I just watched Jean Epstein’s 1928 silent, The Fall of the House of Usher, on my film professor’s recommendation, to observe a couple of shots that he thought would help me after he heard the treatment for my semester project. (A treatment is a summary of shots and visual style for a potential project.)
The modern enhancements of the film are what struck me at first – especially the ones that add sound. In this edition (All Day Entertainment’s Collectors’ DVD) the intertitles are translated by a speaking voice instead of being rewritten in English. It seems like it would be a better idea to rewrite – make a font based on the original intertitles and appropriately age the new titles so they don’t stick out too much in the film. With the spoken translation, the viewer doesn’t get the chance to reread or absorb something – and, in this particular DVD, the translator has a thick French accent, which means I was concentrating more on puzzling out his exact words than processing their meaning to the film. ("Say you love crepes?"...no, that can't be right...) Finally, what struck me the most was the way the voice jarringly interrupted the tone of the film, even though the translator did well with emoting the words.
See, in a silent film, I think often the intertitles provide a kind of resting period for the viewer, as well as providing important information – and a well-edited silent film times the intertitles carefully, instead of just sticking them in whenever it becomes convenient to the story alone. Especially in Epstein’s rhythmic, mesmerizing film, it feels like the intertitles are moments of rest between feverish dreams – the perfect approach to Poe’s gothic, hysterical mood. But the spoken voice cracks that hypnosis – in a similar way, sound effects introduced by the modern soundtrack detract from the viewer’s entrancement by the visual storytelling.
Obviously, in that period, the lack of synched sound was a necessity, not an artistic choice. However, artistic choices were made to accommodate the lack of sound, and even exploit it – adding the whirr of wind to a modern soundtrack of a silent film is redundant, because you’re seeing the whirr in shots of blowing curtains, or shots of the characters leaning forward inquisitively to listen to the eerie sound. Adding sound effects to a silent movie is kind of like a bad colorization of a black and white film – the original was constructed so that it wouldn’t need color, just like the original silent films didn’t need sound.
In a similar fashion, I tend to enjoy modern soundtracks for silent films most when they’re melodic instead of incidental. I loved Rolande de Cande’s score for this DVD – it was haunting and minimal, except when it tried to replace the sound effects. Like most modern scores I’ve heard for Buster Keaton films, this one dragged the film down once it devolved to a jingle-jangling chaos, like a substitute for foley (sound effects recorded after production).
My idea is that non-synch sound should only be used in a silent project to reveal something that will not be reiterated visually with the same meaning. That rules out most modern sound effects added to existing silent films because to add new meaning via sound would be to interfere with the original filmmakers’ intent; the exception being when sound is added after consulting the notes of the director and discovering that he would have added those effects if it were possible - I think Vertov left such notes for The Man with the Movie Camera, but I could be misremembering that class.
In modern “silent” films, like the projects our class will make this semester, non-synch sound seems most interesting and striking when it’s used to convey something that only sound could achieve in that case. This isn’t an overarching artistic principle – it’s just my personal taste. For me, any element of a film is enhanced by necessity – I love creative flourishes, but even the most beautiful and touching of artistic embellishments gets on my nerves (at least a little bit) if it distracts from the tight interlocking workings of the film elements illustrating the theme and story. Things seem even more beautiful when they work together and inextricably.