Oh my goodness, where do I begin? There is so much bubbling around in my mind after attending a Seattle International Film Festival showing of director Stuart Paton’s 1916 silent “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” at the Paramount Theater last night. Just from a historical perspective alone, the chance to see a new print of a nearly-100-year-old film at a beautiful old theater on a proper big screen was enough to buy a ticket. What made it even more worthy and completely delightful was that the musical score was performed live by singer/songwriter/instrumentalist Stephin Merritt (known best for his work with the band the Magnetic Fields) with Daniel Handler on accordion/vocals (yes, Handler is author Lemony Snicket), Johnny Blood on tuba and trumpet, and David Hegarty on deliciously-ornate organ. Fresh from seeing the new documentary focusing on Merritt’s career, I was sure that the evening would be entertaining.

Earlier in the year I had noticed that the San Francisco International Film Festival had asked Merritt to compose and perform a new score for “20,000 Leagues,” but I didn’t think I would be fortunate enough to be able to hear it in person. But good luck prevailed. Last night’s Seattle performance was just the second time it had been done, San Francisco of course holding the premiere last month at the Castro. Whomever it was that thought to tap Merritt for this project was inspired, and had a real (reel, heh) feel for not only what Merritt could provide but what the film needed in 2010 to appeal to jaded and overloaded modern-day filmgoers.

I kept those 1916 audiences in mind as I sat down close to the front of the stage, the big screen in front of me and the musicians setting up to the left. Film was still really in its infancy then and feature-length movies even more so. Seeing just about anything moving on the screen was cool with the movie patrons in 1916, and they didn’t require sophisticated stories or deft acting for their nickel ticket. This adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1869 classic of science-fiction didn’t feel any particular need to stick to his novel all that much – in fact, it also incorporated Verne’s 1874 “Mysterious Island” as well as tacked on a new ending to the tale explaining the mysterious Captain Nemo’s backstory.

Taken purely as a film and with the expectations we have now, this celluloid near-centenarian is a bit of a mess. Much of the narrative is obscure and jumps wildly from scene to scene, the cast is filled with extraneous characters, the acting comically over-dramatic, the resolutions utterly predictable. But the story itself was really not the reason for the existence of this version of Verne’s vision. It was a vehicle to showcase the spanking new technology of underwater photography developed by brothers George and Ernest Williamson. Universal Pictures spent $200,000 on this film, which of course was an astronomical amount in 1916. With the submarine mock-ups, exotic location shoots, and underwater equipment, there weren’t enough nickels in the early 20th-Century pockets of the movie-going world to recoup expenses. But the filmmakers’ artistic ambitions were clumsily charming, and sometimes quite successful too.

So, what can you do in 2010 to take a film which is historically important but sometimes a bit disjointed and dull and give it new life? Enter Stephin Merritt. Merritt is a natural for film score work, as he has a practiced ear for unusual sounds and their emotional resonance, understands the crucial elements of timing, and is proficient in all styles of American popular music. When seen on the big screen the many comic nuances of the film arise, as well as moments of reflection; again, his songwriter forte, the wry and dry mixed with thoughtful, measured observation.

Merritt did his homework in developing a score that used the traditional elements of silent film accompaniment: repeated themes, occasional vocal approximations for the screen actors, climactic builds and denouements. (He did this so well over the 8-reel film that as I walked out of the theater I heard several people singing the main musical line: “Twenty-thousand leagues under the seeeeeeea…” which included myself sounding like a burly sea captain.) The arrangements struck a perfect balance between historically-accurate and jauntily-nautical instrumentation with areas of modern synthetic noise. The vocals, always through megaphones, were Victrola-cool. And Merritt’s score made the film funny – really funny, but not in a cruel or mocking way at all. I mean, how can you not love it when the loopy “Child of Nature” – a young woman island castaway – is discovered and begins to sing in falsetto, “I DON’T WANNA WEAR PANTS!”

(An aside --truly, the star of the film was actor Allen Holubar as Captain Nemo, born in 1888 in San Francisco’s Castro District…kind of a cool thing, considering the SFIFF commission. In “20000 Leagues” he looks like a filthy skinny Santa with terrible black-face makeup smoking a long exotic pipe, gazing mischievously into the camera. Some dreaded sea devil! He was AWESOME and hilarious, and my new film hero.)

The underwater shots, filmed in the clear waters of the Bahamas, were extensive. You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen actors in friggin’-prehistoric diving suits featuring Frankenstein/KISS lead platform boots, shooting guns through the water at real sharks, let me tell you. Many of these scenes seemed to have been under-restored; they looked nearly destroyed, with scratching and fading so extensive as to nearly obscure the images. But it worked incredibly well somehow – almost like purposeful art, and perhaps it was. Merritt’s use of metallic crunch and dissonance worked particularly well there.

As one of the long shots of underwater life went on – coral and fish and strange plants and all the weirdness of that world -- I imagined the thrill of the Williamson brothers in being able to capture it to show it to people, all of whom would have never seen such a thing before. Even in beat-up black-and-white, one is moved by its tranquility and beauty. It is difficult not to think about what has happened to our oceans since 1916, and I am sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience taking a short, sad reflection.

My criticisms of the live score are very few and only technical. At times, the music/speech was not perfectly in sync with the film’s action, which was momentarily distracting. I also missed a few of the funny lines because they were too quietly delivered or drowned out by the music.

My expectations of the night? Fulfilled. I was very entertained , and I only wish all of you could have had the very same experience. The only other performance of the live “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” scheduled is on July 11, 2010 in Los Angeles, a benefit for the Silent Film Theater, and I strongly recommend you attempt to grab a ticket if you are in the area. What a fun night, and what a lot to keep from it.

Every so often during the performance, from my vantage point I could look over and see Stephin Merritt smiling as the audience responded to a particularly funny punctuation, something most could not see, as his back was turned to them. He seemed quite genuinely happy, as well he should be. He took something old, and made it new again.