About time 

Andy Smetanka animates The Decemberists

It’s easy to say it was only a matter of time for Andy Smetanka. Sure, he’s been well established locally—former award-winning arts editor for the Indy and current movie reviewer, as well as a principal in the local cinema scene making his own films—but his work has rarely been showcased outside the Garden City. That’s about to change.

On March 20, Kill Rock Stars will release a long-awaited DVD for one of the label’s more famous discoveries, The Decemberists. The band, fronted by University of Montana creative-writing graduate Colin Meloy, left the Olympia-based indie label for industry giant Capitol Records at the end of 2005, a move that’s only continued to grow the allegiance of fans as evidenced by last year’s popular and critically acclaimed The Crane Wife. That step up leaves this DVD project—nearly two years in the making—as a sweet relic of their rise to fame. It should be popular.

Tucked into the middle of it are two of Smetanka’s stop-motion music videos, available for viewing for the first time outside of the Crystal Theatre, the filmmaker’s living room and remote film festivals in France and Brazil. Using a Super 8 camera mounted above a homemade light table, and manipulating two-dimensional hand-cut figures crafted from thick filing folders, Smetanka spent hours—specifically three months and more than 30,000 shots for the five-minute “The Bachelor and the Bride” video—positioning shadowy figures, elaborate backing landscapes and washed-out blanket hues to Meloy’s medieval lyrics.

While “The Bachelor and the Bride” is quite cool, his piece de resistance—and perhaps the DVD’s—is an epic rendition of The Tain, a single 18-minute track about an ancient Celtic myth captured on The Decemberists’ 2004 EP of the same name. It took Smetanka took nearly eight months to finish it, and while parts seem tedious—I blame the song—the battle sequences and persistently fantastical imagery are tremendous.

Beyond Smetanka’s offerings, the DVD features a 2005 concert at Portland’s Roseland Theater (surprisingly well filmed, with a hefty dose of overhead crane shots), and a 26-minute mini-documentary titled Paris Before the War. The live set will appease most fans, but the haughtily titled doc is only mildly revealing; a few minutes on Meloy’s start in Missoula with Tarkio is one treat. There are also three other music videos—“16 Military Wives,” “The Soldiering Life,” and “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect”—that serve as a sort of timeline for the band. There’s the DIY feel of “Architect,” from 2002’s Castaways and Cutouts, leading to the more polished, bigger-budget look of “16 Military Wives” off of 2005’s Picaresque.

What doesn’t fit the timeline, however, are either of Smetanka’s videos. That bodes well for the deserving and steadfastly throwback filmmaker, as well as for a throng of unsuspecting Decemberists’ fans who are about to be introduced to his timeless work.
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