The tonal changes of an electric guitar chord died away as the reed of a tenor saxophone was gently moistened, producing light sounds to remember in the darkness of the Barbro Osher Theater at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive November 12. With a final click of an effects pedal, the grainy texture of the 35-millimeter black-and-white film shed light into the theater, starting this year’s CineSpin.
Returning in person, this annual event pairs a silent film with live musical accompaniment from local musicians. It’s too easy to overlook the creative process involved in film scores, but improvisation adds another layer. By giving visibility to musicians, CineSpin not only showcases creation in the making, but revives the declining tradition of silent films accompanied by live music.
This year, “My Grandmother”, a 1929 Soviet silent film directed by Kote Mikaberidze, was selected to fill the screen. With elements of surrealism and absurdity mixed with live and stop-motion animations, the film readily plays on the senses. He follows a lazy bureaucrat as he is laid off and tries to find a job by seeking a letter of recommendation from a reputable benefactor, “a grandmother”.
Placed just below the screen, UC Berkeley alumni Gabriel Sarnoff (guitar and vocals) and Miles Tuncel (saxophone and bamboo flute) added their own touch to the film through improvisation and composition in direct. Defying the expectations of traditional jazz, the duo are known to build on the foundations of jazz by experimenting with genres ranging from folk to electronic, giving CineSpin new vitality.
Liquid-like effects, reverberated high-pitched screams, and sequences of notes rolling in erratic patterns have given voice to the world in which bureaucrats slide backwards on stair handles and exaggerated gestures in chairs. oversized. Rather than directly mirroring the film, Sarnoff and Tuncel played with contrast to create an interchange of meaning between the sounds they produced and the visuals that were projected.
Right before the bureaucrat hanged himself, Sarnoff leaned on the stripped scratching of his acoustic guitar and the warmth of his voice, anchoring viewers amid twisted shots of stop-motion dolls with gaping mouths. Once the bureaucrat’s wife and daughter entered the scene, dancing under his suspended body, Tuncel’s saxophone buzz was felt as Sarnoff returned to his electric Gibson. The distorted effects contrasted sharply with the previous raw acoustics, and they immersed viewers in irrationality as the bureaucrat depended on himself and rejoined his dancing family.
Sometimes the music seemed alien to the instruments they came from, adding to the absurdity and challenging the senses of the viewer. Other times, the sounds and the visuals seemed inseparable, as if it were the score that always accompanied “My Grandmother”.
When the bureaucrat goes in search of a “grandmother,” he comes in contact with a naked statue. Pushed by a cigarette butt left carelessly on the ground, the statue comes to life, accusing the bureaucrat of breaking the rule and guiding him to the trash can before resuming his static position. Tuncel’s bamboo flute whisper added a dizzying effect to this already dizzying scene, making it seem as if the statue’s ability to come to life relied on the sounds of the flute.
Likewise, as the bureaucrat crouched down – attempting to pick up the endless amount of cigarettes that suddenly appeared on the floor – Sarnoff’s crooked guitar playing made the wavering bureaucrat ridiculous. This gave the film a fleeting sense of life which, due to its improvisation, can never be repeated again.
Audiences were urged to shift their attention from the film’s visuals to Sarnoff or Tuncel – their faces lit by the screen, bodies bending in the rising sounds of their vision.
As the movie ended and the credits rolled off, the screen returned to its original emptiness, but Sarnoff and Tuncel remained on stage, standing while overlooking the audience. They invited a playful energy of vulnerability that danced through the eyes and ears of each participant, opening up a shared moment of presence and enmitability, leaving the audience in early anticipation of next year’s CineSpin.
Contact Amanda Ayano Hayami at [emailÂ protected].