April 27, 2010

Playback: Jon Else's 'Sing Faster: The Stagehands' Ring Cycle'

Lumbering giants, a guy named Spike, maidens in gossamer dresses, dry ice and a poker game.  From the opening shot until Valhalla goes up in flames, Jon Else's Sing Faster submerges you in a magical world behind the scenes at San Francisco Opera's 1990 staging of Wagner's Ring Cycle. It is a world I never tire of visiting, and my idea of a documentary good time.

For me, Sing Faster is a love poem to craft. 

With equal parts inspiration, precision, teamwork and muscle, the stagehands create the world and destroy it in the course of Wagner's 17-hour extravaganza. It's a working-man's ballet, where carpenters cross the stage on hands-and-knees, spitting tacks; hands pull ropes in unison; a chorus line of grips roll scrims; and, from a bird's-eye view, enormous set pieces are maneuvered. It's professionalism and make-believe, laughing and swearing, action and waiting. They're putting on a show, and we're along for a vérité ride.

Between set changes, there's a poker game around a bright red felt card table. The players, led by a grip named Spike, decipher the opera's labyrinthine plot for us with lines like, "Doesn't one of the giants get a chick out of the deal?" and "Wait a second, how does the dwarf fit into that?" We also get their take on the life lessons to be learned from the greed, betrayal and incest taking place on stage.

The scene that most makes my documentary heart sing is being inside the brain of a mechanical dragon as it fights to its death. As the stagehand inside furiously pulls levers back and forth, we hear his cues: "Go wild...Keep snapping...More snapping...This is it; you're dying...OK, you're dead!"

As spectacular as the stagecraft is, the film-craft puts on a show too.

Else is at the top of his game. His photography is stunning without being self-conscious. The camera has an affectionate gaze that makes you feel like you're one of the guys. Whether it's a sneaker poised in theatrical mist ready to burst into action or the super-foggers going out of control, we are always in the thick of the action. Book-ending the film are two terrific time-lapse sequences--the first condenses two months of constructing the world, and the second buzzes through the full opera in one minute.

Sound is on equal show here, booming and quiet and masterfully recorded by John Haptas. As thunder claps and the orchestra plays, we are privy to backstage whispers and even the snap of a piece of hard candy. Layers of intercom stage directions provide priceless one-liners like, "Super-Nibelung, please see Barbara in the canteen." The movie bursts with texture, and Jay Boekelheide and Deborah Hoffmann's editing manages to mix all the layers together fluidly and remains playful without losing the weight of Wagner's opera.

On opening night, we emerge from our underground world to the bright daylight of the opera house lobby. When the doors open and fanatical Wagner-ites burst through like football fans flooding the field, I'm always giggling and applauding. Now they're going to see the magic-making we've been up to back stage. Mission accomplished.

A note of disclosure: One of my first film jobs was on Sing Faster. As something like a third assistant editor, the only thing I can possibly take any credit for is that the picture and sound are in sync. But those late nights spent repetitively pushing buttons gave me a great excuse to get to know the picture and sound of this sumptuous film intimately.

 

Megan Mylan earned an Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject for Smile Pinki.

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