Friday, May 7, 2010

Mashups and Makeovers

Man has an irrepressible urge to tinker with things he often doesn't understand. Put a man in front of an open automobile hood, an exposed computer, or a machine he imagines is just begging to be taken apart and there is no telling what might happen.

With today's trend toward open source software and the ability to use various types of technology to create data mashups (whether in the form of a spoof video, a customized JibJab greeting card, or reports that combine data from various online sources), man's creativity is constantly being challenged to reach further. Unfortunately, the mere fact that someone has the opportunity to do something (playing with matches, hiring a male prostitute from Rentboy.com, invading Iraq) doesn't always make it a good idea.

One of Michael McDonald's most famous creations for MADtv was a character named Stuart Larkin. An extremely obnoxious little boy with an active fantasy life, Stuart was always eager to tell people "Look what I can do!" In the following clip, Stuart's musical potential comes under close scrutiny:


Whether or not a music teacher should pursue Stuart's potential as a classical pianist is highly debatable. The same could be said about applying new technologies to old art forms.

This challenge was brought into sharp focus with the screenings of two films during the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival. In one, a new technology actually helped to enhance a documentary that relied heavily on black and white archival footage. In the other, the result -- although highly popular with a significant portion of the audience -- demonstrated how a poorly-conceived artistic vision can subvert and sabotage another artist's work product.

After having been subjected to numerous medical tests that (although covered by a patient's insurance policy) may not have been entirely necessary, senior citizens have developed a slogan to describe this kind of artistic malfeasance: "The patient is dying of improvement."

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Shortly after I moved to California, I began dating a man whose neighbor was an ardent opera queen. One night, the three of us went to dinner at a Spanish restaurant where John (in honor of his favorite diva) had made a reservation under the code name Caballé. Not knowing either man very well, I was surprised when, after being seated at our table, one of them said "Let's be truly sophisticated tonight."

The last thing I ever expected was to see them start a food fight in a restaurant!

For the past several years, the programmers at the San Francisco Film Society have included a silent film in their festival lineup with live accompaniment provided by a popular rock musician. Their goal has been to attract a new audience that might cross over to viewing silent film.

The new audience (primarily fans of the musician hired for the event) arrives with a particular set of expectations. Lovers of silent film enter the Castro Theatre with a very different set of expectations.

In the opera world, one of the cardinal sins is for a stage director to demonstrate a total lack of understanding or respect for the composer's intentions. In silent film, a growing problem involves musicians (who have no idea what they're doing) being hired to compose a musical score to accompany a very delicate art form.

My first experience with this kind of artistic mashup was in 2008, when Black Francis (from the rock band Pixies) was hired by the San Francisco Film Society to accompany a screening of Paul Wegener's 1920 silent film The Golem: How He Came Into The World. Although the event sold out, the two audience factions mixed about as well as oil and water. Some silent film enthusiasts were so repulsed by the way the evening treated silent film that they vowed never to attend future screenings of silent films at the San Francisco Film Festival.

I remember being pretty appalled by the way Black Francis would yell out inanities like "This clip got 200,000 hits on YouTube so far!" as the film was being projected on the screen. I was equally horrified during this week's screening of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to hear members of the band -- which included Daniel Handler (a/k/a Lemony Snicket) -- adding their own spoken soundtrack as if they were performing a Punch and Judy puppet show.

My first question for the creative team was: What part of the word "silent" (as in "silent film") do you not understand?

My second question was why someone like Stephin Merritt (who demonstrated a blazing lack of sensitivity to what makes silent film an art form) was commissioned to write a score for this event. Merritt's music was at best amateurish, incompetent, and uninteresting. At its worst, it was infuriatingly inappropriate and downright loathsome.

That's not to say that the silent film adaptation of Jules Verne's 1869 novel is any kind of cinematic masterpiece (it most definitely is not). Many liberties have been taken with Verne's story about Captain Nemo and his miraculous submarine, the Nautilus. However, the movie does offer audiences an interesting perspective on what types of film techniques (including underwater filming) were being used during World War I.

The growing success of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (which has expanded its schedule this July to include four days of silent film as part of its 15th anniversary season) leaves no doubt that there is a solid audience for silent film in the Bay area. Those attending the Silent Film Festival are usually treated to restored prints with accompaniment on piano or the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer organ by such great performers (and brilliant film composers) as Dennis James and Stephen Horne.

The current approach taken by the San Francisco Film Society, however, resembles what would happen if the producer of a major festival of artisan cheeses and organic foods proudly offered a special tasting of Velveeta for its fans. It's incongruous, inappropriate, and severely misguided.

One of the only reasons this kind of mashup is even possible is because silent films are, by and large, now in the public domain. Can you imagine what would happen if the San Francisco Film Society's programmers decided to hire a rock musician to create a new score for Walt Disney's Fantasia? For a Martin Scorsese film? Or a movie by Clint Eastwood (who has composed several film scores of his own)? Entertainment lawyers specializing in intellectual property rights would immediately issue cease and desist orders and threaten a major lawsuit.

When I spoke with one of the film society's programmers, I was told that they liked to work with contemporary composers who can bring in a new crowd -- and that these events had developed a popular crossover appeal. The bottom line, however, is that if the music commissioned for the film does nothing to support the work being shown on screen, then it's time to hire more talented composers.

Members of the San Francisco Film Society have a proven track record of embracing edgy, sophisticated, and challenging movies. The audience that shows up for these screenings contains few (if any) of the 15-year-old boys who represent the prime demographic for action adventure films and box office blockbusters.

While there is no doubt that fans of the musicians hired by SFFS have purchased enough tickets to help sell out the event, I wonder if anyone has followed up to see if these people are returning in subsequent seasons to see another silent film. I stress this because there are several superb contemporary composers (with a proven track record of writing music for silent films) who could deliver a far superior product that would enhance, rather than degrade the silent film experience for the San Francisco Film Society's audience. They might even attract a crossover audience from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's rabidly enthusiastic audience.

The following clip gives an idea of what the 1916 silent version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea looks like (the entire film can be viewed online). In the meantime, my advice to the programmers at SFFS is simple: Instead of trying to market silent film as a crossover gimmick that can be distorted with some appallingly bad music from a rock musician whose compositional skills can barely aspire to mediocrity, have the artistic integrity and enough respect for your audience to aim higher.


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Back in the 1980s, when Ted Turner became a strong proponent of using colorization techniques on black and white films, some purists were horrified by his intentions. Even though the public eventually embraced the process, the Turner Classic Movies channel (TCM) shows the prints in their unaltered versions.

A new documentary from French filmmaker Jean-Francois Delassus boldly goes where few documentarians have gone before. Using black and white archival footage from the first World War, Delassus has used colorization to make the topic more accessible for modern audiences. Rather than using bright colors and going for a totally natural effect, his colorization resembles many old fashioned postcards.

The message behind his film, however, is timeless. War is hell and the people who are called upon to serve their country often enlist with little understanding of how they were manipulated into such a hellish fate.

Actor Paul Bandey provides the English-language voiceover for a fictional French soldier who enlisted and served for four years in the trenches. Even if Léon (his closest friend) was killed in the war, the narrator still managed to survive and return home to his wife, Marthe, relatively intact. As he tries to explain how more than 10 million men could have gone off to wage war without any understanding of its causes or consequences, even the narrator seems at a loss to find the logic underlying this tragic moment in history.

Although I especially enjoyed seeing actual footage of the weapons (cannons, tanks, etc.) from that period -- and Marc Tomasi's powerful musical score is a major asset to the film -- the basic lesson that no one ever seems to learn is that war is simply not worth the human carnage it demands in the name of patriotism.

In an age when LGBT Americans are still being asked why "real American" soldiers should be required to share a foxhole or shower with them, it's highly instructive to see what life was like in the trenches of war nearly 100 years ago. These are not metaphorical trenches, but the actual trenches that were dug by soldiers as a strategic move.

While this documentary also includes footage from fictional movies that were made about World War I, it is the restored and colorized archival footage that leaves the deepest impression. Because there is so little archival footage available about the World War I, 14-18: The Noise and the Fury is a deeply affecting experience. Here's the trailer:


1 comment:

Adam and Nick said...

Great article. Thank you for articulating the one primary reason as to why I did not attend the silent film at this years fetival. I was appauld by how many cine lovers weren't even bothered by this.