Silent movies: they’re all about dastardly villains roping damsels in distress to railroad tracks, aren’t they? If that’s what you think, Bo’ness’s Hippodrome Silent Film Festival is sure to make you think again. As silent cinema expert Pamela Hutchinson pointed out in her illuminating introduction to Wednesday’s opening event, that railroad cliché was already old hat when silent movies were in their heyday. And likewise, HippFest director Alison Strauss casts her net far and wide to challenge lazy preconceptions and uncover the richness – and often the sheer oddness – of early cinema. And, most importantly, to invite inspirational musicians to accompany her provocative choice of features. This was HippFest’s seventh outing, and it just grows in confidence and depth each year.
For that opening event, HippFest regular Jane Gardner had put together a hearty, swaggering score for piano, bass, accordion and percussion to accompany 1923 gold-rush tale The Grub Stake (*****). A HippFest commission, Gardner’s new creation was broad in its references, bringing in tender Scottish folk tunes, rollicking hoe-downs and plenty more, but it was a remarkably subtle, ever-changing musical response to heroine Nell Shipman’s frontier adventures, and it matched the film’s warm-hearted romance magnificently.
For the first of Saturday’s triple-bill of movies, percussionist Frank Bockius and pianist/violinist Günter Buchwald gave an entirely improvised accompaniment to Robert Wiene’s 1924 German expressionist classic The Hands of Orlac (****), in which the delicate appendages of the eponymous concert pianist, severed in a train crash, are replaced by the gnarled claws of a murderer – or so we believe. Juggling piano keyboard and insides with a violin perched precariously under his chin, Buchwald found infinite variations on the main tune from –appropriately enough – Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, weaving in Chopin, Brahms and others in a wonderfully flamboyant, extravagant accompaniment, even if both men struggled to bring much vibrant life to the longueurs in the film’s second half.
By way of complete contrast, after Wiene’s sinister melodrama came Chinese social realism in Wu Yonggang’s 1934 The Goddess (*****), in which a Shanghai prostitute struggles to provide a happy life for her infant son despite ultimately insurmountable exploitation and prejudice. The solo-piano accompaniment from silent movie veteran John Sweeney was simply exquisite, full of nods to oriental music, as well as to Debussy and Ravel, but spinning a fragile tapestry of achingly tender melodies that were the perfect counterpart to the film’s slowly unfolding tragedy. It was sophisticated, compassionate and captivating from start to finish.
For the second of HippFest’s commissions, and Saturday’s closing film, Strauss had asked guitarist RM Hubbert to create a new score for 1926 Soviet western By the Law (***). The result was – well, just a bit bewildering. His poignant, introspective music, revolving over and over through the same tender harmonies and melodies, seemed too lush and expansive for the Jack London tale of murder and struggle for survival among Yukon gold miners – and for director Lev Kuleshov’s stuttering, jump-cutting techniques – even if Hubbert captured the movie’s sense of existential crisis. It was a bit of a miss among the hits elsewhere in HippFest, but an absorbing, thought-provoking one all the same.