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Monday, February 23, 2015

Silent Hitchcock

Last night Othman and I went to an incredibly interesting event—the screening of Alfred Hitchcock's very first film, called The Pleasure Garden. It was held at the 7eme Art cinema in Rabat and was part of a British Council Morocco’s third annual “British Film Week”. British Council does lots more than just hire people like me to teach English, but I don't often get to experience those different aspects of the organization. Last night was an absolutely wonderful exception!

The movie was filmed in 1926 (!!) when Hitchcock was just 27 years old, and is a silent film about two dancing chorus girls and their eventful love lives. Watching a silent film would generally not be the most interesting of activities, but this one was accompanied during its entirety by British composer and musician Stephan Horne, on no less than four separate instruments.

I had never actually seen a silent film before, and it was really more fun than I had anticipated. Sitting in the darkened theater in downtown Rabat, just a few rows away from the musician, I felt transported back in time. In older movies we've all seen theaters full of moviegoers in the early 20th century laughing along with a silent film and its accompanying pianist, and last night I was a part of one of those audiences! Although the movie was most decidedly a drama, and not a comedy, the fact that it was silent meant that there was a fair amount of slapstick humor involved. It was also interesting to note how every gesture and expression had to be exaggerated, similar to stage acting, due to the nature of the silent film. Though the actors' performances were very different from what we're used to in modern movies, they left no doubt of their talent!

One thing that I had never given any thought to before was a very interesting coloring technique used in the movie. Yes it was black and white, but the entire screen would be tinted a different color depending on the setting or the mood of the scene. Outside, nighttime shots were tinted blue, inside shots an unobtrusive yellow, candlelight dinners had an orangey glow. It was a fascinating and very interesting addition to the overall experience!

Another observation I made was how little dialogue is actually needed for one to understand a story. Very often throughout the movie the characters would interact and talk but the audience was simply left to surmise what they said. Amazingly, it worked incredibly well. The shots in which the screen had a static background and words were displayed were used at a minimum to move the story along, and rarely for dialogues. They slows down the story a lot because they were left up on the screen for a significant amount of time to ensure everyone had time to read and understand. At times I even felt annoyed with the words, having already guessed what was written in their content. It was all very far from what I had vaguely assumed going in—namely that every scene would be accompanied by one.

The star of the night, however, was most certainly the composer and musician, Stephan Horne. We ended up sitting just in front of some British Council colleagues of mine who also travelled from Casablanca for the showing, and we were directly behind Mr. Horne. Throughout the film I kept an eye on him, watching his seamless transitions from piano to accordion to mini-harp to flute, and often marveled at how he would play two instruments at once! (The flute-piano combination was rather mind-boggling.) At the darkest and most intense parts he even started banging on the strings on the INSIDE of the baby grand! He never faltered, and matched the mood of the movie incredibly well, and even provided sound for the inevitable-in-Hitchcock-films gunshot. Apparently he’s somewhat of a Hitchcock aficionado which made his contribution even more special. After the film ended and a bunch of British Council attendees has made a circle outside the theater to discuss it, he made an appearance and we were able to express our admiration and ask a few questions. He said he’s a full time musician and right now his main source of work/income is travelling around the world to silent film festivals and doing what he did last night! What an incredibly interesting niche market job! If anyone reading this will be in San Fransisco in April and May he said he’ll be there for a festival then.

Blurry, but look at that talent! 

This link has more information about the film week, which extends through Wednesday in Rabat and will also be travelling to Agadir and Tetouan in the coming weeks. Don’t miss it!!

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