Though barely over a year old, the Indiana University Cinema has already started a February tradition of screening a silent film with an original score performed by live orchestra, a privilege made possible with the internationally renowned Jacobs School of Music on campus. Last year's inaugural film, Fritz Lang's Metropolis set to a classical arrangement, left a deep imprint on everyone who experienced it (and easily bested the clamoring Alloy accompaniment at Ebertfest a few months later). This year's selection, the 1922 screen adaptation of David Copperfield, by the Danish filmmaker A.W. Sandberg, commemorates the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens and throws in an extra twist with music by the youthful Ari Fisher, a Jacobs School sophomore who won a competition to compose a new score. Last night was the world premiere, with a tour of the country shortly to follow.
Suffice to say that Fisher's taste is impeccable, his instincts sound. He doesn't try to hip up the music, make it "relevant" in the Moroder manner. Neither does he crib from famous scores - much to Kim Novak's relief - nor does he Foley the movements of the actors. (One exception: the cracking sound of a whip, which is a tad jokey but not overplayed.) His score begins lushly and loudly over the opening credits, then drops into a lower key for most of the action. (The 18-piece orchestra sits in a narrow pit directly below the screen, and it's a huge compliment to say that you often forget they're there.) Occasionally it's a bit too low key; the intro is so evocative I wished he'd have returned to it more often. Yet as the plot branches off in several directions, the music becomes more varied. This adaptation of Copperfield is high on comedy, which the score underlines without goosing the audience. Unsurprisingly, there is a fair amount of pathos as well, and the score wisely opts for a discordant, percussion tone without cramming the portentousness down our throats. Dickens could be maudlin, but Fisher never is.
The movie itself is less than satisfying. One of the few Dickens novels I haven't read, my knowledge of David Copperfield is based largely on a classic Cheers episode, where Frasier Crane starts a book club at the bar and resorts to pulpy embellishments of the plots to hold everybody's attention. (Frasier: "It's about these two, uh, coppers who find several murder victims in a field...with their body parts switched." Carla, impressed: "Man, that Dickens was a sick dude.") I am, like the rest of the Western world, familiar with the names Mr. Micawber (played by Frederik Jensen) and Uriah Heep (Rasmus Christiansen), and both seem rather short-shrifted in Sandberg's film, which runs only 80 minutes. (Heep is barely introduced as the villain when he's quickly whisked away by the police for crimes we never see.) The narrative is top-heavy with David's impoverished upbringing and rushes through his later phase as a twentysomething lawyer (the younger and older Copperfields are played respectively by Martin Herzberg and Gorm Schmidt). There is a romantic triangle of a fashion, and a tragic death, and plenty of oddball humor involving donkeys (a Dickens or a Danish thing?). While the print is first-rate, the movie rarely compensates at the eye level: Sanberg's visuals are competent but never terribly imaginative.
It's probably unfair to compare an unknown version of a Dickens' classic with one of the greatest movies ever made, but Metropolis was a much more overpowering experience. Still, David Copperfield is worth seeing, if only just to hear it.