Film and TV

Andrew Karnavas Goes Dark to Bring "Film Noir" to the Stage

Imagine stepping into an old film noir picture, one of those gritty, black-and-white movies from the 1940s and 1950s where life is cheap, the detectives are hard-boiled, the men all wear fedoras, the women are often referred to as “dames,” everybody smokes, and redemption is just a word listed in the dictionary under “R.” Now imagine what a scene from one of those pictures might sound like: menacing strings, blaring brass, mournful saxophones and, in later noirish pictures like Blade Runner or even 2011's Drive, eerie electronic music.

Andrew Karnavas, the Houston musician behind blues-rockers Runaway Sun and the kid-friendly Andyroo, is such a fan of the genre he titled his 2010 solo album Film Noir. The title track, he says, was directly inspired by the classic noir picture The Maltese Falcon, featuring one of Humphrey Bogart's greatest performances as Dashiell Hammett's unflappable private eye Sam Spade. At the time, he says, he wondered, “How can I make listening to a song feel like watching a movie?”

Now Karnavas has reworked Film Noir into what he calls a “concept EP” that mixes three songs from that album with two new songs, “Danger” and “Strangers On a Train,” and then brings it to life with a collaboration with Houston's FrenetiCore dance company that premieres Saturday night at the Wortham Centre's Cullen Theater. Karnavas says the music means to evoke both classic Hitchcock scores and more modern electronic-based soundtracks, “to celebrate Film Noir's legacy and lasting influence on cinema.” Film Noir also features choreography by FrenetiCore Director Rebecca French, whose dancers will interact with visual projections by Grace Rodriguez and the “Houston noir” footage by Raul Casares, cameraman for Runaway Sun’s HPMA-nominated “Bad Bad Man” video. Upping the sinister atmosphere even further, local bluesman and Resonator maestro John Egan — whose most recent album is last year’s very noirish Amulet — will also perform in the lobby as a prelude. The program notes sound as hard-boiled as any True Detective-style pulp fiction from the period, with a contemporary twist:

Film Noir tells the story of avid film fan who finds herself absorbed into the action and turned into a silver screen femme fatale. She journeys through a world between art and reality, a world of murder, doubt, and mystery, with the hope of leaving a dark past behind and being able to love again.

Karnavas says his interest in film noir dates back to his childhood experiences with black and white photography (wondering “where is all the color?”) and going to the movies with his dad where he developed a taste for action movies and antihero films. In college, the film program happened to belong to the English department, so as an English major “I jumped at the chance to take the courses ‘Understanding Movies’ and ‘Hitchcock’…I felt like I was in my element.”

Karnavas became acutely aware of the ways directors like Hitchcock used the music in their films to both underscore elements of the story and manipulate the audience’s emotions. He cites the action in 1951’s Strangers On a Train as a perfect example.

“There's a scene at a carnival that uses circus music as the soundtrack to a strangulation, so the music is very juxtaposed to the setting,” Karnavas says. “The music fades while the killer follows his victim away from the carnival, but it swells again during the actual murder. Hitchcock lets us know that he's in control of what we're experiencing.”

Since the music of Film Noir is so rooted in film scores, the Press thought we’d go off-script for a minute and ask Karnavas to come up with a few pop songs that also incorporate some elements of noir. Unlike the characters in most noir films (or these songs, for that matter), you can trust him on this one.

The opening riff tells a whole story: it's late, it's lonely, you can see the blue neon lights reflecting in the rain puddles on the street and a cigarette burning in the hand of a man who's thinking about a woman in his past that he can't shake. There are countless other Tom Waits tunes that I could include, but this one does it all.

M. Ward is so good at making something modern out of something classic, which is what I think I'm always trying to do in all of my music projects. This was the first song I ever heard of his, and it's my favorite. It has this uneasy feeling and it's so moody. I really like the killer whale line, it keeps the imagery in black and white for me during the whole song.

A man is lured by a femme fatale, and there's no escape. This song is so dark it made me laugh the first time I heard it. Somebody give Townes a hand out of that hole.

Hitchcock punishes the femme fatales in his films to the point of actually creating empathy for them. “Glory Box” is a song that fits in that space — this dangerous femme fatale who just wants to be a woman. 

"Danger" is my bid for a James Bond song, and Goldfinger is my favorite Bond movie of all time. I waited to revisit the Bond songs until after we recorded “Danger” to let my brain pull influences from them based on memory. Now if only I could get Shirley Bassey to sing “Danger”!
Vangelis crafted an incredible future noir score for Blade Runner. This is a key reference point for “Strangers On a Train.”

Another chief influence for the electronic side. I've always wanted to cover this with a band in a full-on rock arrangement. The riff is really edgy and rapid. My dad used to train racehorses, and even used this song on a promo video for one of them in the ’80s, so it's very special to me. 

Matthew Davis Buehrer, [my] Runaway Sun bandmate and co-producer for the electronic songs in the Film Noir program, showed me this song and it blew me away. Trent Reznor lives in the future. He is so great with using polyrhythms and arpeggios in his songs, and he'll do things like make a track clip on purpose and sample it to be a percussive element in the song.

'Film Noir' screens along with FrenetiCore's presentation of Igor Stravinsky's 'Rite of Summer' 8 p.m. Saturday at the Wortham Center's Cullen Theater, 501 Texas. Tickets start at $12.50, and are available here.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray