The Last Day

Some more writings on Hippfest will doubtless follow, but for now I will observe that no day that begins with Laurel & Hardy and ends with Anthony Asquith’s SHOOTING STARS is likely to be anything less than marvelous. We skipped the Chinese film, the Ukrainian egg-decorating workshop, and the “Platform Reels” at the Railway Museum, but still consumed quite a fulsome day’s viewing, with not only ANGORA LOVE and BACON GRABBERS and the Asquith, but Swedish comedy HIS MAJESTY, THE BARBER, previously enjoyed via lifestream from Pordenone.

The last two films gave us the chance to compare the accompanying style of John Sweeney and Stephen Horne. The multi-instrumental Horne was playing to a showy film, the twenty-five-year-old Asquith’s showpiece/showcase/showboat, and so flamboyance was not only permissible but demanded. The switches from piano to accordion and flute, and startling moments when two played at once, never pulled one out of the film, but occasionally encouraged one to view it from a kind of high angle. It worked beautifully.

John Sweeney tends to disappear into the film he’s playing for. You’ll never be aware of him in an obtrusive way, and you might forget he’s there. But, particularly in the case of HIS MAJ, the elegance and tact of the approach was a perfect match for the comedy of gesture and attitude.

I can’t decide between the two approaches, and anyway I don’t have to.

We also had a great chat with Meg Morley and Frank Bockius, who played for the L&H double bill and had accompanied THE MAN WHO LAUGHS the night before. The difficulties of the somewhat illogical construction of Paul Leni’s epic were raised, and this led on to the question of perhaps the ultimate silent movie bogeyman, and the question, How WOULD you produce live music for THE BIRTH OF A NATION?

I could say confidently that a justifiable approach would be period-authentic, giving the film the Wagnerian sweep Griffith wanted for it, and trusting the audience to resist being altogether seduced. I think what’s interesting about he film is (a) it’s vile and (b) it’s exciting blood-and-thunder melodrama. So letting it be both, and letting it condemn itself, seems fair. But if it were me — if, as in a dream, I suddenly acquired musical prowess and were ordered to sit at the upright and play along with Griffith’s toxic vision, I doubt if I could do it.

I might be just able to pound out The Ride of the Valkyries for the climax. I would fall stubbornly silent when Griffith is lampooning the Black members of the South Carolina legislature, my fingers stiffened into immobile sentinels at the gates of all that is decent.

Fortunately recorded scores exist. Let them stand. Don’t ask anyone else to musically incriminate themselves.


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