In Other Words: States of Cinema, Music and Mind

Eve O'Neill May 8, 2008

Hard-working Eve O’Neill writes, on assignment, about the music and moods of SFIFF51.

If you had to describe a movie to someone who had never seen one, what would you say? That it’s a story, maybe, assembled from bits of pictures and audio, projected in a theater, in front of an audience.

“There are no movies without music,� were the words uttered by Kevin Kelly last Saturday at the State of Cinema Address. He offered this sentiment amongst a host of other mind-blowing predictions for the future of cinema, among them the idea that digital media will not eliminate cinema, but rather liberate it from being anything other than what it was intended.

These ideas were not intended as facts, just predictions fished from the deep and unfathomable ocean of the future of media, but it struck me just the same. There are not movies without music.

Months ago I politely begged for the opportunity to cover the music films and events during SFIFF 50. The integration of music and film as a live, inseparable experience has never been so obvious. The Golem, which screened night two of the festival at the Castro, is a 1920’s German expressionist film that was re-imagined by adding a live score written and performed by Frank Black of the Pixies. (Nothing was done to this film except rewriting its soundtrack—and suddenly an almost 100-year-old movie is selling out the Castro Theatre to a 20- and 30something crowd.)

Much to his dismay, Frank Black will never be able to dissociate his persona as a solo artist from the time he spent as Black Francis, front man of the Pixies. Despite a 14-album solo career spanning over 15 years, it was the vocal dynamic used by Black in the early years with the band that became the most definitive trademark of his songwriting—a vocal pattern called loud quiet loud. You will be hard pressed to find actual literature discussing the technique in such terms that it can be defined, let alone attributed to anyone, but put on the song Tame from the album Doolittle, and voila. The sound that birthed all of ’90s alternative rock as we know it.

The score Black imagined for The Golem had lyrics, surprisingly, something I had never before associated with silent film. He isn’t that great of a lyricist, but he understands the emotional contrast in the delivery of words. This is a hard thing to detect on a recording; the compressed audio does not sound the same way when it’s heard straight from mouth to ear. If you have a million dollar stereo in your living room, you will hear Frank Black yell and then whisper, but you won’t hear loud quiet loud the way it rolls off the microphone when he sings it in front of you.

Black has always gleaned inspiration from different sources. His 2007 album Bluefinger was conceptualized around the Dutch painter Herman Brood. SVN FNGRS are a set of songs inspired by the Irish legend of Cúchulainn. In a brief interview with after the show he states that the reason he took on the project wasn’t so much an affinity for the subject matter “I had seen Nosferatu and Caligari, sure,â€? but for the sake of having the “catalyst of a film to write to.â€?

The movie was the conductor of the band for that evening. It provided the cues for the music, brought to life a bit of drama, inspired the creator of the sound. If we listened to a recording of The Golem soundtrack, the conductor would be all but invisible.

I saw Glass: A Portrait in Twelve Parts when it screened at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Philip Glass is unique: he has no contemporary, Danny Elfman and John Williams are who come to immediately, that share the particular ire that Glass occasionally withstands as a modern day composer.

He calls himself a composer of "music with repetitive structures." In the documentary, Glass points to Ravi Shankar as one of the many musicians that had a profound effect on the way he developed as an artist. It was Indian music that revealed to him for the first time a musical structure that transposed the melody with the harmony. There is performance of live Indian music in the film that illustrates what Glass is talking about. This particular piece was driving, passionate, frantic—and it just kept going and going without ever reverting to a chorus line or a thematic melody the way western music does.

Glass took this idea and put it into his music. Some people love the resulting trademark; an almost laborious repetition of musical phrases and intervals. Some people hate it. It has spawned critical acclaim, snarky New York Times cartoons, and the attention of some of the greatest film directors of our time.

My personal habit was to skip over the tracks when they came up on my computer at home. I never had an opinion until the summer I decided I was going to train for a marathon and my iPod fatefully shuffled onto Glass’s “Music in Fifths.â€? I was no longer training. I was in a Nike commercial.

My running got better, my zeal increased. Inanimate objects suddenly held a quiet captivation because the movement of the music had been freed into a moving world. It was not relegated to the static box of my apartment. If there was ever a case to make for the significance of music as a visual experience, it would be remiss in leave out the work of Philip Glass. I no longer feel that “repetitivenessâ€? is an excuse for disliking something—have you listened to pop music recently?—but not getting the chance to feel something in the context of which it was built will have the most astute listeners reverting to this argument.

I’ve noticed that Glass’s music is extremely effective in a movie theater, and not so much on TV. The sheer size of a movie screen can put you into a world you can meditate upon.

Cacaho: Uno Mas had its world premiere at SFIFF at the Sundance Kabuki on Monday, April 28. Made in honor of legendary Cuban musician Israel “Cachaoâ€? Lopez, (who just died this past March, at the age of 89, less than a month before the screening) the dark theatre went a long way to replicate the lush, sexy, incredibly festive world of the film—a live show recorded at Bimbo’s 365 Club in 2005. The show was interspersed with a few nice testimonials from Cuban musicians and an interview Cachao did at an empty Cigar Bar & Grill (a bar in San Francisco that features live latin jazz nightly) with actor Andy Garcia.

Cachao, in exactly the same way as Glass, took a simple, fixed musical tradition (in his case, the use of percussion as background, or simply a metronome for the band) and made a slight revision. He moved percussion to the forefront of the arrangement. Cachao invented the mambo. He is considered a master of descargas, aka, a Latin jam session. He brought the bass, again an instrument used traditionally as the musical undercurrent in an arrangement, and brought it front and center. And amplified it. It’s arguable that modern day R&B exists because of this man.

The documentary was not long, clocking in at 68 minutes. Director Dikayl Rimmasch did a nice job of letting the music, and the audience at the show, convey the mood. Garcia would hop in with a bit of exposition every now and then, explaining the beat of the cha cha cha, for example, but remained unobtrusive.

I was never, ever able to pin down the beat of a mambo. I couldn’t replicate it let alone described it if you asked. But I saw people in the film dancing to it. I forget how easily music gets removed from its purpose—at 89 years old Cacaho played through every major war in the past century. There is nothing written or ever said that this had any influence on him or his work—but I like to believe that it had an effect on his audience. When Cachao sat down and wrote a composition, I like to think that the bass line didn’t click, even for him, until it was late at night and the crowd started to form and froth and pack the club, a whole room of people anxious to escape reality, to renew themselves, to have something move them, to dance.

In the words of Kevin Kelly, if movies are going to finally be able to “be what they’ve always wanted to beâ€? it is my greatest hope that music gets to reemerge as what it has always been—an experience that feeds on live energy, an art form that removed from electronic reproduction has a chance to resonate in the subconscious—and made more accessible and interesting and complex by our visual society than ever before.