Monthly Archives: November 2008

November 21, 2008

8. 喋血雙雄 (1989)

written and directed by John Woo

Yes, this is Criterion Collection #8.

Okay, I’m going to get this right.

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


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

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

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

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

Now thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 17, 2008

Disney Canon #13: Alice in Wonderland (1951)

(note the misspelling!)

BROOM We have a guest today.

MIKE Hello.

ADAM I didn’t think that was very successful.

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

BETH I thought it was really good.

ADAM Really?

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

MIKE I thought it was long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIKE Have you watched Fantasia yet?

BROOM Right, and quite a few things in Fantasia.

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

ADAM It did feel packed with incident.

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

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


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

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

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

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

BETH That’s before the flowers.

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

BETH Oh, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

BROOM I’m sure they have.

ADAM What do you mean?

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

ADAM Which is perfectly legal!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BETH In 1951? Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIKE Well, her figure itself is Barbie-esque.

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

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

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

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

ADAM She’s pretty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

ADAM As a character.

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

ADAM That’s not true!

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

ADAM “Don’t be ridiculous!”

BROOM Yes. “I’m not a flower at all!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

ADAM Well, the songs were not successful.

BROOM I think several of the songs were very successful.

ADAM [caterwauling]

BROOM That’s your impression of the choral singing?


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

BETH That is fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ADAM Mike, was the caterpillar your favorite part?

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

ADAM “Don’t be so damned curious?”

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

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

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

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

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

BROOM Wait, when does she say that?

MIKE With the flowers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BROOM I think that the Mary Blair designs looked fantastic.

ADAM What in particular?

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

ADAM We’ll see that again in Bolt.

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

ADAM “Princess movies.”

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

BETH Except for the dress!

BROOM What did you think of the costumes?

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

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

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

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

ADAM Just highly protective of it.

BROOM So you feel like this abused the real property?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BROOM You always like the haughty socialites.

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

BROOM No, the one with the lorgnette.

ADAM Oh, right, the Iris, you mean.

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

BETH They were Irish, yes.

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

ADAM Really? I hear Scottish.

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

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

BETH Their accents.

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

BETH They pronounced something in a Scottish way.


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

BROOM They were?

ADAM She had a British accent. Bill was Cockney.

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

ADAM I felt like they were all British archetypes.

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

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

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

ADAM Let’s see what Bosley has to say.

–[the Times review is read]–

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


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

ADAM When are we going to lose Bosley?

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

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


BROOM About one thing? Or just show their movies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

ADAM No. It seemed about right.

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

BETH …Time’s up.

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

ADAM and BETH Oh no!


November 15, 2008

7. A Night to Remember (1958)

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


Criterion Collection #7.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 14, 2008

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dubal recommends

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

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

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

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

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

November 10, 2008

Disney Canon #12: Cinderella (1950)

Note: the participants are sleepier than usual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BETH I think maybe more.

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

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

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

ADAM Certainly no females.

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


BROOM The dancing girl.

BETH Oh. Definitely.

ADAM What about Ichabod himself?

BETH He rivaled these girls in appeal.

ADAM What about Casey?

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

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

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

BROOM She had the little chin.

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

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

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

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

ADAM So was Bruno when he was a human.

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

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

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

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

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

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

BETH and ADAM Yes.

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

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

BETH I figured you would like that.

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

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

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

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

BETH Yes it did!

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

BROOM Because of that scene?

ADAM No. Just because it seemed so wonderful.

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

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

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

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

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

ADAM and BETH Everything else.

BETH It was just waiting around until the dress parts.

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

BETH Well, that was pretty dull.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BETH Of course not.

ADAM It’s totally irrelevant.

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

ADAM [hero voice]: But his voice!

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

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

BETH Me too. I had forgotten about those doofuses.

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

BETH I don’t know, no.

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

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

ADAM And also, the blood would be quite visible.

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

ADAM And the names were French-y.

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

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

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

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

BROOM Specify.

ADAM You know, the whole “Princess Syndrome.”

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

ADAM Dresses!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ADAM Oh, you’re right.

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

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

ADAM Well, the one in the red shirt could.

BROOM Jaq? Jar-Jar Mouse?

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

BROOM “We is coming, Cinderelly!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ADAM Or a boy.


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

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

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

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

BROOM So was this movie an influence on Barbie?

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

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

ADAM Barbie was based on some German sex toy.

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

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

ADAM Her body is slim, but not curvy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

BETH She did sound like Judy Garland.

BROOM The mother?

ADAM No, Cinderella.

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

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

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

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

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

BETH The love scene?


ADAM Could you have sung the “Nightingale” song?

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

BETH I kind of liked that sequence.

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

ADAM From Fantasia.

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

ADAM There’s a prince in Sleeping Beauty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BROOM I just felt disappointed.

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

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

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

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

ADAM That’s the whole point!

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

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

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

BETH Glamour.

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

ADAM No. She’s self-consciously girlish.

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

ADAM Our various mothers.

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

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


ADAM Well, nowadays. Okay, four.

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

ADAM Do the Ewoks save the day?

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

— [the Times review is read] —

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

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

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

BETH I didn’t enjoy the mice.

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

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

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

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

ADAM Because he reminded you of yourself.

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


November 9, 2008

6. La Belle et la Bête (1946)

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


Criterion Collection #6.

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

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

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

First, my reservations, enumerated:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The praise is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And lo!

November 8, 2008

Medtner: Piano Concerto no. 2 (1920-27)

Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951)
Concerto no. 2 in C Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 50
composed: 1920-27 (ages 40-47)
first performance: Moscow, March 13, 1927 (Moscow Conservatory Orchestra?/Alexander Medtner)
dedicated to Serge Rachmaninoff

I know it’s not the greatest picture, but I had to use it because this is apparently March 8, 1927 – i.e. the Tuesday prior to the Sunday of the premiere – and was taken at Moscow Conservatory, seemingly on a stage, so this may well be the piano on which the premiere was soon to be performed. That’s of course Medtner at the piano. The other two guys are nobody important.

No. 633. Strange, somehow, that this of all pieces should have turned up so early in the random playlist – it’s an off-the-beaten-path piece that happens to be a particular favorite of mine, and its coincidental inclusion in The Essential Canon of Western Music is a bit of Medtner advocacy on Dubal’s part that very arguably has no place here. If nobody knows a piece, it’s definitionally not in the Essential Canon, quality be damned.

I learned the word “lapidary” from reading a description of Medtner’s work, and that really is a fine word for it. Every detail feels worked – in the good sense of having been cared for and refined, not the bad sense of having been tortured out of all naturalness. The feature of Medtner’s music that grips me most, in fact, is precisely that it is simultaneously very worked and very natural. The achievement of grace through great effort is inspiring; and to be able to hear both the effort and the grace is aesthetically very satisfying. That may come close to a definition of artistic beauty, in fact. At least for me.

It is further inspiring and fascinating to me that Medtner didn’t just subscribe to the principle of artistic grace through toil, but actually articulated and espoused it in a book. Even the titles and texts of his works themselves frequently make explicit reference to his underlying quasi-devotional philosophy, wherein the sacred essence of music – delivered to us from somewhere divine, above and beyond – must be treated with the humblest respect and a tireless, monk-like dedication. Lots of artists have said stuff like “I am just a poor servant of the muse, just a vessel for something greater than me,” but it usually comes off as a weak misdirection from their throbbing egos. Medtner, I think, actually lived by his words, which would explain why he was able to seem arrogantly self-serious about his music despite having no stomach at all for actual self-promotion – a failing that probably accounts for his outsider status in the Canon. Unlike the comparably-gifted Rachmaninoff, who gritted his teeth and played his greatest hits at sold-out concerts all the way into the sunset, Medtner apparently couldn’t accept that quality and sincerity weren’t the only criteria for success, and let his fame and reputation slip away, until in his final years he came to completely depend on the charity of a small circle of admirers in London.

Medtner’s book, The Muse and the Fashion (now wonderfully available online) spells it all out in prose, and made a very powerful impression on me when I first read it. Yes, Mr. Medtner, compared to your serious, devoted, layered craftsmanship, most “modern” music does seem like lazy, self-indulgent permissiveness. His totally stubborn, reactionary aesthetic philosophy made perfect sense to me, to my great surprise. I can get there and feel it the way he felt it, and it takes a while to shake it off. There was a year or two where I didn’t really have any desire to play any music other than Medtner’s; everything else seemed to be, to some degree, shirking responsibilities or missing opportunities.

The spell eventually dissipated. There are many other paths in music, and I can follow them too, gladly and without reservations. But spending that time in Medtner’s mindset expanded my aesthetic outlook rather than contracting it, I believe. Being open to absolutely anything the art world throws at you – the criterion of no criteria – is a relatively easy direction to stretch. Maintaining principles is much harder. Medtner was wrong to believe that what he saw as “muse” was universally true and what he saw as “fashion” was universally false; but he was surely right that it was true for him. The time I spent immersed in Medtner’s music convinced me of the importance of making an equivalent distinction for myself, derived from my nature, nurture, culture, and whatever else.

For every person, some things are meaningful in a way that others aren’t, and one must always strive to know the difference.

This Piano Concerto No. 2 was the first piece of Medtner’s that I actually heard on a recording – I had previously played my own way through the Sonata op. 22 – and I remember that when I first put it on, I intended to make a game of seeing how many listens it would take for me to “get” the piece. Nowadays I could probably parse the first two movements after only a few tries. At the time, I felt almost immediately that, though I liked many of the “sounds,” I was clearly in over my head. After two furrowed-brow listens, I gave up and resorted to getting the score. (The standard online source seems to have gotten a little more stringent about Russian copyright, of late, so at present you can’t download the score pdfs anymore, but who knows what the future holds.)

With the score in hand, it fell into place readily and was dazzling to me. On the blind listens, I had a tough time just making sense of the hard-kicking opening rhythm. What was it, exactly? Seeing it in the score I remember getting very excited: it’s a pop syncopation! And not classy pop, either! It’s a big legit piano concerto based on “The Price is Right”! My ear had been unable to hear the rhythm for what it was because the cultural dissonance was too great. And yet, once known, the “pop” rhythm is still perfectly in keeping with the rest of the piece. Medtner, whose music is seen as deeply conservative, was actually far, far ahead of his time in using heavy syncopations and other rhythmic quirks as an integral part of the musical fabric. In fact I can’t think of any other “serious” composers since who have really followed his lead. Lively irregular rhythms have been fair game for art music since Stravinsky, but lively regular rhythms are so strongly associated with pop musics that nobody seems to be able to shake the connotation, or seems interested in trying. John Adams and company might throw in a little “Price is Right” syncopation every now and then, but that post-minimalist aesthetic very intentionally claims a closer kinship to pop culture than other art music; the sheen that half-reflects “The Price is Right” is part of the program. Not so, obviously, with Medtner. Nobody is using these rhythms the way he did: as pure, abstract musical materials that happen to be blessed with charismatic vitality.

Though: I remember my surprise on realizing that some of the distinctively propulsive “Hollywood adventure” rhythms in a John Williams score (Star Wars or the like) were in fact syncopations borrowed from pop, or at least from pop-ified marching bands/drum corps. They had been put to an entirely unrelated use in drastically different garb, which made them sound like a whole new species. More evidence that pop rhythms are just itching to get out and do other things! Cue my dad saying, “maybe you should try to write the kind of music you’re describing.” Yes, Dad, maybe I should, but not until I’m done with this entry, okay?


The first movement is a big, beautiful, romantic concerto movement exactly the way you want it: showy yet rigorous. The exposition dishes up a healthy helping of thematic material, all of it tasty, and then immediately sets to work doing tricks with it, juggling it all together, before the development even starts. It’s a joyful little quasi-sonata in itself, and the “ta-dah!” that ends the exposition feels like it merits applause, since so much has been accomplished already. If it were in the home key, it might seem like a genuine ending. But then, with some grinding, moaning chords, something truly sticky enters the mix for the first time and a long elaborate development becomes necessary to clean it up. The considerable cadenza that stands in for most of the recapitulation is fantastically well-written – full of flash and boom, but all of it in the service of an intelligent argument; there’s nothing inflated or gratuitous about it. (And yet even so, he apparently felt obligated to offer an optional cut, halving the cadenza, which is a real shame because many of the recordings take it.) Then the movement ends with one of Mr. Medtner’s favorites, a spooky wind that blows away all the little bits and pieces of material.

He wrote many pieces called “fairy tale,” and this concerto shares their sensibility of dignified fantasy. The spirit of the thing is like the lavish, inherently serious fantasy illustrations of the “golden age” – Parrish and Rackham and whoever (Bilibin in Russia might be more relevant here). But Medtner’s fairy tales are even more refined than the illustrators’, to the point where they have absolutely nothing to do with childhood: the music carries only the inner essence of fantasy, absolutely freed from any connotation of immaturity. That wry wind that blows away the themes at the end of the first movement is a wind from a fairy tale, but it’s no joke. It’s not nostalgia either. It is genuinely itself and must be reckoned with, as formidable as any shout of fate out of Beethoven.

Second movement is based on a very pretty slow melody that schowcases another Medtner specialty – his ability to build a long, compelling “sentence-y” theme out of ruminative development of a short “motive-y” theme. The music mulls over the opening phrases and in the process finds that it has spun out something much longer and more sweeping. This multilayered activity is the sort of thing that is very moving and beautiful when you are paying attention to it and yet can totally disappear when you aren’t. Medtner’s music tends to sound well-built, conventional, and unremarkable when one surfs over the details, because the scale on which he is lapidating is fine – and this is, I grant, a sort of weakness, but an inevitable one given his technique, and well worth the tradeoff… at least as long as an attentive audience can be ensured! Which, I guess, didn’t always work out for him. If you aren’t genuinely aware simultaneously of each phrase as it happens, of the established motives, of the theme as a whole, and of the harmony shifting under them, you will just hear some moderately pretty music, because the real beauty is in how elegantly these elements are held in tension and symmetry with one another. Such music is a bit like a magic square – it’s easy to see a huge magic square and shrug because, sure, it all seems to work out. Experiencing wonder requires one to feel the individual elements and become aware of the immense control necessary to hold them all in perfect relation.

This bizarre metaphor applies better to a fugue, actually. But it’s true of any art that is based on, as Stephen Dedalus windily says, the “formal esthetic relation of part to part in any esthetic whole or of an esthetic whole to its part or parts or of any part to the esthetic whole of which it is a part.” Such relations are easy to shrug at once they exist, and some superficial relations are genuinely easy to rig up in a jiffy, but the best kind are not at all. Such relationships are, in a sense, themselves the work of art. If you can think that way, and can take the time to get to know something that way, you will like this piece. I think you will actually like his Concerto No. 1 better, but it’s not in this Canon.

K.S. “Leon” Sorabji, whose criticism is so much better than his music, said something – hm, can’t find the quote online – about Medtner’s music (I think specifically this concerto) feeling wonderful under the pianist’s hands, “like sinking one’s fingers into the pile of a deep oriental rug” or something to that effect. Once again I have used quotation marks completely undeservedly. Anyway, it’s true. Even the fingerings are lapidary; the mechanics of performance are beautifully, gratefully choreographed. It’s possible that my impression of the work as a whole takes this sort of behind-the-scenes refinement too much into account. I usually tend to think that looking at the score and touching the keyboard are just a shortcut to the same appreciation I would eventually arrive at through pure listening – that, if anything, the backstage route tends to blind me to some of the richness of a work by flattening it. But “richness” and “murk” can be dangerously similar; I’m just not sure which is the less sensitive way to approach a piece. Anyway, I’ve seen this piece naked and there’s no unseeing it now. And, I guess I’m saying, it looks great naked.

Third movement is the most formally idiosyncratic; it calls itself “Rondo” but it isn’t, really. Well, sort of. Oh, now, in the act of making myself write this, I think I finally get what the deal with this movement is. Thanks, my website.

The movement, I now see, seems to be conceived as an ambitious hybrid of rondo and sonata forms. It is an attempt to let both forms carry out their characteristic functions simultaneously. The rondo “refrain” is actually made up of two distinct subjects that more or less correspond to sonata themes, and most of the “episodes” consist of cameo appearances by melodies from the first two movements, recast as dances. At the end of the “exposition” there is a spooky-sad interlude, very much in the vein of the “fairy tale” pieces, which serves as an “episode” but also creates the psychological justification for the “development.” A fugato incorporating the refrain material serves as a traditional signal that we are in the development; then the second half of the development is based on material from the first movement and so does double-duty as an “episode.” The next reappearance of the initial theme is thus able to function both as a refrain in the rondo and as the sonata recapitulation. A partial reappearance of the first episode, from early in the movement, creates sonata symmetry even though the material has no clear sonata function in itself. Then a very brief cadenza leads to a manic coda, in which all the material from all three movements is stuffed into a phonebooth and then blown out of a cannon. It looks fantastically clever on the page; in practice, most of the detail disappears and it just sounds like a big “hoorah,” which is also a perfectly fine way to end a piece.

So I just walked myself through it, but up until right now, I have simply enjoyed this final movement as a house party to which the other movements have been invited, and that has been plenty for me. Walking through the rooms and seeing everyone dancing is perfectly enjoyable, in this case, even if you don’t notice the floor plan. I guess now I’ll have to see if having noticed the floor plan changes my appreciation for the piece.

David Dubal’s recommended recording is

Demidenko, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Maksymiuk: Hyperion CDA 66580

and that is mine as well. That is the recording that I heard first and the one I have continued to listen to over the years. It is, notably, one of the only recordings that features the uncut version of the first movement cadenza. The performance is satisfyingly energetic, and the recorded sound is attractive.

The composer’s own performance (Philharmonia Orchestra / Issay Dobrowen, 1947) is quite good despite the loose orchestra, and worth hearing through the crackles for its obvious historical significance. This time around we also listened to

Geoffrey Tozer, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Neeme Järvi, 1991.
Abram Shatskes, USSR Symphony Orchestra / Evgeny Svetlanov, 1959.

They’re all fine.

Somewhere I have a scan of the first edition cover. I used to put those on here. If I find it, I’ll include it at the top. AND REMOVE THIS SENTENCE.

Man, I have so many of these classical canon pieces still to write up.