En avant la musiqueBefore American and European motion pictures took over Brazilian movie screens in 1911, domestic cinema was enjoying a bela época. Dominated by actualités and newsreels as most early cinemas were, Brazilian cinema also produced the popular genre of filmes cantantes, which un-spooled to the sounds of singers, musicians, and actors stashed behind the screen. Their performances, varying from attempts at synchronisation to running commentaries, reached the audience via wooden or paper tubes in the shapes of funnels or horns. Paz e Amor, a 1910 filme cantante that parodied the shenanigans of a contemporary Rio de Janeiro politician, showed an estimated 10,000 times. Pierrot e Colombina, based on the eponymous waltz, and A Caipirinha, which screened with an orchestra and chorus, are reportedly two of the last filmes cantantes made. Sadly, none survive today. Endowed with such a rich history but with not much left to show for it, Brazil’s premier institution for film preservation, the Cinemateca Brasileira, gamely hosted its third annual Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso, which took place in São Paulo over ten days in August.

Perhaps inspired by a past that is no longer accessible, the music curator Livio Tragtenberg and film curator Carlos Roberto de Souza invited composers, musicians, singers, DJs, actors and comedians to compose and perform scores, or what in some cases might best be called soundscapes, for the heavily Francophile program of films. Comedian Carlos Careqa sampled recordings of Karl Adrien Wettech playing the squeezebox, the piano and other instruments for Son premier film (1926), the first film starring Wettech’s stage persona, Grock the clown. A group of sound editors led by Miriam Biderman created a live soundtrack out of sampled music, Foley, and other sound effects for Edouard-Émile Violet’s creepy La Main (The Hand, 1920) and Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset’s Balaoo (Balaoo, the Demon Baboon, 1913), about a monkey trained to kill. The Unholy Quartet, which boasted an accordion and a musical saw, played for L’Arpète (The Seamstress, 1929), a charming comeuppance tale centered around a plucky fashion designer. A Brazilian friction drum, the cuíca, was subtly employed in service of another malevolent primate in Alfred Machin’s Le Manoir de la peur (1927). For a documentary about explorers in the Amazon, singer Marlui Miranda performed in Tupi, a native Brazilian language.

Tragtenberg, himself a musician and founder of the Blind Sound Orchestra, told me that the guiding principle for this year’s accompaniment was the human voice, and he encouraged the incorporation of poetry, history, or anthropology in the performances, in order “to make a kind of parallel narration, sometimes explaining, sometimes criticising.” Filmes cantantes redux. No funnel-shaped tubes protruded from behind the screen. These musicians and performers were in full view, sharing the stage with the films.

The Dangers of Mickey-Mousing

Today, when we see silent films, it is a special occasion. An overtired local pianist tripped up by rough reel changes and distracted by unruly audiences simply won’t do. Funded by Instituto Cervantes, Spanish jazz pianist Jordi Sabatés created pastiche scores for fourteen trick films by the pioneering filmmaker Segundo de Chomón, including Le Roi des dollars (1905), Création de la serpentine (1908), Métamorphoses (1912), El Hotel eléctrico (1908), Les Oeufs de Pâques (1907), Le Spectre rouge (1907), Les Ombres chinoises (1908), En avant la musique (1908, pictured above) and Symphonie bizarre (1909). Bold crescendos and jazz riffs on standard silent-film music motifs whisked us through the delightful tinted parade of skeleton-suited devil men, hotel rooms furnished with inexplicably self-rearranging chairs, and dancing musical notes.

At a panel during the Jornada, Sabatés, who has composed for films such as the 2003 documentary Bola de Nieve about Cuban musician Ignácio Villa, said that music should be “integrated” with the images. At the same time, he discouraged the temptation to “mickey-mouse”, synchronise sound effects to onscreen action, a technique codified in Disney cartoons. The music is there, Sabatés said, “ to complement the narrative.”

The team of performers on stage with El Húsar de la muerte (1925) attempted a kind of mickey-mousing for the 60-minute film about Chilean revolutionary Manuel Rodriguez and sole offering in the Window on Latin America program. One performer read a translation of the Spanish intertitles into Portuguese. Another sang opera. Another manning a laptop released pre-recorded riffs of Andean panpipes or La Habañera. Still another seemed solely in charge of horse hooves – he was very busy indeed. Unfortunately, on several occasions when the sound needed to be spot on for dramatic or comic effect, it fell short.

In one climactic scene, Rodriquez is shot defending a loyal bugle boy we have come to love, but the musical pathos came too late – we were still hearing galloping – ruining this moment and the next until the performers could catch up. Absent horses, the sound sometimes achieved a nice harmony with the film. In one scene, natural enemies of the revolution congregate in an upper-class salon, the ladies sighing, the men intoning, courtly music plinking, while the camera surveyed the decadence. In another scene, a peasant boy’s reveries about becoming the bugler for the revolutionary forces are cut short when his mother douses him with a bucket of water. We were simultaneously doused, with the sound effect. Perfect timing is everything when mickey-mousing.

The Revisionist Score

Viagem ao RoroimãSilent-era films can be offensively anachronistic, sexist and racist. Could a modern-day presentation of The Birth of a Nation include a score with rousing crescendos played while victorious white supremacists thunder across the screen? I remember Jon Jang’s live score for the 1929 British film Piccadilly (d. Ewald André Dupont), which starred Anna May Wong as Shosho, a Chinese dishwasher turned nightclub star. Jang carefully integrated both white mainstream Jazz Age culture and the immigrant Chinese perspective into his music, all the while honouring the pacing and action of the film.

For the program, In Search of Brazil: The Silent Amazon, two performances found elegant solutions to similar challenges. The River of Doubt (1914) is Luiz Thomaz Reis’s documentary of the joint Theodore Roosevelt and Cândido Rondon expedition to chart a river missing from the maps of the Amazon region. In it, Roosevelt is seen at official ceremonies with various Brazilian dignitaries. Later, he is photographed showing off a crocodile he had killed. When the explorers and their servants enter the jungle, the film becomes a record of portages, the carrying of supplies in and out of canoes around the un-navigable parts of the river.

On stage, Marlui Miranda narrated the documentary in the native Brazilian language of Tupi, while synthesised indigenous music samples from the Jack DeJohnette and John Surman album The Ripple Effect: Hybrid played in the background. As an audience member, I had no idea what was being said. I could make out references to “Teodoro” and “Rondônia”, the state through which the now renamed Rio Teodoro runs, but that was about it. Even still, the performance was riveting, evocative of a culture that was invisible in the film.

A singer and composer who taught herself Tupi, Miranda has contributed to the soundtracks for several documentaries and for Hector Babenco’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1992). After the Jornada, Miranda and I talked about her performance, and she confessed that when she first watched the documentary she was stumped: “Oh my god, what am I going to do with this film?” Miranda believes the native Brazilians would have been outraged at Roosevelt’s posing with his dead crocodile, as the Tupi she knows consider these creatures as relatives.

Not wanting to be unpleasant, Miranda imagined herself as a Tupi woman, trying to understand what these white people were up to. As a marginalised character herself, she found camaraderie with the Tupi who were at the time excluded from the film. Then, she translated the 35 intertitles. She couldn’t find a translation for Rondon’s army rank of marshal, instead she chose the Tupi word for “chief”. For the name of the river, she chose something best understood as “flowing big water”. “Library” became “beautiful house of knowledge”. Using the translation plus the history of the expedition and her own knowledge of indigenous Amazon cultures, she improvised a narration, timed to the film. While the translation was mystifying to most members of the audience, it served as a reminder that only half the story was being told onscreen.

Viagem ao RoroimãMusicians Carlinhos Antunes and Simone Son took a similar revisionist approach with their instrumental score for Parimã, fronteiras do Brasil and Viagem ao Roroimã, two 1927 documentaries also made by Reis. Starting with the belief that best music for cinema doesn’t draw attention to itself, they also wanted the audience to feel an impact from the music. They compiled samples of native Brazilian rituals and chants, including from an album of Bororo funeral rights made in the 1980s as well as birdsong and frog noises that Son had recorded in the Amazon. In addition, they collected “unconventional timbres” among their own archive of sounds: the berimbau, gongs, the West African balafon, the moringa (a clay pot), a glockenspiel, the cuatro (a four-stringed guitar), a kora (21-stringed lute). During the performance, the stage itself was littered with so many instruments that I wondered how two people were going to play them all. Curious as I was to watch them, after awhile I forgot about the musicians, my eyes affixed to the screen, my mind transported to the rain forest.

The Sound of Actual Silence

Etudes sur ParisThe big crowd-pleaser this year was Études sur Paris, André Sauvage’s 1928 ode to the City of Lights, accompanied by the Symphony Orchestra of the State of São Paulo. Expressly commissioned by the Jornada, José Antonio Almeida Prado’s amazing pastiche score, with strains of Debussy and Edith Piaf’s Plaisir d’amour, glided us through the film that began on the working barges of the Seine and took us high over the spires of Notre Dame. Orchestral accompaniment, its volume purely acoustic, is glorious, but it can also be showy. This orchestra was positioned on stage, rather than in its pit, and the rows and rows of music-stand lights diffused the film’s black and white images. The commanding violins, the distinctive grand piano, the harp, tubas, an oboe, the occasional percussive boom, and the gesticulating conductor were too great a temptation, and, many times, I found myself watching them rather than the movie.

Live sound is also a distraction when it goes terribly wrong. For Sam Taylor’s Exit Smiling (1926), Pascoal da Conceição, founder of the comedy theatre troupe Grupo Dragão 7, was scheduled to read the Portuguese translation of the intertitles. A DJ, armed with a laptop full of sampled sounds, was also on stage. Conceição entered the auditorium just as the charming comedy about Violet, the wardrobe girl who’d rather be a leading lady, began. Hopping on stage and calling for the projectionist to stop rolling, he launched into a routine that included swine flu jokes and exhortations to go ahead and answer ringing cell phones. After about five minutes, I left, ducking into an adjacent auditorium, where all the films played to silence. (The next day I was told that Conceição had set out to disrupt the screening and, by the end of the movie, had stripped naked.)

Safely ensconced with 74 Lumière Brothers actualités, I watched life quietly unfold on street corners in Paris, New York and other distant lands. Unperturbed by disgruntled comedians, I allowed my mind to wander. In one short, the cameraman’s arm appears from behind the lens, urging the pedestrians to walk faster. One passing woman looks boldly at the camera, at us, and I try to read her split-second expression: “This is our street, mister. We cross it however we want.” In another minute, men wore fezzes. One of them walked right up past the lens to talk to the cameraman. Did he want to know what that contraption was, or was he making sure he understood his stage directions? In another segment, I marvelled at how usual the moustache used to be.

SalamboThereafter, I opted for silence on many occasions. Watching Belgian director Alfred Machin’s beautifully tinted Maudité soit la guerre, made in 1914, I thought of his vision, equal parts optimism and resignation, living on a continent about to enter the Great War. The films of the short-lived socialist French cinema cooperative Cinéma du Peuple demonstrated a similar optimism that movies could change the world. Salammbô (1925), adapted from the Gustave Flaubert novel set in Carthage between the Punic Wars, screened with a kind of “making of” short that showed extras and crew members mugging for the camera and playing jokes on each other. Watching the stodgy feature that followed, I sympathised with Jean Epstein when he complained in 1921 that French films were nothing more than “albums of poses and catalogues of décor.”

I began to think about the avant-garde that had rescued cinema from the proscenium, experimenting with a subjective camera, blurred images, rapid-editing, multiple superimpositions, and fractured storylines. I thought about the kind of bold experimentation that gives us the rich and varied cinematic heritage we have today. I then thought about all the pianists, horn blowers, opera singers, bassoon-voiced comedians, fearless samplers, percussion players, and musical-saw maestros on the festival schedule experimenting with sound, challenging me to see these old films in a new way, daring me to open my ears. I took out my festival calendar to pick my next film, this time with accompaniment.

Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso
7-16 August, 2009
Festival website: http://www.cinemateca.gov.br/jornada/index.php

About The Author

Shari Kizirian is a freelance editor and writer based in Rio de Janeiro. She co-edits the program book for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.