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Tom Verlaine and Jimmy Rip: 
Music for Experimental Film

A DVD review by David Gasten
(Posted on December 13, 2007, 
because December 13th is the shared birthday of David Gasten and Tom Verlaine)

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:

1. L’Etoile de Mer (1928), Man Ray
2. The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), James S. Watson, Jr., and Melville Weber

3. The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra (1928), Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich
4. Emak-Bakia (1926), Man Ray
5. Rhythmus 21 (1921), Hans Richter
6. Brumes D’Automne (1929),
Dimitri Kirsanoff

7. Ballet Mécanique (1924),
Fernand Léger (featuring Man Ray as cinematographer)

Click to buy Tom Verlaine and Jimmy Rip: Music for Experimental Film at

And watch a preview of the DVD here.

Of 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.   

Modern 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.

About Tom Verlaine  

Tom Verlaine during his tenure with the new wave band Television.

Here’s 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.

The cover 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 at

Most 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. 

But 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.


About the Soundtracks    

Tom Verlaine and Jimmy Rip performing live in Manchester, UK, in 2006.  (Photographer unknown)

The 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 from.


Romantic Dreams and Poems: L’Etoile de Mer and Brumes D’Automne

Man 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.

Four lovely still frames from Man Ray's L’Etoile de Mer (1928). (Photos courtesy Ryan Doyon.)

Verlaine 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.  While 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. 

Brumes D’Automne (1929) is 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. 

Like 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.

The 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.  The end.

Although 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.

Like I say, these are definitely experimental silent films you could play for your girlfriend—just don’t tell her that it’s “experimental film”. J


Expressionist stories: The Fall of the House of Usher and 
The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra

Where 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.

Co-director 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)

The 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 this page.  

The film 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. 

The extra's transformation from a human being into a number in 
The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra

Whereas Usher uses expressionism to retell a classic tale of the macabre, director Robert Florey and cameraman Slavko Vorkapich’s The 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 Extra’s 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. 

The visuals here look like a Vanity Fair 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.  

9413 dies 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. 

Sounds 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.


Where’s the documentary?: Rhythmus 21

A series of still frames from Rhythmus 21 (1921).  (Photo courtesy Albert Alcoz.)

Rhythmus 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) feel.

An 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.


Random Images: Emak-Bakia and Ballet Mécanique

The 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. 

Random images from Ballet Mécanique (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 Mécanique.   

But 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. 

Ballet Mécanique (1924) 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. 


By 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.



Although Tom 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. 

(P.S. For more information on the musical career of Tom Verlaine, visit, a UK-based Tom Verlaine fansite.)


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