During the filming of Dark Victory's climactic scene, in which character Judith Traherne blindly climbs the stairs to her bedroom to die bravely, Bette Davis stopped, spun around to director Edmund Goulding and inquired whether she would be climbing the stairs or whether Max Steiner was. Davis was referring to the film's composer, a man whose swelling, melodramatic strains defined films from King Kong to Gone with the Wind. Davis feared her performance might be upstaged by the maestro's orotund fiddling, as, indeed, it was. Max Steiner did climb the stairs.
The marriage of music and the moving image began when the first upright piano was wheeled in to accompany a rental-hall showing of The Great Train Robbery. But it's been a stormy relationship. For every Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo there's an Alex North's Wise Blood, as well as a midden of "Love Themes" from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and The Ten Commandments.
Though silent films have for some time been receiving intriguing new sound interpretations (ignoring Giorgio Moroder's crass Metropolis revamp), sound films have not undergone the same investigations. That's what makes part of Philip on Film fascinating, as Philip Glass has taken two classics of the sound era (Tod Browning's Dracula and Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête), and has reexamined their images through music.
Glass is an inspired choice for the work, as he's one of the few major composers of the latter part of the 20th century to have also staked out a reputation as a film scorer. From Errol Morris' A Brief History of Time to Martin Scorsese's Kundun, Glass' work in pictures easily rates with other "underscoring" masters such as Herrmann, Nino Rota (The Godfather, La Dolce Vita) and Miklos Rozsa (Spellbound, Double Indemnity)--composers who support a director's vision rather than overwhelming it.
Glass' Dracula score (the 1931 film's first) fills the period's needle-scratched background and odd effects cranked from Universal's sound shed. But many were nervous about 1946's La Belle, as Glass, it was thought, would be pitting his composition against Georges Auric's haunting original.
However, Glass isn't invading Cocteau's film with a new score. Instead, he's basically created a new art form with it, what Le Monde labeled "an opera for ensemble and film." As the Philip Glass Ensemble plays the score before the screen, singers offer a live interpretation of the dialogue, synchronized with the actors in the film. It isn't hard to believe that Cocteau would approve.
With Dracula, Glass has spoken of an immediate appreciation of the acting style and crepuscular tone of Browning's film, finding shared traits between its methodical pacing and theatricality and the stage work of longtime Glass collaborator Robert Wilson. Originally composed for the Kronos Quartet, Glass' score has become an accepted component of the film, and is now included in the new DVD issues of the classic.
Bela Lugosi and Philip Glass walk up the stairs together.
Philip on Film
The Portland Institute for Contemporary Art and the Northwest Film Center at the Portland Art Museum's North Wing Grand Ballroom, 1219 SW Park Ave., 242-1419 or 221-1156. 8 pm Wednesday- Thursday, 9 pm Friday, Oct. 17-19. $25 (PICA or NWFC members)- $30. A festival pass costs $90 (members)- $120.