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Yo La Tengo Go Under the Sea

Indie rockers accompany film shorts at SF festival

Posted May 01, 2001 12:00 AM

Surrealist, undersea documentary filmmaker Jean Painlevé isn't a name that is regularly conjured, even by film scholars, yet that didn't dissuade indie-rock's Yo La Tengo from accompanying a series of his short science films with a live set at the Castro Theater last week, as part of the 42nd annual San Francisco International Film Festival.

Neither Ira Kaplan, the band's de facto spokesperson, nor his wife, drummer Georgia Hubley (whose mother, Faith Hubley, is an award-winning avant-garde filmmaker), had heard of Painlevé. But when the San Francisco International Film Festival offered the group the chance to score a silent film and present it with live accompaniment, the band jumped at the chance to step out of the rock arena and into art-house cinema.

"It was really the look that attracted us," says Kaplan, of why they chose Painlevé's groundbreaking, psychedelicized science shorts as opposed to a more obvious, black and white, silent feature film. "One of the reasons we chose these movies as opposed to a feature was that matching the sound to the action seemed counter to the way we work," says Kaplan. Painlevé was the first to shoot marine life underwater. A Frenchman and contemporary of surrealists Man Ray and Luis Buñuel, he pioneered the art of documentary and science filmmaking in the 1920s with his partner, Geneviéve Haron. Together they captured vivid -- sometimes scary and sometimes sensual -- pictures of lives of underwater creatures, documenting such phenomenon as the mating rituals of jellyfish and octopi. Painlevé's most famous title is The Seahorse, to which Yo La Tengo added a gentle but sometimes foreboding soundtrack to the misty undersea goings-on of the magical and unique creature.

Another short, Liquid Crystals was an anomaly in the program, "for its lack of fish matter," laughs Kaplan. He chose the film for its fantastic, Technicolor imagery -- a free-form film of growing crystals, their movements resembling time-elapsed Magic Grow-Rocks or a liquid light show from the Sixties. To those images, Yo La Tengo provided a high-pitched sonic barrage of mind-bending feedback and distortion. "We thought, 'Yeah, let's do a freak-out,'" says Kaplan.

"On the last one I played percussion, which meant I was in front and got to watch the movies for a change, and that was the highpoint . . . watching that last film," says McNew. "The print was just so amazing. I think I would've become a scientist if I'd seen films like that early on!"

"I had this notion that underwater film was all like Jacques Cousteau," adds Kaplan, "but these were just so full of life and ingenuity and exuberance."

The guitarist admits somewhat sheepishly that the band didn't view the films very much before deciding on the music. "Georgia and James had settled on which movie would go with which piece, and I don't ever remember ever changing our minds," he says. "With the exception of the crystals one, any of our pieces would've worked with any of the movies. The music brought out qualities in the film-and vice versa."

When it came to performing the program live, however, the improvisational spirit that has come to be more a part of what Yo La Tengo does as a rock band prevailed. "All of the pieces were improvisational," explains Kaplan. "We did the whole thing at sound check, but the performance was really different."

As fans of contemporary film and its relation to music, Yo La Tengo admit to having aspirations toward film scoring and soundtrack work -- but as to where the relation between the Yo Las and movies is going in the immediate future, everything's still very conceptual. "I think it would be easier to [score] for a modern movie. But scoring another silent would be intriguing," says Kaplan. He admits the idea that film work could offer a respite from the thirteen-year touring and recording grind the band has doggedly pursued is appealing. And to the band's surprise, after the screening and performance at the SF Film Festival, Yo La received interest from other regional film festivals and an offer from the Painlevé archive to organize an event with the Cinematéque Française.

The band is even entertaining releasing the music from the performance, but, says McNew, "we'll have to listen to it first."

DENISE SULLIVAN
(May 1, 2001)

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