Film Preview: Our Hospitality & Man With a Movie Camera with Neil Brand, Cameo Cinema & GFT, 19 & 20 August
One of the world’s leading silent film accompanists, Neil Brand, returns to Scotland for two special performances this month: Buster Keaton’s 1923 film, Our Hospitality, at Edinburgh’s Cameo Cinema on 19 August and 1929’s Man With a Movie Camera at Glasgow’s GFT on 20 August.
Brand, who has been performing live music to silent films for 25 years, is no stranger to Scotland having previously toured with fellow enthusiast Paul Merton, and he’ll be offering his own unique spin on these much-loved films.
In Our Hospitality, Keaton, stars as Willie McKay, a man trapped in the middle of a deadly feud between two rival families: Keaton also wrote, produced and directed the film. Brand will follow Thursday’s Edinburgh event with a performance at the Glasgow Film Theatre the following evening, where he’ll be performing to 1929 Soviet documentary, Man With a Movie Camera.
We spoke with Neil to find out more about his affinity with silent movies and modern viewers’ attitudes to the classics.
ReelScotland: You’re returning to Edinburgh with your old friend Buster Keaton once again: when did you first discover his work and what makes him so special to you?
Neil Brand: Every foot of film Keaton shot still works. Keaton’s ‘Steamboat Bill Jnr’ was the first feature I ever played way back in 1984 – I had prepared some tunes but was amazed at the way the music changed beneath my hands with the big laughs. I realised accompanying a film with improvised music was like automatic writing, you had to give yourself up to the drama on screen and let that inspire the music.
Keaton also taught me timing, how to play a film from the inside out, rather than imposing music on it, and the fact that these films were not museum pieces but utterly valid works of cinema that simply lacked sound, and our job as musicians was to find the music that made them work. The most extraordinary thing about Steamboat Bill is that Buster actually sings in it, and if your music follows the beat of his hand movements, the music will help the gag to work. Talk about working with the best…
You originally trained as an actor before moving into music: do you think actors today could learn much from Buster?
Absolutely – the Pixar producers of ‘Wall-E’ played the creative team Keaton films during their lunch breaks for a year while they were making the film. Keaton is still the mime par excellence, a dead face and the most expressive body, an athlete with a romantic’s perception of the world, above all a purveyor of timeless comedy.
Clowning is about finding a childlike nature which we can all respond to, and creating games we all recognise. Keaton is not simply about silence and deadpan expressions, he’s about expressing the most basic things in human nature in a simple way. Any actor would be proud to have all that in their toolbox.
Most of Buster’s work can now be bought on DVD and watched in the comfort of your home – is there really much difference watching him on the big screen?
Oh God yes – until you’ve seen Buster with a big crowd of people all laughing their socks off you can’t really appreciate the power of his comedy or the brilliance of his timing. He’s a vaudeville actor, he plays to a big house. TV, especially watched on your own, simply won’t cut it. Buster is pure theatre and should be enjoyed in his natural habitat.
Have you noticed a resurgence in the popularity of silent films at UK cinemas?
Absolutely. In the more-than-quarter-century I’ve been doing this job silent film has gone from specialist ‘anorak’ interest to one of the mainstreams of commercial cinema around the world. No festival is complete without its silents, most musicians have at least considered the challenges they offer, audiences flock to the stars and are building steadily for even the more obscure delights of the genre.
Thankfully there are now generations who approach silent film without feeling they have to respect their age, novelty value or quaintness, but merely come to see them because they expect great things, and that’s how it should be. The best of these films are timeless, as entertaining and enlightening as they were when they were made – it seemed to take the turn of the millenium when all of 20th century culture suddenly became ‘last year’ for the silents to be judged on a par with great drama and music rather than as a slightly inadequate form of cinema.
Do the multiplexes have a responsibility to delving into the archives or should it be left to specialist cinemas?
All cinema exhibitors have a responsibility to make enough money to survive, which is hard enough in the current climate without the special costs silent film entail. Multiplexes have their own audiences which must be catered for. However the best cinemas, by which I mean those with the most imaginative programming, realise that to play the cinema repertoire without the silents is like reading a novel with the opening chapters ripped out.
I feel strongly that we have to return to a properly funded system of regional art house cinemas which will cater to all tastes, all genres, all cultures, and which will be programmed locally, not at a distance. Only that way will cinemas be able to run a current repertoire spiced up with the full range of what cinema has to offer.
You’ll also be in Glasgow with Man with a Movie Camera, a very different type of film. Does it require a different thought process?
Oh yes, Man with a Movie Camera does have a narrative to it but it’s one the music has to really drive. The film can look like a series of, albeit stunning, unconnected images but there is a story there, one in which the music is both subtly commenting on the images and linking them. Where Keaton requires you to keep up and match his artistry, MWAMC leaves the audience and the musician to set the tone of the proceedings, asking them to enter a world where the camera is an unblinking observer, not a willing participant.
If you haven’t seen the film before its a must, not only for its hugely influential camera and editing work but for its unmatched slice of frozen time in 1920s Russia – a society under a microscope in all its detail, its highs and lows, some images unnervingly ugly, some supremely beautiful, all shot with a fierce intelligence and complete understanding of the raw power of cinema.
Image courtesy Neil Brand