Ce n’est pas un examen Califone: live at UW HUB Auditorium 12/3

photos by Brian Cullen

photos by Brian Cullen

I’m the kind of person that gets stuck on repeat. I’m the kind of person that get’s stuck on repeat. I’ll discover a song that walls up around me in a way that shuts all other songs out. Sometimes it lasts for days sometimes weeks. I think I listened to a song once for a month straight without the slightest consideration for what else I might be missing. These songs keep me up at night. When I finally fall asleep they inhabit my dreams. Yes, I have problems (but have you ever skated a full-pipe with Morrissey while reading the Sunday Times?).

Along the way these songs, always bouncing around inside our heads, become the soundtrack to life. The things we see and do. Each time we smile, every failure and every success, every look in the mirror, every hi-five given and every hug taken. However bizarre or mundane, each grain of sand has a song beneath it. We make them into mix CDs and give them to loved ones in hopes that they might better understand the complexities of our individual films.


Lately my film has been stuck on “Funeral Singers,” from Califone‘s most recent album and feature film of the same name, All My Friend’s Are Funeral Singers (Dead Oceans). As the centerpiece to Califone’s cinematic songwriting Tim Rutili has always used poetic imagery and tone to provoke feelings. Despite its roots in folk, Rutili’s music is never overtly focused on a strict narrative, making shadowy songs like “Funeral Singers” all the more applicable to one’s own life. Waking up last Thursday morning, I wondered how the evening’s live performance and film screening at the University of Washington’s HUB Auditorium might alter my thoughts on the song. Would the application of specific imagery and dialogue fade the track from my mind once and for all?

As per usual we arrived early and had to wait just outside the auditorium’s double doors for a good little while before the show/film was to begin. Having spoken to the band earlier in the day during their (phenomenal) in-studio performance at KEXP, I knew that the second leg of the tour had employed a new sound engineer -- the UW show being the first of his dates. As the boys tinkered, my date and I shared a bit-o-honey (despite talking a load of shit I discovered an affinity for this dinosaur) and discussed the comedic merits of backwards jokes and whoopee cushions. It’s what we do.

Soon enough, we filed in and found our seats amongst a rapidly filling theatre of excited guests. How often is one given the opportunity to experience a film score performed live? As Rutili, Becker, Adamik and Massarella walked out on stage I gave a look around and realized just about everyone was smiling. For once it seemed as though not a single person in the audience had been dragged there; no one was tricked, bribed or duped into seeing this film. Lovely. After a brief introduction the players took their places in near total darkness -- individually angled backward as to keep all eyes on the film -- and began to play the opening sequence.

The film centers around a thirty-something clairvoyant woman named Zel (Angela Bettis of Girl Interrupted, May). While Zel takes in the occasional mortal for Tarot Card readings and the like her main source of companionship is a relatively large and varied cast of ghosts, several of which happen to play folky post-rock (Califone). While Zel considers these apparitions to be her only family, Rutili hints at Zel’s underlying desire to live a normal life, often surrounding herself in moats of salt over which the spirits can not pass. At first the ghosts are a real bunch of Caspers, helping Zel make money contacting dead relatives and picking winners at the track. And your own personal band of funeral singers to boot? Could be worse in this economy, right? Well, things go awry one evening when the ghosts discover a magnetic light in woods surrounding the house. As they attempt move into the light, the ghosts discover they are in fact trapped within the walls of Zel’s home. Ghosts no likey being trapped. Believing it is Zel that has trapped them in this purgatorial halfway house, the ghosts decide to torture their apparent captor. Suddenly, the music becomes a continual barrage of noise. The lucrative perks of knowing ghosts? Also gone. After a creepy customer almost cuts her, Zel realizes that despite her attachment to them any hope for normality (or just some god-damn peace and quiet) hinges on the freeing of her ghostly counterparts.

While all of this plays out under the auspices of a loose narrative structure, the meat and potatoes of Rutili’s film, much like his music, is largely free-form and surreal. Similar to Luis Bunuel’s partygoers in The Exterminating Angel, and even Ingmar Bergman’s Knight and Squire in The Seventh Seal, Zel’s trapped ghosts are a boundless vehicle for the dreamlike discussion of larger philosophical questions. Greed. Freedom. Morality. Death. Desperation and loneliness. Emotional Purgatory. The presence of God. Simple Survival.

Broken up into verse-like chapters, the major movements of the film correspond to various human superstitions (three of which are also tracks from the album) and remind the viewer that questions are being asked. What are your answers?

Throughout the film and brief follow-up set, it was easy to see that the band was truly enjoying themselves up there on stage. Tim Rutili and the rest of Califone should be commended for the success of such an ambitious project. To conceptualize and write a double-LP’s worth of songs and a screenplay is an undertaking in and of itself, but to then fund, direct, act, promote and play live to the film in 20 cities? Holy shit, there’s something to hang your hat on, bub. Oh yeah, and as of Thursday the film was officially accepted to the 2010 Sundance Film Festival -- so if you happen to be in Park City please do check it out. Redford and company usually have a good eye for this sort of stuff.

As you may’ve already concluded nothing has changed for me with respect to “Funeral Singers.” I’ve listened to it today more times than I care to admit. It’s still mine for exactly what it means to me -- but now it means more. I’ve taken the song and added it to my experience. To that I’ve added the film to get to where I am now. Where I am now is good. Different than where I was before.

And that, my friends, is the beauty of art.

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