Even the earliest of silent films have been historically showcased with musical accompaniment. Whether it’s from a live band, a vinyl recording or even a digital remaster, the mass conception of the “silent film” is closely tied to the oldie ragtime soundtracks that they’re so often paired with.
The beloved annual Cine/Spin held by the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA, finds its rather simple premise in challenging this association: Student and community musicians, DJs and producers are invited to accompany a curated selection of silent films from the museum’s archive. What ensues is an enthralling and anachronistic experience — blurring the lines of film, concert and bold artistic experimentation.
Not only is it one of the museum’s most popular events annually, but it’s also one of many organized and produced entirely by the BAMPFA Student Committee. This year’s installment was streamed live Nov. 13, with third-year art history and film major Collette Keating serving as coordinator and emcee. She and fellow hosts Julia Cunningham and Katherine Schloss glowed with enthusiasm throughout, setting the stage for what would be a joyous night.
This year’s selected film also broke new ground for the event. “Brussels Loops” — a cinema verite sampling of American life created for display at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair — gave a polished look into 20th century urban business but also carried the weight of a more recent parallel: Images of busy streets and bustling parks surely reflected a deep nostalgia for pre-COVID-19 normalcy.
In application, the film’s candid, exhibitional form also meant a departure from Cine/Spin tradition. “ ‘Brussels Loops’ presents something somewhat different and interesting, as it oscillates between heightened abstraction and portrayals of the everyday,” Keating said in correspondence with The Daily Californian.
This shift in approach, however, was a reminder throughout that the performer is at the center of Cine/Spin’s appeal; this year, UC Berkeley sophomore and DJ Ryan Shah starred with an infectious charisma. The dreamy, sample-heavy soundscapes of his set fit the “Brussels Loops” bill surprisingly well. Images of candid human joy captured in the film mirrored Shah’s passionate physicality as he danced between turntables and his laptop.
“I felt transported to the visuals myself,” Shah said of his process during the after-event Q&A panel with the student committee. “It wasn’t too awkward being on my own, just making music in my room, because I was thinking about what it would be like to be inside those films.”
Though other non-narrative pieces have been shown in previous years, the anthology structure of “Brussels Loops” placed an emphasis on Shah’s ability to juggle different moods and tones. To this end, the film took on a role more akin to a retro-themed concert visualizer than a traditional silent film experience. “We were instantly interested in the energy which (Shah’s) music had,” Keating said. “His true care for rhythm and for synthesizing many different elements paired really well with our choice.”
Memorable moments include when a dreamy funk sample fell away into a tropical interpolation of Anderson .Paak’s “Tints,” all while the film bounced around a sleepy urban center. Neon street lights crawled across the screen as Shah cranked up the treble and drums on the breakdown of “Nice for What” by Drake. In slower sequences of the film, Shah found hypnotic success paring steadily swelling arpeggios with geometric city sprawl.
Finding a new venue in the BAMPFA From Home series, this is the first year the event was hosted outside one of the BAMPFA’s iconic physical locations. Though this unfortunate-but-necessary loss was tangible throughout, it’s nonetheless promising to see the museum continue one of its flagship events in whatever form it takes.
Despite the digital venue, there’s something in Cine/Spin for everyone. For returning fans, there was surely a sense of a return to normalcy watching this tradition carry on. But for guests new and old alike, there’s no denying the sense of magic in the event’s simple formula — and, as it turns out, it doesn’t need a physical space to work that magic, either.