Monthly Archives: July 2008

July 31, 2008

Irreconcilable Double Feature

In one post because I watched these back-to-back while in Germany. Wrote this there, too.

If you can find a thematic link, please submit it.

Apocalypse Now Redux (1979, rev. 2000)
directed by Francis Ford Coppola
screenplay by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola
narration written by Michael Herr

I’m annoyed with Francis Ford Coppola for making me refer to his movie as Apocalypse Now Redux, instead of letting me just call it Apocalypse Now (1979) and specify that I watched the restored and extended version he made in 2000. No, this movie’s credits clearly state that it has the idiotic title Apocalypse Now Redux, that it is copyright 2000, and that “Portions of this motion picture were originally released in 1979 in the United States and Canada by United Artists as ‘Apocalypse Now’.” Portions constituting the whole movie. It would be less absurd if this new movie were in some substantive way different (rather than just longer), such that it could not be construed as supplanting the original. But it can and it does and it isn’t, so it should just have the same title and say “extended edition” or something on the DVD package and leave imdb alone! Actually, it looks like imdb has handled this correctly in spite of Mr. Coppola’s nonsense.

So I don’t know about Apocalypse Now because I’ve never seen it, but Apocalypse Now Redux is kind of a mess. Looks beautiful, full of interesting things, but sort of a mess and it really falls apart at the end. I know he had trouble with Marlon Brando and had to make do, but it shows and I’m calling it like it is. The best sequence is the part with Robert Duvall near the beginning. Martin Sheen does a good job holding things together in a movie that doesn’t know how realistic it wants to be. If your movie is going to pass between realism and dream-cinema, the pacing and sequencing of those changes need to be carefully planned; here they seemed to happen willy-nilly, when it was convenient.

Scenes with women quickly become dreamy and lead to nudity; this happens at a key moment in The Conversation too and seemed unmotivated in both places. Sex is a magical dream-state and women are the key? Is that really the point? I understand that here, as with Gene Hackman, the thematic idea is that safety and intimacy have become tragically unattainable for these guys and that anything like it is a mirage, but why can’t that be presented soberly? There’s something film-school phony about the justification for showing boobs. And anyway, Miss December was flown to a nearly-abandoned base in Vietnam and prostituted herself to the troops in a vapid daze? That doesn’t make any sense.

But fine, a lot of things in the movie didn’t make real-world sense; it was mostly buildup and omens and horror. And somewhere toward the end it dropped the line of tension, and by the time Martin Sheen is in Brando’s presence and narrating, “This was truly the heart of the jungle” or whatever, the horror of which the man speaks has slipped out of the movie. It’s quite possible that in the shorter, original version of the movie that everyone prefers, this isn’t the case. The colors on this Redux look lovely though.

Music, credited to the director and his father, music producer David Rubinson, and a whole lot of musicians, is actually quite good, and carries big chunks of the movie on its back. The “love scene” at the plantation is a glaringly misscored exception – again, the man has some nerdy ideas about love scenes.

I didn’t watch this on the subway but I did watch it on my iPod. Watching a movie on the iPod is less likely to suck me in to a self-forgetting state of complete escape than watching it at home or in the theater – obviously – and previously I would have thought that was a loss. And I suppose it is a loss; but there is a compensatory gain. Watching a movie without forgetting myself means watching it more intelligently; I feel better able to track the plot, the craft, and the aesthetics all at once. This appreciation might be a bit colder but it is clearer and more complete; I feel like I’m getting directly to the way I’d feel on a second or third viewing. A movie watched on this screen is less of an experience to which I submit, more of a cultural object that I can willingly consume and digest. This is the way people talk about movies and the way I am thinking about movies when I make a Netflix queue or take recommendations or browse a “100 best” list. But the enveloping experience has its place too.

Yes, maybe this movie would have worked better that way, surrounding me beyond thought. But I think it’s fair to say that if a movie holds up only when it goes undigested, it is inferior to a movie that can do both. So maybe I missed out on some of the potential savor of this experience, but my opinion is probably the same one I would have arrived at afterward. And I don’t have time to savor everything there is, so fine.

This did make me want to reread Heart of Darkness. This was Movie You Must See Before You Die #653.

Finding Nemo (2003)
directed by Andrew Stanton
co-directed by Lee Unkrich
screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson, and David Reynolds
on a story by Andrew Stanton

Again, on the iPod. I think Pixar reads just fine on a little screen. On the other hand it’s all about textural gratification and maybe I would have gotten some more of that if I’d been really surrounded by those fish and bubbles. But I think I got plenty.

Have I seen all the Pixar movies now? I think not but I can’t figure out which other ones I’m missing. Except for Cars – I know I haven’t seen that. Maybe on the flight home from this trip I’m on I’ll pick that one up. [ed: didn’t.]

Just checked the list online and that is in fact the only one I have left. [ed: but now, by the time I’m posting this, I also have WALL-E to contend with]

People love this movie but I thought it was flimsy. The script seemed like the script for an attraction at Disneyworld, not for an actual movie. The scenes of learning and growing were insufficiently essential to the plot and felt phony; the tone for these scenes is determined by formula far more than the actual moral content. I already knew that Finding Nemo was about fish and bubbles, but what is it about thematically? It took most of the movie before they had to fill out that box: it’s about facing fears and letting go of growing children. And for Ellen DeGeneres it’s about, um, not forgetting. Or… making friends. Or about refusing to accept that you are just a comic relief character, in a movie where every secondary character is just a comic relief character. It’s about struggling bravely against your crippling comic relief characteristics. “Only when I’m around you, protagonist,” she pretty much says, “do I feel whole. And I don’t want to lose that.”

The movie is an episodic quest with no particular sense of gathering urgency or beckoning mystery. It’s just a series of episodes strung in a row. These are intercut with scenes of of Nemo in a fishtank that don’t go anywhere. Is there some other lesson to be learned in these scenes, about some different facet of facing fears and growing up or something? Did they think there was? Not sure. But they don’t go anywhere.

Beth is saying that she thought the fishtank scenes were a vain attempt to create suspense. Like cutting to Dorothy and an hourglass running out. But if so, they loused it up by piling on the color characters and whimsy until those sequences didn’t feel the least bit dangerous. Their color character machine was on overdrive in this movie. It’s all well and good to draw up a character design sheet, to cast someone famous, and to come up with a delightful distinguishing quirk. Pixar can do that over and over and over and not break a sweat. The real question is whether the movie needs those characters. I felt like this movie was just shoveling from their pile of pre-production concepts onto my head in big heaps. Here are Nemo’s three friends at school and each of their personalities and here are each of their parents and their personalities and here’s his teacher and his personality and here’s the seven inhabitants of the tank and each of their personalities and here are the three sharks and their personalities and WAIT WAIT, we also have this great turtle character that he meets, here’s his personality, and then there’s a baby turtle, here’s his personality, and WAIT WAIT this is our design for the pelican, here’s his personality, and these are his friends, and these are the seagulls….

AAGH! ENOUGH! And yet with all that, I felt like our principal leads were under-developed. They too were just “personalities” like everyone else. The father – the lead – needed to have a little more going on than “he’s an over-protective father – and he’s played by Albert Brooks!” and Ellen DeGeneres definitely needed more than “she’s Exasperating Comic Sidekick – and she’s Ellen!” The world-doodling machinery that drives these movies – Character Development by this team, Story Development by that team – is not always in the best interest of storytelling. I felt like this whole movie wasn’t in the best interest of storytelling.

The jokes were forced too.

So that all said; it was cute. It was inoffensive and basically pleasant to look at and probably fun for kids – little kids. But I got a fair bit more than that out of Toy Story and thought it was fair to hope for it here.

July 28, 2008

Rest of the Hitchcock DVD set

All watched on the ipod, mostly on airplanes.

Murder! (1930)
screenplay by Alma Reville
based on the novel and play “Enter Sir John” (1928) by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson
adapted by Alfred Hitchcock and Walter Mycroft

In some raw statistical sense, it may seem noteworthy that this early Hitchcock is a murder mystery, but that doesn’t mean it’s in any way like watching “a Hitchcock movie.” The script and direction are dull and stagy – except for a few touches of experimentation, which don’t generally work very well. One particularly absurd novelty is a “subjective” close-up, apparently meant to show just how lush the rug of a wealthy celebrity feels to his poor visitor: the man’s feet are shown sinking into a fantastical waterbed surface. This is inserted for one second into the middle of an otherwise fantasy-less movie.

One sequence is pointed out in the books for being a bold early use of sound in film. There was no technical way of combining multiple tracks of sound, so for a scene where the character’s inner monologue is heard against Tristan und Isolde, the pre-recorded monologue was played back from a phonograph on set, and an orchestra just off-camera performed the music live, while the actor stood and made thinking faces. This is interesting in the history books but it doesn’t change the fact that the resulting scene is completely ridiculous; the musical juxtaposition comical and awkward. Is it supposed to be comical? It’s hard to tell what’s supposed to be silly in this crooked movie; Hitchcock’s whimsy is all over the thing but without proper signposts for the audience, so it can’t be enjoyed, only squinted at in confusion.

The pacing is stultifying; the protagonist isn’t introduced until 30 minutes in, and it still takes us several scenes more before we realize that, yes, this guy is actually the protagonist of the limp movie we’ve been watching in bewilderment for half an hour. Only the climactic scene manages to sustain a sense of tension on its own terms. The rest just drips by like we’re watching a blocking rehearsal.

The plot is that an actor has been killed, apparently by another actor, but a famous actor finds himself investigating the case and discovers that the murder was really committed by a different actor. Theater is a theme. The final shot, which is the best in the whole movie, seems to be showing us that our hero and the woman he exonerated are now a happy couple in a drawing room… but then the camera pulls back and we see that it’s happening on stage before an audience; the real happy ending is that our hero gave the woman a good part in his next play.

The bad guy in this movie is clearly gay, and in the book is (apparently) explicitly said to be gay, which is a secret he doesn’t want revealed. In the movie, however, the plot makes clear that, despite being totally gay and a professional cross-dresser, he is not in fact gay, and his shameful secret is altered to be that he is a half-caste. Interesting to note that this change, meant to make the movie less offensive to the sensibilities of 1930, actually makes the movie more offensive today.

An odd bit of trivia: Hitchcock shot a German version simultaneously, with different actors on the same sets, imitating what the English actors had just done. Called Mary. Apparently it’s absolutely lifeless by comparison – which is a pretty terrifying thought.

The Skin Game (1931)
screenplay by Alma Reville
based on the play (1920) by John Galsworthy
adapted by Alfred Hitchcock

Also quite dull, but for different reasons. The film also feels slack and can get confusing (secondary character introductions aren’t delivered cleanly enough) but nonetheless has its head on somewhat straighter than Murder!. Unfortunately, that head is telling a very boring story. Two rich families – one old money, one new – channel their social irritation with one another into a feud over a piece of land. Ultimately, a bit of blackmail used as a bargaining chip gets out of hand and someone dies, and in the end the old-money patriarch is left in stunned self-disgust, wondering when his good British decency left him. “What’s gentility worth if it can’t stand fire?” And curtain. Material like this can only be worthy of a movie if the acting makes it so and if the director gives us room to savor the performances. On each of those counts, the movie only deserves a shrug. Edmund Gwenn is great as the angry new-money guy; everyone else does a fine enough job but not enough to draw us into this dull little world. And Alfred Hitchcock is clearly to blame for not caring much about it either.

“Skin game” apparently means the same as “confidence game” – i.e. scam, grift, swindle. It sounds silly every time it’s said in the movie; at the end he says it twice in a row, with gravity, and that sounds twice as silly. “What is it that gets loose when you begin a fight, and makes you what you think you’re not? Begin as you may, it ends in this… skin game! Skin game!” I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m sorry, Mr. Galsworthy, that sounds silly.

I am amused by this DVD’s attempt to leverage the word “skin” into squeezing some sex out of this stone. Also, note that by saying that it takes place in “a peaceful English village…” they seem to be implying that something shocking happens. Buyer beware!: This movie actually does take place in a peaceful English village!

I of course watched it on a nice classy DVD, not a tawdry bargain-binner like that.

Rich and Strange (1931)
screenplay by Alma Reville and Val Valentine
based on the novel by Dale Collins (1930)
adapted by Alfred Hitchcock

Apparently this isn’t really based on the novel; the novel and the movie were developed in parallel, both based on conversations Dale Collins had with the Hitchcocks while on a cruise together. Some sources have it that the credit should be “based on an idea by Dale Collins” – the movie itself just says “by Dale Collins” under the title. The novel is quite a rare and forgotten item these days.

This is a completely eccentric film; after sitting through two films rather lacking in personality, the verve and idiosyncrasy of this one were a pleasure. But it’s thoroughly peculiar. A mess of ideas have been cobbled together into something tonally quite confusing. It seems to be some kind of parable of marriage, but extracting a moral from the whole is next to impossible.

It is certainly strange, and at least in the sense of providing food for discussion, rich. The title is a reference to The Tempest: “But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.” A title card is kind enough to reveal this in the course of the movie; though it is a sound film, there are quite a few scene-announcing title cards. The subject of the film is the sea-change of a marriage: young and listless Mr. and Mrs. are suddenly given a lot of money to travel the world, and set off on a tourist cruise. On the ship they begin affairs with other people and find themselves drifting into completely new lives. Then some totally unexpected weirdness happens that I won’t give away.

The two lead characters and performances are so extreme and bizarrely unlike each other that it is difficult to accept that these two people are in the same movie – even less that we are meant to think seriously about their marriage to one another. But we are. He’s a scowling baby, to the point of clownishness, and she’s a glamour girl with absurd super-diction. It is disorienting and, when they try to work out their problems, oddly upsetting. Possibly that’s part of the point? Hitchcock is smirking and poking fun at things throughout, with his recognizable touch. It’s essentially a comedy. But unlike his other movies, here the joking tone makes way for seriousness, rather than the other way around. It feels as though the drama as much as the comedy comes directly from the man’s personality, which is not generally what one feels with Hitchcock, who is usually more interested in spinning a sturdy tale than expressing himself. Writers have argued that this is a particularly personal film for Hitch and one of his only films with autobiographical elements. I believe it.

Of the set, I would recommend Rich and Strange and The Ring first, The Manxman when you’re up for some simple melodrama, and Murder! and The Skin Game only if you’re feeling indulgent and historically curious. Or are on the subway. Or an airplane.

July 24, 2008

Disney Canon #8: Make Mine Music (1946)


[Somewhat less editing this time. Do we come off as less intelligent as a result? I think so!]

BROOM I think we should start with some general comments and then talk about each section.

BETH Briefly.

BROOM Yes, briefly.

ADAM That was cheerfully stupid but it was still stupid.

BROOM It was pretty stupid.

BETH It was.

ADAM I do not recommend that people see this. I think this was the worst Disney production I’ve ever seen.


ADAM Of all of them, yes.

BETH I saw a bunch of the individual pieces when I was a kid, because The Disney Channel would air them before or after shows, and I think that’s the best way to view them. When they’re all together, you can notice that they don’t really add up to anything and aren’t that great. But by itself, “All The Cats Join In” is a lot of fun.

ADAM A couple of them were more cheerful than stupid, but all of them seemed to have the same quality of being utterly careless.

BROOM I don’t think they were utterly careless, but I do think that the quality of care was lower than anything we’ve seen before. I know, that was already my comment about The Three Caballeros, which now seems undeserved. In fact, I want to add, for the record – I intended to add this when Beth added her opinion…

BETH I never weighed in on The Three Caballeros, but I thought it was great. That’s my official statement.

BROOM – I was going to say that when I watched it a second time with Beth, having come to terms with what it was, I really enjoyed it and appreciated the kind of craft that went into it, because I was no longer taken aback by how the tone of the previous movies wasn’t there. Whereas Make Mine Music seemed genuinely slapdash in exactly that way I described. But “slapdash” isn’t really a fair word to use for any Disney movie. During this movie I was thinking, “what if I went to an animation festival today and saw this?” Almost anything in this movie would make me think, “this is so wonderfully old-fashioned and they’ve done a really good job of it.”

BETH Really? What about “Without You?”

ADAM I don’t think any of these pieces had the inventiveness or fun or creativity of the Oscar-nominated shorts we saw. Not to mention prior Disney movies.

BROOM Last year’s Oscar-nominated shorts? I think most of these were better than the French priest who sells a heaven machine.

ADAM I think it’s reprehensible that they actually marketed this in theaters. It felt like a collection of leavings.

BROOM I think that’s exactly what it was. I know that “Blue Bayou” was cutting-room floor material from Fantasia.

ADAM In the introduction to Janson’s “History of Art” – or whatever my art history book was in high school – they talk about this Greek sculpture of a boy pulling a thorn out of his foot, and how your impression is changed when you realize that on the head, the locks of the hair are not falling down correctly, which indicates that the head was cut off of another statue and stuck on to this new statue. The knowledge of that lack of unity makes you appreciate the work less, in and of itself. And I think that is true here.

BROOM Yes. But I think I would have totally tuned out during “Blue Bayou” if I didn’t have that knowledge of where it came from.

BETH I pretty much did.

BROOM Yeah, I know. All right, let’s talk about them in order.


ADAM Worse than Hanna-Barbera.

BETH No! That’s not true.

BROOM I don’t think that’s fair at all. I thought the color design was appealing, as in other sequences as well. I thought the characters glowed nicely when they went to heaven. I thought the silhouettes in the square-dancing scene were well done.

BETH I also thought the square-dancing scene was good. I thought the music in that scene was very strong.

BROOM I thought there was a certain atmosphere to that indoor scene that was not worthless.

ADAM I guess it had a crude vigor, and it was a much better first number than “Blue Bayou,” which would have been a horrible way to start the movie.

BROOM Thoughts about its being censored? [ed: This segment has been cut in its entirety from the DVD release. We watched it on Youtube.]

ADAM Well, it is offensive, on several levels.

BETH I was not offended by it.

ADAM It consists of nothing but stereotypes.

BROOM I don’t imagine the hillbilly constituency is actually that threatening to Disney.

ADAM Really? There was an incident a couple years ago where the first lady of West Virginia complained about – I forget exactly what the medium was, but there was some project where every state was represented by a little cartoon, and West Virginia was represented by an outhouse. And there was a hue and cry.

BROOM Okay, but it’s not like this was called “A Tale of West Virginia.” It was just about hillbillies. They exist in –

ADAM They exist in about six states.

BROOM They exist as a stereotype independent of reality. To say where in reality that stereotype falls becomes offensive. I guess they were the Hatfields and the McCoys. But the real Hatfields and McCoys actually killed each other; I don’t think we have to show respect for them.

ADAM Whatever. It was fine. I didn’t think the caricature was especially interesting. They all looked exactly the same.

BROOM The character designs were ugly and dumb.

ADAM On purpose, I guess. It was ugly to look at. And the humor was not that funny.

BROOM I found a common problem of many of the segments to be that, unlike Fantasia, where there were no words, here the songs narrated the action. Doing that in a way that doesn’t make everything seem obvious and stupid because it’s redundant with the visuals… is hard.

BETH I thought that “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” did that in an effective and funny way.

BROOM But in this first one, when they sang, “and then they went to heaven! and then they shot some more!…” and then you saw them doing exactly that, it seemed a little… [smacks forehead].

ADAM A problem that I have with country music is that of all genres of popular music, it is the one that is expressly narrative in almost all cases. And that is not good. Songs should not be expressly narrative.

BROOM You think there shouldn’t be ballad songs, period?

ADAM It’s very hard to do them well, and they work best when they’re somehow over the top, as the whale one was. This one was just straightforwardly narrative and uninteresting.

BROOM Thinking back, that was the thing that made those first two sequences in Three Caballeros seem particularly dumb – the penguin bit and the gauchito bit: they were narrated as they happened, which always makes things seem clumsy. The redundancy of a narrator describing animated action makes both halves seem pointless. “Why do we have to watch it if he’s describing it? And why does he have to describe it if we’re watching it?” I think it’s almost always a mistake and I don’t know why they didn’t realize that.

BETH Let’s move on.

2. Tone Poem: BLUE BAYOU

ADAM Terrible! Terrible.

BETH That was the dullest animated thing I’ve seen in a long time.

ADAM Almost no visual interest of any kind.

BROOM When the water was sparkling and you saw the moon reflected in it, that was okay. But it didn’t have anything to do with the music, in this version, because it was animated to something else. [ed: Debussy’s Clair de Lune]

BETH Whatever. It was bad.

BROOM I remember it being unsatisfying on the Fantasia bonus disc in that other form, too. But here it was really unsatisfying.

BETH The song was bad.

ADAM It had none of the “right ring and left ring” appeal of Fantasia. In Fantasia there might have been one thing happening in the middle, but there would also be curlicues around the sides that made you feel that they cared about it.

BROOM Yes, here you were just looking at animation of a stork. It was a stork, right? [ed: a heron]

ADAM Or a pelican maybe.

BETH I don’t think it was a pelican.

ADAM I don’t know. Not really.

BROOM A wading bird.

3. Jazz Interlude: ALL THE CATS JOIN IN

BROOM I saw this on TV once, and I didn’t know what the source was, and I thought, “Really? Disney made this? It’s so cool!” And I still think it’s cool. The animation is not the cleanest they ever did, and the faces are all dumb-looking, but it makes you think about what it was like to be a teenager in the 40s, what “fun” was like in the 40s, and it makes a pretty convincing case.

ADAM I don’t know that that was really what it was like to have fun in the 40s.

BETH It’s an idealized version.

BROOM It’s a fantasy.

ADAM It has sort of a “Peach Pit” quality.

BROOM What does that mean?

BETH From 90210?

ADAM Yeah. Actually, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is – what was the hangout from Saved By the Bell?

BETH I don’t remember. [ed: “The Max”]

ADAM Well, that. It had sort of that feel. And everyone’s face looked like a Raisinet. But it was okay. And at least there was some sort of secondary action, with the little sister.

BROOM It was a relief, because it didn’t have narration, just music, and suddenly the movie felt alive. And the music was actually good, because it was Benny Goodman playing jazz.

ADAM It was definitely the toe-tappingest of the musical numbers.

BROOM I thought the wit of the drawing pencil was well done, and I liked that it was a part of this idea of fun.

ADAM When was Harold and the Purple Crayon created?

BROOM I don’t know. Crockett Johnson. [ed: 1955]

ADAM I think it’s a great concept; it’s always been a great concept, and it was here too.

BROOM I thought it was cool when he didn’t have time to draw the back wheel of the car, so he drew a stop sign to give himself a chance to catch up with them.

ADAM It was good. Yes.

BROOM There’s a slightly sexist quality to the whole thing, but what are you going to do.

ADAM As with all of them.

BROOM Like when the girl gets drawn with too big a butt, and the guy won’t dance with her, and she gets pissed off at god.

BETH That’s funny!

ADAM Or when they leave the girl with the books behind. She’s the only teenager who doesn’t get to join in the fun.

BROOM The only cat who doesn’t join in.

ADAM She’s no cat.

BROOM And also, most pointedly, when the girl is naked for no reason.

ADAM That would never fly today.

BROOM There’s a prurient quality to that. Undisguised prurience.

4. Ballad in Blue: WITHOUT YOU

BETH I really liked the rain on the window, but aside from that I thought this was boring.

BROOM I thought the trees and the wavy shadows looked like Salvador Dalí, which might not even be a coincidence, because I know he was hanging around the Disney studios in the 40s. And I thought that was kind of cool.

BETH Eh. I think you’re attributing more to it than it deserves.

ADAM I thought the rain was the only thing they had going at all, and they overdid it.

BROOM You didn’t think it was cool when there were silhouetted trees on the horizon and they were sort of wavery?

ADAM It had an unnecessarily static quality that nothing in Fantasia has. Everything in Fantasia feels ripply and alive, and this was just like, “Here’s a tree.” “We’re slowly panning back through the window.” “Nothing is moving.”

BROOM It had a sort of creepy quality to it that I enjoyed. I thought the design was interesting and a new look for them. I’m surprised at you, Beth, because I thought that it had a “feel” in the way that you like things to have a feel. And yet you didn’t get anything out of it.

BETH I do like things to have a feel, but I didn’t feel like this had a feel.

BROOM I thought it was kind of a classy little number, and it was short.

ADAM It was short.

5. Musical Recitation: CASEY AT THE BAT

ADAM Why did the faces of all the people in this movie – with the exception of the kids in the “Cats” segment – have this weird working-class leery-scowly bubble-nosed quality?

BROOM I know! It’s a thing that will remain in Disney movies for quite a while. I imagine it’s due to some particular animator. But this was definitely the first time we were seeing it in one of their features. I associate it with an Irish caricature.

BETH It is an Irish caricature. I thought that maybe bow on the umpire’s arm had something to do with Irish heritage, but I’m not sure.

ADAM Maybe. And they do have specifically Irish names in the poem.

BROOM And the guy – Jerry Colonna – is doing Irish voices for a lot of them. It’s like everyone in the story is Irish.

BETH Yes, they all seemed to be Irish.

BROOM It’ll keep coming back; Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Alice in Wonderland, which is coming up, are the same thing. They’re like leering, honking Irishmen.

BETH I liked some of the images in this one.

BROOM You were giggling at it, which surprised me because it was so cornball.

BETH It was really lame. But funny.

ADAM A weird choice to take an established poem and interlace it with songs and other stuff.

BROOM I think the other stuff was to justify its fitting into this “musical concert.” Make mine MUSIC. We didn’t talk about the fact that there was, oddly, a title song to this movie. “Make mine music and the world will sing with you,” or whatever.

BETH Right. It was stupid.

BROOM And a program book opening at the beginning. “Casey at the Bat” was supposed to be manic and funny, like a Goofy cartoon, but it got a little confused. There was a lot of action and a lot of noise, and I didn’t always know what was happening, or why.

ADAM It was at least competent. It looked like solid Disney-style animation. They didn’t get carried away with artsy-fartsy pretension.

BROOM But if things are going to be mediocre, I think artsy-fartsy is more interesting to watch. I found the dumbness of this segment a little numbing.

ADAM That’s because you’re, like, an animation class alum.

BROOM All right, all right. Maybe that’s pretentious of me. I just found myself getting bored during “Casey at the Bat.”

ADAM I didn’t say you’re pretentious. I’m saying that you are more interested in technical variation than other people.

BETH You were bored with the tale of “Casey”?

BROOM No, with the visual. What do you guys think? Do you think it was a good “for-all-time” visualization of the poem “Casey at the Bat?”



ADAM At first I was dismayed when it was just still images, and I thought, “This is going to be told entirely in stills.” Again, it was like they were scrimping on movement.

BETH I liked that.

BROOM I liked those stills. They were in a style that surprised me.

BETH I thought those seemed to have been given more care.

BROOM They had that turn-of-the-century atmosphere; I liked that. And then when the characters showed up, the Tweedledum faces sort of took away from that atmosphere. I liked all of the period touches. I liked when they said “the band is playing somewhere” and they showed a little town band in a gazebo, which is exactly what it should be.

6. Ballade Ballet: TWO SILHOUETTES

BETH Oh god, “Two Silhouettes.”

ADAM It was terrible, but at least they thought they had a neat idea, unlike in “Blue Bayou.”

BROOM This was a technical exercise that I took no pleasure in. It was the same impulse as “Let’s make Donald dance with a real live woman!” and then the entire sequence ends up being about that.

BETH If you’re going to trace live dancers, the dance that you have them do should involve a lot of movement!

BROOM That was the Disney people once again reaching out for high, high beauty.

ADAM It had all the ponderous sentimentality of animation, but none of the spontaneity.

BETH Well, that’s why they added those cupids, because they needed something.

ADAM Something to look at in the 90 percent of the frame that was not the silhouettes.

BROOM The technical concept demands that they do something with it that they couldn’t do with live action. You could just film silhouettes – I’m sure there’s a way of doing it with lighting. So the point of tracing it should have to be that, like, you put sparkles in their hands, or make them be batting at a cupid. But they hardly had them do anything. Also, beautiful graceful movements in humans are so much less graceful than what you can do with animation that their actual little footsteps end up looking weird and awkward.

ADAM Yes. When she was bobbling along and you could see her feet moving, you thought, “Oh. This actually isn’t as graceful as a cartoon.”

BROOM They could have had her fly around –

ADAM They did, briefly.

BROOM They just had her rise up. But since they could have made her sprout wings, everything she did seemed weighty, which is the opposite of what ballet is supposed to be, so it doesn’t work. The idea doesn’t work.

ADAM By the way, in “Without You” – just going back for a second – I thought, when they showed the star behind the cloud, because there was something in the song about a star, it was the most grudging sort of alliteration, if you will, of image to sense, as to be positively negative.

BROOM I didn’t find that at all. I found the stylization of that one interesting. But we’ve already agreed to disagree.

7. Fairy Tale with Music: PETER AND THE WOLF

BROOM The narration really killed it. And this one seemed like it had been directed to work without narration, with all attention on the music, and that then someone, after the fact, had said, “we’ve got to have some narration; get Sterling Holloway in here.” And then they recorded him saying, “Uh-oh, Peter!” “Ohhhh no.” “This looks bad!”

BETH I think you’re right.

BROOM Not that it was probably great to begin with, but with the narration it was particularly lame.

ADAM It seemed instructional.

BROOM Well, the piece is supposed to be for learning about the instruments of the orchestra.

BETH The wolf was nice and scary, and that shot of him growling at the beginning was fun. I enjoyed that.

BROOM I liked when the instruments turned into silhouettes at the beginning, before the actual story started.

BETH I liked that part too.

ADAM This version is most people’s experience of “Peter and the Wolf,” is it not?

BROOM I guess. I don’t know.

BETH Mine was a record.

BROOM That’s the proper way to do it.

ADAM It was fine.

BROOM I thought it was pretty dumb. Of course the duck can’t die in this version.

ADAM The duck and the cat and the bird were ugly to look at, and not charming, and had no personalities.

BROOM And in the narration, they all had names, which is another reason it seemed after-the-fact. The animals don’t have names! Why should they have names? “Oh, Sasha!”

BETH Sasha and Sonia.

ADAM And Ivan.

BROOM There was no tension in the storytelling so you didn’t care what was happening. You couldn’t care about the music because he was talking over all of it. And you couldn’t care about the characters because most of them were badly designed. So it was just dumb. And it goes on a long time, because it has to.

BETH Yeah, it got boring.


BETH What was this?

BROOM A little jazz bit, where the clarinet and his buddies went on a journey of surreal discovery.

BETH It was fine.

ADAM It was okay. I have nothing to say about it.

BROOM I liked it!

BETH I liked it, but it was not memorable.

BROOM I liked that it was like, “Let’s do a bunch of that stuff from Fantasia again,” but it was a little bit…

BETH Looser?

BROOM Loosey-goosey-er. I liked when there were those floating circles from Fischinger movies, but the clarinet is jumping on them from one to the other. And then a string of colors comes in and it jumps on that, and then a keyboard – it was all the standard ideas that you associate with “animated musical fantasia,” but just sort of thrown together stupidly. I enjoyed how stupid the sequence of events was, and the color scheme was bright and stupid, and I enjoyed that too. And the music was better than a lot of the other ones.

BETH Yeah, the music was good.

BROOM And it was so super-short that I don’t know how you could not enjoy it.

BETH Yeah.



ADAM Sung by the Andrews Sisters.

BETH Now that was stupid.

BROOM You didn’t enjoy that??

ADAM This is actually when I started to perk up again.

BROOM I think they saved the two they thought were best for last. It seemed like the last two were meant to be their strongest.

BETH It was fine. It was stupid, but in a cute way.

ADAM I expected to hate it, but I actually giggled a couple times.

BROOM I thought all the design was actually kind of nice. And I liked the sense you get of the city, and of the period – although it was kind of the same period again. Why were there two turn-of-the-century pieces in this same movie? But I liked it, in a silly way. It was a little like when Mary Poppins goes into the sidewalk painting.

ADAM You know what it was exactly like? There is a Disney short, which I believe is also narrated by that same guy, Sterling Holloway, about a new car, and the car goes through various travails, and then it gets put out on the street, but then it gets bought by a teenager who lovingly restores it.

BETH I think I know what you’re talking about.

BROOM They’re both like The Little House.

ADAM What’s The Little House?

BROOM Virginia Lee Burton children’s book; there’s a little house and the city grows up around it and it gets sadder and sadder, and then it gets trucked out to the countryside to start a new life.

ADAM I’ve seen that, right.

BROOM And I think Disney even made a movie out of that, too. [ed: ALSO narrated by Sterling Holloway!]

ADAM In terms of Disney cartoons, this seemed expressly like the little car one.

BROOM It’s a standard Disney formula. You anthropomorphize a thing, and then the world is rough to it.

ADAM It gets shabbier and shabbier but then it achieves happiness at the end.

BROOM It was an odd choice that Alice couldn’t make any expression with her eyes.

ADAM It was like an early Botox fantasy.

BROOM It was cute that they ended up on horses.

ADAM I didn’t see that coming. It’s nice that in her period of dotage, she didn’t get as battered as he did.

BROOM Anything to say about seeing New York?

BETH I really enjoyed that.

ADAM I liked that it was explicitly New York, and not just some Gotham.

BETH I liked that they showed the Brooklyn Bridge.


BETH It was good.

ADAM Iconic, even.

BROOM So you had heard of it?

ADAM I think maybe you had mentioned it. Even though it was absurd, it was clearly the standout piece. Although the ending was a total cop-out. Having him get harpooned at the end was just like saying “it was all a dream.” It absolved them from having to come up with any story; just a collection of silly images. But they were funny silly images.

BROOM I thought the high point of this entire movie was when the whale sings “Mama’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin’ Bread.”

ADAM When I was a kid, I used to sing that song all the time. I cannot imagine where I heard it, but it was in my small repertoire of American popular songs.

BETH Looney Tunes, probably.

ADAM Yeah, probably. I didn’t realize it was quite so Negro as it is.

BROOM It wasn’t done that way here; that’s just what it is.

ADAM Sure it was! “Little chilluns?”

BROOM Oh, that’s right.

BETH That was funny.

BROOM I didn’t like seeing his uvulas-slash-vocal-cords. They were just supposed to represent his different voices; they didn’t need to be jiggling stalactites.

ADAM They leaned on that pretty heavily. And at the end, he dies and he goes to heaven, and that’s the end of the movie? What?

BROOM Yeah, it was a little harsh. After the harpoon was shot, I just thought he was going to say something like “I will never fit in in the human world,” and then we’d see him serenading the seals. I don’t understand why he had to die. A martyr to the misunderstandings of opera-house managers.

ADAM Because they couldn’t work out a way to end it in a way that was on time and under budget.

BROOM The moral seemed to be: “He was a miracle, and people don’t always understand miracles.” Maybe there’s a lesson for all of us, there… about a certain miracle that not everyone has accepted into their hearts….

ADAM Really? I didn’t take it that way.

BETH I don’t think so!

BROOM I’m joking!

ADAM Disney cartoons are almost uniformly secular, in a way that I am glad about.

BROOM We all snickered when in “Without You,” when the lyrics said something about “when I pray,” and suddenly that secular cathedral thing appeared. The same shape from “Ave Maria” in Fantasia. There were a lot of things dredged up from the previous movies here.

ADAM This might be a lower point even than the late-70s trough that we’re all familiar with.

BETH It just doesn’t even seem like a movie.

BROOM That’s fair, but I think when we actually get to Oliver & Company you’ll see how much lower the standards can really go.

ADAM I guess I’ve never seen those, so I’ll find out then.

BROOM I think we really have to recognize that the high standard set by Dumbo and Pinocchio is not going to be met, even by the good movies coming up. Cinderella is just not going to be as good as those movies.

ADAM In that sense, the story of the Disney movies is much like the story of Johnnie Fedora. Shiny and new, and then scuffed, and then restored to brilliance at the very end.

BROOM Or is it? On a horse! With holes cut in it!

ADAM I think Aladdin is as good as Dumbo. Well, not as good as Dumbo, but it’s as good as Snow White. And I think The Little Mermaid is as good as those.

BROOM I don’t know about that. Maybe you have to measure their ambition against the possibilities of their own era. It seems like the ambition of Snow White compared to 1937 is grander than anything that was accomplished in the 90s.

ADAM Right, but as has been the case throughout, and as presumably will continue to be the case, ambition is a metric that you use more than we use. On all of these.

BROOM Do you think it’s inappropriate?

ADAM No, it’s just different. I’m seeing these less as artifacts and more as discrete entertainments.

BROOM Well, this movie was certainly far less entertaining than any of the previous ones. I have the least inclination to watch any of it again. Although I would watch the “Cats” segment if it was on, and I would also watch “After You’ve Gone,” I don’t know why you guys didn’t enjoy that one more.

BETH Sorry.

ADAM So, best and worst for everyone?

BETH Best: “Whale.” Worst: “Bayou.”

BROOM I think, best: “All Cats,” and worst: I guess “Blue Bayou.” But I feel like what’s the point of even complaining about it? It was so short. “Peter and the Wolf” was the one I was most disappointed with. I was the most uncomfortable.

BETH But which was the worst?

BROOM “Blue Bayou.”

BETH That was the question. [ed: but I’d now like to change my vote to “Two Silhouettes.”]

ADAM I will also say best was “Cats,” because come to think of it, I think of my affection for the whale one is just for the conceit of the title. Once you decide you’re going to make an animated short called “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met,” a lot of it follows naturally from the concept.

BROOM The visual of it being gigumbus in the opera house was funny. With a stupid little wig on.

ADAM And then being ginormous in Tristan and Isolde, and then being giant in Mefistofele.

BROOM And which is the worst? Feel free to knock the one I said I liked.

ADAM It’s either “Blue Bayou” or “Without You.”

BETH I might change it so that “Cats” is my favorite too. Because it is actually my favorite, I just wasn’t thinking about it. That’s always been my favorite, but I’d never seen the whale one before, so it made more of an impression on me just now.

[after reading the New York Times review, linked below]

ADAM That’s about right.

BETH It’s very good.

BROOM I thought it was actually a little more forgiving than you guys were.

BETH Of “Casey at the Bat”?

BROOM Of the whole movie. It’s more forgiving, frankly, than I feel.

BETH You can tell that the reviewer wanted to like it, but it’s still critical.

BROOM He lets it off the hook by saying at the end, “I’m sure Mr. Disney’s standards are higher than this movie he made, so it’s all fine.”

ADAM Is this the same reviewer that we’ve been reading throughout?

BROOM Bosley Crowther? I believe it is. Not sure when he’ll disappear.

ADAM Beth, would you rather be named Bosley Crowther, or Manohla Dargis?

BETH I think Bosley.


July 9, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

directed by Steven Spielberg
screenplay by David Koepp
story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson
based on characters created by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman

Short review: “It could so easily have been so much better but oh well.”

Very long not-review:

Somewhere in some press release or other, Steven Spielberg said something like “Indiana Jones really belongs to the fans now, so we owe it to them to get it right.” I made up that quote entirely but I swear he did say something much like that.

I’ve never read any of those Star Wars or Indiana Jones “novels,” but I’ve played a licensed video game or two in my time, and I know what they’re like – they expend an enormous amount of their creative energy on the task of being “on brand.” But a brand – a vague collective notion, a thing that by its nature really does “belong to the fans,” and is therefore the principal resource mined by franchising – can have a life of its own. The brand derived from a movie continues to mutate and evolve as culture chews and rechews the cud, while the original movie sits inert. Raiders of the Lost Ark is never going to change, but the specific cultural memory of it, as of everything, is always in flux.

Over the past twenty years, the only forces at work on the Indiana Jones brand have been nostalgia, imitations and knock-offs, franchise stuff like the video games, and (most nefarious of all) geeky fandom, that slow rock tumbler made of millions of obsessive minds, which can eventually convert any cultural object into a shiny nugget of aesthetic abstraction, suitable for fetish purposes. What I am going to say in a couple paragraphs, after a digression on this last notion, is that the new Indiana Jones movie has no particularly authentic connection to the previous movies – after all these years, they made a movie of the brand rather than the character. But first those paragraphs I mentioned.

I just read this book about nerds and the author, I think, neglects an important nerd-related mental phenomenon: the process of fetishization. The author of the nerd book says that nerds are drawn to models of reality that are rigidly rule-based and logical (which are appealingly manageable to those who have poor social intuition). To me this is the social-skills variety of a more general mental phenomenon, available to all but more important to nerds. This phenomenon, which I guess I’m calling fetishization for now, consists of always seeking out the more refined version of an aesthetic stimulus. Aesthetic rationalization I suppose you could call it. “Cognitive focusing,” the guy who eavesdropped on me in a restaurant told me it’s called.

Okay, here’s a way I can talk about this. I read an article once about research into sexually attractive features on animals, explaining why things like antlers evolve to become more and more exaggerated. The reason is that apparently, to the brain, if antlers = good, then big antlers = more good. I may be misremembering the study, but as I remember it, it was saying that this is not necessarily because big antlers actually connote greater health than small antlers, but rather because the brain always responds this way to pre-programmed sensory stimuli. The more intensely “on model” the stimulus is, the more intense the brain’s response. And apparently the brain rates a bigger version of a thing as more intense, as being more truly that thing. Likewise a version of a thing with fewer other distracting features – a purer version of the thing is more intensely the thing. The article that I remember (Discover magazine maybe?) went on to say that this accounts for the tendencies of human pornography to caricature sexual features. If breasts provoke a response in the brain, impossibly giant breasts may well provoke that response more particularly and intensely. Preposterous exaggerations and simplifications get not just a pass but an endorsement from the brain, because the brain is looking for particular forms on their own terms.

Of course, people are susceptible to this in different degrees and on different fronts. Certain nerds, it seems to me, are generally more interested than most in obtaining the purest, most refined, most inflated form of their aesthetic stimuli. But certainly everyone is subject to this desire to want their next hit of something to be a little stronger, a little more on the sweet spot. And, if I haven’t made it clear already, in my philosophy it’s a desire that we should fight against, because it’s the desire for the world to be a set of products designed for us rather than the other way around; it is a desire that draws us away from things as they are.

Chasing that sweet spot means people – again, certain nerds, mostly – end up preferring their culture with breast implants and huge antlers, all in the name of being truer to their memory of the original stimulus. To them it will always feel like a sincere pursuit of the ideal, or at least like a pursuit of the bigger, better, next thing. This is all by way of saying that the brand of Indiana Jones has made room over the years for a slicker, pared-down, more intense notion of what goes on in Indiana Jones movies.

Before I finally talk about the movie, let me note that at the screening, we saw a preview for Star Wars: It’s Come To This, a completely computer-animated super-slick Saturday-morning-cum-video-game thing coming to theaters this whenever. This is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. 31 years of cumulative fetishization have rendered this into this.

Okay, so finally to the point of all this. When Mr. Spielberg says it belongs to the fans now, this is what he means. The movie he made in 1980 is less important to his new project than the millions of memories it engendered. Which is to say that this is an Indiana Jones movie that could have been made by any schmuck. As with Star Wars: Episode Colon: Attack of the Star Wars et al. – the problem is that it was made by people whose ownership of the property is still a legal reality but no longer an artistic one. Sadly, all it would have taken for them to regain artistic ownership would be for them to believe that it was theirs. But they don’t; they’re now just like any lowly franchise video-game designer, putting all their energy into making sure it’s Indiana Jones-y enough, whatever that might mean. That means that their work falls flat open for us to critique as a mere series of choices because it has no internal confidence of its own. That’s the main sad thing here. The other is that many of those choices are super super stupid.

The stuff in this movie is all new age Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown crap with dubious associations at best. Crystal power and alien pyramids have no pedigree, no class. That’s awe for morons, just one step away Indiana Jones and the Chain Letter of Death. So that right there is a bad choice. When video games make similar choices, you think, “oh well, they don’t know their business like the movies.” Well, neither do the movies anymore.

Dialogue was clonky and styleless. Terrible “riddles” were spouted, solved, and forgotten in the same breath; the screenwriter had no sense at all for how to handle mystery so that the audience can savor it. Tone was erratic to the point of making one uncomfortable. Jokes were unfunny and often confused. Computer effects were, as always, a sore thumb – the CGI people were delegated more than anyone should have to chew in some of the later sequences. A sense of danger or tension was almost entirely lacking. The bad guy spends most of the movie hanging out and chatting amiably with our heroes. At the end I wasn’t sure the movie was even going to kill her, since she seemed so essentially decent. But it killed her anyway, as per the Formula.

The movie didn’t have any energy left over to get that stuff right because its heart and soul had already been committed to the task of BEING ON BRAND. In the most superficial ways, yes, it was undeniably on brand. But I think that that would have come for free with the costume, frankly. If the original idea was to make this like a 50s pulp sci-fi movie, they should have been unafraid and gone all-out; the character, I promise, could take it. Instead they clung desperately to their playbook while they tried to force a few square pegs through the Formula. Check it out, everyone: This time we’re using square pegs!

It felt like we were watching Indiana Jones himself – because hey look! that’s him, the very same guy from those other movies! – being somehow compelled to say and do dumb stuff. That’s much, much better than can be said for Star Wars: The Phantom Clones in which it seemed that we were watching Natalie Portman herself, being somehow compelled to stand in front of a green screen. In fact, it’s good enough for me to walk away without any bile in my throat. Did they make another Indiana Jones movie? No question. Good. Fine. Score one for nostalgia and let’s try not to think about the details.

The second movie is bad too; for less depressing reasons, certainly, but bad all the same. So there’s a precedent here and I’m perfectly happy – truly – to let this one slide. If they want to make another one I’ll go see it. Maybe having gotten this out of their systems, they’re ready to make one that has its own reason to exist.

Probably not though.

The score was just like the movie – A for effort toward being on brand (well, B for effort, anyway), but what an awkward thing to have to attempt. Why not aim higher – or lower? Or aim where you aimed the first time rather than aiming at the first time? The preceding sentence says what this whole entry is saying, but better. Oh well.

I am, however, very happy to report that I ate a special Indiana Jones-themed Snickers bar (with coconut, to evoke jungle adventure), several boxes of Indiana Jones-endorsed Corn Flakes, and one special purchase of Indiana Jones-endorsed Frosted Flakes. As a result, I am now the proud owner of an Indiana Jones Adventure Spoon. If you Google “Adventure Spoon” you’ll see that I am hardly the only person to be pleased by this item. Mine is the one with the skull on it.

And how can I stay mad at a movie that gives me that? Did I mention that the spoon lights up?

July 9, 2008

Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35 (1862-63)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Opus 38: Variations on a Theme by Paganini
composed: 1862-3 (age 29-30)
published: 1866
first performance: Zürich, November 25, 1865 (Johannes Brahms, piano)

Scores are here: Book I and Book II.

Remember how we were listening to The Essential Canon of Classical Music a year ago? Yes, we’re still doing that. I just haven’t kept up with it. Number 312 on the list. We were listening to it exactly a year ago this month.

This is an interesting case.

Dubal quotes James Huneker telling us that the variations “are also vast spiritual problems.” This seemed silly to me while listening. The piece was obviously a basically technical proposition, for the composer as well as the performer.

But then when the variations started turning up in isolation on my iPod’s shuffle – each one is individually tracked in the Kissin recording – they began to come to life as distinct pieces, extremely tiny though they each are. The through-line of the variation form became something wistful and nostalgic – because each little piece that whips by while I’m on the subway is tied poignantly to something else, something not contained in itself, and none of them quite embodies it completely (or consummates it completely, in whatever sense it might).

Heard in series, their proximity to one another (and to the theme) detracts from their individuality. This is a bit of a paradox of variation form. By inserting some arbitrarily long hiatuses between them, I’ve been able to hear them as something more than technical. Maybe they’re not “vast spiritual problems,” but I can sympathize with the sentiment – there is, at least, something yearning and pained about them. There is the sense that they have put up some resistance, some struggle, in their irreversible journey away from the theme toward their individual selves, but that they’ve reached a bittersweet acceptance.

Still, the slower, more tender variations remain more interesting than the fastest, most difficult ones, many of which have an aridity to them that I don’t think can be performed away. Let me mention that this set is exceedingly – I daresay excessively – difficult. I usually like to play through any piano piece to get a little closer to it, fudging the hard parts, but this piece resisted even the roughest stumbling through – it’s ALL hard parts. I could see what everything was, but frequently couldn’t even make a noise that reminded me of it. The demands in terms of leaping and strength are maybe the highest I’ve ever encountered. And for what? It’s fair for a composer to take pride in the sophistication of his work, but the raw difficulty is, if anything, a count against him – a better composer could have found a more idiomatic way of creating effectively the same sounds. Difficulty is only of value to the show-off performer, and even then, only if it actually appears difficult. This piece sounds easier than it is; what could possibly justify that?

If Brahms’s principal objective here was to investigate technical possibilities for the piano, I’m not at all impressed – his devices are extremely inefficient. Compared to someone with an actual gift for pianistic technical invention, like Rachmaninoff, he’s downright clumsy – elsewhere as much as here, but here he puts that clumsiness nakedly on display. If his objective was to compose music that just happened to be technically challenging, I think he got the proportions wrong. That said, there’s still definite musical value here – it just took me a little while to feel it.

Speaking of Rachmaninoff, his more famous variations on the same theme share with the Brahms an emphasis on brilliance, but otherwise the pieces go in very different directions. On the whole, Brahms’s are rather more serious, but only a seriousness addict would say that his is the better work. Of course, classical music is a bastion for seriousness addicts and it’s often their opinions that influence the formation of would-be canons like this one. Rachmaninoff’s all-around better-made crowd-pleaser is on the list too, of course.

I know, just because the pieces on the same theme doesn’t make this comparison fair.

Dubal suggests:
Bachauer: Mercury 434340-2
Michelangeli: Arkadia 903
Biret: Naxos 8.550350
Rodriguez: Elan 2200

Four suggestions! Nope, didn’t hear any of those. We heard Michelangeli, on the second of his “Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century” sets, but I gather this isn’t the same as the recommended recording. It’s not complete either, and he shuffles the order. Also heard the Evgeny Kissin recording, which is, no question, excellently played, and is the recording that was kind enough to break the variations into tracks so that I could think about them individually. But as a whole I felt he made the whole thing seem too easy and smooth to attract much attention. The most immediately satisfying recording, though I only listened a couple times, was the Julius Katchen recording, which had a bit more drama to it.

Grove’s Dictionary says:

By comparison with almost every other keyboard work of Brahms, the Variations on a Theme by Paganini (op.35) place an emphasis on extreme virtuosity. (Clara Schumann called them ‘witch variations’ and regretted they were beyond her capacity.) The more didactic nature of the set is suggested by its principal title: ‘Studies for the Piano’. As with the études of other great composers, however, including Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy, technique is always allied with powerful and widely ranging musical expression.

Yeah, they’re obligated to say that last bit. But trust me, these are no Chopin Etudes. I just don’t feel like this was Brahms’s game. His strengths were elsewhere.