Thursday, 23 January 2014

Talking silents with Neil Brand

One balmy evening in the summer of 2009, I wandered into a free outdoor screening of the first silent comedy I'd ever seen: Buster Keaton's The General, accompanied on the piano by Neil Brand. I was amused by the prospect because several hundred years ago when I was at university in a dark and damp corner of the midlands, Brand delivered a guest lecture about the music of silent films. Tragically I remembered nothing about the lecture, probably because I was a student and, in a tiresomely stereotype-conforming way, either drunk, hungover or still in bed. Sorry Neil.

Nevertheless, The General was a revelation. I felt like someone had lifted up a corner of the universe to reveal a black and white, silent landscape which offered infinite possibilities for new and fantastic film experiences. As it turned out none of them would rival The General for sheer jaw-dropping, beautifully-constructed physical comedy, but I've spent the intervening years soaking up as much of the work of Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd as I can regardless. Neil Brand, meanwhile, has spent the intervening years accompanying silent films all over the world, continuing to be one of the foremost authorities on film music, and last year presented BBC Four's tremendous The Sound Of Cinema series, so I suppose he wins.

That unsolicited and somewhat tedious insight into my past is by way of introduction to a decidedly untedious event at London's heart-burstingly gorgeous BFI, to the name of which I shall allocate an exclusive line on this blog post:

Buster’s Music: An Illustrated Talk by Neil Brand

The talk is part of the BFI's Nobel prize-worthy 'Buster Keaton and the Cinema of Today' season, and includes a screening of a newly-discovered cut of Keaton's 1922 short The Blacksmith, which features some excellent automobile destruction and a scene in which Keaton nearly gets a train driven up his bottom.

All this excitement takes place on Monday February 3rd at 8.30pm. In case for some unfathomably insane reason you haven't yet bought tickets to see the work of a genius discussed by another genius, I asked Neil Brand to explain a bit more about the evening in a transparent attempt to sell more tickets. In return for this free publicity I expect my lifetime membership to the BFI to be confirmed any minute now.

Aaaany minute now.

Hello Neil. So this thing you're doing all looks a bit good. What will the evening entail?

I'm trying to get under the skin of Keaton's personality when he's in character. When we think of archetypal Lloyd or Chaplin in character we get a good sense of their characters' backgrounds and status and what makes them tick, but not so with Keaton. The stone-faced acrobat doesn't say "vaudeville" or "1920s go-getter", is neither high nor low status, yet seems somehow to be both. The through-lines in all his films are an (eventual) ability to cope with everything that life throws at him, and a flat hat.

Yet from the earliest shorts right up to The Cameraman, we never stop to question who he actually is. To try and unravel the mystery, I'm looking at his body language, his use of props, his abilities with the set-piece scene (that fantastic wrestling match in the changing room in The Cameraman, particularly), his own sense of humour, his amazing use of speeded-up camera (when you see some of his work at the actual speed he filmed it, it makes his performance even more magical) and what kind of music his comedy generates. The audience will be very surprised at some of the results.

Is scoring for Keaton markedly different to scoring for Chaplin, Lloyd or Laurel & Hardy?

It tends to be much sparer: there's a sense that one is accompanying a dazzlingly good soloist who only needs the slightest prod to be able to stay on top of the music. He allows you to use slower, more repeated patterns and hardly ever demands a tune. He's not sentimental, and he never stays in one place for very long, so Keaton's signature, again and again, is discreet speed and deftness. It's a real challenge to come up with anything that really does him justice.

What's so great about this new print of The Blacksmith?

The Blacksmith in its original form has some slow moments - it tends not to be among most fans' favourite shorts for that reason - yet this 'new' cut has nearly five minutes of much better action, including two absolutely side-splitting gags that are as good as anything else he did at the time. It's a complete mystery why he dumped them in favour of the cut we all know, except that one of them could be thought a bit risqué: in the middle of a chase Keaton and Joe Roberts stop to watch a woman undressing. Also, thanks to John Bengtson, who has made a lifetime's study of the original locations of silent comedy, we get to see Doug Fairbanks' Robin Hood castle looming behind one of the dusty streets Keaton is haring down. That's how we know he shot the 'new' stuff first.

I expect you'll cover this on the night, but is it tricky to make the music support the comedy on screen without taking over and blowing the gags?

It really is. Accompanying comedy is about finding the hidden rhythm behind a comedy sequence and the points at which that rhythm changes. It's almost never about individual gags. It's impossible to give a Tom and Jerry-style piano accompaniment to a ninety-minute comedy feature because it would simply be too busy, too theatrical. It may hit every sound cue on screen but it would drive the audience crazy.

This is what's led me towards looking at silent comedy from the point of view of body language: it's the most important indicator of the speed the music should move, and other visual references give you indications of style, momentum, pauses and so on. It's an obvious thing to say but all we accompanists have to go on is what we're watching, and what clues we can glean from it. Over the years I've tried to say more by doing less. I still haven't managed it but the intention's there.

While I've got you, are there any plans for further programmes like The Sound Of Cinema?

I hope so. I don't know if the BBC want any more film music docs (I hope so because there's a huge amount we simply couldn't cover in the series - Europe and the UK, for instance), but I am in negotiation for a series on a different (although still musical) subject, which I hope we may get some news on fairly soon. I'll keep you posted.

Tickets for Buster’s Music: An Illustrated Talk by Neil Brand are available right here, right now. You know what to do. (Buy tickets)

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