Saturday, January 14, 2012

Victora Jaschob Only Has Two Eyes

It's impossible for any pair of eyes to view all of Frisco Bay's worthwhile film screenings. I'm so pleased that a number of local filmgoers have let me post their repertory/revival screening highlights of 2011. An index of participants is found here.

The following list comes from Victoria Jaschob, an animation production manager who also writes for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The Great White Silence
Herbert G. Ponting, 1924

The Blizzard (Gunnar Hedes Saga)
Maurtiz Stiller 1923

He Who Gets Slapped
Victor Sjöström 1924

Scored and accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble for the 16th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Although I didn’t get out to many repertory screenings this year, I made a point of attending as many of the SF Silent Film Festival programs as possible. This year’s offerings were especially eclectic, both cinematically and musically. As was the case last year, the films scored by Sweden’s Matti Bye Ensemble stood out for me as the epitome of how music and image can combine to create a totally immersive experience.

The Ensemble (Matti Bye, Kristian Holmgren, Lotta Johannson, Mattias Olsson), did an Artist’s Residency at the Headlands Center for Arts earlier in the year, where they spent a month composing completely new scores for the three films. At the end of the residency, the musicians gave a presentation where they described their process and played sections of the scores in progress. What made the greatest impression on me during this talk was the emphasis, not only on the technical aspects of the music, which was stunning, but the effort to express musically the psychological and emotional life of the characters in the films.

The three films were linked (perhaps intentionally) by imagery and theme: Two of them took place in harsh, frozen environments, and all three depicted man’s struggle to survive his circumstances. There was also a uniting theme of man’s relationship to animals, which seemed unusual in silent film: comic penguins and tragic ponies in The Great White Silence; otherworldly reindeer in The Blizzard; a murderous lion in He Who Gets Slapped, which channels “He’s” rage to terrifying effect.

The Great White Silence, which depicts the doomed South Pole Expedition of Captain Scott, included some breath-taking, nearly surreal imagery of ocean, waves, icebergs, and glaciers. The orchestration (Matti, Kristian and Lotta accompanied by two string musicians and Kristian’s home-made wind machine) captured the poignancy of the men’s efforts to reach their goal, and the futility of human striving in the face of implacable Nature. A foreshadowing came at the moment when, as their ship approached the Antarctic, a huge iceberg hove into view. At that moment, even though he’d watched the film dozens of times, Bye said he “felt the iceberg.” I think we all did.

The Blizzard was a mythic, and again, tragic fable of a man who again runs into difficulties when he ventures into uncharted territory, in this case, Lapland. This film doesn’t end with death, but madness. Some of the film’s truly magical moments included a circus pony that would pull its wagon only when accompanied by harmonica; a wise woman/witch/goddess who appeared in a sled pulled by two bears, and a hallucinatory reindeer, who appears to the hero in complete silence as he lies on a snow bank, near death. The musicians portrayed these moments with great delicacy, humor and emotion.

He Who Gets Slapped, the legendary Lon Chaney drama, was scored completely differently than other Matti Bye-scored films I’ve seen to date. Strings were dispensed with entirely, replaced by the amazing percussionist Mattias Olsson. The score often worked counter to the images, to emphasize the tragic, ironic elements of the film, and was relentlessly dark. Even the romantic moments between Norma Shearer and John Gilbert were treated with the same darkness, indicating that their happiness was doomed. The climax of the film, when the villains are trapped in a room with a man-eating lion, was so intense I think I stopped breathing.

I can’t wait to see what next year’s festival will bring from Matti Bye and his incredibly talented Ensemble!


  1. I, too, enjoyed the Mattie Bye ensemble playing along to He Who Gets Slapped, and I was lucky enough to catch the band playing live the next night at a bar near my house in Oakland. (Love ya, Bay Area.)

    Their drummer Mattias Olsson is insanely amazing, and after those incredible July performances I started following his Roth Händle Studios on Facebook. Thru their updates I found out Mattie Bye were performing along with von Stroheim's Greed in Stockholm this past Tuesday!!! They posted a clip on YouTube of the band soundchecking for the performance, which was enough to give me goosebumps.

    I hope SFSFF can bring this experience to us in San Francisco; it would be pure perfection.

    Victoria, thanks for reminding me how exciting and amazing this band is. I love that there are still musicians that get a real kick out of performing with silent film.

  2. Wow I'd love to hear their take on Greed at the Castro! Thanks for the tip!