Jun 9, 2013

SIFF 2013: A New Score For The Wind (1928)

(d: Victor Sjöström c: Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love, Edward Earle, Dorothy Cumming, USA 1928, 95 minutes)

The Seattle International Film Festival 2013 presentation of The Wind (1928) was not just a screening, but one of the signature events of the festival. In its two peformances at the Triple Door in downtown Seattle there was dinner, live music and an introduction by Mayor Mike McGinn. The Seattle-based country-alt band The Maldives also debuted its score for this masterpiece that was one of the last great MGM silents. You couldn't find a flick more worthy of all the fuss.

It stars Lillian Gish as a young woman who flees her presumably unhappy home in Virginia to live with her cousin and his family on his ranch. She's envisioning a lovely place. After all, it's called Sweet Water. But it ain't so sweet. It's a desolate, grim place where the wind always blows like mad, blasting sand against the windows and into every crack and corner.

Gish tries to make the best of her new life, enjoying time with her cousin and his children, but it doesn't last. Certain that she is faced with a challenger to her place in the family, his wife banishes her, forcing her to choose between two local suitors who quickly take interest in her innocent beauty. She makes her pick, but her troubles aren't over, and that innocence will soon be lost.

Though I was inspired by the excitement of this event, it actually took me a while to settle into the show. I'd been spending the month watching movies in a darkened theater with no outside sounds or visual distractions. Though I was anticipating a much different experience this night, it wasn't easy to make the transition from that quiet setting to such a lively presentation. There was loud, amplified music, servers rushing back and forth with food and drinks and the sounds of silverware clinking on plates. It was overwhelming at first, and I wondered if I would be able to get as lost in The Wind as I usually do.

I did eventually become mesmerized by the performance; Gish will always get me in that role, whatever the setting. The sounds of diners noshing faded away as I got used to them, and I began to appreciate the beauty of The Maldives score. This isn't the first time the group has tried its hand at silent film scores. They debuted another original score at SIFF 2010 for the Tom Mix western Riders of the Purple Sage (1925).

The music worked for me, because it helped me to see the movie in a different way after multiple viewings over several years. Whenever I think of The Wind, Lillian Gish's wide eyes come to mind. Her haunted face, and the madness that whistling wind arouses in her wrap around the film like a whirling tornado. That frenzy has always wound me up so much, that I never quite felt the loneliness of the film.

The Maldives score effectively captures the emptiness of Gish's surroundings. I felt the sadness of this young woman who thinks she is escaping to a better life, only to remain unsatisfied and perhaps more alone that she was before. The lazy plucking of a banjo lends the music the right melancholy, rural feel, while the synthesized sounds of rushing wind give it an appropriately menacing feeling.

The band also made effective use of vocals in a couple of scenes. It was here where I felt the group truly understood the tone of the movie. It was a chills moment.

Watching The Wind with an audience for the first time was a revelation. I never noticed how funny this movie can be. Yes, it can get pretty dark, but there were a lot of laughs throughout. It's easy to understand why those lighter moments were necessary; without them, this would have been an unbearably tense tale. When Gish is afraid, everyone is afraid.

Though I will always prefer to watch movies in a quiet theater, I did enjoy the excitement of this show. It was the most popular archival presentation I'd seen at the festival and the crowd's enthusiasm for this amazing film was encouraging. I think events like this will be important for the preservation of classics, because they'll draw people who may not necessarily go to a theater to watch an older film, let alone view one at home. It was a unique, beautiful night, and a great boost for the golden age of movies.

Click here for more information about the films at SIFF 2013.

And here is my full coverage of the event.

All screen captures by KC

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