Film review: Hippodrome Festival Of Silent Cinema, Bo’ness

Moishe's Bagel provided a great new score for the Soviet-era film Salt for Svanetia. Picture: Michael Gillen
Moishe's Bagel provided a great new score for the Soviet-era film Salt for Svanetia. Picture: Michael Gillen
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It’s the sheer ambition of Bo’ness’s Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema that marks it out as one of Scotland’s true gems. Not only in festival director Alison Strauss’s engaging choice of movies – often provocative works from the (sometimes) distant past that gleefully challenge any damsel-tied-to-a-railway-track clichés – but also in the festival’s musical richness, with contributions from silent movie aficionados and first-timers alike, who offer either authentically historical or startlingly contemporary spins on the screen action. The results can be a revelation – especially in the apt setting of the town’s intimate 1911 Hippodrome cinema.

Hippodrome Festival Of Silent Cinema - Bo’ness

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Take Saturday afternoon’s Piccadilly, with music from respected silent movie accompanist Stephen Horne on piano, flute, accordion, thumb piano, Tibetan prayer bowls and various other implements – creating a delicate yet emotionally charged sonic counterpart to the 1929 thriller set in jazz-age London and starring the mesmerising Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. Horne choreographed his eclectic musical tapestry remarkably precisely against the on-screen images – darting from a jazz orchestra tuning up to a glittering Charleston to a strange, almost dreamlike musical backdrop for Wong’s pivotal Chinese dance sequence. What held it all together was his remarkably vivid musical imagination, which blended strummed piano strings with keening accordion to beguiling effect.

Later that day, Bo’ness Station was transformed into a surprisingly effective pop-up film space, with big screen perched precariously on the tracks and audience gazing out from the platform, for a duo of railway-themed movies. After Scottish actor Andy Cannon had provided a McGonagall-inspired commentary to an 1897 film celebrating the new Tay Bridge, revered silent film pianist Neil Brand gave a thoroughly entertaining accompaniment to Harold Lloyd’s railway-set 1921 comedy Now or Never, matching the film’s breathless visual gags with equally madcap music.

Brand had earlier joined film critic Mark Kermode’s band The Dodge Brothers for a quintet accompaniment – made up entirely on the spot, Kermode assured us – to grimy 1916 Western Hell’s Hinges, starring the charismatic William S Hart. Sliding effortlessly between Gospel hymns and gritty blues, it told the film’s tale of a gone-bad preacher arriving in a lawless frontier town with thoughtfulness and power, generating an extraordinary musical intensity by the film’s cataclysmic inferno of an ending.

Most impressive of all, though, was a brand new score for 1930 Soviet propaganda documentary Salt for Svanetia from Scottish klezmer/Balkan jazz quintet Moishe’s Bagel, commissioned by the festival and premiered on Saturday night. With its quirky rhythms and off-kilter harmonies, the music was a striking, Prokofiev-meets-Nyman counterpart to the bizarre images in Mikhail Kalatozov’s remarkable film. But running through the music were a vibrant, Eastern-tinged lyricism and nobility that seemed intent on celebrating the archaic traditions of the remote Georgian community that Kalatozov’s film pitied.

Sometimes fragile – memorably in a spiky piece accompanying goats being dragged across a rope bridge spanning a rampaging river – and sometimes brutal, Moishe’s Bagel’s score was unafraid to challenge the visuals’ often blunt messages, and it proved even more potent as a result.

It was a powerful reminder, too, of the festival’s role in resurrecting and reappraising these rich visual documents from the past – and providing such a captivating visual and aural experience in the process.

Seen 21.03.15. Run ended 22.03.15