Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Sean McCourt on Black Francis and The Golem

The San Francisco International Film Festival is chugging along, and will wrap up its festivities on Thursday night with a Vanity Fair-sponsored charity screening of Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson at the Castro Theatre (before that venue embarks on its post-SFIFF schedule with a week-long engagement of Godard's Contempt). I've been averaging about a film a day, and of those films that still have screenings before the festival's end, I can recommend the Secret of the Grain, Ballast and My Winnipeg the most highly.

I'm excited to present a piece on a recent festival event by fellow film junkie Sean McCourt, who has written for the Guardian and elsewhere. Now he lends his skillful observations to Hell On Frisco Bay. Take it away, Sean:

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Beginning with his stint as the principal songwriter and leader of seminal alternative rock band the Pixies, Black Francis (nee Charles Thompson, a.k.a. Frank Black) has made a career of defying the norm, of charting his own course, and of branching out and trying new things, be it with his Pixies band mates, or during his eclectically varied solo releases—so it was not surprising when the announcement was made that he would be taking part in this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, performing his new original soundtrack for the classic silent film The Golem.

A line wrapped around the block at the Castro Theatre on April 25th as fans anxiously awaited the live premiere of the new score for the 1920 film that tells the tale of a Rabbi that creates a creature out of clay and uses supernatural powers to bring it to life. Much of the audience was composed of, as one would surmise, Generation Xers and younger fans of Francis' work. There was, however, a healthy sampling of older people who came to check out the event as well. In any case, it was a full house at the theater, with festival staff getting on a microphone shortly before start time and asking to see if there were any empty seats so that some of the many people still standing outside hoping to get in could be accommodated.

The handpicked group of musicians that Francis selected to work with him for the project was composed of Eric Drew Feldman on keyboards, Joseph Pope on bass, Ralph Carney on horns, Duane Jarvis on guitar, and Jason Carter behind the drum kit. Feldman, Jarvis and Carter have all worked with Francis in the past in different capacities, while the rest of the group has performed with artists such as Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, the B-52s and Angst. Francis and his band, who were already seated and warming up when they were introduced, were positioned on the floor in front of the stage, much like an orchestra at an opera or traditional stage production. Once the lights went down and the film started, the band launched into their material with a quick count-off from Francis, and immediately propelled the audience into the ethereal world of The Golem.

The collection of songs that Francis wrote for the score weaved lyrics that were sometimes based on the proceedings seen on screen (such as when he sang “You be the master/I’ll be the servant” as the Golem followed the Rabbi to the Emperor’s palace), while at other times seeming like he was trying to capture a feeling or emotion instead of telling a straight ahead narrative based on the events in the film. Francis incorporated the loud/quiet/loud dynamic that he has become known for over the past 20 years into the soundtrack, but not as heavily as he once did with the Pixies—the caterwauling noise and guttural screams from the Surfer Rosa era were mostly absent, and he concentrated more on sweet melodies and including some tasty horn licks from Carney into the mix. It's not the first time that Francis has based his songwriting on early films—the Pixies' hit song Debaser (“Got me a movie / I want you to know / Slicing up eyeballs / ha ha ha ho”) was of course written about Luis Buñuel's 1929 surrealist picture Un Chien Andalou, and the Pixies also covered the tune “In Heaven” from David Lynch’s cult favorite Eraserhead.

Since the Golem's soundtrack was written as a collection of songs, as opposed to a consistent background score,there were pauses in between scenes which led to some awkward silences—and opened the door for what was the one big drawback to the evening—the annoying interruptions of "Master of Ceremonies" Roy Zimmerman, who would occasionally interject with what he apparently thought were funny little quips and observations, but they only distracted from the dream-like state that the music and film created together. Pointless cracks about scenes being available on You Tube and comparing the Golem's hairstyle to that of "Diane Feinstein, circa 1986" drew a few chuckles from the audience, but in the grand scheme of things, Zimmerman's microphone should have been cut off—his participation detracted from what was otherwise a largely successful blending of modern music and vintage film.

For those in the audience who had only seen The Golem on home video before, watching it on the grand screen at the Castro was indeed a special treat, not only for the size factor, but also because of the beautiful print that was secured for the occasion. Directed by Carl Boese and Paul Wegener (who also portrayed the Golem), the 1920 film was photographed by Karl Freund, known for his work on Fritz Lang's Metropolis and F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh. The filmmakers blended classic elements of German Expressionism such as strong symbolism and manipulation of light and shadows, and took advantage of sets, designed by Hans Poelzig, that played with the bizarre architecture of the fictional ghetto. All of which was wonderfully complimented by the new music.

All in all, the evening appeared to be a rousing success, the marriage of Francis’ score with the imagery of the film drew an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience at the conclusion of the screening. There is talk of the soundtrack possibly getting a future release, either with the film on DVD, or as a stand-alone album, both of which would be most welcome—though hopefully Roy Zimmerman won’t be allowed to add any sort of commentary track. Perhaps Asteroth can be summoned once again to take care of him.

--Sean McCourt

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