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The San Francisco International Film Festival

By Asbjørn Grønstad on 04.05.2011 (09:00).

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The San Francisco International Film Festival is on for the 54th time these days, boasting a cornucopia of movies from the last year's crop of contemporary world cinema. Among the festival's many treats there was one event that I had been particularly looking forward to - catching the British band Tindersticks perform a selection of their film scores for Claire Denis while scenes from her movies were being projected on a screen behind the band. I write about two of Denis's films in the book that I'm about to complete (Trouble Every Day and Vendredi Soir), and I have been an enthusiastic follower of Tindersticks' music since the mid-90s, so this was an opportunity not to be missed. The show at San Francisco's famed Castro Theatre was one of only two stateside performances, the band landing in California after having played London's Queen Elizabeth Hall and Paris' Eglise St. Eustache in late April. 

Over the last decade the SF International Film Festival has hosted several similar collaborations: last year's event featured Stephin Merritt's live rendition of Stuart Paton's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916); in 2003 Lambchop performed Murnau's Sunrise(1927); Superchunk scored Teinosuke Kinugasa's A Page of Madness live in 2002; Yo La Tengo did Jean Painlevé's series of short undersea documentaries, The Sounds of the Sounds of Silence, in 2001; and Tom Verlaine provided original scores for silent film classics by Man Ray and Carl Theodor Dreyer in 2000. When Tindersticks were approached about doing a show for the current festival, it was initially suggested that they too perform music for a silent movie. Given the unique nature of the Denis-Tindersticks partnership - spanning fourteen years and six features - it seemed however more obvious to present a selection from this incomparable body of work. And last week, the Montreal-based Constellation issued the handsome five-disc box set Claire Denis Film Scores: 1996-2009.

Opening with a scene from their first collaboration Nénette et Boni(1996), the band - composed of Stuart Staples, David Boulter, Neil Fraser, Dan McKinna, and Earl Harvin with additional musicians on strings and brass - performed material from all of the six films: Trouble Every Day (2001), Vendredi Soir (2002),L'intrus (2004), 35 Shots of Rum (2008), and White Material(2009). Tindersticks' sound is of course invariably described as "cinematic chamber pop," but these film scores reveal a much broader stylistic range than what is implied by that term. While the numbers featuring Staples's trademark baritone croon, for instance  "Tiny Tears" and "Trouble Every Day," may be reminiscent of the sound of their 1990s studio albums, many of the instrumental parts go in very different directions. The clamorous, almost dissonant intensity of L'intrus, composed by Stuart Staples alone, and the dreamy, intimate melodica-driven wistfulness of 35 Shots of Rum may be without precedent in their catalogue.

Watching interspersed fragments from so many of these films within the space of roughly 70 minutes was an exhilarating experience. One notable effect of such a compressed collage of images was a certain magnification of key traits of Denis's cinema: the consummate tactility of bodies and objects, the gestural refinement, the never foundering attention to detail, and, perhaps most conspicuously, the disturbing alternation between moments of meditative sensuality and shocking acts of violence.

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