Bit late in reposting my two other SFIFF dispatches from GreenCine Daily, but here they are. New, brief post about Star Trek tomorrow I hope.
SFIFF '09: Dengue Fever vs dinosaurs.
The experience of watching a silent film, especially if you have the rare opportunity to see one on the big screen, can be transportive. I often have found myself drifting off, imagining what it would be like to have seen the film when it originally came out, the experience of watching a movie was just that, an experience -- people dressed up, there was live music before and during the film, the things seen on screen in such a young art form were sometimes the first time they'd ever been seen. It was a magic lantern, indeed.
I had this in mind when I went last night to the San Francisco International Film Fest's presentation of the 1925 silent feature The Lost World, with live musical score by Dengue Fever, at the magical movie palace (and historic landmark) the Castro Theater. At the Castro, one is always put in the proper mood straight away even before the film starts with the delightful stylings of organist David Hegarty, who comes out of the floor on the pipe organ like some musical wizard.
Then came Dengue Fever -- a six member band based out of Los Angeles but inspired by Cambodia. Their music ranges from dreamy pop, lounge-y riffs and psychedelic rock, and are fronted by Chhom Nimol, a Cambodian-born singer with a transportive voice who sings mostly in the Khmer language. While it may on paper seem an odd pairing, this band matched against a classic silent fantasy film based (loosely) on an Arthur Conan Doyle story, it worked.
Harry O. Hoyt's film is both an incredible achievement for its time, with groundbreaking stop motion animation by the legendary Willis O'Brien -- and in places uncomfortably dated, i.e., the actor in blackface playing a Negro stereotype with jaw-droppingly cringe-inducing dialogue, and the silly romantic plots. But despite that and some clunky/incoherent action editing, the film remains quite entertaining. It tells the story of a young reporter named Malone (an earnest Lloyd Hughes) who wants to impress his fickle fiancee, who seems to require he prove his mettle to her by doing something brave. Doesn't matter what, as long as it's brave! So he weasels his way into an expedition led by the crazy-haired professor Challenger (the always memorable character actor Wallace Beery) who wants to prove there are dinosaurs in a lost valley in Africa. The expedition also introduces Malone to Paula White (played by the lovely Bessie Love), daughter of the missing explorer who's diary set off this whole expedition in the first place.
When they reach the magic plateau, they do indeed discover dinosaurs -- as well as an obnoxious ape man and his chimp companion (what their relationship is is never clear, I only assume that they are cousins, at least genetically). They witness several exciting dinosaur battles, all of them involving a rather nasty, hungry Allosaurus, which at one point fights a Brontosaurus, knocking the poor beast off a cliff and into a mud pit. Somehow, Dino survives both the fall and about a month stuck in the mud, and transported back to London (that part is never shown, we'll just assume they had a big boat and a rillly big cage), where something goes awry and the Bronto terrorizes the streets of London (I guess it had given up on its herbivorous diet) before eventually falling down off London Bridge. The film ends with it swimming away, looking awfully Loch Ness Nelly-like. Perhaps this is where the famous footage of the mystical beastie came from!
Clearly the story was a major influence on King Kong, which came out eight years later and for which O'Brien also did the creature animation, but while O'Brien had perfected his technique by the time of Kong, The Lost World is still a most impressive achievement technically. Sure, "...for its time" -- but, again, I pictured how it must have felt to see these creatures come alive on screen for a 1925 audience and give the film its proper due.
But with Dengue Fever's up-tempo, tropicalia, feverishly loungey music accompanying the film, it became even harder to lose interest. There were times where the music mixed with the surreal images on screen when I drifted off into a reverie, my own fantasia of dinosaurs, jungles, Tiki huts, martinis... wait, where was I?
In shows like this the music sometimes comes to the fore, with the film serving more as a backdrop; most of the time it's up to viewer, or dependent on which is more interesting at the moment. There were only a few instances in which I found Dengue's score intrusive or overbearing -- or completely out of synch with the music on screen. More often their score was an aural enhancement.
Dengue Fever provided an amazing soundtrack to what felt like a waking dream, a different kind of lost world than the makers of the silent film probably ever imagined.