Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Stephin Merritt 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea SFIFF

Tuesday, May 4, 2010. Stephin Merritt's world premiere of his new score for the 1916 classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival at the Castro Theatre.

I was looking forward to this event, and I must say I was pretty pleased overall.

Merritt's interest in scoring film dates to the 2000 independent film Eban and Charley, although the eccentric, urbane, deep-voiced icon is most known for The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs, and lispy titles like The Sixths' Hyacinths and Thistles.

The best feature of Merritt's score was the extensive use of theatre organ, played by the Castro's own David Hegarty on the Castro's historic "Mighty Wurlizter." Merritt's score seemed custom-composed for the Castro Theatre and the Wurlitzer; a festival programmer who introduced the program indicated this event was originally slated for December, but rescheduled at Merritt's request in order to have the Castro and the organ.

There's a number of very cool things about Merritt's use of the Wurlitzer. Many programmers (SF International and SF Silent film festivals among others) bring in various ensembles (including Alloy, Clubfoot, Dengue Fever, Tom Verlaine, Brand Upon the Brain) into the Castro Theatre to do live music to film; few actually use the organ. Merritt's score feels site-specific, making the live performance extra special, incorporating not only the house instrument, but the house organist as well. The Wurlitzer is built into the Castro Theatre; what most people look at and perceive as the organ is in fact only the console. All the pipes and instruments and percussion attachments are in the walls and spaces behind mechanical louvers. It is essentially part of the building. Since the 1916 film was shot silent, organ accompaniment further reinforces romantic notions of the era. (The Castro Theatre was actually built in 1922, and the Wurlitzer actually installed in 1979, replacing a Conn 651 which probably dated from the 50s or 60s.)

Merritt and Hegarty were joined by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) on accordion, and a tuba player who was less than solid, but also suffered from passages written too fast for the instrument and without reasonable consideration for breathing. Daniel and Stephin also did some vocalizing, often through megaphones or processing which made them sound like voices from the past.

These vocalizations were amusing but at times tended to poke fun at the film, rather than draw viewers into its grainy world. While some lines might be uproariously clever (the cry of "help!" from a suspended balloonist, or the incessant falsetto "unhand me!" of a molested woman), it veered too often into Mystery Science Theatre 3000 territory - a predictable humor at the expense of the film.

This film was made nearly a century ago and deserves respect; it has been restored from a rare nitrate print at the UCLA archive, and odds are it may be around longer than any of Merritt's work. However, the director is no longer around to oversee its contemporary scoring, and was not available to guide Merritt as one might imagine: "hey, this part is not a joke. This is supposed to be sad / scary / etc." Having scored a few films myself, I have learned to become sensitive to and respectful of a director's intentions. While it is amusing to laugh at an old film, that is the easy way out. It is a greater challenge, but gives a greater cinematic experience, to compose music for an old film that creates in the mind of the viewer the same tension and immersion as a new release.

Nevertheless, wry humor is a big part of Merritt's simple, straightforward score. A feral woman lost on an island sings a song about how she doesn't want to wear pants. Each successive reel begins with essentially the same title card, an opportunity Merritt seizes to humorously reprise his main theme each time.

Here's Merritt's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea main theme:

Merritt's themes were related and used well throughout, instrumentally and with voice. Undersea sections tended to rely on electronics and "doppler" like "submarine" sounds, which could get a bit tiresome after a while. While some of Merritt's electronic sounds used in action sequences or on land could be quite interesting, there was enough underwater photography (quite a feat for a 1916 motion picture) that the underwater "ping" seemed to be a repetitive crutch which didn't match the inventiveness of other electronic sections.

Here are two photographs of Merritt's electronic setup.

That upright electronic thing with knobs appears homemade and has its own little keyboard with white keys that you can barely see, as there's another little box in front of it. Does anyone know what the upright thing with knobs is? Or where Merritt got it?

Merritt's music for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916) is a mature electroacoustic score which incorporates electronics, tuba, accordion, voice, and theatre organ. It relies on humor to liven up the movie, which may or may not be the best thing for this film, although the Castro audience was certainly amused. The Castro was packed, and once again a program of live music to film was one of the finest offerings of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

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