Scents and sensibilities: "Good smell is good camera," says Yoshiro Nakamatsu, subject of Kaspar Astrup Schroder's The Invention of Dr. Nakamats. "Bad smell, or no smell, bad camera." Schroder offers a behind-the-scenes filmmaking story in Porchlight's SFIFF edition.

SFIFF53: Ephemeral Film and Music, Live & Onstage

Marc Capelle April 14, 2010

If you imagine the schedule of the San Francisco International Film Festival being built like an enormous circus tent, Opening and Closing nights being the main supports, the remaining tent poles are interactive live experiences. These are not the unique encounters with new films, visiting filmmakers and engaged audiences that distinguish film festivals as a whole from everyday film-going, but a particular array of planned and unplanned discussions, lectures, conversations, music and performance-augmented cinema events that make up what’s called the "Live & Onstage" portion of the Festival. From an address by Walter Murch to what’s termed a "live documentary" by Sam Green to an intimate onstage conversation with T Bone Burnett to the candid storytelling of home-grown Porchlight series to the SFIFF-commissioned Stephin Merritt score for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, "Live & Onstage" delivers a series of once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Walter Murch’s State of Cinema Address has the legendary director-editor sound designer-inventor and North Bay resident Walter Murch discussing not the world digital, but the cultural origins of cinema in centuries past. Murch (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, Tetro) is as comfortable with Edison’s wax cylinders and early filmmaking as he is with digital media. He’s mathematical and analytical enough to calculate the future, yet his continuous actions (by design as well as job description) help to shape the past. Through a discussion of Flaubert, Edison’s early sound and film recordings and the works of Beethoven, Murch plans to revisit the cinematic sense and sensibility of another time. Fitting the Live & Onstage ethos, Murch has referred to the movie audience as an active, collective power that complements and amplifies the cohering experience of film.

Critic Elvis Mitchell, formerly of the New York Times and currently hosting a show on NPR station KCRW, joins recent Oscar winner T Bone Burnett for and evening of conversation on music and film. Burnett has a longstanding reputation in the creative community as a guy who sets the mood. He is extremely smart and literate in a remarkably affable way. The evening promises to be not just a retrospective of a varied and prolific career, but a chance to take in the well noted and refreshing T Bone Burnett vibe.

Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, Burnett is a music lover, a player, a post-production musical guru and an archivist as well as an accomplished record producer. It was 1955, at 17, he bought his first recording studio, Sound City, with some friends. In 1975, he played guitar as a member of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. His first screen role was in 1978 as The Inner Voice character in Dylan’s seldom screened (also unavailable on DVD) film Renaldo and Clara. This led to another onscreen role with his fellow Alpha Band members (including Dylan as sideman), in Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate.

As part of the conversation with Mitchell, T Bone (whose nickname goes back to his early youth and has seemingly untraceable origins) will be screening and discussing not just clips from his work with the Coen Brothers on films such as Brother Where Art Thou, but also films that have influenced his work, including Loving You starring Elvis Presley and the noir classic Gilda.

Like many of the participants in Live & Onstage, Stephen Merritt has a fast microprocessor of a mind. A prolific and unique arranger, gifted melodist and lyricist, Merritt is the creator of the newly commissioned, never-before-performed-for-an-audience score for director Stuart Paton’s 1916 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

On his Magnetic Fields album 69 Love Songs, Merritt sings, "Come back from San Francisco, I’ve quit smoking and I miss doing the wild thing." This time, Merritt brings us back to San Francisco, specifically to the Castro Theatre, performing a score that sounds both unique and wild in the best of ways. In 2010’s warmly wry documentary, Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, Merritt, who went to film school, says he always expected to be involved in the film world, declaring, "Not being involved in the film world is almost like being mute." The volume should certainly be on for this evening.

Merritt’s score is specifically notated for the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ and its unique qualities and stops as played by the house organist, David Hegarty. We can look for instrumental contributions from Magnetic Fields touring group member, local resident and author Daniel Handler on the accordion. Longtime Merritt associate Johnny Blood will be rounding out the group on tuba.

In-person narration and music together with projection, in all senses of the word, create the "live documentary" that is Sam Green and Dave Cerf’s Utopia in Four Movements, a Sundance favorite. It’s a gorgeous philosophical travelogue with 21st century sensibilities and sounds detailing everything from the birth of Esperanto to the building of world’s largest mall in South China to the science of exhuming mass burial sites.

When I spoke with Green, who lives in the Mission district, he was excited to perform the movie in San Francisco, saying "Now is a time where there is so much possibility for form. This could not be done five years ago. You couldn’t have projected high definition video on a laptop. We are taking a film and pushing it into performance while still trying to keep it in the universe of film."

Expecting the unexpected might be the key phrase to describe A Drunken Evening with Derek Waters and Wholphin, which SF Film Society programmer Sean Uyehara describes as "the loosest night of the Film Festival." Comedian and filmmaker Derek Waters is essentially riding a rocket to fame, as best I can tell. He re-voiced the ’70s Hanna-Barbera cartoon show Sea Lab for The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, and more recently has written for The Sara Silverman Program. He is the creator of the Drunk History series of videos, many of which will be hollered, ordered, and hiccupped over in this night of inebriation and comedy. Note to all in attendance: There will be drinks and perhaps ultimately, drunks.

Which leads me to an event close to my piano and my heart: Porchlight brings True Stories from the Frontiers of International Filmmaking to the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. The monthly San Francisco series (now in its eighth year) offers the Festival an evening of impromptu storytelling hosted by Arline Klatte and Beth Lisick under the theme "Behind the Scenes." Stories will be coming from four Festival film directors–Kaspar Astrup Schroder (The Inventions of Dr. Nakamats), Pedro Gonalez Alamar (Rubio), Che Sandoval (You Think You’re The Prettiest But You Are the Sluttiest) and Jonn Herschend (Embrace of the Irrational)–as well as vocalist and pianist Claudia Gonson from the Magnetic Fields, plus a few key audience members issuing three-minute masterpieces off the cuff. It’s the third Porchlight at the San Francisco International, and it’s always been an under-the-radar, over-the-top, live yet ephemeral success.

Marc Capelle’s pop and soul group, Marc and the Casuals, will be part of the festivities this year. Capelle performed and co-composed the score to Frank Borzage’s Street Angel in 2005’s SFIFF. He also helped to produce compose and perform sections of Notes to a Toon Underground, a program of silent animations with live music that also featured Xiu Xiu, Jason Lytle, Good for Cows, and Jet Black Crayon in 2007. He was recently named Director of Music for the San Francisco International Film Festival.

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