Moby Octopad’s L’Hippocampe Rendezvous: Yo La Tengo and the Documentaries of Jean Painlevé

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As much as Seattleites like to grumble about Paul Allen’s bloated architectural monstrosity, the Experience Music Project (or EMP), one can’t help but appreciate the musical treats that the museum has been sponsoring around town. One of the latest offerings to try to win over the public is the Music + Film series, concentrating mainly on film soundtracks, scores, and music-oriented movies. Well, my initial resistance to the EMP has been slowly breaking down, as I really can’t help but appreciate any organization that finds an excuse to invite the fabulous experimental mood-rock band Yo La Tengo back to town.

On November 7, 2001, the EMP sponsored an evening at the wonderful Cinerama theater (another of Allen’s pet projects), featuring the short documentary films of underwater photographer Jean Painlevé, with a live accompanying score by Yo La Tengo. Apparently the project had been initially commissioned by the San Francisco Film Festival, and lucky for us, it was considered good enough (and cool enough) to take on the road.

Though the pairing of the atmospheric, reverb-heavy, and genuinely lovely music of Yo La Tengo and Painlevé’s surreal, spooky, and downright space-alien-esque aqua-critters seems like a match made in heaven, it was obvious that the vast majority of the people there weren’t Painlevé groupies. “YO! (La Tengo) I NEED A TICKET!” cried one poor fella’s poster out on the sidewalk at the sold-out show. Though he got points for being clever, it didn’t score him entrance to the event.

Jean PainlevéDespite the presence of an adored rock band and a theater full of fans, the evening really was about movies. After a flurry of excitement at Yo La’s appearance at their instruments at the front of the theater, the always-polite Seattle audience immediately settled down into their cushy cinema chairs like the respectful film-goers that they are.

After a sassy, rock-n-roll musical introduction to the first of the movies (that got the audience giggling), Yo La Tengo got into the gentle groove of things as the first of many short (around 5-10 minute) documentaries rolled.

I, for one, knew nothing at all about the films of Frenchman Jean Painlevé. Painlevé’s movie-making spanned the decades, from silent films starting in the 1920s, up through his later work in full color, and ending with his last film in 1960. Each film focused on one particular animal of the sea—for instance the sea anemone, the minuscule “creeping” starfish (eww), and the hermit crab all got their moments of big-screen glory.

And who’d a thought that educational flicks could be funny? The factual subtitles offered much info about the creatures portrayed, but very often (to the delight of the audience) slipped into humorous commentary. The Love Life of the Octopus (direct translation of the title) went into great detail about the length of its arms, the number of suction cups it could grab you with, and its digestive system… then with a slight pause, as you’re watching this really large, slithery, frightening creature move stealthily across a tide pool, the caption voiced what we were all thinking: “Horrible animal.”

L'Hippocampe, aka The Sea Horse (1934)Yo La Tengo’s accompanying score was at best a pleasant enhancement of the scenes, and at worst (only one piece, mind you) an ear-shattering Sonic-Youth-esque wall of noise (during the 3-minute fractal crystalization film) which had the woman sitting next to me plugging her ears and wincing. The octopus had a dark moody score, and a certain bouncy squishy creature (I honestly have NO idea what it was) got a playful and sweet soundtrack. Funny enough the shrimp, who is apparently the hipster sea creature of the water world, got the most-toe tapping ditty. As the beasties cannibalized one of their weaker brethren (horrible animal!), Yo La’s drummer Georgia kicked up a beat that was simultaneously radio-friendly and vaguely sinister.

But the evening overall could probably be best represented by the acclaimed film L’Hippocampe (The Sea Horse) from 1934. Filmed in gorgeous black-and-white, and in typical extreme close-up, it was like visiting another planet. As though the sea horse isn’t a strange enough animal to start with, I now know that it is the male of the species that becomes pregnant, that they can hang “upside down” by their prehensile tail without getting, um, seasick, and that in some areas, they can grow to be several feet long (yikes!). And all of this information Painlevé fed to us painlessly while he more than once mocked the sea horse for looking like a snob.

The world of underwater sea creatures is one that I feel most at ease with enjoying from a comfortable chair in a dry room. (Ask me some other time about my paralyzing phobia of jellyfish and other slimy sea creatures that I could accidentally touch with my foot while swimming in salt water.) Partner this with the soothing space-rock of Yo La Tengo’s music, and you’ve got a perfect evening that was not only enjoyable, but educational, too.


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