Reflections on the Hot Club of San Francisco’s Silent Surrealism

Written by Inez Bell

What comes to mind when I mention the words, “Fairfield County”? Be honest. Well, when I think of Fairfield County, I think of trees and large houses, not of people stepping on each other’s necks to attend performances on college campuses. I’m aware of my bias as a New Haven youth -- I like to attend performances at the Yale Repertory theatre as much as I can. Therefore, the location troubled me a bit.

However, Fairfield University’s theatre and staff were, respectively, a good match for the piece and kind to the audience. The staff was comprised of students, which made me feel more welcomed than if they were professionals dressed in suits, or something similar. The three kids I came into contact with were representative of average college-goers, chit-chatty and constantly on the verge of laughing. Although young and relaxed, they knew exactly what they were doing; especially when it came to pointing audience members to their seats or to the bathroom. It was even more comforting that I caught them sizing me up the same way any teenager or young adult would do upon meeting someone of the same generation. The theatre itself idealized that of a small university’s -- not too big to be pretentious, not too small to be exclusive. Although a bit chilly, the performance entertained not only as a brilliant piece of multi-media art, but also as a distraction to my own lack of body heat.

On a similar note, I’m pretty confident that the audience was a direct result of the location; More parents and grandparents than children, teens or young adults. I’m also confident that we high school juniors and seniors were the youngest members of the crowd. The audience filled only a third of the theatre, and all of them were older (over 50) white men and women, possibly married couples, for whom gypsy jazz was a familiar genre, or for whom the performance served as something different to do on a Sunday afternoon. They were all nicely dressed and comfortable, apart from the two or three college students dressed in sweats and pajamas who were passing the time by texting in the back of the theatre.

The lighting and sound were appropriate to the piece. The lights dimmed while the band played, and brightened when a piece was being introduced or discussed. I was impressed by the fluidity. However, the musician’s were the highlight of the performance. Paul Mehling, lead guitarist and leader of Hot Club San Francisco, was clearly passionate about his art. While speaking, he knew his facts and stories, and when playing, he cued the band on beat, and moved his body in time to the strings he plucked and strummed. However, because the group played in such a small semi-circle, I was very upset that I could not see Isabelle Fontaine’s guitar playing. When I was thirteen, I neglected to attend more than two beginner’s guitar classes, and subsequently taught myself to play. Ever since, I’ve been immensely interested in the style in which artists play rhythmic guitar. Therefore, it bothered me that her playing was blocked by a music stand.

Mehling’s introduction to Charley Bowers as an actor and filmmaker were spot-on. Now You Tell One and It’s A Bird were thoroughly entertaining and thoughtful films that called to mind themes of social hierarchy. Of course, being accompanied by the music of Django Reinhardt, I felt that the films did so through comedy, which made black and white, silent films, easier to enjoy for a seventeen year old accustomed to surround sound and 3D images.

James Sibley Watson’s adaptation of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher was far too obscure for me to follow or appreciate. I know that the film served as groundbreaking proof of the discovery of new ways to lay and run film, and as Mehling explained, I know that any genuine film critic or maker would know exactly what I was talking about if I mentioned it. However, as aforementioned, the obscurity screamed too loud. Watson seemed to be more focused on the lay of the film than he was on the story line. Although, I do not know much about Watson or the film itself, so honestly, it’s hard for even me to trust my own opinion.

Harold Shaw’s The Land Beyond the Sunset immediately made me think of a Disney Cinderella, Dickens Pip or Rowling Harry Potter type family situation. Like the first two films, while watching it, I thought of class struggle and identity. I related more to Shaw’s film than I did any of the other three.

For a Sunday afternoon before a week-long holiday break, I was overall, thankful to be able to experience Silent Surrealism. I learned distant, seemingly foreign information that I, by no means, would have learned on my own volition, or even in my art or academic-related travels. I was especially fond of the rhythm guitarists, Fontaine and Jeff Magidson, of Clint Baker’s bass playing and Evan Price’s handle on all the different sounds a violin can make. My hat goes off the entire Hot Club San Francisco band, who can perform music to a silent movie without even looking at a screen.