Yo La Tengo first scored the Surrealistic nature movies of Jean Painlevé for the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2001. The BFI's boxed set includes a disc of their live soundtrack performed in 2005, and the band returned to the pioneer filmmaker's undersea kingdom for an evening's avant-garde entertainment.
Painlevé's career spanned from 1928 to the Seventies, beginning with short films on marine life. His works in tonight's performance are stunning examples of undersea and microscopic photography, with the extraordinary hues of his Sea Urchins from the Fifties moving into a microscopic world where the band's layers of sound – echoplex guitar, a tattoo of drums, abstract synths – match the tonal floods of colour and form.
The band is low-key, playing to the screen rather than the audience, their music dripping over the images like a viscous fluid as Ira Hubley's guitar is pricked by the spare percussion and flurries of synth sounds.
There are nine films in all, from 1929's Hyas and Stenorhynchus (a sea anemone with its beautiful spiral-like fans caught in the act of copulation) to 1978's Liquid Crystals – a colour-drenched abstract field exploring the molecular world of acetic acid, caffeine and urea. The latter is accompanied by feedback and a pummelling of sound that dies away through the stately realms of the Sea Horse, the band moving off into spacey mood music to match the alien worlds in Painlevé's lenses.
The highlight probably is the Love Life of the Octopus, made over a two-year period in the Fifties. Its intense visual poetry, especially in the sex scenes, is strong, top-shelf stuff. Yo La Tengo match it with a vampish bass riff and one-note guitar hanging in suspension before rising to another crescendo of feedback.
Painlevé's vision is more otherworldly that that of his successors, Jean-Michel Cousteau or David Attenborough. He frames his world in a way that highlights its utter, inhuman strangeness, while finding in his subjects – sea horses, octopus, urchins, jellyfish – remarkable human resonances, and a very different anthropomorphising to the one we've grown familiar with in Disney.Reuse content