Yo La Tengo
Jean Painlevé: The Sounds of Science

Castro Theatre
April 24, 2001

Projects that attempt to marry older works with the new influences are always sort of risky. Luckily for us, old Jean Painlevé was a bit of a philosopher kook, both in his own age and our current one. Painlevé was a French oceanographer who used diverse musics to accompany his documentaries, everything from jazz to experimental works. In keeping with this, the programmers of the S.F. Film Festival brought in Yo La Tengo to score an original sonic backdrop to Painlevé’s short films, collectively titled Jean Painlevé: The Sounds of Science.

Painlevé was a pioneer on several fronts: together with a collegue, he created the world’s first handheld steady cam. He was also one of the first to shoot film footage underwater. He considered documentaries to be a pure artform and had no tolerance for films that didn’t push the envelope in some way. One website we found offered this quote from Painlevé, "You who do not practice the defeatist motto: "It's better than nothing"; you who have a strong enough cinematic eye to impose it on subjects you feel something for; you who will not agree to make a film about sugar production for the simple reason your grandfather was diabetic; you who scorn saccharine sentimentality and refuse to disfigure a work with it. It is you who hold the fate of the documentary--battered and bruised by a thousand blows from all sides--in your hands." While these are the lofty passions normally associated with a serious academic, Painlevé also possessed an atypical sense of humour that permeated his films in the form of intricately details subtitles. This is clearly evident in films with titles like "Lovelife of the Octopus".

It is this playful attitude that YLT were able to capitalize on. The music that they performed wasn’t a heavy handed attempt to underline what was taking place on screen. Instead, the score seemed to be borne of a desire to interact with scenes, not overpower them. The first film, "Sandcrab" began with a single annuciated twang of electric guitar and progressed into a gentle melody without drawing attention to the band. YLT did such a good job, in fact, that many of us were having a hard time taking in the entire scene at once. Part of your brain was enchanted by the gorgeous aquatic scenery, part of your brain was cracking up at the hilarious subtitles, and part of your brain was shouting, "That’s bloody Yo La Tengo down there, performing a totally original score that no one outside of this theater has heard yet! I am a total bad ass for being here!".

One of the major contributors to this incredible evening was the crowd. There was a mellow vibe that carried on after the show as people ambled up trade a few words with Georgia, Ira and James after the show. Given that it was sort of a "rock show without the rock venue", it brought everyone we know out of the woodwork, especially our former concert-going pals who are now mommys and daddys. We watched hundreds of reunions while standing in line waiting for the show to start, and happily got to take part in a few ourselves. It’s nights like this when being in a city that 7x7 miles is heartwarming, not confining.

Jean Painlevé: The Sounds of Science
Hyas and Stenorhynchus (Hyas et sténorinques) Crabs and worms sport surprising, spectacular plumage. (1929, 13 min.)

The Seahorse (L'Hippocampe) Ever wonder where seahorses come from? Painlevé's most famous film will show you. (1934, 13 min.)

Sea Urchins (Oursins) These prickly creatures sway and explode to the rhythms of the sea. (1954, 11 min.)

How Some Jellyfishes Are Born (Comment naissent des méduses) The sea's most alien creatures pulsate their way into existence. (1960, 14 min.)

Shrimp Stories (Histoires de crevettes) The days and nights of everyone's favorite crustacean. (1964, 13 min.)

The Love Life of the Octopus (Les amours de la pieuvre) The intimate details of an octopus prove eerily mesmerizing. (1965, 13 min.)

Acera or The Witches' Dance (Acéra ou Le bal des sorcières) Breathtaking dance numbers lead to group sex for some lucky mollusks. (1972, 13 min.)

Liquid Crystals (Cristaux liquides) Chemical reactions produce images of pure abstract color and form. (1978, 7 min.)

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