Monthly Archives: April 2013

April 27, 2013

35. Les diaboliques (1955)

directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi, with René Masson and Frédéric Grendel
after the novel Celle qui n’était plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (1952)


Criterion #35.

The title of course means basically “The Diabolicals” (assuming there to be such a noun). Clouzot stole it from a book by Barbey d’Aurevilly whose title is generally translated as “The She-Devils,” which can work for us too. Or just “The Devils.” (Google Translate interestingly gives “Evil.”) The novel upon which this was based was first published in English as “The Woman Who Was No More,” but then after the movie as “The Fiends.”

The English title of this movie has always been Diabolique, which is fascinating. A French title has been translated into a “French title” for American consumption, where part of the Frenchiness of the new title is that it is coyly adjectival — which the actual French title isn’t. Or perhaps that’s just a byproduct of a different logic: English has subsumed “-ique” as “French affect,” but not “Les.” “Les” would mean you were actually speaking a foreign language. But the title Diabolique is simply très chic — très Frenchique!

Apparently Les diaboliques was so popular on the arthouse circuit in the U.S. that it was subsequently picked up for mainstream distribution, which is obviously a rarity for foreign films. Had it gone to the mainstream first, it seems more likely that the title would have eschewed Frenchness altogether. (Maybe something like “Murder Is For Girls.”)

Is there a list of all the foreign films that have had full-scale U.S. distribution? e.g. in the past two decades, Life is Beautiful, Amélie, and The Artist? Etc.? I’d be interested to see such a list but I can’t find one online, which surprises me.

Here’s what I will venture to say about Diabolique: it is a suspense movie. For about half of it, I thought it was an unusually narrow and pure suspense movie, more like an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” — pared-down, lacking in the particulars that would make it stand out as a full-fledged movie. But eventually I realized that it seemed that way only because it has been so tremendously influential. It’s actually very particular. It’s a bit like The Lord of the Rings: if you read it and go “yeah, so it’s just another one of these books with magical elves and stuff? Like World of Warcraft or something?” you’re reading it historically wrong, and thus aesthetically wrong. I got my head around the real Diabolique by the end. It’s obviously very important.

Even though I knew 1) it had been influential, and 2) it was “Hitchcockian,” I genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen. Is it one of these or one of those? Or one of those? The answer is, it’s Diabolique, and once you’ve seen it you’ll know which other movies you’ve seen have been ripping it off. Many.

That kind of “which plot am I watching?” uncertainty isn’t really very different from the “naive original audience” perspective. The important thing is that you don’t know. Suspense!

Wanting not to spoil a movie for my readership is at odds with my spiritual goal of writing with myself as audience, so I’m going to break away from this stuff.

* Difference between Clouzot and Hitchcock is the difference in attitude taken toward the gamesmanship, like the difference between the stage personas of two magicians (which alone can make the same trick feel like two fundamentally different kinds of magical phenomena). Hitchcock wants you to notice his control over you. Clouzot sometimes just wants to use it. Being manipulated without a wink can be a more ambiguous experience. This is probably just a question of social style, but I think I side with Hitchcock here. It might be more childish to be constantly winking but some things are meant to be childish. If we’re going to find depth in these kinds of stories, it’s going to be through their resonant qualities, not through any kind of reality in our experiences of them. As for example Vertigo, a movie that has thematic depth without refraining from operating like a machine. Plot, as I’ve said, has its own characteristic capacities and tendencies, and these are plot movies we’re talking about.

* But the distinction between the two directors is minor. The styles are certainly related. And a big part of the difference in tone may simply be the lack of music in Diabolique, which provides a lot of the deadpan affect (and thus the implied winking) in Hitchcock. See below.

* I watched the first half of this while I had a fever. It fit, but after a point I thought maybe it fit too well and this sort of movie was never meant to have such a bodily power. The second half I watched a little later when I felt somewhat better. “Murder can be fun,” as Hitchcock said, but only if you’re not dying. The same goes for suspense, and fever is a kind of suspense. Once when I was home sick as a kid and watching The Princess Bride for the Nth time, the scene with the life-sucking torture machine suddenly became overwhelmingly nauseating and I ended up throwing up. Just another tick to put on my new chart that proves that empathy is overrated as a mode of experience.

* Criterion reissued this one with improved everything in 2011. There were plenty of the old one but only one copy of the new version in the library system. I got that one brought across town for me and I think it was well worthwhile. Sound and picture are very good, and I genuinely enjoyed one of the bonus features, an interview/musing by this guy where he cheerfully hits on what felt to me like all the right points about the status of this movie. Interesting to juxtapose his mode of critical commentary with the typical “film scholar” voice in the actual commentary track (which is only 45 minutes long, to an abbreviated version of the movie). She says mostly reasonable and relevant things, but her manner and language are false and sad in all the ways that the nerdy guy’s obvious enthusiasm is true and happy. Isn’t this distinction I’m making a very simple thing that even “the academy” could find it in itself to respect and honor?

* There’s also an “introduction” speech by a guy who wrote a book about Clouzot or something. That has a genuineness to it also but he’s less engaging and rides the line between being objectively informative and venturing his own opinions much less comfortably than the guy I liked. Perhaps my distinction of truth and cheer vs. fakery and tension derives from a distinction in how the speaker rates the significance of his or her own thoughts. People who are confident that it’s their right to think and talk will not try to pass off their opinions as anything but what they are. People who are less confident will often try to phrase their thoughts in ways that remind them of facts, or slip them in between facts to show that they deserve to be said. Scholarship seems to consist in great part of people using learning and language as a defensive coat of armor for the battlefield rather than as a glorious ceremonial coat of armor for a coronation. If you see what I’m saying.

So for I think the first time since The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock!) we have a bookend score, with a main title and a finale and no other music. It’s by Georges Van Parys, and to my ears at least is very Parisian, post-Honegger. It’s the sort of music that seems to want me to imagine what the score looks like. I can imagine it. (“Editions Choudens” it says, so I can even picture the type style.) It probably took him an hour to compose and an hour to orchestrate. If that. I don’t know how well it matches this movie (or to what degree a viewer perceives it as actually a part of the movie!) but it hardly matters: it’s very bold, unsettling stuff for opening titles and then it goes away. What else is it supposed to contribute?

Actually, let me correct that. When music emerges as we iris to black at the very end, there is a sense that the single big wink of the whole movie is descending. This is what I meant about the difference from Hitchcock and its relationship to the music — only when this music shows up do we hear unambiguously from the voice of the director, of the film itself. We go the whole length of the movie before he shows up to grin this weird “mwah-ha-ha” grin. So is this music what this movie is? I guess so. It’s playful in how dreadfully discordant it is. Here’s the whole score: Track 35.

April 24, 2013

34. Страсти по Андрею (1966)

directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
written by Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky and Andrei Tarkovsky


Criterion #34.

This is the movie you know as Andrei Rublev. Regarding the title, however:

The film was shot between 1964 and 1965. When Tarkovsky completed editing in 1966 he had given it the title seen in the frame above, which says “Strasti po Andreyu,” meaning “The Passion According to Andrei.” But this version was never shown. It was rejected by the Soviet authorities, who demanded cuts presumably relating to religious content, violence, nudity, and general un-Sovietness. Tarkovsky returned to editing and prepared a new version, 18 minutes shorter and altered throughout. In the process he retitled it simply Andrei Rublev. (Perhaps in response to Soviet discomfort with the explicitly Christian title.) This shorter version is the film that found its way into the 1969 Cannes film festival and was finally released a few years later.

Unlike every other release of this film, the Criterion DVD proudly offers the suppressed first version, reportedly sourced from a print that Martin Scorsese obtained on a visit to Russia. (The rumor online is that one of the editors had kept a copy of the suppressed version under her bed for 20 years and that Scorsese “smuggled” it out of the country.) Prior to the Criterion release of this material, it seems that this longer cut may never have been seen publicly.

So as titles go, the present film is pretty clearly called The Passion According to Andrei. But the packaging would have it that this is simply the preferred version of the film universally known as Andrei Rublev, which is accordingly what Criterion calls it. The back cover of the DVD makes clear that they are trying to have it both ways: it prints both titles as though the former were some sort of subtitle to the latter.

If you see this movie anywhere other than on this Criterion DVD, you will see a movie that is 18 minutes shorter, and which, significantly, omits or truncates some of the most shocking images seen here. (You will also see much sparser and less accurate subtitling, Criterion wants you to know.) That version, the standard version, is in fact viewable online for free, beautifully restored in very high quality, here + here, courtesy of Mosfilm, which is pretty cool of them. However, having just sampled a few minutes I will note that the sound mix is noticeably different and there seem to be all sorts of tiny editorial alterations throughout; so despite seemingly being 95% the same, it manages to have quite a different “feel.” And the feel counts for much of what I got out of this movie.

The image quality on the Criterion disc, taken as it was from that “smuggled” print of the long version (possibly the only surviving copy?), is decidedly suboptimal, especially compared to the crisp restoration linked above. There is a murky, low-contrast fadedness to the black & white tones, and a general ghosting/halo effect. When it started I was afraid that the whole thing was going to be distractingly milky and thin. But as it turned out, the spirit-photograph quality of the image was entirely suitable to the soft, dreamy flow of the movie. Or at least it made itself into a compelling whole for me.

This movie is long. The “short” version is 186 minutes. The version that I watched is 204 minutes. Yes, The Ten Commandments and some other Hollywood monstrosities are longer than that, but this is surely the longest “art film” I’ve ever seen. Knowing what I was in for, I adopted a soft, accepting frame of mind and let myself drift without judgment. This turned out wonderfully and I recommend it. It may well be that all movies respond well to being viewed in a trance state, but this one seemed particularly to welcome and reward it.

The film exudes such composure and purity that it isn’t clear how it could have been actually made, given all the business and complexity that goes into shooting a film, which usually leaves a clear mark. The staging, camerawork, and acting almost never have that telltale aspect of cleverness and contrivance that feels like the essence of direction (and thus of moviemaking); here things seem just to be happening as they will, and yet beautifully. That’s the aspiration of many a humanist art film, of course, and I’ve certainly seen some that manage to avoid any sense of being calculated, but it’s almost always at the expense of basic cinematic appeal; such movies tend to be loose, limp, and give the impression only of having traded one kind of phoniness for another much less useful kind. Not so here. I don’t really know how he achieves it (well, art, taste, and skill is how) but Tarkovsky’s style is exactly what arthouse film should be: the material is poetic and open, but the staging and photography are endlessly crafty and compelling. And not in some arid, schematic, intellectual sense, but in a real, engaging, cinematically viable sense. The camera is almost always in motion, and all of the camera-movement devices — pans, zooms, tracking shots — have that inevitable, intuitive quality that gives them each their particular magical meanings. The style has a wonderful sense of flow, like a river of imagery.

I don’t know how much all that is just a description of the peaceful frame of mind I assumed while watching. I think “only somewhat.” A quote from Ingmar Bergman is included in the DVD liner:

My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly I found myself standing at the door of a room, the keys to which, until then, had never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. … Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.

That very much matches my sense of what I saw and encourages me that I didn’t simply zone out and then experience the movie as an aspect of that zone. But it is certainly in keeping with the zone: it is deeply unanxious filmmaking. It is “painterly” in the proper sense of the word, i.e. not meaning that it indulges in lavish decorative visuals, but rather that unlike most film, which draws primarily on the arts of the theater (and of the printed page), it genuinely draws on the visual and emotional language of painting. And incorporates the dimension of movement as an organic component of that language. There is movement in the frame so that there can be stillness in the mind. Or so.

This is all appropriate because the movie is ostensibly about a painter, though the action has very little to do with his painting, and often very little to do even with Andrei Rublev himself. The film is episodic and oblique and philosophical. It leaps around in time and place. It is broadly about life. I was reminded of Tree of Life, and of what else I’ve seen of Terence Malick. Obviously the influence goes the other way there. Whereas despite Bergman’s quote about Tarkovsky’s influence on him, The Seventh Seal, to which Andrei Rublev bears family resemblance in several aspects, precedes it by 9 years. Also, the emphasis on very long takes of the camera gliding dreamily through space reminded me, of all things, of Terry Gilliam. That uber-grandiose pullback shot from Baron Munchhausen that I’ve mentioned before is, I now see, the wacky comic-book descendant of several equally spectacular shots here. Unlike most philosophical arty films, the scale here is often very grand, with a horde of warriors on horseback, or shots that take in acres of landscape filled with hundreds of well-placed figures.

The movie ends with exactly the same gesture that I found affecting in the novel of Doctor Zhivago. For many reasons it’s even more affecting here, especially if you’ve been lulled into a state of dreamy receptivity and thus emotional openness, as I had been. After 3 hours you probably will be.

(The content of this movie, mind you, is not itself soothing. There is some really horrific medieval cruelty, culminating in a central long sequence of a town being sacked and people being tortured and slaughtered. There are also a couple of hard-to-watch shots of animal cruelty, some of which are apparently simulated, but one of which is most definitely the real suffering and death of a horse (confirmed on Wikipedia!). That’s hard, shocking stuff.)

Basically, this was high art and I welcomed it. It is made with a very deep intuition for the medium, luxurious to watch. It is tonal and the tone it sustains is a very worthy one. If it has a message, I would say the message is “Life is much bigger than good and evil, kindness and cruelty; so should art be. So do what you can do.” A good message. Also, understand that it does not have a message. It is a piece of art made to be reflected upon.

The film has a very fine score by Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov, as sensitive and essentially cinematic as the camera style. The score is used sparsely and to excellent effect; whenever it is present it is lovely and well-judged. It only really breaks out at the end: the finale that I alluded to a moment ago is accompanied by a big extended piece for chorus and orchestra. It stands alone and is by far the most musically ambitious piece in the score, so I think it has to be my selection. I was a little reluctant about this choice because it’s almost a spoiler to hear this, the catharsis, without earning it over the course of the movie. But I don’t think spoilers can apply here; heard out of context I certainly don’t think anything is actually “spoiled.” This track is also longer than all our other selections, but that seems appropriate since this is the longest movie yet. (Oh no wait, Seven Samurai was longer. Well, that had a long musical selection too.)

So here is the Finale, our track 34. The transcendental 2001-like effect should be apparent. This is a movie that is about big things and this is the revelatory sound of big things. (As heard on this wobbly old print.) It is, I think, worth taking a moment to note how well this is achieved here and then to reflect on the dreadful ineptitude with which the “epic” effect is attempted in offensive caricature by every stupid comic-book movie score of the present day.

The disc has some intelligent quasi-scholarly commentary, but only on selected scenes, which is a little annoying to have to search and find. It also has some clips from interviews with Tarkovsky, which are very good.

I very much look forward to more Tarkovsky. Criterion’s not going to come through for me until #164, but on my own authority I might well resort to Mosfilm’s youtube selection, where several others are available.

Sorry this entry was long and dull. Sometimes they come out that way. And the work necessary to now make it short and dull does not appeal to me.

April 16, 2013

33. Nanook of the North (1922)

directed by Robert Flaherty


Criterion #33.

This is by far the best of the Nanook series, though Nanook Out West and Nanook Makes a Mistake are pretty good too. The plot is much as you’d imagine: Nanook gets up to his typical hijinks (walrus hunting, igloo building), with crotchety old Mr. Jenkins as the butt of most of the humor. This is the episode from which we get the expression “What a Nanook!”, nowadays used to describe anyone who spears a seal to death through a hole in the ice.

As usual, the songs are a bit corny.

There may or may not be a really stupid joke somewhere on this page. Sorry everybody, just trying to be like “Nyla — The Smiling One.”

My primary reaction during Nanook is a thought that will be hard for me to put into words. But here goes: The way things actually happened wasn’t necessarily the right way or the best way, but people want to believe it was. It probably sounds like I’m talking about the issue of documentary realism, but I’m talking about the status of this movie itself. This is the first documentary feature, very influential, fine. It is not unwatchable garbage. You get to see an Eskimo build an igloo, etc. It’s interesting for what it is. But in an alternate history, might the first documentary feature have been much, much better than this? Yes.

I guess I had this thought because with documentary material, the conflation of significance with distinction tends to be even more treacherous. How much of our boredom is appropriate to blame on Flaherty? After all, the only claim here is very basic: everything you’re seeing happened and was shot on film, in a faraway place you’re unlikely to visit. True, and valuable. (On the level on which this film works, the accusations that it was “staged” seem to me mostly irrelevant. We can see very well that the packaging is 20s newsreel exoticism, which as an authorial voice is a well-known huckster; we watch not for that voice of the intertitles but for the the voice of the film itself, which cannot tell a lie. This light actually reflected off these people and this snow, and passed into the camera.)

But the purity of “it happened and now you can watch it” is nothing new — it’s the foundation, the origin of the film medium. That’s what all the Edison films were. It’s still going strong. The thing Flaherty is getting credit for here is making film-as-reportage feature-length and giving it editorial heft and flair. Those are things this movie does only very clumsily. But the movie is celebrated because it’s the one, and because the essence of what we’re celebrating is basically beyond criticism. Well, I’m criticizing.

Nanook is interesting as such. The key words being AS SUCH. All things are as such but some things are more as such than others.

I had seen this movie once before, in fifth grade, when it was shown I guess as part of our school’s neverending “unit” on Native Americans. It turned out that I recognized a few images, but mostly my memory was that it seemed strange at the time that this obvious antique was being shown to us as though were still suitable classroom material — it still seems strange, in retrospect. And that the class had been utterly scandalized by the appearance of naked breasts — combined with the ancientness of the film, it seemed that something very obviously wrong had been inflicted on us; some kind of filter in the fabric of school had clearly broken. On this viewing I was surprised to find that the breasts in question are very hard to see and onscreen for less than two seconds. Not to a fifth grader!

Music here is original to this release (or to a recent prior Kino release), and is by Timothy Brock, performed by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Olympia, but next time I’m there I know not to go hear the Chamber Orchestra. Brock’s composition itself is quite dull — I get that this movie is a thankless assignment but spinning out 75 minutes of obviousness to match is insufficiently bold, I think — but the real problem is the first violin, who simply cannot play in tune. (Not that the other players are that much better.) Since the entire score is effects-free, I could have chosen pretty much anything. I’m giving you the 30-second cue corresponding to the close-ups introducing Nanook and Nyla. This is the “Nanook theme.” For us, it’ll do. Track 33.

I went in search of the 1947 score by Rudolf Schramm, which is the one I must have heard in fifth grade, but I can’t find it online. However you can listen to an interesting 1976 score by Stanley Silverman here — in a Copland style, but not the one you’d think.

April 15, 2013

32. Oliver Twist (1948)

directed by David Lean
screenplay by David Lean and Stanley Haynes
after the novel by Charles Dickens (1838)


Criterion #32.

A movie like beautiful illustrations. Some of the richest black-and-white tone I’ve ever seen, like a charcoal sketch. Even in the title screen above you can see it. The opening storm sequence, with its few bold expressionist strokes, is as fantastical as anything off the Alexeieff/Parker pinscreen.

But of course, this sort of thing alternates through the film with the rather conventional dialogue scenes. That’s the David Lean way, it seems: like an old N.C. Wyeth edition, there are always a few wonderful “plates” but in between it’s no different from any other grown-up book without pictures. (That’s unfair to David Lean, grown-ups, books, and me, but you get the idea.)

If you aren’t aware, Oliver Twist is a beloved story about a meek little boy born into a horrible world of child abuse from which the only escape is deus ex machina. The plot basically consists of a small child suffering, and then getting away only to find himself suffering in some new way. I know this is a classic case of critic’s toothache syndrome, but on the day I watched this movie I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why that’s a story people enjoy. (I just coined “critic’s toothache syndrome” but surely the meaning is clear.) Dickens meant it as political propaganda; it’s not all that different from those magazine ads with a big third-world harelip. Come on guys, I was reading that!

Except with Oliver Twist Dickens isn’t just throwing it in your face; he’s drawing you in with his whole voluminous bag of manipulation tricks. The whole time, we’re compelled into heartily root-root-rooting for this poor little kid not to get abused any more. “Yeah, run away!” “Yeah, beat up that mean kid!” “Boo, adults!” “Boo, London!” “Boo, world!”

Toward the end I realized that my problem was mostly the result of failing in my quest to watch everything like a kid. It all would have gone down smoothly enough if I had only “empathized,” which is a pleasant form of playing along, rather than empathized, which is grueling and a waste of time.

But whether it was the movie or the toothache I don’t know. For all I know it might actually have been the movie. Beth watched it with me and she said she felt worn out for the same reasons. But of course that’s her way. It isn’t always mine, or at least so I thought.

Alec Guinness with a false nose is Fagin the horrible horrible Jew, though unlike the novel the script does not explicitly indicate that he is Jewish. I mention it only because there it is and it was apparently controversial on the original release (Criterion boasts that they are restoring 12 minutes of his performance that were excised for later releases). I certainly don’t take it personally nor do I think that a movie like this poses any real danger in the present day, which is not to say that this isn’t fine material for forming a nice ugly stereotype if shown to the right people at the right age. But what isn’t? Certainly everyone else in Dickens is. I feel like my current mildly enlightened, mildly bigoted perspective on the varieties of man is really just a heap of stereotypes that have been subjected to erosion. Isn’t that all anyone has to work with? I have Fagin in there just like everyone else.

Robert Newton as Bill Sykes oddly gets top billing. Apparently this is the role that “made” Alec Guinness, to some degree anyway, so his name wasn’t yet a selling point. In fact the preview introduces him by explicitly reminding you that you saw him in Great Expectations, and which one he was, saying something like “who could forget Alec Guinness?”. The kid in the title role does a fine job though it’s mostly one of looking pathetic. He is clearly the prototype for the casting of Chocolate Factory Charlie. Kay Walsh shrieks a little too hard, is a little too pretty and put together for the part, and is David Lean’s then-wife so it all fits together. Francis L. Sullivan continues to have the biggest face in movies. Speaking of which, this funny face was in there very briefly and I racked my brain trying to figure out where I’d seen it. Peter Bull, a quintessential “hey it’s that guy.” Having looked him up, I think Dr. Strangelove must be my answer.

The music is that rare thing: a movie score by a famous “serious” composer. Well, as famous as Sir Arnold Bax, anyway. It has the standard strengths and weaknesses of the species: it is significantly classier and more aesthetically refined on its own terms than most movie music, and it is also never entirely apt. Film scoring is a special skill and it’s not necessarily a very arty one. This isn’t an exceedingly arty score but it’s arty enough to miss the mark. Or rather, to stubbornly set a mark that isn’t quite the same as the film’s mark.

My music selection here is a little unorthodox SO BRACE YOURSELVES. I’ve chosen a cue from the middle of the movie that has a fair amount of foley throughout (doors shutting, crying, a rooster crowing, etc. etc.) even though this movie offers a standard Main Title with no such offending sound effects. The reason is that the Main Title music doesn’t give much of a sense of the distinct voice of this score, nor does it offer the main theme in a clear and direct way. Whereas this cue (known on the soundtrack as “Oliver’s sleepless night”) does. This cue also features the concertante piano that is a particularly distinctive occasional feature of the score (played by Harriet Cohen, with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Muir Matheson). Choosing this cue over the Main Title seemed inevitable to me after I saw that the short concert suite Bax put together from the score has this cue as its first movement and gives it the title “Theme.”

Without further ado: here it is.

These are the sounds of Oliver having been sent to his room in the undertaker’s house (where he sleeps under a coffin) closing the door, crying to himself, and then later, at dawn, sneaking out before anyone wakes up and running away to London. The piano concerto texture was reportedly suggested by Lean himself as a way of suggesting Oliver’s delicate soul against the whole cruel world. In absence of the picture it sort of does that. With the picture it starts just to seem like some odd classical music is playing. Occasionally to interesting effect, occasionally not.

April 13, 2013

31. Great Expectations (1946)

directed by David Lean
written by Charles Dickens
adapted for the screen by David Lean, Ronald Neame, and Anthony Havelock-Allan, with Kay Walsh and Cecil McGivern


Criterion #31.

I sometimes have to crop out black borders on the frames that I grab; depending on the aspect ratio and the way the DVD was created, the movie image doesn’t always go all the way to the edge of the screen. Since title frames are often mostly black, which can make the edges hard to detect, I often also grab a frame from elsewhere in the movie just to determine the correct frame size, and then apply that to the title card. I say this because you’ll notice in the frame above there seems to be a black border that looks like ought to be cropped, certainly on the right and left and maybe on the top and bottom too. But when I went to compare to the rest of the DVD, to my surprise I found that apart from these opening credits, the movie completely fills the frame. You’ll also notice that the title looks kind of crooked, has terrible contrast, and is all ghosty. This is all to say that something is wrong with the titles on this disc, as though they couldn’t find a good source for them. Or else they just screwed up somehow and forgot to do their own crop.

Even the version at has cleaner titles. Of related interest: you can watch this movie at

This is very cozy, trustworthy movie in the old tradition. I am pleased to report that I am still able to watch this sort of thing with no analytical impulses whatever. A lot of craft had to go into a movie like this and I am delighted to find myself in the luxurious position of simply being its beneficiary, rather than running some kind of surrogate production company in my head like an anxious understudy.

We, the audience, ought to be like Pip if we can, living on someone else’s dime and not having to know whether our benefactor is a crazy old lady or a filthy old man. I can say this because this disc had no commentary or extras. I say huzzah for that: it was just a movie!

Part of the reason I can retain the serenity not to “think” about a movie like this is because it’s the sort of movie that I’ve seen since I was a child and so its shortcomings are of the sort that I long ago learned to tolerate. Or rather that I learned to perceive as mysterious, part of an adult world of sense that wasn’t yet mine. Boredom in those days was neither my fault nor the movie’s; it was explained by my youth and unworldliness, so all was forgiven — of me and of the movie.

I daresay that when I was young I would have been much too bored by this movie to watch it all the way through. But that doesn’t mean I would have “disliked” it. One good image was a perfectly acceptable harvest in those days. This one has quite a few good sturdy images, starting with the graveyard scene at the very beginning. (I think I probably would have been spooked by that scene and also disappointed by the fact that the movie doesn’t make good on its implicit promise to be about spooky stuff. Books and movies were constantly pulling this sort of stunt when I was a kid. Where’s my portrait with moving eyes, dammit?)

Incidentally, I would have been bored because of what I might now say is a great strength: that it’s so true to the long-scroll/fine-brush quality of Dickens. Simultaneous commitment to the pleasures of intricate plot and to scene-painting — to the horizontal and the vertical, as they say in music — felt to me then like contradictory impulses. Delaying the answer to a mystery with a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with the mystery felt like abuse, or simply like an error, one that adult storytelling constantly made. I had no interest in pushing and popping while processing a plot. Adults are much more accustomed to stack management as a matter of course and like to feel that it enriches things. As to which attitude is correct, I’m ultimately agnostic — I’ve certainly learned very well how to savor the Dickensian method (the function of the “retarding element“), but straight-ahead no-background storytelling still feels pure to me — but I definitely prefer to be in a place where I can see both my possible attitudes equally. An old fashioned movie like this is the perfect way; images are by their nature straight-ahead even when the movie tries not to be.

This is how a Dickens movie should look and feel. The art direction was perfect. I see that I’m not the only one to feel this way about this movie. Another thing I am not the only one to feel is that the first half hour, with young Pip and Estella, is more satisfying than the rest, with grown Pip and Estella, because the adult actors aren’t as compelling. I didn’t mind so much that John Mills is clearly much much older than his character, but I did mind that Valerie Hobson is simply not a worthy successor to Jean Simmons in any department. (Valerie Hobson was, for what it’s worth, the producer’s wife, so who knows what David Lean might have thought. Probably everyone knew very well that she was the wrong choice. The movie is sort of designed not to rely very much on the adult Estella.)

Music, very comfortably done in the expected operetta/Hollywood style, is by Walter Goehr, better known as a conductor. Here’s the Main Title, your track 31 (disc 2 track 1!). This doesn’t really do the score justice; there’s quite a bit of music and some other cues are better and more original, but this is the title! It’s the big theme and that’s how it has to be. Sorry that the clarinets don’t keep it together in this take, but you know how rushed recording days can be.

More of the same to follow in #32.

April 12, 2013

30. M (1931)

directed by Fritz Lang
written by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang


Criterion #30. Hey, 30!

30. The commentary is annoying. It’s two academics, one of whom continually babbles the very worst sort of aca-double-talk, and the other of whom basically says “ibid.” It just so happens that I took a distribution requirement course from this very same double-talker back at Large University — my only official dip into Film Studies. I’ve said this about other commentaries but of course this time it was especially true: the bullshit brought me back. This stuff serves an important role in preventing me from judging my past self harshly. Why couldn’t I have been more engaged, retained more, taken school more seriously? I’ll tell you why: because they talked like this.

29. When did it become standard for insecure academic bullshit artists to tart up their circuities and truisms with meaningless, weak-blooded wordplay? A la “in this dialectic, to interrogate is to derogate, so to say.” (Or “Dis/course is stupid, I wish I hadn’t taken it.” Joke.) By the time of my graze with the Academy, this sort of thing seemed well entrenched, at least on the “Theory” side of things. I (we) always rolled our eyes at it as though it were a new sort of inane fad but I now wonder if it wasn’t already decades old. Someone somewhere was originally responsible for this, and someone nearby was responsible for endorsing it. I am disgusted with them both. (But in this dialectic, is not disgust a disguise, so to say?)

28. Anyway, the guy does a bit of that, and he certainly did it back in the day. But mostly what he does is say dull things (or semi-things) of dubious validity in an evasively longwinded way. Beth said the commentary lowered her opinion of Large University. Well then, that needed to happen.

27. Fritz Lang’s immortal film M has no musical score whatsoever, which throws a mini-wrench in my mini-works. How am I supposed to come up with a track for my megamix? Well, I did what I could, see below. But first let me address the issue of the no music. This is Lang’s first sound film. He apparently strongly resisted sound for a year and a half, and then wrapped his head around it and made this. The use of sound here is aggressive and purposeful. Off-screen sound effects are used very overtly to create a sense of space, or to create a sense of a modern city where e.g. car horns punctuate conversations. Harsh screeches and whistles are used to jar us in moments when the characters feel jarred. Peter Lorre as the killer is marked by his whistling, off-screen and on. And most notably, several sequences play in absolute silence. This is a very peculiar and stark effect that feels almost unique to this movie. The only other “completely silent” scene I can think of is the mirror sequence from Duck Soup. Anyone else?

28. But: one of the many extras on the disc is a gallery of still images, among which is something called “original German program” from the UFA-Palast am Zoo, the theater where the film premiered. Above the cast list it announces: “Vorspiel zu dem Film: ‘M’ / An der Wurlitzer Orgel: Billy Barnes”. Then follows the credits of the film (which incidentally do not appear in the film itself.) What this makes clear is that Billy Barnes (an American, oddly enough) played an organ prelude before the movie, as was common in the days of the silents. What it leaves ambiguous is whether or not he continued playing during the movie, which was, of course, also common it the days of the silents. It seems entirely plausible to me that in the earliest days of sound, a filmmaker might have assumed that music would always be performed live, and that the synchronized soundtrack was just for dialogue and diegetic effects. This, I thought, would certainly make sense of the silent sequences in M, which are generally scenes of suspense or of scale, both of which are occasions where films tend to lean more heavily on music. This train of speculation appealed to me.

27. However, after some Google-research I can’t find any mention of the notion of an accompanied M at all. A moderately strong case against my speculation about an organ score is the fact that M has been shown with no music for many decades, during which time Fritz Lang and others (e.g. the editor Paul Falkenberg, who is heard on the disc making commentary during a screening in the 70s) had plenty of opportunity to protest, to remind the world that musical accompaniment had been assumed. Seeing as they seem never to have done this, I guess it’s unlikely. On the other hand, the excellent through-composed original score for Metropolis simply disappeared from use for many decades even though its existence was no great secret, and Lang seems not to have protested that either. So I have to wonder whether this simply was a matter where nobody cared enough, and whether Lang, a notorious self-revisionist, didn’t mind getting credit for the very bold effect the silence happens to produce in the absence of music.

26. All I’m saying is, next time you watch M, try imagining that it is designed to accommodate live music, and tell me whether not it seems feasible to you. It does to me.

25. What then are we going to put on our all-Criterion soundtrack album? I’m afraid it has to be this, obviously the “theme” of M if there is one: Track 30. Trivia from the disc: Lorre couldn’t whistle, so this is the writer (Lang’s wife and collaborator) Thea von Harbou dubbing him. The disc also shows that later re-edited reissues of the movie with credits added accompanied them with an orchestral version of “Hall of the Mountain King.” It’s not at all appropriate for the film as a whole but it’s nonetheless the only real choice.

24. Having reached 30 tracks and (by my calculations) 70 minutes of music, I’m declaring disc 1 of this soundtrack mix complete. Time to burn it and get ready for disc 2.

23. I know, there are no discs anymore, but these gargantuan playlists you can buy online now with many hundreds of tracks give me a little bit of an agoraphobic feeling. It’s good for things to be bounded.

22. For your convenience, and to encourage actual relistening:

1. Grand Illusion (1937) Main Title Joseph Kosma 1:59
2. Seven Samurai (1954) Intermission Fumio Hayasaka 5:22
3. The Lady Vanishes (1938) Complete Charles Williams 3:25
4. Amarcord (1973) Main Title Nino Rota 2:24
5. The 400 Blows (1959) Main Title Jean Constantin 2:51
6. Beauty and the Beast (1946) Main Title Georges Auric 2:17
7. A Night to Remember (1958) Main Title William Alwyn 2:32
8. The Killer (1989) Main Title Lowell Lo 1:55
9. Hard Boiled (1992) End Credits Michael Gibbs 1:36
10. Walkabout (1971) “Back to Nature” John Barry 3:50
11. The Seventh Seal (1957) Main Title Erik Nordgren 0:30
12. This is Spinal Tap (1984) “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” Michael McKean 1:24
13. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) End Credits Howard Shore 4:34
14. Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954) Main Title/Finale Ikuma Dan 1:51
15. Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) Main Title Ikuma Dan 2:16
16. Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956) Main Title Ikuma Dan 1:53
17. Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1976) Main Title Ennio Morricone 2:53
18. The Naked Kiss (1964) Main Title Paul Dunlap 1:31
19. Shock Corridor (1963) Main Title Paul Dunlap 1:13
20. Sid and Nancy (1986) “Garbage Kills” Dan Wool 1:20
21. Dead Ringers (1988) Main Title Howard Shore 2:14
22. Summertime (1955) Exit Music Alessandro Cicognini 0:34
23. RoboCop (1987) End Credits Basil Poledouris 6:12
24. High and Low (1963) Main Title Masaru Sato 2:05
25. Alphaville (1965) “La ville inhumaine” Paul Misraki 1:28
26. The Long Good Friday (1979) Main Title Francis Monkman 1:34
27. Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) Main Title Claudio Gizzi 2:24
28. Blood for Dracula (1974) Main Title Claudio Gizzi 3:05
29. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) “The Ascent Music” Bruce Smeaton 2:40
30. M (1931) [“Peer Gynt”] [Edvard Grieg] 0:45

My top marks so far would go to:

4. Amarcord
5. The 400 Blows
10. Walkabout
20. Sid and Nancy
21. Dead Ringers
25. Alphaville
26. The Long Good Friday

And maybe a few more. Movie music is fun.

22. This was my first in my Criterion project that I watched on Blu-ray. Yes, high definition is definitely better than not. But here’s something I’ve only just now learned: getting a screenshot of a DVD menu is no problem, but getting a screenshot of a Blu-ray menu is a pain in the ass. Blu-ray menus are programmed in some kind of Java variant and are not currently fully implemented in any free software. When you play the disc you just see the background video loop with no visible menus. And the commercial software players never want to let you take screenshots. I struggled for a while and then just ended up grabbing the above menu image from dvdbeaver, who seem to have figured out how to do it. I assure you it looked exactly like that on my copy too.

21. Pretty interesting, right?

20. Apart from the commentary criticized above, the supplemental features are great. The jewel is William Friedkin’s filmed 1974 interview with Lang. There’s also the aforementioned Paul Falkenberg audio, recorded at the New School in the mid-70s, which is genuinely interesting — part of the pleasure being hearing the New Yorky voices of the students and imagining the whole milieu. Then there’s a sort of “sweding” of M by Claude Chabrol for TV in the 80s, followed by an interview in which he talks about the experience and about Lang’s technique. While not much to watch, this “remake” turned out to be really helpful to me in seeing the film as others have seen it, in all its iconic splendor. In picking the shots he wanted to remake, and inevitably exaggerating some aspects and disregarding others, Chabrol showed me what M is, not in itself, but in the culture and in people’s impressions, which is ultimately maybe of more interest. Or at least of separate and equal interest. It was almost as good as seeing a bit of it parodied in Looney Tunes or on The Simpsons.

19. There’s also a featurette about the “physical history” of the film, the ways it was recut, remade, lost, misused, and then misrestored. Leading, it is implied, up to this newly ideal version, from 2004.

18. Except! I actually saw M in the theater just a week before sitting down with the Criterion disc, because it’s now in distribution in a new and improved restoration that apparently is 7 minutes longer, reincorporating material not seen since 1931, etc. etc. I racked my brains on watching the Criterion disc to try to remember what else had been in the new version but couldn’t. I think maybe there was a little more to the scene where people on the street harass an innocent old man, but that’s all I can come up with. However I did have the impression of the image having been even cleaner and more stable in the new restoration. A tough thing to hold in the memory accurately and compare.

17. Seeing it with a live audience was interesting, though. All the tenser and stranger when it would go dead silent.

16. I like this countdown thing I’m doing, because it shows me when I’m going to be done.

15. But 30 was clearly too many.

14. Am I right, folks?

13. So, M.

12. Stephen Dedalus thinking back on his adolescent ambitions: “Books you were going to write with letters for titles. Have you read his F? Yes, but I prefer Q. Yes, but W is wonderful. O yes, W.”

11. You’d think Sesame Street would have jumped at this one. (Except for the pedophile/murderer thing.) But come on, this movie really is brought to you by the letter M! I guess they never did The Scarlet Letter either. (Or The Story of O.) So many missed opportunities.

10. This is a very peculiar movie. As Chabrol’s riff made clear, its great impact was visual and atmospheric; it’s basically the founding document of film noir. Trench-coated underworlders slinking down shadowy streets! But looking back at it from our post-Raymond Chandler perspective, what stands out is just how little it actually conforms to those expectations. It’s just not really one of those movies. It’s actually a free improvisation on an “issue” movie, the issue being, well, serial child murder. (And more generally, child safety.) There had been several well-publicized murder sprees in Germany in the late 20s, so this was a highly topical sort of luridness. From this theme Lang basically spins off a meandering, ambivalent portrait of society and the ways it flails about trying to rid itself of a madman.

9. The thing that makes it so peculiar is that nearly every character in the society except for the murderer is depicted with a certain degree of playful cynicism. (As for example the hilarious shot of the head detective’s bulging crotch as he slouches sweatily in his chair.) But Peter Lorre’s character is, apparently, too troubled and weird and compelling to require any such commentary from the camera. The upshot is that the murderer comes off as being handled with greater sympathy than the world around him, even as it’s clear that his crimes are absolutely evil. This gives the strange impression that overlaid on this story about a society trying to cure its ills is another kind of story, the kind that’s usually about an artist, an outsider who lives in a way that is spiritually beyond those around him.

8. The uneasy juxtaposition of these two molds for the “outsider” story is essentially what Lolita plays on: the full, sensitive soul who feels misunderstood by a vapid world might well be a really horrible creep. Hans Beckert, the murderer here, is hardly a “full sensitive soul,” but his emotions are deeper and his psychology more layered than anyone else in this movie. The scene where he sadly makes a monster face at himself in the mirror establishes him as self-aware in a way nobody else in this world is. And his shrieking monologue at the end is chilling in part simply because it’s about psychology, and who would have thought anyone would dare “go there” in this sort of movie?

7. The philosophical effect at the end is excellent — you get drawn into the debate (“How do you solve a problem like M?”), become convinced that it is indeed an ugly and difficult subject with no satisfying answer, and feel temporarily relieved when it gets turned over to THE LAW. And just as that relief wears off, seconds later (“Wait, what is the law going to say?”), the movie swerves away and leaves you stuck there with an accusing finger pointed at you: you shall get no relief. There is no ultimate relief and no ultimate authority in this business of being a society. You have to live by what you believe, all the time.

6. And yet there are also long passages of the movie that don’t have much to do with the big message, with noir, with anything. It just gets caught up in its own goofy plotting. Why does the scene where the criminals are discussing plans have to go on and on? What are we supposed to make of the extent and duration of the sequence where the entire criminal underworld trashes an office building in search of the murderer?

5. As with some other very early sound films, the versions for foreign distribution actually involved some reshoots. The disc contains “the English version,” only recently rediscovered, which is very shoddily done and which I’ll admit I didn’t watch all the way through. It’s mostly just a cloddish dub, with a few replacement shots of printed text and a few dialogue scenes of the police redone with terrible actors. The only real reason anyone would want to watch it is that it features Peter Lorre himself doing his monologue at the end in English. But it’s clear that he’s in a completely different frame of mind on a different day, that Lang isn’t present, and that he’s just phoning it in, if not downright sabotaging it. He also did it in French, which you can watch in one of the extras. Similarly low-energy.

4. Four left, huh?

3. For all that I’m saying it’s an unusual movie and I don’t entirely know what to make of it, it’s very clear why it’s a renowned classic. It has force. You feel Lang’s complete control and cinematic sense of purpose in every shot. That a movie shot this way is eccentric in substance just makes it all the richer for rewatching. This is the stuff Film Studies are made of.

2. I’m not necessarily endorsing that. I also like films that do one thing, excellently. In fact I think I prefer them. Who needs a rich text when you can go to the movies?

1. But I did enjoy this.

0. Done.

April 6, 2013

Between zero and one

Very little music.

I think my policy of “rounding things off so that I can post them” has been destructive to my creative process/progress. The idea of the blog was to get used to the feeling that the world might be able to see what I’m doing here in my room, since it shouldn’t actually make a difference to me. The reason for the exercise being that it actually made a paralyzingly big difference to me. As it seemed impossible for me not to apply some kind of self-censorship, I tried to compromise by making a point of appeasing the fear with an absolutely minimal effort. I.e. when I heard myself think “I don’t think this music is worth letting people hear!” I’d answer it with “Well you’re wrong, it’s fine, and the proof will be in facing your fear, so why don’t you just put a bow on it and then you can lay it out there for them to see.”

But this turns out to be problematic because it still means that I end up stopping any actual creative process at the point that my first anxiety arises. It stops with a positive spin rather than a negative one, but it still stops. The anxiety is like a timer going off: okay, pencils down, the moment has arrived to prove to yourself that everything is actually fine! This is pretty restrictive.

I think the actual path to artistic fulfillment is to take one’s own idiosyncrasies so very seriously and devote such time and love to them that they are strengthened and deepened and made whole enough to be compelling to others. You’ll never get there if you keep changing the goal to merely convincing yourself that your impulses are not embarrassing. That’s like a rating system that goes from negative 10 to 0. And, this was my point, it’s a very short game. Too short to get much done before the bell.

I’m writing this after posting this particular tiny fragment of music because for once I really didn’t put a bow on it or try to shape it or anything. It’s just sketchbook stuff as is. When the bell rang I wrote this instead.

Maybe soon I will realize that I am not afraid to post things that I don’t consider “presentable,” because I am finally genuinely immune to evaluation — I think I’m at least narrowing on it — and then will no longer want to. The only point of all this, after all, has been to exercise myself. The moment of presentation should just be a choice of its own, equally unburdened. I have my own ideas about when that should be.

Of course for years I neither showed much to anyone nor did anything particularly whole or ambitious in private. I certainly don’t want to revert to that. But I think the anxiety of being evaluated was still subconsciously informing both aspects. Privacy can be used far better when it doesn’t feel like hiding.

Though maybe being disinterested in whether I’m being seen is a muscle that will always need exercise for upkeep.

April 4, 2013

29. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

directed by Peter Weir
screenplay by Cliff Green
from the novel by Joan Lindsay (1967)


Criterion #29.

(I needed to take some time to really separate the names “Peter Weir” and “Nicholas Roeg.” These guys have absolutely nothing to do with each other other than that each has an unusual four-letter last name and each has made at least one spooky movie about Australia, but that seems to be enough for my brain to mix them up. Key points: Nicholas Roeg is not himself Australian; Peter Weir is. Nicholas Roeg’s career since the 70s has been almost entirely eccentric whereas Peter Weir became increasingly commercial. Nicholas Roeg: Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth, The Witches. Peter Weir: The Last Wave, Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, Master and Commander. These guys have absolutely nothing to do with each other.

I’ve now taken the time. This will not be a problem again.)

I bet you’re reading this because you want to know what happened to those girls who mysteriously disappeared at Hanging Rock! Sorry, guys, I don’t know.

Oh fine, I’ll tell you. They passed out of objective time and into dreamtime, transcending the logic of narrative just as the trance of the sensual transcends the rational mind. (Whew! Case closed! What a relief to wrap that one up.)

Thing is, if you’ve seen the movie you already knew that. And yet you still probably felt like there was a mystery here. That’s the point. The point is that just as the irrational can never be reconciled to the rational, a movie can shout and shout “This movie is about the irrational!” and people still won’t be able to stop themselves from writing that this film, ahem, “raises more questions than it answers.”

That’s not true in the most important sense; the movie makes its intentions very clear. It rather belabors the point, in fact. The first 30 minutes are something special and lovely indeed but after that it does tend to go on. (Not that I particularly minded — possibly because I had been so soothed already. Which suggests a good rule of thumb for filmmakers: if you start your movie with a hypnotic induction, the audience will be very forgiving of the rest.)

I picture a sign in a hotel lobby: “WELCOME QUESTIONS WITH NO ANSWERS CONFERENCE!” I did not find this movie mysterious as a movie; it was well marked. It was about mystery. It basks in it and then shows us characters struggling to come to terms with it one way or another, which is of course what cannot be done. They resist it at their peril. But there is no “it.” Non-being.

The idea of a horror movie about calm pleasantness, about the cosmic menace implicit in all experience, thrills me and whispers very close to my heart. This is only partially that, but when it was, it felt precious to me. The first section is sort of like Vermeer as horror. Or more on the nose would be Pre-Raphaelite stuff, which often seems to be deliberately cultivating those undertones. (A reproduction of this one is shown briefly in the movie.)

Don’t come telling me this movie is an allegory about sexual awakening. I am so sick of that shit and I will fight you. I pity the people for whom sex is the only form of mystery they are willing to acknowledge, and even then only as a kind of conspiracy to be unmasked. But pity shades pretty readily into resentment because these sorts of people will never stop trying to get you to see what they see and “admit it! admit it!” They should take note that there is a bad guy in this movie, but it’s not some Moby-Dick of the universe gobbling up unsuspecting girls; it’s petty headmistress Ahab who suppresses her awareness of the numinous and ruins lives. Don’t be like her! Don’t come springing your shit on me.

Also, the movie tells us several times over that the girls who returned from the rock were QUITE INTACT. The smug hypocrites with their “duh it’s about rape” T-shirts (pulled over their straw bodies, yes) probably think that this only confirms the centrality of sex to the meaning of the movie. If anything, it works the other way — the girls’ virginity is only one of many metaphors to access the essential. The girls are QUITE INTACT compared to these provincial doctors who needlessly clinicalize the cosmic. This movie is in fact a rebuttal to all the “duh it’s about rape” that goes on out there. I’m all for it. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who wants to stand up for Lewis Carroll and poor Alice; I feel like this movie was on my side. For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

I can’t help but see this movie in terms of a right brain/left brain model (lame as that is). The left brain wants to know the right brain but it cannot, it can only make way for it or stifle it. Sex is just one of the things that cannot ever be dragged out into the light; the more you theorize it and politicize it and write film criticism about it, the more you are actually writing about something else. Sex and love are threads in the movie because they are very much mysterious and sensual and unnameable in essence, just as is seeing a bird, smelling a flower, worrying about a weird rock, feeling flattened by the depths of time, and spacing way way way out. Maybe so far out that you disappear forever, as you one day will. If you insist on calling that “the budding sexuality of young girls living under Victorian repression,” I can’t stop you, but I wish I could.

Having railed like this I hope I’m making clear: the movie most certainly is about the budding sexuality of young girls living under Victorian repression. It’s just about many other things equally and equivalently, so I distrust anyone whose impulse is to headline that one, since that’s the one that has been most begrimed by overuse and bad faith. It’s mental kitsch.

I enjoyed the movie.

There’s nothing else on the disc other than the trailer, which was silly.

As with Alphaville I feel a little dirty about having mucked with the music. But I had to. I have a lot of criteria for the sample track I pick – it needs to be original to the movie, musically self-contained, and essentially unsullied by dialogue or sound effects — and though opening or closing credits will usually fit the bill, it’s not a sure thing. Picnic‘s opening is set to panflute music that 1) has dialogue over it and 2) on investigation I learn is actually a licensed track rather than original (apparently because Zamfir refused to record anything new for the movie. Yet he still managed to get better billing than the film’s actual composer. We see “FLÙTE DE PAN Played by GHEORGHE ZAMFIR,” which stays on screen while a second credit fades in lamely below it: “Additional Original music Composed by BRUCE SMEATON.” Kudos to Zamfir’s lawyers. Smeaton’s credit is unfair and misleading since it suggests that Zamfir’s contribution is also original, which it is not. Yes, there’s not a ton of Smeaton’s music but that still shouldn’t make the word “additional” necessary.)

Meanwhile Picnic‘s end credits are the Emperor Concerto. Used very effectively, as is the other classical music that appears on the soundtrack. But to put it here would betray the spirit of this exercise in scrapbooking.

So that leaves us with Smeaton’s original score, of which there’s really only one cue of any musical significance. It’s used twice in its entirety (and elsewhere in part) but both times there are sound effects, which I’ve permitted here in the past, and dialogue, which I haven’t. So after much handwringing I decided to just do some crossfades between the two to eliminate the dialogue, similar to what I did for Alphaville. This is apparently called “The Ascent Music.” It plays first during the pivotal scene, as the girls are working their way up the rock, and mostly that’s the one you’re hearing. Here it is, your track 29.

This music is somewhat ahead of its time, it seems to me. Or maybe just transitional, pointing from the Michel Legrand vein of 60s moodiness toward the new-age/sentimental-minimalist washes of the 80s and 90s.

April 1, 2013

Disney Canon #47: Meet the Robinsons (2007)


ADAM That one felt like it was for littler kids than any we’ve seen so far.

BETH That’s interesting.

ADAM I’ve said before that when I was twelve, I really loved the fast-talking vaudevillian patter of Tiny Toons, and this had that same sort of fast quipping… I don’t know if you’ve seen a Disney Channel show recently, but they all have the same style of twelve-year-old boys talking in this wry, meta way. The Disney Channel is for pre-teens now. I don’t know when that happened.

BETH But you started out by saying that it was for littler kids than any we’ve seen.

ADAM Well, what I mean is, I feel like as kids get more advanced in general, littler kids are aspiring to this grown-up style patter. Which ultimately is a tell that the movie is for little kids. Does that make sense?

BROOM You’re saying that our concept of childhood sophistication has generally risen, so that the level of sophistication seen here now corresponds to a younger age level.

ADAM I guess so. But maybe that means that the whole idea of a Disney movie for all ages of children is totally defunct. Maybe I should revise and extend: it’s obviously not for five-year-olds, but…

BROOM Why isn’t it?

BETH I think it is.

ADAM Well, Eddie wouldn’t get any of the fast talking.

BROOM What “fast talking” are you talking about? There was certainly fast stuff, but it was fast, like, peanut-butter machines and dinosaurs.

ADAM “Fast talking” isn’t right. When the dinosaur says “I have a big head and tiny arms. This plan wasn’t thought through very well.” That’s the sort of thing that as a ten-year-old I would just fallen out of my chair at.

BROOM Well, there are some layers there. Because that joke is a very modern, post-Friends kind of joke, but it’s being delivered in the same slot as a typical Looney Tunes “grown-up joke.”

ADAM But the joke isn’t actually funny enough for a grown-up to find funny. In Shrek, or in Dumbo for that matter, in many of these there have been jokes for grown-ups. These were jokes that were pretending to be jokes for grown-ups but were actually for little kids.

BETH I think what’s going on there is that the animators have a less sophisticated sense of humor, and are making themselves laugh with jokes that are less grown up.

BROOM That’s what I mean by post-Friends. In Looney Tunes, the cartoon was for kids but it also had references to stuff from adult culture. That’s why you loved Tiny Toons, because it made you feel grown up when things were presented as grown-up jokes. And I think today, actual grown-up jokes are dumber. Grown-up humor has degraded; it has a very strong infantile strain.

BETH I totally think that’s what’s happened.

BROOM The dinosaur joke is a perfect example, because first of all it was a callback to the frog saying the same thing.

ADAM I got that!

BROOM And the joke is a now-standard one, where casual tone punctures genre tone.

ADAM Breaking the fourth wall of the genre, yeah.

BROOM So that’s become a thing these days. It counts as a grown-up joke.

ADAM The jokes in Emperor’s New Groove are actually for grown-ups. They’re jokes that little kids wouldn’t get. Whereas this is not actually for grown-ups.

BROOM That very same joke is in The Emperor’s New Groove. Toward the end, when they drop a bunch of potions of different animals and the guards turn into an octopus and a cow and an ostrich and whatever. And she shouts “get after them!” and the cow raises his hand and says “excuse me, I’ve been turned into a cow, may I go home?” And she says “Yes, you may go. Anyone else?” and the rest of them say “No, we’re good.” It’s exactly the same beat. Why are you sighing? Are you sighing that I remembered that?

ADAM Partly.

BROOM What’s the other part?

ADAM I’m grappling with my feelings here. Because this really is the prevailing mode on the Disney Channel today. Knowingness that is totally wholesome.

BROOM What was “knowing” about this movie?

ADAM I mean meta-ness.

BETH Like the Frank Sinatra frogs.

ADAM Or the fact that the Snidely Whiplash character is stupid and has to puzzle out really obvious things.

BROOM That’s not “knowing,” that’s just silly comedy.

ADAM “Knowing” isn’t the right word; but it’s meta-, it’s referential. It’s not just slipping on a banana peel.

BROOM Well, the humor on Sesame Street in 1980 was in exactly the same spirit. “Kermit the Frog here, reporting from Little Miss Muffet’s tuffet,” or whatever, and Little Miss Muffet is modern or casual. I mean, it goes back to Tex Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hood, where the wolf goes to a club and Little Red does a sexy number. Your idea that anything that winks is contemporary and Disney Channel just isn’t true. This seemed to me to be pitched very much at the Sesame Street level.

ADAM But that’s what I mean when I say it’s for little kids. It’s not actually contemporary. That’s what I mean by the wholesomeness. It’s been scrubbed of all actual subversiveness and it’s just silly, fast…

BROOM You’re using the word “scrubbed” like it’s some kind of antiseptic modern-day offense. But I felt like this came by its innocence from the right angle. I found it sympathetic.

BETH I guess you’re saying that movies like The Emperor’s New Groove were a little more…

ADAM Hostile.

BROOM Well, David Spade saying “No touchy! No touchy!” is tonally different. Because it comes from a more uptight aspect of adulthood. I don’t just mean because saying “No touchy” is itself uptight, I mean the spirit of referring to anxieties in this dismissive way. The other aspect of Friends is the all the snark and the snark on snark. “Could these adults be any snarkier to each other?” Whereas here the adult references were just to benign stuff.

ADAM Yeah, there was no snark here at all.

BROOM And I totally am for it. I found this movie very sympathetic. When you say this movie is for five-year-olds…

ADAM I said ten-year-olds.

BROOM Well, then we also said five-year-olds. And I think they successfully made a movie for a range of ages, that five- to twelve-year-olds could all enjoy.

BETH Five to ten.

BROOM Well, I enjoyed it.

BETH I enjoyed it too, but I think once you get to be eleven or twelve, you’re aware of what’s cool, and this wouldn’t be cool enough.

BROOM But you know, that’s exactly why I’m for it…

BETH I’m able to be angry about it too, but that’s the way kids are…

BROOM Not just to be angry and political about it, but in defense of my own interests as a kid. I know we were growing up in a different time and maybe my interests would be different if I were growing up now. But they wouldn’t necessarily. When we went to see a screening of old Sesame Street bits at BAM, the guy from the Children’s Television Workshop who was introducing them said “most of these aren’t in rotation anymore because as kids have changed over the years, Sesame Street has changed along with them.” And I thought “That’s so stupid! Kids haven’t changed!” That’s exactly it. Kids don’t change, just our ideas about them change. Four-year-olds are four years old, so the amount of culture they’ve taken in is limited.

BETH Well, technology has such a big influence. They’re being exposed to so many things. Yes, kids fundamentally don’t change, but what culture is doing to them changes them.

ADAM Yeah. Fifteen-year-old girls used to play with dolls.

BROOM I think they still would now if they had not been shamed out of it. And I’m sure that some, who are not as deeply affected by a world of shaming, still do. And we don’t tend to talk about that because the media, “the culture,” is full of people who’ve been shamed out of things. It becomes self-fulfilling. But I think innocence persists into teenage years, even now. Maybe in smaller numbers, maybe more quietly. But I certainly don’t think innocence is a calculation that can no longer afford to be made.

ADAM Beth, you’ve got a potential home-schooler on your hands here.

BROOM No, I’m saying the opposite. I’m not saying we need to hide from the evil culture; I’m saying you can hold out whatever you want to hold out. I just reject this idea that “well, this movie didn’t work because it wasn’t knowing enough for kids these days.” That can still be fine for some kids these days, if it’s done in the right spirit. I mean, I had some issues with the execution, and some story choices, some longeurs…

ADAM I didn’t mean for this to dominate the conversation. What were your issues?

BROOM Well, my experience wasn’t really determined by the things I took issue with. I basically found it appealing. Because I felt that its innocent attitude was real. It’s easy to take that for granted and say, “well, of course this kind of positive playful attitude exists,” but it’s a thing that doesn’t show up in mass culture so much any more. So I’m happy that they made a movie that was like a children’s book, a book basically about play. And then the obligatory moral and feeling they added into that sat pretty well with it.

BETH I agree.

BROOM The lessons, that you’re always free to take responsibility for yourself…

BETH And that it’s okay to fail.

BROOM And that no matter how zany your worldview is, you can have a happy home that matches it. That all seemed good to me.

BETH Yeah, I thought it had a great message.

ADAM I agree with that part.

BROOM I was very moved by the moment when the bad guy no longer knew what to do with himself. I thought the movie as a whole was sweet and fun. It reminded me of A Town Called Panic, which was sort of the European equivalent of this same spirit of play. All the kooky craziness really did seem like a kid’s kooky craziness, and I appreciated being brought there.

ADAM Didn’t you think the sequence that actually came from the book was the weakest? The actual introduction to the zany family, the meeting of the Robinsons? You guys didn’t like that! We were all rolling our eyes at that.

BROOM I wasn’t rolling my eyes!

BETH I was a little bit rolling my eyes.

BROOM I wasn’t. I was surprised at that point, to discover the territory we were heading into. The spirit of that place wasn’t what we expect in these movies, and that whole sequence to me was like the discovery that I was in the company people who were going to say “kooky crazy stuff is fun!” I felt like the sequence was them saying, “yes, we really mean this! We are doing this very intentionally!” Up until that point their intentions weren’t quite clear.

ADAM It had a Pee-Wee’s Playhouse quality to it.

BROOM Yeah, very much.

ADAM But Pee-Wee’s Playhouse creeped me out as a child. I always thought that felt like an unsafe place to be.

BROOM That show had a subversive stratum to it. And this didn’t.

ADAM This wasn’t particularly attractive to look at. There were large stretches of CGI background where they didn’t bother to put stuff. Every time they were in a background that wasn’t a building, it was like, “well, it’s either grass or sky.”

BROOM I thought that had a deliberate children’s book purity. It seemed relevant to the cheery outlook.

BETH I didn’t mind how it looked. I thought they were using color interestingly. They desaturated it sometimes. In that first scene, and the Kung Fu fight scene.

ADAM You guys really liked it? I don’t know.

BROOM You don’t have to like it.

BETH I don’t have a problem with it.

ADAM Did you see the twist coming? Spoiler alert!

BROOM I saw both twists coming.

ADAM I never bother to think ahead, but there are only so many characters in the movie. Once it became clear that it was a movie about time travel, how many choices do you have?

BROOM Right.

ADAM So… I don’t have a lot else to say. I guess science is cool. That’s good.

BROOM It wasn’t about actual science. It was about the idea of being a brilliant inventor.

BETH I don’t like the use of pop songs in these movies.

BROOM That was one of the things that I considered a problem with execution. Rufus Wainwright really didn’t work.

BETH He had no place here.

BROOM And that came really early on, and it really seemed like the movie was going to fail.

BETH It’s interesting that the Broadway-style songs, even though they’re equally cheesy, somehow aren’t as jarring.

BROOM I’m not sure a Beauty and the Beast-style song would have just fallen into place here, but it would probably have worked better. Because those songs are open; they actually say what’s going on. Like I said about Brother Bear, it’s weird when a song over a montage “just happens to be” a relevant pop song. And this one really was just a pop song, it was definitely not about building a mind-reading device in an orphanage. And with Rufus Wainwright, everything is so utterly about him. It doesn’t feel like he could possibly be singing or thinking about anything other than himself. It certainly didn’t feel like he was singing about Jimmy Neutron. (I know Jimmy Neutron is an entirely different property, but come on.)

ADAM This was executive produced by John Lasseter, as I learned in the credits. So does this really feel like they brought Disney studios back? Or does this feel like some sort of orphan cousin to the Pixar movies?

BROOM Well, it didn’t feel like the descendant of Chicken Little. Yeah, a little bit like a Pixar loan-out. But it had its own look and feel. It didn’t feel like it took place in the world of any other movie, quite. It reminded me, like I said, of children’s books, and I thought that even before I remembered that it was based on a William Joyce book. It had a certain feel, even though at first I really didn’t care about the plot. By the end I did.

ADAM Yeah, it got better toward the end.

BROOM Also, being sleep-deprived as I am, I’m emotionally more open. I felt ready to let there be emotions in this, and found that there were some. I thought it was interesting that they set up this ultimate prize of meeting his mother in the past, and then the message at the end is that the past is really not the point. I found much of it emotionally real.

ADAM I thought the evil bowler hat was funny.

BROOM I thought the bad guy was very funny. I liked the way he moved. There was a lot of animation flair, without seeming like nerdy animation stuff, as it often does.

ADAM Yeah. I don’t know, when he got to the house and there were identical twin uncles living in the planters, I felt like, “I can’t deal with this.”

BROOM I liked that!

BETH I liked it too!

BROOM I thought it was particularly funny when they come back later and instead of hearing the other doorbell you hear the same one again. You didn’t like those guys? That was one of my favorite bits!

ADAM They were worse than the Canadian moose in Brother Bear.

BETH I really disagree with that!

BROOM Obviously they weren’t! It seems strange to me that you put these things all in the same pot, because it seemed clear to me that this was a different pot. And you could say “well, I don’t like that pot either,” but it’s not the same pot!

ADAM As Brother Bear?

BROOM Or as the Disney teen shows that were the first thing you brought up. I understand that both things could be described as “strangely clean,” but this seemed to be explicitly offering “strangely clean” as the world of imagination. The Disney channel is strangely clean while purporting to be “Life as a kid! Which happens to be perfect!”

ADAM You really think Hannah Montana is supposed to be “life”? It’s just as overtly fantastical.

BROOM Oh, come on, she doesn’t teach frogs to sing!

ADAM But she’s a pop star!

BROOM But that’s a craven, worldly fantasy. This was like playing with Legos. That’s all about, like, being sexy, whether or not they acknowledge it. That’s a princess fantasy. This wasn’t a princess fantasy at all; it was the classic Harry Potter fantasy: “Where do I belong?” “You belong in a wonderful place!” And how is that wonderful place defined? Totally whimsical terms that have nothing to do with worldly achievements. It was about familial love and, like, toys.

BETH Okay, let’s read the review.

[we begin looking it up]

BROOM I was so worried that was going to suck, and it didn’t, and now I feel like we’re home free.

BETH I do too. I’m excited.

BROOM So it turns out the three we picked for our day of shitty ones were the right ones. This was much better than Brother Bear.

ADAM Chicken Little is clearly the nadir.

BROOM The absolute worst.

BETH One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.

ADAM This was obviously head and shoulders better than Chicken Little. No question.

[we read the very negative review]

BROOM I often enjoy A.O. Scott’s mean reviews, and I enjoyed that even as I thought he got it totally wrong. The key to his getting it wrong is when he says that the future “is badly scaled.” No! It was very much intentional that things would be grand and fantastical. It takes place in imagination space, in the mind; vast expanses are part of that!

ADAM I think he’s referring to the large swaths of empty grass and sky that I mentioned.

BROOM That’s exactly what I’m talking about! Large swaths of empty grass and sky is a classic image of the idyll of the imagination.

BETH Yeah. That’s what my Lego creations would look like. Big expanses of grass with almost nothing on them. Those are the lands that I made up for myself as a child. I understand.

BROOM And when you see it, does it not evoke something for you?


BROOM For me it ties into very basic kinds of fantasy sense-of-space things. If he can’t understand that, of course he doesn’t get it, because the whole movie was on that level.

BETH Adam agrees with A.O.

ADAM No, I don’t. I thought it was head and shoulders above Chicken Little, but that’s because I thought Chicken Little was contemptible. This had its heart in the right place and was intermittently amusing. And there was a consistency of character here.

BROOM Let me just note that the plot of this movie was the same as Back to the Future Part II.

BETH You were supposed to know that. It was clear.

BROOM Did you think that’s why there was that scene of the frogs locking the hat in the trunk? It’s a reference to Back to the Future because the whole movie has been Back to the Future?

BETH Yeah.

ADAM Do you ascribe any validity to A.O.’s complaint that everything here is utterly derivative?

BROOM I feel like again it’s a misunderstanding of why it’s all here. Yes, it’s derivative, because that’s a part of playtime.

BETH And not only that, it’s a part of contemporary comedy.

BROOM But, again, I didn’t see it that way — I had the same experience with Shrek, where some people were saying it was just typical rehashed nerdified comedy, but I just didn’t see it. In Shrek 2 I saw it.

BETH Well, I felt like the Tom Selleck joke here was an example of that.

BROOM I accepted that because it seemed like the only one of its kind. It came as a complete surprise and so it had some power. Whereas in Chicken Little they were making that joke every second. And then, after all, it really was Tom Selleck!

ADAM I will say that I was pleased that there was no wiseacre sidekick. Nobody had to listen to Wanda Sykes. I just made up that casting, but it’s a good idea, isn’t it! There were no fart jokes at all. Thank you. This is what I mean about it being for little kids.

BROOM But you can’t have your farts and eat them too! It had no fart jokes in it, which is what you want, so…

ADAM Little little kids aren’t interested in fart jokes. Disgusting fourteen-year-old boys like fart jokes.

BETH I think around the age of seven or eight you start liking fart jokes.

BROOM Your analysis of it is essentially removed from any standard. You don’t think it’s good for fourteen-year-olds to be served fart jokes, but you’re also saying, “well, it didn’t have fart jokes so it’s no good for fourteen-year-olds.”

ADAM No no, I’m pleased that it didn’t have any fart jokes.

BROOM But then you say that’s why it’s “for little kids”!

ADAM I don’t like fourteen-year-olds either! I’m not being critical when I say it’s for little kids.

BETH But do fourteen-year-olds ever watch Disney movies? I certainly didn’t.

ADAM We did.

BETH Okay. I’m sorry.

BROOM That’s why you hadn’t seen any of these great films before.

ADAM How old were we when The Lion King came out? Fifteen.

BROOM I think the last one I saw unreservedly in the theater was Aladdin.

BETH Mine was Little Mermaid.

ADAM Mine was Wreck-It Ralph.