Friday, June 11, 2010

SIFF, Week Three: Stephin Merritt and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (United States, 1916, 105 mins)

I walk into the Paramount Theatre.  Wow!  According to signs on the glass entrance doors, no photography nor video recording is allowed ("strictly prohibited," it reads).  People take photos, anyway.  I do not, though I could have.  But, unless I could photograph a panorama of the room, and paste it to this post, I would not be able to capture the beauty of this theater.  Plus, it may be too dark for my tiny lens.  Luckily, this photo (from the Wikipedia entry on the Paramount Theatre) does a pretty good job of showing what the inside of the theater looks like:

File:Paramount Northwest 16.jpg

This is looking backwards, though.  I will describe my view looking forward.

The stage includes a huge proscenium arch that must measure fifty feet in height.  Climbing up either side of the arch are two columns of speakers, light brown in color.  On the side walls hang ceiling chandeliers, one on each side.  The chandeliers have looping beads that hang off of them, and a fabricy material that reminds me of the rags that ghosts wear in old horror films.  To either side (and below) these chandeliers hang two more chandeliers, these from the walls (which are adorned with carvings and painted images).  They look more like lamp fixtures than chandeliers, and aren't as decorative as the full chandeliers (one can be see in the bottom left corner of the photo above).

Below these chandeliers, to either side and slightly in front of the stage, are two balconies.  Each balcony houses an organ.  A real organ?  A fake carved organ?  I cannot tell.  Two more speakers, these black, rest on the balcony's surface, one on each side of the theater.

On each wing, to either side of the long rows of seats, stand curtained Roman arches.  They stretch from the front side exits to the back side exits (see above), five on each side.  And the upper balcony is even more insanely beautiful (again, see above).  This is the most beautiful theater I've ever seen, more like the Met than an movie theater.

Onstage sits a large screen.  In front of the stage sits a large organ, creamy-white in color, with some gilt lines following its curves.  I keep thinking about taking photos.  Professional photographers are taking photos.  Now and then a flash from the audience proves that they are taking photos.  Why don't I take some photos?

There are many couples here.  Two rows in front of me, one couple is making out (well, just kissing each other now and then), and the movie has not even started yet.  I see Alexis, one of my fellow volunteers at the Neptune, but she doesn't see me, and is talking to another volunteer.

About five minutes before the show begins, the organist starts tuning the organ (Daniel Hegarty, according to this article).  Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) is there, too, on accordion.  And, of course, Stephin Merritt, who wrote the score.

The director of the festival comes out on stage.  He thanks the sponsors, also the San Francisco Film Festival, who commissioned this piece from Stephin Merritt.  It premiered there in 2009.

During the movie, chimes, bells, a tuba, voices, and sound and voice effects are used.  Also leitmotifs.  Merritt injects humor into the plot and characters.  Sounds a bit like "Yellow Submarine" and Octopus's Garden" mated and had a child.  Audience thinks the film is a comedy.  I don't mind when they laugh at the musical and spoken jokes; I do mind when they laugh at the melodrama.  I don't want to be reminded of the inherent silliness that is to be found in silent films.  I want to enjoy them as seriously as the artists intended them to be.

The original score prevents that, only letting the movie speak for itself when the first underwater film is shown (courtesy of Ernest and George Williamson, who are thanked at the beginning of the movie, since they invented the technique needed to place the cameras underwater). During that sequence, the music falls away, and only pings of sonar can be heard.  It quiets the audience, too, and I feel some of the awe that those first audiences must have felt upon seeing those underwater sequences for the first time.  True, it goes a bit too long, as if the novelty of the images prevented the director, Stuart Paton, or the editors from cutting any part of it out.

The story: a monster has been sighted at sea.  A crew goes out to intercept it, which includes Professor Aronnax (Dan Hanlon), his daughter (Edna Pendleton), and a great harpooner (possibly Neb, played by Leviticus Jones, since Kirk Douglas goes by "Ned" in the Disney classic).  They fall overboard when the "monster" rams their boat.  They are rescued by Captain Nemo (Allen Holubar), and find out that the beast is a machine called a "submarine."  He has traveled 20,000 leagues to get his revenge against a man whom we meet later in the movie, Charles Denver (William Welsh).

Then we cut to Mysterious Island and a bunch of men landing on the island from a hot air balloon.  To greet them on the island is a "Child of Nature" (Jane Gail, wearing a leopard skin, of course).  Captain Nemo's submarine is docking off of its coast.  Soon Charles Denver will come to the island in order to calm his conscience.  Years ago, he caused a woman's death and abandoned her child on the island.  Now he wishes to see if she is still alive.

The movie is in eight parts, each part introduced with a title card and the same irreverent song by Stephin Merritt.  The most loved song of the night is "I Don't Wanna Wear Pants," when one of the members of the hot air balloon tries to get the child of nature to wear Western clothing.  When the song ends, people applaud.

In order to tie together the child of nature and Captain Nemo, the movie shows part of the story "which Jules Verne never told" (which also sparks laughter, even from me).  To get to that point, some strange jumps in the narrative occur, as the film eventually encompasses the fortunes of four groups of people--two groups on the submarine, two on the island (remember, modern narrative technique had only been perfected the year before, with the release of Birth of a Nation).

In the middle of the film, I read intertitles explaining Nemo's new inventions to his "guests."  His "magic window," diving suits, oxygen tanks, air guns, and water chamber (for entering the ocean) will all become a reality by the time this movie is made.  I think how far ahead of his time Jules Verne was.

My main thought throughout the movie, though, is whether the annoying woman behind me, who laughs at everything, even when it's not funny, will laugh if I punch her in the face tell her to shut up be quiet.

The movie ends, the audience raucously applauds the musicians.  They deserve it for the quality of the music, if not for its appropriateness (one commentator on CityArts rightfully calls it "MST3K style mockery" ).  I feel it isn't that great of a film, but maybe it would have been better with better musical accompaniment, and no dubbed-in goofy lines.  I feel the audience is more a Magnetic Fields audience than a silent film audience, to the detriment of the film, and of my movie-going experience.  Note to audience members: just because it's a silent movie doesn't mean you can talk during it.  I rate the whole experience a 3 and the audience a 2.5, but the venue gets a 5.


  1. Awesome new theme!

    Did the musical accompaniment have lyrics? I found out while watching a colourised version of Metropolis (don't even ask, but I assure you I stopped after twenty minutes or so) that bad music was one thing, but lyrics in the accompaniment for a silent film truly are the last straw.

  2. Most of the musical accompaniment was lyric-less, but there were some goofy songs in there (e.g. "I Don't Wanna Wear Pants").

    And thanks. :-)

  3. Sounds like quite an experience. Hope it was fun.

    The sad thing is that the great film adaptation of 20,000 Leagues awaits to be made. I'm sure Stuart Paton made the movie with the best intentions, but there has never been an adaptation of the book that has truly taken on the challenges of Verne's novel for the masterpiece of literature that it is. Even Richard Fleischer's Disney movie really only has James Mason's amazing performance going for it--my problem with that adaptation is that it takes away Nemo's bitter atheism as seen in the novel, and replaces it with that horrid "in God's good time" quite at the end.

    Also, why does Professor Arronax have a daughter in so many of these film adaptations? Apparently the Disney film is the only one where he doesn't have a daughter and where there are no females in the cast (and where Conseil is actually a man--long live Peter Lorre!). That's how it should be. I'm not a sexist and I'm not suggesting that Verne was a chauvinist, but really, the only "female" in the whole story is the Nautilus itself. That Paton's original silent film and those horrible television remakes in the 1990's and beyond often had females cast in some of the major roles is sort of a testament to how little these filmmakers were interested in the story.

  4. I came here through Mr. Ebert's twitter. At first, I thought you would talk about that Disney classic. But I learn about the movie I've never heard before instead. Thank you very much, and I'd love to visit that beautiful theater someday.

  5. Yeah, it's quite a theater.

    And I already thanked Ebert for the twitter plug. :-)

  6. Whoa! Mr. Salvatore, I will have to join in the praise of the above commenter, as this is a rad new "theme," and a marginal improvement (even though I enjoyed your original). This is like a 90 degree turn: the original site hinted at this, but I wouldn't have completely expected this.

    Very nice piece as well, I love the photography. Nice festival coverage here.

  7. My dad is Mr. Salvatore, Nick. You can call me Greg, or Literary Dreamer, or LD. :-)
    And there's more festival coverage to come, just as soon as I finish Blankets for the second time (it's due back tomorrow).

  8. Nice writing and "I don't wanna wear pants" seems to capture the whole experience.

  9. Richard A. NanianJune 22, 2010 at 10:04 AM

    Interesting write-up of the whole experience, including the setting of the theatre. In your description of the audience's response to silent films you mention the medium's "inherent silliness." I've never (even as a child) thought of them as inherently silly. Some of the histrionic acting is, but that is a function of the performance more than the medium. Some slient film actors were quite good. Oh, and one nitpick: you say, "Soon Charles Denver will come to the island in order to calm his conscious," but you mean "conscience." Conscience is what causes us to feel guilt; conscious is an adjective meaning aware.

  10. Indeed, Lon Chaney is one of my favorite actors of all time, but silent films rely on melodrama, which means that some scenes can look over-the-top to modern sensibilities, especially when an "original" score's purpose is to ratchet up the melodrama (as it did in this case).
    As for your second comment, you are exactly right! I try to edit these blogs quickly and efficiently, but errors such as these can occur.

    For more movie reviews, however, you should check out my new blog at, as I have discontinued using this blog (except for selling off the remaining copies of my poetry book).


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