They may be poles apart creatively, stylistically, conceptually and in probably every other conceivable way, but Steven Severin’s and Danny Plotnick’s relationships with music and film strangely complement each other: Severin is a composer who is inspired by film while Plotnick makes films driven largely by music.
Severin and Plotnick were recent international guests at the Revelation Perth International Film Festival, which was, assumedly, the sole reason for them to ever encounter each other. Rev, as it’s fondly known, is a festival renowned for its love affair with film that pushes boundaries, and, significantly, film that takes its cues from the worlds of punk, jazz, and experimental music.
Plotnick’s films emerged from the post-punk 80s scene in San Francisco: the main impetus behind the work being the inspiration provided by the music his friends were playing. As Plotnick put it: ‘I couldn’t play an instrument and I couldn’t draw comics, so I started making films and touring them around in bars and clubs with friends’ bands.’ This year, Rev showcased a retrospective of Plotnick’s work, often transgressive and always funny, titled San Francisco’s Doomed. The programme included YouTube favourite Skate Witches, a Super 8 short he made in one day for $60, which has now been picked up by MTV. Plotnick’s 1999 short, Swingers’ Serenade, also featured – a hilariously tawdry interpretation of a script by the same name published in 1960 by Better Movie Making, a magazine aimed at amateur home filmmakers… Imagine, if you will, your parents getting kinky with an egg whisk in their suburban lounge back in the day and you get the picture. Plotnick also ran a workshop on low-budget underground filmmaking, revealing handy hints to local indie filmmakers, such as: ‘Best not to park your car for two days at a set of public traffic lights, with one actor in a clown suit and one stark naked, without a council permit.’
Severin began his music career in the 70s as a founding member of Siouxsie and the Banshees and was thus a key influence within the milieu of London fashion and counter-culture. Severin speaks of having ‘always been inspired by film’ and wanting to create film soundtracks as far back as his early days with Siouxsie. His live performance at Rev consisted of two acts. The first involved him playing on stage from his laptop while avant-garde classic The Seashell and the Clergyman was screened. The second act saw Severin returning to the stage with his laptop (a set-up reminiscent of the side-stage pianist during the silent film era) to musically accompany a visually evocative series of experimental shorts.
A little-known surrealist masterpiece that first screened in 1928, before Un chien andalou, The Seashell and the Clergyman is ripe with macabre, sexualised religious undertones and alternates between moments of visionary jouissance and ecstatic violence. Unfortunately, such a vivid visual landscape proved a treacherous path for Severin to tread and, for the most part, his music seemed vanilla in comparison to what was on screen. More impressive, however, was his accompaniments to the shorts in the second act, a particular highlight being the 2002 short directed by Belgian team HélÃ¨ne Cattet and Bruno Forzani, titled Chambre jaune. A triumph of extreme suspense, the film evoked claustrophobically frightening acts of sex and eventuating violence contained almost within one single room. Again, the richness of the visuals seemed a dangerous challenge, but this time the aural/visual collision satisfied.
I spoke with both Severin and Plotnick in the lull of the afternoon at the festival bar, fascinated by their shared interest in the relationship between music and film, and their two radically different approaches. I was first interested to find out from Severin how he managed to make the leap from playing guitar in a notorious London punk band to creating music-scapes for films often only seen in film schools and art galleries. He explained: ‘I wanted to do a film soundtrack for years and years, which I think is pretty evident in some of the Banshees’ music – it’s very cinematic. I got my first chance to do that back in 89 with a short movie called Visions of Ecstasy [18 minutes, no dialogue], which was banned in the UK on the grounds of blasphemy. Then in 2002, I got asked to do the soundtrack for London Voodoo [a supernatural thriller directed by Robert Pratten]. The live show really comes from my desire to keep writing music for film and playing it live. I realised that the established film venues weren’t going to invite me, so I’ve only ever done these live shows once in a cinema. Rev is the second time. I also wanted to see how it would work in different settings and venues.’
When asked whether he agreed that screen composers often attempt to direct the emotional impact of a film through its music, Severin had strong views: ‘What I dislike most in film music is when it signposts emotions. I hate being manipulated in that way. You just have to create a bed for the emotion that’s already there, to heighten it. I’m often asked to make the emotion come out when it’s not there in the acting. I can’t do that when the acting is bad. There is one scene in London Voodoo between husband and wife where the wife feels as if she is losing her mind. I thought that it should be made from the woman’s point of view, so I put all the emphasis in the music on what she was doing. And then the director saw it and said it should be the other way around. So I just moved everything over and it completely changed things.’
The impact of music on the subconscious mind is something that Severin is particularly interested in: ‘There is a contrast in my live show between the first half and the second half, in which most of the films are very harsh and brutal and very conscious. But on the other hand, Seashell could all be a dream from the word go. So I’ve purposefully composed the music to hopefully enhance that subconscious side of it. It has a story, it has a narrative, but it doesn’t make any sense. You can do all these things with music and it’s very powerful.’
Just as with Severin, it was a strong sense of independence that led to Plotnick’s early screenings in punk venues as he took his cues from the DIY approach of the indie music scene in which he grew up. ‘I had a projector and a Super 8 camera and I’d take this on the bus to a hardcore or punk show’, he said. ‘I didn’t really even know how to set it up properly or how to make films… When we’d project the film, I couldn’t understand why the image was too huge or we couldn’t see it properly. All my friends were in bands and they’d make a 45 and then they’d make another 45, so when I was finishing my first film I thought I had to make another film, not realising that often filmmakers take years to make films. There was a period where I was making two or three films a year, thinking that’s how you do it. Sugarbutts cost about $60, I used one reel of film. I was always asking, how can I keep making these films on the cheap? I kept them short and the look and feel was always completely different to Hollywood. I didn’t want to compete with that.’
His attitude to filmmaking was shaped by a reaction to the cultural climate of the time: ‘The thing about the 80s, certainly in America, was that popular culture was pretty horrid and limiting, pre-internet, pre-cable, pre-independent film – I say this meaning pre-Sundance – so really, musically, it’s hair metal and Michael Jackson, even though there’s this vibrant American indie scene bubbling under that’s ultimately going to lead to Nirvana. You’d go to see HÃ¼sker DÃ¼ and there’d be 100 people there. In terms of movies, you had these big Hollywood films and then these small experimental fine art films… which is great, I love that, but that wasn’t the type of film I was interested in making.’
Plotnick’s films are inescapably comedic, with a punk aesthetic, and have forged an identity for him as somewhat of a ‘god’ of true American indie filmmaking. ‘A lot of my films are populist films’, he noted. ‘They’re just goofy and fun. In the more experimental film realm, all these people were appalled by the visuals of my films and the fact that they are not serious. But then later (laughs), a lot of these types actually took my film Pillow Talk seriously and thought it was a serious nightmare film.’ It was later picked up by MoMA, New York.
Plotnick continues to make the most of his twin loves of music and film, making music videos for friends’ bands. He also collaborates regularly with his partner, Alison Faith Levy, a composer, musician and actor in many of Plotnick’s films. ‘This is what I do and it is so much fun. I just like making films. I like making them with my friends and doing them quick and moving on to the next thing. I’ll continue doing it while I’m having fun. Where that trajectory goes from here, who knows?’
Read Siouxzi Mernagh’s report on the Revelation Festival in the autumn 09 issue of Electric Sheep. The focus is on religious extremes on film from Christic masochism to satanic cruelty with articles on biblical hillbilly nightmare White Lightnin’, Jesus Christ Saviour, a documentary on Klaus Kinski’s disastrous New Testament stage play, and divine subversives Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger. Plus: Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, political animation, Raindance 09 and louche mariachi rockabilly Dan Sartain picks his top films!