Thursday, 17 May 2018

Under the Moon… Salomé (1923) with Haley Fohr Ensemble, Barbican

Haley Fohr’s experimental score for Alla Nazimova’s radical passion project was commissioned by Opera North for the Leeds International Festival. It’s a mix of avant rock, post-rock, electronica and trace elements of folk/country although Tammy Wynette never sounded like this.

Vocalising and operating a console of synthesiser and samples, Fohr was accompanied by Tyler Damon on percussion, Andrew Young on double bass and Whitney Johnson on viola. The music was interesting in of itself but tended to take straight lines while the narrative followed a more elaborate path. The players followed a score and well though they performed the end result wasn’t balanced in the way that silent accompaniment often aims to be... but, this was intentional.

Fohr had taken the bold decision to remove the intertitles from the film arguing that by “…muting the text, I find new stories quickly sprout in its place from the action itself. The score to the film was composed as much to those stories as to the film itself.”  This is indeed bold given that the film was based on a poem by Oscar Wilde and featured extensive references to his original writing; removing this means you create a new narrative not only visually – we don’t have the specificity to define events – but also musically. That is Fohr’s intention and you have to respect that.

Alla Nazimova
One major issue I struggled with was the decision to leave gaps where the intertitles once where so that we had a blank screen between the action throughout. This interrupted the flow and unbalanced the mix – just when you were absorbed in the story it would stop and you’d be left looking at the band, well outside of the “moment” in terms of the film Nazimova created.

If you came to watch Oscar Wilde’s poem set to film with a score serving both then you were going to be disappointed but that was not the aim of a work that was in search of new meanings. To some that’s maybe like colourising Laurel and Hardy or adding CGI to old Star Wars films: just because we can doesn’t mean that we should... Still, you don't have to watch, unless, that is, you really wanted to see this film on the big screen, but maybe it wouldn't even have been there without the new music.

A few days earlier I had seen two electronica acts at the Barbican, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Jlin (Jerrilynn Patton), both had back projections to accompany their very different beats and the latter had a dancer interpreting her music. You could argue that Fohr was following a similar line only with a pre-existing and defined artwork. Not everyone was comfortable with the recycle.

Or maybe not?
Personally, I’m not so sure the removal of text in exchange for a visual vacuum was the way to go, had the score played over the intertitles we would still have drawn new meaning based on the music alone and not the absence of text. As it was it was just too distracting from both the film and the hard-working musicians in front of us. I also say this as someone who is familiar with this film and therefore followed the narrative lines dictated by the text whether or not it was there…

"How strange the Moon seems! One might fancy she was looking for dead things..."

Salomé is a stunning silent film that features some of the most cohesive creative vision in film, with Natacha Rambova’s designs drawing on Aubrey Beardsley’s iconic interpretations of Wilde’s words. The whole enterprise drips in decadence – Wilde wrote the original in French whilst under the influence of new passions; in Salomé the act of merely looking can lead the soul on a fateful dive into the heart of desire.

Bad boy Beardsley and the "invisible dance".
Yet, even he was concerned his work might be overshadowed by the power of the drawing even though he had initially viewed Beardsley as "...the only artist who, beside myself, knows what the dance of the seven veils is, and can see that invisible dance."

Directed by Charles Bryant, Salomé is the quintessential platform for producer and star, Alla Nazimova - a woman aiming to combine both Wilde and Beardley's visions. This mix allowed her to put together one of the first genuine Hollywood “art” films – an enterprise laced with her European artistic sensibilities from the choice of story, writer, designer and even sexuality… Maybe the rumours of an all-gay cast were just hype, but this story of transgressive - deathly - passion may have additional spice being performed by homosexual actors given Wilde’s proclivities and the tragic response of Victorian authority.

Natasha Rambova's stunning designs took from Beardley's style...
Such freedom of expression clearly appealed to Nazimova who was forging a brave career through her alien sophistication and an angular, conflicted, expression so at odds with the warmth of mainstream American cinema. Yes, she strikes a pose, but it rings true and there's an undoubted sense of humour behind the balletic pantomime. Salomé needed to be well choreographed to translate the author’s rhythms and whilst the expressions occasionally grate some of these characters are meant to simply be grotesque…

Not Salomé though, she’s just a bored teenager…with an endless wardrobe to fit every flounce and flurry.  Nazimova was pushing it, being just 44 at the time and yet with expert lighting and deep inches of foundation she carries it off, like Mary Pickford on crystal meth. 

She sits bored stiff at the table as the regal bacchanal rages all around. Her stepfather, Herod, Tetrach of Judea (Mitchell Lewis) has obtained power by murdering his brother and acquiring his wife, Herodias, and her altogether more alluring daughter, Salomé. They party with a collection of bizarre guests, a group of Pharisees who argue over the existence of angels, men in strange hats and with strange hairdos and nervous servants so concerned over the risks of their master’s opprobrium that they would rather throw themselves off the battlements rather than be granted an audience with an unhappy King. 

Salomé imagining "a band of scarlet on a tower of ivory..."
Tiring of her step-father’s inappropriate attentions, Salomé leaves the banquet hall and steps outside for some fresh amusement. She finds her  loyal servants Narraboth, Herod’s Captain of the Guard (Earl Schenck) who harbours unrequited love for his mistress, and Herodias’ Page (Arthur Jasmine). Salomé ignores them and distractedly stares at the stars in a provocative pose before sounds from a deep well break her reverie… These are the prayers and pronouncements of John the Baptist,  or Jokanaan in the film and play (Nigel De Brulier), a seer and prophet  who just won’t be silenced on the subject of the impending Messiah.

Salomé catches one look at his fine chiseled features and slender strength and is hooked, demanding that he be released so that she may learn more. Jokanaan emerges and refuses to be distracted from his cause by the “young” seductress in spite of her best efforts: he knows that even if he glances at her too deeply he could fall. Soon good feeling turns to bad and, in the face of Salomé’s infatuation, faithful Narraboth kills himself in front of his love but she simply steps over his corpse in her attempt to speak closer to Jokanaan. Horrified at this callous disregard and so much else besides, Jokanaan returns to his cell…

Mother and step-father in shock. Kids yesterday...
The film, as the play, makes constant references to the Moon – it’s tied to fate and the immutability of feminine will. What starts off blue gradually gets darker as a skull appears to fill the centre and then the sky runs red as matters descend into madness. Salomé sulks and as the party finally comes out to join her, is made an offer she cannot refuse by Herod: if she dances he will give her anything she desires. She agrees but doesn't reveal what her prize will be… and, boy, there will be blood.

Salomé exists in an unsettling world all of its own and is surely one of the most subversive films of silent Hollywood. It was a box office dud that prevented Nazimova from being able to make further films with the same control – but we all know now what she really meant


  1. What an odd decision to blank out the intertitles! It sounds really jarring to me, I can't see what is gained by doing so.

    Still, it would be great to see Salomé on the big screen. I really like this film, it's so wonderfully weird.

    1. For "bold" read "foolhardy..." I've tried to be understanding given how much effort the musicians put in but... it was frustrating and to rob the film of its stated literal messaging was more arrogant than artistic: treating it like a backdrop to the music. The film is still fantastic but it was interrupted repeatedly by seconds of blank screen... I'd really like to see a compleet print and in silence if necessary! Best, Paul