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Silencing Conventionalism

Eva from Shoes.

When you think of a silent film, what do you see? Maybe you picture Charlie Chaplin with his signature mustache, a dramatic film noir, or even just an obviously suspicious man with too much eyeliner peering around a corner while orchestral swells signal impending drama.

On Tuesday, Sept. 18 in Copley Formal Lounge, the School of Foreign Service and the Embassy of Spain treated the audience to the grand opening of a silent film featuring a live performance of a contemporary score by composer Alexis Cuadrado. Cuadrado completely reversed the stereotypical conception of silent film with a score featuring modern jazz and elements of his native Spanish flamenco. Not only did he challenge the norm with his music, but he also picked a perfect, progressivist, century-old film to accompany his work: Shoes, directed by Lois Weber.

Weber’s film centers around a young girl, Eva, from a poor family, working to support her household while wearing a singular pair of deteriorating shoes. The film follows Eva as she becomes desperate, her feet increasingly aching, her shoes falling apart more and more every day.

The film itself is something to admire and examine: although written in 1916, the film examines womanhood, gender roles, work, and, most notably, poverty. In one striking scene, Eva, asleep in one bed with her two sisters, experiences nightmares of poverty, depicted as a large, looming clawed hand, reaching for her from above. Weber is known for using this form of split-screen technology, an advanced technique for the time.

The beauty of the silent film is the lack of explanation. Although featuring occasional screens of text, Weber needs no words to explain Eva’s story; she shows the power of the film through her exquisitely directed scenes. The disintegration of Eva’s shoes, combined with the frustration she faces towards her drunken and out of work father, drives her towards implied prostitution, a shocking turn of events for a movie of its era. Perhaps even more dismal than watching Eva’s progressive misery is watching her mother’s reaction when Eva, in her new pair of shoes, despairingly confesses to what she has done; her mother is not angry, but understanding. I will do as the film did for its viewers: leave it open for interpretation.

Watching the film with a revamped soundtrack was fascinating. Not only does the viewer witness the film itself, understanding the content and the ideas that Weber wished to share with the audience, but also witnesses Cuadrado's interpretation of it. This perspective does not change the meaning of the film, but like the charm of a secondhand book with notes in the margin, it adds character, emotion, and undertones of a new interpretation to an already passionate film.

Cuadrado explained during the question and answer session following the film that he is drawn to composing for silent films as they provide content to inspire his work. Although his last two works were inspired by vintage cinema, Cuadrado creates a style of jazz unique to his work. He claims he’s “not that dogmatic about jazz,” instead focusing on improvisation and the feeling he gets from his music, the “melting and risking... adventure and diversity.” Combining the rhythm of Spain with the smoothness of modern jazz, there is an underlying tension between the lines of all his songs. This mixture is in a way offsetting, piquing intrigue, especially when paired with the tension of Eva’s increasingly dilapidated shoes. The music creates a sense of a constant anticipation: what is Eva going to do? Cuadrado’s music keeps the audience asking, wondering which of the solutions presented she would pick. And then the audience watches as she does something completely unexpected.

With wavering lines of full, rounded, but also sharp trumpet accompanied by threatening bass and piano that keeps time like a ticking bomb, the music evokes anxiety throughout the film. Syncopation between the drums and piano keeps the audience confused, even worried for Eva. The sound provokes emotion.

Through his score in Shoes, Cuadrado brings awareness to the sentiments and struggles of an impoverished Eva; without the apprehension his score brings, the film risks distractedness from a modern day audience who is not used to watching patiently as a poor girl’s shoes fall apart throughout her mundane, daily tasks. Cuadrado knows how to enthrall a contemporary crowd, and he does so by ensuring that his listeners are focused on the causes in which he believes. As Cuadrado states on his website, “The score is a dialogue through time meditating on the fight for women’s rights, poverty and workers’ rights over a period of a century, reflecting how these issues continue to plague our world today.” Cuadrado resurrects Shoes with his compositions, and through successfully linking an old film with a new score, brings attention to the constant threads through time.

Gorfine is an International Politics Freshman.

PC: Milestone Films

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