While filmmakers are continually exploring and expanding the definition of a more than century-old art form, the folks at Monkey Town are having a crack at the film-going experience itself. Once you’ve been to the Williamsburg, Brooklyn bar/experimental restaurant/performance space, which features a four-screen, communal comfy couch, 6.1 surround-sound “theater in the round” as its centerpiece, you’ll wonder why you spend ten bucks or more sitting like a zombie in an outdated, auditorium-style dive with a bucket of stale popcorn and your feet stuck to the ground. And in keeping with its mission to go beyond the cutting edge, Monkey Town recently offered a four-day festival of “Silent Films + Unique Instruments,” the first screening of which—20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1916) scored with “pencilina” and cello—was an innovative delight.
But what is a “pencilina”? According to the press notes, it’s musician Bradford Reed’s own invention, “an electric, ten stringed collision of the hammer dulcimer, slide guitar, koto and fretless bass that is struck with sticks, plucked and bowed, producing an incredibly wide sonic palette.” The musician “currently uses a pair of shortened timbale sticks to strike the strings. But yes, when he first began to play the instrument, he used a pair of pencils as his strikers.” (And, no, I didn’t see anything in the notes about cellist Jane Scarpantoni constructing her own cello.)
Interestingly enough, paired with this type of musical innovation 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea looks downright anachronistic—even for its time. Famous for its groundbreaking underwater scenes (a system of watertight tubes and mirrors produced reflected images that the camera then captured, which the film puts an exclamation point on by introducing the inventors, the Williamson brothers, at the very beginning) and shot on location in the Bahamas, the silent flick is just one big exotic, P.T. Barnum gimmick to get butts in the seats rather than a true advance in filmmaking. Its director, Stuart Paton, is not listed among the ranks of the silent giants for good reason. Like the underwater “shark hunters” he captures in his creaky lens, Paton did little more than point and shoot.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea opens with lists of “Fact” versus “Fiction.” Yes, Jules Verne was ahead of his time (ditto the Williamson brothers—and Monkey Town and its musicians, to boot!), but Paton was still stuck trying to figure out this newfangled means of cultural communication. With an amazing over-reliance on words, on images of written letters, on title cards—on telling and not showing—this high-seas adventure film moves at a snail’s pace. A card introduces Captain Nemo. Cut to the skinny, Santa Claus-like Captain Nemo. Another introduces the submarine “monster.” Cut to the sub. In its infancy, film couldn’t shake the written word, and so employed stage acting and static camerawork (until masters like Griffith, Eisenstein, and Lang took charge). Paton’s movie is a prime example of all this—the “language” of film is missing. If nothing else, Paton’s directing highlights how truly visionary Griffith and his ilk were—directors who cared less for camera “tricks” than in inventing a whole new way of viewing the world.
When Nemo’s sub monster “attacks” the good ship “Abraham Lincoln” or when Nemo’s prisoners make their escape attempt, the talented Monkey Town musicians are forced to do all the heavy lifting, actually “move” the scene for us. The score—organ at the time of the film’s release, of course—is crucial to keeping the audience engrossed. But this only serves to remind that, for a good many films of the time, the music, cinematography, script, editing and acting are not organic, are still functioning as separate parts. They had yet to fully transform, to meet at the apex of “film.”
But all this makes it sound like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea isn’t a fun flick—which it is, even if it’s not all that many leagues deep. The title cards that read, “It has pleased me to save your lives… You are my prisoners,” or, after Nemo has had a change of heart, “I wish to make you my guests—not my prisoners” are classic (as is, “Look! Sharks!”). The amber-green hue images of the “Child of Nature” (a Gish knockoff in Tarzan’s Jane clothing), the blue-tinted castaways, and sickly yellow Nemo are more appealing than the underwater and widening-iris hijinks or the stale oceanographic lessons (enhanced only by the “sun’s rays on coral reefs” and a score that includes the chirping of crickets and bubbles gurgling). After a card appears reading, “They make slow headway against the swift current,” Paton’s camera cuts to the underwater explorers, defying gravity and wearing suits that make them look more like astronauts on the moon. The shark hunt in which the divers hassle the fish with air-compressed rifles is pretty inventive, if only because the phantom-like sharks move unpredictably in the frame.
I guess my only complaint about the “Silent Films + Unique Instruments” festival is I wish there were a couple of matinees. One father brought his young son, who seemed quite pleased to be surrounded by an eclectic mix of food, music and film. If every ten-year-old experienced 20,000 Leagues rather than 10,000 B.C., just imagine the possibilities for cinema’s next century.