Completely free of cold symptoms, I finally got back to Festival attendance last night, making my way to the Castro for the screening of the 1925 version of The Lost World. The Cambodian-American alternative indie band Dengue Fever provided the live musical accompaniment.
The event was as much about Dengue Fever as it was about the movie. I would guess that there were more Dengue Fever fans in the theater than silent movie aficionados. I’m talking about a sold-out show at the Castro–about 1,500 seats.
A situation like this could lead to a problem: Is the music accompanying the movie, or the movie accompanying the music? There were moments when the group’s surreal yet danceable pop sound seemed to overwhelm the picture and become a distraction, but they were few. For the most part, the two worked together well.
Silent film accompaniment purists would object on principle, of course. In the 1920s, you didn’t have electric guitars, a rock beat, or a singer belting out lyrics in what I assume was Cambodian. There were a few times when I found the singing a distraction, but chartreuse Chhom Nimol stuck mostly to non-linguistic scat singing, and her voice made an effective instrument, adding an appropriate eeriness to what was basically a fantasy horror story.
Even though it’s over 80 years old, The Lost World isn’t that different from today’s blockbusters. It’s an extremely silly movie propped up by amazing special effects. Of course, the silliness is 1920s silliness–overacting and fake-looking facial hair, and the FX are technically crude by today’s standards. But model animator Willis O’Brien (who would make King King eight years later) was able to infuse his dinosaurs with weight and thought, which sells them to the viewer. When you come right down to it, great special effects are not about new technology, but about how artistically one uses the technology available.
Based on a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame), The Lost World concerns an expedition to a South American plateau where dinosaurs still live. No one brought this up at last night’s show, but recent discoveries suggest some truth to the idea. According to James Fassett, an emeritus scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, dinosaurs survived in one remote area on the American southwest for half a million years after they had died out everywhere else. Of course, that still means they died out long before the first primates, let alone a primate as advanced as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.