Wednesday, 26 May 2010

TIME on (with) film

After our gig with Amps for Christ was sadly cancelled because of the volcanic ash situation (leaving AFC stuck in Portugal), we put our new bass/synth/guitar set to one side and started practising for a special show on 24 April, soundtracking Luc Besson's 1983 film The Last Battle for one of Electric Sheep magazine's Subterranea events at Notting Hill Arts Club. It was the first time we'd played with a film, and it was a pretty interesting experience. Made me think a lot about film music and sound design - even in this context, ie providing a semi-improvised soundtrack while a film is projected without sound in a music venue, so it's actually not far removed from a normal gig, more like playing with 'visuals' - and the possibilities of our working with film again. Just the very simple act of responding to visual material with what feels like the appropriate sound, or trying to feel or judge a film's pace and rhythm, are good exercises for any band.

We watch a lot of films but we'd never seen this one until we were asked to play with it. Everyone I mentioned it to was intrigued, but added the disclaimer, which I realised I kept adding as well, that they didn't like Luc Besson. This being his first film, though, I reasoned that his style would still be at an interesting stage - not yet developed into the cliches that seem to make him such a polarising director - and the clips on youtube had a sleazy, empty desert ambience that made me think of dystopic road movies.

I was right and wrong. The film is pretty silly, but it also has a weird atmospheric charm and some awesome settings - which, considering its low budget, are all 'real' places, not sets. The story is as follows: a survivor of a non-specific apocalyptic disaster, played by Pierre Jolivet, lives in a derelict office block, where his only companions are an inflatable sex doll and a cassette player (on which he occasionally listens to a tape of wobbly synth funk). He ventures out across the desert (in fact, a French beach), wearing a sort of future caveman outfit, where he fights with and kills one of a group of fellow survivors who've formed one of those post-apocalyptic brutal hierarchical systems best illustrated by the way they keep a dwarf in a car boot except when he's lowered into a hole to fetch water. The gang invade the office block seeking revenge, but our hero has built a plane, so he flies it out the window and crash lands it in the shell of an old hospital a few miles away, inhabited by a doctor and a fantastically cartoonish bad guy (Jean Reno, tres sauvage). So the good guy befriends the doctor, fights with the bad guy, and eventually discovers that, not only is the doctor hiding a woman with beautiful legs (we don't see her face) in another part of the hospital, but he intends for Jolivet to - we assume - mate with the lady, thus re-starting the human race. Hurrah! But it all goes horribly wrong, and the hero ends up back at the desert camp, where he frees the dwarf and takes on the role of leader himself - a role whose privileges include keeping a woman in a tent. I'm not sure if this is a happy ending or not. If you read the film as one man's quest for female company in the end-times, then I guess so.

Did I mention there's no dialogue? The characters were struck dumb by the disaster that precedes the film, and communicate gesturally for the most part. This means that the film has to, by necessity, communicate everything in broad strokes, exaggerated features, quite crude imagery (that's not quite an excuse for the clunking misogyny, btw, but it does explain the simplicity of the tale). It was also this that prompted Electric Sheep to ask for a soundtrack. However, having no dialogue is not the same as being a silent film - and, in fact, the sound and music already present in The Last Battle is not at all bad. Watching the film and knowing we were going to take the sound right off, we became much more aware of it. I particularly enjoyed the slightly incongruous (although of course very contemporary) music that crops up throughout the film: it's in the great French tradition of proggy synth/guitar pop, and is very enjoyable. We both liked a bassy pulsing sound that occurs in the desert scenes, and noticed the care given to recording footsteps, movement, rubble, glass, wind, machinery etc. You can hear a lot of it on this trailer, which mixes it all up nicely.

An ideal compromise would have been to keep some of these elements in our performance, but there wasn't really time or resources to do this - instead, we were basically going to provide over an hour of interpretative improvised music that sounded in some ways 'like' the film, or responded to dynamics in it.

I chose a two-synth set up, not just in homage to the early-80s vibes of the film, but also because it's the most comfortable set-up for me to improvise with for a long period (which this was!), with Mark on guitar. We mapped out the different sections of the film, mostly based around 'where' the characters were (the desert; the hospital; the ward; the courtyard), in that it makes most sense to give a place a sound. I also think, retrospectively, that the places in the film were what we responded to most of all, because they were so interesting. The crumbling walls and ghostly, abandoned furnishings of empty buildings spoke to us a bit more than the characters and immediately suggested obvious sonic complements like white noise, reverb, decay, and also allowed for passages that didn't have to 'mean' or signify anything too direct other than atmosphere.

The parts of the film that were more about interaction between characters - there are these long sequences where the doctor and the good guy get to know each other - were a bit harder; we came up with repeated 'themes' for these bits, building up communicative melodies between each other: I'm undecided as to whether this over-egged the pudding a bit, whether it was too obvious, too intrusive...moving swiftly on to the fight scenes between Reno and Jolivet, which are stylised and clever and a lot of fun, we wigged out with abandon, in the belief that most 70s/80s low budget fight scenes sound like frantic guitar and/or synth solos (I should now insert some youtube links to illustrate this theory - maybe another time). Our soundtrack ended with a build-up of the melodic themes we'd introduced earlier, culminating in a drone-based, ecstatic final tune over the end credits that probably marked us out as the huge Popol Vuh fans we are. Bearing in mind the dubious ending, I wondered afterwards if we hadn't awarded this segment of the film a sincerity and gravitas it didn't deserve. And if so, did that mean we'd succeeded or failed as soundtrackers? Something more ambiguous would have suited the mood of the ending much better - yet in a way we'd kind of entered into the naive spirit of the film by playing something so un-ambiguous.

While we muse upon it, here's another of those funky fights:

I think the conclusion here is that we'd definitely like to play around with film some more - any filmmakers who'd be interested in collaborating should get in touch.

News of our next gig (2 July, in Stoke Newington Old Church), to be posted soon.

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