Scoring Satan and the spheres

BEIRUT: Long before scientists had begun to collect meaningful data from the moon, they’d taken photos – shots like earthrise from the lunar surface that soon appeared on televisions all over the world. It didn’t take long for TV producers to start gathering clips from the hokey sci-fi films of past decades, so they could juxtapose their ham acting and primitive special effects with NASA’s grainy shots of astronauts planting the U.S. flag and pretending to play golf.

It was important to impress news consumers with how far we’d come.

This is how a mass audience was exposed to the muddy black-and-white footage of a gent in a man-in-the-moon face mask who, after a deft substitution splice, appears to have an enormous artillery shell (actually a space capsule) in his right eye.

The 13-minute “Le voyage dans la lune,” (A Trip to the Moon), 1902, was one of over 500 works credited to the French illusionist-cum-film pioneer Georges Melies (1861-1938). It was also among the seven Melies shorts (ranging from two to 20 minutes in length) projected during “Solitudes,” a special event staged at Metropolis-Sofil for the European Film Festival.

In addition to “Le voyage dans la lune,” the program included “Le diable au couvent,” (The Devil in the Convent) 1899, “Nouvelles luttes extravagantes,” (New extravagant struggles) 1900, “Voyage a travers l’impossible” (The Impossible Voyage), 1904, “Les quatre cents farces du diable” (The 400 Tricks of the Devil), 1906, “Deux cent mille lieues sous les mers” (Under the Seas), 1907 and “Eclipse du soleil en pleine lune,” (Eclipse of the Sun in Full Moon) 1907.

Melies’ films were the antecedent of contemporary cinema’s fondness for fixed framing. Each sequence was staged before elaborately prepared tableaux that could easily have been designed for a small-stage performance. Other sequences deploy models against landscapes (terrestrial and otherwise) and outer space. Occasionally fish tanks are thrust between the lens and the actors to simulate submarine locations. Most of the works are black-and-white, but some works have been hand-colored.

The films selected for “Solitudes” reflect Melies’ path to cinema through popular entertainment, preoccupied with escapist tales that foregrounded visual effects (substitution splices are particularly popular). Devilish magic features in two of the works. Three films depict fanciful voyages and three are interested in the celestial spheres (whether traveling to them or observing them from Earth). The only relatively mundane subject, of “Nouvelles luttes extravagantes,” shows two women transformed into professional wrestlers who then proceed to dismember one another. (It’s oddly satisfying to learn that “Star Wars” and the World Wrestling Federation share a common lineage.)

“Solitudes” was staged as a cine-concert, a form that’s become a regular feature at EFF. It harkens back to the days when silent movies were the norm and picture houses employed musicians to perform the accompaniment live. The idea of the cine-concert is to refresh the silent film experience with the performance of a new score.

When staged in Beirut, accompanying musicians have most frequently been of an experimental temperament and “Solitudes” was no exception. Its seven titles were scored by five musicians, all veterans of the city’s experimental music scene.

Lebanon’s Sharif Sehnaoui scored three shorts – “Le diable au couvent,” “Nouvelles luttes extravagantes” and “Eclipse du soleil en pleine lune” – for electric guitar. Iraqi-born Khyam Allami arranged “Le voyage dans la lune” for synths, oud and percussion. Germany’s Magda Mayas accompanied “Voyage a travers l’impossible” for prepared piano and keyboards.

Lebanon’s Tony Elieh scored “Les quatre cents farces du diable” for electric bass and electronics. Also Lebanese, Abed Kobeissy arranged “Deux cent mille lieues sous les mers” for buzuq and electronics.

It can be interesting listening to experimental musicians score a silent movie. Will the historic footage, acting conventions and effects inspire them to pitch the music way out there, or will they feel compelled to compose something illustrative of what’s happening on screen?

Evidence of both extremes could be heard in “Solitudes.” The slapping electric bass line accompanying “Le diable au couvent” sounded at once out of place yet completely appropriate to Satan’s (admittedly schoolboy) church service pranks.

The sounds of rocket ship construction during “Le voyage dans la lune,” yanked from some instrument’s electronically enhanced strings, was as effective as it was utterly illustrative. The ensemble dancing girls sequence early on in “Deux cent mille lieues sous les mers” juxtaposes industry-redolent electronics with a buzuq line that could easily have been the tune to which the women were gyrating.

The cine-concert shoehorns amateur film historians into the same theater as experimental music junkies. You’d imagine this sort of cultural miscegenation could annoy purists on both sides. Alternatively it can enrich the experience of both.

The Sofil audience seems to have felt more intrigued by this mingling of historic cinematic experiment and contemporary music than alienated from it. Anyway there was no mass flight from the pairing. This bodes well, since the projection-performance is now en route to Germany for the Forum section of the Berlin International Film Festival.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 05, 2018, on page 16.




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