It's not a job that garners instant sympathy, like coal miner or bomb-squad cop or personal assistant to Harvey Weinstein, but pause for a second to contemplate the plight of the modern film festival programmer: Every three days, somewhere in the world, there's a film festival. There are not, however, a hundred and sixty-odd brand new films that would allow every fest to be a wall-to-wall blanket of world premieres. Many festivals offer revival screenings of classic material in a new light (I have happy memories of Don McKellar introducing a brand-new uncut print of Cronenberg's The Brood at Toronto a few years ago) as a way of offering something new. Many combine musical talents with older films to create unique experiences in viewing that, unlike some festival circuit films, can't go from town to town because they're unique live experiences. At this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, audiences had a chance to see one of those signature experiences – a screening of the Swedish 1921 horror-folktale The Phantom Carriage, with an original live score by local resident and pop music legend Jonathan Richman.
Richman's most familiar to mainstream audiences for his work as the singing narrator in There's Something About Mary – a tragedy on the same scale, and of the same nature, as if people only recognized Marlon Brando from his sleepwalking work in Superman. Richman's work – with his first band and as a solo artist – has gone from pretty much helping invent American post-punk with The Modern Lovers to raucous children's music to more gentle (but never banal) ventures into folk- and European-influenced acoustic songwriting. He seemed, at first blush, like an odd choice to compose a score for a 80-year old film; watching Richman lead an 8-piece orchestra on the stage of San Francisco's historic Castro Theater, however, any possible concerns about stylistic whiplash were washed away by the shimmer and grace of the score as it unfolded before the audience.