Music in Silent
Verlaine and Jimmy Rip:
Music for Experimental Film
DVD review by David Gasten
(Posted on December 13, 2007,
because December 13th is the shared birthday of David Gasten and Tom
Verlaine and Jimmy Rip: Music for Experimental Film. DVD release by Kino Video, September 25, 2007.
Total running time: 78 minutes. All music composed and
performed by Tom Verlaine and Jimmy Rip.
Features the following experimental silent shorts, with
accompanying soundtracks provided by Verlaine and Rip:
L’Etoile de Mer (1928),
2. The Fall of the House of Usher (1928),
James S. Watson, Jr., and Melville Weber
The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra (1928), Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich
(1926), Man Ray
Rhythmus 21 (1921),
6. Brumes D’Automne (1929),
7. Ballet Mécanique (1924), Fernand Léger
(featuring Man Ray as cinematographer)
Click to buy Tom Verlaine and Jimmy Rip: Music for Experimental Film
watch a preview of the
all the films of the silent era, experimental silent shorts are the
farthest ahead of their time, and have a timeless look and feel to them,
as though they could have been made today just as well as in the 1920’s.
Occasionally the outfits and hairstyles of the people in the films
will give away their time period, but otherwise many a film student has
since created the exact same types of films as we see here. And because of their
timeless and abstract nature, experimental silents are also the most receptive to
treatment with modern soundtracks.
silent film soundtracks cover the gamut in style, genre, and
instrumentation, and the results
vary just as widely. But what
is rare is for a specialty film distributor to be so impressed with a set
of silent film soundtracks that they elect to release them advertised
under the name of the soundtrack artist rather than under the names
of the films or filmmakers. But
that is exactly what has happened in the case of Kino Video’s release of
Tom Verlaine and Jimmy Rip: Music for Experimental Film.
Verlaine during his tenure with the new wave band Television.
a little background on guitarist Tom Verlaine, the primary musician behind
these soundtracks. Verlaine was not known at all as a silent film
soundtrack composer until relatively recently.
He is best known as the founder and frontman of the 1970’s new wave band
Television, a band that not only broke the new wave music phenomenon
worldwide, but also broke the legendary and highly influential New York
punk rock scene. Television
were the first band to popularize the famous CBGB’s club, a New York
music venue which would subsequently become the pop music legend and the
merchandising powerhouse that it is today.
CBGB’s was initially intended to showcase “Country,
Bluegrass, and Blues” (hence
the name), but instead went on to split the bill with the club Max’s
Kansas City as the hub for New York’s “happening” punk rock/new wave
music scene of the late 1970’s. That
music scene would go on to give us Blondie, The Ramones, Talking Heads,
The Patti Smith Group, Suicide, and many other famous and influential pop
music groups. It also
contributed to creating a whole new way of looking at and creating music
that is still with us today, for better or for worse.
Although Television only lasted long enough to create two albums
initially, Tom Verlaine went on to start a solo career as a new
wave/college rock performer, further developing the style Television was
exploring in their tenure together. Verlaine
retained a loyal following and critical favor over the years, but kept a
larger following in Europe than in his American homeland, where he seemed
to be talked about more than he was actually listened to.
of Tom Verlaine's instrumental album Warm and Cool (1992),
the direct musical predecessor of the Music for Experimental
Film DVD. Click to purchase Warm and Cool
of Verlaine’s material has been full-band, electric rock music with
Verlaine singing somewhat off-tune and supplying a quirky guitar sound that would be
mimicked by many college rock performers that followed him. But in 1992, Verlaine diverted from this pattern by
releasing an all-instrumental, late-night ambient record entitled Warm
and Cool. Warm and Cool is
still a full-band album, as Verlaine recruited ex-members of Television
and The Patti Smith Group to assist on bass guitar and drums, but this
time the focus here was on atmospheric, Spaghetti Western soundtrack-influenced guitar sounds in an instrumental jazz and/or rock
setting. On Warm and Cool,
Verlaine created pop-song length compositions that would present a
relatively simple musical motif, and draw the listener in by presenting
the motif in a vast, nocturnal type of atmosphere perfect for all-night
driving excursions. Some of
the music is essentially free rock (i.e. the rock equivalent of free
jazz), but even these pieces have a somewhat relaxed nighttime feel to
them. Apparently this album
was something of a rejuvenation to Tom Verlaine’s career, as it sold
better than his other albums in America (thanks in large part to the
support and promotion of Rykodisc, the record label who released it), and
would lead to a full-fledged reunion of Television, complete with the
release of a third Television album.
Verlaine’s experimentation with atmospheric instrumental guitar music
was only beginning with Warm and Cool.
Verlaine began working with session musician and producer Jimmy Rip
on creating music made exclusively with guitars to score experimental
silent short films. The duo
then performed these soundtracks live in Europe and in America in the late
1990’s. In the ensuing years, the duo have perfected their work into
a beautiful collection of soundtracks that led Kino Video to release the
78-minute DVD Tom Verlaine and Jimmy Rip: Music for Experimental Film.
And this is despite the fact that Kino has previously released much
more comprehensive avant-garde compilations that included every last one
of these films! The resulting
DVD is not only a collection of beautiful music set to film, but also the
most concise and pleasant introduction to experimental silent shorts you
could hope to find anywhere.
Verlaine and Jimmy Rip performing live in Manchester, UK, in
2006. (Photographer unknown)
soundtracks of Tom Verlaine and Jimmy Rip feature Verlaine on lead guitar,
and Rip on rhythm guitar and atmospherics.
What sets the duo’s soundtracks apart from many other modern
silent film soundtracks is as follows.
First, they understand that they are there to support the film, not
vice versa. Despite what you
would think (and what the title of the DVD suggests), Verlaine and Rip do
not have a self-indulgent, “the artistes are here” attitude in
their performances. The two
understand the importance of underscoring the film and putting the film
first. Second of all, they purposely create music that is beautiful
and atmospheric, rather than ugly, trashy, and postmodern.
In doing so, they make the films seem less “artsy” and “experimental”, and
more like a series of beautiful dreams that you do not want to wake up
Dreams and Poems: L’Etoile de Mer and Brumes D’Automne
Ray’s L’Etoile de Mer (1928) opens the DVD.
It is the best example of how Verlaine and Rip successfully elevate
an experimental silent film to that of a romantic dream that you do not
want to end. L’Etoile de
Mer concentrates on atmosphere and emotion rather than on a storyline,
and succeeds gallantly in portraying the emotion of love.
L’Etoile de Mer attempts to illustrate a poem written by
the surrealist poet Robert Desnos,
using the consistent visual of a starfish (which the poem calls a
“flower of glass”) to illustrate the love a woman has given to a
man. The man studies it and cherishes the woman and the love that
she has left in his heart, as consistently illustrated by the starfish,
only to have the woman leave him for another man.
But even though she is absent, her love is still with the man and
he still cherishes the memory of that love, even though the woman herself
is gone. And yet even the
heartache seems so beautiful, because of the powerful memory of the love
that the woman has left with him. The film opens and closes with a jewel
box-like door opening and closing, and when the jewel box door closes, you
feel a satisfying “That’s all folks” resolution, but also feel like
the alarm clock has just gone off and that it’s now time to get up, get
ready for work, and leave the beautiful, romantic dream behind.
still frames from Man Ray's L’Etoile de Mer (1928).
(Photos courtesy Ryan
and Rip create a heavenly, ice-paradise aura around L’Etoile de Mer,
one that makes you feel like you are personally falling in love with the
woman illustrated in the movie. Verlaine’s
initial melody lines are like a love song a man might serenade a woman
with, but the melodies change and float with the film wherever it wants to go,
becoming almost violin-like at times.
Rip’s atmospherics are celestial and vibrant, although still cold
and icy to illustrate the distant, outside-looking-in detachment and
longing portrayed throughout the film.
creating this atmosphere, the duo add other sounds that get across other
themes in the film. They
create sophisticated but appropriate “chug, chug, toot, toot” sounds
for the trains and the ships when they appear in the film, add a
fast-strumming dissonance to illustrate the sexual tension when the woman
leads the man up to her room and then immediately sends him away, and
create strong, gong-like pulses on the low end of the guitar that
correspond with the shattering glass around the portrait of the woman that
illustrates the man’s anger at having the woman leave him.
a film directed by French resident and Estonian émigré Dimitri Kirsanoff.
Kirsanoff was an early independent filmmaker who developed his own
style and technique without being aware of the other French avant grade
filmmakers of his period, at least initially.
Apparently Kirsanoff has a whole body of fantastic work that to
this day has yet to be completely rediscovered.
Man Ray, Kirsanoff takes a poetic approach to his filmmaking, but chooses to use a more
cohesive (if fragmentary and minimalistic) storyline. Kirsanoff tell
this story with one
actress (Kirsanoff’s first wife Nadia Sibirskaïa, whom he would use
repeatedly in his short films, and who would go on to play roles in a
couple of Jean Renoir movies); brief, faceless glimpses of one male actor;
and a series of naturalistic settings, all with no intertitles whatsoever.
story goes like this: It is autumn, the leaves are falling, it’s raining
outside, and the days are getting shorter and colder.
A girl receives a “Dear John” (or is that a “Dear Jane?”)
letter from the man she loves. She
remembers the last time she saw him and how she had agreed to wait for
him—and now he has left her, so she ended up waiting for nothing.
She is heartbroken and proceeds to burn all of his letters. The smoke from the burning letters goes out of the chimney
and into the crisp autumn air, forever lost and never to return.
She then goes out walking in the fallen leaves, draped in a large
shawl. She comes upon a lake,
and considers suicide, the cold lake beckoning her to her death like a
chorus of male sirens. But
she picks herself up and keeps walking, as the leaves in the trees above
her fall and float away in the water, almost as if they are carrying the
initial strains of heartbreak away with them.
Brumes D’Automne concentrates more on a moment of lost love, the
film is still quite romantic, as it gazes lovingly upon the actress and
plunges the viewer headfirst into her world and her emotions.
We want to wrap our arms around the actress and let her cry in our
bosom, but obviously this is not to be; the only comfort she has is the
large, warm shawl that is wrapped around her.
For this film, Verlaine improvises over a subtle tick-tock pulsing
provided by Rip that gives us an ever-present sense of the falling rain
and the falling leaves. Again,
the film is romantic but cold at the same time, which repeats the theme of
longing that comes across so well in L’Etoile de Mer.
Verlaine and Rip prepare you for the sequence where the actress
considers suicide by starting the suspense when she walks out the door,
and then building it up, letting you hear and feel the lake calling out to
her as she becomes delirious, and then returning to the gentle, pulsing
tick-tock of the rain and leaves when she shakes off the thoughts of
suicide and keeps walking.
I say, these are definitely experimental silent films you could play for
your girlfriend—just don’t tell her that it’s “experimental
Fall of the House of Usher and
The Life and Death of 9413, a
Verlaine and Rip are most effective in underscoring a film is where the
film is telling a story, namely in The Fall of the House of Usher
and The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra (both from 1928). These two films are
both essentially American recreations of German expressionism.
Despite their twisted and non-realistic images, German
expressionist films always use their distorted imagery to tell a story,
and neither of these films is an exception to that rule.
Both of these films'
storylines are easy to follow and only
slightly more abstract than regular German expressionist films.
The strong imagery and equally strong storylines give the duo a much broader
canvas to work with.
Melville Weber playing the role of the narrator in the 1928
expressionist interpretation of Poe's The Fall of the House of
Usher. (Photo courtesy Image Entertainment)
Fall of the House of Usher
(1928) is a film created by James Sibley Watson, Jr. and Melville Weber.
Watson was an heir to the Western Union telegraph empire, and
financed and collaborated with co-director Weber on this and another film absent from this
collection entitled Lot in Sodom (1933). If
you are interested in reading some background information on these films
from the eyewitness of someone who was there and working for them, visit
retells the famous Edgar Allen Poe horror story without using any
intertitles and with the aid of powerful expressionist visuals that still
pack a strong punch eighty years later.
Verlaine and Rip take a minimalistic, suspenseful approach to
scoring this film, mimicking the real or imagined sounds of the plodding
horse, the platter of death served to Madeline Usher, the dropping rain,
the falling hammers, the ripping casket, and finally the crashing castle
and swirling moon and lake at the end of the film.
Most of the soundtrack relies on a heartbeat-like “buh-boom, buh-boom”
rhythm that grows into a Jaws-like back-and-forth
step between two half-notes, which is then interjected with notes that
pound suddenly and without warning like pangs from a migraine headache.
Meanwhile, the lead guitar hovers and swirls over and around these
sounds like a crying, moaning ghost reliving its own execution.
At times the music compliments the movie so well that you
completely forget that it is there and assume that the sound you are
hearing is the sound the film itself is making.
Usher uses expressionism to retell a
classic tale of the macabre, director Robert Florey and cameraman Slavko
Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra (1928)
uses the same strong reliance on expressionist visuals and the same
absence of intertitles to tell a contemporary story of a naïve newcomer
to the world of Hollywood that tries to find work as an extra in the
Hollywood dream factory. The film
relies on tongue-in-cheek humor to the point where you can almost see
struggling actors from the period laughing out loud as they watch the
film, muttering “Ain’t that the truth” as they do.
Again going back to the timeless nature of these films, Hollywood
satirical-but-true reflection of life at the bottom rung of the movie
business likely still rings just as true in Hollywood today, from all the
stories I hear.
transformation from a human being into a number in
The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra (1928).
visuals here look like a
magazine cover from the period brought to life, this being interspersed with live shots of
buildings, studio lots, spotlights, and a limousine pulling up at a gala
movie premier. Verlaine and Rip score the film’s beginning with a happy-go-lucky, walking “duuum bop,
duuum bop” tune as the uninitiated extra-to-be
arrives in Hollywood, only to show up at a studio and have the number
“9413” etched onto his forehead, which the musical duo emulates by scratching
the guitar strings. The duo go on to emulate the “blah blah blah” talking
movements the actors make with their faces with a half-kazoo and half-tuba
“wah wah” sound similar to (but lower in pinch than) the
“wah wah” sounds the off-screen adults make in the classic Peanuts cartoons. As the extra starts
looking for work and the “‘No Casting Today’—the story of my
life” reality starts setting in, the music reflects this by becoming
drab and dreary. In the
meantime, two of 9413’s competing extras go on to success, #13 (a lady) as a
regular supporting actress, and #15 (a man) as a star. As the trumpets signal #15's newfound success, the
guitars jangle excitedly and parade behind the clamor of new star’s
acclaim and entrance into the bourgeois.
and is transported to heaven in Hollywood Extra. The
up sign reads "To Heaven", while the down sign reads
"To Hollywood" (appropriately enough). This still
frame illustrates the film's sense of humor as well as the Vanity
Fair-like expressionist style used throughout
the film. (All Hollywood Extra still frames courtesy of Mr.
Asta's Movie Blog.)
When poor 9413 is
shriveling away in his apartment as the bills start pouring in, he makes
one last attempt to call in for work, only to hear one final “No Casting
Today”. As this happens, the music spells out 9413’s certain fate to the point where
you are almost brought to tears as poor 9413 sinks to the floor and
perishes before your eyes. But
as 9413’s contemporaries on Earth laugh at his fate, 9413 rises from
his grave and is transported into heaven,
where he loses his number, finds casting as an angel, and flies away into
the heavenlies. The music
begins with swirling, brutal crashing, and rises up and up like a jet plane
with 9413’s ascension through the celestial tiers, finally ending in a high-pitched crystalline tinkling as 9413 flies into the film's similarly crystalline art deco portrayal of heaven.
like incredible viewing, doesn’t it?
That’s because it is! Verlaine
and Rip’s takes on The Fall of the House of Usher and Hollywood
Extra are two overwhelming viewing experiences that are an incredible
way to spend a half-hour of your life and almost worth the DVD’s $20 US price tag by themselves.
the documentary?: Rhythmus 21
A series of
still frames from Rhythmus 21 (1921). (Photo courtesy
21 (1921) is quite a fun movie to watch, because the film
itself plays like a long signature animation that might open a 1960’s
documentary. Verlaine and Rip
run with this concept, making the film look like exactly that.
The guitars echo beautifully with a hollow, hummable motif that
could easily be from the Warm and Cool album, while rectangular
shapes grow, shrink, and change places and color (the colors being black,
white, and gray, of course) before your eyes.
You almost expect a vintage travelog about the Swedish countryside
with muffled, William Burroughs-like narration to begin rolling
afterwards. At three minutes, this film is a delight to watch because of its brevity and
because of its extremely minimalistic (and for some of us, nostalgic)
interesting side note: the Rhythmus 21 soundtrack has the honor of
being the only one of these soundtracks that was actually recorded in the
studio, as all of the others were taken from live concert recordings in
Europe. The Rhythmus 21
soundtrack was engineered by Verlaine’s Television bandmate Fred Smith,
who also appears as the bass player on most of the Warm and Cool album.
Images: Emak-Bakia and Ballet Mécanique
film soundtracks that are not quite as memorable are the ones where the
film itself is little more than a series of random images.
Man Ray’s Emak-Bakia (1926) is one of two examples
of this. In Emak-Bakia, the images have no rhyme or reason to them,
as Ray appears to be just playing around with various effects, so Verlaine
and Rip have no choice but to just improvise music behind it. However, they do manage to keep the music composed-sounding
rather than improvised. Because
the music the duo create is so good, it ends up overpowering the film, exposing the
film’s inherent weakness in being nothing more than a random string of images.
images from Ballet
(1924) (left) and
Emak-Bakia (1926) (right). The girl whose profile we
see here is the same girl who makes faces at us through the
kaleidoscopic lens in Ballet
even here, when the musicians have a strong visual, they get behind it, such as the
sequence where they tap the guitar strings as wooden shapes start popping
up into the form of a castle, or the sequence where they scratch the
guitar strings as a man tears off his collar and throws it into a pile of
torn collars, and the collars in the pile suddenly start falling up and
out of the picture. Also, when the director depicts a ride in a car, the
music suddenly starts to cruise along with the car, and when the film
alternates between a man strumming a banjo and a lady dancing the
Charleston, the guitars suddenly mimic the frenetic, rhythmic banjo
playing. So it’s certainly
not for a lack of trying on the musicians’ part that the soundtrack is
not as strong, it’s just that the film itself is not that strong to
begin wtih and
therefore the musicians cannot get behind it properly.
gives the musicians even less to work with, essentially being a string of
prism and globe effects and back and forth cuts of various images,
primarily metal items. A
surreal, dismembered-looking stop-motion Charlie Chaplin makes an
appearance at the beginning and at the end, and a girl looks through their
overused kaleidoscopic lens and makes faces at us, but otherwise there’s really not a
lot to it. Verlaine and Rip
try to drive home the busyness of the film, but that’s about all they
can do with a series of random images
that are more rhythmic in feel but even less engaging than Emak-Bakia.
the way, all of these films were provided by the Raymond Rohauer
collection, and each film opens with a “From the Rohauer Collection”
title card. Veraline adds a
short ascending signature ditty every single time this title card rolls
that is guaranteed to stick in your head.
Verlaine and Jimmy Rip: Music for Experimental Film may be an easy DVD
to overlook in the Kino catalogue, it is in fact a
potent fusion of classic cinema and modern music that you will not want to
miss if you are a fan of both of these artistic worlds.
For more information on the musical career of Tom Verlaine, visit www.thewonder.co.uk,
a UK-based Tom Verlaine fansite.)
(back to Music in Silent Films