When Music Kills the Mood

Last October my wife and I had an awful experience with a silent film, a modern score and an idiot emcee. It was, to date, our only bad experience at the AFI. The AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, MD is a place we visit often to take in classic Hollywood and world cinema and whenever I mention it here, it's usually glowing. But this time, we took in Nosferatu the night before Halloween and things didn't go as well. We had avoided it in the past (it plays every year) because it felt like one of those rare AFI events that pulls in the dilettantes, the folks who aren't really classic movie lovers but think seeing what they perceive as an old creaky silent with a counter-intuitive modern score will fill all kinds of awesome ironic longings in their cold, smug souls.

And we were right. That's exactly how it felt.

We felt surrounded by people who didn't know the first goddamn thing about F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu, Max Schreck or silent films period. I'm not saying that is who we were surrounded by, just that it felt that way. I'm sure there were many classic film lovers there, like my wife and I, feeling the same thing we were, which was, to wit, "Who are all these interlopers?" Kind of like on St. Patrick's Day or New Year's Eve when all the amateurs come out to throw up on the bar floor and the real drinkers stay home or on Christmas and Easter when all those parishioners who didn't bother to show up on any other Sunday of the year suddenly pack the house.

"This movie's so fabulously dated! I so want a t-shirt of the bald guy!"

Then came the emcee, a local dee-jay whose name I can't remember and even if I did I wouldn't mention it here because why embarrass the guy, right? See, the thing is, he didn't know anything about silent film. Nothing. He got up on the stage in his Dracula cape and, frankly, before he even opened his mouth I felt like punching him. Then, when he opened his mouth, thoughts of punching him quickly gave way to, "How can I kill him in front of all these people and somehow make it look like the self-satisfied hipster couple in front of me did it and, hey, maybe I could figure out a way to make them die too as a bonus."

Seriously, here's what he does: He takes the emaciated, skeletal sliver of knowledge on Murnau and Nosferatu he culled from Wikipedia five minutes before going onstage and tries to turn it into some kind of Richard Pryor-esque shtick. He starts giving us details in stand-up format, like this: "Oh, so Murnau is all like 'oh no you didn't! I know you're not trying to sue me, woman! [referring to Bram Stoker's widow] and so F.W.'s all like, 'Take my movie? I'm gonna slide a copy of this film under my bed, uh-huh!" So, you can probably understand the homicidal thoughts I was having more clearly now, right?

Once the movie started, it got worse. The music took over. The movie? Oh, it was there, somewhere, struggling to compete with the ear-shattering percussion and endlessly clever found objects used as instruments that made you go, "Why that's a clever use of a wrench. I wonder how they... hey, wait a minute! I'm supposed to be focusing on the movie!"

To make matters worse, my lovely wife has less tolerance for this kind of malarkey than I do and when Count Orlock is making his way up the steps in what should be a very chilling and creepy scene and the "orchestra" is bombarding the audience with a full-on percussive assault using the kind of drum fills more appropriate for a battle sequence or John Bonham solo, I can sense her sitting next to me, steaming. I can sense it because, well, she is.

"I'm at the top of the stairs now. Cue the cannons."

In a way, though, I kind of have to hand it to the "orchestra" (sorry, I can't seem to type that word without the scare quotes) for some kind of dubious achievement in that I really can't imagine anyone else doing a better job of producing the opposite mood of what was on the screen than they did. To do so would require playing "Have you Never been Mellow" during the rape scene in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and who wants to go there?

When it was over, the lights came up and the audience erupted in thunderous applause. The couple in front of us couldn't contain themselves and started shouting, "Bravo!" and "Encore!" and "Sundance Movie Channel!" Okay, maybe not the last one. Anyway, I briefly contemplated pushing them over until Dracula took the stage again and my wife shouted, "Run!" We got the hell out of there as fast as we could. One more second of shtick from that moron and the evening would've ended with my best impersonation of the theatre climax in Inglourious Basterds with that mother fucker standing in for Hitler.

Afterwards, I thought on the experience long and hard. See, I have no problem with modern music for old films or modern music in new films that take place in the past. I've used modern music myself for montages of classic film and a film like Chariots of Fire takes place in 1924 but has a score entirely recorded on synthesizer. No problem.

My problem wasn't that it was modern music, nor was it that it didn't entirely fit. My problem was that it felt like it wasn't supposed to entirely fit. It felt like it was supposed to stick out, so you'd remember the score more than the movie. The composers weren't interested in complementing the movie, they were interested in impressing the audience with their skills and talents and endless cleverness. And that really bugged me.

Nosferatu is a great work and would have been infinitely more effective had we watched it silently, as in truly silent with no sound or music at all. I've watched it that way before. In fact, I've watched a few silent movies that way, actually. I've turned down the music on many a silent film just to watch it in silence. It's a wonderful experience and with the best silent films, can really become hypnotic.

"Wasn't the score ironic?" "Mmm-hmmm." "We should make it our ringtone."

But the point is, the music took center stage, not the movie. Last year, when I saw Upstream at The National Archives, it had a beautifully fitting piano and violin score composed for it. Some found objects were used too for sound effects but they never detracted from the film and Upstream is several rungs down the ladder from Nosferatu, with or without John Ford at the helm. Afterwards, the audience asked questions and one of them was for the pianist composer himself. He was asked what he thought about certain modern "orchestras" musical accompaniment to silent films and he said he admired their talents but they were more concerned with their scores than the movie and when you're scoring a movie, the movie comes first. The audience applauded. This was before my AFI experience (though I wrote it up afterwards in November) so I clapped out of appreciation for the idea rather than because of actual firsthand knowledge. After seeing Nosferatu, I immediately flashed back to that, though, and thought, "Damn straight."

Modern music for an old movie or a period piece is not a problem. It's become kind of a fad in recent years, in fact. The problem is music that doesn't fit the mood, or the point of a scene. It's a problem that happens from time to time with even the best of movies and exploring music in film is something I'd like to do more of here at Cinema Styles. Exploring how it fails can be just as instructive as when it succeeds. For now, I'm content to avoid any modern scoring of silent films for a little while longer until I get the bad taste out of my mouth. Of course, I'll go back to others but I think the AFI's annual Nosferatu showing and me are done. I ignored my instincts and it bit me in the ass. Lesson learned.