Live Music for the Undead: Monday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I only went to one San Francisco International Film Festival event on Monday, and that was Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1932 classic, Vampyre, with musical accompaniment by Mercury Rev and Simon Raymonde. It was at the Castro.

Vampyre belongs on any list of great horror films. Todd Brown’s Dracula, made the previous year, is stagy and dull by comparison. And simplistic. In Vampyre, you’re not always sure who is a vampire and who isn’t. They aren’t sure themselves.

The story isn’t much, but the individual sequences are amazing. There’s the young woman attacked by a vampire who–in an extreme closeup–seems to look just a bit hungry as she watches her friend. And the funeral procession and burial, viewed from the point of view of the corpse–who is also the film’s hero and is still alive and walking about.

Most early talkies don’t get much beyond photographing people talking. But Vampyre feels very much like an expressionistic silent film, telling its story in pantomime, camera movement, special effects, and the written word. The dialog is scarce.

In Monday night’s presentation, we heard no dialog at all. The soundtrack was off, so as to not interfere with the musical accompaniment. The print (which I’m pretty sure was digital) had English subtitles, so we still knew what people were saying in the rare moments when they were saying anything.

But these subtitles didn’t describe sound effects. When the hero asks a man if he heard a dog barking, and the man claims not to have heard it, we tend to agree with the man, because we haven’t heard it either.

Mercury Rev’s score was loud, driving, powerful, percussion-heavy art rock. But it lacked subtlety and variety. Loving it at first, I found it boring by the end. Not every scene calls for thumping drums.

The experience made me want to see Vampyre again, this time with its original soundtrack. That shouldn’t be difficult. There are at least two streams of it on Youtube, and another on Hulu.

Note: I have altered the article, correcting some typos.

War and music: The Kronos Quartet at the San Francisco International Film Festival

Wednesday night, San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet came to the San Francisco International Film Festival to present their music-and-moving-image piece, Kronos Quartet Beyond Zero: 1914-1918. I was in the audience.

This was not the usual silent movie presentation. The Quartet commissioned Aleksandra Vrebalov to write the music. Then they commissioned Bill Morrison to create a new film, made up of old footage, to match the score.

The theme is World War I. The work is intended to be an anti-war piece.


Since this was first and foremost a concert, let me start with the music. It was beautiful and haunting. Appropriately for the subject matter, it had a sad and tragic feel to it. But not all of it was live. It started with an old recording–Bartok playing one of his own pieces (no, I didn’t recognize it; I was told). Occasionally, we could barely hear voices, and instruments not played by the Quartet.

Bill Morrison’s montage seemed less about the horrors of war and more about the horrors of nitrate decomposition. The images came from contemporary newsreels and cinematic propaganda–rolls of film people haven’t looked at nearly a century. They ranged from bad condition to barely watchable. Yet Morrison seemed to revel in every blob of jellied nitrate, finding a strange beauty in the disintegration.


But when you looked through the rotting film to the original images, they just weren’t that interesting. Soldiers marching. Soldiers eating. An occasional dead body. The result was more of a lightshow than an anti-war statement.

But the lightshow and the haunting music worked well together. I give this presentation (I can’t quite call it a film) a B+.

After the presentation, the quartet returned to the stage for Q&A. Neither Vrebalov nor Morrison was with them, but Drew Cameron–a papermaker whose work added to Morrison’s imagery–joined in. Some highlights:

  • On the process of creation: "It began with our relationship with Vrebalov. She’s written some wonderful pieces for us. And we began to realize that it’s been 100 years since the outbreak of World War I.
  • "When you think of it, the recording of music was very new at that time, and people were just beginning to have music in their homes."
  • "This was the first time we’ve played this at a film festival. The smell of popcorn was just great. We should have that at concerts."
  • "Sometimes as I play I feel that I’m really in the trenches and I can’t get out."
  • "A lot of times when war is portrayed in a visual way you see a lot of blood and gore. Here it’s in the film itself…that the film is decaying."

The Return of the Found Footage Festival

The world is full of unwanted VHS cassettes, which is a good thing for Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett. They mine comic gold from the unwanted dregs of the video universe, which they serve up every so often with their Found Footage Festival. The results are often shocking, absurd, and pathetic. But they are also, almost always, funny.

Prueher and Pickett arrive in the Bay Area this coming weekend for three shows, highlighting their sixth collection. They sent me a DVD of the current show, recorded in concert in Chicago.

There’s nothing here quite as disgusting as their second collection’s How To Seduce Women Through Hypnosis, but the show still goes over the edge. There are male andimage female how-to masturbation videos (and yes, I really believe they were intended to be educational), and a nude exercise video starring a woman with breasts that are not found in nature. But easily the most disgusting clip is “Wound Round Live,” a horrifyingly upbeat, extremely graphic, mock game show about deeply injured body parts.

But “Dancing With Frank Pacholski”–while only mildly disgusting–took the humor prize, leaving me laughing so hard I was gasping for air. Mr. Pacholski, who manages to look both ripped and paunchy, wears nothing but a mask and an American flag jock strap as he does the most bizarre dancing imaginable, all in front a a handful of very confused senior citizens. He seemed very happy about it.

Other memorable moments include montages of child safety videos (one of which stars a clown far more frightening than any strangers with candy), instructional videos for ferret ownership and opossum massage (and no, oppossum is not meant here as a metaphor), a slideshow of VHS covers, and a fake yo-yo expert who manages to get on several local news broadcasts despite a clear lack of ability.

Not everything hit a home run. The montage of music lesson videos was only moderately amusing. “The Chris Tape,” involving a very stoned man explaining that he’s the new Jesus, only produced moderate derisive laughter.

Whether the clips are hilarious or only moderately amusing, the format remains the same. Prueher and Pickett come on stage and introduce a clip or a montage. They generally remain silent during the clip, but occasionally make comments.

While I admit that I have yet to see them perform live, I’m confident that it would make for an extremely enjoyable evening–assuming you like this sort of thing. I certainly do.

The Festival will perform at the New Parkway Friday the 14th, at 10:00, and Saturday and Sunday (the 15th and 16th) at the Roxie, at 8:00.

Once in a Lifetime at ACT

Why would a movie blog cover a piece of live theater? When the play is about the movies.

Last night, my wife and I attended a preview performance of the American Conservatory Theater’s new production of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman ’s 1930 Broadway hit, Once in a Lifetime. A broad farce about Hollywood, the play is built around the talkie revolution—still recent news when the play first opened.

I have some history with this play. I did tech on a production of it when I was in high school.

The story centers on three down-on-their-luck vaudevillians who, in the wake of The Jazz Singer, dash to Hollywood to make a fortune as elocution teachers. They haven’t a clue what they’re doing, but they figure that no else does, either. They’re right about that. Kaufman and Hart paint Hollywood as an industry run by the clueless. Stupidity, they tell us, is the single biggest career asset.

With a farce of this nature, there are only two relevant questions: Does it make you laugh, and do you care enough about the main characters to happily sit through the few laugh-free scenes? The answers: Definitely, and just barely. The classic script, Mark Rucker’s imaginative direction, and the talented ensemble cast (all of whom get their chances to steal scenes) all work together in this well-oiled laugh machine.

Two favorite bits: All of the waiters, chauffeurs, and other service workers feel the need to “act” when in the presence of a studio head. And a transplanted playwright finds himself trapped in Ionesco-like absurdities while trying to find out what the studio wants in exchange for his generous salary.

Appropriate for a play about movies, movies themselves are worked into the production. The play opens with a scene from The Jazz Singer. Other clips entertain the audience during the set changes—some from old movies, and two shot specifically for this production (these two are particularly hilarious).

The performance was rough around the edges, with a few slow spots and missed cues. But that’s why they charge less for a preview.

I was probably the only person in the audience bothered by historical inaccuracies. Some of these are in the script. Neither Hart nor Kaufman had yet worked in Hollywood, and were proud of that. But the worst errors were in the play’s production design, especially in the one scene set on a sound stage.  There was no microphone, and the camera was sort that had to be abandoned when sound came in: an unblimped, hand-cranked camera. The earliest sound films were shot with cameras equipped with electric motors, with both the camera and its operator trapped in a sound-proof box.

I know. That’s nitpicking. It didn’t impede much on the evening’s entertainment, and probably not at all for anyone except me.

The play runs through October 16. Unlike more popular Kaufman/Hart plays (You Can’t Take It With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner), this one is seldom revived. Chances to see this particular comedy really do come around once in a lifetime.

Live Theater on the Big Screen and Frankenstein

Have you noticed the trend? Movie theaters aren’t just for movies anymore. Many of them are adding live opera, ballet, and theatre to their program—even if none it is actually live in that particular theater. The actual performance may be happening as you watch, or it may have been recorded—probably London or New York. But your local movie house is projecting it onto the big screen.

The Balboa has recently started showing ballet and opera. In doing so, they have joined the Cerrito, Elmwood, Lark, and Rafael in this trend. Even my local AMC multiplex now shows the Metropolitan opera in between the 3D blockbusters. They’ve got a Il Trovatore Encore (translation: not a live broadcast) Wednesday night.

I’ve been noticing this trend for awhile, but I finally experienced it last night, when my wife and I attended a screening of the National Theatre Live production of Frankenstein at the Elmwood. The experience combined the pleasures of live theatre and the big screen, providing some (but not all) of the excitement of being there with the intimacy of close-ups. The sounds of the live audience played through the surround speakers, which seemed gimmicky at first but after a bit helped convey the atmosphere.

Even the $22 ticket price was a compromise between live theatre and cinema experiences.

I don’t know the numbers, but I suspect that theaters make a good profit on these presentations. Why else are more theaters jumping on the bandwagon? I doubt the Elmwood made much money Tuesday night; the theater was nearly empty. But last month my wife and I tried to see the same show at the Cerrito, and it was sold out.

Technically, the image quality was a disappointment—far from high-quality digital projection. From the second row, I could actually see the pixels, which made it look like I was watching everything through a screen door.

And what about Frankenstein, which the Elmwood will screen again on Thursday night?

A- Frankenstein. Finally, something directed by Danny Boyle that I actually liked! Maybe he’s just better on the live stage.

Playwright Nick Dear starts his adaptation with the monster’s lonely birth. A horribly scarred and stitched man crawls out and tries to come to terms with existence. He must figure out how to use his arms, how to walk. This opening puts the focus on the creature, and helps us sympathize with someone who has no idea about anything. Before the play is half over, this grown child will be reading and reciting Paradise Lost, but using a halted, strained voice—like a stroke victim who has had to learn to speak all over again.

This poor man’s journey, and his inevitable clash with his arrogant creator, make up the heart of the play. A lot of philosophy and religion get discussed, but it never feels forced—as it does, quite frankly, in Shelley’s original novel (which focuses more on Frankenstein and less on his creation).

One complaint: The creature looks hideous, as he should, and looks plausible as a man sown together from dead bodies. But he doesn’t look like a monster. The story requires his appearance to inspire fear and violence, but I would expect people to react to him with pity. Or indifference. There were a lot of scared and maimed veterans in early 19th-century  Europe.

In the performance I saw, Benedict Cumberbatch played the monster, and Jonny Lee Miller played Frankenstein. Both of them gave excellent performances, but Cumberbatch had the juicier part. Thursday night, they switch places.

Joel Hodgson, Mystery Science Theater, and Cinematic Titanic

Next Tuesday, Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson, along with other MST3K veterans, will invade the Castro to riff on a 1968 Japanese science fiction called War of the Insects. “It’s a great looking print, widescreen, really well made,” Hodgson told me earlier this month in a phone interview. “It’s kind of the story of a heroin addict bomber pilot and a beautiful mad scientist who’s trying to take over the world with insects.”

Sounds like typical MST3K fodder.

MST3K has been off the air for almost a decade, and it’s been nearly two decades since Hodgson severed his ties with the show he created, but he’s back to his old tricks with his old friends, adding comic commentary to bad movies (he prefers the adjective cheesy), with his current venture, Cinematic Titanic.

Although CT sells DVDs, its primary focus is live performance. “With a TV show, you’re really kind of talking to one person. When we do it now…we think in terms of what will work in a live environment. Some of the obscure references don’t make it in because you need an immediate reaction when performing live.”

That was a bit of a disappointment to me. One of my favorite aspects of MST3K were the obscure jokes that most people didn’t get. When you got one, whether it was about nitrate film, Schonberg, or Ann Rand vs. Lillian Hellman, you laughed even harder.

They no longer edit the movies for length, but they occasionally do for content. Although their audience is primarily adult, Hodgson prefers to keep it clean. “Everyone who’s coming are MST3K fans. Our tone was family oriented, and [audience members] bring that sensitivity with them. I’m proud we did that without being dirty. We kind of look at it as if its PG-13…People aren’t hungry for a dirty movie riffing experience.”

Cinematic Titanic isn’t the only MST3K spin-off on the web. Other show veterans, including Mike Nelson (who took over hosting when Hodgson left) have another one, RiffTrax. But while CT sticks to public domain movies or ones they can license, RiffTrax sells MP3 commentaries to popular pictures like Die Hard, Star Trek, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, that customers are likely to already own on DVD. I reported on a live RiffTrax event a few years ago.

I intend to report on the upcoming Cinematic Titanic one, as well.