Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Old Film - New Soundtrack

Squeezing into Trafalgar Square for a screening of Sergei Eisenstein's masterful 1925 film The Battleship Potemkin was one of the strangest experiences I've had this year. This is a silent movie - one of the early giants of the cinema, and a film that still regularly makes critics' top 100 lists. Nevertheless, it is a film that is not regularly screened in cinemas anymore. Were it to be screened in one of London's dwindling number of arthouse cinemas, it would probably struggle to get an audience of a few hundred. Shown on an enormous screen in Trafalgar Square - it drew an audience of thousands.

Of course, this was not really due to the film, but more because the Pet Shop Boys had composed a new soundtrack for it, and would be performing it live with an orchestra. The large crowds still strike me as a bit incongruous - the publicity had made it quite clear that the band would not be performing any of their hits, and their recent albums have been their least inspired and least commercially successful. In essence, it has been some time since Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were big pop players. Perhaps this new project, commissioned by the ICA, could offer them a new opportunity to connect with a mass audience, whilst also regenerating their art.

Well, not quite. Arriving late and missing the first twenty minutes of the film proved to be an unwittingly clever move. Whilst those packed into the square apparently struggled to see the screen, we had a clear view, albeit from a distance. Despite considering myself something of a film buff these days, I had not seen the movie before, and watching its succession of violently powerful images left me genuinely moved. I was aware of the famous staircase massacre sequence, but had not prepared myself for its devastating effect, or of the balletic flow of its staging, or the technical brilliance of its editing. I have little conception of how Eisenstein managed to make a film with such masterful craft in 1925.

I had more mixed feelings towards the music. I've always seen the Pet Shop Boys as one of the more arch and intelligent 80s pop acts, but the few lyrics that Tennant had composed for this work seemed reductive, perhaps even bordering on inane. You could argue that the repeated chants of 'all for one for freedom' captured the sloganeering, propagandist fervour associated with revolution, but for me they did not really chime with the images of the film, which seemed to transcend the restrictions of simplistic language. The reprise of that particular section for an encore proved to be complete overkill (it had already appeared at least twice during the film) and merely cemented this impression.

It's arguable that there was also too much music. The few moments of silence were agonisingly brief. Sometimes the mechanistic electro pop worked well, particularly with the motions of the ships or the images of the initial uprising. Elsewhere, the sounds tended towards the intrusive. From a distance, it was difficult to tell the extent to which it was being performed live - the band and their musicians were there, but it all sounded a little too perfect, not least Neil Tennant's voice, which had been heavily processed with effects. Perhaps the band intended to give the sounds an ethereal gloss, but I often felt that the images demanded something more visceral or emotionally affecting. Nevertheless, there were moments when sound and image worked harmoniously - and these proved to be the moments that still linger in the mind - the shock shooting of mother and baby on the Odessa steps, the fleet of smaller ships sailing elegantly, one man 'murdered for a bowl of soup'.

If this was not entirely successful - it was exactly the kind of event which should be encouraged in London's public spaces. It was free for all, a valiant attempt to introduce something of artistic value to a wider audience, and also a creative enterprise to produce something both challenging and stimulating. I do hope that the organisers rise above some of the more banal criticism from the public and the press, address some of the logistical difficulties, and organise more similar events in the future.

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