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Early Film, and Helping An Audience Know Where to Look

I found myself in a near-trance state, accompanying the 1912 Les amours de la reine Élisabeth (Queen Elizabeth) yesterday at Iris Barry’s History of Film at MoMA. It wasn’t the performance of Sarah Bernhardt that had me under its spell, per se, but the process of scoring it live for the audience

I hadn’t seen the film in many years, before my wife and I were parents I’m sure, and that screening was of a 16mm print from the MoMA Circulating Film Library running at “sound speed”. But because the Bernhardt film closed the short film program, following two early actualities, A Trip To The Moon, The Great Train Robbery and a 1912 two-reel Faust (missing most of reel 2), I’d been fusing myself with dramatic action as displayed in early-‘aughts cinema for an hour already.

A contemporary audience needs a little more help deciding early film than the kind of musical score that might have been heard in theaters in the 1900s-1910s can supply. I feel that adjusting the tempo, modulating to another key or mode slightly, etc helps the audience see the shifts from one dramatic beat to another. These films are mainly long, sustained takes showing the entire scene and we’re used to being brought in closer to emphasize or help illustrate these beats.

Not everybody worked this way, and there are films from the early ‘teens directed by Griffith, Weber et al that break from this mold. But the filmmaking in Queen Elizabeth isn’t much farther along than it is in The Great Train Robbery even if the budgets are. The performances weren’t either, appearing to possess more in the way of Delsarte-type gesture than you’d see in a good Biograph or Edison short.

Sarah Bernhardt Queen Elizabeth

The Melies and Porter films I was quite familiar with, and knew where to point my eyes to look for clues for emotional shifts and dramatic beats. Having done this for an hour of film when Ms. Bernhardt’s film began, I was already “zoomed in” mentally. But I found myself much more so during the Bernhardt film. 

It was a good 35mm print, run at an appropriate speed, and it was as if I myself was watching the film closer in, moving my eyes around the frame as if I was watching closer shots that were cutting back and forth. This fed into my musical-accompaniment flow of the image entering my brain and music coming out of my hands in a slightly deeper way than it might be in other films. 

I’m not completely sure if this helped our audience at MoMA get more out of the film than just playing mood music for each scene, but this is the kind of thing I try to do to straddle the two eras so that a new audience will get the most out of a 110-year-old film.

  • If you want to hear how the show went for me, watch my vlog about yesterday’s show here.
  • The entire Iris Barry series runs weekday afternoons at MoMA October 21 to December 31 — full listings are here.
  • MoMA’s not the only place I’m playing at this season; check out my show sched here.

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