A film's mood can be manipulated to opposite extremes simply by changing the soundtrack from one thing to another. Imagine you are watching a scene of a woman swimming in the ocean. If you hear the theme from Jaws, you know what's coming, but if what you're hearing as you watch her swimming are the cries of gulls, or the sound an outboard motor, or a delicate moment from a Mozart piano sonata, or a loud passage from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," suddenly there are different ways to interpret the image- and the narrative- and you, the viewer, haven't done anything but watch and listen.
While the idea of having live musical accompaniment for a film presentation has been around since the early days of the medium, in recent years its become an increasingly popular kind of event for performing arts companies as a way of expanding the audience for a particular performance. If the San Francisco Symphony were to schedule an evening of all-Bernard Herrmann it would lure a certain audience, but it wouldn't be the same audience as the one that would get excited about attending a screening of Psycho with a live performance of the score by the orchestra.
I like these kinds of presentations, as film and music are both mediums I enjoy, but the more of them I attend the more I realize how difficult it is to get it "just right," and more importantly, how easy it is for such shows to go awry.
A recent example of how to do it right was the stunningly wonderful presentation by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival of Abel Gance's Napoleon, with live accompaniment by Oakland East Bay Symphony- an all day affair which more than lived up to the hype and deserved every single bit of hyperbolic praise written about it.
On the other side of the spectrum, last weekend I attended a show presented by SFJazz which featured a live performance by a band led by guitarist Bill Frisell, accompanying a film by Bill Morrison, in a show billed as The Great Flood. On paper, a collaboration between Frisell, a musician with a deep knowledge of American music, and Morrison, a Guggenheim Fellow who has previously worked with other musicians, sounded great. In the theater, the results were surprisingly disappointing.
Oddly, though there wasn't a single lyric sung the entire night, the show was pitched as part of SFJazz's "Art of the Song" series. The film itself, comprised of little more than historical footage of the catastrophic results when the Mississippi River breached more than 140 levees in 1927, contains no narrative voice-over or dialogue- it's completely silent. The show was essentially Frissell and the band performing a soundtrack to the film onstage while it was screened above them.
The band was great- especially Ron Miles on cornet, whose playing constantly drew my attention to him and away from watching the film showing above his head. Tony Scherr on bass and drummer Kenny Wollesen made for a potent rhythm section behind Frisell's tasty playing, which ranged from hard, metallic squalls to bluegrass-inflected levity. The music was essentially instrumentals which aimed to capture or illuminate the mood of the images of each segment of the film, which each of the musicians viewed on monitors as they performed.
The visual content of the film was interesting- how could it not be given the subject? Though some of it was way too deteriorated to be useful, forcing the viewer to try to make out what was behind the damaged parts taking up most of the screen, overall this footage shot by witnesses on the scene was compelling and well-edited into coherent segments. One particularly memorable sequence showed a well-dressed couple stranded on top of a car as the water rushed by them, continually rising as they stood there helplessly. After a couple of minutes the car started to rock back and forth under the force of the water, and then suddenly they were floating away downstream and off screen, their fate never known to us.
However, unlike Bill Viola's film work for The Tristan Project, which used water imagery repeatedly to great effect, Morrison's images don't enhance a musical experience, they distract from it. Viola's images were slow, often presented in slow motion, and many of the shots were static, allowing the viewer time to interpret their relevance to the music or to create an association with it on their own. Images of a flood, of rushing water shot by old cameras whose playback speed is already faster than what the human eye sees of the same event, moves at a pace that doesn't allow the viewer time to make associations with the music- and here is where the performance failed to create a sustained link between its musical and visual elements. The film needed to be slowed down, to include a voice-over providing dramatic context, or some songs lyrics needed to be sung to evoke something replicating the era or the event.
One could listen to the music or watch the film- but the opportunity to experience both in a meaningful way happened only sporadically and as the unconnected performance progressed it became tedious. Seventy minutes of non-narrated historical footage is a lot to take in. Seventy minutes of music with little context, performed without the intent of building toward a climax or showcasing the music itself, quickly becomes aimless. About fifteen minutes in I realized this was going to be a long night, and I soon felt quite restless, as if water was slowly rising around me, leaving me trapped. I even considered leaving, but didn't. I must not have been the only one feeling this way, as I did observe a few walk-outs, but the performers received a standing ovation from a majority of the audience at the conclusion.