I've always loved the Silent Film + Live Music programs at SFIFF. THE GENERAL with the ALLOY ORCHESTRA at the Castro was one of my favorite movie experiences ever. They came back for Murnau's SUNRISE which was awesome. Guy Maddin's BRAND UPON THE BRAIN was one of the coolest things I've ever seen. And last year Dengue Fever rocked THE LOST WORLD. And then there's what Stephin Merrit did to 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA last Tuesday.
First, the movie. 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1916): The story is familiar--Captain Nemo in his Nautilus terrorizes the sea, out for revenge against those who wronged him. This movie is also famous for its groundbreaking underwater cameras by the Williamson Brothers (and like any new technology, as cool as it is it was overused to the point of slowing down the plot. Still, cool as hell to see it). And it's a solid, exciting adventure and romance story.
In life, Jules Verne didn't get the acclaim in English-speaking countries that he got in his native France, mostly because of poor translations. For example, Verne was very precise about measurements and dimensions in his stories, however many translators were unfamiliar with the metric system and simply translated the numbers with some similar English standard unit attached, rendering his meticulous dimensions into mathematical gobbledygook. And last Tuesday, over 105 years after he passed away, Jules Verne was the victim of another horrible interpretation.
Stephin Merrit (of The Magnetic Fields) designed a score that mocked and distracted from the movie, rather than accompanied it. The few moments where he knocked off the tricks and actually used music (especially the mighty Wurlitzer played by Castro organist David Hegarty) were nice, and showed glimmers of what could've been. And I could even tolerate Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) singing the falsetto refrain "20,000 leagues under the sea/That's where I want to go/And as long as you'll be there with me/That's all I need to knooooow!" once or twice--but not the hundred times it felt like. But the rest of the time, Handler was screeching the women's lines into a megaphone, Merrit was mumbling the male lines into another megaphone, and I was puzzling over 1) the difference in volume between the two, and 2) why a silent film needed added dialogue anyway. It works fine as a silent! Other annoyances: screams of fright that go on longer than the attack and underwater "bubble" sound effects during scenes on dry land (I was thinking everyone in the scene was supposed to be gassy?)
I've heard other people liked it. And generally I try to be a generous reviewer, making excuses for why I didn't enjoy it. But not this time.
I could point out that most people there (at least up near the front) were Stephin Merrit/Magnetic Fields fans, and I was there as a film fan (and silent film fan especially), so maybe I didn't "get it" the way his fans would. But screw that, it's a silent film at a film festival, a film fan should be in the target audience. I "got it" well enough, it just sucked.
Perhaps I was sitting in the wrong place, that the sound works better further back. But screw that, if you can't make your show work for the front row, you've lost me.
Biggest disappointment in the festival. But again, the movie is good. I'd like to see it with just a simple musical accompaniment sometime.
Running Time: 84 minutes
My Total Minutes: 184,400