I’m completely against ripping silent films from DVDs and posting them for free online – it’s not just illegal but mean and thoughtless. But taking silent content and doing something with it to create a new work is more of a borderline case. It may all depend what legal system you exist under, but creativity is more of a justification for appropriation.
YouTube and its ilk are full of silent film clips, montages or sequences of stills where fans have added favourite music tracks over the top. The results are usually indifferent, if not glutinous, but just occasionally you get examples done with great skill. Such creative works don’t just make great juxtapositions of film and music, but can illuminate the films in refreshing ways. There are numerous examples, but here are three personal favourites to demonstrate what I mean.
Here were have scenes of black and ‘black’ characters from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation set to Public Enemy’s ‘Burn, Hollywood, Burn’. No ambiguity here, or excuses from the defence about the film’s importance to the history of film form. The film is exposed for all its grotesque racism, all the more loathsome for the way the film still has its place in the pantheon. The music and rap lyrics hammer it. The film becomes the perfect vehicle for rage. It’s sharply edited, and the opening and closing titles are a nice touch. Its creator goes under the YouTube name of jewofmalta.
It takes a certain amount of creative inspiration to think of bringing together Buster Keaton and The Pixies. Here the creator (weepingprophet) complained of only ever coming across Keaton clips “set to contemporary music” and wanted to see a tribute to his favourite comedian set to music that made more sense to him. Choosing The Pixies’ ‘Down to the Well’ is a surprise, but how well it works. The montage itself, skilfully put together, is a collection of all the most familiar Keaton gags. With the music you get two different kinds of Americana brought together in strange harmony.
This is inspired. Charlie Chaplin (a favourite subject for the masher-uppers) does his dance of the bread rolls from The Gold Rush to the theme tune from the Spiderman TV series. It starts off feeling silly, then becomes just right. Chaplin as superhero. It comes over as cunningly synchronised, though the brain does a lot to help matters, as placing any film to a piece of music makes us instinctively look out for points of contact between the two. The video was created by Bob Loblaw.
I’ll publish more such examples from time to time, and do let me know if you have any favourites.