SIFF’s Face the Music series continued on Wednesday night when Stephin Merritt came to the Paramount Theatre to perform music to the 1916 silent film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Accompanying Merritt was Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), for whom Merritt wrote songs to accompany Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events books, as well as organist David Hegarty and Johnny Blood on tuba and trumpet. When I think of Stephin Merritt, I think of the epitome of the tortured, inexorably depressed artist type, and I was more than curious to see how his somber sentiments would go along with a movie I expected to be a rather serious tale of dramatic adventure. I apparently had no idea what I was in for, as I imagine was the case for a good portion of the audience. The Merritt that showed up was funny, dry, and playfully mocking of a film that was surprisingly ripe with unintentional comedy, not very serious at all, and seemed like it was tailor-made for a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode.
As we took our seats toward the front of the sold-out lower level of the Paramount, the stage was dimly lit and Stephin Merritt and company had their backs to the audience and were recessed in front of the stage as if they were part of an orchestral pit at an awards show. The centerpiece of the ensemble was Hegarty’s beautifully massive organ, which looked and sounded like it was taken out of some baroque carnival. Merritt and Handler were on either side of Hegarty, both with megaphones suspended next to them that faced the audience. They played a variety of different kinds of music and effects to accompany the film, most of which were centered around Hegarty’s organ and sounded far more Lemony Snicket-y than like something by the Magnetic Fields. A theme song was played often throughout the film, usually when a new scene began, in which Merritt would sing a baritone “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” chorus into his megaphone, the distorted effect of which aptly matched the scratchy quality of the film. Merritt also frequently imagined funny bits of dialogue for the muted male actors, while Handler provided the yelping voice of the film’s only woman, the expressive Child of Nature found on “Mysterious Island.” While the musicians did an admirable job scoring the film, their performance was a bit of a mystery in itself. It was hard to both see and hear exactly what was going on and who was playing what. Some of the effects were clearly pre-recorded and looped, sometimes through the megaphones, and it was difficult to differentiate what was recorded, what was being played live, and what instruments were producing what sounds and effects.
As for the movie, it began with an odd homage to Jules Vern, whose 1869 novel would be the basis for all subsequent adaptations of 20,0000 Leagues Under the Sea, and only became quirkier after the “fiction” portion commenced. The plot consisted of multiple intersecting storylines that centered around Captain Nemo, his submarine the Nautilus, and Professor Arronax and his crew, who were rescued by Nemo after their ship was attacked. The plot, however, ended up playing a secondary role to the overall ludicrousy of pretty much everything that took place throughout the 105 minute film. Some of the comedy was intentional, but most of what got the audience laughing was the result of the film’s effects and style of acting being dated by over 90 years. One highlight included an extended scene where Captain Nemo takes Professor Arronax and his crew shark hunting in bulky, rudimentary “scuba” gear. The crew clumsily traipses around the ocean floor with rifles, wandering into a nest of sharks and firing at them. The most ridiculous portion of the movie, however, was an excruciating scene consisting of nothing but prolonged shots of coral and marine life. The scene was meant to showcase the fact that the film was the “first submarine photoplay ever filmed,” and was probably awe-inspiring in 1916, but by today’s standards the footage was unimpressive and only served to interrupt the plot and probably cause a few audience members to doze off.
For how ridiculous and worthy of mockery the film was, the laughter that was continuously ringing through the theater was facilitated by the music, effects, and commentary of Stephin Merritt and company, whose humorous accompaniment gave the audience permission to laugh their asses off. There might be some silent era aficionados who would contend that the classic film should not be mocked, but appreciated critically as a groundbreaking achievement in camerawork, but it was much more fun to make fun of it, and fortunately Stephin Merritt felt the same way.