Monthly Archives: August 2008

August 21, 2008

Disney Canon #9: Fun and Fancy Free (1947)


BETH That was not my favorite. That sucked, okay?

ADAM Yeah. That was pretty bad.

BETH The first half was truly bad. It wasn’t at all entertaining.

ADAM Do you want to talk about them in order?


ADAM First let’s talk about the framing device.

BETH Okay.

ADAM I thought it was lazy of them to resurrect Jiminy Cricket and Cleo for such a shoddy purpose.

BROOM They resurrected more than just those two. There were all kinds of callbacks.

ADAM The crows.

BETH It’s like they weren’t even trying, like they weren’t even thinking.

BROOM A whole lot of it was stuff they had done before that they were doing again in a calculated way.

ADAM It was terrible. It was an uneven pastiche of all sorts of crazy things.

BROOM It was thrown together in the most ridiculous way.

ADAM There was no thought whatsoever apparent in the construction of the stories.

BETH But it was after the war. It’s not like they have an excuse for being that lazy.

BROOM I think the studio was shaken pretty seriously by the war.

BETH Okay, but it was two years after the war. I don’t know. I don’t know anything about what it was like. But – creatively they were shaken? Could they not have come up with a story? The story of that first section was… not a story!

BROOM It takes several years for each of these to be in production. I don’t completely know what the history was, but I read somewhere that both “Bongo” and “Mickey and the Beanstalk” were things they’d been working on for a while, and then they just decided, “okay, we’re putting them together.”

ADAM I thought the story of “Bongo” was okay, but it was just a little derivative of Babbitt. You know?

BROOM I didn’t think it was “okay” at all.

ADAM I was joking.

BROOM I know.

ADAM It was like, here’s this circus plotline, and then here’s this unfit-for-the-wilderness plotline, and then here’s this… bears slapping plotline. Also, as a paean to spousal abuse, it was irresponsible.

BETH That was one of the worst Disney things I’ve ever seen.

BROOM What I was thinking while we were watching the second half was: “This isn’t very good either – but it’s better than the first half – but it’s not very good… but really, what it’s like is an ordinary Disney cartoon.” If you watch one of those shorts where Donald chases a bear through Yellowstone Park, or bees try to eat him…

ADAM Or Goofy and the volcano.

BROOM I don’t know if I’ve seen one with Goofy and a volcano.

ADAM I’ve told you about this one in the past. Goofy goes on a Hawaiian vacation and ends up getting sacrificed to the Polynesian god Pele.

BROOM That really happens?


BROOM Anyway, you watch those and you think, “Yup, that was another one.” You don’t feel offended, like, “Oh my god, Disney, what happened to your standards?” They’re just shorts, and a lot of them are stupid. The only thing that’s distinctive about these is that they were packaged as a feature-length movie and included in the feature canon. But it’s just some shorts, of not very high quality. It’s not that shocking.

BETH But it is offensive that it was packaged as a movie, because that means it should have been better. They should have known that. They had their own standards that they had already met and defined. What happened?

ADAM Let’s play devil’s advocate for a second. There were some cute things in “Bongo.”

BROOM That’s the harder one to redeem, I think.

ADAM The second one is easy enough to redeem because it’s just a story that already exists. With creepy child-molestation interludes.

BROOM The value of any of these is not going to be whether the story is interesting, but I do think it was a particular weakness of “Bongo” that the story was nothing. Just nothing. I thought that what happened to him in the forest was going to be somehow connected to his past. I thought he was going to have to go back to the circus – or go to a better circus – because he would have to accept what he was. But no. It was just about getting a girlfriend. Even if he’s a sissified city bear, he can still get up a tree; other animals will push him up. There’s just barely anything there.

ADAM What was the title of the slapping song?

BROOM “Say it With a Slap.” Bears say it with a slap.

BETH “Say it With a Slap”!

BROOM And did you hear the lyric that was like, “When a whippoorwill’s in love, he can whip her?” [ed. online sources give the lexically doubtful “he can whipper.”] I thought the best thing in “Bongo” was at the beginning, when he was dreaming and the voice was singing, “Bongo, come out!…”

BETH When he saw a vision of himself, translucent and large, sliding down mountainsides. That was okay.

ADAM It was sort of like a picaresque.

BROOM That’s what was a callback: all of that first sequence was stuff from Dumbo. The circus train, and the tent. I liked when the tent got sucked in and out of the train; that was cute.

BETH Well, I give it all a C-minus.

BROOM The pacing was just terrible. Another major problem with it was that Bongo was not well drawn. He didn’t look good.

BETH Neither did his girlfriend.

ADAM It was lucky she had that bow on, because it was hard for me to tell apart the male and female bears.

BROOM And the bad-guy bear was just so disappointing in every way.

ADAM Again: what did Sinclair Lewis have to do with this story?

BROOM I believe he wrote it as a story for a magazine or something. Here’s something I wanted to say: I watched the opening titles of this movie on Youtube last week…

ADAM Cheater.

BROOM I did cheat. And I watched a little of the opening song…

BETH I liked the titles.

BROOM Beth liked the titles because they looked like a party.

BETH That was the only thing that looked like a real party in this movie.

ADAM Not the party with Miss Luana and Edgar Bergen and some creepy fey clowns.

BETH That was no party.

BROOM We’ll talk about the party in a second – I just want to say one thing, which is that I watched a little of Jiminy Cricket’s song about being fancy free [ed.: “I’m a Happy-Go-Lucky Fellow”] – which sequence I didn’t mind – anyway, when he stands on the newspaper to show us why it’s important to enjoy ourselves, and the headline on the newspaper is “Catastrophe Seen As Crisis Looms!!” – I saw that, and thought, “that’s somehow familiar to me.” So I googled it, and found where I had seen it before: in The Incredibles, that’s a newspaper headline. Which must be a reference to this. And no one on the internet had made the connection.

BETH You’re going to be the first one!

BROOM I’m speaking it so I can type it!

BETH Hey, that’s cool!

BROOM That’s Disney nerds working at Pixar.

[ed.: This needs further comment. I just now tried to find the visual of the headline in The Incredibles but couldn’t – it’s possibly hidden in there, too small to be seen in Youtube, but in that case it’s not what I’m remembering, since I originally saw it on a tiny airplane screen. However, Brad Bird apparently used “Disaster Seen as Catastrophe Looms” prominently in The Iron Giant (so maybe that’s what I’m remembering), in relation to which it has been pointed out that the headline is taken from a newspaper in Lady and the Tramp. In this forum posting someone reports that Bird was unaware, when told, that a similar headline is also in the earlier Fun and Fancy Free; he only knew it from Lady and the Tramp. Anyway, what this adds up to is that people have in fact noticed this before.]

ADAM Can we talk about the party?

BROOM Okay, let’s talk about the party, which is the most interesting thing about the movie.

BETH What is it?

ADAM Just as in The Three Caballeros, the terrible shock of seeing live-action people is almost physically upsetting.

BETH It was! Because it went from a cartoon of the house to the real house.

BROOM Part of what was scary about it…

BETH What was scary was that you weren’t expecting those puppets!

ADAM You expect to see her body in a closet twenty minutes later.

BROOM She’s alone with Edgar Bergen, who even without the puppets doesn’t seem like he would be nice. He’s wearing a bathrobe – he’s dressed like Hugh Hefner…

BETH And the craziest party hat ever.

BROOM Yeah, like a bag on his head. They’re alone in a house, dimly lit…

BETH It’s an ugly, awful house.

BROOM It’s not even like he threw a party for her; it’s as though she was tricked into going to a so-called “party” by that invitation that he sent to her cartoon house across the way. And there she is, listening to him cheerfully.

BETH It’s so awful.

ADAM I imagine her realizing with a shock of horror, “Charlie and Mortimer aren’t people!”

BROOM Like Ten Little Indians, where they’re isolated and one of them must be the killer, and the puppets would fall dead and she would realize that the only one who could have been doing it was Edgar Bergen. Anyway, the setup is creepy, but what’s also creepy is that you know the house is surrounded by animation. It’s so claustrophobic; it’s like being in a submarine. There’s nowhere they can go.

ADAM Charlie McCarthy is an asshole. I had never seen him before. What a…

BROOM …wiseacre?

ADAM …like, a little… I don’t know, I was going to call him “a little fag,” but that’s not appropriate. And he’s gotta be all meta all the time, and keep interrupting the story. Which is a weird choice also. What is that movie that everyone loved where the old man is telling the story about the guy with the six fingers –

BROOM and BETH The Princess Bride?

ADAM Right. Why do they keep interrupting that? It was just like that. Well, less dramatic.

BROOM You were annoyed with The Princess Bride by the fact that there were interruptions?

BETH How could you be annoyed at that?

ADAM I just think it’s a weird meta choice. You’re quaking – if you are – that Mickey is in danger, and then Charlie McCarthy’s asshole little voice comes wafting through the air.

BROOM In defense of The Princess Bride, I think there it was a smart choice, because it made the fairy tale be meta in itself. That’s the premise of the original book, that’s it’s about what we make of fairy tales, and intentionally is about indulging in tropes recognized as tropes. Whereas here, they made a short, and then their scheme for fitting it in to the feature length was to have it narrated by a celebrity! “How about Edgar Bergen? And Charlie McCarthy will make wisecracks?” And they just put that on top of it. Seemed like the animation had been done independent of them. Well, except for the red barn, I don’t know about that. But apparently somehow they were able to de-Charlie-McCarthy it for later releases.

ADAM How weird that they never even knew Jiminy Cricket was there.

BROOM That is a little weird. He was purely a voyeur. And that’s also weird: if they’re going to sandwich these two things together that have nothing to do with each other, you’d think they’d have made the frame have something to do… with each other.

ADAM At least in The Three Caballeros, it was like, “Donald’s opening presents. Now he’s opening another present.” Here it was like, “First he finds a record in her deserted room, and then he goes to a party with her.” It was just really shoddy.

BROOM I found more atmosphere to enjoy and be creeped-out by in the frames than I did in the actual stories. But I will say that my favorite part of the whole movie was the vine growing in “Mickey and the Beanstalk,” the ballet of the vine growing and them flipping around. It was like in “Clock Cleaners” where they keep almost falling off the building. And the vine was really nicely done. There were also a couple of special effects in this movie that were new. Like when they showed the record coming out of its sleeve and the real printed label moved with it.

BETH That was nice.

ADAM It reminded me of the technique in “Bloom County” where a realistic photograph of a celebrity is pasted into the drawing.

BROOM It’s harder in animation, because they made it move. When the record spun around, the shape changed with it. It was very well done. And something else was similar, just before that. I forget what [ed.: the newspaper].

ADAM So who would Dinah Shore and Edgar Bergen be equivalent to today?

BROOM Pretty big people!

ADAM But it would be, like, weird people, right?

BROOM It would be like, “hey, it’s… Mariah Carey and Jack Black!”

BETH It wouldn’t be Jack Black; it might be Mariah Carey.

BROOM Jack Black is too big? Edgar Bergen was pretty big.

BETH He’s just not quite right.

BROOM There are no ventriloquists these days.

ADAM David Blaine.

BROOM He would do a terrible job.

BETH Fred Willard.

ADAM Edgar Bergen was a novelty act.

BROOM But back then, doing a novelty act wasn’t itself that novel. Today it would be a throwback. Then he was just a celebrity who happened to do ventriloquism. Maybe it would be Candice Bergen!

ADAM He’s not a very good ventriloquist.

BROOM He’s terrible!

BETH They shouldn’t even be showing him.

BROOM It’s remarkable that he was so successful. He was a bad ventriloquist, his jokes weren’t that funny – that’s assuming that he had some influence on the script. Which didn’t seem very Disney-like, so I assume he did.

ADAM He didn’t have anything to do with the script, but he wrote his own wisecracks, obviously.

BROOM That’s what I mean: the script of the wisecracks.

ADAM “It’s a dragonfly!” “Flyin’ in the front, and draggin’ in the rear!”

BROOM That was a great one. But worst of all – he’s not endearing or appealing or anything. He brought the maximum possible creepiness to that party.

BETH It wasn’t a party!

BROOM All right, I’m just going to face it: it wasn’t a party. Is there anything else to say about this?

BETH No! It sucked, the whole thing sucked. I hope I never have to watch it again and I’m really glad you didn’t buy it.

BROOM I told you guys this was going to be the worst one. And I believe that’s the case.

BETH Okay, I hope it really was.

ADAM Is it really worse than the preceding one?

BETH Yes, it was.

BROOM We all enjoyed Make Mine Music better than this.

BETH A lot of bad shorter pieces are better than two long really bad pieces.

BROOM The second half of this was not “really bad,” but we had been hurt by that point. When they ate the translucent slices of bread and a sliver of a bean…

BETH Yeah, that was kinda cool.

ADAM And when Donald freaks out.

BROOM When Donald got murderously crazy, that was fun.

BETH That was my favorite thing in the whole movie.

ADAM I love Donald.

BROOM It was also cathartic that after all of this “oh my god we’re watching Bongo” and then Edgar Bergen, Donald shouts “SHUT UP! SHUT UP! I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!”

ADAM It was also cathartic to see Donald, Mickey, and Goofy after all these off-brand characters.

BROOM That was the flavor of this whole movie: “Let’s just get out the stuff that we have, and use it, and put something in the theaters.” There’s also a feeling of nostalgic sadness saying goodbye to them, because we’re not gonna be seeing them again in this project.

BETH But the audience did not know that.

ADAM Is that true, we never again see Donald, Mickey, and Goofy?

BROOM In the features.

ADAM What about Fantasia 2000?

BROOM We will see Donald in it.

BETH And Mickey, right?

BROOM And they reprise the Mickey portion from the original Fantasia but it’s clearly old footage. Is Mickey in the interstitial stuff? Does he say “thanks, Mr. Levine!”?

BETH I thought he was.

BROOM I don’t think we see Mickey again; I don’t think he’s in any other movies. I mean, he might make an appearance as, like, a Mickey doll on someone’s desk in one of the nouveau-Disney movies, but I don’t think he’ll be squeaking at us ever again.

ADAM Well, that is sad.

BETH But we as 1947 moviegoers were not aware that that would be our last time.

ADAM That’s often how life is.

BETH And it’s sad that that was it, I think.

BROOM It’s not exactly sad, though, because the reason it’s going to be that way is that they’re going to hold themselves to a higher standard for features from now on.

BETH Yes, that is good.

BROOM Well, not from now on, from two-movies-from-now on.

[Here we read the New York Times review, linked below.]

ADAM Oh, Bosley.

BROOM Too positive for you guys.

ADAM Well… maybe he didn’t know that they would ever return to form.

BROOM I thought his affection for “Bongo” was too strong by any standards, historical or otherwise.

ADAM It is true that “Bongo” featured that ridiculous scene with the bear cupids.

BROOM That was the high point of “Bongo”; I was wrong about it being when the spirit called to him.

BETH It was the hearts exploding.

BROOM For me it was the other stuff in that sequence, it was, like, a little trap door opening in a cloud.

ADAM And a spout of water coming out.

BETH Yeah, that was crazy and fun. That was fancy free.

BROOM And that those little bear cupids were idiot bears, that they had really goofy faces with little pinpoint eyes. And that they dropped snow on our heroes until they became puffy white teddy bears for a second. As though they weren’t already teddy bears. Beth, during the watching of that, you said that it looked like an attempt to be like a Warner Brothers cartoon. I think that bears saying again. Say it.

BETH Okay. I thought they were definitely, with that cartoon, inspired by Warner Brothers, but, as I said at the time, they didn’t know how to do it. It wasn’t as funny, it wasn’t as slick, and it just looked like an imitation to me.

ADAM I agree. In conclusion, Mary, I don’t think even you will enjoy Fun and Fancy Free.

BETH Do not watch this!

BROOM I don’t think that’s the case; this isn’t very good, but Mary has a place in her heart for second-rate thirties cartoons. I don’t know about second-rate forties cartoons, though.

BETH Okay. Everyone else: avoid Fun and Fancy Free.

BROOM You guys are good sports and I’m glad you’re still with me in this.

BETH You owe me five dollars.


August 11, 2008

Natural phenomena

People will stare at the ocean for a long time. People like watching processes governed by natural laws. Waves are soothing to watch because they are doing exactly and only what they do; they are neither driven by an internal purpose nor manipulated by some external desire. Natural laws apply neither from within or without; they are simply the premise of the universe, and so their action is supremely confident; restfully so.

One needn’t ask “why” a wave is crashing; the scientific explanations of “why” a wave crashes are really just fuller descriptions of what it means for a wave to crash. To see a wave is to understand why it is crashing: because this is what happens. Every moment of the wave’s action makes obvious what the next moment must be; every section of the wave demonstrates its own inevitability and the inevitability of the whole. The chain of absolutely apparent inevitability is seamless and unending.

Things that need explaining are much less pleasant to the mind. “Why” is the essence of unrestfulness.

The thought is: this principle is also at work in writing. If the chain of necessity is unbroken, the reader is at ease. Anything else is disruptive. If art can simulate the nature of a wave crashing – or snow falling, or a plant growing, or clouds drifting – it will hold its audience in a state of peaceful interest.

This principle may not be relevant for ambitious art, but it’s the most important one for mass market success. Reading Stephen King, I remember, was like watching things fall. Mm, it’s falling. Listening to a top 40 song can be a little like watching a stream ripple over a rock. There it goes. Mm.

August 8, 2008

1. La grande illusion (1937)

directed by Jean Renoir
written by Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak


I won’t lie to you. I watched this because it is Criterion Collection #1. That’s not a promise or a project; it just is what it is, and if I watch Criterion Collection #2 sometime soon, that too will just be what it is. As are all things in this world.

This movie goes by “Grand Illusion” in English, which is stupid. One of the special features on the disc points out that this is stupid, and then says that all the same, tradition is tradition. It should be “The Great Illusion” – not only because that’s a better translation, but because it’s named after this book.

Is this one of the greatest films of all time? In a way I want to stay true to my underwhelmption, yea even in the face of the cultural consensus; in another way I want to nurture and privilege the part of me that was affected by it.

I watched it a second time with the commentary track – an “audio essay” by a film historian (Peter Cowie) – and hearing that slight curatorial analysis clarified the problem. The problem is that film by its nature is a medium of contraption within contraption; movies that try to come at humanity open and whole, without artifice, always feel relatively flaccid. The filmmaker, by becoming a filmmaker, has chosen a path of trickery; if he then decides he wants nothing to do with trickery, he denies film its natural impulses. And yet I recognize that this openness, this distaste for artifice, is surely an honorable thing in a human being and in an artist. It’s just the refusal to concede to the idiomatic demands of the medium that is distracting.

Perhaps they weren’t yet idiomatic in 1937. Perhaps today Jean Renoir would gladly concede to the conventional demands that I perceive as inherent to the medium; he just didn’t feel them at the time because they hadn’t yet crystallized as standards.

But whether it was an intentionally “alternative” language and rhythm, or just turned out to be a side-branch in the evolution of mainstream “standard practice,” there’s no question to me that this movie (and others like it) operates at odds with current expectations about tension, flow, and structure. Those divergences are not themselves meant to be interesting; they simply are.

The film wants us (and the commentary corroborates these impressions of mine) to reflect on the resonances of various themes as they are embodied in images and events. That might sound like it’s true of all film, but it’s not; most commercial film is fundamentally narrative in structure and drive. “Meaning” bolsters the narrative, not the other way around. At most, they go hand in hand as equals. This movie smells like it’s going to be a hand-in-hand sort of movie, but really the narrative is just a servant of the meaning, and a somewhat neglected servant at that.

Essentially, the technique is painterly – film as a moving painting. Secondarily the technique is theatrical – film as a series of performances. Both of these aspects of this film are wonderfully and warmly done. But there is something essentially filmic about, say, Citizen Kane that is here somehow mishandled. Intentionally? The camera and the, er, montage, are so unflappably calm and thoughtful that we feel held at an observing distance from any tension in the story. “Please muse on this; but we wouldn’t dare trick you into getting worked up about it.” When a character is suddenly in danger, the camera gently glides around within the same shot to show us how things play out. When significant events pass off screen, we fade out and fade back in on the new state of affairs with a calm that would seem almost deadpan… if the movie had anything but warmth in its soul, which it doesn’t. The calm is simply reserve and someone’s idea of taste. When the incidental score kicks in, just as opera-pumped as any Hollywood score of the era, it seems entirely wrong about what kind of experience we’re having. “Please!” we want to say, “that music isn’t how life really is! No need to be so dramatic. Just be quiet – I’m watching a prisoner of war try to escape.”

But neither is the action “how life really is.” It’s, as I said, painterly, and theatrical. The calmer arts.

Does that stuff count for or against La Grande Illusion in the game of “greatest films ever made”? I don’t know what to think. For a first-time modern viewer, at least, it counts against, because it disorients. It also counts against if the game has to do with taking full and masterful technical advantage of the medium; that’s a progress-related game where the winner is more likely to be relatively recent. People who make pronouncements about the “greatest ever made” usually want the spread to be ahistorical, or if anything, skewed toward the past. So the criterion* is usually profundity, or ambition, or something like that.

As for profundity, I’m not sure this movie was particularly more profound than any number of other heartfelt works about war. I had reservations about the content as well as the technique. If the purpose was to show that war and prejudice are futile – a great illusion, as it were – it seems odd that most of the movie portrays war being conducted with astounding civility. The heart of the movie is in the idea that man does not actually want to be inhuman to his fellow man, and that it is tragic when he is forced into this posture by the imposition of war. I think. But to really make this case, it should have offered us someone who seemed to believe in war, and then showed that in his essential nature he did not. Or someone who seemed to be cruel but at heart was actually humane. Instead we see only the good in people, caught in the grips of absurd events and circumstances imposed from without. The philosophy of the movie seems to be encapsulated at the end – looking at an expanse of snow and wondering where the border with Switzerland is, the characters observe that the border is imaginary, that nature certainly doesn’t care about the difference. The point being: so too with the divisions between men that create war, and so too with war itself. But is that really so? Then, we must ask, where does war come from? Where is the error that creates the illusion? The movie is not interested in the error, only in asserting the truth of the matter; but by spending all his time showing people’s innate respect for one another (with a few remarkably mild exceptions) Renoir leaves us on our own to decide whether or not his philosophy is actually true in our real world, where people are frequently quite inhumane.

It’s a vision rather than an argument and a poem rather than a story. Does that make this higher, better art? I say not necessarily. Do that make it more pretentious, more effete? I say, with greater effort, but ultimately with conviction: not necessarily. It simply is the way this particular movie happens to be.

On both viewings, I found myself feeling quite moved by the sentimental aspects of the last 20 minutes of the movie. Somehow the domestic scale suits the “painterly” technique better. It’s easier for me to find the emotion in a bowl on a table when nobody’s life is at stake. Perhaps the skill that film technique has learned in the intervening years is adrenaline management.

Jean Gabin has effortless movie star charisma and does an excellent job. Stroheim is memorable and satisfying to watch – but is it just me or does he have an obvious American accent in all three languages? Fresnay does fine but his coldness is pretty complete. The commentator talked about the unseen emotion that must be under the surface. Yeah, maybe that’s the point, but it’s not on screen – just in your mind, and your term paper.

Here’s the main title, by Joseph Kosma (composer of “Autumn Leaves”).

* Not sure what the Collection’s eponymous Criterion actually is. Not sure there is one. Their website variously says that the films are “important,” “greatest,” “treasures,” “finest,” “defining moments,” and “Armageddon.

August 7, 2008

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 54 (1939)

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Opus 54: Symphony No. 6, in B minor
composed: 1939 (age 33)
first performance: Leningrad, November 5, 1939 (Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Evgeny Mravinsky)
Shostakovich on the right of course, and on the left is Evgeny Mravinsky, the conductor of the premiere (and of the best recording, see below). The photo is apparently from 1937, so a couple years prior to the sixth symphony, but close enough. This image has clearly been been given the old Soviet once-over.

590 on the big list.

Shostakovich wrote music in which the point isn’t particularly musical, it’s dramatic or quasi-literary. It’s the sequence of events that is significant; the events themselves seem to bore him a bit. A good deal of what he writes just functions efficiently. It’s as though his technical facility was too great for him to get very excited about mere notes; the meat is in the storytelling. He seems always to be saying, “it’s obvious enough what this moment is – it’s just what it sounds like; happy music or ugly music or whatever – the real question is, what comes next, and why?” Perhaps this is why his music is oddly popular: because “okay, what comes next?” is a very easy way to listen, readily available to everyone.

Yes, oddly popular: I feel like I’ve encountered a lot of people who have made room in their personal playlists for only a very few classical composers, and have chosen Shostakovich as one of them. I can enjoy Shostakovich but he wouldn’t go on my short list, for that very same reason; it’s music, but it’s not very music-y.

Generally, when program notes are written in phrases like “the tutti allegro gives way to a desolate flute solo,” they give no real understanding of the music’s meaning until you hear the actual notes. But with Shostakovich the emphasis is shifted and such descriptions often can give a good idea of the piece. In the first movement of this symphony, for example, the particular notes the flute plays are of no very great interest – the important thing truly is that it is “a desolate flute solo.” At least that’s how I hear it. I might compare it to Magritte; the execution is just a necessary adjunct to the concept.

That all said, I do like this piece. I’ve heard the much-more-famous Fifth Symphony a couple times – but only a couple – and have to admit it doesn’t mean a lot to me, whereas this one seemed interesting from the first hearing, and over repeated listenings became quite satisfying and involving.

The first movement is the work’s center of gravity: a weighty, slow, serious landscape, and very long. “A spacious Largo, one of the composer’s greatest utterances,” Dubal calls it. I’m not familiar with quite enough of the composer’s utterances to speak confidently on this point, but I suspect he probably overstates the case. Like I said last time, we can’t let the seriousness-addicts run the show. To me, the punchy, zany, vulgar third movement makes a stronger impression than the first, every time – and apparently I am in agreement with the composer on this one, who said he was proudest of the third movement. Not to say that the first movement isn’t a worthy and effective piece of work. It is. Once I was finally able to make formal sense of its 15 minutes of slowness, the piece opened itself up to me and became a consistently satisfying journey. One that I still enjoy taking.

But finding that form was difficult, and required many listens and eventually a copy of the score. It’s a sonata form, as you might expect, but the thematic material, which usually demarcates the form, here actually obscures it, by appearing out of turn and mutating unexpectedly. So that it may benefit future first-time listeners (all others, please skip!), here’s how I hear it: the declamatory first ~2 minutes are introduction. Strings with pizzicato bass mark the start of the first subject proper, which lasts for ~3.5 minutes. The motif of the second subject appears during the big climax of the first subject, but the second subject proper starts after that, quietly, again introduced with pizzicato bass. It lasts for ~4 minutes and meanders thoroughly, with little overt use of its own theme. The exposition ends with the strings quietly filling out a wide minor chord. The development starts immediately with an ominous tam-tam strike, and proceeds for ~2 minutes. Desolate flute solos, etc. The mysterious nugget at the core of the whole movement comes at the end of the development, with a prolonged shimmery trill and a sad, strange series of chords floating by. This is a fantastic, poetic moment, and if it needs 15 minutes of cushioning to make it sing properly, so be it. Once that’s played out, you’re dumped directly into the recapitulation of the first subject, which is now much more direct and clear. It lays relatively low and wraps up the movement on its own; the second subject just puts in a ghostly cameo appearance as a tag.

To the curiosity-seekers who just read that paragraph despite the warning (I don’t know who you are, but I can guess!), I want to say: though it may just sound like analysis for analysis-lovers, I truly cannot imagine anyone really knowing and liking this piece without breaking it down mentally that way, or another similar way. You don’t have to use those terms – or any terms at all – but you do need to have a roadmap. 15 minutes of undifferentiated sound would have no appeal at all; some scheme of differentiation is crucial, and the better the scheme, the more rewarding the experience. The above is simply the most rewarding scheme I was able to find. If you really can’t even begin to conceive of listening that way, you are missing out. But most people who claim they have absolutely no affinity for the idea of musical form just don’t have any experience thinking about it consciously; in practice, they still listen the same way as everyone else. I used to use the metaphor that explaining which parts are which in sonata form is like explaining which parts of the TV broadcast are show and which are commercials. “They alternate in an A B A B pattern.” Crucial information for comprehension, but not nearly as abstract as it sounds in the telling. But that’s not a great metaphor. If I think of a better one I’ll tell you.

Before I proceed, another general comment on Shostakovich: The “quasi-literary” technique described above ends up creating the strong impression that in some way, something is being said. In a painting, if the sitter is holding a pear and behind him out a window you can see a ruined windmill with a stag looking at it, and tiny in the distance there’s a tree being struck by lightning, and in the shadow behind one of the curtains you can see a servant but the servant is blindfolded and wearing an army uniform, you can’t help but think, “what does this mean?” Sometimes there are answers on the placard. But sometimes there aren’t answers anywhere. Sometimes the suggestion of hidden meaning is simply its own aesthetic reward. I believe that is – or at least must necessarily be, for us – the case with Shostakovich.

There’s not really anything inherently mysterious or symbolic about a pear or a tree being struck by lightning; they suggest “meaning” to us because we feel that it is the artist, and not the work itself, that demanded their presence. Or some hidden scheme that escapes us. The chair is there because a seated portrait demands a chair. A pear less so; some other force, then, must have demanded it.

This crazy painting is a totally improvised example and doesn’t exist, by the way.

Anyway, Shostakovich’s music works on the same principle. It is surely Shostakovich himself, and not Euterpe,* who demands this desolate flute solo, who is luring the orchestra off the road and into the wilderness, who is playing these quizzical unexpected chords. Something in his mind demanded this. And so it must mean something, we think. An air of muffled mystery hangs over almost everything I’ve heard by the man.

But: I think all this excited talk about his music containing secret political messages is silly. “He tricked the Soviets into thinking this was a happy piece, but listen closely! It’s not actually that happy!” Shostakovich always had a stiff touch – even his genuine “light music” tends to sounds somewhat clench-jawed. So it’s no surprise that his “pro-” music sounds a little “anti-.” And it’s beyond debate that he was feeling, to put it mildly, frustrated and oppressed. So yes, it’s obviously the case that his happy Soviet music is not actually that happy, for one reason or the other. But that’s not half as interesting as people make it out to be. The reason people get excited about it, I think, is because of the sense of enigma that arises in his music. People want to believe that this political/biographical info is the secret that the music promises. But that’s silly. Just listen to the climax of the first movement, described above. This is music that expresses the feeling of an enigma, rather than merely expressing some as-yet-unidentified feeling (ooh, maybe political dissidence???) enigmatically. No?

Then again I may be wrong. Perhaps he did in fact have private meanings for every damn musical event in everything he wrote; maybe that enigmatic climax was composed as a representation of some particular memory, or even, ugh, of something as generic and huge as the sinking of his weary soul under the Stalinist regime. But even if that’s the case, we still have to give it up. You can hear it as whatever you like, but you can never get it “right.” Music is not a crackable code.

And no, I personally don’t think it’s even worth believing it’s an actual code – he’s too obviously enamored of the aesthetics of code-iness. In his Symphony No. 15 he throws in actual quotations from Rossini and Wagner and I think from his own works. Didn’t tell anyone what they meant to him. That’s the act of a man who thinks that things that seem like codes are valuable and satisfying in themselves. Meanwhile, Edward Elgar’s Enigma, which he explicitly identified as having a hidden element, sounds 100% non-enigmatic. The sound of an enigma must be cultivated, and Shostakovich cultivated it like mad. Let’s please not waste too much time trying to shove a key into a painted keyhole in a trompe-l’oeil door; it’s embarrassing.

Okay, gonna wrap this up now. Second movement is a scherzo and third movement is a galop. They have in common that Dmitri sets unremarkable material going at a fast clip and then pokes and prods it, under high pressure, to make various surprises suddenly bubble out. In the second movement there is an exciting central episode (trio?) that sounds like an airplane dogfight from a movie. Which is fine by me. The third movement is a sort of run-on sentence ballet, a Rossini overture that has too much nervous energy to let any of its material repeat or develop – it just spews out phrase after phrase of dizzy cliche, careening around corners until it emerges as a vulgar, raucous fight song or something, and finally bashes itself on the head until it stops. I picture Daffy Duck playing football. It’s really a lot of fun; I have listened to this movement twice in a row on a several occasions.

Commentators tend to fixate on the I. VERY SLOW AND LONG, II. FAST AND SHORT, III. FAST AND SHORT form of the symphony, saying it’s lopsided and peculiar, but I have no problem with it at all. If it’s an experiment, it works just fine. If you feel that the first movement’s weight is never quite counter-balanced, that just adds to its enigma. If you feel that it is counter-balanced, then we don’t have a problem here.

What does it add up to as a whole? Shostakovich apparently said of the sixth symphony that he “wanted to convey in it the moods of spring, joy, youth.” I don’t know where to begin with that. Did he want us to pity him?

Actually, I think he made that statement before he finished composing, so plans may have changed.

Dubal’s picks:

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernstein: Deutsche Grammophon 419771-2
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, Mravinsky: ICONE 9404

I didn’t hear the Bernstein, but I did hear the Mravinsky (on a different release) and it’s fantastic. By far the best of the recordings I heard, and I heard quite a few. You only need to hear one recording of this piece and it’s that one.

I also heard WDR Sinfonieorchester/Barshai (1995), Concertgebouw Orchestra/Haitink (1985), Moscow Phlharmonic Orchestra/Kondrashin (1972), Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Jansons (1991), National Symphony Orchestra/Rostropovich (1994), USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Rozhdestvensky (1983), and Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra/Mravinsky (1972), which is not nearly as good as their 1965 recording recommended above.

This is #808 on the 1001 Classical Recordings list, which singles out a specific recording for each work. They too name the Mravinsky 1965 recording.

Just to recap our other selections in terms of the 1001 list:
1. Brahms Cello Sonata No. 1 is combined with Cello Sonata No. 2 as #361 on the list; they recommend the recent Isserlis/Hough recording, which now that I’ve heard it is probably my favorite too.
2. Saint-Saƫns Organ Symphony is #448; they recommend the Boston/Munch recording that I liked.
3. Tchaikovsky Capriccio Italien isn’t on the list, which seems right to me.
4. Beethoven Violin Concerto they have Mutter with Berlin/Karajan. I’d listen to that.
5. Brahms Paganini Variations is also not on the list, which is fine by me. So far their track record is good. But I’m going to stick with the Dubal list for now.

Sorry, can’t link you to a score this time. Not in the public domain yet.

* Muse of music, duh.

August 4, 2008

Murphy (1938)

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)
Murphy (1938)

1509 Beckett: Watt
1508 Beckett: Murphy

I bought this in Kansas. They have Samuel Beckett in Kansas as much as anywhere else.

The tone is so unwaveringly dry that it plays as comic even when nothing funny is happening – and vice versa, whatever the vice versa is. I found it useful to imagine it being read aloud with deadpan savor at some kind of coffeehouse public reading. In those settings, the tiniest false-alarm tremor of possible wit will set off solicitous literary chuckling in the crowd. Keeping that kind of self-congratulatory audience in mind – an audience eager to show that it “gets” everything, even when it doesn’t – actually helped me stay attuned the meaning (and the humor) behind the stylizations of the text. (“What could they” – the imagined audience – “possibly be chuckling at this time? Oh, I see.”) More to the point, it helped me keep the stratified tone properly suspended – the surface being deadpan; the layer below that being chuckling, sometimes smarmy, at the unspoken; the layer below that being a doubly unspoken coffeehouse seriousness. Which is nonetheless sometimes spoken.

The trick to being in one of those audiences is being able to tell the difference between the passages where one should appear amused by something wry and the passages where one should appear to be savoring something aesthetically fine. If the two are mixed up closely, all the more satisfaction is to be had in picking them apart. If you can’t tell them apart you have to settle for appearing to do both at once – and isn’t that, after all, what makes this dude’s writing so amazing? It’s kind of amazing.

I’m on a tangent here, talking about an imaginary writer and not Beckett himself, though surely these straw men I’m mocking do also like Beckett. But just because literary deadpan is a natural watering hole for pretentiousness doesn’t mean it can’t also be, on its own time, good. I liked Murphy, coffeehouse undertones be damned.

The coffeehouse is far from the only milieu where a relentlessly wry dead-tone delivery is prized. I also found it orienting to imagine the text in the mouths of certain peers of mine as they lounged in certain ivied halls. It is the diction of intellectual elitism diverting itself – the conspicuous consumption of obscurity. And yet Beckett, though he may well have learned the craft from being a witty intellectual among witty intellectuals, puts it to aesthetic work. The weary detachment of his deadpan is in fact the philosophical essence of the book.

I knew to associate with Beckett’s name the concept of “tragicomedy,” and also to associate him with the influence of James Joyce, but neither connection was actually apparent to me from what little of his work I’d read. In Murphy both are very much apparent. Reading Murphy helped me a great deal in clarifying the spirit and origin of Waiting for Godot, which seems like a more rarified version of the same attitude: philosophy rendered into absurdity structured like tragedy delivered as deadpan wit. It also fell stylistically about halfway between Joyce and Godot and thereby helped to indicate the road that connects them.

The book reads like a lark – a difficult lark, but a lark – but is in fact a serious piece of work, and a complex philosophical vision to be reckoned with. It is thus doubly difficult. I had to read it twice. The first time was 10 months ago. The second time was just now, as I was attempting to write this and get it overwith; I realized I wouldn’t feel ready until I had read it again. It was much easier and more satisfying the second time. I now feel almost embarrassed about the paragraphs above, which suggest that this book is needlessly difficult and snide, when this time it seemed mostly straightforward and pleasurably clever. It also, for all its snark, seemed more directly and overtly serious than it had before. I think the initial and secondary responses are both elements of the style, and not just of me.

The issue is whether to embrace the real world or escape to an inner nothingness; the book pities (or sadly mocks) the proponents of either option. Murphy fantasizes about the latter. His climactic chess game against an institutionalized lunatic encapsulates his quest: he tries to ape the madman’s pure and perfect detachment from reality, but can’t. The comedy, pathos, and wackiness of this game – and the whole concept of a pivotal scene being written in chess notation – gives some idea of the book. Of course, you can watch the game and get a sense by clicking through the moves on the site linked to above, but you can’t really “read” the scene without the narrator’s tongue-in-cheek annotations.

I like including excerpts when I post about my reading – it’s like I brought you souvenirs from my trip!

Originally I had a bit of fairly simple comedy stuff here, but I’m replacing it with this, the central passage of the whole book, in my mind. From the crucial “section six,” which explains Murphy’s personal philosophy of mind.

Sorry it doesn’t totally stand alone but you don’t need too much: “The chandlers,” “Miss Carridge,” and “Ticklepenny” are all characters unsympathetic to Murphy. “The Belacqua bliss” refers to Murphy’s previously-described fantasy of an after-death paradise.

As he lapsed in body he felt himself coming alive in mind, set free to move among its treasures. The body has its stock, the mind its treasures.

There were the three zones, light, half light, dark, each with its speciality.

In the first were the forms with parallel, a radiant abstract of the dog’s life, the elements of physical experience available for a new arrangement. Here the pleasure was reprisal, the pleasure of reversing the physical experience. Here the kick that the physical Murphy received, the mental Murphy gave. It was the same kick, but corrected as to direction. Here the chandlers were available for slow depilation, Miss Carridge for rape by Ticklepenny, and so on. Here the whole physical fiasco became a howling success.

In the second were the forms without parallel. Here the pleasure was contemplation. This system had no other mode in which to be out of joint and therefore did not need to be put right in this. Here was the Belacqua bliss and others scarcely less precise.

In both these zones of his private world Murphy felt sovereign and free, in the one to requite himself, in the other to move as he pleased from one unparalleled beatitude to another. There was no rival initiative.

The third, the dark, was a flux of forms, a perpetual coming together and falling asunder of forms. The light contained the docile elements of a new manifold, the world of the body broken up into the pieces of a toy; the half light, states of peace. But the dark neither elements nor states, nothing but forms becoming and crumbling into the fragments of a new becoming, without love or hate or any intelligible principle of change. Here there was nothing but commotion and the pure forms of commotion. Here he was not free, but a mote in the dark of absolute freedom. He did not move, he was a point in the ceaseless unconditioned generation and passing away of line.

Matrix of surds.

It was pleasant to kick the Ticklepennies and Miss Carridges simultaneously together into ghastly acts of love. It was pleasant to lie dreaming on the shelf beside Belacqua, watching the drawn break crooked. But how much more pleasant was the sensation of being a missile without provenance or target, caught up in a tumult of non-Newtonian motion. So pleasant that pleasant was not the word.

This is a rich and disturbing passage for me, especially the description of the third zone. I am reminded of cellular automata, and of Silent Snow, Secret Snow. And the whole gist of the book reminds me of the end of Brazil. Among other things.

Murphy was a fine and rewarding book. I do not regret reading it twice in one year. More Samuel Beckett please, random number generator.

The random number generator says, “no.”

First edition: