April 26, 2012
For a film that centers on deception and injustice, the silent film Way Down East celebrates innocence in a way that I’ve never before encountered.
Courtesy of Hamilton’s Music Department, composer and Buffalo native Philip Rothman visited campus on Saturday to oversee the second performance of his original score, which accompanies the movie. Without the music, the acting and production is still very well done—but Rothman’s music complements what’s going on visually and (to no exaggeration) totally transforms it.
The result is a charming and piquant fragility, a tender darkness, a manifesto against cruelty and misogynism. The music makes all of these feelings so much more prominent and real, even though the musicians needed to listen to a click track during the performance so as to keep in perfect alignment with what’s happening in the film. Additionally, the music compensates for the lack of words by replacing them with subtle sounds. This is the kind of event that a) Hamilton should host more often and b) more students should attend. Why? Because it embodies exactly what a liberal arts education asks you to do: see things differently.
When I interviewed him last week, Rothman noted the interdisciplinary aspect of his project, which he first put on last October at the Syracuse International Film Festival. But it wasn’t just the connection between the film and the music that made this experience really special—it was really the way such an innovative art form can accentuate emotions and relationships between characters.
Way Down East, directed by D. W. Griffith in 1920, traces a naïve country girl’s struggle to recover from a sham marriage. Anna Moore, the protagonist, is played by Lillian Gish, one of the most respected actresses of that era. Rothman’s score comments on the ethical issues in the tale—but extremely delicately. The mood is not overt, and if it is, it’s because some visual cue at the right moment signals the “right” way to interpret the sound. For everything to progress smoothly, the musicians in this kind of a performance have to be technical in their mind set and also on top of their game mentally, even if it may seem like the music is just blindly following and reacting to the screen.
“Because the click track is so precise, one small variation compounded over several minutes and seconds is going to lead you to a completely different place,” Rothman said. “It’s really important for things to be exactly on, to the frame.”
That’s how audiences would have experienced films in those days—they couldn’t rely on sound editing techniques or digital recordings. So in bringing this version of Way Down East to Wellin this past weekend, we were actually going back in time to an age when people perceived art radically differently. I was absolutely enthralled by how this panned out; the film was longer than I expected, but it felt like eating an incredibly rich gourmet meal… or completing a wonderfully dense novel. Despite having a rather predictable plot line, the music and the film itself were both viscerally and emotionally satisfying.
The point of this article is not to review the film but, instead, to point out an example of an interdisciplinary and creative endeavor. I felt incredibly enriched by the experience, and I think Hamilton should be extremely proud to have hosted such a fascinating screening that brought together various departments as well as community members. It says a lot about how the faculty wishes to complement students’ class work with cool and relevant (The Artist, anyone?) events.