Apologies for the lack of posting here lately, just as I was behind on things anyway I was struck down with the lurgee!
This year has been so frenetic that I pretty much skim-shopped the Cine-City film festival, usually an annual staple! I did manage, however, to take in the two live soundtracks at the Duke of Yorks –David Thomas’ take on ’Carnival of Souls’ (of Pere Ubu fame, but this time assisted by the Two Pale Boys) and 65daysofstatic’s ’Silent Running’. (Incidentally, you are supposed to spell the band’s name like that, as one word.)
If the sound of the two bands couldn’t be more different (Wikipedia describes 65days as “instrumental post-rock” while Thomas has explicitly defined the Two Pale Boys sound as “indy arthouse films”) then perhaps the two films couldn’t be more different either.
’Silent Running’, released in 1972, was the first directorial effort of Douglas Trumbull, who’d been SFX wizard on ’2001’ and others of a similar ilk. (He would only direct one more film.) Though small compared to others he worked on, it’s budget was huge compared to ’Carnival of Souls’, made a decade earlier. This was the only film by Herk Harvey, produced and directed in three weeks’ downtime from his day job of making industrial and educational films. The cheapest of B flicks, it first sank without trace but then resurfaced as a cult classic.
What makes ’Carnival of Souls’ such a horror classic, despite so little horrific actually happening in it, is it’s indeterminancy. You’re not just unsure what’s going on in it, you’re even unsure what kind of film it is – is it cheesy B-horror, a straight-faced parody of all that or some psychological art movie? The elements seem to shift around without settling. (This is surely what made it such an acknowledged influence on Romero’s ’Night of the Living Dead’.)
Though Thomas gave the film a brief introduction, he was smart (and archetypically playful) enough to avoid taking any kind of angle. Instead, both his words and his score played up those ambiguities. The music seemed as indeterminate as the film, taking in Sixties jazzy pop, woozy broken-trombone film noir soundtrack and dark ambient electronics, much of it at the same time.
And like all great soundtracks it never tried to dominate. Officially described as an “underscore”, it worked almost as the film’s unconscious, worrying away beneath the surface. It could drop away to a whispered presence, or for long stretches even lapse into silence. But like an undertow it could as quickly change currents and stir itself up into dominance. Just like the dream sequences in the film, it would sometimes seize control.
’Silent Running’ is probably one of those films you need to see at the right age, which in my case I did. (Early teens, since you asked.) It’s a kind of SF parable, with a blatant (and fairly hippified) ecological message. (The original score has, I kid not, Joan Baez songs on it!) There’s long sequences of geodesic domes in space, housing the last plant life of the earth, tended by an astronaut gardener (played by Bruce Dern) and a team of diligent robots.
An astronaut gardener tending a geodesic dome in space... there’s something of having it both ways in that image. We get our fix of huge spaceships but at the same time can tell ourselves we’re decent citizens concerned about ecology. (Though of course in ’72 perhaps any kind of ecological message was an advance.) I’d be fairly certain that it was this combination which attracted 65daysofstatic.
Certainly their intricate yet explosive musical outbursts worked well with the extended SFX sequences. However, you couldn’t help but wonder whether those were the “money shots’ – the moments which had attracted them, but which then obligated them to soundtrack the rest of the film.
When the Two Pale Boys fell silent, you felt the silence was part of their intent – like white space being incorporated into artwork. When 65days fell silent you sometimes wondered whether they were just waiting for the spaceships to come back. At other points they would drown out the dialogue. (Okay, it’s the sort of film where you can fill in the dialogue for itself.)
And not all of what they played was great. The band clearly like the piano-based ’Burial Scene’ enough to stream it on their site, yet it doesn’t really cut it for me. Though I don’t know the band’s recordings so well, I’ve seen them live a few times and can report they’re not merely about bombast – they’re quite up to providing light and shade. The problem, then, can’t be in them coming up with quieter sections - but must be the essential soundtrack question of moulding their music to the film.
Though much of the music was splendid stuff, I’m not sure it was soundtrack music. I suspect the band were taking sections of the film to use as their rock videos. (I’ve seen them play live to video projections before.)
In a nutshell, while one soundtrack made the film a backdrop, the other was so firmly wedded it would never work without it.
Part of 65days’ soundtrack from Bestival...
’Carnival Of Souls’ was never copyrighted, and you can see the whole thing (unsegmented) on YouTube, or even download from here. (Nothing on-line from Thomas’ soundtrack, however...)