P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958) is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.
It’s a postmodern pandemic and silent film, a century after its heyday, has never been more relevant. This is the perfect time to revisit the dawn of the cinematic age.
Film is back, especially the no-talkies! Last week Tromsø International Film Festival’s Silent Film Days (Stumfilmdager) opened for the first time since 2019 (aka 1 BC). Their startling climax was a dose of ‘new silence’ – pardon the irony! Korona (2021) is the gorgeously cacophonous work of band-turned-auteur-filmmakers Iran Mayen. They did it all – from film-footage to live score – and they captured in pictures, music, ballad, and even a soupcon of ‘spoken word,’ the flavour and the atmosphere of pandemic times here in the North.
This is the postmodern aesthetic par excellence: scramble the forms; take everything and the kitchen sink, and reassemble it into a crazy new structure, fit to shock us out of all those comfortable, modernist expectations.
The crumbling monumentalism of Jan Inge Hovig’s Alfheim swimming-pool opens the work. It’s a beautiful, empty ruin-in-waiting, soon filled to overflowing with a proper bath-full of post-rock noise. And we’re immediately swimming through space, following the futile markers of abandoned lanes, rehearsing their memory, as we carve in soundscape a grim eulogy to this symbol of times gone so suddenly by. It’s a high-tech conjuring trick, just like that first terrifying locomotive in a crowded theatre at the beginning of another century. The physical assault of live music inhabits the screen, takes us along for the ride, and carries us way up yonder to the crow’s-nest swimming-pool. This is the supposedly outworn miracle of silent film, magically refitted and revitalised for a post-Covid age.
It’s a truism to say these are strange times. A succession of lockdowns, and an impression of life put on hold, raises the increasingly urgent question of how to reactivate the contemporary world. How do we hold together an increasingly threadbare social fabric, seemingly unravelling before our eyes midst an atomising dread of contagion? It’s natural enough to turn to history in such moments, looking for lessons to be learned, from Black Death to Spanish flu, but it’s so much more than that. History grips us as never before, on a visceral, even bodily level. Cut off and strangely alienated from the immediate past, our perspective on distant times is foreshortened and the mediaeval plague-years may seem more vivid and tangible than a bustling, pre-pandemic Tromsø.
Iran Mayen underscored the point, with a montage of empty streets morphing into ghost-like dreamscapes of the half-remembered Arctic ‘party town’ they have replaced. The juxtaposition floods us like an empty swimming pool with ambivalence: the gaiety, by its dislocation, takes on the trappings of nightmare, the terror of ghosts. It’s reminiscent of those haunting scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), when the reality of a dead past ominously and unnaturally intrudes upon the present.
The ghost of what seems lost is not the whole corona-virus story, however. This is also a time of new impulses and emergent potential, of future possibilities readily enlivened by a glance over our shoulders at times gone by. Hence, Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925) flickers like wildfire – or ‘wildcat’ – across the screen with a renewed sense of urgency, reanimated in its spirit and clamour by the heaving aural backdrop provided by Kohib, Kristian Svalestad Olsta, Evgeny Popov and Ekaterina Okhaminskaya.
As the global pandemic continues to hit the poor and disadvantaged harder than anyone, an encounter with this classic tale of early 20th-century class struggle is a ‘back to the future’ moment. The unlikely musical collaboration, joining three countries in real time, is suggestive of how the foundations of solidarity might be rebuilt in the here and now, for we scatterlings of the ‘cyber age.’
Perhaps the most evocative of all Stumfilmdager’s offerings dug still deeper even than this – historically, archaeologically and, not least, cosmologically. From Italy, naturally enough, came a cinematic adaptation of the most famous – and hellish – passage of Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy (1320): Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe de Liguoro’s L’Inferno (1911). In musical attendance was Tromsø’s own Θ (Theta), apparently having made an unlikely journey of his own, direct from mediaeval cloister. In his monk’s garb and with suitable Catholic gravitas, he communed with what looked like a cello and a bank of synthesisers. The extraordinary droning, pulsating sonic onslaught he thereby summoned forth, proceeded to batter us in wave after wave, bearing us inexorably to those dreaded shores…
Italy’s very first feature returns us, lent harpy wings by this original score, not just to the Middle Ages but also to the early days of cinema. The work is redolent of the medium’s beginnings in what film theorist Tom Gunning described as a kind of ‘cinema of attractions.’ Narrative takes second place to something straight out of the traditional fairground freakshow. One amazing sight after another is presented with considerable ceremony for our morbid delectation: In this scene the monster from hell will truly be eating men alive – before our very eyes! As such the film resonates with the much deeper – at least mediaeval – roots of the form, not to mention the deepest and darkest roots of human desire.
For this is the positively ancient trope of carnival, a safe space for transgression, where the whole world can be turned on its head – if only for a day. Indeed, the opening salvos of Dante’s epic poem themselves resemble nothing if not a cinema of attractions. It just needed a few centuries for the right technology and musicianship to bring it to life.
Returning from hell, like Dante himself, on the last morning of the festival, I settled into the more familiar, comedic trappings of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Buster Keaton and Harry Lloyd like a favourite easy chair. In a time of crisis, the immortal slapstick of Arbuckle’s The Cook (1918) and Hal Roach’s Get Out and Get Under (1920) feels like a return to safe harbour.
Deceptively effortlessly, we’re released, in our mind-emptying and cleansing laughter, from all anxieties and foreboding. The notable achievements of Arbuckle, Keaton and Lloyd are a timely reminder that our human playfulness is perhaps still more timeless than our morbidity. Who can resist Arbuckle and Keaton’s impossible kitchen feats of hand-eye-coordination, soup bowls flying from urn to waiter’s hand, so knowingly and ironically fabricated by cinematic sleight of hand? Yet the sheer inventiveness of such ‘play’ is routinely underrated in favour of more ‘serious’ concerns.
Here lies the secret, I believe, of one of the most seamless and inspiring of all the musical collaborations with their silent-film silent partners: Nasra Ali Omar and Ugress never underestimated their material. Rather, they occupied it – with xylophone and synthesiser – and truly understood it. They worked with it, never against it. Covid isolation can never defeat this. You’re never alone when you’re in beautiful synergy. The very essence of this beauty found perfect expression in the children’s laughter, as it rippled around one more matinee theatre. That this can still be prompted a century later by these grandees of physical comedy! They’re as relevant as ever and as worthy as ever of such willing and able accomplices to their art.
Silent film came to us like an old friend, just when all seemed lost. We embrace it without fear and remember the common humanity that brought us together in the first place. Silent film is dead, they say… Long live silent film!