DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Wild and Weird (1902-1965/2011)

A good introduction to some of the forward-looking silent film shorts, with interesting improvised scores.

Published on March 8, 2013

Wild and Weird (1902-1965/2011)

14 innovative films with soundtracks by The Alloy Orchestra
Directors: Buster Keaton, Georges Melies, Winsor McCay etc.
Studio: Blackhawk Films/ Flicker Alley FA0021
Video: 1.33:1 B&W (some tinted)
Audio: PCM stereo
Subtitles: English
All regions
Extras: Documentary on Alloy Orchestra
Length: 140 minutes
Rating: ****

All of these films were photographed silent, except for the last one—from 1965—with a sort of jazz non-sync score. But the Alloy Orchestra, a Boston-based three-man ensemble who specialize with their array of junk percussion and other instruments in accompanying silent films, has created on-the-fly scores to go with them and recorded them along with the short films.

A wide variety of styles and types of film are seen here. The first is a hilarious (though seriously damaged) D.W. Griffith short showing what can happen ladies who were Those Awful Hats to a movie theater. There is the Melies short on the Trip to the Moon, but now that we’ve seen the hand-tinted color version recently restored, the black and white holds less interest. Some of the early silent animators found stop-motion animation of dead bugs was evidently a lucrative pastime, and there are such entries from Russia and the U.S. The Pet shows the quite sophisticated animation which Winsor McCay (famous for his Gertie the Dinosaur) could do in the very early days of the silents. Perhaps the gem of the set is a lovely print of a Buster Keaton masterpiece, The Play House. He plays all the members of a minstrel group as well as all the musicians in the pit, simultaneously, including a couple drag bits in the audience that are hilarious. I could do without the 1927 sunset of the silent film, The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra—it’s full of the cliches of avant-garde film of the period and rather boring.

A real find is Artheme Swallows His Clarinet, from an obscure French film company, Eclipse. It was put together from two quite decomposed copies but is amazingly well done for the period. The 1926 Swiss abstract film Filmstudie, by Hans Richter, seems made to order for the nondescript sounds of the Alloy Orchestra, but quickly gets on one’s nerves today. One of the ensemble’s members reads Dadaist poems on the soundtrack, but you can’t understand what he’s saying anyway, and it makes little difference. There is a documentary at the end of how the Alloy Orchestra works. And in between some of the films are hand-tinted slides such as were used in the silent movie theaters. The printed booklet includes a paragraph of description on each film and a photo of the filmmaker. If you’re never seen any early silents at all, this could be a most revealing view to you. It’s quite amazing what some of these filmmakers were doing so early in the game.

—John Sunier




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