F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise is many people’s idea of the greatest film ever made, but set that aside for the moment.
The movie was produced toward the end of the silent era, when films hadn’t yet begun to talk, but after synchronized soundtracks had arrived and major productions were being released with recorded musical scores and sometimes incidental sound effects. Such is the case with Sunrise. It’s a silent movie – no spoken dialogue (apart from a few seconds of raw urban clamor) – but it’s also a movie with an integrated soundtrack. That’s how it was in 1927 and that’s how it should be forevermore.
Tonight and Friday, Jan. 13-14, Sunrise will be shown at Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., at 8 p.m. There will be live musical accompaniment by Lori Goldston on cello and Greg Campbell on percussion and French horn. Goldston and Campbell may be swell musicians and they may revere Sunrise. Still, such a presentation shouldn’t happen, because it compromises the integrity of the film Murnau made.
Sunrise isn’t uniquely vulnerable to interference by latterday presenters. Music has been slapped on a lot of silent films with scant regard for anything beyond providing some noise for audiences to listen to. It’s even been done to some sound movies, especially early talkies, which often had no music score beyond what played behind the opening and closing credits. The assumption seems to be that modern audiences will become restive without more or less nonstop audio palpation.
Sometimes the gall of latterday presenters presuming to “update” films in accord with contemporary tastes is astounding. When Ted Turner was adding film to his media empire in the 1980s, he anointed Gone With the Wind the flagship movie of his enterprise and even adopted the architecture of the Tara plantation for his headquarters in Atlanta, Ga. So GWTW was something Turner apparently revered. And he spent a lot of money restoring it to its 1939 grandeur. However, in the course of that restoration, he eyed the orange sunsets that are among the hallmarks of the David O. Selznick production. Ted Turner decided that present-day audiences would find them garish. So he instructed the lab to tone them down to a decorous rosiness.
But hey, he loves that movie. -RTJ