Yearly Archives: 2008

December 21, 2008

10. Walkabout (1971)

directed by Nicolas Roeg
screenplay by Edward Bond
after the novel by James Vance Marshall (pseud. for Donald G. Payne) (1959, originally published as The Children)

Criterion Collection #10.

A montage set to blissful music that cuts directly from a naked teenage girl to the fat bubbling up through the skin of a roasting lizard would be strong stuff even if it didn’t really mean it. But this movie really means it. This movie is strong stuff.

Yes, this movie is a noble-savage, return-to-Eden, industrial-civilization-makes-us-crazy type of movie. If you are of the mind that nobody selling anything of the sort should be given credence, you might not have patience for it. I am very much cynical about fantasies of reversion, and feel an instinctive defensiveness on behalf of industrial civilization when its values are snidely impugned. It’s easy to knock industrial civilization when you’re just sitting around with a beer – i.e. when you don’t really mean it – and that irritates me. But like I said, this movie really means it. It is not a hippie fantasy, nor does it actually espouse any kind of revolutionary shift in human behavior – it knows that’s impossible. It simply expresses a deep nostalgia for, and awareness of – or nostalgia for awareness of – man’s actual place in the violent, indifferent order of the cosmos. I can get behind that. And the movie put me behind it.

Several times I thought of the Camus I’ve read (The Stranger and The Plague) – the method was to make absurd anything that wasn’t “the truth,” simply by reminding us of the truth. Here, “the truth” was a sort of “living desert” nature documentary footage, which is heightened yet understated. Just like nature itself. It includes some unnerving stuff – like, yes, an incredible swarm of maggots devouring a carcass – and then other stuff that is simply handled so well that it becomes unnerving. Everything on the screen is either decaying, devouring, or defending itself.

Actually, to get back to the comment about nostalgia, I see the movie as being built on the tug of opposed nostalgias, or at least constructed so that you are able to sympathize with either pull, according to your personal inclination. The girl (who is the real protagonist of the movie) is never so enamored of the state of nature that she considers giving up civilization, but once she gets home, she’s no longer satisfied there either. The Aborigine boy who represents the state of nature is ruined by his desire, but inability, to connect with this girl, who I take to represent, in relation to him, the allure of a world ordered by man. The tragedy in the movie is not that modern man isn’t primitive anymore; it’s that the two ways of being cannot understand each other or strike any lasting compromise. In Roger Ebert’s essay, included in the box, he says that he sees the film as being about the failure of communication, which I suppose I agree with, but principally in terms of honest communication between the modern and the primitive within the soul of mankind. The girl comes off as reasonably sensitive and reasonably intelligent, but ultimately too reliant on standard proprieties to comprehend “the truth”; this is modern man. My comment about wanting to warn the people in A Night to Remember that they were being much too British, in light of nature’s indifference to their deaths, was here more or less the point of the movie.

That this essentially philosophical material works at all is a testament to craftsmanship; all the moreso that it works rather well. I have very great respect for Nicolas Roeg for pulling this off. Having this movie described to you would be absolutely and completely unlike watching it. That is a sign that poetry and craft are crucial to a work. It’s not always necessarily a compliment. In this case it’s a compliment.

The only Nicolas Roeg movie I’d seen prior to this was The Witches. I’m now very interested, if a bit nervous, to see his other movies.

The photography is lovely.

Many critics, I see, have talked about the mysterious aura about the film, but none of them have addressed something so I want to come out and say it. I think the specific casting of Jenny Agutter has a lot to do with the distinctive atmosphere. Her prettiness is of a particular type that is somehow reminiscent of the girls one is interested in at a distance in middle school. She doesn’t look at all glamorous, nor does she look ordinary; she is blankly, tentatively pretty. Also, the actress herself has clearly and remarkably been caught on film at exactly the moment of life being portrayed: newly aware of the potential to be a grown-up but not sure what to think of it. I see that some people have criticized the movie for leering at her, but I think that’s an important part of what’s at work. Lots of guys on the internet are not at all shy about expressing their lust for young Jenny Agutter, but they all seem to think it’s something they’re sneaking in under the table, and that maybe Nicolas Roeg was too. None of them seem to recognize that the tension of deciding whether you ought to think of her as a hot girl or not is an important (and presumably intentional) part of the movie. For me, a good part of the success of the film had to do with its ability, through her, to bring back memories of a certain time of life, a time at which the question of what it meant to be a person was vitally open. This may only be work for men. Though I would think that women could recognize themselves in her tentative self-possession, and be brought back to the same set of memories. Any thoughts, women who’ve seen Walkabout?

So here’s the key track from John Barry’s score, the central montage described above, which happens to be the only piece of music without dialogue over it in the film. The end credits track is essentially the same material, anyway. This track (called “Back to Nature” on the soundtrack LP) does have sound effects, I’m afraid, and to give you the album version would be to break my pattern of using rips directly from the film, so you have to live with the sounds of kangaroos being clubbed to death and lizards being impaled. I think the foley work in this film was fantastic and evocative, so it’s fitting that you should get a little of it here.

Without the movie, this piece of music falls easily into a certain category of 70s pseudo-classical silky Hollywood lovey-dovey junk, and doesn’t seem to have a lot going for it. But once the images have been seen, the music seems to soak up their conceptual essence; I’ve come to really like it. It’s like tunes I hear in dreams but then can’t successfully recreate, because the point wasn’t the music itself, it was the strangeness that infused it. The dreamy, spacey feel of the music in a lot of “normal” 70s movies – music that is, to me, often unintentionally unnerving and thus a little icky – here finds its philosophical match. This time, for once, the sounds of otherworldly rapture aren’t supposed to be comfortable or easy to take; their sleazy frictionless quality becomes part of the effect rather than just tacky period ambiance.

The whole film, I suppose, is similarly an honest, intellectually whole incarnation of 70s flakiness. I felt myself drawn inside a feeling that was familiar but usually easy to dismiss as having been an intellectual/aesthetic fad. Perhaps this movie was the source and I have only known the imitators; perhaps every muddled, superficial fashion of a period stems from a charismatic source that will age better than its offspring. Perhaps something becomes “dated” in inverse proportion to how intellectually whole it is. The culture of every age has its characteristic points of philosophical laziness; the objects that age poorly are those that obliviously embrace that laziness, which becomes glaring and obvious when the philosophical wind changes. But thoughtful work will survive no matter how of its time it seems. The great novels of the 19th century are still going strong despite being so 19th-century, whereas the advertisements, the jokes, the pulp of the 19th century all seem irredeemably quaint.

This movie was very 70s but it was not quaint.

I think I respond well to things that seem have had their own thoughts, but not to things that seem to simply be relaying received thoughts. Even if they’re the same thoughts.

The essentially sympathetic thing in art is the having of ideas, not ideas themselves.

Things that I feel obligated to mention to maintain consistency with other entries:
1. The commentary (Nicolas Roeg and Jenny Agutter, separately) is well worth hearing even if it’s not consistently interesting, for exposure to the two personalities, both of which are very much part of the film itself.
2. A soundtrack was released on LP but never yet reissued on CD.

Having drawn a connection to A Night to Remember, I’m inspired to note the recurring themes in the Criterion Collection thus far. A little look back at the first ten selections.

Grand Illusion, A Night to Remember, and Walkabout are all about disillusionment with civilization’s received wisdom; about the ways that we make an ASS out of U and MANKIND. They all practice, as I said, some form of Camus-style absurdism.

Amarcord and The 400 Blows are both about childhood, psychological coming-of-age, and the memory thereof. If you want to psychoanalyze, Beauty and the Beast is sort of a failed version of the same, complete with a spitefully phony “maturation” at the end, to complete the impression that the whole thing took place in the imagination of a spoiled child. At any rate, it’s sort of an insincere exhibit B in the “memories of childhood” category.

Seven Samurai, The Killer, and Hard Boiled were all about morality, about codes, compromises, and the ethical ambitions and struggles of individuals in relation to groups. But these issues were deeply deeply stylized. I personally feel pretty cynical about the simple way that the phenomenon of “morality” is often depicted – up to and including the noir attitude that a less-than-black-and-white “morality” is something really grim and mature. The fact that all the movies here selling that line were actually about, you know, exciting fights and stuff, feeds my cynicism. They were also all Asian, so, as I said a few entries ago, who knows.

If you want to stand even further back, all three of the thematic groupings above could be characterized as being about a loss of innocence/loss of faith. In pretty much all of the movies thus far, I could identify a loss of faith at play.* And that’s the ur-story of the 20th century, right? You know, I hate it when cultural critics talk this way, but I’ve worked myself up to it and I can see what they’re saying. Or, in this case, what I’m saying.

Of course, there is one odd man out here that I’ve been avoiding. The Lady Vanishes is really and truly about a Lady Vanishing. Not coincidentally, it is probably the only one of these movies I would have liked as a kid.


No, just kidding.

Er, I guess.

* In Beauty and the Beast, it takes place in kitschy retrograde.

That was supposed to be the end of this entry except it occurs to me now, later, that The Lady Vanishes actually fits rather well into the “don’t be so sure, civilized man!” category, considering its rather explicit message that foolish British complacency is oblivious to nasty realities. Its characters, traveling through political danger zones in the seeming safety of their luxurious train, need to be seriously shaken before they see that they are not immune to the outer world, and in the end find themselves holed up in the compromised train, fighting for their lives. It has lots in common with A Night to Remember. I missed that when I did the round-up above, I guess, because I would have understood it as a kid, free of “meanings.”

December 21, 2008

Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose), Op. 59
Kömodie für Musik in three acts
libretto by Hugo von Hoffmannsthal (1874-1929)
composed: 1909-10 (age 45-46)
first performance: Königliches Opernhaus, Dresden, January 26, 1911 (Margarethe Siems (Marschallin), Karl Perron (Ochs), Eva van der Osten (Octavian), Minnie Nast (Sophie), Dresden Opera/Ernst von Schuch)

And there they are. If you can’t read those little captions, that’s Strauss seated at center, Hoffmannsthal with moustache behind him, Schuch seated at right, and then a bunch of other guys. Photo taken on the day of the dress rehearsal, I believe.

429. #10.

I have many many serious reservations about this work, but the fact must be faced that Richard Strauss was some kind of a genius. A genius of what, exactly? Hard to say. Not any of the things that people generally want to be geniuses of – but a genius of something.

Going through this score is like going through computer code. I marveled at the fluency of the programmer. Strauss once bragged that his skill at musical illustration was such that he could compose a knife and fork and differentiate them. I don’t doubt it. Representational conceits that for other composers would sustain whole works are here casually tossed off and discarded after a single use; he truly doesn’t care. He’s got a million more where that came from.

In another knife-related comment, Strauss said that setting the text of Rosenkavalier was for him “like spreading butter.” The very image of fluency – but what makes his spreading so amazing is how thick this butter is. Every bar in this massive score – and there are several thousand of them – is a display of cleverness. Not just of wit, but of an opulent, overabundant cleverness; of one cleverness wedded to another cleverness through a third feat of cleverness, and so on. Strauss’s scores are like dripping palaces of cleverness.

Which takes me to the flip side: what every bar of this opera is not a display of is taste. I’m not talking about the fact that the overture depicts the leads having sex, with remarkable specificity (one can, if one wishes, clearly tell the knife from the fork). That kind of breach of taste doesn’t bother me at all; I actually love that part. What I’m talking about is the lack of proportion and perspective. It seems clear to me that the libretto was constructed with ample consideration for pacing, for the subtleties of drama as they would be experienced on the audience’s time scale, but that the score wasn’t. Strauss seems to have worked his way through the text, spreading his lavish butter as he went, trusting that it would all add up. But even over the course of a single chunk of a single scene, it often doesn’t add up. Or rather, it adds up to too much. Too much business. Too many footnotes per page. High cholesterol, gotta cut back. That the opera is typically done with cuts – fairly hefty ones – reflects awareness of the problem on the part of opera-land, but the problem is too pervasive to be nip-and-tucked away.

Strauss is brilliant at the vertical, boorish about the horizontal. There, I figured it out. That’s what he is a genius at: the vertical. Every image is finessed to perfection, every character and relationship and nuance and color of a moment somehow condensed and turned into a neat little contraption. Unfortunately, listening to a performance is a bit like being barraged with neat little contraptions; one wants to protect one’s head.

Is all that cleverness supposed to be subliminal or front-and-center? There’s just no winning this one – if I’m expected to watch for the story and just be buoyed along on the music, it’s much too busy, aggressive, and distracting. If, on the other hand, I’m supposed to notice and appreciate all the intricacies, there’s just too much to take in at the speed of performance. One way or the other, the music has cleverness to spare, and it should have been spared.

As with a lot of Late Romantic music, much of the drama in the score sounds to me like silly putty being stretched gooily and then snapped clean, in violent and endless alternation. And a three-and-a-half hour listening experience of random silly putty is not a gratifying one. There’s nothing gooey on the page or in Herr Strauss’s magical contraption workshop, but it comes out awfully gooey in practice – it’s the sound of details that were composed on the wrong scale, being wrung out in real time.

Film composers tend to deprecate “Mickey-Mousing,” because it glorifies the surface rather than the substance, which, in all but the most comic-balletic cases, is unflattering and unhelpful. Strauss steamrolls his butter right over that principle. It’s all Mickey-Mousing. Even when he’s not Mickey-Mousing the action, he’s still Mickey-Mousing the thoughts, Mickey-Mousing the meaning. He obviously feels things and knows things about the world, and he can write music to jerk your tears, but the interface between those two capacities is pure Mouse.

Exempli gratia. At the very beginning, after some confused sweet nothings in bed with the Field Marshal’s wife, our young hero Octavian whines that he doesn’t want it to be daytime yet, and shuts the blinds in protest. This little moment doesn’t mean anything more than that in itself – it’s just a part of the “morning after” scene. In reality, or in any movie or play, the line in question (“Why does there have to be day? In the day you belong to everyone, instead of just to me. That window needs to be closed”) would probably be delivered with an understated humor. Or it would be, at most, mock-whiny, mock-frustrated, a moment of playacting in the middle of the scene’s deeper flow. What then does Richard Strauss do? He sets this line as a series of high-pitched, trumpet-like outbursts for the singer (to remind us that this is our impetuous, childish young hero), over a complicated accompaniment made up of several layers of signifiers: a horn call sounding a note of dismay and agitation (i.e. Octavian’s displeasure); a phrase from the preceding love music (i.e. the intimate scene that is being interrupted); and a cacophony of literal birdcalls in the woodwinds (i.e. the undesired morning outside the window). At the moment that Octavian declares his intention to shut the window, there is a surprise harmonic shift, a sung high G, the sudden entrance of basses and bassoons, and a tremolo chord in the strings; in other words: big drama. For what, Richard? He is shutting the window! You picked all the wrong stuff. Everything you composed into the moment was not only already in the libretto but was already visible and audible on stage. It’s exactly the stuff we don’t need music about. This isn’t even music for the cartoon version — even Mickey Mouse was occasionally allowed to decide to close a window independently from the tyranny of the underscore — this is the music for the radio play version. For a radio play with no sound effects. And, if possible, no actors. This is music to complement nothing; it does not play well with others.

Strauss has composed everything but the drama. The kitchen sink he has. In fact the kitchen sink was his top priority.

He did subtitle it as a “Comedy for Music,” so maybe he was acknowledging his selfishness. It’s for music more than it’s for you.

As for the libretto: on the one hand, it’s a completely mannered display of pretentious nostalgic fondness for things I do not personally love – it is an inbred opera “about” Mozart operas, for rich people who like stories about richer people. It’s purposefully, knowingly full of all that 18th-century crap – wigs and slave boys and stockings and titles and so on and so on. In fact, Hoffmannsthal goes so far as to invent some 18th-century crap that never existed. The whole concept of the “Rosenkavalier” (a noble messenger who presents a bride-to-be with a traditional, ceremonial silver rose) – it’s something he concocted to be just as sissified and twee (and, to the intended audience, delicious) as all the historical crap. Also, apparently, the German of the libretto is fantasy-antiquated in a way that he invented. The opera is “retro,” but it is not a pastiche, and it’s not ironic, and it’s not simply nostalgic or kitschy, and it’s certainly not “post-modern” – Hoffmannsthal has some other kind of attitude toward all this stuff. And though that attitude is a little self-congratulatory and too-clever (like the music), I can’t deny that it is, at least, genuinely sophisticated and intelligent. It’s just not my silver-edged, gilded white china cup of tea.

Neither is it my cup of tea that the young hero is played by a woman wearing the proverbial trousers. This choice is either an affectation, linking us back to the grand tradition of ridiculous bent-gender stuff in operas, or an aesthetic choice made by people for whom the sound of several high female voices intertwining is so exquisite that they’re willing to suspend all sorts of disbelief to get it. I am not such a person. The transcendently beautiful finale yada yada yada doesn’t do a lot for me because, though the orchestra is playing something pretty, it’s sort of ruined by all those high voices going at once! Not the most pleasant sound. I don’t understand opera-land’s fixation on people singing high notes. To me, highness of sing doesn’t correspond in any way to intensity of emotion. If anything, the further from speaking tones a singer gets, the less it feels to me like the product of a human being. And I thought the whole point of putting them on stage acting out stories was because they’re human beings!

But I do have a good deal of respect for the way the libretto is written. Its ambitions in terms of psychological subtlety are admirable. Opera usually offers only the biggest, dumbest sort of emotions. Here the camera seems to be in a bit closer on the characters; the work tries to register real social relationships and not just plotted relationships. At least, when it’s convenient to do so. It’s a little erratic.

Also, as mentioned, no matter how open and sympathetic and grown-up you are, it’s very hard to watch the lovers interacting and not be constantly thinking, “but that’s not a man!” So that tends to takes some of the edge off it.

There are one or two reasonably catchy waltz melodies in there, which would seem to be the main reason that this opera is such a perennial favorite; rather silly considering the huge ratio of everything-else to catchy-waltz in the score. In 3 though the everything-else may be. For my part, I think Strauss’s leitmotifs are better material than his “tunes,” but he rarely puts them to really satisfying musical ends, so despite all the interesting melodies, you still end up waiting eagerly for the moment when a character sings two-fifths of an actual song. “Mit mir” is a pretty amusing little number, I’ll admit.

I still have, pushed to a burner so far back that it may have fallen off the stove entirely, a potential entry about John Williams and movie music that I started writing three years ago. Listening to Rosenkavalier I was struck by how this is the source for so many aspects of the Hollywood school of composition; orchestrally, harmonically, motivically, and representationally. It has both the sound and the spirit, even superficially: Octavian’s theme is like Indiana Jones’s German cousin. I already knew that Strauss’s orchestra was a big part of the Hollywood sound, but previously I only knew his tone poems; what was most striking here is how his dramatic technique (which I was impugning above) was also carried over into film. Film scores, as with Rosenkavalier, are not made up of self-contained formal pieces of music – they are just butter spread over the length of a work, like a long mural. This technique creates its own characteristic sense of not-quite-form, which is what that other entry was going to be about, and which is what I recognized here.

There is genius in there, and there’s maybe a brilliant opera in there too, but it’s strutting around affectedly in a giant, nerdy, obnoxious marshmallow suit. If you can picture that.

Gonna break this up with some art. Here’s a link to a painting of the original production – looks like the end of Act II. And here below is a photo of the “presentation of the rose” scene in the original production. I bet it looked better than this in person.


Dubal’s recommended recordings were Karajan and Bernstein. I couldn’t find copies of the Bernstein, though I’d still be interested to hear it. The Karajan was fine, but it’s the top pick because of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, I think, and I’m not one of these people for whom singing voices are the principal consideration. Tempi matter more to me, in a way. The one I ended up putting in the most time with was the Solti recording, which is the 1001 Classical Recordings pick. I listened to it several times – well, acts one and two and the very end of act three. There’s a chunk in there, when the police show up, that I just couldn’t make myself care about, and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I watched the Solti 1985 DVD all the way through; the Kleiber 1994 DVD I didn’t make time for more than the first 20 minutes before I had to return it to the library. In those 20 minutes, though, it seemed like it might be slightly better.

The piano-vocal score, online. The full score is more interesting but nobody seems to have posted it yet.

Enough with this entry! This has been rotting here forEVER. A year, I think. I know, it’s completely overgrown and dull. But if you think it’s tedious, think how I feel. Ugh. I really need to make the process of listening, writing, and posting much faster. Like, I should post my thoughts about a thing as soon as I have those thoughts, which usually are the day I encounter the thing. Not a year later, out of a sense of ingrown obligation, after it’s all had time to fester and get boring. Not even google cares at this point. Sorry, google robots, to make you read all this.

Kiri Te Kanawa (Marschallin), Aage Haugland (Ochs), Anne Howells (Octavian), Barbara Bonney (Sophie)
The Royal Opera, Covent Garden / Georg Solti. Stage production directed by John Schlesinger. Kultur 2029. 1985.

Felicity Lott (Marschallin), Kurt Moll (Ochs), Anne Sofie von Otter (Octavian), Barbara Bonney (Sophie)
Vienna State Opera / Carlos Kleiber. Based on a stage production by Otto Schenk. Deutsche Grammophon NTSC 073 0089. 1994.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Marschallin), Otto Edelmann (Ochs), Christa Ludwig (Octavian), Teresa Stich-Randall (Sophie)
Philharmonia Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan. EMI 5 56113 2. 1956.

Kiri Te Kanawa (Marschallin), Kurt Rydl (Ochs), Anne Sofie Von Otter (Octavian), Barbara Hendricks (Sophie)
Staatskapelle Dresden / Bernard Haitink. EMI 7 54259 2. 1990.

Regine Crespin (Marschallin), Manfred Jungwirth (Ochs), Yvonne Minton (Octavian), Helen Donath (Sophie)
Wiener Philharmoniker / Georg Solti. Decca 417 493-2. 1968.

Highlights (in English):
Yvonne Kenny (Marschallin), John Tomlinson (Ochs), Diana Montague (Octavian), Rosemary Joshua (Sophie).
London Philharmonic Orchestra / David Parry. Chandos CHAN 9302. 1998.

Wiener Philharmoniker / Christian Thielemann. Deutsche Grammophon 469 519-2. 2000.

December 14, 2008

Disney Canon #14: Peter Pan (1953)


ADAM This might be my new favorite.

BETH I liked it a lot.

BROOM I did too.

ADAM It was awesome.

BETH That dog is amazing.

BROOM The dog is amazing?

BETH It’s taking care of those kids.

BROOM That is remarkable.

BETH I just said that because I thought it would be funny to say that.

ADAM The remarkable thing about the movie is that it makes both childhood and adulthood seem unappealing, but does so in a way that’s totally charming. Well, maybe not “unappealing,” but they’re both mixed bags, like life is. It does not feel like a fairy tale.

BETH That’s true. Neither is presented as better; neither is presented as the obvious choice.

BROOM I was waiting for the moment when they would stab me in the heart with the fact that my childhood was gone, but they never did it. I think they intentionally avoided telling the adults in the audience “you’re in the bad part of your lives, now,” or telling children that growing up is for losers.

ADAM It’s too easy to do that. As Hook does unabashedly.

BROOM As I was saying earlier, I saw the beginning of Hook the other day, but I don’t remember exactly how it ends. You said it ends with him throwing away his cell phone? But he does go back to being a father again; it doesn’t with him actually choosing childhood over adulthood.

ADAM Yeah, but it’s about being a childlike father.

BROOM Wouldn’t you say that this Peter Pan was also saying that it’s good to remember your childhood and not be a grouch?

ADAM Yes. But being a child here seemed chaotic, alternately fun and depressing, which is what it is like to be a child.

BROOM It seems like we’re all in agreement that the correct way to talk about this movie is in terms of allegory about childhood and adulthood. As a kid I didn’t like the Peter Pan story very much, and I didn’t like this movie very much, because –

ADAM He’s a dick.

BETH He’s a show-off.

BROOM No, because who is he and why do I care about him? And more to the point, what is Neverland? There are pirates there, and Indians, and boys wearing animal costumes, and mermaids. It seemed arbitrary, like a grab-bag of stuff. Which is in fact the point; it’s supposed to suggest the imaginations of children, who have He-Man fight Superman. They just mix stuff up. Neverland is a place where Indians and mermaids live. But as a kid, I just thought, “why is this movie giving me this mish-mash? There’s no specific fantasy there for me to get into.” Now, as an adult, I can appreciate that the whole thing suggests childhood.

BETH Well, those things, Indians and pirates – particularly Indians – are specific to the fifties.

BROOM But they come, I believe, from the original material, from the turn of the century.

BETH Really? The Indians too?

BROOM I think to British children, American Indians are all the more exotic.

ADAM I think it was all, you know, savagery in its most delightful forms. And it is pretty delightful.

BROOM As I’m saying, I enjoyed it now. But as a kid I didn’t understand what it was supposed to add up to. I think it only makes sense at a remove from childhood, because it’s a depiction of childhood as seen by adults.

ADAM I imagine I would have felt resentful of Peter Pan as a child, because he was effortlessly cooler than I could ever be. But I also probably would have had a crush on Peter Pan. I think this is the first Disney character on whom we could legitimately have a romantic crush.

BROOM I don’t know about that, man.

BETH I didn’t really like him.

BROOM I didn’t even see him as “cool.” I don’t think the concept of “cool” plays into this movie.

BETH He was like the kid at school who tried to get everyone to laugh at him.

ADAM And did! Everyone wanted to be his friend, and all the girls all wanted to nuzzle with him!

BETH Well, I never liked those kids.

BROOM He embodies a perfect child-charisma – he’s the “spirit of youth,” or whatever she says at the beginning – but what kind of person is he actually?

BETH He’s a hero; he saves damsels in distress pretty frequently.

BROOM Yeah, but just because it’s what there is to do. He always shows that he doesn’t care about anything. “Yeah, okay, I guess I’ll let you go.” “You’re banished forever! Okay, for a week then.”

BETH Well, he’s a kid.

ADAM He’s thoughtless.

BROOM He’s just the spirit of childhood, which is not actually something I have a crush on, Adam. Perv.

ADAM I would have, as a child, had a crush on him.

BROOM A charisma crush. A friend crush.


BROOM He’s got pointed ears; he’s not even human.

ADAM He does still have a trace of “Casey at the Bat” face.

BETH His face is not cute. He has no nose.

BROOM He’s an imp; he’s not supposed to be “cute.” You just have a crush on force of personality.

ADAM Well, that’s true. But it’s a particularly boyish, male force of personality. This would have been a better movie than Alice in Wonderland to watch with Mike.

BROOM I would have been interested to hear what Mike had to say about this, actually. But let’s segue from that into the sexual politics, which were clearly part of the movie, and yet I’m not sure I could summarize what they were. Female jealousy was a big part of the plot. Tinkerbell has an apparently sexual sense of possessiveness of Peter Pan.

BETH And then later Wendy does too.

ADAM Well, she can’t help herself. Even though she knows better.

BROOM But Wendy is apparently pre-sexual. There’s nothing flirtatious about her interaction with Peter at all. But she wants to give him a kiss. I didn’t really understand where in her development she is.

ADAM It’s not like she wants to have sex with him; she just wants him to treat her more specially than the other girls.

BETH Right.

BROOM But then there are mermaids, who are all about being sex objects. They have crushes on Peter Pan, who seems immune to their charms. He just likes attention. And then they’re jealous of Wendy, who doesn’t understand why. Or maybe she does; I don’t know what she understands.

BETH I think Wendy is in that nebulous place between girlhood and adulthood. She’s like Britney Spears. “Not yet a woman…” – what is it?

BROOM “No longer a girl…”? [ed.: “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.”]

ADAM I thought the sexual politics were pretty subtle and interesting. It was both totally sexist but also about the electric interaction of men and women. Women are seen as civilizing but also… It seemed a little like a Katherine Heigl role.

BROOM I haven’t seen any of those movies.

ADAM I didn’t see Knocked Up, but I gather that this is essentially how Knocked Up works, plot-wise.

BROOM This is how Knocked Up works plot-wise?

ADAM The interactions. Did you see Superbad?


ADAM Well, then this won’t mean anything to you. You know, it’s all about these boastful but insecure slobby boys. At the end, they meet the girls they have crushes on at the mall, and they go off with the respective girls, but they cast a backward look over their shoulders at each other. They want to go off with these girls, but they’re conflicted about it. And an intrinsic part of growing up is becoming sexualized and leaving your playmates for your mates.

BROOM We saw exactly that in Bambi.


BROOM But here that never happened. They’re not at that stage yet.

ADAM They’re not quite there yet, but we know they’ll get there. As Wendy says, they’re “just not quite ready yet.”

BROOM When Wendy is awakened from bed by a boy, and then they’re eagerly talking together in her bedroom in the middle of the night, and she tells this boy she wants to give him a kiss, it’s almost confused. Who does she think he is, that she wants to give him a kiss? And who does he think she is, that he doesn’t want anything from her but still wants to show her around? Their relationship to each other is abstracted. She loves the idea of Peter Pan, but up until then she thought he was just someone to tell stories about.

BETH Well, that’s like, you know, Davy Jones appearing in your bedroom. You’d say, “Oh! It’s you! Can I kiss you?”

ADAM Davy Jones??

BETH Davy Jones from the Monkees.


BROOM You thought she meant the locker owner?

ADAM I was confused. Yes, it is a lot like that. It’s like the Jonas Brothers appeared in your bedroom. For our younger blog readers.

BROOM Her fantasy about Peter Pan is just that she’d get to talk to him. And then when he does appear, he immediately starts saying sexist stuff to her – “girls talk too much!”

ADAM And she sort of takes it – as you would, as a girl at that age in the presence of a charismatic boy – but she sort of doesn’t. She seems to vacillate between those things. You can understand; she takes these sexist barbs, but you can tell that she resents them.

BROOM What do you make of the fact that sexual roles are a recurring element in the “red man” scene? We can talk about the rest of the scene in a minute. I mean, the racist elements of the scene are so ridiculous and obvious they hardly need to be talked about.

ADAM They’re incidental.

BROOM They’re incidental to the fact that the real point of the scene is that the squaw keeps telling Wendy that she can’t participate in this kind of fun.

ADAM And the movie doesn’t really disagree with that.

BROOM Is the idea that she’s more grown up than these boys, and that she has responsibilities in the adult world, while they’re having this childish sort of fun? Or is that she’s a woman and will never be able to have fun? What does it mean?

BETH All of the men were having that sort of fun. It wasn’t just the boys.

BROOM Well, the Indian men were not mature beings.

BETH Who knows what they were? They weren’t really characters. That Indian woman wasn’t partying either; she was just standing around giving orders.

BROOM And then in the middle of that song, we see the sexy young Indian girl and then the mother-in-law who’s a hag, and “that’s the first time the red man said ‘ugh,'” – which, as Adam said, is typical fifties humor – but it’s also about whether or not women really fit into that society. That scene as a whole sends a weird series of signals. I mean, I know they didn’t think about it quite that seriously – this is all the sort of stuff that if someone were saying it, I’d want to say, “It’s a Disney movie!”

ADAM But Disney movies teach us how to be men and women, as much as anything does.

BROOM And that’s clearly the correct way to talk about Bambi. Yes, this movie clearly thought about these issues, at some level. This was definitely the most sophisticated script so far.

ADAM Yes. It was ambiguous. And it really packed a lot of adventure into seventy-five minutes.

BETH I thought that too. Things just kept happening.

ADAM There was not a dull moment in this movie.

BROOM There was also, notably, nothing at all artsy in it. And the fact that it was so successful on its own terms while totally eschewing that stuff – no pink elephants, no falling down a rabbit hole, no ballets, nothing abstract – probably set the tone for the direction they’re going to go after this. Because they nailed this, which didn’t incorporate any of that aspect of aesthetic ambition.

BETH Maybe I’m wrong, but why is this movie not more popular? Is it popular? It seems like we’ve all seen it just once. It’s not a “beloved favorite.”

BROOM I remember seeing it in middle school on one of the occasions that our neglectful chorus teacher just had us watch a movie, and being shocked by the “Red Man” song, and thinking, “did I really ever see this as a kid?” And I’m honestly not sure I ever did. But that was definitely the last time I had seen it.

ADAM Yeah, I assume that scene makes it unsalvageable. It’s too much to just cut it out like the negro unicorns.

BROOM I don’t think I’d want my kids watching this one.

BETH Until they were how old?

BROOM I don’t know. A little older.


BROOM It’s emotionally inapplicable for a little kid. This goes back to my comment from before that when I was a kid I asked “who is Peter Pan? Why should I like him? Why should I like pirates and Indians and things that don’t go together?” It’s young-adult content, but presented like it’s for seven-year-olds. So there’s a mismatch there.

ADAM I think this may be the first Disney cartoon in which we are shown a murder.

BROOM When he shot that guy, you could sort of feel the Disney studio winding up in anticipation – “get ready, folks… is he really going to shoot a guy?… Yes he is!” Though it is off screen. There’s also a shooting death in Bambi of course, but that’s traumatic. This was a completely comic, pointless murder. And there was lots of throwing of knives directly at the faces of the characters.

ADAM And when they almost kill Wendy, because Tinkerbell the jealous bitch has lied to them.

BROOM Tinkerbell is not a sympathetic character at any point in the movie – except that she throws the bomb away from Peter Pan. But only because she wants to keep him for her own. Her love for him is not admirable.

ADAM She’s like a Bond female villain.

BROOM And she’s clearly one of these pin-up drawing bodies.

BETH But she has that moment of thinking she’s too fat.

BROOM Several times she’s not happy about her butt. She stands on a mirror and thinks her butt is too big. But her butt has clearly been drawn with loving attention by some animator. When she gets stuck in the keyhole, we just happen to see her underpants and the crease of her buttocks.

ADAM It’s upsetting to me that she is the only character from this movie that Disney has seen fit to market, and that they’re marketing her as the “bad girl” – you know, as the next stage of the princess fixation.

BROOM She’s as close to a Bratz as they’ve got. She’s an oversexed girl with no maturity.

BETH But who is she having sex with? No one.

BROOM She doesn’t have anything to do with the actual act of sex; she’s just sexual and sexually possessive. Of Peter Pan, who’s oblivious. She’s Daisy Mae to his Lil’ Abner.

ADAM It’s a depressing statement about both maleness and femaleness, in the same way that it’s a depressing statement about both childhood and adulthood. But at the same time, there’s something resonant about it.

BROOM Beth and I were having a conversation about Cinderella after our recorded conversation, about the fact that Cinderella was telling people how to be 50s people; that the greater materialism in the movie, the emphasis on the dress, was a specifically 50s thing, and 40s kids wouldn’t have felt that in the same way.

ADAM Whereas this was totally unmaterialistic.

BROOM It wasn’t materialistic, yet it was still “totally 50s,” as you said at one point about some joke. Do you feel like the sexual dynamics and the childhood/adulthood dynamics – the movie’s idea of what it means to be a person – has dated? Because even though it felt so 50s, I can’t identify any aspect of it except for the obvious racism –

ADAM And sexism.

BROOM Yes. Which of course are big and serious issues; they’re why I wouldn’t want to show it to too young a kid. But do you feel like what it was saying about life, beyond that, was limited to a certain era in the American psyche?


BETH No, I don’t think so.

ADAM I thought it was very penetrating.

BROOM In the moment when the father said, “you’re going to grow up; you’re going to have your own bedroom,” I was struck by that being surprisingly real. “Oh yeah, there actually is a moment when you suddenly grow up.”

ADAM The father’s not a very sympathetic spokesperson for growing up, but the mother is.

BETH And their house is!

BROOM And what does it mean that they’re being raised by a dog? The world of fantasy only comes to life after they go to sleep – the whole thing is clearly Wendy’s dream – but the dog really is their Nana!

ADAM But the father understands that that’s a little improper, because he says to Nana that, “you know, you’re a dog.” Can we talk about the gay domestic violence aspect of the movie?

BROOM Let me try to figure out what he’s talking about!

ADAM Namely the relationship between Smee and Captain Hook. It seemed to me an early prototype for what would be parodied in the Smithers-Mr. Burns relationship.

BROOM I get what Smithers-Mr. Burns is a joke about, but I saw Smee and Captain Hook as totally sexless.

ADAM Well, of course they’re sexless. But the joke of Mr. Burns and Smithers is that it makes explicit what’s here an unacknowledged joke.

BROOM But Mr. Smee does not adore Captain Hook. He would rather not be caught up in his plans.

ADAM I think he’s overwhelmed by him. You know, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

BROOM I don’t know about that. I think he’s a simpleton and he really would rather just go back to business as usual. He’s like Sancho. This relationship is really Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, which I guess you could say is the prototype for the Smithers-Burns gay joke, but it’s really “I like being around a powerful guy, but this is ridiculous.”

ADAM “You’ve gone too far this time.”

BROOM He keeps saying “Why can’t we go back to sea? Why do we have to be obsessed with killing Peter Pan?” And he’s a drunk.

ADAM He’s not a gay role model.

BROOM I think he may be yet another Irishman.

ADAM But he’s a sort of waddling, effeminate Irishman.

BROOM I didn’t see him as effeminate. He’s just an idiot.

ADAM Like that first scene, where everyone else in the crew is laughing at him while he’s doing housemaid work with his ridiculous little hat.

BROOM I know he is another Sterling Holloway voice [ed. WRONG! You are confusing Sterling Holloway with Bill Thompson – the White Rabbit, as opposed to the Cheshire Cat].

ADAM I think Hook is sort of effeminate too.

BETH Hook is effeminate. He has a collection of fancy hooks.

BROOM One of them was a nutcracker. They went by so fast I didn’t get to see what the others were. I love that he plays the clavichord. Not just because it’s a joke that he’s playing with a hook, but just the idea of it, that he chooses to make it part of his seduction of Tinkerbell to punctuate himself with chords.

ADAM He is a mincing queen.

BROOM He’s genuinely good with the sword. He’s not a total sham as a threatening figure.

ADAM Neither is uncle Scar.

BROOM But Scar is a queen because his ego is tied up in being catty – no pun intended! Captain Hook isn’t like that. He doesn’t have ego that way. He has all this fine stuff, but he never really struts. Does he? He just likes to do things the proper way. “Get me my coat!”

BETH But he does seem like he has that in him.

ADAM He’s like a whimpering baby as soon as he’s touched.

BROOM Yes, he’s a fool. He’s ridiculously afraid of the crocodile.

ADAM If I didn’t already know the whole crocodile story, it would be hard to pick up. It goes by pretty fast.

BROOM Yes. Speaking of things from Peter Pan that we know about but not from this movie: the most famous thing in Peter Pan is that you, the audience, have to clap your hands to save Tinkerbell. So here we have them clearly heading toward that moment; he’s approaching her and she’s just a faintly blinking light, and he’s saying, “I care about you more than anything in the world” – and then there’s an abrupt transition back to the pirate ship, and when Peter Pan shows up, Tinkerbell is fine. Do you think they made a scene where we were supposed to clap our hands, and then decided that breaking the fourth wall for audience participation was not something they wanted to do?

ADAM She’s so unpleasant that maybe nobody would have clapped.

BETH I think it’s probably just to keep the running time down.

BROOM There’s a second disc with other material, but I don’t think we’re going to get that from Netflix. I’ll look it up to see if that scene ever existed, and then I’ll link to the page I find… right here. [Sorry, no link; I can’t find anything conclusive. The commentary on the DVD at that point has one of the animators saying that when he saw the 1924 Peter Pan as a kid, he thought it was stupid and embarrassing that they tried to get the audience to clap, and wanted to see what would happen if they let Tinkerbell die.]

ADAM Okay, I’m gonna walk back some of my “Captain Hook is totally effeminate,” because you’re right, he’s more of a dictatorial bully than he is a… you know, mincing dictatorial bully. Maybe I’m just hypersensitive to anything gay.

BROOM Don’t get me wrong: I love this stuff, I love saying that and joking about it. I just don’t get it from them.

ADAM I just thought it was latent in there, but maybe it’s less latent than I’m saying.

BROOM If there were going to be gay characters in this movie, it would be them. But I didn’t get those signals.

ADAM Well, the mermaids, maybe. You know, “Things are getting interesting.”

BROOM One of those three mermaids was a lesbian. She was just playing along so that she’d be accepted by her friends. The blonde mermaid actually has a secret crush on the brunette mermaid. Something I liked about the movie: I keep critiquing how well they do humans, and I thought that Wendy in particular was the best human they’ve done yet, bar none.

BETH She looked really good. Though she looked a little bit older than I think she was supposed to be.

BROOM Well, it was Alice in Wonderland two years later. I believe it was the same actress.

ADAM John and Michael looked good too. Michael was genuinely cute.

BROOM You kept giggling at his cute lines as though he were an actual child.

BETH He was very cute.

BROOM He was. And the conceit of John being a proper English boy was enjoyable.

BETH Like Harry Potter.

BROOM Like Harry Potter, but even moreso, to the point of it being a joke.

ADAM He’s a little bit of a Percy Weasley type. But he has a good heart. I guess Percy Weasley ultimately has a good heart.

BROOM Percy Weasley would have signed on with the pirates.

BETH True.

BROOM Not only were the people animated better, but the storyboarding and staging – such that slapstick and mayhem became the means by which the plot was forwarded – was better here than anywhere before. I said about Cinderella that the king and his assistant had slapstick staging that I liked, but that there was still a lot of boring staging with the sisters. where they just stood and talked. Here, every scene somehow was conveyed in a hugely kinetic way.

ADAM You chuckled at Captain Hook being pursued by the crocodile, which was pretty obvious but still well done. It was actually suspenseful whether he was going to get eaten.

BROOM There a couple clever bits with the crocodile, where they went for that comic third beat. They’d do something twice, and then they’d go for that extra third one, which felt like a contemporary sense of humor. There were all sorts of satisfying visual choices, like when Captain Hook screams and his face fills the whole screen, or when he’s pointing at the watch and it’s slowly moving toward the camera.

ADAM In an earlier movie, when they had Wendy singing to the boys, it would have just been Wendy singing to the boys, and the whole plot would have slowed down. Here you get that, but you also get the pirates sneaking up on them, at the same time. They manage to interweave those by having Smee crying about his mother, and it’s more satisfying.

BROOM I think that song was maybe my least favorite part of the movie. It seemed like it had originally been designed to be another “Baby Mine,” an attempt to get everyone to cry about mothers, but then they second-guessed it and put other stuff in. Now nobody would cry at it; the scene doesn’t let you cry. So then you wonder, why do we have to listen to this soggy song? I understand that it serves the function of revealing that the children all do want to go back to the world where they’re going to grow up.

ADAM And it makes the Lost Boys into people. It complicates them.

BROOM Thematically, it gives them all a moment where they actually make the decision that they are okay with growing up. Peter Pan says, “if you leave, you’re going to grow up and you’re never going to be allowed to come back,” and they say, “okay,” and go up the stairs and he doesn’t. But it’s not that great a song. I like the other songs, though. I like “You Can Fly.” I sometimes find myself singing it.

ADAM Yes. There’s a moment in it where the music precipitously as they plunge down, and it’s totally effective. My heart sort of dropped with it.

BROOM There are a couple of things in the song’s arrangement that move me that way. The swoops are one of them. Another is that every time they get to a certain place in the melody, the tempo gets a little push, which really gets you in the pit of your stomach. “Think of all the joy you’ll find / when you leave the world behind / and bid your cares goodbye!” – on that phrase the tempo jumps up in excitement. When I was a kid, on the video that we had, of a Disney Christmas special or something that used this clip, the tape was damaged right at the high point. “And bid your cares goodbye…You can flyyRRR” – the tape was suddenly distorted and turned into something else. So when I get there now, it feels especially peaceful and free, like floating in the air, that it doesn’t happen. Because I was trained to expect the dream to get ground up at that point.

ADAM The visuals in that sequence, although they’re not self-consciously poetic, are really very pretty and satisfying.

BROOM The backgrounds throughout are really atmospheric, but not in an aggressive way that makes you think about art. And, you know, I love it when they go artsy, so I’m a little sad that them doing this so well means that they won’t go in that direction very much anymore. Mary Blair is not going to get any more showpieces like she did with the little train back in Three Caballeros. Although here there were a couple slightly stylized shots, like when Captain Hook and Smee are rowing along the horizon, and there are flat, abstracted outcroppings coming out of the water, and the sun is just a big circle.

ADAM Is this where all of our ideas about pirates come from? Like, the idea of pirates hiding out in a rock shaped like a skull?

BROOM Well, I know that Disney’s Treasure Island live-action film came out in 1950.

BETH And what about Pirates of the Carribean, the ride?

BROOM When was Disneyland built? 1954? [Ed.: Yes.]

BETH Something like that.

BROOM Not yet, then. It had probably been designed but not built.

BETH Because I think that’s where a lot of my conceptions about pirates come from.

BROOM This movie does seem sort of contemporaneous with Disneyland. All the stuff in this movie felt in keeping with the spirit of Disney as you experience it at the Land.

BETH It’s 50s-y.

BROOM Well, early 50s-y. Because our next two movies are Lady and the Tramp

ADAM Which is nowhere represented in Disneyland.

BROOM …which is, I think, an urbane romantic comedy compared to this – though I may be wrong, since I hardly remember anything about it – and then Sleeping Beauty, which is a big stylish Cinemascope spectacular. And then something happened, I guess, because they get smaller-scale after that. But in any case, they don’t really have this sort of family toy chest feeling, which Disneyland does.

ADAM Well, don’t they sort of run out of fairy tales to tell? I know this isn’t really a fairy tale.

BROOM Well, it’s a meta- fairy tale. It actually suits them very well, because built into it are the issues we’ve been talking about: What are fairy tales for? What is childhood for? The story is about real children being taken inside the fairy tale they would tell.

[we read Bosley Crowther’s review (and then marvel at pictures of the old Roxy Theatre)]

BROOM Anything to say about Bosley’s opinion of Peter Pan?

ADAM That it’s wrong!

BROOM I think he does it a disservice.

BETH Yeah. It seems like maybe he was just in a bad mood that day.

ADAM Or had some attachment to the play that we don’t.

BROOM He does seem, in many of these reviews, as though he feels a serious obligation to his readers to make sure they understand whether or not they are going to see a faithful adaptation of the source material.

ADAM Sorry, Bosley, but the source material has been completely supplanted by the Disney version. In all cases! So, ha ha ha!

BROOM And I disagreed with his assessment of the animation of Wendy and the boys as being merely good compared to other characters. Although it’s in keeping with his earlier opinion of Bambi, that the more accurately lifelike the animators get, the less they are true to their art. He doesn’t like it when they get too realistic.

ADAM Well, I thought this was deeply satisfying. And thought-provoking, and subtle.

BROOM Every time I say that I liked it, I feel odd, knowing that this is the less aesthetically ambitious branch of the Disney studios’ work, and it basically is the end of the other branch. I don’t think there are going to be any more dream sequences that take place in fantasy space. They just don’t do that. They hardly even do it in the shorts, after the 50s.

ADAM Well, the aesthetic ambition will come back in a big way in 1991.

BROOM You mean with The Little Mermaid? I don’t think so. I think you’ll be surprised at how The Little Mermaid looks to you now.

ADAM Maybe Little Mermaid doesn’t look so good, but Beauty and the Beast looks pretty good, and The Lion King looks pretty good.

BETH I don’t have any attachment to those movies.

ADAM And you will be charmed by the Fragonard-inspired Rapunzel.

BROOM You’re telling me! But first we gotta see Bolt. Not to mention Meet the Robinsons, which we just saw the preview for. Not to mention Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, Home on the Range, Chicken Little, Atlantis: The Lost Empire

ADAM Beth is planning to quit before that.

BETH I’m planning to opt out.

BROOM NO! NO! NO! We’re in this together!

ADAM Good night, one and all.


December 3, 2008

9. 辣手神探 (1992)

directed by John Woo
story by John Woo
screenplay by Barry Wong

Criterion Collection #9: Hard-Boiled. Or Hard Boiled without the hyphen. Depends who you ask.

辣 = laat = hot/cruel
手 = sau = hand
[辣手 = ruthless]
神 = san = god
探 = taam = detective

Laat sau san taam = “Ruthless Supercop” – though you’ll frequently see this given as “Hot-Handed God of Cops” which is really silly. According to wikipedia, the title is intentionally identical to the first part of the Chinese title of Dirty Harry, 辣手神探夺命枪, which they give as the asyntactic “Hot-Handed God of Cops Killer Gun.” Better would be “Ruthless Supercop’s Deadly Gun,” I guess. Or, if you prefer, “Dirty Harry.”

Immediately it is clear that this film is superior to The Killer. That’s not the general opinion but it’s mine. I can enjoy this movie much more easily than The Killer because it never lets up enough to have to get anything right. It doesn’t have to know anything about anything – that’s the downfall of movies like this. Your challenge, Mr. Woo, is to fill your allotted 90 minutes with only things you care about. Those include: jumping back in slow motion with a gun in each hand. Those do not include: people. In The Killer, not nearly enough screen time was spastic. Here we come closer.

Both of these movies remind me of the movies I would make with the family video camera when I was about 13: absolutely every shot is an obligation to be awesome. Woo never fails to reveal the epic intensity of, say, walking down a hallway. The moviemaking reminds me of my imagination at an even younger age, when I was always straining to find ways that mundane moments could seem loaded and thrilling – and then lazily settling for whatever presented itself. I would become fixated on some silly little kinetic event I could rig up – like a paper cup falling off a table – and then would imagine it invested with hugely suspenseful significance. When this cup falls off the table, a man is going to die, and he’s watching as it rolls closer and closer… oh no! oh no! there it goes NOOOO! IN SLOW MOTION!!!! NOOOOO!!!!

Or even just turning the pages of a book, if I slowed it down enough and gave it imaginary foreboding in my mind, could start to seem like something out of some kind of intense, Hitchcockian movie. Oh my god when he gets to the next page a guy’s going to die NOOOOO!

Well, that very scene happens in Hard Boiled. And it’s everything a fourth-grader would want it to be.

But this is not actually good enough. It might sound like I’m saying John Woo has stayed true to a childlike exuberance. I’m not saying that. I’m saying it seems like a fourth-grader made this movie. I don’t see any reason why John Woo couldn’t maintain those enthusiasms yet have the discrimination of an adult, the self-discipline to admit that, actually, a paper cup falling off a table just isn’t really cool.

Okay, enough of this sort of talk. It sounds like I don’t get it. But no, I really do. I get it. The movie is trash cinema and its admirers love it that way. It’s a “flick.” It’s fun because it’s all secondhand – or, really, threehundredthhand – and it’s been made by and for people who are just there for junk food served hot; your way, right away. These action scenes weren’t made to reflect the human condition; they were made to top other action scenes from other movies. Like when every opera had to have a revenge aria and a love aria and a ballet because that was just what was expected; the audience has flopped itself down at the great cultural diner and ordered “the usual.” The movie isn’t trying to impress us with artistry or ingredients; it just wants us to say “holy moley look how many fries they piled on there this time! Goddamn I love fries.” The quality of the food is beside the point – I mean, I guess it’s fine here, but we don’t really notice anymore. We just like this place for the atmosphere, and because everybody knows our name.

So all I can say is: this Chinese diner is crazy. They put the pickle IN the soup, and the burger came with TEN patties.

Or, slightly to the side of that silly metaphor: Watching these movies has been like heeding the word-of-mouth hype about a fast-food burger place, off the beaten path, that you absolutely have to try. You finally go and… yeah, maybe that’s better than other fast-food burgers. Or… maybe it isn’t. Hard to tell because it’s just a fast-food burger. Now you have to run back through your memory to remember who those people were gave you this recommendation. It was… oh yeah, The Criterion Collection. Well, everybody’s entitled. But will The Criterion Collection take my recommendations of, say, old Commodore 64 games? Probably not.

I would be remiss, though, if I did not concede that there are a really tremendous number of fries on there. You will not want for fries. The body count in this movie is incredible. Stuff blows up and people get shot with heartfelt fourth-grade inventiveness that never ever wavers. The entire second half of the movie, in a sense, is a single Die Hard-like sequence of escalating blow-up-itude. It does not let itself down. And a movie really living up to its own standards, whatever they are, can in itself be a satisfying thing.

Well, wow, now I’ve listened to the commentary track and I’m not sure I get it after all. I mean, I’m still sure, but I had to have a crisis of conscience first. These guys do not agree with what I said above. Or, wait, do they?

No question it’s an interesting listen. We have auteur John Woo himself, producer Terence Chang, critic Dave Kehr (now of the New York Times), and last but not least, Roger Avary, the guy who co-wrote Pulp Fiction and directed The Rules of Attraction and Killing Zoe – here, recorded in 1993, representing the Quentin Tarantino video store clerk contingent at the height of its relevance.

The commentary track is sort of like Being There. John Woo sounds very much like a guy who might make this movie, saying stuff like “I had Tequila shoot this tiny target from across the room so that at the end, when he shoots the bad guy through the eye, it’s credible,” and Chang corroborates the impression that the shoot mostly consisted of discussions about how much explosive to use and where to put it. Surrounding them, though, you have on the one hand Dave Kehr comparing Woo to Orson Welles and talking about the thematic depth and subtlety of his work, and in the other corner you have the geeknik, Roger Avary, excitedly noting how exhilaratingly confusing and secondhand the movie is, and declaring that such is the wave of the future.

I just invented “geeknik.”

Anyway, Dave Kehr, who seems perfectly intelligent, gave me pause. His conviction that these movies were deeply accomplished and genuinely significant – Criterion Collection-worthy, even – made me stop and reconsider my attitude. Was I being a boor and missing the boat? Was there really some kind of humanism in this? I just couldn’t see my way to it. I mean, just look! Look at the movie you’re talking about! Eventually Kehr says something that put my mind at ease: he talks about the eye-opening thrill, for American audiences, of seeing such well-worn themes and archetypes being used sincerely and “not as kitsch” – being embraced and utilized without any kind of ironic remove. Well, no question these movies are very, very sincere. But that’s exactly what real kitsch is. Manufactured camp is, no question, a depressing cultural phenomenon; let us please not conflate it with genuine camp, which is sincere and clueless. Kehr’s point seemed to be that the ridiculous sentimentality of these movies is actually redeemed and given new life because it is unafraid and heartfelt. But that’s just the slippery sincerity slope talking – you can have that same experience if you stare too long at a Hummel. There’s a sand trap there in your heart; beware! In general, though, I believe that Kehr’s real mistake was confusing impact with quality, stimulation with value. As many contemporary museum artists do. Maybe some people are comfortable with equating those things, but I stand firmly against that thinking.

Meanwhile, Roger Avary makes the whole Tarantino attitude seem shallow and confused (and also implicitly endorses my comments about The Killer) when he says that he enjoys these Hong Kong films because they are so blatantly derivative of Western cinema cliches… and that he is drawn to the blatantly derivative because his generation was born into a culture surrounded by prior culture… and that he and his ilk are therefore inclined to create cinema defined by its references and relations to existing cinema. But this is a superficial parallel drawn between two cultures with very different problems. America is coughing its way through soul-stifling inundation with its own accumulated cultural pile-up – anxiety of influence on a massive scale. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is using this stuff in a totally different socio-psychological way: it wants to be famous and lucky, like the West, and thereby save itself. The movies in question are aspirationally derivative, because the East is naively trying to remake itself in the West’s image, but better. Quentin and Roger’s movies, on the other hand, are willfully derivative, because of America’s cultural suffocation, where exponential garden-variety provincial cultural inbreeding has given way to inbreeding chic. In 90s California, fetishistic navel-gazing is IN. 1991 Hong Kong, I feel certain, knows no such phenomenon.

I guess I will concede the basic point being made by these admirers of the movie, which is that when you watch it, you are impressed by its spirit and energy. But that can mean so many things. I was impressed with it as one is impressed with a child who wears a Power Rangers costume, with mask, out to dinner. “How peculiar it must be to be you!” you think. “If you weren’t like this, I would never get to see this crazy thing I’m seeing.” Is that really enough? That’s the appeal of “outsider art,” but this isn’t outsider art – this is a product of mass culture for a mass audience. But mass culture can get pretty crazy. I would show this movie at a party.

And that reminds me of one last comment I wanted to make. These two movies were the sort of thing that other kids somehow saw. Kids who were less attentively parented than I. But occasionally those things crept in anyway, at sleepovers and other unchaperoned parties. To me these movies were evocative of middle school sleepovers, of my fleeting encounters with the world of things that people who thought I was lame thought were cool. Things that made me feel morally itchy. I have a friend who told me that when she was younger, her parents were not opposed to her seeing sex or violence per se, but that they attempted to protect her from movies with “a seedy worldview.” Yes.

At heart, these movies do not actually have a truly seedy worldview, but they very much want to, which makes them perfect fare for kids who are looking to get a sense of worldliness from something forbidden. Somewhere online I found a comment, surely (hopefully) from a seventh-grader, to the effect that Hard Boiled is way more hardcore and awesome than other action movies because there is so much spurting blood and so many innocent bystanders get killed. To the movie’s way of thinking – and Dave Kehr’s, I guess – that’s actually what makes it so sad. But the movie is in profound agreement with the kids at the sleepover party that it is also hardcore, and so it is well suited to them.

These days, it seems like whenever I see an anonymous bad guy get riddled with bullets and flop over, some kind of prudish widower in my soul perversely insists that I think about his life up to that point, his relatives, his individual personality, the fact that he probably didn’t expect that would be the last day of his life, etc. etc. (This is the same smug parade-raining jerk who makes me look everywhere but at the trick when watching magicians. Dammit.) So I sort of imagined that my younger self would have been horrified and upset by these movies. But Star Wars is full of guys getting casually killed and flopping over, and I cheerfully watched those movies over and over as a kid. So this might not have bothered me as much as I imagine, in retrospect, that it would have. In any case, I was never at this particular sleepover. By 1993 I guess I was too old.

The Criterion disc (long out of print, but I obtained!) also contains previews for all of John Woo’s other Hong Kong films, going back to 1973. Watching the evolution of this particular brand of junk over two decades is fascinating and amusing, and certainly provides plenty of grist for the conversation about the developmental status of Asian cultural identity. And some funny subtitle translations.

Music for Hard Boiled is by jazz composer Michael Gibbs and is wonderfully typical of a genre action movie from the late eighties/early nineties. I can’t help but smile at stuff like this. I’m giving you the end titles, which is a reuse of music from earlier in the movie – a track referred to on the soundtrack album as “Red Car Boogie,” because it accompanies the first appearance of Tony Leung as he drives a red car, indicating that he is a hotshot. As for the “boogie” part – well, you can hear for yourself! Boogie on, 1992!

November 21, 2008

8. 喋血雙雄 (1989)

written and directed by John Woo

Yes, this is Criterion Collection #8.

Okay, I’m going to get this right.

Obviously, the English title is The Killer. But that’s not literal. This is the Chinese title as it appears in the film (see above):


This film was made and set in Hong Kong, so the language is Cantonese (rather than Mandarin) and the characters are “traditional” (rather than “simplified”). Wikipedia tells us that the “pinyin” romanization of the title is “Dié xuè shuāng xióng” but that’s inappropriate for Hong Kong Cantonese, which apparently calls for the “jyutping” system: “Dip hyut soeng hung.” (Actually, the full jyutping rendering includes numbers indicating the pitched “tone” of each word: “dip6 hyut3 soeng1 hung4.”)

喋 = “dip” = flow/chatter
血 = “hyut” = blood
(喋血 = bloodshed/bloodbath)
雙 = “soeng” = pair
雄 = “hung” = male/hero

The internet tells us that this adds up to “Bloodshed of Two Heroes,” though there are also votes for “Two Men Covered in Spattering Blood” and “A Pair of Blood Spattering Heroes.”

I myself would venture something like “The Bloodbath Duo,”* which is lame but at least sounds vaguely like the English title of a movie. Unlike “Two Men Covered in Spattering Blood.” Though if it wasn’t the result of clumsy translation, that would actually be a fantastic and charismatic title; similarly, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind sounds like a confused Chinese import if you have reason to hear it that way.

Now thoughts:

You can say that these slow-mo gun battles are joyful choreography rather than real, vicious gore, and in a sense that’s very true. This is a movie made by and for those who have fetishized movie violence to the point that it has lost most of its intrinsic, mimetic meaning. But I can’t wrap my enthusiasm around that. Numbing fetishization does not free us from meanings, it just diminishes our ability to master them. As non-schlock artists know, stylization is not the same as dehumanization. Dehumanization, in fact, is the cheapest, most insensitive form of stylization.

We are aware, watching this movie, of both its complete indebtedness to, and non-participation in, American culture. It is neither a well-formed American action movie, nor is it a direct imitation of one. Its relation to American film seems to be one of fascination at a distance; the considerable cultural distance at which Hong Kong lies. Individualism, a keystone concept in all American movies, is here emulated, but seems to have been understood only as an aesthetic, a fantasy, rather than as a genuinely felt philosophy or a personal reality. The movie is all about the epic, soulful charisma of the eponymous Killer, but it’s really only about the idea of epic, soulful charisma; the character has no true personal identity at all.

I was aware of the missing human element as a gap – not just in the character but also at the level of showmanship. Where is the “I,” in this movie, either making it or in it? At a subconscious level, I felt this gap as a sense of repression. Here’s where my thoughts begin to take on a naive and potentially racist quality; brace yourselves. The void at the heart of this movie reminded me of my recent experience with Seven Samurai, and suggested a line of thought about East Asian cultures generally; take it or leave it. In these movies, cultures that have not truly embraced the idea of the individual are at play with that idea, because they’ve been told it’s the stuff dreams are made of. But either their dreams are repressed to a greater degree than we know, or these aren’t their actual dreams at all.

The dialogues about the self, in The Killer, are like imitative poems written by enthusiastic aliens. “He looks determined without being ruthless. There’s something heroic about him. He doesn’t look like a killer. He comes across so calm… acts like he has a dream… eyes full of passion,” murmurs the cop to the sketch artist, apparently entranced by the apparently mysterious apparent personality of The Killer, while the synths dig deep into that minor tonic chord looking for love. Is that really the flavor of life, for anyone? It only relates to life via elements misunderstood from other movies.

It’s like Jack Skellington making Christmas. The movie is passionately enamored of the things that it doesn’t comprehend, because they are so fantastically unlikely. What’s this? A man with a dream? Eyes full of passion? How marvelous!

I’ll say it: I find East Asian mindsets very hard to crack and I think it’s because they are genuinely different in how they perceive the self. I still recall my amazement upon seeing Japanese WWII propaganda cartoons wherein the Japanese enthusiastically portrayed THEMSELVES as a ravening horde of identical creatures, led by an individual who served only as a representation of the national spirit. That psychological culture has obviously weakened but it seems to live on in many ways; it has not been truly supplanted by the Western idea of the individual.

In the present movie, viewers are not supposed to identify with The Killer, or his associate, or the cop – they are only supposed to recognize them from other movies. It seems not to be appropriate to identify with characters. Perhaps this is felt as a kind of intense propriety – the inner sensations of an individual are seen as bodily functions that ought not leak out. In theory, this would seem to be contradicted by movies where individuals fight and love and cry, but watching the movie you sense that there is no contradiction at all. These are not individuals, they are MOVIE CHARACTERS, large and fascinating and not like us.

To me, East Asian celebrities seem arbitrary somehow, like they don’t really have their heart in it. Japanese television etc. seems bewilderingly wacky to us because its priorities are so different. I suspect it has gotten so absurd because is not the content of culture but the fact of culture that is important to that audience. The real purpose of such culture is to disseminate the comforting, proud knowledge that one is a member of a society that is full of celebrities and noise and products and bullshit. The people on Japanese TV don’t seem like real people because obviously they’re not and, says Japan, why should they be? The whole notion of “real people” is beside the point – it’s beside any point. It goes without saying that real people are an embarrassing subject – the one truly, painfully shameful subject – and thankfully have no direct role in culture.

We see in Japan (yes yes, I know the movie is from Hong Kong; like I said, this is all irresponsible and racist) a culture of people learning how to be individuals from movies instead of from humans. They are the offspring of the West’s dreams, which the West can hardly recognize. There should be a version of the velveteen rabbit scenario where a kid wishes for his toy to be alive but when it comes to life it has a personality and mind totally and disturbingly alien, the way a toy’s really would be. Is there a story like that?

When I was in college, Isaac Stern came to speak and take questions at some event or other, and was audience-asked why there are now so many classical musicians of East Asian descent. He answered by saying that a century ago there were many Jewish classical musicians – because, he thought, the culture of classical music presented itself to Jews as a way “out of the ghetto” – and that he thought something similar was in effect for East Asians and Asian-Americans today; that classical music offered them a way out of the “cultural ghetto” of their ossified thousand-year-old traditional cultures. This answer immediately created a stir in the audience and provoked several indignant responses. I’m told that later in his visit, Isaac Stern was unambiguously unpleasant to several Asian musicians, so perhaps there was more in the air at that moment than I knew. But I wasn’t sure then how offensive that answer was, and I seem to be disseminating a variant of it now. Phenomena like the undeniable affinity of contemporary Asian cultures for classical music would seem to justify some kind of generalizations of this sort – the question is getting the generalizations right, and I doubt that I have since I’m pretty much just making it all up. But I believe there is, at least, some grain of truth in this: that Asian cultures have a distinctly different impression of the self from ours, descended from their historically different impression of the self, and perpetuate it subtly, through small behavioral cues that are not quickly subsumed by general assimilation, internationally or as immigrants; which accordingly creates a slightly different relationship to work, to the external world as a whole, and at least partially accounts for large cultural phenomena like the absurdity of Japanese TV and Hong Kong action movies, or the widespread East Asian enthusiasm for classical music.

Maybe even that’s offensive too but at this point I’m not sure why it would be. Offended parties, by all means please show up in the comments and set me straight.

Anyway, for all that I’m saying they don’t know from “the self” over there in East Asia, I’m surely there is in fact plenty of contemporary Chinese (and Japanese, and Korean, etc.) literature and film that is articulate and sincere and astute about it, and might open a window for me, but I haven’t gotten there yet. A glance down the list suggests that I might not get there through Criterion, either. Right now I’m just watching this silly shoot-em-up movie.

Film-buff multiculturalists are generally either nerds (who feel reassured and comforted by fetishistic, enthusiastic-alien abstract manipulation of social reality) or scholars (who are occupationally prone toward evaluating things in the abstract rather than feeling them – and thus tend toward the same lack of direct engagement) and so it is not a surprise to me that twisted-mirror fetish-variants of Hollywood fare are the Asian cinema most enthusiastically imported to the US. I don’t really have any sense of what “high,” “literary” “intellectual” culture from the East looks like.

Also, in this movie, when he takes the girl to the hospital, the sign says “Scared Heart Hospital.” Those crazy Chinese!

So, I didn’t really talk about this movie at all. Probably the most offensive thing about all the presumption above, in fact, is that it takes The Killer as its starting point. But stay tuned because the next selection is another John Woo bullet-fest starring Chow Yun-Fat and I stay much more on topic in that entry.

This Criterion disc is long out of print and rare, and though I did manage to find a rip of the movie itself, I couldn’t get my hands on the disc as a whole, so I didn’t get to experience the commentary or anything else. Hence no image of the disc menu above.

Music here is by Lowell Lo, a Hong Kong composer/actor who apparently owns a synthesizer almost as good as mine. No official soundtrack release. Here’s the main title; cue it up, release the doves, and look like you have a dream.

Apologies, again, that I dared think these things. I deleted the ugliest stuff. Open minds and open hearts, people! Not scared hearts! Let’s talk.

* I’ve now (later) found several sites that suggest “Bloodshed Brothers,” which is pretty good.

November 17, 2008

Disney Canon #13: Alice in Wonderland (1951)

(note the misspelling!)

BROOM We have a guest today.

MIKE Hello.

ADAM I didn’t think that was very successful.

BROOM Well, I’ll begin by saying that I thought it was great.

BETH I thought it was really good.

ADAM Really?

BROOM And Mike, do you want to have a first word in before we start elaborating?

MIKE I thought it was long.

BROOM It was, for the record, seventy-five minutes long. But Mike did manage to take two breaks, so it might have seemed longer to him. Adam, I think you should complain before we praise.

ADAM To me one of the most compelling parts of the book Alice in Wonderland is the sense of malice that emanates from all the characters, which is only imperfectly translated here. The queen is certainly malicious, but everyone else… It just loses some of its delicious arbitrariness.

BROOM Certainly they Disney-fied it. When I was a kid, I was aware of the softer tone of the movie as compared to the book, but while watching it now, I didn’t feel like the differences from the book actually detracted from the pleasures of this movie itself. The fact that it wasn’t totally arbitrary, that she’s sort of on a quest after the White Rabbit the whole time, that she explicitly says “I want to go home,” which she never says in the book – I didn’t think that was actually problematic.

ADAM I guess. The other thing I love about the book is the wonderful wordplay and wit, which is hard to translate into a movie.

BROOM But just having any of that wit in it made this movie so much livelier than many other Disney movies. By borrowing one-fiftieth of the wit of the books, they made the movie seem full of interesting material. And delightful, to my mind.

BETH It was so different from any Disney movie we’ve seen. I thought it felt a lot more daring.

BROOM Well, it wasn’t totally different, if you think of it as Pink Elephants and The Three Caballeros having a baby.

MIKE Have you watched Fantasia yet?

BROOM Right, and quite a few things in Fantasia.

BETH Yes, but it was new that it was a full-length – or Disney-length – narrative entirely in that style.

ADAM It did feel packed with incident.

BETH Also, I didn’t like this at all when I was a kid. It felt like I was in a nightmare. I was supposed to sympathize with Alice, and I couldn’t bear to. Placing myself in her position made me feel horrible. I felt like I needed to get out.

BROOM In every sequence? Even when she’s just going into the White Rabbit’s house?


ADAM I can see that. That’s what I meant by “the malicious arbitrariness of it.” Maybe it would be too hard to give kids the full brunt of it. I mean, it’s terrible! With Cinderella, [Broom] said it struck him that the subtext is that she’s an abandoned child and this close to being killed – well, Alice is in deep shit for most of this movie!

BROOM But she’s not, because we know that she’s asleep, and then the movie tells us at the end that she’s asleep, that it’s just a dream.

BETH I didn’t know as a child that she was asleep. I had never read the book.

BROOM Let’s just talk about the movie and not the book for a second. At the beginning of the movie, she actually says, “I want to go to a place where everything is nonsense.” And then she goes there, and people are rude to her, and she deals with it. It shows what her opinion of it all is, which is like “These talking flowers are such snobs!” – just ordinary irritation. Then it gets to the point where she weeps and sings a song about wanting to go home, about not having followed her own good advice.

BETH That’s before the flowers.

BROOM When she first weeps, it’s in front of the doorknob, but I’m talking about when she sits in the woods singing.

BETH Oh, yes.

BROOM Badly singing. Kathryn Beaumont can’t sing and they have her sing anyway, and it’s a little bit sad.

ADAM Mike’s take on it was different from ours, though. You said you had a million things you wanted to say.

MIKE It was like a hyper-sexual über-trippy fantasy.

BROOM I heard you making drug jokes. And I know that the history of the movie, as Adam read the other day, is that it didn’t do well at first, and Disney shelved it, but then they got a lot of requests for private screenings, so they rereleased it as a drug-trip movie.

MIKE Has anyone written about the cryptic messages in Disney movies?

BROOM I’m sure they have.

ADAM What do you mean?

MIKE Well, the caterpillar who’s smoking a hookah –

ADAM Which is perfectly legal!

MIKE – and then offers up mushrooms to eat; it’s all suggestive of a certain lifestyle.

ADAM Right, but that’s all Lewis Carroll. That’s not Disney’s fault.

BETH Also, psychedelic drugs weren’t really around in 1951. I know the hookah was, but…

BROOM Well, the hookah was written into the book in 1865.

BETH Right. I don’t know if mushrooms were a phenomenon yet.

BROOM I think if psychedelic drugs were a thing at the time, they wouldn’t have made this movie. They would have talked about it and realized, “we can’t do any of this stuff; we don’t want to be associated with that.” I think the movie was clearly made in a state of innocence.

MIKE I don’t know. I think it was only in the 50s that you first had the anti-drug movement.

BETH In 1951? Really?

MIKE Yeah, I think it wasn’t until the late 50s that you even had the state entering into controlling these sorts of things. I mean, certainly in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, cocaine was quite a widely-distributed substance.

BROOM Right, but that’s why there wouldn’t have to be any innuendoes about it. The movie wouldn’t have to have a secret subtext about drugs; if it had wanted to be about drugs, it would have openly been about drugs. I think the “Hey man, you know what’s really going on in that movie?” winking attitude didn’t exist yet. So I can’t imagine that’s what’s really going on in this movie.

ADAM It’s just like when Disney inserted that penis in the Little Mermaid’s castle!

BROOM You know that’s one of the few real ones? I believe that unlike most of those rumors, that one was really put there intentionally by a poster artist to see if he could get away with it. [Ed. Nope.]

ADAM And aren’t there clouds in The Lion King that say “Have More Sex?”

BROOM The cloud in The Lion King says “SFX,” which is supposed to be a shout-out to the special effects department that animated it, but that wasn’t well thought out on their part. [Ed. Snopes says: undetermined.]

MIKE I was surprised by the parallels to The Wizard of Oz.

BROOM Wait; before you go into that, what did you mean about sexual content? I didn’t see anything sexual about this movie. She’s like the least sexual Disney heroine of all, and that includes Snow White.

MIKE Oh, I think Alice is totally this vamped-up sex kitten.

BROOM Okay. But seriously folks, what did you mean?

MIKE Maybe I’m imposing back on to her what they’ve done to her since then. You know, if you think about references to Alice today, they’re often in the form of adult Halloween costumes, or, like, Gwen Stefani in a music video wearing a short short skirt.

BROOM But this movie predates those things and also contains none of those things. I dare you to say where you saw that in this movie. I dare you.

MIKE Well, her figure itself is Barbie-esque.

BETH She has no breasts. I was looking for them. She really has no figure.

MIKE But she has very thin arms, and very big eyes, and sensual hair.

BROOM She is certainly older than the Tenniel drawings, or than the historical Alice, who was six-and-a-half or something.

BETH She looks like she’s eleven, to me. She seems to be pre-pubescent.

ADAM She’s pretty.

BETH They did make her pretty. But her head was too large for her body, and I think that was to make her seem more like a child.

ADAM She’s prettier than the queen, who looks a lot like the dinosaur from, uh…

MIKE She’s like Britney Spears circa “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

BROOM No! There’s nothing coy about her. She’s all on the surface.

ADAM The queen looks like the steam shovel from that children’s book.

BROOM “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel?” Because she has that jaw that looks like it’s going to scoop things up. In my animation class in college, a guy came in and showed us preliminary art toward a movie he was going to make, which was all imagery of a young Victorian girl walking around an estate and looking at peculiar stuff. And I eventually asked, “is there a reason that you’re not just doing ‘Alice in Wonderland’? Why aren’t you even mentioning that as a point of reference? This looks just like it.” And the guy was dismayed and said, “Really? I never really liked ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ ” And the teachers and everyone else sort of chimed in, saying, “Who actually likes Alice? Nobody cares about her.”

ADAM As a character.

BROOM Yes. They didn’t care about the “Alice in Wonderland” universe, they were saying, because Alice is a nobody.

ADAM That’s not true!

BROOM And I realized then, and said, that I like Alice because she has this indomitable six-year-old – or eleven-year-old – attitude.

ADAM “Don’t be ridiculous!”

BROOM Yes. “I’m not a flower at all!”

BETH It’s so British. Maybe that’s why Americans might not like her, because she’s a kind of snotty British kid.

ADAM I do think that the book Alice is tarter, just the way that the book Mary Poppins is tarter than Julie Andrews.

BROOM It’s not tartness that I like about the character. It’s the way she parses all of this real chaos in terms of “well, that simply doesn’t make sense.” Not a snobbish superiority to it, just a directness. She is correctly reacting to the fact that it doesn’t make sense, but on a scale much lower than the scale on which it’s nonsense, and that seems like power. It makes her seem in command.

BETH I like her character, and I liked this movie. But I’m saying that maybe the reason that other people might not is because she has a snobby British quality.

ADAM Whereas, to be clear, I’m saying that I thought it was too Americanized.

BROOM You started laughing at the “Alice in Wonderland” song, right at the beginning.

ADAM Well, the songs were not successful.

BROOM I think several of the songs were very successful.

ADAM [caterwauling]

BROOM That’s your impression of the choral singing?


BROOM I think that “The Unbirthday Song” works very well. Not just because, as you said, it has primal associations for you with the Teacups ride.

ADAM Ohhh. I love the Teacups more than anything else at Disneyland.


ADAM It’s a great, great ride, and I’ve been on the Teacups so many times.

BETH The spinning thing? That’s your favorite ride?

ADAM Because you can get it so that it spins one way while you’re going the other way.

BETH Right, because it’s on a plate too.

ADAM And you can cause yourself to whip around, like a planet in orbit.

BETH That is fun.

BROOM I don’t know how they produce that sound – I remember that when I was at Disneyland on the Teacups, I was trying to figure out what instrument it was making that thick tooting sound. It might be some kind of an organ, or they might have built their own pipes. Anyway, it’s a perfect sound for teapots playing a song. As soon as it started, Adam went into a reverie about the ride. That’s a very nice little song.

ADAM You’re right, that is a nice song.

BROOM And there are a couple other ones. Like, “We’re Painting The Roses Red” is sort of catchy. And I know that “All in the Golden Afternoon” is rather bad, but I do find myself humming the tune of “you can learn a lot of things from the flowers, for especially in the month of June.” I guess you guys don’t. And “Alice in Wonderland.” [Ed. and also the “Twas brillig” tune] I think I watched this movie more than the others when I was a kid.

ADAM This would have appealed to your parents’ style of parenting, I’m guessing.

BROOM My parents? I think it just appealed to my style of being a kid. It was full of incident, as you said, and that was the primary criterion.

BETH I actively tried to avoid this movie. It really upset me.

BROOM Once you’ve seen it, you know that nothing actually scary happens in it. The scariest things in other Disney movies were when people’s faces would become skull-like, or their eyes would glow or whatever, and there’s none of that here.

BETH That’s what scares you. Those types of things don’t scare me.

BROOM That is what scares me: people pulling faces. And there are no pulled faces in this.

ADAM There’s only the sense that the world is arbitrary and hates you, or at least wants nothing to do with you, and that even sympathetic people couldn’t care less about you.

BROOM But what I find invigorating about it still is that it’s not wholly to be understood that way, as though it’s a world; it’s also very much about the visuals. It’s about the excitement of animation going “boing.” During the ballet of the cards, their marching sequence, it’s pretty abstracted. We know what the story space looks like at that point, and they’re not in it. It’s just cards in patterns, Busby Berkeley style, but even more abstract. Or when she first lands and the room is all skewed, it’s just for the visual play. The movie keeps going there and telling us that these are just images, but lets that overlap with the realm in which she’s actually being threatened by the chaos. I find that very satisfying.

ADAM The images are heavily indebted to the original illustrations. Disney didn’t come up with most of the visuals.

BROOM Well, they found their own renditions of some of the same scenes. I mean, this movie doesn’t look that much like those drawings, either. And, you know, the doorknob with a face and lots of other things are just pure Disney, as far as I’m aware. And those weird beachscapes, where a little stone creates a long shadow like in a Dalí painting – that’s a very Disney thing to do. When the doorknob tells her that she left the key on the table and we see it appear, through the bottom of the glass table – when I was a kid, I couldn’t understand what we were seeing; it always looked to me like the key was stuck to the underside of the table, and I couldn’t understand why. But this time it looked fine. I don’t know what was wrong with my head, as a kid.

ADAM Mike, was the caterpillar your favorite part?

MIKE I don’t know that I had a favorite part. I was struck that there was a moral in the middle of the movie that I wasn’t expecting – because I don’t really have strong memories of seeing this as a kid.

ADAM “Don’t be so damned curious?”

MIKE No, there was this whole thing about reason. “I shouldn’t have allowed myself to be undisciplined and fall off the path. I find myself lost and confused in this world that’s spinning around me.”

BROOM That was just bullshit to justify that one song. Because it doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie.

MIKE Well, it does tie in with the beginning, where she wants to go to a nonsensical world and not listen to her lessons.

BROOM I guess you’re right. But the movie is just not coherent on that level, because the rest of it is sort of a celebration of nonsense.

ADAM No, it’s a refutation of nonsense. Alice hates nonsense. She sees it and says, “that’s nonsense!” And ultimately she triumphs over it.

BROOM Wait, when does she say that?

MIKE With the flowers.

ADAM Right, or the Mad Hatter. “But I haven’t had any tea!”

BROOM It’s odd that at the end, we don’t get to find out her reaction upon waking up. She doesn’t get to say either “I was just in the most wonderful place!” or “I’ve learned my lesson and I’ll never do that again!” It just isn’t clear what this version of Alice is learning from her experience. In the books – in both books – she wakes up and is eager to talk about all the wonderful things she’s seen, because she loved it.

MIKE Did Walt Disney have any intention of using his movies for education? Or did he just have this pure concept of entertainment?

BROOM Well, I don’t think this movie had any educational content, but he made a lot of educational films. In fact, when we read the Times review, you’ll see that this was paired with an educational short when it first came out.

BETH You already read the Times review? I’m eager to hear what Bosley has to say.

BROOM I’ll give away that Bosley is reasonably positive, as with all the other ones, but I do know that it didn’t do well on first release, and I don’t know if that’s because it didn’t do well critically or just didn’t match the public mood.

ADAM You think it wasn’t what people wanted from a Disney movie?

BETH It might be because kids found it upsetting, or couldn’t understand it.

BROOM I’m personally impressed by the fact that it has no plot, that it creates a sense of structure without one. At the end, Adam said, “this feels climactic,” because it was sufficiently frenzied, and the movie worked on that level the whole time. The things didn’t relate to each other logically, so they had to just give you the feeling of form – musically, so to speak.

BETH Again, I liked it this time, as a grown-up, but not as a kid.

ADAM I said it during the screening and I’ll say it again now, that according to IMDB, there was a Jabberwocky scene planned, but it was scrapped because it was too frightening. I can only imagine.

BROOM I would have been happy to buy this, but it has gone out of print for the time being so we had to Netflix it, and we only got the first disc of a two-disc set. The second disc might have materials from that segment.

BETH You might be able to find it online. [Ed.: only the non-scary preparatory art here.]

BROOM I think that the Mary Blair designs looked fantastic.

ADAM What in particular?

BROOM Well, in the middle of the scene where Alice is the monster in the White Rabbit’s house, you see the sky for a second, and it’s not a normal sky color. It has nothing to do with what’s going on, but the sky is sort of a gray field with white squares. It’s a middle-of-the-day scene, but there’s a sort-of-night sky and the trees are a funny color, and that’s just one of many backgrounds that go by in that sequences. It gives you the intense feeling I got from picture books, as a kid, where the whole space would be colored. The sky isn’t just the sky, it’s color and it makes an impression. There was stuff like that going on throughout the movie, and I think I responded to that when I was young too.

ADAM We’ll see that again in Bolt.

BROOM Just comparing this to Cinderella, I think it’s a really good an encouraging direction for the studio. To say, “We’re not just going to make…”

ADAM “Princess movies.”

BROOM I don’t think they were specifically deciding between princess movies and other movies. More generally, “we’re not just going to make kids’ movies.” It’s a kids’ movie, but it had the most life in it that we’ve seen since The Three Caballeros. Which covers seven years.

BETH Except for the dress!

BROOM What did you think of the costumes?

ADAM I don’t know. Nobody ever made a pinafore look so good.

BROOM Actually – maybe I’m reading too much into this – but I feel like they might have been sort of refuting Cinderella‘s attitude toward animated movies, in that the sister who’s reading her the lessons is a rotoscoped, realistic person, and Alice isn’t particularly. And then Alice goes into a world that has no room for anything at all like that, and when she comes back out, we’re aware that the traced human world is boring by comparison, and it’s what all of Cinderella looked like. That it’s the ground level from which we descend into something much more entertaining and vibrant. Anything else?

ADAM I’m a little defensive about “Alice in Wonderland,” because I think it’s such a wonderful work. I’m like one of those Star Trek: The Movie people.

BROOM Anti- “The Movie” because it’s not as good as the show?

ADAM Just highly protective of it.

BROOM So you feel like this abused the real property?

ADAM No, I don’t really. I must say that I’m struck that it is as faithful as it is.

BROOM I’m surprised that they put in the actual story of “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” Although they did louse it up by having them sing “We’re cabbages and kings!” at the end of every verse, and then as a coda.

ADAM And it was a little more winking than the poem. “The Walrus and the Carpenter” is supposed to be funny because the walrus is supposed to seem deadly sincere until the end. He’s not supposed to leer like that.

BROOM They telegraphed the whole thing. I actually found that one of the scariest parts, because you couldn’t tell what was going on other than that it was cannibalism of children. The whole time, they’re insinuating, “you know what we’re going to do at the end of this scene… Eat all of the innocents!” The rest of the movie didn’t bother me much.

ADAM When she’s in the forest and nobody gives a shit about helping her, that’s upsetting.

BROOM I love when that creature, that sweeper dog comes and erases the trail. That’s the biggest kick-in-the-gut moment in the movie, and it’s also so cool. She thinks she’s following this trail, but all it takes is a sweeper dog to ruin that. And it has that great brush music that goes with it. I love that moment. But it is upsetting.

ADAM The flowers remind me of Dumbo’s mother’s friends.

BROOM You always like the haughty socialites.

ADAM The flower archetypes map on to the individual elephants. The rose is the one who says “Girls, girls!”

BROOM No, the one with the lorgnette.

ADAM Oh, right, the Iris, you mean.

BROOM The Iris, yes. Don’t get me started about the Irish! I still don’t know Disney thinks about the Irish. I don’t know what it means. I’ve been referring to Tweedledum and Tweedledee every time we saw someone Irish before, and here they were.

BETH They were Irish, yes.

BROOM What does it mean? They bounce off each other’s bellies.

ADAM Really? I hear Scottish.

BETH Oh yeah, you know what? I thought they were Irish, but then later in their performance, I thought maybe they were actually Scottish.

BROOM The tufts of red hair mean they’re Scottish?

BETH Their accents.

BROOM Really? I thought something about them talking in squeaky nasal voices meant they were supposed to be Irish.

BETH They pronounced something in a Scottish way.


ADAM We just rocked [Broom]’s world. It is interesting that this was the first really ethnically specific movie. I know Cinderella was set in France, but here they were all really ethnically British.

BROOM They were?

ADAM She had a British accent. Bill was Cockney.

BROOM Was the Dodo an American, then? Was he a colonial?

ADAM I felt like they were all British archetypes.

BROOM Why does the Dodo have a powdered wig? He’s a seafaring man?

ADAM He’s just a “cap’n.” I don’t know.

BROOM Anyway, I just thought that was fantastic. A real return to form. A new form – not quite the art-object form that Bambi or Fantasia was trying to be, but something very satisfying.

ADAM Let’s see what Bosley has to say.

–[the Times review is read]–

BROOM Makes you kind of want to see Nature’s Half Acre, doesn’t it?


BROOM Well, you can’t see it. It’s not on youtube and it’s not on DVD. Which is sad.

ADAM When are we going to lose Bosley?

BETH In the seventies, I think. [Ed.: retired 1968]

MIKE Remember when Disney used to take over whole days – school holidays – and do a broadcast on a network like ABC from 8 in the morning until 5 at night?


BROOM About one thing? Or just show their movies?

MIKE It was everything from “Exploring the Redwood Forests” to bizarre animated shorts.

ADAM This is not the same as when the Disney Channel was free for 96-hour windows, is it?

MIKE No, because we didn’t have cable until I was sixteen. This would have been on ABC.

BROOM They definitely had a relationship with ABC. We used to watch the Disney Sunday Night Movie.

MIKE This would have been around then. Not necessarily the Michael Eisner years.

BROOM I don’t remember that, but that’s cool. Maybe you saw Nature’s Half Acre then. Any thoughts about Bosley’s opinion?

ADAM No. It seemed about right.

BROOM It reminded me of something I wanted to say but I can’t remember what…

BETH …Time’s up.

BROOM Okay, time’s up. See you next time with Peter Pan.

ADAM and BETH Oh no!


November 15, 2008

7. A Night to Remember (1958)

directed by Roy Ward Baker
screenplay by Eric Ambler
based on the book by Walter Lord (1955)


Criterion Collection #7.

Not a film of any grand distinction, but gripping and effective all the same. The real life events are rich and upsetting, and all the film has to do is stay out of the way, which it does. The direction and acting are “restrained” and straightforward in the British style, but the resulting blandness here happens to be an asset – unintentionally, I suspect. The theme is man vs. death; we watch as the black water rises slowly, knowing that all these people are doomed, yet they irrepressibly go on being silly humans, chattering about propriety and nobility and inconvenience and on and on. So long as they can cling to their little ideas, they do. And so does the movie itself, seeming like a nice dull British movie about nice dull British people – which made the sense of impending horror that much more accessible to me. The audience instinct to shout “don’t go in there!” here manifests itself as “Don’t be the type of mild-mannered people who are in mild-mannered movies like this! You’re entirely unprepared for the elemental forces that are about to kill you!” That happens also to be the essence of our fascination with the story of the Titanic, I think, so this movie works out to be quite involving.

Part of me subconsciously was holding out hope that the passengers would be saved. When I caught myself feeling it, I was amused and surprised at myself, but there was no denying the feeling. I guess part of that is human nature, faced with any tragic story, whether or not it’s historically true. But I think here it particularly had to do with the blandness of the filmmaking. Since the movie never seemed to have an emotional agenda for me, it always seemed possible that the story and I might get to sneak away intact. James Cameron’s Titanic, by contrast, is so heavy on its agenda of epic-ness – the soundtrack always reminding us that “you are watching a grand tragedy!” – that it is impossible to hold out hope that anything other than a grand tragedy will happen. That movie was praised (by Roger Ebert, at least) for opening with a quick rundown of the historical course of events, to map out the story structure. But there is a huge difference between knowing externally to the film that the ship will sink, and knowing it within the film itself. Cameron (and Ebert, and everyone else) might have thought that starting a movie about the Titanic by telling us that it sank was just telling us what we already know, but it’s different to be told that your movie self knows it, too.

When we watch a movie we are always role-playing; the phrase “suspension of disbelief” hardly covers it. We are playing a game of make-believe at the movie’s request, constructing a make-believe self who knows only what the movie tells us to know. Of course, we always know more than that, but that’s exactly why we need the puppet self – so that we can negotiate between “we don’t know who the killer is, yet,” and “it’s so totally obvious who the killer is” and hold on to them simultaneously. Most movies are a series of implicit cues to the audience that map out what the “ideal audience member” is thinking. To interpret and follow these cues requires a certain amount of “theory of mind,” but there’s nothing sophisticated about it – generally even dumb people are very good at it. In fact, for many people, it seems like the false mind created on cue is actually nimbler than the real mind behind it. People who laugh heartily at clearly-cued but objectively unfunny jokes are demonstrating not their primitive sense of humor but rather their fine attunement to expectations. Their actual minds hardly enter into it, because they’re not called for. To take an example from the recent news – the people at political rallies who shout out scary stuff with fervor are not, I don’t think, actually expressing their true selves; they are just playing the part that the rally implicitly cues them to play. That may seem inherently ignorant but it’s not – it’s just like going to the movies, and it’s something we all do. But during a movie, all those fake minds are confined to chairs in the dark – bodies are shut down, as in sleep, to prevent us from flailing when we move in a dream – whereas during a political rally, they’re loose in the world and still capable of doing things. And those puppet minds are not to be trusted. That’s what’s scary.

Perhaps the defining distinction of the “art film” is that it attempts to address itself to the real mind and not the puppet. No cues, no agenda, nobody that you’re “supposed to be.” Would-be high-minded people are, after all, the only ones who complain about Hollywood movies being “manipulative.” As I said above, I certainly see the danger of the false self, and can sympathize with the desire to get away from cheap “manipulation.” But we must accept that role-playing is inevitable, with any work of art. An artist has to realize that his audience exists in the future, very possibly after his own death, and that they know things he doesn’t know. To engage with him they may well have to un-know things, and the only way to un-know is to begin afresh with a puppet self, a new mind. The movie that refuses to help its audience build a new mind may think it is abstaining from cheapness and condescension but it is generally just being stubborn and leaving the audience out in the cold. The strength of mind to watch as more than just the puppet is the individual’s responsibility, not the movie’s. From this point of view, refusing to give your audience cues is actually more condescending than manipulating the hell out of them, because it is based on the assumption that they need to be protected from manipulation, that they are too weak in the face of your art. Hollywood movies now, I think, lay on the manipulation as thick as possible because they trust that the audience has built up a substantial immunity to it. I guess in the earlier days of cinema, the audience probably was weaker, in that respect, because they weren’t as practiced. So perhaps there was in fact more of a need for the reserve and lyricism of Jean Renoir, or whoever, in order to leave the audience’s mind whole and able to engage. And perhaps our cultural sea legs are the reason why those sorts of movies aren’t really made anymore. We can all think perfectly straight after four drinks, so no matter how sophisticated a conversation you want to have, there’s no need to skimp on the booze.

That’s a passing thought and I don’t know if I buy it.

Anyway, that was all a digression. My original point was that A Night to Remember is far more emotionally effective than Titanic in regard to the central tragedy because it never tells the puppet about what is going to happen; it leaves that up to your real mind, which allows for a poignant dissonance. In Titanic, even the puppet knows all; the only thing reserved for actual emotional tension is the fate of the fictional romance-novel couple who have been Colorformed on to the historical backdrop.

Hm. Not sure that “puppet mind” stuff will make any sense to anyone but I move on.

The commentary, by two Titanic experts/obsessives (Don Lynch and Ken Marschall, who would go on to advise on Titanic) goes like this: “See those chairs? Those are exactly like the chairs on the Titanic, they really did a fabulous job with that. And see that railing?” etc. Other bonus materials make clear that producer William MacQuitty lavished a remarkable amount of attention on that sort of thing, for the time, so I’m sure he’d be gratified by their remarks. Walter Lord, the author of the original book, is seen too, and comes off as exactly the sort of person who might think that “A Night to Remember” would be an exciting title. I know I read the book in 8th grade but I can’t recall a thing about it; the title and the man behind it give me a hint as to why not. But I think I saw this movie then, too, and didn’t remember it either. I am not as stymied by superficial dullness as I was in 8th grade, I am proud to say.

Music, by William Alwyn, is perfectly decent and appropriate in the standard mold; nothing too assertive. Whenever “angst and struggle” music suddenly flies in to accompany the onboard chaos, it seems a little cheap for a second, and then you adjust. This is, after all, a movie. For track 7 of your album, I offer the Main Titles. Unfortunately, sound effects (of the ship launching) mar the first 30 seconds, but there were no completely unobstructed cues in the whole movie and this was the obvious choice, so you’ll have to live with it. Believe it or not, there are two separate recent rerecordings of this unremarkable main title, both of them, I believe, reconstructed by ear, the original score materials from most British films having been thoughtlessly incinerated. One is rather bad and the other is rather good.

This “watching the Criterion Collection in order” whim seemed doomed at first because it’s so stupid and endless, but I’ve been truly surprised at how much pleasure it’s given me so far. As playlists go, it’s got quality, unfamiliarity, and variety going for it. Scoring cultural literacy points is a bonus built in to many, if not all, of the selections. Overall, it seems more promising to me than my Netflix queue – and I made my Netflix queue, so that’s saying something. So, for the time being, I’m planning to keep it up. My policy solution for undesirable films is that I am perfectly entitled to skip any movie that I think will seriously nauseate me. I do not believe in “ordeals.” Tedium, with the right attitude, evaporates, but disgust is biological. I have my health to think of!

Incidentally, this is the second entry in a row on this site where I’ve opined that “blandness” is an asset to a piece of art. I’m not sure what that says about my current mindset. Something, though.

November 14, 2008

Copland: Concerto for Clarinet and Strings, Harp, and Piano (1947-48)

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, with Harp and Piano
composed: 1947-8 (age 48)
first performance: New York (and NBC radio), November 6, 1950 (Benny Goodman, NBC Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner)

Random number 586 off the master list. This is our ninth selection, for those who are counting. Which didn’t even include me, until just now, so surely no one.


I love this picture – from 1947 – and think it complements the piece nicely. The piece is like walking out into the backyard and feeling pretty good about things. But still keeping an eye on that cat.

I could have given you this picture of a later performance of the piece, but for illustrative purposes, the era is much more important to me than the occasion.

Is this Aaron Copland’s best piece? I remember listening to it one day on my iPod – on a train, I think, which always helps music seem vital – and thinking, “this has got to be Copland’s best piece.” But is it? It doesn’t have that essential seriousness shared by most of his other works that I would put in the running – the Second Symphony, the Piano Variations, the Piano Quartet – nor does it have the cinematic breadth of sentiment of stuff like Billy the Kid or Appalachian Spring that most people would probably point to.

What it has, what leaped out at me that day, is a sense of comfort, and, as a result, truth. The rhythm of it, the inner life of it, is relaxed in a way that seems real and unforced; actual happiness rather than a show of happiness. There is no false drama in it; it emotes at the scale of life.

The first section passes like a fine afternoon, the central cadenza paces around like the cat in the yard, and the last section has some fun in the same setting; maybe friends came over and you set up the badminton net.

Copland took several famous shots at composing “the sound of America,” and this isn’t one of them, but all the same, I think this is where he really gets it right. In the opening section, I hear an America that I recognize; a country without cadences or climaxes, the sweet, mild song of disinterested birds. Beauty too familiar to be called beauty, yet there it is anyway. We are in a hammock, and the sky is blue, and maybe the grass is a little brown but oh well. When emotion swells, to the degree that it does, it is just that: the play of emotion over a moment that hasn’t changed, like the shadows of clouds. The hammock isn’t even swinging. I find this music very touching, not because it is stronger than life but because I have actually lived it.

In the cadenza, I am touched by the same authenticity. Usually a cadenza like this for a monophonic instrument – with motives tossed this way and that, slowly as though being improvised, then worked into a frenzy, ideas alternated and dropped and picked up again, loud like there’s music playing and then soft so it’s almost like praying – feels like something out of “101 Great Audition Monologues.” I.e. a contrivance, a sales pitch; range and contrast purely for the sake of your money’s-worth. The clarinet cadenza here isn’t that. It’s just a cat. Or a thought. It goes through its changes but it isn’t claiming anything or asking for attention. Something is happening that is different in rhythm and delivery from what came before, but not so different in soul. Clouds are still passing over the moment and not the other way around.

Maybe this contented, contemplative spirit of non-event doesn’t quite last all the way to the very end – there has to be a climax, naturally – but it lasts quite a way into the fast section, where the bounding tenths in the bass (and elsewhere) are the same as the ripples of gentleness that opened the whole piece. The fast part doesn’t break with the placidity; it is, if I may, high-energy placidity. It is a dance of relaxation, like the badminton set, which is after all just a step away from the hammock.

The “jazzy” theme epitomizes the wonderful spirit of this piece. It has absolutely nothing jazzy whatsoever about it except for an attitude of nonchalance. (And a couple of flatted notes. And a couple syncopated notes too, if you’re really counting.) My point is, the piece isn’t capturing anything about the world of jazz music; it’s just connecting to a similarly populist sense of ease and satisfaction. It’s feelin’ all right. But it is not out at a club. It’s just at home.

The ending, then, is the only part where this piece brings me back to the concert hall, to the land of concerti and virtuosi and glissandi. But we’ve been brought there gradually and, at least until the very last moments, the enthusiasm doesn’t need to be manufactured; it finds its way naturally.

Yes, the piece may just be lemonade. But it’s a very fine lemonade – just the right temperature, just the right sweetness, tartness, mellowness, crispness – and that is far more admirable, soulful, and significant a thing than the mediocre steaks of so much classical music.

Dubal recommends

Stoltzman, London Symphony Orchestra, Leighton Smith: RCA 09026-61630-2
Drucker, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernstein: Deutsche Grammophon 431672-2

He notably does not recommend the performance by Benny Goodman (for whom it was written) with Copland conducting (Columbia Symphony, 1963). I’ve seen a number of places where this performance is criticized as clumsy and lifeless. But to me, this is the perfect performance. Goodman’s nervous affectlessness and Copland’s merely competent direction are exactly what this deeply unpretentious piece need. The undeniable blandness of the recording, to me, perfectly evokes the breezes and the birds of the beautiful, indifferent American day I’ve been referring to all along. Performances with any suggestion of spectacle or charisma per se are going against the grain. At least as I hear it. Copland called it “the best record I ever conducted” and I’d like to think it was because he heard his own music the way I hear it.

I’ll admit, I didn’t listen to too many different recordings this time around. Didn’t get the ones above – just listened to the Copland/Goodman version and also to Charles Neidich, I Musici de Montréal/Yuli Turovsky (1999), which restores several very high passages toward the end that Benny Goodman asked Copland to revise because they scared him. It’s immediately clear that the original passages make more compositional sense than the replacement versions, so this is a worthwhile listen, but as I’ve been saying, I find this piece’s lack of traditional charisma to be its source of grace, so I have no need for the “whoa” notes. I’ll grant Neidich and Turovsky that for a “sassy” interpretation, theirs is pretty well-judged. Unlike a version by Richard Stoltzman that I heard (streaming online, I forget where), which arrogantly and tastelessly affected “jazzy” without any affinity at all for Aaron Copland’s supreme avuncular squareness.

This is quite copyrighted so no pdfs of the score for download. There’s no need, though, because it has been posted online in more than its entirety, by reputable institutions. Here’s 113 pages of sketches at the Library of Congress – absolutely fascinating if you take the time – and here’s the original manuscript full score at Juilliard. (It’s Flash, so I can’t link you straight to it, but click through and it’s where you’d expect.)

Incidentally: 1001 Classical Recordings recommends the Goodman/Copland recording. So once again I like their style. And the Medtner concerto wasn’t on their list, which, much as I like the piece, I can understand.

November 10, 2008

Disney Canon #12: Cinderella (1950)

Note: the participants are sleepier than usual.

ADAM Beth, why don’t you start, because… well, I don’t know. I was going to say, “because you’re a gay redhead with a flair for scrubbing.”

BETH It’s true. But I don’t have a lot to say about it.

ADAM I got sleepy by the end, but it was no comment on the film.

BROOM I was sleepy at the beginning, and now I’m more awake, but that’s not a comment on the film either.

ADAM While it was more dated than I had ever realized, it’s still very good-natured.

BETH I hadn’t realized how many animal hijinks there would be.

BROOM This is a seventy-minute movie, and of those minutes, about thirty were cat and mouse bullshit.

BETH I think maybe more.

ADAM At the beginning, I counted: there were nineteen solid minutes of just animals.

BROOM That’s right. The stepmother didn’t wake up and set the story in motion until twenty minutes into the movie. Everything prior to that was just hijinks.

BETH I thought they did a nice job making the daughters look really ugly. I don’t think we’ve seen anyone that ugly in a Disney movie yet.

ADAM Certainly no females.

BROOM You thought the undesirable from Sleepy Hollow was more desirable than these girls?


BROOM The dancing girl.

BETH Oh. Definitely.

ADAM What about Ichabod himself?

BETH He rivaled these girls in appeal.

ADAM What about Casey?

BETH Casey was pretty ugly, but in a different way.

BROOM That reminds me, since I’ve been pointing out these Irish types: the fairy godmother here seems also to be Irish, but in a positive way for the first time.

BETH That’s true; she looked like she could be a relative of mine.

BROOM She had the little chin.

ADAM She was like – who’s the dotty aunt in Bewitched?

BETH She is like that woman. I don’t remember her name.

ADAM But she’s not quite as dotty as that.

BROOM But the honking, Casey-style horrible lower-class caricature was also present here; the guy holding the slipper at the end was one of those. He had the big flapping Tweedledee lips.

ADAM So was Bruno when he was a human.

BROOM He was thrilled to be a human. To be upgraded by one status level, from the class of horse to the class of servant.

ADAM No, Bruno, the dog, who became the footman. The horse was the coachman.

BROOM Oh, right. Well, they each got the same promotion. Anyway, I think the main thing to talk about here is that so much of the movie is mice running around. That stuff plays well to kids. I think.

BETH Maybe, but seeing it now I remembered that as a kid, I was always waiting for it to get back to her and her dress.

ADAM Yes, the one thing I remember vividly from seeing this as a child is the beautiful pink dress garlanded with those beautiful pink bows.

BROOM So the dress was an object of fascination for both of you?

BETH and ADAM Yes.

ADAM And could there be a lusher, more exhilarating moment in the history of cinema than when the sparkles clothe her and she emerges in that wedding gown?

BROOM To me, the sweet spot in the movie was always the “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” scene; specifically when the pumpkin walks out and transforms.

BETH I figured you would like that.

ADAM I always thought, “Get past this! Who cares?”

BROOM When you were a kid, you didn’t care about the pumpkin? Just the dress?

BETH I would feel like, “No! Come on! Don’t forget about the dress!”

BROOM Well, they explicitly play that frustration for the character. And it worked on you.

BETH Yes it did!

ADAM When I was Person Of The Week in preschool, we had to make life-size drawings of ourselves on shelf paper and answer biographical questions, and my brother said that he wanted to be a dump-truck driver, and I said I wanted to be a dressmaker.

BROOM Because of that scene?

ADAM No. Just because it seemed so wonderful.

BROOM Well, you each got your wish, in a way.

ADAM And as a small child, when I would draw girls in fabulous dresses, they were always triangular, like her dress.

BROOM How much of that interest stems back to this movie?

ADAM I don’t know. But thinking about it just got me excited and woke me up. Even now.

BROOM So which were the dull parts for you as a kid?

ADAM and BETH Everything else.

BETH It was just waiting around until the dress parts.

BROOM As a kid I was more willing to watch the slapstick than I am now. The parts I wasn’t interested in were them dancing at the ball…

BETH Well, that was pretty dull.

BROOM Or anything talky with the daughters. Althought the moment when the mother sees the other slipper and gasps, as if to say, “I’m ruined!” – that was satisfying to me as a child.

ADAM All the moments of horrible cruelty are satisfying, too.

BETH Maybe now, but I didn’t care when I was little.

ADAM I don’t recall if they were satisfying at the time, but they’re now intensely satisfying.

BROOM This is the first movie I saw in a theater – a pretty girly movie, but I turned out okay – and apparently I was scared by the stepmother. The only place that could have been was when her eyes narrow and she decides to lock up Cinderella.

ADAM But the stepmother isn’t evil in a witchy way; she’s evil in a sort of cruel and haughty way that’s different from Ursula or the evil Queen. I think they did a good job of giving her a refined, ladylike cruelty.

BROOM She was like Joan Crawford. Her hair is nicely designed. And her chin, too. I think the scariness of her character is that it’s almost completely unspoken. The movie mostly holds at bay the underlying fact that Cinderella is totally alone in the world, has nothing to live for, and is only getting by in life through her baseless good cheer – that her stepmother is really just this side of killing her. And in moments like the one where she decides it would be best to lock up Cinderella, that suddenly comes to the surface. But as a kid, actually, I don’t think I was susceptible to interpersonal tension as a source of scariness. I don’t think I empathized with characters enough. Whereas seeing mice go in one hole and come out another hole – that holds a kid’s interest. So this movie, which I found very annoying tonight, would probably still seem fine to six-year-olds.

ADAM I have a vivid memory of the blue beads and the pink sash. Truly, that’s all I remember. Did you remember what the prince looked like, let alone what his voice sounded like?

BETH Of course not.

ADAM It’s totally irrelevant.

BROOM You only see him in close-up once, in the spinning shot while they’re dancing. He looks like a high school football star.

ADAM [hero voice]: But his voice!

BROOM His voice wasn’t nearly that deep or manly!

ADAM I had forgotten that he did not do the slipper searching himself.

BETH Me too. I had forgotten about those doofuses.

ADAM Do you know, in the real Charles Perrault story, how the stepsisters try to deceive the prince?

BETH I don’t know, no.

ADAM They cut off their own toes and heels, respectively, to fit in the shoe. And nobody notices, but as they are on their way to the palace to be married to the prince, their blood, which falls on the snow, screams that they are impostors. Probably that can happen in the Perrault version because it’s a slipper of fur, not of glass. It was vair in French and then it was confused with verre.

BROOM That makes more sense, because a glass slipper would be unwearable.

ADAM And also, the blood would be quite visible.

BROOM So this movie seemed to take place in France. That’s a first for the series. They didn’t do much with it, but their chateau looked a little bit French.

ADAM And the names were French-y.

BROOM That’s right. Their last name is Tremaine. So, anyway, this is it; this is what Disney movies are going to be like from now on. The girl who dreams of a better life…

ADAM Who is saved from danger entirely by her own gentleness and prettiness.

BROOM Actually, I’m wrong; they’re not really going to be this way, are they. This is something that was dormant and they resurrected it for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. And this in turn seemed to be an intentional reversion to the pre-war movies, an effort to make one “just like Snow White.”

ADAM Was “Cinderella” a cultural trope before this movie came out? I feel like this defines a whole half-century of retrograde ideas about gender.

BROOM Specify.

ADAM You know, the whole “Princess Syndrome.”

BROOM Well Snow White was a princess too, so maybe we should try to name the elements in Cinderella but not in Snow White that make Cinderella more “princess-y.”

ADAM Dresses!

BETH It is the dresses. And castles. I guess there are castles in Snow White too.

BROOM But that was a symbolic castle, at the end, whereas this was more materialistic. But this movie also made fun of that kind of materialism. I mean, Cinderella’s dress you’re supposed to enjoy sincerely, but King Teddy Roosevelt’s castle, with the enormous doors and enormous paintings, is sort of a joke. You’re not meant to lust for it. Really the only object of specific material desire in the movie is that dress.

ADAM And the tiara. I mean, let’s be clear: the whole outfit. And her hair. I just loved her hair; it’s like a confection.

BETH The first dress looks like a cake, and the second dress looks like a wedding cake.

ADAM I suppose the idea of talking to birds is new; but no, Snow White talks to birds, doesn’t she.

BROOM She talks to them but they’re not fully anthropomorphized; they don’t talk back to her.

ADAM They don’t assist her in her household chores.

BROOM Uh, yes they do, in the famous sequence, “Whistle While You Work.”

ADAM Oh, you’re right.

BETH They’re actually more effective at helping her than Cinderella’s friends.

BROOM I thought it was odd that the mice were characterized as idiots. They can talk but they don’t have fully-formed brains.

ADAM Well, the one in the red shirt could.

BROOM Jaq? Jar-Jar Mouse?

BETH He was smart. They just couldn’t pronounce things correctly.

BROOM “We is coming, Cinderelly!”

ADAM Cinderella also has a little bit more bitterness than Snow White ever has. She’s sarcastic towards the bells at the beginning. “Oh, you mean old thing! I hear you!”

BROOM Oh yeah – the same bells that at the end, I now see, ring for her wedding.

ADAM And she makes a sarcastic comment about the sisters’ music lesson. She’s a little bit tart. But when she says “the prince!” she gets this vacant look in her face, which is very disturbing.

BROOM But the prince isn’t really a focus of this movie. It’s not about wanting men at all. It’s about a better life. It’s about your dreams coming true. And your dreams might happen to feature a dress.

ADAM You’re right. It’s not really about being saved by a man, it’s being saved by money. And royalty.

BROOM It’s the basic Harry Potter dream: you’re nobody, but maybe in some secret way you’re the queen, and everyone will know it someday. She doesn’t actually put into words the idea that she wants everyone to know it. That’s the strange thing – she never really says “I wish I could rise above all this.”

BETH Well, what do you think she was dreaming about in the first scene? Probably the castle she could see from her window.

ADAM Or a boy.


BROOM She doesn’t know he’s the prince; she just has a really nice prom experience.

ADAM When was Ken released? Around the same time, right?

BETH The first Barbie was released in 1958, and I don’t think Ken came along for a little while after that.

ADAM Oh, I thought Barbie was released in the 40s.

BROOM So was this movie an influence on Barbie?

BETH I don’t think so. She looks a little like the first Barbie.

BROOM She’s not quite as sexed up as Barbie.

ADAM Barbie was based on some German sex toy.

BETH Well, that’s just how things started to look later in the 50s.

BROOM In my vague impression of Cinderella, I had imagined her to be more sexualized than she is. They really make it all about her face; her body is just something to hang a dress on.

ADAM Her body is slim, but not curvy.

BROOM And she doesn’t move in a particularly sensual way; she doesn’t sway at all – she skitters around like a mouse. Unlike Katrina Van Tassel from last time, when I said “Cinderella’s going to look like that” – but she was to be lusted after, whereas Cinderella is the protagonist. But, really, the protagonist is the cat. You spend more time watching the cat than watching Cinderella.

ADAM I didn’t realize that the fairy godmother is only on stage for about two minutes. Even though she’s such a classic character.

BROOM That scene is the best scene in the movie by a long shot. Not just because of the dress or the pumpkin, but because it has atmosphere and something exciting is happening. Though I actually thought that the staging wasn’t bad in some of the other human scenes. I mean, it was stupid, but it could be fun. Like when the King is “swimming” across his marble table.

ADAM The King and the Grand Duke are amusing enough. I hadn’t remembered them at all.

BROOM And it was clear that the daughters and the mother were heavily rotoscoped, but their acting was pretty good. But the mice were just terrible mice. I didn’t like the way they looked and their stupid Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks voices were awful.

ADAM They sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks, and she sounded like Judy Garland.

BETH She did sound like Judy Garland.

BROOM The mother?

ADAM No, Cinderella.

BROOM Hm. And a whole song in those high-pitched voices! I guess at the time it was truly a novelty.

ADAM That’s the second most famous song from this movie. Could you have sung any of those songs, other than “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo?”

BROOM I could have sung “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.”

ADAM Speaking of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”: to hear a full chorus singing those nonsense words was pretty unintentionally funny.

BROOM Oh, I think it was supposed to be funny. It was supposed to be fun that this was just gobbledygook. It’s a very short song. I would not have been able to sing “So This Is Love.” In fact, when they were calling for “The waltz! The waltz!” I thought, “what’s the melody of the waltz going to be?” And I completely didn’t recognize it when it started. You know, I usually zone out for those sorts of sequences, but I thought it was reasonably pretty.

BETH The love scene?


ADAM Could you have sung the “Nightingale” song?

BROOM That she sings with her own bubble reflections. No, and I can’t sing it now either.

BETH I kind of liked that sequence.

BROOM This movie didn’t have any blowing leaves, but it did have bubbles rising out of an old oaken bucket, which is another popular image for Disney.

ADAM From Fantasia.

BROOM And Snow White. And probably all the other movies too, if we’d been watching for it. [ed. Definitely in Dumbo!] So as I was saying: This movie is a throwback, and then The Little Mermaid is a throwback specifically to this – the kingdom in Little Mermaid is essentially the same castle, the same prince, the same stuff – but I don’t think we’re going to see any princes until then. Are we?

ADAM There’s a prince in Sleeping Beauty.

BROOM Oh, of course, Sleeping Beauty. That’s the last shot at it for a long time.

ADAM Anyway, I really liked this movie. I thought everything in it was gently humorous. Well, I didn’t really like it, but I liked it. It was cheerful, and maybe not especially well drawn, but it had a pleasant liveliness to the drawing. It was totally bearable. Though there were moments when Cinderella seemed a little too much like someone from a 1950s soap commercial; the anachronism of it jarred me a little, but otherwise I enjoyed it.

BROOM I found the mice very difficult to take. I think if you excised all the animal material, you’d have a pleasant 25 minute movie. This was just tedious.

BETH I think it was solid kids’ entertainment, and it felt more contemporary as kids’ entertainment than any of the previous Disney movies. I can imagine kids still watching this. And I guess Dumbo too.

ADAM To me it felt about as contemporary as “Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet.”

BROOM But didn’t this feel more condescending and more specific to a child audience than any of the others? This is the first one where I felt like mom and dad were checking their watches while the kids enjoyed it.

ADAM Dumbo still had jokes that went over my head as a child.

BETH That’s what I mean: this is more like a kid’s movie that you’d see now.

BROOM I just felt disappointed.

ADAM That this central pillar of our culture is so thin.

BROOM Yes, it felt thin, and it felt a little cynical on the part of the studio. It didn’t feel like it had anything behind it except for “kids will go to this,” albeit done with a reasonable amount of good cheer.

ADAM But I will say, as a coda, that Cinderella is culturally probably the most influential of all Disney movies, in terms of setting up an archetype for the culture at large.

BROOM And yet she’s such a cipher. She doesn’t have any character.

ADAM That’s the whole point!

BETH She has a castle. It’s the center of Disneyworld!

ADAM Just the idea of “a Cinderella story,” this ideal of mid-century womanhood, is much more influential than, like, Pocahontas. I think it’s interesting to ponder that. And I think it’s all about that one image of the swirling dress.

BROOM But it’s very much the same setup as Snow White. It just has that element of material lust in it.

BETH Glamour.

BROOM Do you think that in 1937, Snow White’s image was also a sort of glamorous, desirable image?

ADAM No. She’s self-consciously girlish.

BROOM Yeah, she’s an innocent, and real dames would have blown her off. Whereas in 1950, our various grandmothers might well have wanted to look like Cinderella.

ADAM Our various mothers.

BROOM Our mothers weren’t born yet. And yours wasn’t old enough to want it.

ADAM My mother was two, which is, I think, just when those messages fall on you most uncritically.


ADAM Well, nowadays. Okay, four.

BROOM I did have one more thing I wanted to say about the mice and cats running around: kids have more tolerance for that than adults do, in part because kids relate to that. I related to those kinds of things as a kid because the divide between the animal world and the story world is kind of the same as the divide between kid-world and grownup-world. While you’re watching the cat and mouse games, meanwhile, Cinderella is bringing the sisters their breakfast; that’s what’s really going on the story, but we care about these cats on the floor, which the grownups don’t even notice. And then ultimately it’s like one of these movies where Kid Power saves the day for the grownups. In the end, the mice have to be the heroes. Nobody’s been paying attention to the mice but us, and then suddenly it’s the Ewoks who have to save the day.

ADAM Do the Ewoks save the day?

BROOM At the end of Return of the Jedi, yes they do. Because who notices the Ewoks? So here, it would never even occur to the evil stepmother – it’s so far below her disdain – that mice would crawl into her pocket, steal her key, and carry it up the stairs. And that’s how victory is achieved, because kid-world wins out. Okay, I said it.

— [the Times review is read] —

BROOM I want to register my surprise and dismay that Bosley Crowther says that the mice are the best thing in the movie.

BETH I know; you didn’t like the mice. We get it.

BROOM But he was correct about the pumpkin. So you’re saying that you didn’t mind the mice, you enjoyed the mice.

BETH I didn’t enjoy the mice.

ADAM I didn’t enjoy the mice, but I didn’t hate them.

BETH They kind of reminded me of the mice in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

ADAM They kind of reminded me of when you’re in fourth grade and the only person more unpopular than you is some really, really unpopular kid, and you don’t hate him, but you don’t really want him hanging around you. You know?

BROOM Yes. Well, I hated him, because I wanted to maintain my distance.

ADAM Because he reminded you of yourself.

BROOM That’s right. These mice didn’t remind me of myself though. Okay. GO OBAMA. [Ed. He won.]


November 9, 2008

6. La Belle et la Bête (1946)

written and directed by Jean Cocteau
based on the story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont


Criterion Collection #6.

The writing of this entry has been oddly fraught. I have begun and abandoned two versions already. I know, I know: who cares. Indeed.

The first miscarriage was the result of writing immediately after my first viewing, before I had gone back for the commentaries. Reactions change after you watch something several times. The second miscarriage was a bizarre experiment in writing by dictation + transcription. My spoken train of thought was fairly compelling, I thought, but only when it hit the page did it become clear to me how ridiculously unbounded it was, and how impervious to distillation. When I write, I struggle against not just my graceless verbosity, but also my tendency to think by disjunct leaps. The challenge of articulating my thoughts on a given subject but not on others feels something like peg-solitaire. It’s hard not to strand those pegs!

So let’s get right to it, as condensed as possible. I enjoyed this movie but held reservations. Those reservations were at the fore in my initial response; by the time I had watched the movie thrice more, for the commentaries and the opera (see below), I had become accustomed to those reservations and so was better able to enjoy the movie for what it is, rather than dwell on what it isn’t.

First, my reservations, enumerated:

1. The best moments outclass the average by an unflattering margin. The eerie, atmospheric fantasy sequences are wonderful, which only points up how the other scenes can be rather precious and are frequently dull.

2. Cocteau has many moments of fine inspiration, but he is not a natural filmmaker; his relationship to the medium is abstract rather than intuitive, and as a result there are many moments where rhythm and emphasis are subtly mishandled. A lot of goodwill and momentum ends up falling through those cracks.

3. Also symptomatic of Cocteau’s abstracted approach to the art is his naïve affection for blatant stagecraft and raw film tricks (hidden cuts and dissolves, mirrors, slow and reversed motion, etc.) I find these techniques delightful, but it must be acknowledged that they distance the audience from the story, because they expose and embrace artifice. And with this in mind, Cocteau’s prefatory injunction to the audience that we try to approach the tale like a child who “really believes” seems disingenuous – and/or condescending, to children, audiences, and fairy tales.

4. From Cocteau’s onscreen presence and affected handwriting (and the star under his signature), to his dreamy boyfriend in the role of godlike magician, sensitive lover, shirtless rogue, and flamboyantly caped lion, to the film’s undisguised and utter disinterest in Beauty, the ostensible lead character: there is an unpleasant Siegfried-and-Roy air of unchecked homosexual ego underpinning the whole thing. Yeah, I said it.

There’s no room for self-regard in the telling of fairy tales. “Fairy tales and the very sensitive artists who love them” is another story. This story, I believe.

Those are the gripes – or enough of them for here, anyway.

The praise is:

1. The scenes of the unearthly and fantastic are lovely, strong, and memorable. There are several images in this movie of high enough quality to justify all the rest. The strange Doré/Méliès/Dalí ambiance of the Beast’s castle is as distinctive and evocative a psychological space as any in a movie.

2. The photography is beautiful, bolstered by the lighting and costumes.

3. The trick shots and magic are all, as I said, delightful, both quaint and uncanny. I especially liked the moment when Beauty teleports back home and emerges through a hole in space.

4. Once you have accepted that the movie will never be quite as Edgar Allan Poe, quite as fevered as you would like, it begins to feel rather cozy. I imagine that to those who grew up with this movie (are there such people?), it could seem like a very warm and inviting place to return.

Music by Georges Auric lays it on a little thick at times but has some fine episodes, especially in the scenes where Beauty is exploring the castle in silence and the score carries us. Auric’s allusions to Ravel were perfectly tasteful but nonetheless inspired me to speculate about the superior score Ravel himself would have written, since this movie would have been exactly his sort of thing. (He did in fact write a little piece about la belle et la bête).

Here’s the Main Title, track 6 for your album. Auric has gone pretty blandly Hollywood here and it’s not the best piece in the score. I was tempted to select an excerpt from elsewhere, but I’d like to try to stick to standalone music – overtures, exit music, intermissions, etc. – and there were no cues that could be played completely without sound effects anyway.

There is a very attractive rerecording of the complete score that makes a much better case for Auric than the original. But for you I’m sticking with the straight-from-the-film version; the crackly mix and blunt performance is part of the movie’s personality.

Incidentally, of the five previous movies: La grande illusion has no soundtrack available (well, someone is selling a CD of the audio ripped straight from the film, but that doesn’t count); Shichinin no samurai was recently released but is already hard to come by; The original recording of The Lady Vanishes has, unsurprisingly, never been released, but oddly enough, someone recently concocted a full arrangement of the tune in piano concerto style, so that this album could claim to feature music from the movie, and you can still get that track on various Hitchcock compilations; Amarcord has been released and is fairly beloved; a few cues at least from Les quatre cents coup have been released, but don’t seem to be available now. As for La Belle et la Bête, the rerecording is your only choice, and you wouldn’t want the original anyway.

This all brings me to the last thing I must address. For the occasion I am resurrecting some text from the original cranky draft of this entry:

On this DVD is something bizarre: an alternate audio track containing an opera that Philip Glass composed in 1994 to be performed in sync with the film. What he has created is, in theory, fascinating: a full-length film opera paced like a non-opera. The project of composing a continuous work to supplant the entire original audio of an existing film is itself intriguing. This stuff is truly right up my alley. But Philip Glass, I finally feel emboldened to say, is terrible, and this opera is horrendous. I am tempted to put “opera” in quotes. It felt more like opera day on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. For each scene, an accompaniment is laid down, built on – get this, Glass fans – a regular pulse, and then every single line of dialogue is plopped down on it wherever it happens to fall, to sync up with the mouths. He makes a token effort, at best, to relate the sung melodies to the looping harmonies, and the “click” tempi in which this business is worked out seem to have been chosen with no great sensitivity to the content of the scenes. The vocal lines end up being 100% melodically and rhythmically asinine, just outbursts of comically rushed-sounding garbage that seem as if they were auto-set by a poorly-programmed computer. His approach reduces the movie to scene-long blocks of unified affect, a technique that might play as atmospheric power in Mr. Glass’s other projects, but here just feels like obstinacy and laziness. Composing 90 minutes of opera/film score is a pretty hefty task – but not if you mostly ignore the film, reduce the text-setting to a purely mechanical process, and just play inane vamps to cover the time. Then it’s pretty easy, isn’t it. And – and this is really the most infuriating thing about it – even if we accept that Mr. Glass’s personal brand requires and excuses all of the above, even if we sigh and try to embrace the idea that 90 minutes of inane vamping is a sophisticated artistic response to this film – even then – we are still left with the fact that these are for the most part ugly, awkward vamps, badly orchestrated for chintzy synthesizers. They do not “feel” like the movie or the story or fantasy or mystery or anything good. They feel like peepee.

Ugh. Nonetheless an interesting project, and the disgust that I felt while watching it was accordingly interesting disgust, for me. So thanks, Philip.

But seriously: this guy is artistic fraud par excellence. Just because music has aesthetic value doesn’t mean the value necessarily originates in the talent or intellect of a composer. A single sustained chord has aesthetic value, and so does a room with a good paint job. Philip Glass is like the guy at the paint store; his paint is reliable enough, and is useful for certain rooms. But it’s as if Sherwin Williams let his fame go to his head and started producing vast sample chips for display at MOMA. “This sample chip, a gray-green entitled ‘November Mist,’ is a meditation on the inner life of genius, and is designed to replace the visual in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.” Seriously, that’s what this was like.

Finally, the commentaries: were the best yet. There are two – Arthur Knight and Sir Christopher Frayling – and they go in rather different directions and complement each other nicely. Both are intelligent and relaxed.

I had planned to talk about the original story of Beauty and the Beast itself, about the odd changes that were made by Cocteau, and about the debt owed by the Disney version to this film and the ways that Disney’s version actually improves on the plotting. But now I just want this to be over.

And lo!