Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The World Premiere of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Stephin Merritt

Debuted last night at the Castro Theater as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. Advance tickets had already sold out by the time I got around to buying them, so I waited in the "please take pity and let me in" line before the show. By some insane stroke of luck that I would never have dreamed of, my friend and I managed to get tickets. I'd like to send a shout out to Ellen for making that happen; I can't thank you enough! This was an absolutely incredible show, and I'm thrilled that I got the chance to see it.

The film itself is pretty great. I spent a fair amount of time during high school and college breaks watching silent films on late night TV* so I've developed an affinity for silent films. Never saw 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with the original score,** nor have I read the book, but the writers were pretty liberal in their creative adaptations of the plot. They took some stuff from Verne's Mysterious Island, threw in some of their own thoughts on the origin of Captain Nemo, and voila! we have the 1916 silent film.

One of the things that I found especially fascinating was the underwater footage. I believe that this was the first major motion picture with scenes filmed underwater, and I was really amazed that they were able to do so. Was wondering exactly how they went about this in 1916, and the most informative piece that turned up on the subject provided a really neat explanation.

Despite that technical achievement, there were some giggle-worthy moments in a couple scientific premises in the film. One, that at the bottom of the ocean the sun shines as brightly as it would in Caribbean shallows. Also, that they could have self-contained diving suits (sweet as they may be) with an unlimited supply of oxygen. They also didn't really seem to grasp that things don't really work the same way in water that they do on land/air. That is, walking underwater is not the best way to get from here to there, and swimming probably would've been the way to go. And you think digging in the dirt on solid land is laborious, try digging in the sand underwater to really get some frustration!

All that being said, as magnificent as the movie was, the score composed by Stephin Merritt was phenomenal and made the movie 1,000 times better. I am a Magnetic Fields et. al. fan, but I don't fall into the category of blind devotee to all of Merritt's creative work. However, this performance elevated him from just talented to probable genius in my eyes.

He did an outstanding job of composing a score that united rolling, folksy, sailor-y songs with more modernish ambient noise soundage. There was muffled dialogue added to the scenes that was spot on. I know that probably doesn't make much sense without any references, and I don't know that there's really anything I can say to do the piece justice, but it was a brilliant composition that was perfect for the film.

Have to say that Stephin Merritt can't get all the credit, as his accompanists (yay for live performances) David Hegarty, the Castro Mighty Wurlitzer organist, and Daniel Handler, author of Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events, deserve some mad props too. My only regret is that we were seated too far back to be able to see the musicians. I don't know if/when there will be more shows, but if you get the chance, I definitely recommend going!

* If you've ever been up in the wee hours of the morning searching for something watch, you'll understand just how slim those pickings are to settle on silent films as the viewing choice.

** But if you want you can watch it online for free, albeit without the amazing score from Stephin Merritt. Hooray for public domain!

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