by Dustin Luke Nelson
Discussed in this article:
Easy Street (Charles Chaplin) 1917, 19 min.
One A.M. (Charles Chaplin) 1916, 34 min.
Cops (Buster Keaton) 1922, 18 min.
To focus on the aural aspects of a silent film, one must accept the composition as an element beyond the constraints of a score to a modern film. It necessarily occupies an odd space within the mise en scène of the film. It’s superfluous. The film will exist in essentially the same format with or without the music. In fact, for the most part, film scores to films of the silent era are collaborations beyond the will of the filmmaker. They were created with the intention of there not being a set score to the images. Thus a successful score, within this context, must do one of two things to be successful. It can play off of the moment-by-moment intentions of the filmmaker, i.e., bringing a passionate intensity to the evocative faces in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc or punching along with every act of physical comedy in a film like Max Linder’s Seven Years of Bad Luck. The other option is to find the film’s thematic heart and create a piece that does move with the superficial emotions of the film but plays up the subtext, creates an atmosphere within which the film can take on new meaning.
Successful examples of both types of scores were presented at The New York Guitar Festival’s yearly installment of silent films scored by guitar music. The festival’s focus, this year, was the films of Charles Chaplin. On January 21st the festival presented an evening of film music by Steve Kimock, scoring Buster Keaton’s Cops, and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Chris Rosneau’s (Collections of Colonies of Bees) scores for Charles Chaplin’s Mutual shorts Easy Street and One A.M.
Chaplin’s 1917 classic Easy Street was the big success of the evening. The film is only 20 minutes in length, but it remains, arguably, next to The Great Dictator as one of Chaplin’s most striking and representative works, showcasing the sort of populism and political consciousness that made Chaplin a fascinating figure. In it Chaplin is The Derelict (not The Tramp), a street bum who takes a job as a policeman on Easy Street, a rough-and-tumble neighborhood where cops are less than welcome and don’t last very long.
What’s fascinating about Easy Street is not the signature style of physical comedy but the dark political message that pervades the film. Chaos reigns on Easy Street, the cops are scared to enforce the law, it depicts marital abuse, theft, and street violence in a fashion that is largely atypical for comedies of this era – or American films at large during this period. Chaplin portrays how the approach to the problems in the streets is just the wrong method from top to bottom. The cops are looking for temporary enforcement and to jail the “criminals” in the streets, whereas Chaplin, ultimately, brings a sort of complete political reform to the neighborhood (mostly by accident in comedic sequences, but it is done nonetheless).
Vernon and Rosneau’s score was, initially, an odd choice. Juxtaposed next to Steve Kimock’s chromatic, improvisational punch-up-the-humor score of Keaton’s Cops, it was more than surprising. It is a refreshing look at the type of film that is really the foundation for Chaplin’s legacy. The surprise ultimately fades, and you wonder what else would have expected from such a dark comedy. And what else would two-sixths [sic] of Volcano Choir compose but a richly textured, ethereal wonderland?
The score is somber, glacial, muted. It is devoid of the sort of syncopated structures that befall most silent film scores There are no slide-whistles, no hits to accompany Chaplin’s spills. Instead, the thickly layered atmospheric arrangements reacted to the film’s subtext, its politics and melodrama. And that is an incredible thing. Vernon and Rosneau have created a soundtrack that illuminates Chaplin’s genius. His Little Tramp (or, here, The Derelict) was a subversive character that didn’t mind giving crowds exactly what they wanted while simultaneously making a complicated subtext. Instead of creating a crescendo as an emotive cue when The Bully (Eric Campbell) escapes from jail and returns home to attack his wife as though it’s a plot for physical comedy, the score instead creates an atmosphere where you wonder how long the cops have allowed this take place and whether or not The Derelict will return to rectify the situation. In their hands this is not a chase scene, but an act of dramatic significance.
As The Derelict makes the streets safer and the residents of Easy Street walk to church together, and as The Bully walks arm and arm with his wife, taking special care to make sure he is walking on the side of the sidewalk, the film has never been more clear than with this beautiful score and Chaplin standing under a sign marked The New Mission.
The success of Easy Street was made to seem an even more incredible feat as Vernon and Rosneau scored their second film, Chaplin’s One A.M., in which a drunken Chaplin arrives home in the middle of the night and attempts to find his bed for 34 minutes. The subversion that marks Chaplin’s best works is completely missing here as Chaplin does a solo show (outside of a cab driver in the opening minutes, Chaplin is the only actor in the film). The film, aside from the technically impressive performance, is not Chaplin’s best work. As such, the ethereal score, here, often felt awkward and ill fitting despite it’s independent beauty.
Next to the preceding score, this composition felt meandering in context. As if it were searching for the subtext that it was able to counterpoint so beautifully in Easy Street. The One A.M. score is more diverse, (relatively) more raucous, and was generally a beautiful piece of music. Yet, between the film being somewhat sub-par and the grave tone of the music not having anything to thematically grab onto, it felt as though two separate performances were taking place: A comedic film in which a man shows you just about every way he can think to fall, and a post-classical, effects-laden instrumental of serious verisimilitude.
The oddness of this combination was thrown into even further contrast by the opening film, Buster Keaton’s Cops, a film that shares much in common with One A.M. (despite the direct connection of focusing on policemen with Easy Street). The film is largely out for big laughs, and big laughs only. The difference here is that Keaton’s performance is nothing short of brilliance. The jokes, the choreography, all reveal Keaton at his absolute peak. (Full disclosure: I’ll take Keaton any day over Chaplin.) Guitarist Steve Kimock and his drummer son performed a loosely improvised score that played up every fall, every gag, and did so without crossing the line into camp. The frequently chromatic score (something Kimock thought was a sort of in-joke for the musicians in the house) was not surprising or evocative in the same way that Vernon’s was, but it had the ability to execute something closer to what you might expect from this festival with superb accuracy and a fair amount of subtlety. The score couldn’t have been more apt to play up one of Keaton’s funniest shorts.
But these scores, though they appear like an odd pairing, were, perhaps, craftily chosen to showcase the ability of music to interact with film and change perception. And if anything else, these scores have added an important note to the never-ending case of Chaplin vs. Keaton. Vernon’s score illuminated the abject sadness and political exasperation that pervades Chaplin’s work in ways that The Great Stone Face could only do through a lack of expression.
Watch a mid film chase sequence from Charles Chaplin’s Easy Street, which has a dramatically different soundtrack than the one discussed here. This is a little closer to what would happen if Steve Riech scored this, but lost all minimalistic aesthetic sense (read: it’s a little cheesy).
Watch the opening sequences of Charles Chaplin’s One A.M.
Watch the opening sequences of Buster Keaton’s Cops