[20 July 2011]
The Alloy Orchestra are stars of today’s silent era. In other words, this three-man group has accompanied many silent films on DVD and in live performance, and now their work is featured in a collection of 14 films. A picture in the booklet shows them with keyboard, accordion, clarinet, drums and their percussive “rack of junk”. From this they produce an impressively protean collage of sounds in varied styles.
The films have mostly been available on other DVDs, and in fact many are in some form on YouTube, the Internet Archive, or other sources, though not with Alloy music. For example, Buster Keaton’s The Play House (1921) is also present (with a different score) on Kino’s new three-disc collection of Keaton’s shorts, and Georges Méliès’ monumental A Trip to the Moon (1902), with desultory English narration, is naturally in Flicker Alley’s Méliès box.
Most of the films date from before 1920, and scattered throughout are vintage glass slides from the era that were projected between films. They have ads and messages, like the request for ladies to remove their hats. In fact, such is the topic of the first film, D.W. Griffith’s Those Awful Hats (1909), a trick film of the type beloved by the Surrealists. It’s set in a theatre where a film is being projected (it was printed over the image in a black space, and you can see the fluctuating seams) while various large-chapeau’d ladies cause a commotion until the surprise ending uses another trick.
Working for Thomas Edison, Edwin S. Porter made Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) from the popular comic strip by Winsor McCay. It uses a battery of tricks, including superimposition and stop-motion, to create the dream and the hero’s blurred inebriation. (Welsh rarebit was a meal with cheese and beer.) McCay himself moved into animation, and also included is his own Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend: The Pet (1921). The tale of a mysterious animal that grows huge and threatens the city anticipates King Kong and all other city monsters.
One of the set’s great highlights is the beautiful Red Spectre (1907), made in France by Segundo de Chomon. It’s one of hundreds of movies about film-trick magic acts in which people and backgrounds appear and disappear in flashes of smoke. Its special uncanniness derives from the magician’s skeleton suit, the macabre underworld setting, and the still eyepopping hand-stenciled colors. It’s a good showcase for Alloy’s spooky mode.
From England, F. Percy Smith’s The Acrobatic Fly (1908) is a series of close-ups of flies on their backs, “juggling” various objects with their feet. The excellent liner notes say Smith glued the flies; I thought they were pinned and could even make out the pin. It also says the flies quickly died under the super-hot lights. Today the ASPCA that would be on their backs.
The Thieving Hand (1908) and Princess Nicotine, or the Smoke Fairy (1909) are Vitagraph productions possibly made by J. Stuart Blackton. The latter is more superimposition trickery as tiny women gambol and cavort with a man’s matches to show the magic of smoking. The former is a delightful comedy with stop-motion effects as a man’s artificial arm proves an incorrigible pickpocket. This can be a forerunner to all movies about errant or transplanted limbs with minds of their own. Also wonderful is the French Artheme Swallows His Clarinet (1912), in which the unfortunate hero’s condition (the instrument sticks through his head like an arrow) gives plenty of opportunity for musical commentary.
Another of the set’s highlights is Ladislas Starewicz’ masterpiece of stop-motion and tinted animation from 1912 Russia, The Cameraman’s Revenge (also available on the Starewicz collection of the same title). Like Smith’s film, this too uses insects but in an infinitely more sophisticated way to tell a knockabout domestic comedy of adultery and the dangers of cinema. Starewicz is one of cinema’s grand masters and still sadly under-exposed. His French animated feature The Tale of the Fox is on DVD in France but not in Region 1, an oversight that requires correction.
All these films delighted in the possibilities of cinema and indulged in tricks and nonsense just because they could. They were calculated to appeal to a wide audience and did. By the ‘20s, avant-garde artists were exploring the limits of motion photography, also just to see what was possible but not necessarily with commercial intent. For example, Dada artist Hans Richter made Filmstudie (1926) in Switzerland. It’s a collage of shadows and geometric shapes, like an abstract painting that happens to move. There are also multiple images of a woman’s face and glass eyes, plus some images in negative. For the soundtrack, the Alloys read fragments of Dada poems by Hugo Ball; the disc’s only extra is a ten-minute look at the creation and layering of this track.
A film that played art houses was The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra (1927), an expressionistic comedy that turned out to be a sort of calling card for montage artist Slavko Vorkapich, director Robert Florey and cameraman Gregg Toland. It uses actors, street shots, cut-out shapes, miniature sets, and effects with lighting and mirrors. The extra is worked (or non-worked) to death but, in a happy ending, goes to heaven.
Leaping forward several decades, the set closes with Eliot Noyes Jr.‘s Clay, or the Origin of Species (1965), Oscar-nominated for Animated Short Subject. Various claymation creatures, real and imaginary, endlessly transform into each other in this black and white short. The Alloys replace the jazz score that previously accompanied the film.
The 140-minute program is too long and overwhelming for one sitting, but bite-size chunks should impress any cinephile, old or young.