Nicholas Podbrey of Deep Blue Funk Films

Variations on a screen
Whether to explore pop culture myths, improvise music or just go for laughs, three different groups are inventing new soundtracks for old films at Blinding Light Cinema.

Tim Carlson
Vancouver Sun

Thursday, February 28, 2002


Nicholas Podbrey is non-committal when asked if he truly believes in the myth. He wants his audience members to listen to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz, experience the powerful synchronicities and draw their own conclusions.

Pink Floyd legend has it that the perfection of the pairing is no accident, that musician Roger Waters planned it all.

"I heard that piece of folklore about '93 or '94 and kept hearing about it until I decided to try it out for myself," says Podbrey, whose Deep Blue Funk productions experiment with "synchronicities" on a regular basis at the repertory Blinding Light Cinema. "I was pretty blown away by what I heard."

Podbrey has projected his Dark Side of the Rainbow at the Blinding Light Cinema before, but on Friday and Saturday night, he blasts off into new reaches of Floyd folklore with the addition of 2001: A Space Odyssey Echo.

"The last section of 2001 is the exact same length as Echoes, the final track on Pink Floyd's Meddle," explains Podbrey. "Roger Waters desperately wanted to score 2001. He said the biggest disappointment of his life was that he didn't get to do it. Stanley Kubrick was talking to all kinds of British rock bands at the time -- including Pink Floyd and The Who. The track Echoes might well have been part of something he worked on for 2001."

Podbrey provides one of three regular events at the Blinding Light where artists turn down the soundtrack and create something new. In Dickin' Around, on the first Tuesday of every month, the comedy troupe Improvision adds extemporaneous gags to '40s-era Dick Tracy serials. And once every month, violist Stefan Smulovitz invites a different set of musicians to join him in the group Eye of Newt, which plays improvised music to a different film. Next up, on March 14, Eye of Newt will invent a new soundtrack for Allegro Non Troppo, Italian director Bruno Bozzetto's animated spoof of Disney's Fantasia.

In an era where soundtracks are an ever more important element of film-making (whether as a marketing ploy to sell CDs or as a well-integrated part of the film's style, the pop mÈlange of Moulin Rouge, for example), it stands to reason that musicians will toy with the form.

"It's not new, these things tend to go in cycles, with Warhol doing it in the '60s and of course it goes back to the days of silent film," says Blinding Light programmer Alex Mackenzie. "But there has definitely been more of an interest of late between integration of film and live elements.

"I'd guess that it has something to do with the crossover of audio artists working in the visual realm and film-makers working more with audio. Advances in technology, the ability to manipulate sound and image on computer, is influential as well."

Montreal-born Podbrey, 31, moved to Vancouver 12 years ago to study theatre and has since worked as a firefighter and won 26 votes as a mayoral candidate in the last civic election, but is primarily a film-maker whose current project is a documentary about "fungus, mushrooms and their influence on the world."

In the Oz and 2001 shows, Podbrey just hit the play buttons on the CD player and VCR and let the two media drift into synchronicity. But his last show, Radiohead Meets The Matrix, was infinitely more complex.

"There are deep connections between Radiohead's music and The Matrix," he says. "There are so many Philip K. Dick-type influences that tie them together."

On five CD players he played each of the British band's five albums on repeat, fading them in and out as the film unspooled, but never planning the intersections of sound and visual.

"I essentially created a whole new kind of synchronicity experiment. Whereas Radiohead and The Matrix are pretty similar thematically, Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz, are very different -- like ham and pineapple, two totally different things that go together well. In Radiohead and The Matrix, the synchronicities are interesting moment-to-moment. Lyrics will emerge in a way that you didn't really hear before because of the visual context or the way one character looks at another becomes more meaningful because of the music."

The products of pop culture are always in the air or at least at the edge of our peripheral vision. These sounds and visions clash or conform with the real world in ways that are sometimes beautiful and sometimes absurd. Podbrey is a specialist in the area -- narrowing the focus.

"I think what I'm doing is something that people have always done in a less controlled way," Podbrey says. "We've always been aware of how music or a movie will step out and influence a moment. You're having a conversation with someone, for instance, and the radio is on in the background. A sound or a lyric will punch out and speak to you in a certain way that has a lot of resonance."

His experiments are making him a better film-maker, he says. "Your sense of editing becomes highly attuned after doing a few of these shows. And it makes me very appreciative of films that can tell their stories visually."

Podbrey's next experiment will be on the dystopian sci-fi animation Akira with perhaps Nine Inch Nails or Peter Gabriel's Passion as a soundtrack

"Wow," says Dickin' Around comedian Ian Boothby when told about Podbrey's work. "I thought we were the oddballs but, okay, now we seem normal."

The Improvision troupe has had a long-running improv show every Monday at the Urban Well in Kitsilano and, at one point, started using slides as part of the show. Jamming to film was the next logical step.

"In our first show we did a full-length Dick Tracy movie, but now we do the 10-minute serials along with a cartoon and a newsreel, so it's like a 1940s night at the movies," Boothby says.

The cast includes Boothby and Roger Fredericks who were in the late CBC television series The 11th Hour, Diana Frances who starred in the Comedy Network's cancelled series Suckerpunch and Ray Gurrie, last year's world improv champ.

"Last year we all had television series," says Boothby. "We're trying to put the bitterness of cancellation behind us. We have to make our own work. And if [Dickin' Around] tanks, well, we still have Monday nights at the Well to fall back on."

On Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. Improvision's evening of "blood, babes and blasphemy" will include the Tracy serials Death Rides the Sky Brother Against Brother, Dangerous Waters and The Ghost Town Mystery.

In standard improv comedy fashion, they take audience suggestions -- "something for Dick Tracy to be obsessed with, for instance" -- and warp the storyline from there.

"Because of the suggestions we can plan the gags in advance," says Boothby. "We do have to watch the movie beforehand, however, because all the characters are dressed alike. Everyone wears the same damn suit and tie and hat. We originally tried to just improv on the fly but it just became too confusing."

It might just be Dickin' Around, but it is a good improv workout. "It definitely flexes some different improv muscles. Doing a genre piece is good because you definitely have to talk in that '40s style."

Smulovitz has applied a different style of music each time Eye of Newt improvised score to a film over the past three years. The choices have been wide ranging -- Metropolis, Nosferatu, King Kong Vs. Godzilla, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, The Passion of Joan of Arc, the Jean Cocteau films Beauty and the Beast and The Blood of a Poet and the Hong Kong pulp fiction, The Heroic Trio. Eye of Newt's Valentine's Day production was improvising to Microcosmos, an extreme close-up documentary of the insect world, for a capacity crowd at the Blinding Light.

"For Microcosmos, it seemed like a string texture might be nice," says Smulovitz, 30, who played viola along with cellist Peggy Lee, bassist Torsten M¸ller, vocalist Viviane Houle and Joel Lower, who played violin and percussion. "For King Kong Vs. Godzilla I had a couple of electric guitar players, drums and a lot of electronics. We've used a lot of computer, turntables and sampling in other shows."

The musicians watch the movie together and have one rehearsal to arrange a few parts -- it's all improv after that. "In Microcosmos, for example, when you saw the dung beetle rolling the ball up the hill, we had established that that was going to be a drum solo. Or when the stag beetles were duking it out, we knew that would be the bass versus the cello."

Eye of Newt is sort of a free-form version of what piano players and organists did in the early days of silent film. "Often times they would have a repertoire of pieces that they could play -- a fast, a slow, a love piece -- but there was some improvisation going on," Smulovitz says. "However, improvised music arose from the free jazz of the '60s, so this has a much more experimental quality than what happened back in the '20s."

Originally from Eugene, Ore., Smulovitz has played viola for most of his life, but started improvising on electric bass. "I picked up viola again after maybe six years and brought it into the improvised realm. The freedom of expression is what it's all about for me."

Inspired by seeing jazz guitarist Bill Frisell improv to a Buster Keaton film in Seattle in the mid-90s, Smulovitz has since discovered improvised music and film go together well for a couple of reasons.

"The film provides a structure for the improvisation to occur around, giving it a cohesiveness," Smulovitz says. "Also, it's often difficult for people who are not familiar with improvised music to connect with it. This is a way to build a bridge to a new audience."

The audience's attention is more focused in the cinema setting.

"It's great to have a venue where people just sit down and listen," says Smulovitz. "They're not eating and drinking and talking. They're paying attention. That's very rewarding."
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