Fever dream: Dengue Fever finds drama in creating a score for "The Lost World." (Photo courtesy SFFS)

Holtzman: Psychedelic Cambodian Rock in 'Dengue Fever'

Michael Fox April 15, 2009

Talk about your formative movie memories: West Marin native Zac Holtzman recalls seeing his first flick—a little monster yarn called King Kong—at the impressionable age of 3 in the Inverness community center. But the guitarist and songwriter of Dengue Fever had never heard of its silent-era precursor, The Lost World, until SFIFF programmer Sean Uyehara mentioned it.

Uyehara had invited Holtzman and his L.A. bandmates to carry on the SFIFF tradition of writing and performing an original score to a silent film. Holtzman readily agreed, proposing Faust or The Adventures of Prince Achmed, but both titles had recently received the public-performance treatment elsewhere. Presented with The Lost World, and its marvelous visual effects by Willis H. O’Brien, the brilliant pioneer who brought King Kong to vivid, heartbreaking life eight years later, Holtzman was hooked. The Lost World with Dengue Fever unspools Tues., May 5, at the Castro as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Dengue Fever’s sound has been described as a psychedelic version of vintage Cambodian rock’n‘roll, fueled by Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol’s vocal stylings and Ethan Holtzman’s organ and accordion shadings. When I asked how his band’s modern vibe meshed with a black-and-white film made in 1925, Zac Holtzman pointed out that key scenes of prehistoric beasts roaming the Amazon in The Lost World are anything but primitive.

"Parts of the film were very advanced, and some of those scenes are multiple layers of time-lapse animation with dinosaurs running crazy as a volcano erupts," Holtzman explains. "It’s not like we have to pull back for that. That’s calling to be seriously rocking."

Other sections, such as those involving romantic subplots, call for a calmer mood. Adapted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, The Lost World centers on a British reporter who proposes marriage and is summarily informed by his Gladys, "I will only marry a man of great deeds and strange experiences—a man who can look death in the face without flinching!" So our man signs on to an expedition to South America to confirm its leader’s contention that dinosaurs live in the jungle. (Doyle’s book provided only part of the storyline; Wallace Beery’s explorer was inspired by archaeologist Percy Fawcett, who disappeared in the Amazon in 1925.)

Zac Holtzman began the process of composing the score by watching The Lost World on his own with his guitar in his hand and a pad of paper at his side. "I would just kind of jam along and jot down notes," he recounts on the phone from L.A., "and get a feel for the different moods that it brought up within me, and that I thought the director was going for. Then I put down the guitar, and I wrote down every different scene change and when the movie called out for a change in the mood of the music. At that point I started looking back at some of the little ideas that I had going, and just started plugging ‘em in place."

Along with the instrumental passages, there are five numbers that Nimol sings, some in her native language of Khmer and a couple in English, as well as some places where she vocalizes without lyrics. A sample couplet, accompanying a climactic scene late in the film that we won’t divulge, goes: "Falling like a coin/Tossed with a hope and a prayer/Into a wishing well."

Although their songs have been used on various soundtracks, this is the first time Dengue Fever has composed original music for a film. Interestingly, Holtzman rejects the notion that a silent movie, which doesn’t have dialogue that the music must fit under or around, allows the composer and band free rein.

"Yeah, but we also don’t want to get in the way," he declares. "We don’t want the vocals to draw too much attention away from the film. You’re working with the film; you have to remember that. You don’t want to overshadow it. So we just try to stay connected to the film and bring each up together at the same time and follow the moods together." He adds with a chuckle, "I guess that [the lyrics] are in another language will help the audience not to be pulled out of the storyline."

At some point, the band set up a big screen in their studio, projected the film and started playing along to it. "It’s been a constant evolution of our notes getting more and more refined and fixing problematic transitions," Holtzman says, "and fine-tuning the timing of when somebody starts introducing the next song over another song or whether we bring it so some dramatic crash. As we’re watching the movie, it sort of tells us what to do."

Holtzman has a ready answer, therefore, when asked to pinpoint the most fun or exciting stage of the project up to this point. "I’d say it was the first time we made it through the entire film without pressing ‘pause.’ That was a happy moment. That was something to celebrate. It had problems, but you were on your way."

Dengue Fever hasn’t recorded their soundtrack to The Lost World, though Holtzman has the impression that the Castro show will be committed to tape (or disc). Now that the band’s two-disc Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, a documentary about their tour of Cambodia accompanied by a soundtrack they recorded with master Cambodian traditional musicians, has just been released, they’ve begun talking to their manager about additional venues to perform the film score. "There’s the Silent Movie Theater down here in L.A. and we’re looking into what it takes to reserve a copy of the film and possibly set up a date," Holtman says. "We put so much work into it, it would be a shame to only do it once."

Notes from the Underground

Roberto Benigni has chosen San Francisco for the U.S premiere of his one-man seriocomic tribute to Dante Alighieri and 13th- and 14th-century Italian culture, Tutto Dante (Everything Dante). Benigni, who’s been touring the show for the last three years, performs May 26 at Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets are available at Cityboxoffice.com or by dialing (415) 392-4400. … The long list of 2009 Guggenheim Fellows includes Lynn Hershman Leeson and Brooklyn filmmaker (and 1998 Golden Gate Award-winner) Julia Loktev.

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