SFIFF: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Stephin Merritt

I saw 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Stephin Merritt last night (Tuesday night). It will probably be my last event at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. What a disappointing way to end an otherwise enjoyable festival!

Coincidentally, this was the third silent film event I’ve attended in the last two months where a large auditorium was packed with people there mostly for the music, many of whom had never seen a silent film before. Unfortunately, unlike the previous two, last night’s screening won’t create any new silent film fans. (For more on the other two events, see The General at the Paramount and The Gold Rush and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

The movie itself was a large part of the problem. Made in 1916, when large-scale feature films were still new in America (Birth of a Nation came out the previous year), 20,000 Leagues is slow, clumsy, and confusing. With its exaggerated, melodramatic performances and overreliance on intertitles, it hits all of the negative stereotypes of silent films. It tells you, through narrative intertitles, what’s going to happen before it does, explaining everything before showing you—if it shows you. And yet, despite being over-narrated, it still manages to be confusing, shoe-horning way too much plot into its eight reels.


I saw the film once before, on VHS, and was struck mainly by the beautiful tinting and toning. Yet the print shown last time, described by the Festival as “a new 35mm print struck from a nitrate negative,” was in pure black and white (despite the tinted still from the festival site, above). Worse, it showed all sorts of damage and decay.

In one sense, I’m glad the film wasn’t very good. I would have hated it had Stephin Merritt (of the Magnetic Fields) massacred a masterpiece. When his ensemble (which included organist David Hegarty and author Daniel Handler–a.k.a. Lemany Snicket) were content to play music, they were fine. But they sang songs which I believe were intended to be funny (and occasionally were) and talked, filling in the voices of the characters on screen. The effect was occasionally amusing in an MST3K sort of way, but the joke wore thin and it just became annoying. Rather than respecting the form, Merritt preferred snark, encouraging the audience to laugh at this quaint and silly old movie.

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