Mashing things up

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.

4 responses

  1. I hadn’t seen the Public Enemy/Birth of a Nation video before. Powerful stuff.
    Not political, my personal favourite….and while not from a silent film, it’s at least dialogue free… I’m stretching the definitions a tad. This chap (or chappess) Cee Mo Jones has drastically reworked the ballet sequence from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes to the music of Radiohead’s Paranoid Android….and IMHO it works powerfully well, particularly from about 1.30 in, to the end…..whatever you think of the film or the track, I think it’s a great piece of editing.

  2. A remarkable piece of editing, and a genuine piece of creative work at the end of it, which is whole point.

    Well, since we’re drifting away from silents – but keeping to dialogue-free, in that the speech from the film isn’t used – here’s a favourite of mine – Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth mixed up with the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me” – wittily edited, and with a sharp sense of film, play and music.

  3. I also have a favorite mash of old movies to a song, well, not as creative as the Radiohead clip or the one with the Geto Boys (a lot of good humor in that one). The music is Iggy Pop’s Passenger:
    The Singing in the Rain and the other musical scenes have a nice interplay with the song.

    I rarely watch silent film clips on youtube, and I don’t understand film students who prefer to watch youtube than to borrow the movie on a DVD from libraries.
    But there’s another youtube and student genre that I find interesting. There are a lots of clips or short films made mostly by students and amateurs in the manner of a silent film. I like to watch them, because these films can betray how people perceive, understand, evaluate the films of the silent era as viewers. Sometimes these clips are more telling than an exam essay.

  4. Love The Passenger video – the epitome of cool.

    I think we have to accept that many students (and others) are going to find silents on YouTube and not think to look any further. The thing is to understand and find the best in the phenomenon. But agreed entirely over people using the silent film style for themselves – there’s a lot to be learned from them. Subject for another post some time soon.

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