Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Lost World with Dengue Fever at SF International Film Festival

I am a big advocate of live music to film. I've curated and performed such shows myself. I think it's a great way to experience the art of music and theatre and film and performance all together in an exciting vibrant spectacle.

It's great that film festivals more and more are programming these kinds of events. At San Francisco International Film Festival this year, Dengue Fever performed a live sountrack to the silent stop-motion classic The Lost World (1925).

I'll acknowledge that I'd not heard of Dengue Fever, which people uniformly pronounced "Dengay Fever." The conductor-less group struck me as first and foremost a band. Which is to say, they are quite interesting and cross-cultural and great musicians, but they appear to traffic primarily in a pop idiom and are mostly comfortable working in song structures.

Apparently they are quite popular, and given their strengths, The Lost World was an excellent choice for them as a vehicle for performing a live, original score.

The Lost World features extensive stop-motion dinosaur action by animator Willis O'Brien, who later did King Kong. Especially remarkable were scenes including the heaving breaths of a fallen dino and closeups of snarling dinos. On the big screen at the Castro, with the live music, this was better than Jurassic Park. Dengue Fever's music, with contemporary beats, live trumpet and trombone, and effective keyboards, gave the film a great energy, and made it feel quite contemporary.

Today at a screening of Kimjongilia at the Kabuki, I was engaged in conversation with some other festival filmgoers who had also attended the Lost World program. Although the Lost World audience was terrifically enthusiastic (despite the guy next to me texting during the movie... what is it with some people?), not everyone, it turns out, was convinced.

While I was a little surprised these festivalgoers could be critical, I was able to pin-point what was at issue for them, having some expertise in these matters.

While Dengue Fever did play throughout the entire film, the music was structured primarily as a string of songs, not as actual underscore. So the main difference between their performance and the music you might ordinarily expect to accompany a motion picture was a difference of form. In cinema, the moving image typically creates or dictates the form of the music, which will fluidly accompany, support, and react to the film. Dengue Fever, as a band, is clearly more at home with song form. This was particularly in evidence when the band would stop at some points, and the audience would applaud, as it were the end of a song. Clearly for many in the audience, this was a Dengue Fever concert with film, which is okay too. I was told that some people in the audience had come wearing Dengue Fever t-shirts; if this is a popular band that brings in a new audience to experience live music with film, great. I can certainly forgive them their issues with form, which all musicians go through.

Another interesting facet of The Lost World relates to race in film. While the film is ostensibly set in London and the Amazon, there is included in the cast an obligatory blackface comic character who speaks (in intertitles) in the requisite jargon. He's paired with a cockney-accented British fellow, and they are both, as you might expect, servants or helpers or whatever you want to call it.

The film has been restored, but still appears washed out, with low contrast, and the color is inconsistent. It was suggested to me this was intentional tinting in the original, but I don't know about that. It was also suggested to me that this restoration was done on a very low budget and privately finanaced; this page seems to support that idea.

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