SFIFF Review: Merrill Garbus and Ava Mendoza present Buster Keaton Shorts at The Castro Theater, 4/23/12

by Dakin Hardwick on April 26, 2012

Photo by Pamela Gentile, courtesy of San Francisco Film Society

One of the great traditions of the San Francisco International Film Festival has been pairing up an indie rock band with a classic silent film. In past years these have always been classier films, such as 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea or A Page Of Madness. It seemed to be a risky move to do something as populist as the slapstick comedy of Buster Keaton. Of course, in a genius move, they called upon Merrill Garbus, the mastermind behind Oakland’s experimental pop outfit tUnE-yArDs to compose and perform an all new score for four classic Buster Keaton short films. Garbus called up local avant garde guitarist Ava Mendoza to help compose the score, which they also performed live, alongside Nate Brenner on bass, and a horns section made up of Noah Bernstein and Matt Nelson.

The first film of the evening was 1920’s One Week. It’s the tale of a married couple that are gifted a plot of land and a “build it yourself” home as a wedding present. They spotlighted the first seven days of this couple’s nuptials, with the first half of the week focused on the building of the house. Although the film predates Ikea by two decades, anyone that has struggled to build furniture using only vague images and numbers as your guide can only imagine the process when building a house. The film itself, which was officially my first Buster Keaton film, was a joy. The comedy was almost entirely physical, yet you could really connect with the characters as well. Keaton portrayed a hard working man that wanted nothing more than to build a house for his loving wife. The radiant Sybil Seely portrayed his wife, a very patient woman that understood how difficult the process was and never seemed to let the stress get to her. Yes, Keaton got star billing, but Seely really owned the film. Her comic timing is impeccable, and the most surprising gag in the entire film was carried by her alone (It involved an unstable bar of soap while in the bath. Yes, the film is pre-code, but it was still classy).

Garbus & Mendoza impressed with the score here. The film was separated by 7 days, so they wrote 7 completely different pieces of work. The music itself was very contemporary sounding, without distracting from the age of the film. During a windstorm, they music was dizzying and chaotic. During the building of the house, the music was fanciful. It was all pure tUnE-yArDs, and it was all wonderful. They even pulled out the song “Fiya” during a slow part, and it fit in the context of the film perfectly.

The second film was a ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle led film called “Good Night Nurse.” This film followed Arbuckle in prohibition era America, drunkenly trying to light a cigarette during a rainstorm, only to end up inviting a pair of gypsys to stay over at his home, prompting his wife to send him to an alcoholism treatment center. Already a very dark comedy on it’s own, tUne-yArDs, instead of opting to write an entirely new piece, took elements of their single “Bizness,” and it fit the film amazingly well. It turned into what seemed to be a 25 minute long music video for the song, but with much more heart and soul then, say, Kanye West’s “Runaway.” Although I couldn’t decide if the filmmaker was pro or anti prohibition in the film, it mattered very little. The point is that we got a crazy film set to great music, as well as a look at what people thought a substance abuse treatment center would look like in 1918 (Note: I think that they believed that you are cured of this disease surgically).

Film number three was the tale of corruption, greed, and redemption known as “The Haunted House.” That may be an over statement. Keaton portrayed a bank teller that seemed awfully unhappy with his job, and he ended up getting held up by bank robbers. He ends up spilling glue all over the money, turning the whole situation into a huge chaotic mess. I’m not going to lie, I had a hard time following his one. We end up in some sort of a chase scene (where the band brings in elements of “Gangsta”) that takes Keaton, the police, the bank’s owners, and the robbers past a production of the opera Faust, straight to a haunted house that the robbers use as a hideout. The second half of the film was primarily haunted house gags, albeit clever ones. There wasn’t the same cohesion that the first two films had.

The final film of the evening was an Arbuckle/Keaton collaboration called “The Cook.” Arbuckle played the chef at a high end restaurant, while Keaton portrayed the waiter. Although this piece was light on actual plot- it seemed like just another day at the office; it was heavy on gags. Arbuckle did plenty of juggling, including some impressive feats with milk and eggs, all with impeccably timed musical score.  Keaton was clumsly and likeable as the waiter with a short attention span. He stopped mid order to dance alongside the hired entertainment for the evening, a belly dancer (Credit to Garbus & Mendoza again, for creating a wholly appropriate, middle eastern tinged song for this number). Arbuckle pieced together some “traditional” Egyptian garb using things found around the kitchen, and joined in the dancing. Oh, and there was a dog that could climb up ladders. That was cool.

This evening proved, once again, that Merrill Garbus is a musical force to be reckoned with, capable of wonderful, spectacular things.



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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Paige Parsons April 26, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Love that pic! It’s great how he seems to be peering down at the band.


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