A Critic’s Notebook: The sound of silents

Musicians play along to silent films in and around Atlanta


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  • UNSPEAKABLE: Several upcoming screenings in the Atlanta area in the next few weeks will allow viewers to experience silent films with live musical accompaniment. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” will get a live soundtrack from Kim Gordon, formerly of Sonic Youth, and her new collaborator Bill Nace at Augusta’s Westobou Festival.

Silent films weren’t actually silent. Back in the day, such films almost always had live musical accompaniment, sometimes even a full orchestra, and the funny ones - unlike many of the “comedies” of today - elicited genuine laughter. For theaters that couldn’t afford an orchestra, the Wurlitzer organ made thousands of different sounds possible, and smaller movies houses often accompanied their silent dramas with pianos. In areas with large immigrant populations, live actors would often translate the title cards into Yiddish, Italian, or Russian. In other words, such films had plenty of sound, and it was only with the advent and eventual dominance of synchronized sound that silence began to be perceived as their most defining attribute. The next couple of weeks in and around Atlanta offer some fantastic opportunities to experience so-called ‘silent films’ as they were meant to be seen: with live musical accompaniment and in the company of others.

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Emory is currently running a semester-long series entitled American Comedy Classics, which includes two evenings of silent classics. Not only are the events free, but they’re accompanied by live music from a pianist and renowned silent film accompanist Donald Sosin. Tonight, Wednesday, September 18, Sosin will play along to the Charlie Chaplin films The Gold Rush (1925) and The Immigrant (1917) beginning at 7:30 p.m. Tonight’s screenings will be preceeded by a discussion with Sosin about his work composing and playing for silent films. Sosin plays again on Sunday, September 29, at 7:30 p.m. accompanying screenings of the Buster Keaton classics The General (1926/7) and Coney Island (1917). All of the Emory events take place at White Hall 205, 301 Dowman Drive, on the Emory campus.


Much further afield, but no less intriguing, Kim Gordon, formerly of Sonic Youth, has created a score for the silent film classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) with her new collaborator, guitarist Bill Nace. Their live performance alongside a screening of the film takes place in Augusta on Wednesday, October 2, as part of the Westobou Festival, a five day arts event celebrating film, music, visual arts, literature, and dance. Gordon and Nace’s music as Body/Head has an evocatively dreamlike, meditative sound, an intriguing match for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s spooky, presciently modern film.

British writer Quentin Crisp summed up the power of silent film this way: “When we hear a movie actress speak, she immediately acquires a nationality and, worse, a class. Her image becomes limited. She can no longer embody all of our dreams. But in younger and happier days, when the films were silent, their stars had the power to wound the imagination beyond repair.” Nice to know that new screenings might allow us the opportunity to have our imaginations wounded so deeply once again.


Image Censorship is a drag. And not the fun kind of drag.

A few weeks ago, this column, Critic’s Notebook, reported on the exciting new gallery show Legendary Children, a group exhibition mounted by five Atlanta-based photographers who all document the city’s burgeoning and edgy young drag scene. It seems that some people who work in and near the gallery space have objected to some of the images and demanded that they be covered. Visitors to the gallery now lift little veils to look at the artwork. Dyana Bagby of Georgia Voice reports the full story.