such stylized sets and props, it needed music that had structure, but we wanted it to have an ambient, abstract tone. We have screened it over and over since this Spring and developed themes for the different characters. It is a dark film and we believe the images plus our music will deliver some chills.
The performance will take place at the Strand Theatre at 717 Clay Street. It will begin at 7:30 PM. Cost is $10 per person. Tickets are available in advance at Highway 61 Coffeehouse and online at: westsidetheatrefoundation.com.