Sunday, May 6


50th International [Music and] Film Festival

Somehow, when I was putting together my recent piece on silent films at the currently-running 50th SF International Film Festival, I neglected to mention Jonathan Richman's performance of a brand-new original score to Victor Sjöström's the Phantom Carriage. Other reactions to the event can be found here and here among other places. My own reaction was rather mixed. I sympathize with shahn's dislike of the trend of having "any old musician" put together scores to silent films. However, I do think Richman put real effort into bending his compositional sensibilities to the needs of the film. He had an eight-piece orchestra of acoustic instruments, all of which would have been available for a silent film composer in 1921 to use had one wanted to. And he composed some lovely themes for various characters. But the score unfortunately was rarely able to sustain and propel changing moods, a function whose importance to a narrative film score cannot be stressed enough. I think the orchestration was hampered by too little oomph in the low end; there was a cello player and a mini bell choir which provided a nice touch in several key places, but no other percussion or bass in the group. You don't know how much you miss the pedal points of a good organist or piano player until they're absent. One thing I noticed was that whenever Richman put down his guitar and played a harmonium he'd brought on stage, the sound became much fuller and, to my ears, more effective.

Considering it was (from what I understand) Richman's first try scoring a silent film, I was pleased with the outcome and would like to see him continue developing in this direction. It didn't work quite as well for me as some of the other silent film - rock and roll pairings the SFIFF has wrangled in recent years, but I think part of that comes from the fact that I'd never seen the film before, having missed it twice when it played at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive a few years ago. I don't think I'd mark the Phantom Carriage among the Outlaw and His Wife and Fire on Board as one of my favorites of Sjöström's Swedish films anyway, though. The photography is superb as I expected, but the story itself, as well as the way it is told in elaborately nested flashbacks, is somehow too distancing. I'd like to have another viewing of this gorgeous Janus restoration with another score though; perhaps my mind would change.

Last night's live music/silent film event entitled Notes to a Toon Underground, also held at the Castro, was more satisfying; for the most part it was glorious. It didn't start out that way, though. I was immediately disappointed that the copy of Wladyslaw Starewicz's undead insect puppet show the Cameraman's Revenge screened was on DigiBeta instead of film, but considering that it was by far the oldest animation in the program (the only one truly from the "silent era") I tried to be forgiving. Presumably it's not an easy print to track down. Programmer Sean Uyehara noted that there were more than enough "fragile and worrisome moving parts" in the program as it was. Interestingly, an archivist friend I attended with mentioned that the Cameraman's Revenge is one of the earliest known films to make reference to the dangerous inflammability of nitrate film stock. The music was provided by Xiu Xiu, playing at approximately their most raucous and alienating extreme, filled with electronically augmented crescendos of screams, moans and crashes. Which would have worked very well as underscore for Starewicz's grotesquely explosive finale, but carried through the entire 13-minute running time with very little dynamic modulation I found it completely undercut the ironic qualities found in Starewicz's juxtaposition of quaint domestic farce and dead beetles. My friend was more charitable, calling it "music for insects" if I'm quoting correctly. Maybe I'm just growing stodgier when it comes to unconventional scores for classic films.

As soon as Jim Trainor's films starting rolling out on 16mm prints, though, my concerns about the evening completely evaporated. Whether it was because the films are more recent or far less narratively-inclined, or because they were shown on celluloid, or because they were accompanied by a different set of musicians (including Marc Capelle, Jason Lytle, Carla Fabrizio, William Winant, Bart Davenport, Virgil Shaw, Gary Simms, and more), but for the most part the image and music felt telepathically in tune with each other, and with my own aesthetic preferences as well. I was ecstatic just being able to see nine of Trainor's more rarely-shown works, including the willowy the Bat and the Virgin, the loopy Plants, and the queasy Minor Deities, which adds to the evidence that animation is one of the best artistic mediums available for dealing with microbes. It's also perfectly suited for depicting evolution, at least in a fun, more abstract than scientific manner like that used in the National Film Board of Canada shorts Evolution and the Bead Game. Trainor made at least two contributions to this genre early in his career, From Microbe to Man and Antrozous, but nearly all of his films feel like they are in dialogue with evolution-related concepts. Torn Up felt like pure abstraction, albeit a delightful brand of which I'd never seen before, but Leafy, Leafy Jungle uses a very similar technique in bright colors to show the evidence of invisible caterpillars and/or animators on their environment. And as for the most beautifully abstract bits of animation, Blood and a Net, I can hardly imagine seeing them without the pulse-pounding music provided by the musicians in the Castro's makeshift orchestra pit. Any chance the festival was recording this and we might be able to see and hear it on a DVD someday?

It wasn't just the Trainor films on the program that particularly benefited from the live musical accompaniment. I'd never seen Emily Hubley's the Tower or David Russo's Populi before, but the scores heard last night beat the pants off the ones seen in the brief clips found online. Not that Gustav Holst's Mars, the Bringer of War isn't a great piece, and Populi may have been edited to it, but the epic riffing a la Big Black Sabbath provided by Good For Cows was even more appropriately adrenalized. And though must admit I wasn't too kicked over her other two pieces in the program, I really loved Kelly Sears's Devil's Canyon, a digital collage of the absurdist culture of disposability in the modern-day Wild West that for some reason reminded me a bit of Martha Colburn's Destiny Manifesto from the At the Edge shorts program, only funnier, thanks in part to a wry voiceover. Alongside the music by Jet Black Crayon, this narration was spoken live by Pete Simonelli, whose voice sounded something like the way a Stim-U-Lax Massager (I think that's the one my barber uses) feels. I spoke with Sears briefly after the show and she assured me that the voice in the original film was very similar.

you articulated very well your impressions of jonathan richman's soundtrack performance. i guess that's why my blog is image based rather than written.

i wanted to state that i am not opposed to pairing current musicians performing current music with vintage silent films. i have seen it work, just not very often.

great, great photos from inside the theatre!
The photos are not my doing whatsoever; they're from the festival publicity office. If you hover on the them with your cursor, hopefully your browser will show the photographer credits: the Richman photo is Pamela Gentile and the Jim Trainor image is Pat Mazzera. But if it confused you, I probably need to figure out a more obvious way of captioning them. I've got an idea how that I'll implement soon, but if any blogger-savvy reader has an easy suggestion, let me know.

They're great photos, though, aren't they?
The photos have been properly credited now.
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