This year’s film festival featured not just one, but two silent film festival events. I’m not sure if this year’s festival offerings were disproportionately serious in topic in general, or just my choices were not the most uplifting options. However, both silent film events were spots of – much needed – light relief and joy for this viewer. They were both very different in tone and style – from the comedy shorts of Laurel and Hardy to the feature-length ‘historical’ drama of Rob Roy.
Laurel and Hardy
I’ve always had a soft spot for Laurel and Hardy. I’ve no idea how I first ended up watching a Laurel and Hardy film, only that I loved them. (Let us never speak of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series, but it probably was the cause.) Their talkies were in pretty regular circulation on the television when I was a kid, burning Dance of the Cuckoos into our collective unconscious. (It was nostalgia watching Laurel and Hardy early one Sunday morning on BBC 2, as a teen that led me to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the first time – for years my favourite film.) But I don’t think I ever saw any of their silent films until I was an adult.
I’d developed a soft spot for German Expressionist filmmaking at uni but I didn’t really fall in love with silent film until I saw my first silent with a live musical accompaniment. It was a grey and miserable Sunday afternoon, in a large tent, in the middle of – I think – Glasgow Green, and Neil Brand was talking about – and vamping along on the piano to – a Buster Keaton film. The General if memory serves me right.
In the decade and a bit since then, I’ve seen a lot of different silent films, with a lot of different accompanists, but this was the first time since then that I’ve seen another silent accompanied by Neil Brand.
Watching Laurel and Hardy always makes me feel like a kid again, in the best way, – that giant custard pie fight sequence! – and this was no exception. There’s something so pure and simple about their humour; that means that their humour still works so perfectly and that allowed them to make the transition to sound in a way so few of their contemporaries did. The films may have been silent but I could hear their voices, clear as day, less in my head than in my heart.
Second up, was the now traditional visitor from the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival tour, with it’s specially written score. This is the second year in a row we’ve had a silent movie with a new score from multi-instrumentalist David Allison and he’s exceeded himself here. I must admit to being a bit of a purist when it comes to silent film scores, if I’m seeing them live, I tend to prefer a live improvised piano score. I find alternative scores a bit hit and miss generally, either they are amazing and an utter joy to experience (the klezmer band that accompanied Salt for Svanetia were particularly awesome), or they just don’t work at all (looking at you, Moroder). But this definitely fell into the former category. It was adventurous, charming and very different – Allison appeared to be using an iPad as a synthesiser at one point – and most importantly it played the film straight. It would have been very easy to make this film seem silly, but instead it drew the audience into the story focusing on it’s earnestness and pathos, so that we were charmed rather than amused by it’s more ridiculous moments.