While Cannes assumes its privileged position in the cinematic cosmos, the extant film world lurks in relative shadow, an eclisse that nonetheless calls attention to more modestly proportioned proceedings. Still flashy in its own west coast (relaxed) way, the recently wrapped San Francisco International Film Festival – 54 and counting! – soldiered on in relatively familiar fashion and hit a sweet peak with an inspired musical program that would be the envy of any croisette flaneur.
British ensemble Tindersticks play chamber pop that lends itself favorably to the Festival’s continually popular, if occasionally enigmatic, pairing of musicians with silent films at the city’s choicest venue, the historic Castro theatre (note to John Waters: no cuts in the ticket line!). Straying from the usual script, the Festival enlisted the band to perform pieces from their fruitful and cryptic collaboration with director Claire Denis, (a SFIFF regular) with whom the band, in various incarnations, has worked since Denis’ dreamy family drama Nenette et Boni (1996). ‘Worked’ is the operative term here, but it hardly conveys the depth of their engagement, so effectively have the band insinuated themselves into the textures of Denis’ radically dynamic oeuvre as to become generative of it. Along with cinematographer Agnès Godard, who has acutely penetrated and exposed the supple surface of Denis’ troubled world – from the latent desire lurking in bed sheets to the violence of dreamed dogs thrashing in snow on other continents – the band issue haunting and wistful treatments of Denis’ often opaque narratives in unsuspecting ways, discreetly eddying around already elliptical occasions (better to think of Denis’ stories in terms of thrust rather than plot) with repeated motifs tinkered out on vibes or plundered with bass, always restrained until loosed like the prevailing animal instincts onscreen.
Expecting a concert, then, would inevitably mislead. Here was the band playing song sketches to a tightly (and cleverly) edited sequence of passages – from what will likely become known as Denis’ ‘midcareer’ – with the practicality of musical instrumentation dictating a non-chronological approach, and favoring no one film. Langour and crisis intertwine like love and hate in Denis’ films – slightly indulged in Vendredi Soir, exaggeratedly in Trouble Every Day – and it’s curious to listen how the band fold this in to their compositions: a flute somehow signifying a portentous note to White Material’s imminent colonial collapse, a melodica riff bringing a sense of simultaneous levity and melancholy to 35 Rhums’ becalmed generational divide. Propulsion and stasis are key too, as a kinetic rhythm accompanies the film’s train montages, while apartment scenes are charmed with a childlike keyboard/melodica sigh, evocative of Denis’ Ozu homage while capturing some of Mati Diop’s beauty. With an unsensational sensitivity, the band converge the two strains like parallel tracks meeting, just as Denis manages to convey a sense of time passing both gently and tragically (Josephine’s romance and Rene’s death as versions of equally inevitable departure/loss).