SFIFF: Getting Down and Staying Down at the Castro

Tuesday night I visited the Castro for a special San Francisco International Film Festival event: Thao and the Get Down Stay Down.

SFIFF has a tradition for daring silent movie accompaniment. They bring in a local musician or group, one with a significant following, and have them accompany a silent feature or a collection of shorts. The idea, I suspect, is to attract both silent film lovers and fans of the musician. Hopefully, there is cross-pollination between the two groups.

Sometimes it works beautifully. Other times it’s a disaster. Tuesday night fell in between, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Before I read the press release about this event, I had never heard of Thao Nguyen, or of her band, The Get Down Stay Down. Having now experienced them in live performance, I can say that the music was fun and infectious, often with an ironic touch. I would describe their music as very good art rock, pushing the envelope without sacrificing the beat. Nguyen sang through much of the performance, although I had trouble making out the lyrics.

And make no mistake about it: This was as much a concert as a screening. Probably more so.

And yet, they weren’t always playing music. Some of the shorts were talkies. Three of these were short comedies starring Nguyen as herself–or at least a vain and insecure comic version of herself. She’s a good comic actress and I enjoyed two of these shorts quite a bit (one wasn’t so good). The other talkies were newsreel segments from the 1930s.

The silent movies they accompanied included two additional newsreel segments, both about women’s beauty, and clearly treated ironically by the band. One showed the "torture" Broadway chorus girls must go through to remain beautiful; it looked about as painful as a moderate massage, and they were smiling. There were a couple of very short, color animated works that functioned as lightshows for the music. And there were two well-known silent shorts.

The first of these was the very strange "The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra." Made in 1928 by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich, it takes German expressionism to an outlandish extreme–even though it was made in America. As the title implies, it’s a satire of depersonalization in the Hollywood system. Nguyen’s weird music made a perfect match.


The program ended with Charlie Chaplin’s "The Pawnshop." Like everything else that Chaplin made during his Mutual period, it’s a small comic gem, filled with remarkable gags and extended routines. They were right to close the show with "The Pawnshop," easily the best picture in the group.


But here, Nguyen’s music hindered rather than helped. Loud and electronic, it overwhelmed the picture. The drummer did some excellent, perfectly-timed sound effects, but they were often overwhelmed by the loud rock and roll. It was as if Chaplin and Nguyen were fighting over the audience’s attention. Nguyen won.

And yet I still enjoyed "The Pawnshop." And the whole evening. When it was over, the audience called for an encore. After a few minutes, Nguyen came back on stage and thanked us. But she didn’t pick up her guitar.