Dead Rat Orchestra’s Film Jukebox

Dead Rat Orchestra

Unconventional trio Dead Rat Orchestra have been tinkering with harmoniums, axes, pigeon flutes, folly snow-boxes, home-wired glitchers and organ pipes for nearly a decade. Their new album was originally recorded as the soundtrack to Intrepid Cinema’s critically acclaimed BBC Documentary The Guga Hunters of Ness, which follows the journey of ten men from the community of Ness on the Isle of Lewis as they embark on a traditional hunt for gannets. Utilising their customarily unconventional instrumentation to create precarious and powerful abstract-folk, the trio of Daniel Merrill, Robin Alderton and Nathaniel Mann have come up with a powerful score, with compositions seeded in hours of study of Hebridean folk song. The Guga Hunters of Ness is out now on Critical Heights. For more information, please go to the Dead Rat Orchestra website. Below, the trio pick their favourite films.

1. Nanook of the North (1922)
We have had a nine-year love affair with Nanook ever since we first performed a live score to it back in 2003. At first, we were seduced by the stunning images, protracted pace, hand-written title boards, Inuit faces and the romance of the whole thing. Reverence descended into obsession as we began to delve deep into the origins of the film: reading biographies of the life of director Robert Flaherty; becoming engrossed in his diaries from the period. Soon our superficial affinity for the film gave way to a deeper understanding of what the film actually is: not a documentary film at all but a completely fictitious construct attempting to distil Flaherty’s experiences of 12 years living with the Inuit. As such, the film reveals almost as much about the director himself as the Inuit portrayed. This process of research enabled us to re-assess the score we had developed as we peeled back new layers of meaning. A good example is a scene in which Nanook, on the brink of starvation, spears a seal through an ice-hole and struggles to pull the beast to the surface on the end of a rope. We had always struggled scoring this section, concluding that it was actually the scene itself that was at fault – it felt overly long to us and lacked the drama that the event demanded. Through our research, we discovered that in fact the entire scene was a set-up! Flaherty had imported a dead seal from several hundred miles away, slipped the carcass down the ice-hole and got ‘Nanook’ to re-enact the hunt. Suddenly our misgivings made sense! We were not viewing a moment of life or death struggle, but a performance: almost a dance for the director. We changed tack and approached the scene as a dance scene – suddenly it sprung into life! (Band pick)

2. Let’s Get Lost (1988)
Weber’s Let’s Get Lost documents the comeback attempt by an aged and life-worn Chet Baker. Simultaneously it charts the story of his personal life through stunning cinematography, while liberally including abstract set pieces featuring actors (including a cameo by Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ bassist, Flea), which serve to embody the director’s readings of events. Chet is revealed as a callous and selfish lover who leaves a string of women in his wake, each of whom despises him but clearly remains deeply enamoured. Frankly, Baker was a bit of a bastard but one whose shadier actions were always absolved by the strength of his charm and his music. Somehow Weber managed to induce the very same sensation in me as the viewer – one of concurrent revulsion and enchantment – and, after seeing this film, I fell for Chet’s music. (Nathan)

3. The Shock Doctrine (2009)
Based on Naomi Klein’s book of the same title, The Shock Doctrine explores the lengths that governments will go to to force free market economics onto nations, regardless of the hideous consequences. Coining the term ‘disaster capitalism’, Klein demonstrates how these organisations opportunistically use natural disasters and also engineer economic ones as a form of electro-shock treatment on a mass cultural level. They create confusion and division reprogramming governments and cultures to take on free market ideologies that are against their own interests (much like the electro-shock processes used to ‘treat’ mental illness, with the aim of rewiring the patients’ thought processes). (Daniel)

4. Wings of Desire (1987)
I first saw this film in those dark and brooding late-teen days and in many ways it seemed the perfect fit, showing a way through: a glimmer of hope. As with all of Wim Wenders’s works, it’s unashamedly poetic and evocative. The film deals with the decision of an angel, on watch over the everyday struggles of an unknowing mankind, to renounce his immortality and become mortal. He chooses to experience the sensual and corporeal; to experience love. A sense of division is at the heart of the film, both between the spiritual and corporeal world – and within the setting of a still divided Berlin. It’s a film of longing. It also features an ace cameo from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and the rare sight of Peter Falk (of Columbo fame) playing himself, or at least a version of himself as another ‘fallen’ angel. (Robin)

5. La Jetée (1962)
La Jetée is a masterpiece of storytelling achieved through narration, still photographs and music. It never fails to captivate me and so strong are the images and narrative that I remember them far more vividly than any other film I have seen. A must! (Nathan)

6. Solaris (2002)
I’ve picked out Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 re-imagining of the story rather than the classic Andrei Tarkovsky version (1972). But I’m comfortable with that because this film spoke to me in a way I wasn’t expecting. Aside from beautiful cinematography and pacing, the sound design of this film opened me up in a way few other films have managed to do. Perhaps it was sitting right in front of the speakers when I first saw it at a cinema in Wood Green but I heard every detail and felt pulled in by the tension that is part of the architecture of the film. Add to that one of my favourite film scores, crafted carefully by Cliff Martinez, featuring an incredible combination of strings and pattering, percussive gamelan. A brooding and meditative work, it changed the way I listen to films and also led me to start learning gamelan. (Robin)

7. Someone Else’s Voice (1949)
When a magpie returns home to the motherland after travelling abroad, it challenges the local song thrush to a singing contest. The thrush sings sweetly to the wonder of the residents of its local woodland commune and receives rapturous applause. The magpie takes to the stage, dressed in decadent Western jewellery with the air and swagger of a rock star, before bursting into some red hot bebop, convulsing and grinding to the brass honk of her beak, with the beat of the drums resonating through her hips. The magpie is chased out of town by a bunch of young red birds, enforcing the message that it is better to stay true to your traditional roots than adopt new cultural forms. This piece of late Stalinist propaganda is hilarious and important on so many levels. Though its message is clear, the fun of the seemingly possessed magpie actually did more to propagate the spread of jazz in Russia than enforce Stalinist ideals! The Dead Rats feel an affinity with the magpie as this borrowing of all things shiny is a part of our process… And we hope we can give as fun a performance. (Daniel)

8. The White Diamond (2004)
Herzog’s documentaries are often criticised for being exploitative and too snide or tongue-in-cheek for their own good. For me, these aspects are merely conscious devices, employed to ensure that his poetic and ruminative pieces (which are always carefully layered and constructed towards commenting across the spectrum of the human condition) don’t become too sappy. The White Diamond is a beautiful example of this. (Nathan)

9. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
What would you do if your relationship was failing and everyone around you started turning into zombies? This film attempts to answer those problems. Cleverly put together with references to the great and good spilling over, it’s immensely funny and good fun – probably the first ‘rom-zom-com’! I loved Spaced and used to live where the film was shot so, on some level, can imagine it happening. (Robin)

10. The Wobblies (1979)
Wobblies is the nickname given to the members of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), a radical and militant union started in 1905. Its radical face-to-face democracy and anti-hierarchical stance have made it one of the most confrontational and effective unions in fighting for workers’ rights. This film is entirely narrated by older members of the union who fought in some of the most seminal battles in the U.S. and helped to establish some of the basic workers’ rights that are now legal norms in the West. The beauty of this film comes from the amazing stories of resistance that these people tell; here are people who have lived exceptionally hard lives, made even harder by persecution by governments and employers alike, but who have truly fought and saved themselves through the power of the unique union they formed. The conditions they describe are shocking but the music they make as they protest is inspiring! Watch out for an appearance by anarchist song writer Utah Phillips (an old timer in the unique position of being one of the younger members featured in the film). (Daniel)