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Sex and the single sea dweller 

Wednesday, Apr 11 2001
This is my favorite time of year, bar none. It's not because of the start of baseball season or the extra hour of daylight or the change in the weather (especially since it's been getting colder instead of hotter -- a fact that my conspiratorial mind believes is a plot by PG&E's cash-starved brass). It's because of the San Francisco International Film Festival. Finally, after months of bland, predictable fare, the SFIFF offers a chance to see unique storytelling, unusual perspectives, and spellbinding photography. Each year I hunker down over the schedule, skimming the relentlessly positive plot outlines, trying to figure out which films are truly "magnetic," "luminescent," and "mind-numbing -- but in a good way." Farces, I've learned, are very hit-or-miss, as are films about how difficult life is after the fall of the Soviet empire. Beware, too, phrases like "highly seductive imagery," which often indicate a complete lack of story.

Sometimes the good films are so plentiful that choosing can be overwhelming (this year there are 29 French films alone!). For this, the 44th festival, music fans have a clear favorite: "Yo La Tengo and Jean Painlevé: The Sounds of Science." Following in the footsteps of last year's silent film accompaniment by Television guitarist Tom Verlaine, the festival convinced the New Jersey--based indie rock trio to compose and perform original scores for silent works by scientific documentary filmmaker Painlevé (1902-1989). For fans of the band, which has created some of the most consistently angelic and cacophonous pop of the past 15 years, this is like spreading six layers of frosting on a chocolate cake.

Doug Jones, film and video programmer for the festival, explained via phone how the band came to be chosen. "After last year, we were trying to decide who else we would really want to see perform with silent films, and Yo La Tengo was at the top of the list."

As fate would have it, the festival staff had an inside connection. At last year's event, Faith Hubley, Yo La Tengo drummer/vocalist Georgia Hubley's mom, was presented with the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award for her innovations in animation. "We just called and asked if they wanted to do it," said Jones, "and they were pretty excited. They've never done anything like this before. They've had songs in films and done soundtracks, but never composed and played live." The festival organizers and the band tossed some ideas back and forth about which films to score; then a staff member suggested Painlevé, and the program fell into place.

Jones explained what made Painlevé's films so perfect for Yo La Tengo: "As he was making films, he pushed the envelope of how to use music. As sound came into films, he moved from using classical to early jazz -- something that no one was using in science films -- and later on got very into experimental electronic music." For his films, Painlevé used everything from Chopin to Duke Ellington to musique concrète pioneer Pierre Henry (whose wild 1967 song "Psyché Rock" was recently remixed by Fatboy Slim and other modern electronica artists). "If Painlevé were still making films," Jones said, "he would've used Yo La Tengo's music."

The son of a French prime minister, Painlevé was one of the first directors to dip below sea level and aim his lens at the aquatic world (Jacques Cousteau, doff your beret). He was also a bit of a perv, focusing his camera on such carnal sea critters as the hermaphroditic mollusk and the pulsating jellyfish. In fact, Painlevé's works were so unstuffily scientific -- full of fucking, fighting, and frolicking -- that he was shunned by his colleagues and embraced by avant-garde artists like Antonin Artaud, Luis Buñuel, and Jean Vigo. "His films were impossible to pigeonhole," Jones said. "They were surreal, artistic, and beautiful." Just like Yo La Tengo's music.

"Yo La Tengo and Jean Painlevé: The Sounds of Science" takes place on Tuesday, April 24, at 7 p.m. at the Castro Theater. The festival will screen eight works, including 1934's L'Hippocampe (The Seahorse), 1965's Les amours de la pieuvre (The Love Life of the Octopus), and 1929's Hyas et sténorinques (about crabs and worms). One look at the blurb for Acéra ou Le bal des sorcières (Acera or The Witches' Dance) -- "Breathtaking dance numbers lead to group sex for some lucky mollusks" -- and you know these films can't miss.

Call 931-3456 or go to for more details.

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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