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Here's to shutting up 

Superchunk has a score to settle

Wednesday, Apr 17 2002
At last year's San Francisco International Film Festival, one of the most popular events was Yo La Tengo's live original score for Jean Painlevé's silent aquatic shorts. When the festival's director of programming, Carl Spence, was setting up this year's event, he wanted to find another soundless film to pair with an indie rock band. Luckily, one of the SFIFF's staff members had visited the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Sacile, Italy, last October and attended a screening of Teinosuke Kinugasa's 1926 classic, Kurutta Ippeji (A Page of Madness). The movie -- which tells the story of a man who works at an insane asylum to be close to his wife, who's a patient there -- was thought to be a lost masterpiece until 1971, when Kinugasa rediscovered it hidden in a rice barrel in his garage. Although the film rarely screens in this country, critics hail it as Japan's foremost example of expressionism, replete with the genre's trademark skewed camera angles, interior perspectives, and nightmarish imagery.

When Spence put the word out that he was looking for a band to repeat last year's event, he got a call from the Chapel Hill quartet Superchunk, which shares booking agents with Yo La Tengo. Superchunk has an even richer pedigree than YLT, having been one of the most influential indie rock bands of the early '90s. With tunes like "Slack Motherfucker" and "Skip Steps 1 & 3," the Chunk wrapped Gen-X ennui in a ball of blazing guitar and yelping vocals, showing other musicians that the basic band format could still kick ass. (Superchunk also remained resolutely indie, refusing major label overtures in order to release its efforts on its own Merge Records.)

By the time of the band's 1997 LP, Indoor Living, however, its formula seemed in dire need of an update. All of its songs began to fit into one of two categories: exuberant fuzzy-guitared pop or wistful fuzzy-guitared ballads. Rethinking its sound and expanding its palette, Superchunk added horns, keyboards, and strings to 1999's Come Pick Me Up and last year's Here's to Shutting Up.

As for why he was drawn to the band, Spence says, "They're really mavericks in their field. They make amazing music and have a range that extends beyond the usual indie rock world." Probably more to the point, the group's leader, Mac McCaughan, had previous experience with scoring the soon-to-be-released Canadian dramedy Looking for Leonard. It remains to be seen how Superchunk will integrate its caterwauling sound with the off-kilter eeriness of A Page of Madness, but Spence looks forward to "bringing together two audiences that are rarely seen together: silent film fans and Superchunk fans."

While the Superchunk event may appeal to youngish music fans, two documentaries at the SFIFF could prove interesting to a grayer constituency. Ravi Shankar: Between Two Worlds focuses on the 82-year-old master of the sitar, and Van Van, Let's Party showcases Los Van Van, Cuba's favorite party combo for the past three decades.

Ravi Shankar is constructed like one of the Indian musician's traditional ragas, starting slowly before building to a fever pitch. The portrait includes rare clips of Shankar touring France with his brother's dance troupe in the '30s, traveling to Russia with his own group in 1959, and giving George Harrison sitar lessons in the late '60s. He also has a lovely way with storytelling, whether he's discussing a meeting with John Coltrane just before the saxophonist's death, a trip to Hollywood when starlets offered to adopt him, or live sets at Monterey Pop and Woodstock, which led to his distaste for hippie culture. The movie's director, Mark Kidel, sprinkles footage of live performances from as far back as 1954 throughout the film, ably showing why Shankar's classically based improvisations remain vital today.

Van Van, Let's Party is a less successful musical tribute. Trying to duplicate the vibe of 1999's Buena Vista Social Club, the documentary slaps together nonsensical interviews with Los Van Van's members, gratuitous shots of people in the streets singing lines from the band's songs, and surprisingly unmoving clips from live performances. There's little here for the uninitiated, as the movie makes no attempt to explain why Los Van Van has built such a loyal following (or why, during its first trip to Miami in 1999, the group was stoned by anti-Castro protesters). One of the great rules of art is "show, don't tell," but this film could've used more telling and less showing.

Ravi Shankar: Between Two Worlds screens Saturday, April 20, at 6:45 p.m. at the AMC Kabuki and Thursday, April 25, at 9:15 p.m. at the Pacific Film Archive. Superchunk performs its original score for A Page of Madness on Tuesday, April 23, at 7 p.m. at the Castro Theatre. Van Van, Let's Party shows on Saturday, April 27, at 9:45 p.m.; Monday, April 29, at 10 a.m.; and Tuesday, April 30, at 4:15 p.m. at the AMC Kabuki. Call (925) 275-9490 for ticket info or go to

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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