Saturday, May 30, 2009

Bad cinema, original score make for a great evening with 'Plan 9 From Outer Space'

One might be forgiven for getting the feeling that the hottest show in town Friday night was taking place at the Hollywood Theatre. After all, the line still stretched to the end of the block just five minutes before showtime, a throng of latecomers hoping against hope for a ticket to...Ed Wood's 1959 film Plan 9 From Outer Space?

That's correct, the famed Edward D. Wood, Jr., the cross-dressing actor/director/writer/producer who parachuted into the battle of Tarawa wearing a bra and panties, the man later responsible for such Hollywood "classics" as Glen or Glenda? (a sensationalist picture about the world's first gender reassignment surgery), Bride of the Monster, Night of the Ghouls and of course Plan 9.

What made this showing so special wasn't, in fact, the film itself, although the camp value alone makes it worth seeing. What drew such a crowd to this work (by a director who was famously awarded film critic Michael Medved's Golden Turkey Award as the 'Worst Director Ever') was the live soundtrack (string quartet and synthesizers) and the eleven actors who live-dubbed the script as the movie was playing. Filmusik, a group who "promotes live performance over prerecorded media through presenting new venues for musicians and composers" arranged the evening, with help from Classical Revolution Portland, live voice actors from the Willamette Radio Workshop, and composer and local electronica artist Sugar Shortwave, on hand to man synthesizers, keyboards and all manner of other electronic gizmos.

The idea of 'live film' is brilliant, and the audience was visibly excited, applauding loudly all the way through the Filmusik previews and credits. The composition began with an ambient, burbling spacescape which shortly gave way to the opening film credits. An extended segment for strings and synth followed this, eerie and muted (compositionally speaking) . When the voice actors began speaking, even when they were a full phrase or more behind the mouth moving on the screen, the audience went wild. For all that the movie itself is atrocious in so many respects, it was a great labor of love, a true magnum opus of crap, and the live soundtrack and the giant dose of camp imparted by the actors paid sincere homage to this.

The composition itself was very well-done; it's been said the the best way to tell a good film score is if you don't notice it. I don't know about that, but the point is well-taken: if the soundtrack is intrusive or distracts from the film in any way then the music, at least in its relationship to the film, is flawed. There were only a few moments when I noticed this Friday night, but it seemed the problem was more in the mix: whenever the strings were playing at the same time as the actors were speaking, the music was way too loud, sometimes to the point that the voices weren't even audible. In this sense the music did seem intrusive, but given the volume disparity between voices and music it was hard to tell if it was that dynamic or the composition itself that distracted.

The score cut back and dropped out entirely as was called for by the plot of the film. The most enjoyable part of the evening musically was a long, samba-like montage sequence toward the middle of the movie. It captured almost perfectly the over-the-top, self-important mise-en-scene being portrayed onscreen: vampires, aliens, ufos and government conspiracies require deft treatment musically, so hats off to Sugar Shortwave for her imaginative and insightful work. Also fun was the weird, warped, slowed-down big band jazz that served almost as a leitmotif for the domestic scenes in the movie. It imparted an odd, things-look-normal-but-something's-really-not-quite-right flavor that was unexpected and yet very well-suited.

If you are disappointed that you missed out on all the fun never fear: Filmusik is doing another presentation next week at the Hollywood Theatre: Missile to the Moon will be showing on June 3rd and 5th, with another live performance by CRPDX and the Willamette Radio Workshop as they play composer Scott J. Ordway's soundtrack. (Click here to see the trailer.) For sci-fi fans, classic cinephiles and music lovers looking for a new thrill, you won't find anything much more fun than this. I'll be back in those awful, ancient seats at the Hollywood Theatre next Friday night for some more.

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