Monthly Archives: June 2006

June 28, 2006

The Long Hot Summer (1958)

directed by Martin Ritt
screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr.
adapted from a group of stories by William Faulkner

That’s what the credits apparently say. Word on the street is that the material for this movie all comes from the novel The Hamlet (1940). Alternately it’s said to be derived from two stories: Barn Burning (1939), the substance of which was incorporated into The Hamlet, and Spotted Horses (1931), which appears essentially intact as a chapter of The Hamlet. However, the character relationships and plotting are, my research tells me, a bit of a free improvisation on Faulkner rather than a direct adaptation. It felt that way, to be honest.

All I know is, it was funny at the beginning when the Hollywood violins zoomed up their golden staircase to usher in the CinemaScope title sequence, and the proud words appeared: “William Faulkner’s THE LONG HOT SUMMER,” with “William Faulkner’s” written in a suave brush script. And then someone starts crooning Alex North’s immortal song, “The Long Hot Summer as featured in Jerry Wald’s production of William Faulkner’s THE LONG HOT SUMMER.” Why was it funny? What is it that’s so ignoble about that possessive? The 1958 audience probably didn’t spontaneously laugh, like we did, when they saw it hanging smarmily above the title. Is it that the silly movie is shamelessly trying to puff itself up with absurd name-dropping? It’s not, after all, that absurd – the stories are by William Faulkner – they are William FaulknER’S. And yet there’s something about that attempt at chumminess, in the apostrophe-S, that seems false and undeserved. It’s a little glimpse of the class struggle between literature and film, which, though we’d like to think it’s been resolved, is still bitter. Film is trying, in its desperate bourgeois way, to cozy up to the aristocracy, and we’re laughing at the oafish transparency of the scheme. The irony of course is that Faulkner himself was for years a working stiff in the film industry. Money can’t buy you class, I think is the lesson, or at least is the motto behind our laughter. Oh, so this is William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet? The William Shakespeare? [long, impressed whistle].

Searched to see what anyone else has said on this subject. This guy is implying, as regards the present case, that the real idea was to capitalize on the William Faulkner brand. Well, right. That’s also embarrassing. And it can’t account for everything. You know who’s gonna love this version of The Odyssey? Homer fans. Let’s put something in there to really catch their eye, let ’em know just whose Odyssey this is.

Okay, well, that’s just silly. Obviously that’s a special case.

Oh, The Long Hot Summer? Right. It was okay. At the time I was watching it I enjoyed it more than that, but it rapidly paled in my retrospective opinion, I think primarily because the plot was so hodgepodgic.* By the end it had become clear that the depth and weight intimated by all that meaty dialogue was a bit of a mirage. During the course of the movie, though, I several times thought: “this all has an old-fashioned, conscientious, cared-for, acted quality and I admire that.” It felt like a good, invigorating evening at the theater. It was written that way, too.

And here is the thought I specifically wanted to record from my watching of this movie: This idea of how people work – people as characters who might well name the very things that define them, if caught at the right moment. This paradigm of people who fall in love with each other, and become murderous when angered, and suicidal when defeated. I understand these things making plots go, and making those amphitheatre-sitting Greeks gasp and marvel, and muse about life. But there’s something odd about this Shakespearean or whoeverean notion that if we take these army-men out of their plotted campaign and just let them sit and talk, their thoughts and feelings are worth our attention too. I’m not sure how to say this because it’s so broad. Something is strange to me about the quintessentially Hollywoodish scenes, of which this movie had several, where two characters storm and struggle against each other, through dialogue, and we are meant to feel that we are seeing something wholesomely real and earthy. Is it just me? Mind you, I don’t actually find this phenomenon troubling or confusing in practice – but during this movie I kept thinking, “but on what grounds are you trying to convince me that this matters, again? It’s something to do with ‘universal human truths,’ right?”

What is that thing, where people pace around rooms and say dramatic stuff to one another? It’s a very odd bunch of conventions. That’s all I’m saying. They did a very good job of it in this movie.

Actually, maybe the peculiarity of the insinuation that we can learn something about life from the melodramatic goings-on in a movie is a direct result of that clash between the high of literature and the low of movies. In a movie, especially a pre-70s Hollywood movie, we see every detail and are thus always aware of the artifice, of how shallow the make-believe goes. Just off-screen is a man with a megaphone; between the lines of the script there is only blank space. In a well-written book, we only see what we are intentionally shown and thus it’s possible for an author to keep alive the thought that whatever we aren’t seeing is real life in all its richness and relevance.

I guess this is one of my problems with modern theater. Or, like, whatever Chekhov is considered. Or O’Neill. Seeing people playing in costumes on a stage, the fakest of fake, doesn’t put me in a frame of mind where I’m ready to believe that the emotional grit is relevant because it’s real. If you know what I mean.

Orson Welles looked like a mess and talked like a coughing animal but I think he made the movie. Or maybe he weakened the movie by being SO huge and blustery that nobody else could compete with his presence. It may well be that the plotting felt arbitrary to me only because my focus had been drawn too far from Paul Newman, who should have been the rightful center of attention. But that said, I enjoyed Orson and I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. Newman comes off as a natural and someone with a lot more potential than this movie can put on show. Joanne Woodward has a bad haircut and in general isn’t photographed very attractively, whereas Paul Newman looks great. I guess he didn’t mind, though.

Alex North’s music may also have been part of what was keeping me in an unconvinced frame of mind. He did some nice summer-heat things with a lazily tinkling piano embroidering over smooth strings, and, honestly, his song wasn’t so bad, but his dramatic scoring was too forceful. The long scored scene between Newman and Woodward in the middle culminates in some “SHE! JUST! SLAPPED! HIM!” chords that are laughable. Again, a conflict between naturalism and…that other thing. Epic-izing. What’s the word for that?

So in typing out my thoughts I seem to have exposed a common thread: the movie was essentially in the – for want of the correct word – epic style – and by epic I mean some other word entirely, suggestions please – but had some gestures toward naturalism in content and performance that didn’t mesh with that style and created awkwardness. That stylistically unsettled quality characterizes a lot of 50’s dramas, to me – as I’m typing this I’m thinking of On the Waterfront.

That I’ve ended up here is sort of interesting, in light of the (lame) Long Hot Summer DVD mini-documentary, wherein Angela Lansbury talked about the discomfort Orson Welles apparently felt on set being surrounded by all these young “method” actors, whereas he was a proponent of the “old school.” Maybe what I’m saying is that his discomfort was ours as well, and that Hollywood didn’t yet know how to make good use of “the method.”

I haven’t read any Faulkner – yeah, really – so I can’t comment on that, but obviously that would inform all of this in a valuable way. Sorry, everyone. I will.

* According to google, I am the first.

June 27, 2006

Circle Circle Dot Dot

Recently I made a list of some long-abandoned projects that I thought it would be worth finishing just for the sake of finishing them. I guess I’m sort of tackling this list, as time allows, starting with those that require the least effort to complete. At the top of the list was that Pastorale piece that I posted a few days ago – which required the least effort because it was already finished. All that was left was for me to work up enough “aw, screw it, I’ll just say it’s done and be rid of it” to override the existing “maybe some day I can make it better.”

Requiring the second-least amount of effort was this little guy, abandoned at the 45 second mark since a year ago February. Perhaps you’ll agree with me that it’s particularly unsatisfying around 0:45. At the time, it was unsatisfying enough for me to discard it. But now I’ve pushed past that, with no intent to improve what was already there, just to finish it. And after, oh, 3 hours of additional attention, it’s finished, and I’m rid of it. Here you go.

Seven-ring circus.

Now for some longwindicating about it:

I started this at a time when I was excited by the idea that harmony, which is by far the subtlest and most involved aspect of music theory and is the hardest to elucidate to listeners, could be represented intuitively in animation by a rigorous visual scheme. I had seen a 2-dimensional map of pitches in harmonic space that I found compellingly “right” – it’s a triangular grid with pitches at the intersections; one axis corresponds to perfect fifths, one to major thirds, and the other to minor thirds. Chords can be visualized as two-dimensional figures formed by connecting the grid lines between the consituent notes: Major triads are triangles pointing in one direction, minor triads are triangles pointing the opposite direction. Various other chord types (diminished, sevens, whatever) create their own distinctive shapes on the grid.

The lovely thing about this configuration is that the endlessly tesselating grid allows you to watch the many “directions” a progression may lead: a progression can fall and fall and fall by fifths, say, and still end up where it started. On the grid, the shapes would walk, slinky-like, down one axis, until they’ve “screen-wrapped” back to where they began – or in the “wallpapered” grid, until they’ve found their way into an adjacent, identical tile of the tesselation. These visual analogues for harmonic movement seemed genuinely valuable and I wanted to see them animated.

Well, I did a few tests with this Bach prelude and they were pretty much a bust. Everyone I showed them to said they were confusing or seemed intuitively wrong. The harmonic movement, pictured, was kinetically dull compared to the actual sounds they were hearing. The lesson seemed to be that if the surface movement of the music wasn’t somehow captured there to appease the eye, the connection between the images and the harmony just wouldn’t read.

So I tried to put in some of the musical “surface” by having little dots traverse the harmonic shapes from pitch to pitch. But now the moving dots were so much more involving and noteworthy than the triangles or rhombuses or whatever they were tracing that the whole “harmonic visualization scheme” might as well have been thrown out the window. Furthermore, to whatever degree the harmonic movement came across visually, it still seemed too removed from the way these harmonies functioned and “felt” in the music. I think the moral is just the old music theory warning: that you can separate the elements of music – harmony, melody, rhythm, etc. – in a theoretical context, but in practice their effects are intricately interdependent.

Anyway, then I decided to do a version using the same basic concept (harmonies = 2-dimensional configurations) but without any scheme – to just go on what the music “felt like.” So that’s what this is. It’s just a little improvised choreography, which happens to be focussed on harmonic movement because so’s the piece.

I took the shortcut of just animating the “dot-goes-around-the-circle” once and using it over and over; that’s the kind of thing that Flash wants you to do. But the upshot is that I didn’t have a lot of flexibility about sync and there are a lot of places where I had to make things happen faster or slower or sooner or later than I wanted.

Plus the whole thing, as explained, is a defeated failure to achieve my original intent – a visual that would elucidate the music by being an exact analogue. This ends up being a more restrictive “reading” of the piece. That said, I do think that bare geometric shapes expressively passing through geometric formations are a good foundation for a visual analogue of music like this, and I’d like to think that this little doodle is, at least, less restrictive a “reading” than, say, the thing on Sesame Street where leaves washed down a stream to this music, or something like that. Or maybe it was dandelion seeds blowing away. Does anyone remember?

Some members of the viewing audience may also rightly point out that the flower-pattern of overlapping circles at the climax of this piece, and the “overlapping-circles” vocabulary in general, were featured in another Sesame Street classic. I wasn’t consciously trying to imitate it but by the end it was clear to me that I owed it an obvious debt. I don’t know whether the music for that was “something real” but it sounded, in retrospect, a lot like Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians – a small chorus of voices pulsing simple chords on “mi mi mi mi mi” or something. How about that one; can anyone refresh my memory about that one?

Why, WHY hasn’t Sesame Street released any of that stuff on DVD? They should make a DVD with a huge number of short bits and then have it “shuffle” for kids.

Well, anyway, that’s what there is to know about this. The title of this entry is no more (and no less) than a reference to the cootie shot. If only Bach had gotten his cootie shot. Think about it.

June 22, 2006

Trollflöjten (1975)

[The Magic Flute]
directed by Ingmar Bergman

screen adaptation by Ingmar Bergman of the opera Die Zauberflöte (1791)
music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder

135 min.

I have some difficulty with opera – like most people, but not like most people who enjoy classical music – and though this charming film version (“congenial,” the Bergman website calls it) was both appealing and comprehensible to me, it was because of the ways that it smoothed over and touched up the weird, barbed edges of the original form. Watching the easy film while listening to the zany opera (so to speak) I was made, perhaps, even more aware of that strangeness that lurks in so much purportedly accessible classical music, distressingly strange because it goes uncommented upon.

Here, hiding under my own little soapbox, I can ask the stupid questions to which I still have no satisfactory answers. It’s really just one big stupid question with many examples. The question is: why doesn’t the music in opera sound like what it should, dramatically? For example, why does the famous second aria of the Queen of the Night (you know, the piping coloratura thing that you’ve heard before) sound like that? It sounds like some kind of birdlike jubilation, no? But the thing is actually “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” – “Hell’s Vengeance Boils in My Heart” – and, by all normal dramatic appearances, it ought to be a threatening, frightening moment. At the very least, even if we disregard the dramatic context, you’d think that, taking a cue from the lyric, it would sound angry. But musically it sounds like, you’ll pardon me, a choo-choo train.

Now, I’m always ready and willing to give art the benefit of the doubt, and try to open my mind. I think that’s my responsibility. Especially when the judgment of Western Civilization As A Whole is more favorable than mine, it seems like some good-faith effort ought to be made. And I can easily concoct a long string of possible justifications for this (and, in general, for this sort of thing), most of which I even find fairly convincing.

1. This is only a part of the aria as a whole. The first few bars of the aria, accompanying the actual “Hell’s Vengeance” lyric, do sound rather angry, are suitably minor-key (as is the conclusion of the aria), and in general make dramatic sense. The central, superficially cheerier section should be seen as added to, not distractedly departing from, this context.

2. The peculiarity is purposeful. The juxtaposition of the superficial musical “cheeriness” against the already-established dramatic/expressive tone of hatred creates an intentionally grotesque effect, suggesting madness and evil. This is heightened by the unnervingly abstract lapse into non-linguistic sound.

3. It’s not really so far off the mark. The music may not be expressing “scary” or “violent,” but it is pretty clearly expressing “intimidating,” “imperious,” and “wild,” none of which particularly necessitates, say, minor chords.

4. The aria is primarily a showcase. The extremity of the vocal display is itself the characterization. The design of the music is only partly expressive, partly a vehicle for this display. In this latter capacity, it might stray a bit from the pure dramatic content of the moment, but one’s attention is meant to be on the spectacular performance, from whence the character flows.

5. The aria is only part of the opera as a whole. Part of the ethereal distinction of The Magic Flute is its overall use of a simple, almost naive harmonic language. The oddity of the present case arises from the choice of this peculiarly uncomplicated “sound world” and should be taken as part of the effect for which the opera is known, of mysteriously innocent resonance.

6. As always, the historical consideration. Back then, dramatic situations played a little differently; musico-dramatic associations were a little different, and, most importantly, those parts of music that were so conventional as to be ignorable were different. Mozart would no doubt wonder why all of our love songs are so violently motoric and have all that percussion in them, which to him would sound Turkish or Oriental. In part, the violence he would hear in our pop is an intended effect, but the effect is muted for us because it conforms so comfortably to stylistic norms. The expressive quirks of the Queen of the Night’s aria would have been similarly muted to a contemporary audience.

7. Of course it seems unnatural; it’s a song. The ideals that seem to me natural regarding the continuity and “realism” of musical expression in a dramatic context are the product of my time, and became part of the culture only in the late nineteenth-century, or even more recently. The far-more-absurd inaptness of “Shipoopi” was still viable as of 1957. Perhaps the only thing lacking from my appreciation of this aria is my readiness to hear it as a “number” in its own right. And yet this is, in fact, how I tend to hear it at first, because of its fame. So maybe that’s right on the money. This film version, by doing something boldly dark during the sequence – the Queen’s face floats past, ghostly and masklike, staring at the camera, as she sings – happened to make this interpretation less natural than it would have been under normal performance circumstances.

As I said, these are all pretty convincing to me. But my point here is that it is still not clear to me which of these are the “real” explanations, since all of them are after-the-fact inventions, and so I am still left having the same authentic reaction to operas time after time, which is: what happened to the drama? Why are you doing… that? and that? and that? And it frustrates me, as it does with classical music in general, when attempts to serve this stuff up to a general audience reassure us that all we need to do is either a) just sit back and trust our reactions, or b) study up until we know the names, dates, and keywords. Neither of which helps me with the harder problem. I’ve come to some of the answers for instrumental music myself, and am eager to try to share them with others, but they’re hard to communicate. But maybe that’s only because I end up formulating the questions on the behalf of uninterested people and then forcing information on them. I think if a person came to me with sincere questions I’d have helpful answers. Is there someone out there who can give me helpful answers to my sincere questions, here, about opera?

As for Bergman, he has, as per his reputation, a sure hand and a very warm touch. The film does a remarkable, loving job of showing us what is universal and humanistic about this thoroughly nonsensical material. Bergman’s affection for the theater itself, for its homey and gentle mysteries, is used to frame and support the opera itself, to excellent effect. We hear the rumblings of scenery moving, get playful glimpses behind the scenes, and during occasional scene-changes, keep cutting back to the little girl in the audience, whose happiness is in itself a part of the message. The opera is some sort of an ode to the ideals (for Mozart and Schikaneder, Masonic ideals) of love and wisdom, and the generosity and humanity of the theater itself is a reflection of its vision. Or so Bergman is saying, and I don’t think anyone would claim that Mozart and Schikaneder would object.

There’s something intimate and suitable about the close-miking of the spoken dialogue. At the beginning, when we hear the three ladies whispering to Tamino, their whispers seem to be coming from extremely close by; much of the sound had that soothing effect of things heard while waking from a nap.

I like the handling of the overture, cutting from audience member to audience member, though one ends up thinking about Swedish racial features more than is probably desirable. The cutting does not strictly synchronize with the rhythmic play of the music, though it suggests it, which sets the stage for the relationship the film will bear to the music throughout – moved by it more than with it. But this is probably appropriate with Mozart. Like I said above, I’m in no position to say how such things should be done. I know that Bergman loved music but considered himself to have a poor ear. The film presumes to join forces with the drama but lets the music itself issue from somewhere above and beyond.

Tamino and Papageno both seemed just right to me. Sarastro’s appearance and voice seemed a little lacking given that he’s supposed to be The Embodiment of The Powers of Goodness and Light. Pamina was a bit chilly. Lovely sets.

This is the second time I’ve seen this. I can imagine myself watching it yet again some time. It has a quiet, children’s book peace to it that seems like it might remain inviting. But not for a while, anyway.

This was Criterion Collection #71. No “extras,” by the way, and though it was apparently from a new print, it still had visible splices in it, plus some odd flickering. It was still nice to look at. The Flowers of St. Francis, which I wrote about in February, was Criterion Collection #293. That leaves 350 that I haven’t talked about. I’ll let you know.

June 19, 2006


I wrote this on December 22. Of last year. It’s been sitting around for 7 months because I thought it was kind of annoying, but the thought’s been nagging at me that maybe I should fix it so that it’s not so annoying, so that I can post it here. Instead of fixing it I’m just posting it. I played it in again a little faster, which made it marginally less annoying than before. But I dunno. I don’t know what it was ever supposed to be. I think I was humming the tune in the shower and then turned it into this.

It’s called Pastorale in honor of the fact that just before I finished it and set it aside, it became clear to me that my subconscious had been working out a desire to hum this very lovely little tune by Stravinsky. That probably accounts for the other Stravinsky-ish stuff I ended up putting in there. It also explains why this was originally slower. Maybe I should have left it that way.

Oh well, here it is.

And here’s a tiny excerpt from the Stravinsky Pastorale, too, so you can maybe hear what I’m getting at. Pretty, isn’t it.

Okay, about the Stravinsky: the score behind that link is actually a transposed version of the original song for voice and piano. As far as I know the transposition is unauthorized, though that sort of thing happens all the time. The original is higher. The audio clip, on the other hand, is from a much later arrangement for chamber ensemble, with no voice. And I think he made yet another arrangement of this song, for violin and piano or something. I guess he liked it too.

I believe I have photocopies of the fairly rare, true original 1907 edition of the score somewhere, from a past life where I had access to such things. I’ll make a pdf for the world at large and post it here sooner or later.

June 15, 2006

Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)

directed by Jon Favreau
screenplay by David Koepp and John Kamps
after the book by Chris Van Allsburg (2002)

113 min.

On a bus. A movie about a fantastical board game is predestined to be flimsy; it’s basically “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”* To this movie we say: a whole bunch of stuff better jump out at me! And it better look like I’m about to hit something and then it falls away at the last second! The movie was scripted to include all these things and so there they were, but they fell flat – too flat to justify the movie, anyway. One problem is that the movie was edited at too slack a pace to evoke a roller-coaster. Another problem is that John Debney’s score refused to pick up any of the slack and just mailed in the usual outer-space choirs of awe, over and over again, to numbing effect. But the main overarching problem was one of attitude. In the movie, an astronaut character, played by one of these post-Generation-X boyish 30-year-old types, emerges from the game and takes on an avuncular role with the little kids whose movie this is. Despite being part of the fantasy – wearing a spacesuit, knowing about Zorgons, and so forth – he doesn’t seem to take it as reality. His manner is, like I say, avuncular; he seems to be Jon Favreau – I’m going to attribute this all to Jon Favreau because it fits with what I imagine his personality to be – playing babysitter and being proud of himself for being such a cool deadpan babysitter. “Okay, guys, the Zorgons are coming. There’s nothing funny about it. This is serious.” And that’s how the movie as a whole felt, like it was saying, “Look how seriously I’m taking this stuff. It’s fun and it’s also exciting. Look how fun and exciting it is when you kids get to hang out with me,” all the while looking forward to getting a beer afterward and saying something about how it’s no big deal to take care of cool kids – chicks eat that stuff up. Steven Spielberg would make this movie from the point of view of the kid – awed and terrified – whereas Jon Favreau made it from the point of view of the awesome babysitter. “Dude, this isn’t funny. This is scary.” Chris Van Allsburg’s books are all about that hovering, textural sense of mystery. I get the sense that there’s no room for that sort of thing in Jon Favreau’s personality. And without it, this premise has nowhere to go.

I’m skipping over the whole “we need a sentimental side story” sentimental side story about brotherly compassion, which was incoherent, and the stupid frame with Tim Robbins doing his best impression of a normal dad, and the kids not wanting to be left alone in this “big old spooky house” which is actually a completely un-forbidding, gorgeous, welcoming dream home. The movie encouraged you to skip over these things.

When it started – and the opening title sequence, featuring the “retro” game board designs, was attractive – I thought, “this is the perfect movie for a bus!” and became genuinely excited about what it might have in store for me. But by the middle, and certainly by the end, I was just bored. I think if I were still a kid I might have enjoyed it anyway. Kids are good at subconsciously filling in mystery and atmosphere on their own. Seemingly unobjectionable illustrations in kids’ books become too frightening to bear because they’re so rife with nightmarish implication. But now, as a jaded boyish 30-year-old type, that power has passed out of my subconscious and into my conscious will, and I don’t feel like putting in the sympathetic work to beef up the atmosphere of every bus movie that gets thrown my way. Of course, maybe that’s the very definition of the crankiness that characterizes the hopelessly grimacing adults in kids’ movies – the reluctance to shoulder too much of the burden in the process of being amused.

So, sure, if I had come to this movie with a fixation on outer-space make-believe, the movie would have provided me with the visuals to fuel my fixation. But I don’t really regret holding the movie responsible for selling me the idea that its premise was potentially delightful, or deeming it to have fallen short. When you’re old enough to know that a movie can be about a board game that takes you to outer space or about a serial killer who cuts the skin off his victims or about the Holocaust or about My Best Friend’s Wedding, you learn that directing your sense of interest is half the battle, and it is, indeed, the movie’s battle to fight. They almost had me there on the strength of the title sequence alone, and then they still lost me, because they weren’t really there themselves.

* By which I mean the Disneyland attraction, and not the latter half of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), from whence the imagery, but not the mechanics, of “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”