Silent? No, Not Really. Notes On My First ISFF Attendance

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Not perfect, but okay: Japan

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At the 12th International Silent Film Festival held in SM Megamall last September 1, at the Q & A section, after the screening of Yazujiro Ozu’s 1929 film The Straightforward Boy, I kept to myself my disagreement with writer Sylvia Mayuga’s rave. She praised the pairing of Tito Valiente as benshi master (impassioned narrator, live dubber) and Tanikala, the musicians who accompanied the film. Sylvia said that the collaboration was perfect. She even suggested that more of similar performances should be held by the group in and out of the country.

When she asked Tanikala about how their creative process went before the actual performance, the hip-looking individuals that comprised the band said that they did a lot of trial and error with music combinations before their final set. They also said that they put in mind the need to play secondary to the images, and that they ensured pauses for those ‘pregnant silences.’ Tito Valiente meanwhile shared that he principally relied on a script provided by a benshi master from Japan. He inserted pinoy expressions ocassionally, which elicited a few laughs from the viewers. Before the screening, he narrated how he became the first benshi master in the country.

It was a first for me and for most of the audience, but if I were to comment, I would have wanted a script with sparser dialogue and annotation. Each time something happened on the screen, like the breaking of jars of sake wine, it was described when the image was enough.

I also did not notice the pauses and pregnant silences that the band said they considered. They must have enjoyed the jam too much they forgot about them. They played a mix of blues, jazz, and boogie improvisations, exactly what they said. That and Tito’s voice-overs alerted the crowd for about 30-minute duration of the screening.

I maintain that the performance was far from perfect. Sometimes Tito would read the dialogues a few seconds ahead of the action or image. A note-punctuation after a trill would have been enough to accompany one of the boy’s or the kidnapper’s facial expressions–without the unnecessary descriptions. For an Ozu short, the score and dialogues felt nonstop for extended periods and overpowered the images at certain points.

Probably because the scenes happened quickly that there was this overall energy to rush things up? The speed was very atypical of what I know Ozu is notoriously celebrated for.

The Perfect One: German

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The pair before this short feature though was made in heaven. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Kontra-Gapi was a match miraculously hot and cool. Kontra-Gapi’s dynamics were perfect. The musicians slowed down or sped up their gongs, kubings, flute and other instruments appropriately, depending on the diffent scenes and motions. The volume of their music increased during the crowd and circus-fair scenes, while an instrument created a sound effect–a creepy, spirally, echoey bird cry or an insect’s scurrying, particularly when the somnambulist ‘Cesare’ inched in towards his next victim. The pauses were there, giving the crowd breathing spaces, in anticipation of a simple, textured but nevertheless breathtaking arrangement. It was a cohesive score, with a ethno-tribal imprint.

Kontra-Gapi’s act was world-class, world music at its finest–a Filipino band scoring the most influential German expressionist silent film whose impact to noir and horror cinema is evident even up to today.

My body hairs stood on their ends with pride at the movie’s first few minutes. I was overwhelmed by being finally initiated to this partnership of live music and silent movies. I imagined that this was like how they did it in cinema’s silent era and I was happy with what I felt was a privileged experience. When the film ended, the applause by us audience didn’t drown–

Our seemingly synchronized expression of gratefulness was music to the soul and ears as the band took their one brief bow. We wanted to stay for a few more minutes to exhale and relish, weirdly, the horror, and the spirits of the notes slightly vibrating at some corners or at some unnoticeable holes at the ceiling, like creatures, like magical bats, but we were advised to vacate the seats as there was little time already for Tanikala and Mr. Valiente and the Japanese feature to set up.

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