Recently I attended the Birmingham Symphony Hall Friday Night Classics: Charlie Chaplin and I have been musing about it ever since. Something didn’t feel quite right during the evening and I think I’ve worked out what and why.
The evening began with four short animated films accompanied of course by the famous City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The films screened were the winner and runners up from a recent competition that charged young animators across the city to create an animation to go with music discovered in the library archives. Watching the Bullring bull rampage along New Street is a sight I may never forget.
The one that stood out most for me was The Banshee by sixteen-year-old Kane Rose, the story of a young boy playing in the woods with his own imagination before a Banshee chases and attacks him. The animation went perfectly with the score and this film was actually the judges’ special commendation; however, I did feel that the point of the film was lost on the audience, which broke into raucous laughter when the monster ate the boy.
Next up was a short Charlie Chaplin film One A.M. This is a classic Chaplin comedy. A drunken man arrives home and has various slapstick incidents with everything from his front door to the staircase, the tiger skin rug to his fold out bed. The audience definitely enjoyed this one, as did I on the whole, but this was my first experience with Chaplin’s full on comedy and I did feel like some of the gags were repeated too many times with not enough variety.
The main feature, Chaplin’s City Lights did not disappoint. In this one Chaplin plays a tramp that falls in love with a blind flower girl, who by a strange turn of fate mistakes the tramp for a wealthy man. The tramp survives a series of mishaps and different occupations and eventually obtains enough money to give to the girl for an operation that will restore her sight.
The film then ends with the flower girl no longer blind and there is a heart-breaking moment when the tramp first sees her and she does not recognise him, seeing him only as a tramp and not the benefactor she fell in love with. First she mocks the tramp, then her good nature allows her to pity him and eventually when she is close enough to him she recognises him by touch and the couple is reunited.
Having the live music accompanying the film was an experience I had never had before, but I think in this instance the power and theme of the visuals just overpowered the orchestra. With the musicians and conductor in the pit they were not wholly visible to the audience, and whilst the music was of an exceptional standard and perfectly accompanied the action on screen, I had to keep reminding myself that I was listening to live music and not a recorded soundtrack.
So the night of CBSO with Charlie Chaplin was enjoyable and I came away mostly thrilled with just a couple of niggles. Firstly, again during the main feature I felt as though the audience was missing a key point of the film. Some of its more tragic moments were drowned in laughter and the exceptional acting prowess displayed towards the end of the movie seemed lost on the viewers who were content to mock and laugh at inopportune moments. We humans do love to laugh, I concede; perhaps it was nervous or uncomfortable laughter.
Secondly, I did not feel the tingling chills and excitement I had expected to feel from the music, as the music played second fiddle if you like to the movie. I think had the orchestra been on stage below the screen and in my constant eye line, the whole experience would have been more moving and more connected. Nonetheless it was a one off opportunity and I am glad I attended.