Monday, April 23, 2012
Better than: Silent films without a score (and tUnE-yArDs without a guitarist).
"You get to look at our behinds," tUnE-yArDs frontwoman Merrill Garbus said as the five musicians onstage turned their backs on the audience to face the screen. Seconds later the lights dimmed and the room was transported to the 1920s, before the cinema and music were forever changed by the talkies.
Last night, as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, the tUnE-yArDs band (Garbus, bassist Nate Brenner, and saxophonists Matt Nelson and Noah Bernstein) and Ava Mendoza accompanied four hilarious silent films starring Buster Keaton (and Fatty Arbuckle): One Week (1920), Good Night, Nurse! (1918), The Cook (1918), and The Haunted House (1921).
The SF Film Society could not have asked a more appropriately modern artist, someone who pushes the boundaries as much as Buster Keaton did in his day. Comparing the somewhat risque Keaton shorts to other films of their era (think Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin), one recognizes how truly ahead of his time he was. Finding a performer as artistically challenging to the status quo as Keaton might have been a challenge in itself if the Bay Area weren't home to one of 2011's biggest music risk-takers. Thankfully for us, Oakland's Merrill Garbus fit the bill and accepted what she called a "fun" and "inspiring" project.
Though the marquee gave all the credit to tUnE-yArDs, the score was a collaboration between Garbus and local guitarist/composer Ava Mendoza. Unlikely though it is, if you ever listened to a tUnE-yArDs album and thought, "something is missing," after last night's performance the answer is obvious: virtuosic electric guitar. It was a surprisingly perfect union. In fact it's hard to imagine what tonight's tUnE-yArDs performance at the Fox Theater will be like without Mendoza's acrobatic, grungy avant-garde stylings.
"If you don't know who she is, you soon will," said the night's MC before the musicians took the stage. He had introduced Mendoza as a "guitar hero" and "wunderkind," but no one sitting near me seemed to have heard of the local prodigy. After the performance, I got his point. With impressive guitar solos to rival the greatest of hair bands, until I see her perform her solo work (which I am putting on my bucket list) Mendoza will be, to me, the Slash (to Garbus's Axl Rose) of silent films.
Other "live score" events, like Mountain Goats' incongruous 2010 performance at the Castro Theatre, can just seem like a band playing their own songs to an arbitrarily chosen movie. Unlike that letdown, Garbus and Mendoza composed four scores that were fitting and well-choreographed for the films they accompanied. From precisely placed sound effects (floor toms marked each step Keaton took on a ladder), to eerie, effects-laden vocals and instrumentation (it's truly amazing how closely the saxophone can approximate human voices), the night's score ran the gamut of styles and approaches. In a particularly memorable moment, Fatty Arbuckle's drunkard character even managed to get Merrill Garbus to sing the National Anthem (in true tUnE-yArDs fashion, with note-bending effects and layers).
Staring intently at the screen, the band members flawlessly juggled watching with performing, and hit their cues with exacting precision. It didn't take long into the first film for the moment everyone was waiting for to arrive: the thus-far instrumental score was pierced by Garbus's signature belting. If you've seen tUnE-yArDs perform before, you know that the sounds Garbus makes are already at times mystifyingly inhuman, or, rather, superhuman. So just imagine what happened last night, when all the usual constraints of "indie music performance," most of which Garbus ignores to begin with, were removed.
Ask an experimental artist to, well, experiment, and things could get too weird. Or, as in last night's case, they could get just weird enough. Without her quintessential face paint, embellished outfits, and catchy choruses to distract from the films, Garbus met Mendoza halfway to create haunting soundtracks that were at the same time modern and appropriate for the silent film era.
Whereas tUnE-yArDs songs can occasionally feel too cacophonous for easy listening, they correspond with the chaotic world of silent slapstick extremely well. Reimagined versions of a few choice tUnE-yArDs songs made appearances at particularly fitting moments. "Bizness" found its moment in a post-op fever-dream pillow-fight scene in which Arbuckle's drunk tries to escape from the No Hope Sanitarium. As the orderlies chase him through the hospital, trying to anesthetize him for another alcoholism-curing surgery, something amazing happened to a song we've long-since categorized and accepted as meaning one thing. The now-familiar chorus lines from "Bizness" took on a whole new meaning: "I'm addicted, yeah. Don't take my life away, don't take my life away."