Leeds International Festival – Salomé

Salomé with live score by Haley Fohr of Circuit des Yeux, Howard Assembly Room, Sat 12th May 2018.  A Leeds International Festival event.

A very fine film has a rare screening damaged by an unsympathetic (and unnecessary) musical treatment.

The streets of Leeds were curiously quiet (for a Saturday evening in May) as I went upon my way to the Howard Assembly Room, thinking therefore that perhaps some providential force was preparing me for the drunken lechery depicted in this fine film, by sparing me the reality.

The film, a 1923 silent, is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s French play of the same name (from 1891). Wilde ultimately derives the tale from Scripture, albeit with much embellishment. He originally published his play with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, and the film’s creators—as my cursory reading tells me—intentionally sought to mimic much of Beardsley’s visual world in building that of the film. I cannot say, from a brief looking over of the Beardsley illustrations—and, for those who are interested, these can be found easily and for free on the British Library’s website—that they mimicked very closely: but the spirit of the film and the illustrations can certainly be said to be in great sympathy with one another.

The Scriptural source consists of two pretty terse accounts from the Gospels of Saint Matthew and Saint Mark. They tell of how Salomé, the daughter of King Herod (although there is also a counter-tradition, based on alternative manuscripts of the Gospels, which calls her Herodias), requests from the King the head of John the Baptist. Unusually, Saint Matthew offers the most concise version:

But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger. And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus (Matthew 14. 6–12).

All photographs by Ben Bentley/Leeds International Festival

The house is packed as the film begins to play and the suitably atmospheric music of the four musicians joins in after an oddly long silence. The film was prefaced by a long paragraph of introductory text, but this was taken off screen in favour of blankness far too soon, since people were still entering and settling in their seats, and of course would have no chance of knowing what was going on for the rest of the film (since it lacks inter-titles—more on this later), if they were not already familiar with the story.

The tale begins in the dining hall of Herod: opulence is everywhere, and the palace seems a house for all vices to dwell in. The actors move and gesture in an exaggerated, hyper-theatrical way, but to great effect. This, combined with the often ballet-like movements of Alla Nazimova’s Salomé, the use of symmetry and pattern, and the intriguing if occasionally absurd costume and set design (also, it would appear, Nazimova’s ideas), creates an enthralling and mesmeric cinematic experience. 

The music of Haley Fohr often accompanies the film very well, and the dramatic conclusion in particular receives an accordingly dramatic musical treatment. At times, however, the music seems less well suited to what is on the screen, and at times is merely tedious. I had to reflect that this pre-composed work did not stand favourably well next to the improvised scores done around Leeds and Yorkshire today by our own Jonathan Best, whom it cannot be denied is doing excellent things for the culture of silent film locally, whereas, as this review will go on to observe, Fohr seems to want to have more of a deleterious effect on film heritage.

On this note, let us return to the issue of the film’s lack of inter-titles: Fohr’s treatment turns from satisfactory to unsatisfactory when one consults her notes to the performance: ‘I composed this score to a version of the film without intertitles [sic] and as such chose to screen it in this way. Perhaps it is a bold choice, but by muting the conversation at hand I find a new story quickly sprouting in its place, and the score was composed as much to that story as to the film itself.

This raises some issues. Firstly, no one can know—until they have experienced it—the acute frustration of seeing a character in a great film clearly say something important and, have the screen turn black for three seconds in place of showing the important speech in an inter-title, and then having it move on to the next tableau, which is now consequently almost completely disconnected from the last. But yes, Fohr is right to say that a new story arises: a much worse one.

It is the tragedy of a foolish composer who would not let the film, which she was supposed to be presenting, speak for itself. As we will see, the impulse is more one of political censorship than artistic disagreement (and even if it were the latter, as partially it is, why should two disagreeing artists be put together at all in the first place?). Of course, I want to allow Fohr her artistic freedom, as I do almost all artists (excepting the very worst ones for their maleficent effects): but the event title tells us that this will be Salomé: with a live score by Hayley Fohr, &c.

The word with generally implies accompaniment, not appropriation and re-composition. While these things are fine in themselves, I suspect the house would not have been so packed (or, despairing of the world, I imagine it would), were the event correctly advertised as ‘Inter-title-free and therefore borderline incomprehensible appropriation of Salomé with live score by composer who openly says in her programme notes that she hates the film’. But more importantly, the issue is: on what grounds does Fohr make her claim to alter the artwork she is claiming to represent?

Her notes show a harrowing answer: ‘I initially found the film’s statement to be wildly outmoded and filled with stereotypes […] The “Femme fatale” [sic] is a cheap and outdated trope used in entertainment, initially misidentified as a small step in female empowerment. But that was the 1900’s … {sic] this screening is a scene from the past, staged in the future!’

These notes do not do themselves any favours, becoming at times incomprehensible (we saw a little of this in the final sentence above): ‘The modern and avant-garde set design […] is a powerful synthesis of contextual absurdity. […] In this now-age of the dismemberment of misogyny, I ask that we utilize this historic film and re-contextualize it into a new kind of satire’.

I might ask Fohr what ‘a powerful synthesis of contextual absurdity’ is; likewise ‘the dismemberment of misogyny’: is that good (the end of misogyny), or bad (a re-birth of misogyny by way of the criticism of the idea thereof?). With so much (unexplained) doctrine placed upon a film that will not bear it, one must conclude that there is no withhere: this is the Hayley Fohr show, with a useless (until ‘utilized’—strangely instrumentalist talk) film playing behind her.

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