Monthly Archives: June 2015

June 30, 2015

78. The Bank Dick (1940)

directed by Edward Cline
written by “Mahatma Kane Jeeves” (W.C. Fields)

2000: 078 box 1 (out of print September 2004)

Criterion #78.

After decades of fake W.C. Fieldses, I finally saw the real thing. And sure enough, it’s a thing that cries out to be imitated. This is a man who deliberately rendered himself impression-worthy. Insofar as his caginess and cruelty and melodious drawling is a vaudeville act, I’m all for it. There’s something inspired and almost hypnotic about the way the “W.C. Fields” schtick is glum and gritty yet at the same time, in its elocutional filigree, airy and unreal. It feels to me like a holdover from a 19th-century sense of humor; it has something of the Mark Twain school about it. I enjoy getting that kind of Rosetta Stone access to the entertainment culture of a more distant past, since pre-20th-century humor can often seem like an uncrackable nut.

However, in this particular movie — Fields’s second-to-last — I couldn’t find any real mirth. Even when in theory I liked the material and endorsed the idea of “W.C. Fields” doing it, I was still saddened and oppressed by the fact that the man onscreen was so obviously a genuine depressive alcoholic, doing his murky best to stay on the ball and give the people what they came for, even though by this point in life his drinking had mostly consumed him. All his physical comedy is artifical and inexpert; all the verbal play comes across as slack and distracted. His performance is generally labored and sloppy.

But mostly the problem is his eyes. You can barely see them; they’ve been swallowed up by the heavy mask of impassive meat that his face has become. How can there be comedy without eyes, without openness? He’s presented as some kind of protagonist, an antihero or a clown or something, but all I can see is the deadening sadness that’s turned him into an inexpressive pigface. He can’t even rate “buffoon”; he’s too far away. This is someone who has fled almost completely into his interior, out of sight. Look: even the cartoon Fields in the title card above has no eyes, or soul, to speak of. He’s just an outline with a big nose. The movie shuttles this expressionless caricature back and forth like a paper doll, in apparent attempt to generate Laffs by static electricity.

Shemp Howard is in the movie, playing the bartender (and occasionally whistling the Three Stooges theme): another face like a slab of beef, always depressing to me for the same reasons. The eyes of the Three Stooges are spiritually drained, inexpressive, even when they’re pulling “wacky” faces. There’s no disguising that they are utterly walled-off inside, even from their own comedy. The very fact that there is a wide audience of people who chortle and cheer at their dead-eyed simulacrum of zaniness — or for that matter at The Bank Dick, which is in fact quite beloved — saddens me in itself. Why can’t people see what I can see, that this is all a grim charade by a bunch of guys who aren’t fully present? I get scared that it’s because my fellow audience members are dead inside too, and so can’t afford to distinguish between a person and a “person.” I don’t want to go among such people.

This movie had that heavy working-class feeling of rough, narrow laughter emanating from a resentful worldview. The most famous line from the movie is, apparently, this one, where Fields asks the bartender:

I can hear that it’s a well-formed vaudeville joke in the classic style, that it’s pleased with itself and confident as such… but I’ve been over this many times in my head and I just don’t think it’s actually as funny as the delivery (and fame) seems to imply. At a Chico and Groucho pace, rattled off in 6 seconds, I could get behind this as a cute twist punchline, but drawn out to 15 seconds as it is, it feels like the emphasis is on the real substance, on the psychology and character of this man for whom a memory-erasing $20 bender ($20 1940 = $335.44 2015) is a matter of course. I stop wanting to laugh, and I start getting uncomfortable with the people who do, who want to spend 15 seconds in this self-destructive space.

Try saying “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don’t know” — but take 10 seconds to do it. The joke disappears and the line becomes sort of ominous, doesn’t it? What’s wrong with this man? What is he getting at?

(I just had the impulse to check the two deliveries against a metronome. Groucho’s pacing is, to my ear, very clearly at 80 bpm. W.C. is doing 48 bpm.)

W.C. Fields in this movie feels to me very close to the line of personhood throughout, but usually on the wrong side of it. I was always rooting for him to really show up and spit poison, or honey — or deadpan pointedly — but it never quite happened. His eyes never sparkle and back up the persona. He just sort of drifts around like an alcoholic. An actual alcoholic.

Of course, all these kinds of fears and sadnesses are just my own personal burden and may not have to do with anything real. It’s possible that The Bank Dick will seem inoffensive and amusing somewhere down the line when I’m in a different state of mind. But I don’t think I’m wrong in being aware that this is W.C. Fields past his prime and trying to hold it together. Probably it would have been better to start with his earlier work and develop a sense of trust in him as a performer before getting into this late stuff. On the other hand, perhaps it was good to start here — now everything else will seem lively and vigorous by comparison. Maybe.

We’ll see very shortly!

To be fair, there’s some lightly funny stuff. I liked the “hearty handclasp” and the “paisley shawl” and the silly names. I liked when Una Merkel comes in at the beginning and nasals “hello” to everyone. She seems to be amusing herself. (The maid from The Parent Trap! Boy, I would never have been able to come up with that.)

It could have been worse. Maybe someday I’ll be sleepier and it will come on TV and all seem hilarious.

Connection to the preceding: gosh, this is hard. I just barely retained the preceding movie.

They each star a screen icon much better known for being “a screen icon” than for any actual work he/she did.

That’s lame but it’s what there is.

The Criterion disc has no bonus features whatsoever. Furthermore it’s been OOP since 2004 and is unavailable from any of my sources. Given these two facts I have allowed myself absolutely unprecedented license and watched this movie on the currently available non-Criterion edition. Insert as many exclamation points here as you feel are merited, and then please do compare closely and see if you don’t agree that in this case the substitution was indeed harmless.

Except of course for the harm done to my integrity, my reputation, my trust. From here on down the slippery slope, you’ll no longer be able to believe me when I post about Criterion movies. For all you know I may not even have watched them.

But heck, maybe I haven’t actually watched any of them thus far, either, and have been making up all these “responses” out of whole cloth! That would be quite a twist.

The only music credit is Charles Previn as “musical director.” Charles Previn (André’s great uncle) was head of the music department at Universal, with a stable of staff composers working under him. The word online seems to be that most of the music in The Bank Dick is actually by Frank Skinner (1897–1968), and that some, or maybe all of it, is tracked from other movies.

As far as I can ascertain, the following Main Title is unique to this movie and is probably by Skinner, but these things aren’t well documented. From the sound of it, this piece could just as easily be “Comedy Loop #34” from the Universal library — it sounds a lot like newsreel music. It certainly does not sound like the The Bank Dick, which neither hustles nor bustles.

That all said, I do generally enjoy that old Hollywood newsreel library music — an endless cavalcade of Allegro moderato — and wish there were albums of it. It’s the American spiritual state of the era encapsulated: “well now!” Its vagueness, the way it combines complacency with excitability, is intriguing to me. So I’m quite happy to be adding this track to my Criterion master playlist.

As you’ll hear, I’ve broken another of my protocols, and allowed dialogue into this one. Mostly it’s because I didn’t have a choice, but it was easy for me to rationalize it; for the real vaudeville atmosphere I think a little spoken-word is quite in order. Here we hear two passersby observing our hero’s name on the mailbox.

The “accent grave,” which is a running gag throughout the film, is a big (sic); it’s of course actually an accent aigu on “Egbert Sousé.” Did Fields know? He may have and just not cared. Certainly he was right that “accent grave” is a very W.C. Fieldsy thing to say over and over. Go ahead and try it.


June 28, 2015

Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP (2011)

developed by Superbrothers and Capybara Games (Toronto, Ontario, CA)
first released March 24, 2011, for iPad, $4.99
[PC version trailer]

Played to 100% completion in 4 hours, 6/23/15–6/24/15.

[complete ~1.5 hour playthrough in 6 segments]

In the afternoon of Thursday, May 31, 2012, I received an announcement email about “Humble Indie Bundle V,” which contained five games, of which I was already genuinely interested in about four. I immediately purchased it for a full $10, feeling that I had gotten more than my money’s worth from the previous bundles and ought to take the “pay what you think is right” thing seriously. Also, I was employed at the time so didn’t feel quite as frightened as usual about spending money.

The five games, in the order they appeared on the website, were: Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, which I did not touch until just now; LIMBO, which I played and enjoyed soon afterward; Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which I’ve started up once (very nervously) but only played for a few minutes; Psychonauts, which I had already played in its entirety on the PS2 back in 2005, but was happy to purchase in PC form so that I could easily return to it or push it on other people; and Bastion, which I have as yet not played at all.

This entry has already been written and deleted twice, in full. The game is thoroughly “hipster,” and that’s a subject that can send me off on long, tortured jags. I’m committed to writing these entries in one go and not agonizing, but I really didn’t like what I was putting out there in either of the previous drafts, so here I am yet again.

I think my mistake was launching straight into “analysis” instead of just trying to convey my experience, letting any analysis arise organically as a tool to that end. That might not be an obvious distinction to the reader, but I think it works out to be something the reader benefits from.

My experience of Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP was that there was something very tasty and worthwhile here, which I kept trying to bring to the center of my palate, but that there was also the gristle of hipsterism in every bite, preventing the underlying flavor from ever coming into its own. There is a lovely cucumber soup implicit in the fantasy forest twilight ambiance, in the exquisite pixel-art graphics and corresponding dreamy music… and then the soup is given just a little extra hipster zing by the addition of a few lardons, croutons, oyster crackers, jalapeno flakes, pizza bites, chocolate-covered edamame, Corn Pops, and also fuck it how about some dirt, ’cause, you know, “soup,” what’s that all about? #thatmomentwhen

This is not overstated.

Case study: the title. This is a game about a good old mythical quest in a mythical forest, hence “sword and sorcery.” This has been tweaked to “sword and sworcery” in an attempt to lay better claim to the phrase on the game’s own terms, but note that this a deliberately doofy in-quotes pun, one of the staples of hipster argot. (Subtext: “Remember being so simple and innocent as to still make puns? How delicious that was. But make no mistake: we’re sophisticates now, burdened with full censorious awareness of how asinine puns are. Our former innocence is actually an embarrassment. Ha ha we’re making light of it.”)

So far OK, but there’s more. Sword and Sworcery is being presented as though a game is like a rock album. At its core this is a very old idea, going back to Electronic Arts in 1983, but these guys want to be newly fetishistic about it. We know that Sword and Sworcery is an album because it has the “band name,” Superbrothers, shoehorned right into the title. And then the coup de grace: what kind of album is this? Any hipster worth his lardons can tell you that of course it has to be a vinyl EP. And that this, too, needs to be articulated outright in the title to get full credit for it.

Dealing with the string of words Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP exactly encapsulates the player experience in dealing with the game. The various affectations cut against each other and create an anxious little blur of overkill. It’s headache-inducing and erodes the core aesthetic experience.

But here’s where I feel an uneasy ambivalence. The hipster ideology is that this, this itchy, sweet/salty/umami/Trix teary-eyed/tongue-in-cheek overintellectualized/faux-naif fetishistic/sentimental post-postmodern pile-up — which corresponds to their internal psychological pile-up — this is a legitimate aesthetic experience… and I have to admit, they’ve got me there. The artistic answer to “Will it blend?” is always “yes.” The question is really whether the audience wants to stomach it. I can only speak for myself.

I guess my thing with hipsters is that their psyches have been subjected to a sickening Bass-O-Matic process that has utterly intermingled their anxious defense mechanisms with their authentic souls. Then they come to me with these weird slurried hearts and try to interest me in their weird slurried art, and I’m both fascinated and nauseated. I feel like Geena Davis in The Fly listening in horror to disintegrating Jeff Goldblum go on about how spiritual and great it is, what’s happening to him. Um, it doesn’t seem great. #butwhatdoiknow

This game was designed for iPad and only later ported to PC, but without really reworking the touchpad control scheme, which, with a mouse, doesn’t feel particularly intuitive or sensible. This can’t have helped my impression.

I could go on but I think better I don’t. The bottom line is, there is a lovely forested dreamspace in this game, and I was touched by it, some, when I wasn’t fighting against the many currents of convoluted affectation. The game tells us, laboriously and invasively, that it is based on Jungian archetypes. I’m always up for exploring my inner archetypal imagery; less so for being told that that’s what I’m doing. The cigar-smoking psychiatrist figure who introduces each segment of the game is clumsily identified as “The Archetype” — rather than as, say, “The Jungian” — which seems to me like an (inadvertent?) admission that the hipster mind is a hall of mirrors. The ostensible analytic framework is itself just another projection, one that happens to muck up the dream and diminish its pleasures.

If only games were peelable, I would peel this one and love just the seed. But alas I can’t.

And I can’t heal the artists by loving the art more than I do. This is important to remember. It’s just me here.

This game is a damned shame. Given that, I liked it. But that’s a lot to be given.

Craig D. Adams (“Superbrothers”) (concept, art, design, writing)
Kris Piotrowski (design, “project leadership”)
Jim Guthrie (music, sound)
Jon Maur (technical programming)
Frankie Leung (gameplay programming)

June 25, 2015

Treasure Adventure Game (2011)

developed by Robit Studios (New York, NY)
first released November 26, 2011 for Windows, free
~108 MB

Played to completion (including the “good end”) in ~17 hours, 6/16/15–6/19/15.

[Youtube video of a complete narrated ~10 hour “let’s play” in 29 parts: (no playlist; here’s part 1)]
[or: Youtube video of a complete 3-hour “speedrun”]

Seventh of the seven GOG freebies when I signed up on April 8, 2012. Was added to the GOG catalogue March 22, 2012.

This game is the reason I joined GOG in the first place. I read this guy’s blog post, which ends by saying “this is a really good game, and I suggest you try it if you haven’t already — it is free, after all.” I played an hour or two, three years ago, and agreed that it was very charming. But then for some reason I didn’t stick with it.

Now I have.

This is one of those games with a toylike dollhouse world that just goes and goes, sprawling until it seems to embrace a little of everything. You come across a haunted castle on an uninhabited island AND a city with a nightclub AND a secret underground robot factory AND a sick mouse who needs go to the mouse doctor AND an ancient booby-trapped temple AND a treehouse village of talking animals, etc. etc. The appeal is much the same as with Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World or a Where’s Waldo illustration — you can focus yourself entirely into this safe, enclosed realm of tininess, and yet still be somewhere spacious and varied. The difference is that here the focusing is enforced by the computer; you never get to stand back and take it all in at one glance. But the experience ends up being the same, just as a hedge maze ends up feeling like the same basic activity as a pen-and-paper maze.

It’s a world designed to be exhausted while continuing to feel inexhaustible. I love it when games can pull that off. The key game from my past that comes to mind is Little Big Adventure (1994), which Treasure Adventure Game resembles in many respects, but lots of other games have created that same feeling. The feeling is the joy of the unfettered imagination.

Just a few entries ago I said that Ultima IV was off-putting to me because it had such a vast map; really I meant it was off-putting for having a map much vaster than its imagination, which is constrained rather artificially — aspirationally — to thy creaky caricature of thy Tolkien model. In Treasure Adventure Game, the worldspace is vast, but peopled by basically anything that came to mind.

Unsurprisingly, the stuff that came to the developer’s mind is all secondhand, but the secondhand toyshop of the childhood-cultural imagination is piled high with diverse stuff, too much for anyone to ever get bored of it. It’s one of those bustling, magical toyshops, like you see in movies — oh hey look, that itself is one of the images in the shop, in the middle of a teetering stack on one of these magical shelves. And these images, when they’re alive, are always melding and reforming, never quite exactly the same. So how “secondhand” can they be, really? They continually molt and burn and are born anew.

This game was created as one guy’s private learn-to-code exercise, which I think is part of what gives its pile-up of imagination such a wonderfully unassuming quality — his focused, ego-bound attention was always occupied with the technical, so the content was born free. 30 years ago when I started playing computer games, most games had some of that quality, the “eh, just call it Zork” attitude — the MIT attitude — which for all its shortcomings nonetheless imparts the potency of the living subconscious to whatever it generates. (That was another chapter concept from my abandoned book on video games.)

Everything in Treasure Adventure Game — a Zork of a title for sure — had a refreshingly authentic naivete. Yes, the game is also a deliberate and overt act of “retro,” and all its simple sunny-day innocence is demonstrably derived from Japanese games of decades past, but behind all that, organizing it, is a real live innocence and openness. It genuinely felt like being inside a game imagined by an eager 10-year-old.

The designer is in fact in his 30s. From what little I could glean online, he seems certainly to be a little dorky and isolated — but who isn’t, these days? I don’t have any grand theory about what makes him tick or why he was able to tap into such a childlike spirit. I don’t need to know; I’m just here to play.

In many ways it’s very similar to Cave Story, another solo homebrew freeware retro pixel action adventure. But Treasure Adventure Game is, on the one hand, less polished and professional than Cave Story, and on the other hand, more sympathetic to me personally as a big bundle of tropes. TAG is obviously American where Cave Story is obviously Japanese.

For any readers who are still unclear on this point: I am an American. (I’ve dropped many subtle clues over the years, but it was time to come right out and say it.)

I had a really nice time working my way through Treasure Adventure Game, and felt enthusiasm throughout. I found myself playing in very long and eager sessions, and even sticking around at the end to do the one or two extra errands necessary for the little “100%+” epilogue.

The design is riddled with little infelicities — lots of places where the platforming challenges expose the imperfections of the controls, or places where certain tasks edge into tedium, or where boring backtracking is inevitable, or action sequences feel needlessly finicky, etc. etc. There are, unsurprisingly, many places where the purely amateur spirit praised above turns out to be a liability or a distraction. The game is simply an uneven piece of work. But that overriding sense of genuine good-naturedness never flagged, and I was always able to forgive the rough spots and press on cheerfully toward the next bit of invention.

He did give it away for free, after all!

The music is excellent: right on the money for “innocent retro,” providing just the right degree of mood and shadow to give a real ambiance to the various locales, the haunted pyramids and whatnot, but never giving up — or for that matter overselling — the basic spirit of simple unencumbered play. These are the moods I go to games to find: the moods that exist within an overarching meta-mood of freedom, ease, well-being. The day-night cycle in this game is like a subtle mood sine wave, going on behind the action at all times. This feels healthy to me.

Part of the reason this game is freeware is that, since it was begun as a coding exercise, the designer wasn’t rigorous about using only resources to which he had the rights. When it was very well received and touted as a top-class freebie (by, for example, GOG), he probably regretted that.

So… for the past few years he’s has been remaking the game for commercial release (as “Treasure Adventure WORLD“) in a high-resolution “modern” style, which seems to me like a terrible error in judgment. Low-resolution graphics and high-resolution graphics have entirely different meanings and bring with them entirely different structural expectations for the underlying order of the game universe. I don’t think the soul or value of this game can possibly survive such a transition intact. The sample videos he’s posted sadden me, because having enjoyed the original, I’m rooting for him and want him to succeed, and my gut tells me that this thing he’s doing is embarrassingly ill-conceived.

But maybe I’m wrong! When I feel embarrassment I usually am.

The designer made six “post-mortem” videos where he plays while talking about making the game. They’re pretty Youtube-y but I made it through. Here’s the playlist.

Design, coding, graphics: Stephen Orlando
Music: Robert Ellis

Plus various minor acknowledgements for “additional graphics” (I think this means “borrowed graphics”), playtesting, etc. But really it’s a one-man game.

June 23, 2015

77. Et Dieu… créa la femme (1956)

directed by Roger Vadim
written by Roger Vadim and Raoul Lévy

2000: 077 box 1

Criterion #77: And God Created Woman.

Or, going by the cover: “…and God created woman.”
Or, going by the French: and God… created woman.

This isn’t even a guilty pleasure.

Maybe it was just my mood but I couldn’t even enjoy looking at Brigitte Bardot, because that was so obviously the pitch. The movie was like an infomercial, paid product placement for her sex appeal. I get cynical when I’m advertised to.

This is a particular kind of junk that simply isn’t made anymore. Exploitation no longer feels the need for such a tedious display of manners.

There is a vast difference between a humanism that genuinely and unabashedly embraces sex, and a weaselly lasciviousness that is thrilled at the idea that couching itself as “humanism” will grant it legitimacy. This movie is like one of those courses for “pick-up artists” where a douche guru (like Tom Cruise in Magnolia) lets his dorky clients in on the secrets of feigning humanity at sex-master level: “Women have a psychological need to be listened to, so if you want to get in their pants you’re going to have to really listen to them, like, carefully.”

Roger Vadim seems to have been a lifelong pick-up humanist — whose proudest achievement was “winning” Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, and Jane Fonda, among others — so I’m not sure how much he was able to be truly aware of the degree to which his moviemaking was empty exploitation, not actually thoughtful. He, like Hugh Hefner, seems to have lived refusing to concede that there was a difference. This movie sure seems to believe that it’s a real poem about people and life. That’s what makes it so worthless: it’s not even clear-headed and honest enough to offer up sex on a platter. It’s horny only in the smarmiest, most studied, most alienating way.

It’s “sex as life force” being sold in bad faith by someone who actually thinks of sex as a commodity. Like insincere copy in an ad for a luxury car: “The sexy new BMW is life itself.” Actually Bardot is the embodiment of insecurity about life itself, compensation.

There’s the very old pop-Freudian line about men with big houses, cars, cigars, whatever: “He must have a small penis.” But that line is a symptom of the same kind of pettiness. “He has a small faith,” is more like it. “He is afraid.”

This was a whole genre for a while: Rochelle Rochelle. Guys like Roger Vadim found that the pick-up artist playbook worked not just on hot 15-year-olds, but also on the entire U.S. audience, who were so naive that they couldn’t distinguish practiced smarm from genuine freedom of spirit. “The French are so romantic,” and so forth.

Actually, it’s a match made in heaven. After all, a sexually inhibited society like ours isn’t going to find anything appealing about actual disinhibition, which will seem tawdry and frightening and inadvisable. Only phony overcompensation concocted by the equally inhibited will have the right ring of sexy fantasy to it. Ooh la la: “Bardot stars as Juliette, an 18-year-old orphan whose unbridled appetite for pleasure shakes up all of St. Tropez.” Shake it up, baby! Rock that damn boat that we the audience are in; someone needs to. And it’s sure as hell not gonna be us.

So many of the online reviews of Vadim’s memoir begin: “Man, you have to envy Roger Vadim: Bardot, Deneuve, and Fonda!” I don’t know if you have to, but you’re certainly supposed to. Those reviewers are just playing along, following their cues, and the name of the game is so obviously envy.

The name of the movie is And God Created… My Girlfriend.

Well, he got exactly the envy he wanted: Brigitte Bardot became the sex symbol of the era. Which turned out to be a sex symbol for the ages, because the whole notion of “sex symbology” was specific to that moment in history. It’s a strangely apt term, “sex symbol,” when you think about it. You need a symbol to stand in for sex when the real thing is under lockdown. Which is why we don’t have “eating symbols” (Cookie Monster) or “sleep symbols” (Rip Van Winkle) — we just eat and sleep.

“Sex is a life force” yada yada yada, but the actual plot of the movie is of course about men and money, manly men trading in real estate, cars, and of course in the fate of the poor naked girl, with great manly-casual authority. Vadim couldn’t think of anything else, I guess. Here’s a snippet of the self-congratulatory dialogue, between older-but-wiser suitor #1 and hot-but-hotheaded suitor #2:

1: Does she cry?
2: Of course not.
1: Maybe she does when she’s alone.
2: She’s too much of a bitch for that.
1: When it comes to female psychology, my poor boy, you’re stuck in the Stone Age.

Whereas we and Roger Vadim are obviously well into the Bronze Age, so ha ha ha silly rabbit, you’ll never get the cars and St. Tropez real estate and SEX we’ve got coming to us.

She never bares her breasts to the camera, just to be clear. It’s 1956 after all. In the first 30 seconds you see her naked butt in a very carefully framed perfect profile, and that’s it for the peep show. Like I said, it’s not even forthright about the main attraction.

One thing I have not talked about is the actual Brigitte Bardot. Oh, like, the person? Who knows? She’s completely obscured behind all this wet T-shirt humanist schtick. Even in private, Vadim had been setting the rules for her performance of self-esteem since she was 15. Her role here is just his personal collection of deliciously coy things he’s seen girls do. But surely not Bardot herself. She’s clearly only going through the motions of being a free spirit, which is one of the most depressing possible displays. “I do work. I work at being happy,” she says, because it was written for her to say. This is the real fantasy: that she might have such poignant and summery philosophy in her heart… instead of whatever’s actually there. And Vadim has no compunction about contriving it and contriving for her to say it, as though that’s doing honor to her. How offensive.

Pornography would have been so much more respectful.

That this piece of Eastmancolor beach-blanket trash “revolutionized the foreign film market,” as Criterion puts it, is certainly interesting. In fact every aspect of it is interesting from a historical point of view. Understanding it historically means giving up on it as a movie — and it deserves that, I see now. But while I was watching it I wasn’t ready to give up, so I didn’t come to it in that frame of mind. And there’s no chance I’m going to watch it again.

Connection to the preceding movie: An unfulfilled woman’s fidelity is tested but she ultimately returns to her husband.

No significant bonus features.

I would love it if someone actually made a full-length Rochelle Rochelle — not as a string of lame Seinfeld references, but as an actual “strange erotic journey,” a full-fledged parody of the Euro-softcore artistically-justified-nudity arthouse-bait genre. That could be a funny movie even without the Seinfeld title, but the title is what’s going to land the pitch.

Music is by Paul Misraki (1908–1998), a French-Italian Jew from Turkey (last seen here scoring #25, Alphaville). There’s a lot of diegetic pop and jazz throughout, coming from the many record players and jukeboxes of St. Tropez, and I’m not sure if he wrote all of it — credit is also given to a musical director, Marc Lanjean. But Misraki certainly wrote our selection, the Main Titles. I have no complaints; for a movie like this, this is right on the money. As with Alphaville, Misraki comes out much better than the director. The album would be pretty good party music.

Isn’t it interesting that sex, which is the common property of absolutely every human being on earth, is constantly depicted as though it comes from the farthest orient? Or the primitive jungle? One way or another, it sure ain’t from here and now. Here and now we scoff at flesh; we wear suits. Taking them off is like falling into a storybook desert isle, traveling back to the days of the pharaohs or something. Listen to those congas!

On the other hand, maybe all life, even life in a suit, can take place on a storybook desert isle. Out of context, this music doesn’t have to be sex. It can just be happiness.

I like all the sounds in this kind of music, prior to assigning them meanings. And who needs to assign meaning? X out “Brigitte Bardot” in your mind and note that the track sounds equally like Donald Duck. Now X out “Donald Duck” too.


June 22, 2015

76. Brief Encounter (1945)

directed by David Lean
written by Noël Coward

[after the play Still Life by Noël Coward (1936); adaptation by David Lean, Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan]

2000: 076 box 1 2012: 076 box 2 076 box 2B

Criterion #76.

I’ve been waiting for a writerly mood to strike before addressing this one, but after a week of holding out, the mood is still in hibernation and I want to move on, so we’re just gonna make do with the mood I’ve got, which I would describe as “menial.”

There were some lines in the Criterion essay about how this film became

an object of derision in the ’60s… One critic defined the message of Brief Encounter as “Make tea, not love,” and recalled how an art-house audience in 1965 jeered at Alec and Laura’s middle-class torments.

I’m also familiar with the Nichols & May parody, the implication of which is, of course, that the film and its characters are absurdly straitlaced and repressed and, in a word, British. Britishness isn’t actually a subject of the movie, but obviously it underlies every aspect of the production, so it makes an easy scapegoat for the emotional problem the story poses. In the skit, Mike Nichols tosses out that he “saw that you were English clear through” as though this is an exquisitely romantic line. (Yes, in context it’s also a joke about bad teeth.)

But pinning the characters’ problems on their silly 40s Britishness — i.e. on the one thing that sets us safely apart from them — is just a cheap and cowardly way of getting out from under the real issue. It’s a melodrama to be sure, but every melodrama is about something, and this one is about something much more universal than British issues or women’s issues or uptight Christian morality.

The movie is not actually about the constraints of a specific culture. It’s about everyone’s internal tension, between being in touch with oneself and being connected to other people. And it’s about the emotional disorientation one experiences when passing back and forth over that line.

Yes, on the surface it would seem to be a standard weepie about the noble sacrifice of marriage, but it’s worth noting that the audience’s tears aren’t wrung at any point during the ill-fated love affair; they come in only at the very end (spoiler warning, I guess), because that’s when the actual issue comes to the fore: that the protagonist’s world of feelings is “a long way away” from the people around her. Rather than suggesting that this distance might ever be reduced, her husband thanks her sincerely for “coming back to me.” Neither of them can even conceive of him meeting her where she was — or for that matter, of anyone meeting her where she was, other than a magical stranger who is never fully met and known. The tears run because her world frames the need to abandon one’s inner romance not as a cold and cruel responsibility, but as love and welcome: if you give up the world of the self, then, and only then, can you truly come home. Oh Auntie Em.

I cried. Yeah, they got me. But mostly who got me was Rachmaninoff.

Serge Rachmaninoff is communicating through music that he, for one, has been where she was, a long way away. Not to mention Eileen Joyce and Muir Matheson performing it; they know about that place too. And then not to mention Noël Coward and David Lean, and the public that embraces such a movie as this — or even that embraces “Flames of Passion,” the phony movie within the movie. The fact is, there’s ample evidence that one’s fellow man is just as emotional and romantic and familiar with that faraway place Laura goes to. And yet still we do not trust one another; we are fearfully reluctant to make plans to meet there and live there. We would rather laugh at the stupid old-school Brits for being so nervous about sex, as though that’s the problem. It’s not.

The beautiful thing about Brief Encounter, what makes it stand out among so many thousands of love-that-cannot-be movies, is that it pares the psychodrama of infidelity down to its barest essentials, so much so that one glimpses the disturbing truth: that infidelity is not actually about sexual ethics, or even interpersonal relationships, at all. It is about fear of the nature of emotions, plain and simple.

Emotions are involuntary, not willed, so vowing “to love and to cherish” is overstepping the bounds of what one has the power to vow. Having stood in front of one’s community and made this solemn promise to ensure that there are clear skies every day, one can only live in fear of the day that it will happen to rain and one will be found out as a liar. Brief Encounter is about the tantalizing relief of coming clean about one’s true nature, as a being of emotions with a piano concerto rippling in one’s heart. Is such a being anti-social? In a certain frightening sense, yes. Frightening at least to society.

Movies, and the act of movie-watching, hover in a shadowy space between being social and being alone with one’s heart. We feel the sting in this movie because as we watch it, we’re in the same zone as the character, letting images drift between us and the world. Is this dangerous? What will all those society busybodies think of us when they realize we were rooting for a woman to cheat on her husband for no reason at all?

It’s really a remarkably daring movie for its time in that it does nothing to get us “on side.” There is no cinemoral logic to excuse the infidelity: the husband does nothing wrong; the wife suffers no great injustice. She is simply a person with feelings.

So was Noël Coward really writing about being gay? I don’t know; maybe. Ultimately it comes to the same thing. Accepting the world of your actual feelings is hard for everyone. In some ways, homosexuals have a relatively easy task of self-acceptance, because sex is a game played in private, where the waters of authenticity can be tested one like-minded person at a time. And even that is terrifying. Whereas embracing not-yet-validated feelings truly alone, running counter to even one’s spouse, is overwhelming. It’s no less true for us now than it was for Brits then. In fact I tend to think it’s actually worse. The impulse to scoff and parody just shows that the repression has gotten even fiercer. The derision is a gauge of how risky it is to let go; the derision is the risk.

It seems to me not coincidental that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which serves as this movie’s landscape of the true inner life, the unlocked world of feeling, was famously written under hypnotic suggestion. Rachmaninoff’s hypnotic prompt was: “You will begin to write your concerto. You will work with the greatest of ease. The concerto will be of excellent quality.” I’ve always felt that the almost unparalleled emotional fluency of this particular piece, which has made it justly beloved, emanates from a purity of access to the emotional self that was made possible only through trance. The music quite literally comes to us from that world “a long way away” inside Rachmaninoff, who had gone into hypnotherapy after being paralyzed with anxiety by bad reviews.

Its melodies have the marvelous quality of always surging and at the same time always subsiding — the music inhales and exhales. It’s the exhaling that makes it feel so rare and strong and sensual. I suppose in some ways the same goes for this movie: it breathes in melodrama and then breathes it back out, and that’s when it starts to feel special.

Yes, I’ll admit I smirked when he said “You know what’s happened, don’t you?” and the script lurched rather unconvincingly to a higher pitch. But it was only after that point that the movie was able to reveal itself for what it really was — something deeper and more troubling than the standard middle-class infidelity melodrama it had seemed to be — so in retrospect I’m glad it went there.

It’s not realism. They’re allowed to say dramatic things to one another if they must.

David Lean’s Summertime (1955) (Criterion #22) was very closely related, I see in retrospect. But the light hits it at a different angle. That feels to me like a more fundamentally optimistic film, even though it has such a similar psychological substance. At least as I remember it.

The more recent covers at the top of this page are from the 4-disc boxset “David Lean directs Noël Coward,” which itself is spine #603, but within which Brief Encounter maintains its original spine number. That edition has a new restoration of the film and includes two documentaries. I however watched the original standalone edition, which is now out of print, because that’s what was at the library and I didn’t know any better until just now when I started putting this entry together. Oh well.

The disc I watched had only the commentary from Bruce Eder, another holdover from laserdisc days when the art of the commentary was still primitive. I watched about 20 minutes and then stopped it. I decided I’m allowed. He wasn’t offering anything of real interest, and it felt like suffering through his passionless, uninspired scholasticism was eroding the actual emotional experience I’d had.

There’s nothing actually wrong with it; it just serves no real purpose.

Connection to the preceding: A flurry of classical music as someone is seen running in the rain.

Or, you know, a man crosses a social boundary by making a melodramatic protestation of love. Yeah, that’s pretty standard stuff; it’s like saying “there’s a car in both movies.” But they were pretty similar stories on that level: a doomed romance forces the protagonist to confront truths about him/herself.

Here’s the Main Title: an extract — as is all the music in the movie — from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Eileen Joyce with the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Muir Matheson. This is of course the opening of the first movement. I think I’m not imagining things in taking this as a microcosm of the movie — a encounter with romance in the brief space between two passing trains, the second of which mercilessly blots it out in the middle of a phrase.

Finding these images of unpeopled space to end the entries has turned out to be an unexpectedly interesting task, because it brings me in contact with the fine points of the editor’s craft. Shots that seem promising, that on first glance seem to start or end with empty rooms susceptible to freeze-framing, on closer inspection turn out actually to start with the character’s leg already inside the frame and moving. The impact of even a single pair of frames of motionless uninhabited space is, it turns out, real and subliminally disruptive, and many editors are very careful to avoid it. Others accept it and embrace the slightly alienating effect.

In the case of this movie I chased the editor (Jack Harris) up and down the whole DVD and could only find a handful of frames without people in them, none of which was ideal for my purposes. This one, with only an impending shadow, is the closest thing I could find. I could have used subsequent frames to eliminate the shadow with Photoshop, but that’s not an option within the game I’m playing.


June 19, 2015

Belaieff catalogue: works 16 to 20

The all-Shcherbachov edition. A couple paragraphs on Nikolai Shcherbachov (/ Shcherbachev / Shcherbachyov / Stcherbatcheff) (1853–1922) before we begin.

Apparently Shcherbachov was seen by the other composers in the Belaieff group as something of a dilettante, a talent with undeniable flair but not enough discipline to develop himself. Seems like maybe he was more interested in the musical salon scene than the art itself. He had been introduced to that scene by the critic Vladimir Stasov, who played a major role in shaping all the social/artistic relationships in St. Petersburg. Stasov championed him enthusiastically, apparently going so far as to claim that the top three Russian composers were Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Shcherbachov, and furthermore that nobody since Schumann had composed anything as good as Shcherbachov’s piano suite Zigzags — a claim which unfortunately can’t be evaluated because the piece isn’t yet available anywhere online.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s wife wrote that she couldn’t stand Shcherbachov and didn’t want him at her parties. One of his nicknames was “flagon of perfume” — hard to know whether that refers to literal or figurative perfume.

Belaieff published 28 opuses by Shcherbachov between 1886 and 1893. Then he abruptly disappears from music history. The Grove article on Shcherbachov ends: “Family legend has it that Shcherbachov died in Monte Carlo after gambling away all his money and working for a time as a croupier.”

All the present works were published in 1886 when Shcherbachov was 32 or 33, but since so many of them appear simultaneously, I assume they had been written earlier, over the previous decade, and had remained unpublished. I’m also guessing that the opus numbers only count his published works and tell us nothing about the date or order of composition. (I can’t find indication of a full 14 published opuses prior to the “Op. 15” that marked his Belaieff debut (covered last time), but they probably were put out by lower-profile St. Petersburg publishers and would be unlikely to show up in western libraries — if in fact they’ve survived at all.)

16] Shcherbachov: Scherzo-Caprice, op. 17

Н. В. Щербачев : Скерцо-каприз : для фортепиано : соч. 17.
Scherzo-Caprice : pour Piano : par N. Stcherbatcheff. : Op. 17.
[Scherzo-Caprice : for piano : by N. Shcherbachov. : Op. 17.]

à Monsieur Alexandre Glazounow

36 Scherzo-Caprice, op. 17 (1886)

036Cover 036Title 036Page3

Scanned in color by Harvard (as linked above), and converted into a black-and-white PDF at IMSLP. (There’s also a second copy out there, I think originating from Pianophilia, without any title page.)


This earlier title page comes from a copy currently being offered for sale by Lubrano Music. It has the pre-1898 prices and, obviously, one more printed color than the other; I imagine this is the original form of the design. (It also seems to have been printed on less acidic, probably more expensive paper.)

This is my favorite of today’s pieces, full of genuine surprises and rhythmic wit, and generally bright-eyed and engaging. The affable stop-and-start of the first theme is particularly exciting to me, and I wish he’d gone further with it — but the overall journey of the piece, through various angles of comic sunniness, is still quite satisfying. I think this piece is entirely recital-worthy.

A few sparkling arpeggios definitely put this up in the higher intermediate range — I’m personally not very good at that kind of thing — but there’s nothing actually too difficult here.

To reiterate: nothing by Shcherbachov has ever been recorded. All of the audio in this post is from me and my Casio.

I’ve figured out how to avoid the sound of the keys thudding: I play it into the keyboard’s internal memory and then record its playback (the click at the very beginning is me pressing “play” on the keyboard). This has the added benefit of allowing me to do any tempo tweaking in advance. Most of these pieces were played somewhat slower than you hear them — sometimes MUCH slower — in the interest of playing fewer wrong notes without having to practice.

Note: There are still plenty of wrong notes. Second note: I am just reading my way through these pieces without analyzing or interpreting them or aspiring to any aesthetic value. The service being provided here is purely mechanical: this is the sound of notes that are printed in this score.

That in itself can have aesthetic value, as a spur to the imagination. But you need to bring the right kind of expectations.

17] Shcherbachov: Five Mazurkas, op. 16

Н. В. Щербачев : 5 Мазурок : для фортепиано : соч. 16.
Cinq Mazurkas : pour Piano : par N. Stcherbatcheff. : Op. 16.
[Five Mazurkas : for piano : by N. Shcherbachov. : Op. 16.]

No.1. La bémol majeur
No.2. La bémol mineur
No.3. Si majeur
No.4. Re majeur
No.5. Mi majeur

à Monsieur Alexandre Glazounow

37 Cinq mazurkas, op. 16 (1886)
357–261 (= the individual pieces from within 37, made available separately around 1891)

037Cover 037Title 037Page3

Again: scanned in color by Harvard; converted into a smaller pdf version at IMSLP (and again there’s another copy going around out there without the title page). Based on the ads and the prices, it seems to be a printing from right around 1898.

Yes, Op.16 comes after Op.17, because I’m going by the plate numbers and for whatever reason, that’s how it is.

Mazurka No.1. La bémol majeur

In this I can hear exactly the man sketched in the biographical details at the top of the page: flamboyant and a bit frivolous, and a natural talent at it. Some people are talents at flirting, promoting themselves, getting attention. There’s a kind of one-on-one flirtatious charm in these pieces. I can easily imagine a man at the piano who is playing this and winking and smells like a flagon of perfume.

Mazurka No.2. La bémol mineur

As a dilettante composer myself, I find this piece very relatable. A few short phrases are rolled over and over, letting their expressive underlayer gradually sift to the fore. I know how pleasant it can be to meditate on a piece like this as you work it out, and then hope that the same meditation is available to the listener. In this case it is, at least to me. Quiet, gentle choices are the entire drama, but if one’s eyes adjust all the way to the dim light, there’s actually something worthwhile happening from beginning to end.

I like that the standard post-Chopin “melancholy” tone is here complicated — or decomplicated — into something milder and perhaps emotionally subtler.

Mazurka No.3. Si majeur

Obviously these are all in the manner of Chopin, as was so much Russian piano music, but this one in particular just feels like imitation, and rather uncompelling. Actually, this just barely qualifies as an art/recital mazurka — it just seems like a tune for actual dancing. As such it’s not a bad tune. Melody was decidedly a strong suit for these guys.

Mazurka No.4. Re majeur

A more poetic construction, alternating a slow pastoral figure with the demure main theme, which has an appealingly human quality. I especially like the way the theme gains strength as it opens out into the square-yet-graceful refrain, but then rather than reaching a cadence in triumph, floats gently back to where it had been.

I admire pieces that have traditional, symmetrical phrase structures but still manage to give the impression of an underlying flexibility.

Mazurka No.5. Mi majeur

Here I feel like his ideas and intentions outstrip his compositional skill. That’s true of all the pieces to one degree or another, but in the more introspective ones it’s easier for me to find poetic interest in the half-inflated quality (like sleeping on an air mattress through which occasionally you can feel the hard floor). Whereas here in an extrovert piece with a “big introduction,” I can’t help wishing it were fully inflated. The seams feel like seams and I’m not convinced that this adds up to a piece. Nonetheless I do like some of the bits, like the bridge in minor, which knows it wants to flip back to major but isn’t quite sure when to do it.

Op. 16: all in all, this is a pleasant and personable set, if a bit thin and occasionally gawky. The lyrical ones, 2 and 4, seem to me more successful than the others.

18] Shcherbachov: Echos du passé, op. 18

[Н. В. Щербачев : Отголоски : две пьесы : для фортепиано : соч. 18.]
[Echos du passé : deux morceaux : pour piano : par N. Stcherbatcheff. : Op. 18.]
[Echoes of the past : two pieces : for piano : by N. Shcherbachov. : Op. 18.]

No.1. Souvenance
No.2. Rondo joyeux

à Monsieur le Baron Edmond de Beurnonville

38 Echos du passé, op. 18 (1886)
362–363 (= the individual pieces from within 38, made available separately around 1891)


Harvard owns this one too, but they haven’t scanned it. All we have is a Pianophilia copy (probably scanned from the extensive collection of Pianophilia administrator Malcolm Henbury-Ballan) which lacks the title page.

Le Baron Edmond de Beurnonville, the dedicatee, seems to have been what he sounds like, a rich patron (or at least potential patron).

1. Souvenance. Feuillet d’ Album
[Recollection (Album Leaf)]

I suspect that the title of this opus, “Echoes of the Past,” is meant to indicate that the two pieces share a neoclassical intention (“neoclassicism” wasn’t yet a school in itself, but it was certainly already a popular artistic mode). This is a very pale, candlelit, make-believe classicism, coughing itself to sleep in some 18th-century bedchamber. I don’t want to begrudge this sort of thing its make-believe; the effect may be obvious, but it works. Would be fine as theatrical underscore. I’m not sure I need to listen attentively to it for this whole duration, but maybe I’m not expected to.

If it weren’t for some very minor embellishments in the written-out repeats, this could very easily be laid out on a single sheet of paper, so I believe him when he says it was originally a feuillet d’album. Just the sort of thing to flatter the image of some self-romanticizing salon princesse.

2. Rondo joyeux
[Joyful Rondo]

This is certainly “classical” in a Mendelssohnian sense, but the style seems much more direct, less affected, than the preceding piece. Maybe I’m wrong about “Echoes of the Past” referring to the style. Maybe it’s just a generic 19th-century title. After all, what piece of art couldn’t be called “Echoes of the Past,” in a pinch?

As I said above, the more energetic the music, the harder it is for me to embrace its imbalances and soft spots. The material here is very appealing, but it never gets off the ground the way one wants, and then at the end, after having not quite gone anywhere, an unmerited and disproportionate coda is tacked on. At the top of the coda, a single programmatic indication appears in the score: “Hallali.” This is an old term for a huntsman’s bugle call, suggesting that the whole piece is meant to be a galloping hunt with a glorious conclusion.

Maybe someone else can figure out how to make a case for this piece in performance. All I’ve got to go on is my mechanical sight-reading.

Op. 18: As an opus, this feels a little like two pieces of paper picked up off the composer’s floor at random and stapled together, but that’s fine — a lot of music publishing has always been opportunistic that way. These particular two pieces also both happen to be a tad undercooked. But they do have their charm.

19] Shcherbachov: Grande Etude, op. 19

[Н. В. Щербачев : Отголоски : две пьесы : для фортепиано : соч. 19.]
[Grande Etude : en fa min. : pour piano : par N. Stcherbatcheff. : Op. 19.]
[Grand Etude : in F minor : for piano : by N. Shcherbachov. : Op. 19.]

à Madame Sophie Menter

39 Grande etude, op. 19 (1886)

039Cover 039Title 039Page3

Color scan from Harvard; PDF at IMSLP; an alternate Pianophilia copy is also out there.

This one is a post-1902 printing that’s still in very nice full color, though it’s possible that the earlier printings were even better done.

This seems to be Shcherbachov in a Lisztian mode, aspiring to something a tiny bit more substantial. It’s certainly requires more pianistic technique than anything above (and had to be played very slowly!).

His strengths and weaknesses are both evident. He absolutely has a gift for twists and turns of inspiration, for fantasy — again the word “flirtatious” occurs to me — and an ear for melody. But the implication of all that harmonic drama is that something is being accomplished, and yet in the end I don’t get the impression that anything has been.

The voice of his musical personality is fundamentally extemporaneous; the effort to pass it off as deliberated, well-structured oratory does not flatter it. That just means that a lot of preparation is needed; a performer would need to internalize the piece and be able to act it out as though it were being improvised on the spot — not so different from Chopin. Not having done that kind of work, I don’t really know what’s possible with this piece. I guess I have to reserve judgment. Maybe Sophie Menter knew how to sell it. Certainly it has a surface sweep and glamour, and the structure seems sensible enough, at least on paper.

(That said — Chopin often makes immediate emotional sense to me straight off the page, and feels genuine, in a way that this doesn’t, so I can’t help but be a little skeptical.)

That title page is as attractive as any of the others, in the abstract, but in this case I don’t feel like it resembles the music at all. This is a dark-hued, windswept sort of etude; I can’t hear cherubs and robins no matter how hard I try.

20] Shcherbachov: Two Preludes, op. 20

[Н. В. Щербачев : Две прелюдии : для фортепиано : соч. 20.]
[N. Stcherbatcheff : Zwei Praeludien : für Pianoforte : op. 20]
Deux Préludes : en Si bém. min. : pour Piano : par N. Stcherbatcheff. : Op. 20.
[Two Preludes : in B-flat minor : for piano : by N. Shcherbachov. : Op. 20.]

1. Chasse neige
2. Presto agitato

A Monsieur Félix Blumenfeld.

40 Deux préludes, op. 20 (1886)
364–365 (= the individual pieces from within 40, made available separately around 1891)

040Title 040Page2

Harvard owns it and just hasn’t digitized it; all we have is a Pianophilia copy in black and white.

Here, apparently grabbing more scraps off his floor, Shcherbachov bizarrely has paired up two underdeveloped fragments that happen to be in the same key as a single opus. Again I’m torn between savoring the eccentricity of it… and calling it out as laziness. It’s as though these could have both been sketches toward the same piece, and then instead of following through on that piece, he just published them as-is, as a very strange set of two preludes.

I may be misinterpreting the title page design, but it looks to me like it’s supposed to depict a book in which flowers are being pressed — an inspired visual for this kind of musical scrapbooking. (The three-hole punches are not original, of course — those are actual holes in the photocopy that was scanned.)

1. Chasse neige. Prélude
[Snow drift(?)]

The title is apparently borrowed from Liszt, but the image is quite different — I think! This is a strangely spiky idea of snow. I see that chasse-neige also means “snow plow,” which I suppose in that era would involve a horse with bells, but that doesn’t seem likely either. I think what we have here is just a very brief little idea, just barely worked out to a just-barely completion, and then given a whimsical and not entirely appropriate title.

A cute idea though. Too bad he couldn’t make a more inspired miniature of it. The first two phrases, which are neither identical nor sufficiently distinct, reveal the erratic craftsmanship at the very outset. This is a piece that clearly indicates the charming piece it intends to be, but fails to actually be it. Then again, maybe it’s just operating on a level of miniaturality below what even I’m accustomed to. Maybe there are bonbon pieces and then there are pieces like this that are only about two M&Ms. It would probably be good for me to be able to eat and enjoy only two M&Ms, without needing more.

(Later: I see that literally, chasse is “chase” or “hunt.” Is it possible that this is in fact a snowy hunt? I could believe it as a rabbit running across a white field.)

2. Presto agitato. Prélude

This seems to me particularly skeletal and sketchy. Does it have a melody? Is the melody absent? Was this actually the accompaniment to a song? Maybe he just forgot.

Then again, why not this? Like the Moonlight Sonata: who needs melody? The more I listen, the more I like its bareness. Three more M&Ms.

Op. 20: Two tiny pressed wildflowers.

In trying to write a few words about these pieces, I have found myself settling into critiquing them as though it’s a problem, for me, that they lack order and discipline. But that’s not how I feel it. I’m actually entirely susceptible to the dynamic of being musically flirted with to no end. There is something very forward and communicative about all these pieces, regardless of their “balance” or lack thereof. He always goes straight for the good stuff. When he runs out of good stuff, he tries to make up a little more, or repeats what he’s got with some twists, and then very soon he recognizes that it’s time to stop, so he does. I appreciate the intentions and inspirations behind all of that; it can all be meaningful to me.

The scope is very small and indoors, but the sounds are attractive, and generally the spirit is too. There’s worthwhile music in here.

036Title-earlier 037Title 038Page3 039Title 040Title

June 10, 2015

75. Chasing Amy (1997)

2000: 075 box 1

written and directed by Kevin Smith.

Criterion #75. Don’t ask why. It just is.

I saw Chasing Amy in the theater when it was new. In fact it was at a time when I was keeping a diary. Let’s check the log:

April 21, 1997

In the evening, see “Chasing Amy” with [_____], [________], and [________]. It’s interesting, but not RIGHT.

There you have it. I stand by that review.

The redactees are three girls from high school. Not people I felt truly close with, but certainly all in the regular cast, at least for that season.

Tonight was my first time seeing the movie since April 21, 1997. It was all very familiar, which I suppose might be surprising given the ways that my memory has wobbled off center in the intervening years, but that was a sentimental time in my life and all social activity felt momentous, so it makes sense to me that impressions of a movie seen in 1997 under those circumstances are easily resurrected. The intermittences of the heart, and all. 6625 days.

What I specifically remembered about the movie, and was able to retaste as soon as the DVD started, was a certain feeling that was near-constant throughout high school (and much of life on either side, too): the sense that the underlying gag, the premise, the social deal, was being slightly but crucially lost on me — or was all a big lie — or both.

A very particular and much-practiced feeling for me, from adolescence on up.

There’s something so deep and strong and silent about a mode of compulsive joking that everyone in a room shares, like the cold undertow at the bottom of a river. The joking that defines the communal vibe, attitude, cool, but is never taught or named or questioned. Self-deprecatory joking, or self-aggrandizing joking, or sexual insinuation, or some non sequitur phrase that keeps getting thrown at the conversation like a Wacky Wallwalker. All with a proud smirk: (This is how we are. This is so very how we are.)

So much of my adolescence was spent in a state of calculation: my gut would tell me confidently that everyone’s communal joking was nervous, small, a house of sticks being rebuilt again and again. That what was going around as “funny” was so obviously unfunny, so obviously some other thing in denial. Meanwhile my shy brain would counter skeptically, reminding me that these people certainly didn’t seem to be nervous or needy or phony; they seemed to be having a good time, they seemed to be in their element. I was the one who was nervous; I was the one who was intimidated.

The choice was always between irritably putting my foot right in the punchbowl (“Guys, seriously, why do you all constantly keep saying that people are ‘pimps’ and ‘hos’? How is that funny? What does that have to do with anything?”) or curling up inside in frantic shame (“Why don’t I get it? Why are the concepts of ‘pimps’ and ‘hos’ still so arbitrary and foreign to me when they’re obviously such immediate sources of comfort and amusement to the happy people around me? Why am I so small and childlike that I don’t know how to share in any of this being alive, being worldly, being here?”)

Neither of these options led anywhere. And yet at the same time I was also deeply aware that exactly when this kind of alienating stuff was going on, that was when the people around me were coming close to sharing some of their feelings, their real feelings. And I wanted to be there when that happened.

I didn’t understand why they were so fixated on drinking, on getting away with drinking, on the exploits involved in getting away with drinking, on knowing and being knowing about drinking and about other people’s exploits relating to drinking, on and on — it was all a weird, dull obsession that had descended upon the minds and conversations of nearly everyone I knew… and yet I also knew that whenever they were drinking and talking about drinking and talking about talking about drinking, for all the false bravado and theatrics of it, they were also right on the threshold of being at their most open and real. Which I wanted to be around very badly. So I came to have a sense of eager nervousness when people started being smarmy: “if I can just make it through the initiation round of bullshit without them noticing my skepticism and/or my hopeless childishness, I’ll get to hear from them, really from them.”

That’s the complex of feelings that Chasing Amy reawakened. Instead of picking apart Kevin Smith’s stilted worldview with my adult mind, as I probably would if I were seeing it now for the first time, I let it wash over me as I did then, and felt that chilly undertow. I could hear again the comfortable laughter of [_], [_], and [_], the laughter of all my classmates — “ha ha, you’re so speaking our language, movie!” — as I just tried to hold my balance against wave after wave of other people’s premises.

I’m quite certain I don’t have Asperger’s Syndrome; what I have is “phobia of having Asperger’s Syndrome.” But in practice they’re not so different. Here is my mind, desperately chasing Amy through this movie, as through so much of life:

“Oh, so is this how people are with their friends? So is this how people joke and hang out? Oh, are bars like this where it’s cool to go? Is this what people seem like when they’re having a good time? Is it more funny when people say “fucking”? That’s funny, right? I thought so! I totally knew that!”

What I know now that I didn’t know then:

1) that my gut, as opposed to my anxious brain, is necessarily right, because for any individual, that’s the only real definition of “right.”
2) that seeing through other people’s phoniness and denial is a completely separate thing from being irritable about it, and I don’t have to give up the former just to avoid the consequences of the latter.
3) that irritability is my own phoniness and denial, just a form of fear.

Everyone has anxieties; everyone struggles against them; almost everyone makes the mistake of endorsing that struggle. But repression is, to quote Chasing Amy, “like a pair of goddamn Chinese finger cuffs.” The struggle is what maintains the trap. The jokes that get passed obsessively around the table like a magic joint are just the jokes that make each person feel a twinge of fear that he might be square, and want to prove otherwise. Thus the joke perpetuates itself. Subconscious anxiety — pride in the struggle — keeps that ball in the air indefinitely.

A typical laid-back night on the town in high school: “Oh yeah? Well, rest assured I can be cool too.” “Oh yeah? Well, rest assured I can be cool too.” “Oh yeah? Well, rest assured I can be cool too.” “Oh yeah? Well, rest assured I can be cool too.” “Oh yeah? Well, rest assured I can be cool too.” “Oh yeah? Well, rest assured I can be cool too.” “Oh yeah? Well, rest assured I can be cool too.” “Oh yeah? Well, rest assured I can be cool too.” “Oh yeah? Well, rest assured I can be cool too.” “Oh yeah? Well, rest assured I can be cool too.”

Just typing this is making me feel those high school feelings. (“They’re all saying the same exact thing over and over. This is surreal. Why am I the only one that notices? Should I point out to them that they’re all saying the same thing? Will they get mad at me if I do? Do they already know? Should I say it too? How do they all know to say it? Am I missing something? Are they really just saying that over and over or am I somehow imagining it? Why is this always so much harder for me than for everyone else?”)

The only way out of the finger cuffs is happiness, relaxation. And I was in no position to offer that to anyone. Or so I thought, which made it true. So they were all of them right: beer was indeed their best bet.

Chasing Amy is about how Kevin Smith couldn’t get over the fact that Joey Lauren Adams had more sexual experience, and generally life experience, than he did. It really upset him and made him angry and jealous. For 2/3 of the movie, it seems to be a story about whether a straight man and a lesbian can happen to fall in love. Fine. But then suddenly the Kevin Smith character (“Ben Affleck”) reveals that for all that he lives in a world of constant “I can be cool too” sexual innuendoes, he’s actually completely freaked out and hung up on the idea of sexual freedom, and this is the real conflict of the plot. As writer/director, Kevin Smith’s psychology gets him to the point where he understands that this is a problem, but not to the point where he understands that it’s his problem. It gets framed as a “guy thing,” or a “you know how it is, man,” thing. But I don’t know how it is. I think a lot of people don’t.

His bittersweet ending is a glorification of the struggle: “I’ve done a lot of soul searching and now, too late, I realize that I need to change…” But that’s not how people sound when they truly mature: they sound like the same person, just less upset. I wish I’d known that at the time. I too, sitting there in the movie theater wondering why I didn’t feel comfortable, was seeking hard-earned wisdom, self-improvement, self-development, when I should have just been seeking relaxation, grace.

At least three times in the movie, Kevin Smith has various characters say something about the narrowness of their moral framework to the effect of, “You know me, man, I was raised Catholic!” But to what end? To him it’s no different from Jersey pride. Questioning one’s outlook — “seriously, dude, think about it” — shedding a hard-earned tear for your mistakes, your jealousy, your closed-mindedness — to him it’s all just another part of the game, the game of being awesome, making awesome jokes, hanging out the awesome way, keeping it real, going to the hockey game, sharing a beer, quoting Star Wars, what can I say, I was raised Catholic. Rest assured.

What’s more Catholic than anticipating a hard-but-necessary cleansing from the grave errors inflicted upon you by Catholicism? What’s more Jersey than constantly recommitting to being proud, rather than ashamed, of Jersey? What’s more childish than going to the grown-ups-only bar and drinking grown-ups-only beer and playing grown-ups-only darts? What’s more provincial than making a movie about the way your mind was expanded when you dated someone who was less provincial?

The other day I wrote in my notepad of deep thoughts:

Recognizing that you’re a jerk can be what makes you a jerk.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was writing about Kevin Smith.

As a kid from Jersey, who was raised Catholic, and likes comic books, and gets uncomfortable thinking about the full breadth of life, he seems like probably a nice guy. Even a talented one. As someone who knows and names all that stuff about himself, and makes a movie that sheds a tear for it, he’s got nothing to offer me. I don’t want to watch someone bang his head against his own walls and then tell me to “think about it.” (Which I believe was the pitch for Dogma.)

The end credits have a long indulgent section of personalized shout-outs from him, Kevin Smith, to all the people who worked on the film (plus “GOD”), with an in-joke for every one, a quote-of-the-day, a noogie.

This is how we are. This is so very how we are.

The filmmaking is pedestrian and the world it creates is very thin, but I did find the movie basically watchable, which I credit to the onscreen ease of Jason Lee and, yes, Joey Lauren Adams. They seemed comfortable so I felt comfortable. Comfortable enough to watch, that is.

Given my memories, I expected to find myself downright angry this time around. But I wasn’t at all. I was glad to have a glimpse of my own past and perhaps my own future. The movie turned out to be a harmless prop in that process.

The disc announces “Screen-specific audio commentary…” which I read as “scene-specific” and took to mean “only for a few select scenes,” as it has on other discs. But I guess that’s copy held over from the laserdisc days, when people had to talk up the fact that the commentary would correspond to what was on the screen. It’s a full-length commentary. I basically enjoyed it. They’re really all sitting together and being themselves. You essentially get to hear the dorky, antsy bantering that makes up Kevin Smith’s real world and from which he wishfully extrapolates the “awesome bull session” dialogues that make up his screenplays.

Ben Affleck, visiting on a break from filming Criterion #40, makes a lot of compulsive jokes about his nervous vanity as a smokescreen for his nervous vanity; he seems like the kind of guy who would anxiously pressure his wife to issue a correction on his behalf when she went up on stage at the Oscars. Kevin Smith sounds just like Ben Affleck but seems calmer. The other guys put out a lot less personality, except for Jason Mewes (“Jay”), who is used to being treated as stoner mascot, somewhat less than human, and plays along accordingly.

There are also a bunch of deleted bits, and some dumb “hey hey hey here we are talking to you, purchasers of the Criterion laserdisc” video segments in the menus (and in the color bars), where Ben can be seen repeatedly licking his brand new teeth.

Kevin Smith also lures the Criterion producer on camera to embarrass her, which I appreciated, given that that’s why I’m here. Susan Arosteguy. She’s still there.

Connection to the preceding: Jay and Silent Bob are in both movies.

Okay, just kidding. This is a tough one.

A character reacts to seeing a couple sleeping together on someone else’s couch.

The music, by Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum, is about as perfect for a movie like this as it could be. I’m entirely serious. When I heard the main title music start up I sort of sat up in my seat and thought, “Wow, I immediately know where this is going to be, in space and time and in the heart. I’m immediately ready to give it a real shot.” I can’t imagine doing nearly as well by the movie if I’d been asked to come up with some music to set the tone.

That main title (called “Tube of Wonderful” when it was released on the Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back soundtrack) is our selection:


June 9, 2015

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985)

developed by Origin Systems (Austin, TX)
first published September 16, 1985, for Apple II
GOG package ~12MB. Actual game ~1MB.
[Play in browser]

[Played for a little more than an hour, 5/5/15, then read about the game and watched videos on and off for a month…]

[Youtube video of complete 40-hour playthrough (yeah, you heard me) in four parts: 1, 2, 3, 4]
[or: HTML “Let’s Play”]

Sixth of the seven GOG freebies when I signed up on April 8, 2012. Was added to the GOG catalogue September 1, 2011, along with the rest of the Ultima series. This particular game was offered for free no doubt because of a long history of having been treated like freeware, even though it’s technically not. This traces back to the fact that the full game was distributed “for free” on a CD included with the August 1997 issue of PC Games magazine. Seems like the owners thought of it as a one-time promotion and only afterward realized that because of the damn internet, the game would go on being passed around for free, forever. Oops. That’s 1997 for ya.

Yeah I didn’t play it. This is the oldest and most influential and most “important” game on my list, but I just can’t right now. I can’t.

I’ve never played an RPG to completion, or really at all, and I like the idea of changing that. I’m excited to dig in and really get the measure of one of these things, see what it feels like to go all the way up into the nerdosphere and try to keep breathing deep slow breaths. I also liked the idea of playing this very famous and beloved one. I wanted to go back to 1985 and imagine getting lost in that bare grid and its moveable type world of simple square icons.

But reader I just can’t. Fans of the genre might tell you this is a great place to start, but just as I couldn’t handle it in 1985, it’s still not a place for me to start. Between the gold points and the experience points and the health points and the magic points and the food points and the reagents and the weapons and the runes and the mantras and the fact that the game is controlled with keypresses like “Z for status” which must be read off the reference card until memorized…

But most of all the fact that the game takes place on a giant map of mostly empty wilderness, to which one must constantly refer. This is really what turns me off so hard, and what might be a stumbling block in a lot of RPGs: the whole appeal of computer games, to me, is that they open a door to imaginary space that I as a player enter and experience. Yes, I might well choose to create a map of that space to ease my way — as in a text adventure — but the map does not determine the nature of the space; very much the other way around. In fact often those Infocom maps couldn’t really be drawn literally because they made no topological sense. They were really just sort of mnemonic devices. Whereas here in Ultima, the territory you explore is too vast to be felt out from the individual’s perspective; it just exists to space things out and give an epic extension to the proceedings. Sure, part of the game is discovering towns and stuff that aren’t shown on the official map provided in the box, but that’s not the same as discovering the space itself. You’re not expected to; you’re just expected to keep checking the map and figuring out where you’re headed.

When a map is onscreen, somehow it’s much much better. The screen is the portal; everything beyond that portal is of a piece. Are there maps in the magical space? Well, great, that’ll help me get around.

Actually, when this game first came out and was so beloved, probably players were getting the feel of the territory, genuinely exploring, by just walking around. The problem is just the scale. Did you see that the walkthrough video was 40 hours long? That’s why I couldn’t stomach taking it on. It’s something about scale; my brain can’t process this scale at the moment.

There are lots and lots of interesting things to discuss about this game. It’s all about morality, as conceived by the completely fascinating personage of Richard Garriott, genuinely trying to make the world a better place by schematizing the moral structure implicit to him in Dungeons & Dragons, The Wizard of Oz, and other Americana. And who’s to say this game didn’t make the world a better place? My parallel preoccupations with nerds and philosophy could have a field day here.

But I didn’t play it. Hey, if you wanna read analyses of Ultima IV or ponder the Citizen Kane life of millionaut Richard Allen “Lord British” Garriott de Cayeux, there’s plenty of stuff on the internet. All you have to do is Google. (You know how to Google, don’t you, Steve?)

Since all I played is the very beginning, I’m going to fulfill my blogbligations by reenacting it here. Don’t worry, this will be fun.

Instead of just opting be a bard or a shepherd or whatever, as one does at the beginning of many RPGs, in Ultima IV, a game about becoming a moral paragon by mastering all virtue, we begin with a test of our natural moral inclinations. The idea of which is great! The execution is a bit eccentric. I think what follows should serve as a fine sampler of the Richard Garriott mindset.

Here are the questions I received, in order. I typed up my thought processes in the moment and copy them here unaltered.


1. Honesty vs. Spirituality.

The problem for me here is in the passive phrase “Thou art asked to vouch…” Asked by whom? What kind of authority structure does my Spiritual Order have, and how integral is it to the spiritual substance of the order? Is it possible to distinguish between adherence to the authority of the Order and adherence to the spiritual creed? The question is basically whether I am willing to “bend the rules” because I believe in the possibility of spiritual growth. But how could I ever be a genuine adherent of the order if I differed with it on such a basic issue of the nature of spirit?

After much deliberation I answered A), reasoning that if I genuinely consider this MY Spiritual order, which seems to be given, then I would consider its criteria for induction spiritually sound. If for some reason (not elucidated here) those criteria include “purity of Spirit,” then yes, I would give completely honest answers about people I knew. I wouldn’t want to be part of an order that I felt had bad rules.


2. Justice vs. Sacrifice

I certainly would not let the man fight alone simply as a way of meting out Justice. However I might use the concept of justice as rationalization for the fearful course of action I would be independently inclined to take. The question of whether I risked my life to aid him would be entirely dependent on my assessment of the risk and not at all on the concept of whether he deserved it. So the question here is whether I answer with reference to the announced virtues (in which case I would choose Sacrifice as more important than Justice) or with reference to the scenario (in which I tend to imagine myself making the more cowardly choice.) Given that the phrasings of the two options are explicit about naming the virtues, I chose B).


3. Valor vs. Honor

This is a tough one for me. The decision would be entirely dependent on other factors. Why am I guarding the tent? Are there things in there, or is it just a matter of form? What kind of counterpressure does this army put on me to prevent me from making my own decisions; i.e., what kind of punishment might I receive for disobeying orders? The question of “honor” is really in the eyes of others, not me. If my commander is obsessed with such things, then potentially my staying my post no matter what does him an emotional service. On the other hand, if the people around me are not interested in honor, then neither am I. So I guess the answer is that I as an individual am more interested in Valor; given how little information I have, that has to be my answer. But the question implies a commander and an army to which I am obligated. My relationship with these abstractions is certainly anxious, and I would be very likely to fixate on pleasing them! But I wouldn’t call that “Honor.” I don’t really believe in “Honor” as a pure virtue. A).


4. Compassion vs. Humility

This scenario is particularly forced and silly. Cheering children by telling stories at the request of one’s captain doesn’t seem to me the least bit “unhumble.” If this is a legitimate way of thinking about “Humility,” then I don’t care for “Humility.” A).


5. Valor vs. Sacrifice

It depends on how much I need the food! Do I risk starving myself? Or am I at no risk and have plenty of food? Is “valor” just a matter of resenting that he “accosted” me? The question does say that he’s hungry, i.e. not just trying to throw his weight around for its own sake. So, all things being equal, how is “Valor” different from hypersensitivity? B).


6. Honesty vs. Compassion

Again, from and to whom am I delivering this purse? The question is about being open to stealing, but there’s no suggestion of from whom I’d be stealing, which seems to me a necessary part of rationalizing stealing. The question strongly implies that I do not have any prior relationship to this beggar, that he/she is simply a stranger I encountered while doing an errand that is meaningful to me and to someone I know. Poverty is going to exist. I see no reason to steal simply because I happened to encounter a poor person on the road, which surely happens all the time. A).


7. Honesty and Sacrifice

Am I a “thee” or a “thou” or what? The question is interesting to me because it doesn’t make clear how my situation, believing I slew the dragon (because I’m told so), differs from my friend’s, believing he slew the dragon. If I take the question at its word, as fact, and consider it incontrovertible that I slew the dragon, I see no reason to sacrifice my achievement to my friend just because he’s lying or deluded or something. However if the idea is that my friend and I each think we slew the dragon with equally good reason, and this is one of those cases where “official historical fact” breaks down (i.e. actually neither of us “slew” it, a rock fell on it. “Well, I started the avalanche!” “Well, the dragon wouldn’t have been under it if it wasn’t for me!”) then I might very well be open to splitting the reward. I’m not greedy about things. But I would never just grant it entirely to someone else no needier than me when I think I earned it; there’s no reason given why I would do that. A).


If you follow what’s going on in the virtue bracket, you’ll see that this process has attempted to winnow out my primary virtue: apparently it’s Honesty. This resulted in my being born as a mage.

So far I was pretty excited about this game! Then I wandered around the actual game itself for an hour and realized I’m not ready. I’m just not ready. Sorry, everybody!

Feel free to submit your own ethical takes on the questions above.

June 9, 2015

Belaieff catalogue: works 11 to 15

11] Blumenfeld: Four pieces, op. 2 (1883–5)

(Ф. Блуменфельд : Четыре пьесы : для фортепиано : соч. 2.)
Quatre morceaux : pour Piano : composés par : Félix Blumenfeld. : Op. 2.
[Four pieces: for piano : composed by : Felix Blumenfeld : Op. 2.]

  1. Etude (A dur)
  2. Souvenir douloureux
  3. Quasi Mazurka
  4. Mazurka de Concert

29 Quatre morceaux, op. 2 (1886)
612–615 (= the individual pieces from within 29, made available separately around 1892)

Sibley scanned their copy of this opus in 2005, and that’s what appears at IMSLP, but it’s not ideal for my obsessive purposes, because it consists of separate issues of nos. 1, 3, and 4 (which lack the original title page), and a Carl Fischer edition of no. 2, edited and fingered and completely reengraved.

But we’re in luck: a copy of the entire original Belaieff 29 was uploaded to Pianophilia in 2010 by “Alfor,” who also provided a color scan of the title page:

029Title 029Page3

Felix Blumenfeld (1863–1931) was a pretty major pianist-conductor-composer-teacher, quite well known among the piano superbuff crowd that hangs out at Pianophilia, but not so much by anyone else. If I (or you!) continue this journey through the Belaieff catalogue, you’ll be hearing a lot more from him (and his brother). Here in 1886 he’s 23 years old, just emerged from Rimsky-Korsakov’s tutelage at the conservatory, and getting four of his more recent little piano pieces published, arbitrarily grouped (it would seem) as Opus 2. (Blumenfeld’s Opus 1 is 6 songs, of unknown date, which Belaieff didn’t publish until 1900. Presumably there was a earlier first edition from some other publisher.)

1. Etude (1883)
A ma mère.

This is 2 minutes long, and has been recorded exactly once, by Daniel Blumenthal (a fellow Blumen) in 1993. It’s musically slight, but not vapid; it has confidence and taste and is sure-footedly pianistic. It has more brillante octave virtuosity than I’m personally comfortable with, but I can fake it. There’s a good early use of the Rachmaninoff hand-alternation melody-in-the-thumbs gimmick on the second page. I think it’s early, anyway; I don’t think Liszt ever quite did that one. And I like the coda (that takes up more than a third of the piece) where things unexpectedly get a little crepuscular. They didn’t have to! He just decided to! I appreciate that kind of choice, especially in a piece that is otherwise squarely about flash.

2. Souvenir douloureux (1885)
[= Painful Memory]
A ma soeur Olga.

About 3.5 minutes long. It has been commercially recorded once, by Jouni Somero in 2003, but the recording doesn’t seem to be freely streamable at present. However on Youtube you can listen to a recital performance by one Luisa Splett.

This is very similar in texture and attitude to the Grieg Lyric Pieces: a simple idea put through some simple but pregnant harmonic changes, and then repeated. Unlike most of Grieg, there then follows a coda with a genuine culmination, which retrospectively makes the preceding repetition seem tedious.

(At least to me. I can either do a fundamentally static circular paradigm or a narrative developing one. This is also why I often have trouble with Schubert, who likes to repeat things a lot but still eventually end somewhere that “reflects” on the preceding journey. I feel weird about reflecting having gone in loops. Maybe that’s something to get over.)

(Sonata form might seem to be circular, especially when repeat signs are observed, but to my mind the essence of sonata form is that it is fundamentally linear, forward-moving, and incorporates the experience of recurrence within that forward motion. The use of repeat signs in sonatas bears this out: they never repeat the vital transition from beginning to ending; they repeat just the departure at the beginning (which is different the second time because it’s no longer really a departure) and then they repeat just the arrival at the ending (which is different the second time because only then is it really an ending.) Whereas Grieg’s little pieces really do happen twice in their entirety.)

The real problem with this piece is that it never quite convinces me that it has a melody; the harmonies are pleasant but the scale-walking is a little too unbroken to hold my attention. I wonder if it’s about an actual painful memory of his. Maybe his sister Olga knew what he was talking about.

3. Quasi Mazurka (1885)
A ma soeur Jeanne.

This piece has never been recorded! The first of many.

Why not? No good reason. There’s nothing wrong with this piece. The first theme is appealingly sunny, and then elegantly lets minor show through, in the middle section, without the beat changing a bit. Having no ritards or rubato at all gives an impression of sincerity that holds my attention.

I guess Chopin and Polishness in general were in fashion in Russia; there are gonna be a ton of Mazurkas (and quasi-Mazurkas) to come.

Here’s me, whacking my way through it.

This is from a few years ago when I happened to record myself playing it at a real piano. On this recording I was playing so much slower than prescribed by the composer that I’ve decided to present it here digitally sped up 25% (pitch-corrected, of course) in the hopes of giving a slightly closer impression of “the piece itself.” This is just a practical measure; I’m not trying to trick anybody. Also, for the most part this is still quite a bit slower than marked in the score. At tempo it would come in at more like 3 minutes, I think.

After 3 pieces I’d say that Felix Blumenfeld likes expressive codas.

4. Mazurka de Concert (1885)
A ma soeur Marie.

This piece has never been recorded either! Why not? Also no good reason. The main theme is hummable, if perhaps not quite catchy, and Blumenfeld’s pianistic writing continues to be of a very high quality. The warm B theme, in triads over a drone bass, is very attractive, and then returns to great effect in yet another expressive coda, this time the sort with a wistful diminuendo followed by a ringing, triumphant stringendo. Satisfying!

Again, until some record label steps up to the plate, all I can offer you is this sloppy readthrough from me.

Even more wrong notes this time, because it’s harder. This comes from that same day as the previous, and this too has been sped up 25%, which still isn’t nearly as fast as the composer asks. (But speeding it up any more will make it sound too unnatural, I think.) Imagine the whole thing breezing along tunefully and lasting around 4 minutes.

12] Kopylov: Two Mazurkas, op. 3

(А. Копылов : Две мазурки : для фортепьяно : соч. 3.)
Deux Mazurkas : pour le Piano : composées par : A. Kopylow.
[Two Mazurkas : for piano : composed by : A. Kopylov.]

  No. 1. en Mi mineur, dédiée à Mr. A. Reichhardt.
  No. 2. en Sol mineur, dédiée à Mr. N. Rimsky-Korsakow.

30 Deux mazurkas, op. 2 (1886)
621–622 (= the individual pieces from within 30, made available separately around 1892)

30 was scanned by Sibley in 2007.

030Title 030Page2

From the prices, the color, the lack of a date, and the reference to Büttner, this would seem to be an 1886 original.

Okay, now we’re getting into the real obscurities. That’s what I’m here for! Alexander Kopylov (1854–1911), on the teaching staff at the Imperial Chapel, and composer of secular works in his free time. A private student of Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov in the 1870s, and then a member of the Belaieff circle. Not completely unrecorded — three orchestral works and a couple of choruses are available in one recording each, plus his contributions to some collaborative works. But he wrote at least 60 opuses, so that’s not very much.

Danny Kaye says his name at 2:49 so you know he’s for real.

He was 32 when these mazurkas were published; we don’t know when they were written. Both are unrecorded (as I mentioned a few entries ago).

No. 1. en Mi mineur, dédiée à Mr. A. Reichhardt.

I have no idea who Mr. A. Reichhardt might have been; maybe someone at the Imperial Chapel. The mazurka dedicated to him is very lovely, though. Sweet and gently sentimental, with a poignant major-minor slide in the very first bar that remains effective even after it’s been heard 12 times, never changing. To my mind, this is a first-rate melody, somewhere between naive and knowing, and I don’t get tired of it. Something about the way the first phrase drifts briefly upward into a simple major resolution in parallel 6ths is very potent for me. I don’t know why.

And then the rustic dance in the middle is a stirring change of scene. Even the standard Borodin falling chromatic tenor line feels sincere and fresh under the circumstances. All tastefully contained within a modest salon style.

That’s why I love these title pages so much — they really do look exactly like the music!

Here I am playing it.

This is a strange performance, from the same day as the Blumenfeld above, and similarly very slow, but this one I couldn’t speed up because the middle section is already up to tempo and it would become absurdly fast. So understand what you’re hearing: this is a weird sentimental-daydream rendition; the marked tempo is Allegretto and almost twice as fast. And all those pauses at the end are me indulging a whim, I guess; they’re not part of the piece. I’m not sure what was going through my head, but something, apparently.

This recording clocks in at 4:22. It should probably be more like 3:30! But you can at least hear how the tunes go.

No. 2. en Sol mineur, dédiée à Mr. N. Rimsky-Korsakow.

Mr. Rimsky-Korsakov we know. This is a natural sibling piece to the preceding; it has enough of its own character to stand apart, but the same basic outline: a melancholy major-falling-to-minor A section with brief tragic outbursts, and a heartier B section with a Borodin chorus. This one feels like the darker of the two — night has fallen pretty completely by the end. I like the way the main theme of this one sort of drips and sighs downhill, and then comes around to do it again, over and over. So far it seems like Kopylov had a good feeling for melodic contour. Far better than the Blumenfeld mazurkas above, which covered similar ground but with very different strengths.

These Kopylov pieces are intermediate or easier, whereas the Blumenfeld pieces all implied the need for advanced technique, even if it was mostly being held in reserve. I tend to admire easy pieces more than hard ones. Or perhaps I should say I admire pieces that feel like they were adapted to suit the inclinations of the hands rather than the other way around. (Of course, if I had better technique, in the Czerny sense, I might not be able to make any such distinction.)

Anyway, these two pieces by Kopylov are very gracious in the hands, by which I mean in my hands, which protest childishly when asked to play arpeggios. Do I mean “gracious” though? I think I do.

My iffy performance.

This has been sped up 19% (10% and then “10%” again… that’s 19%, right?) because it’s from that same day a few years ago, when apparently my heartbeat was nice and slooow. Once again I make some idiosyncratic sentimental choices as I near the end. I also make plenty of mistakes, including the very first harmony. Oops. Well, this is what there is.

I think at the proper speed this would come out to about 3 minutes.

13] Sokolov: Twelve Songs, op. 1 (texts by Nikitin) (1881–??)

(Н. А. Соколов : Романсы : на слова Никитина : соч. 1.)
(12 Mélodies : avec accompagnement de piano : par Nicolas Sokolow : Op. 1. : Paroles russes de Nikitine.)
[12 Songs : with piano accompaniment : by Nikolai Sokolov : Op. 1. : Russian words by Nikitin.]

Vol. I, for medium voice. “Version française de F.V. Dwelshauvers et A. de Gourghenbekoff.” (13 p.)
  1. Певцу / Au poète
  2. Дитяти / À l’enfant
  3. Живая речь, живые звуки / Le bruit du monde (1881, 3 p.)
  4. В темной чаще замолк соловей / Le rossignol s’est tû (1881, 3 p.)

Vol. II, for high voice. “Version française de Jules Ruelle.” (25 p.)
  5. Когда закат прощальными лучами / Coucher de soleil (5 p.)
  6. Засохшая береза / Le bouleau desséché (4 p.)
  7. Молитва дитяти / Prière d’enfant (6 p.)
  8. Мельница / Le moulin (8 p.)

Vol. III, for low voice. “Version française de Jules Ruelle.” (19 p.)
  9. Дуб / Le chêne (4 p.)
  10. Нищий / Le mendiant (3 p.)
  11. Дедушка / Le grandpère (4 p.)
  12. Мать и дочь / Mère et fille (6 p.)

31 Тетр. 1. для сред. голоса с сопровожд. фп. / Cahier I. Pour Mezzosoprano ou Baryton. (1886)
32 Тетр. 2. для выс. голоса с сопровожд. фп. / Cahier II. Pour Soprano ou Ténor. (1886)
33 Тетр. 3. для низ. голоса в сопровожд. фп. / Cahier III. Pour Basse. (1886)
398–409 (= the individual songs from within 3133, made available separately around 1891)

As you can see, I’ve got nothing. The images aren’t available, the scores aren’t available, the songs have never been recorded. All I can offer you is:

1) A 1994 reprint of volume 2 (by obscure-song specialty publisher “Recital Publications, Huntsville TX”) was scanned by Google for the University of Michigan and, though it can’t be browsed at all by the general public, a very tiny thumbnail of its cover can be viewed. But of course Recital Publications replaces a lot of the text on their reprint covers, usually only retaining the upper half of the original title pages. Here you can just make out the type design of the word “Mélodies,” and that’s about it.

2) You can read most of the Russian texts of the songs, and see the first lines of the French texts, here.

As to what this work is like, all we can do is speculate.

Nikolai Sokolov (1859–1922), the man who rhymes with “Kopylov” in Danny Kaye’s song, was 27 years old and one year out of Conservatory (having studied under Rimsky-Korsakov) in 1886, when these were published (though the two songs whose dates are available were written in 1881, when he was 22 and still a student). Like Kopylov, he was teaching at the Imperial Chapel, though later, unlike Kopylov, he’d be hired by the Conservatory. Solo songs proved to be a recurring interest; he’ll be back again later in the catalog with some music we can actually look at.

Ivan Nikitin (1824–1861) was, from what I’ve read, a moderately well known, moderately respected, basically unexceptional poet from earlier in the century. His poetry was nonetheless set to music many times, disproportionately by members the Belaieff circle. From what I read of the lyrics, in manner and matter these are your standard 19th-century Lied texts: sentimental musings on nature images or human archetypes.

Sokolov seems to have been the first of the bunch to set Nikitin. At 12 songs to be performed by three singers, it seems like this is a rather substantial and ambitious cycle. But without hearing (or seeing) the music, it’s very hard to say. It might just be a bundle of student works, organized this way for the publisher’s convenience.

[If you’re really curious, I think your best bet is to pay the Bavarian State Library to make you a pdf from their copy; they have a convenient scan-on-demand service. 57 pages comes to $28.]

14] Sokolov: Three Songs, op. 2 (texts by Kozlov, after Musset) (1885)

(Н. А. Соколов : Романсы : на слова Козлова (из Альфреда де Мюссе) : для голоса в сопровожд. фп : соч. 2.)
(3 Mélodies : pour chant et piano : Op. 2 : par N. Sokolow. : Paroles russes de Kosloff d’après Alfred de Musset. : Traduction française de Jules Ruelle.)
[3 Songs : for voice and piano : Op. 2 : by N. Sokolov. : Russian words by Kozlov after Alfred de Musset. : French translation by Jules Ruelle.] (21 pp.)

  1. Вечерняя звезда / L’étoile du soir (7 p.)
  2. Надежда / Espérance (4 p.)
  3. Бедняк и поэт / Le pauvre et le poète (8 p.)

34 Trois mélodies, op. 2 (1886)
410–412 (= the individual songs from within 34, made available separately around 1891)

Same deal. No score, so recording, no pictures. Ivan Kozlov (1779–1840) was another middle-tier sentimentalist poet of a few generations past; Alfred de Musset (1810–1857) is somewhat better known, though perhaps Russians would disagree.

After no small amount of labor on my part (why? why?) I have determined that all three texts are selections from Kozlov’s version of Musset’s long poem Le Saule (1830). But Kozlov’s translation is so exceedingly free that I’m not sure the second selection here even has a directly corresponding passage in the original. (The French in the score of course is not original Musset but a singable back-translation by Mr. Jules Ruelle.) All quite melodramatic and unremarkable stuff, by the looks of it, which isn’t to say it might not also be beautiful and worthwhile, or at least make for pretty songs. Who knows?

[Bavaria can get you this one too, if you need it.]

15] Shcherbachov: Mosaïque (Mosaic), op. 15 (1885)

(Н. В. Щербачев : Мозаика : соч. 15.)
Mosaïque. : Album pittoresque. : Morceaux détachés : pour Piano : par N. Stcherbatcheff. : Op. 15.)
[Mosaic. : Picturesque album. : Miscellaneous pieces : for piano : by N. Shcherbachov. : Op. 15.]

  No.1. Rêverie-Prélude
  No.2. Orientale
  No.3. Elégie
  No.4. Guitare
  No.5. Valse-Intermezzo
  No.6. Pervenche
  No.7. Marionnettes

35 Mosaïque, op. 15 (1886)
350–356 (= the individual pieces from within 35, made available separately around 1891)

35 is available in a scan from RSL as linked above, which can also be found slightly cleaned up at IMSLP. (There’s a second scan at Pianophilia from a slightly later copy.) The excellent color title page comes from the Beattie collection.

035Title 035Page2

Here’s some fairly mauve prose on Mr. Nikolai Shcherbachov (2:57), and on this opus in particular, from the American critic Philip Hale (and, quoted, his colleague James Huneker), writing in 1900:

Prominent among the writers of piano music is Nicolas de Stcherbatcheff. who was born August 24, 1853, and distinguished among his works are collections entitled “Féeries et Pantomimes” (Op. 8); “Mosaïque” (Op. 15); “Zigzags” and “Les Solitudes.” “Mosaïque” is made up of “A Revery Prelude”; “An Orientale” of bewitching beauty; a pathetic elegy; “Guitar,” a strange number in which there is a serenade in a cemetery; a waltz that is brain-maddening; “Periwinkle”; and “Marionettes.” His music is baffling at first to the reader; there are unfamiliar harmonic progressions; there is shifting or unusual rhythm; there is unaccustomed melody; in a word, the music is exotic. But to the musician of temperament, soul, imagination, a new and beautiful world is opened, and he escapes for a time from commercial music and bargain counterpoint. He knows the full passion of a summer evening, and why moonlight is so feared by the prudent. He realizes that the waltz which is danced only in the bewildered mind is more intoxicating than that to which conventionally shod feet keep time.

Mr. James Huneker has finely characterized this strange composer: “Stcherbatcheff is a musical Gogol who would create another ‘Taras Bulba’ if he dared, yet contents himself writing small dangerous things for the piano. Who eats of his music is made mad, as are the devourers of mandrake. Bitter-sweet is it with rhythms that lull you and poison you. A valse of his that I tasted made my brain whirl. In my arms I held a bewitching creature, with a false red mouth, and our dance was vertiginous. Chromatic nightmares murdered our love, and then I knew that Stcherbatcheff is to be feared.”

This is of course quite over the top; I include it mostly because it serves as a reminder that it is possible to have strong and colorful feelings about a composer like Nikolai Shcherbachov (1853–1922), despite his being no more than a footnote in any conceivable history. It’s easy to slip into the error of believing that footnotes were born to be obscure, are intrinsically gray. Hopefully the overwritten stuff above will help counterbalance that impression.

The source from which that quote was taken (“Famous Composers and Their Works, Vol. I”) also includes a sketched portrait of Shcherbachov, the only one of which I’m aware.

Of the several extremely forgotten composers in the Belaieff stable, Shcherbachov does seem to me one of the least deserving of the fate. His many piano pieces are generally quite spirited and colorful and surely merit a few recordings here and there, rather than the absolutely none that they have received. Beginning with this cute and appealing little album. Sure, it’s no Pictures at an Exhibition but neither is it just piano bench trash. I don’t know about “exotic” or “dangerous,” but it’s all certainly good-humored and attractive. The mosaic doesn’t really add up to a bigger picture, but it’s a reasonable bundling of seven disparate pieces (“morceaux détachés”). I guess I thought to compare it to Pictures because as with Mussorgsky there is a kind of rough enthusiasm just below the surface that occasionally rises up and overrides “correctness.” Some of the pieces may seem a bit imbalanced at first, but they’re actually following their own subtly idiosyncratic ideas of balance.

This composer’s name can be transliterated many many ways. The basic points of variance are the initial complex consonant Щ, for which you might see any of “Shch,” “Stch,” “Tsch” “Schtsch”; the related but simpler consonant ч (“ch,” “tch,” “tsch”); the last vowel, which even in Russian sometimes appears as е and sometimes ё (“e,” “ye,” “o,” “yo”); and the final consonant в (“v” or “ff”). These possibilities don’t recombine completely freely, of course, but that’s still a lot of options. It definitely slows up catalog searches!

I’m using the spelling “Shcherbachov” because that’s what Grove uses — though they also slip and use Shcherbachyov with a Y at one point so how serious can they be?

1. Rêverie-Prélude

This first item is to me the oddest of the bunch: a meandering improvisation on a standard idyllic waterfall harp figure, clearly meant to be “perfumed” and “sensual.” But does it make “sense”? Maybe it doesn’t need to?

It is oddly hard to play — not only because it’s so freewheeling that it resists confident sightreading, but also because for some reason Shcherbachov has put counterintuitive details into nearly every bar, places where the arpeggiation becomes impure and sounds two notes at once. Despite being a bunch of standard swoons in a row, I think this piece might demand careful preparation.

Since none of these pieces have ever been professionally recorded, you’re definitely not going to get that. Instead you get this:

Since recording this very inaccurate and intentionless playthrough a few years ago, I have actually come to understand the piece better, but all I can record at present is on my clunky phony Casio keyboard, which is so much less pleasant to the ear (see below!) that for now we’re sticking with the above. (Yes, I sped it up 20%.)

Approximately 3 minutes.

2. Orientale

An American non-Belaieff edition of the Orientale was published in 1895, edited by Edward MacDowell, and at least into the 1910s the piece made occasional appearances in “100 Piano Classics”-type compilation volumes. It was almost going to be a “famous” piece, for a little while there. But things didn’t pan out that way.

It’s a sweet and simple little tune, the pentatonic orientality of which is mostly (but not completely) subsumed into the standard St. Petersburg harmonization, which creates a special gleam of innocence. Even if it is a bit greeting-card and commercial, I like it.

It can be heard played in-a-pinch serviceably by Youtube stalwart Phillip Sear, staring hard at the score in an attitude that is very familiar to me, though I don’t recommend it as a way of making good music.

Unfortunately the only time I recorded this piece at a piano, I misread the key of the middle section, so even for present purposes it’s not acceptable. Oh well.

Approximately 3 minutes.

3. Elégie

The B section is marked “come a due,” (=”like two”) which I take to mean “like a vocal duo.” This marking could just as well apply to the whole piece. It seems essentially to be an Italianate operatic love duet arranged for piano, with the slightly unpianistic effect that implies — the accompaniment is constantly getting mixed in awkwardly among the melody lines. As far as the tunes go, this is fairly generic stuff in a style that has never quite appealed to me; a little emotionally oversold. But there are a few nice turns. I’m not complaining.

Here I am banging it out clumsily on the klonky synthesizer without having gotten to know the piece very well. Listen to those plastic keys thud!

On further consideration, this probably wants to be a lot rhythmically steadier and more serene.

Approximately 3.5 minutes.

4. Guitare

There’s certainly plenty of strumming and plucking and flair from the outset, but I’m not sure the effect is quite guitar-like; it’s a bit too high in the treble for that. More like a mouse guitar. It’s cute, whatever it is. Then the interlude in the middle, identified as “Sérénade sur une tombe,” does a bit better at evoking guitars and Spain and moonlight and whatnot, though Shcherbachov can’t help himself but harmonize in the Russian chorale style.

All in all this may be my favorite in the opus — it’s like a cheesy engraving, executed with panache, which is exactly what it wants to be. The break-of-day effect of having the serenade theme return in major at the end is so wonderfully unnecessary that I find myself taking it seriously, being touched by it.

Particularly sloppy performance on the Casio. Sorry.

Approximately 6 minutes.

5. Valse-Intermezzo

Hale called this “brain-maddening,” which is a very hard adjective for me to hear in this gentle, sociable, feminine piece. Can the witty little misdirections in this harmless trifle possibly be what Huneker had in mind when he wrote all that gunk about “chromatic nightmares murdered our love”? Gosh, I hope not! Surely even a music critic in 1900 wasn’t that oversensitive. Perhaps the gothic, “vertiginous” waltz he had in mind will be identifiable in some Shcherbachov opus further down the road.

Once again, Shcherbachov gives a modest piece his full invention and consideration. No corner-cutting in this salon. In playing it one sees how much care has been lavished on this little confection. It’s more intricate than it sounds! But then again it’s also easier than it looks.

This one has a Phillip Sear Youtube rendition.

Approximately 2.5 minutes.

6. Pervenche
[= Periwinkle]

An unusual little “album leaf”-style character piece that reflects temperamentally on a very tiny, shortwinded idea. Like the opening Prelude, this has an underlying spirit of improvisation, though its surface is entirely composed and orderly. Very much in the vein of the Schumann Davidsbündlertänze — you can hear both Florestan and Eusebius in this one. I enjoy the poetic flourish at the end of the piece: it works itself up emotionally to a bare high note, hangs in silence for a very long time, and then just floats to the ground, spent and perhaps a bit abashed: the end.

I don’t know what it has to do with periwinkle, but that’s a fine name for a boutonniere piece like this. Why not. Like Schumann’s Papillons. Schumann is a good point of reference for most of the pieces in this set, isn’t he.

This is our third and final Phillip Sear performance.

Approximately 2.5 minutes.

7. Marionnettes

With its grandiose introduction, this one announces itself at the outset as the big finale of the opus… but that turns out to be sort of a joke. The piece is actually a tinkly puppet show. Or is the big buildup semi-serious after all? His intention seems to be the sincere glorification of tinkly puppet shows, which is to me a touching thing to attempt. It’s half-in-jest but there’s something very genuine about even the jest. Maybe I’m crazy but I detect a depth of feeling behind this piece. It’s implied by the combination of music-box childishness with Lisztian virtuosic sparkle; the feeling emerges faintly in the space between those two lines.

Me, playing the Casio Klonkenklavier:

That’s neither the notes nor the tempi, but it’s the closest thing you’re gonna get until you learn to play it yourself.

Approximately 5 minutes.

All in all, I find this Mosaïque to be a place worth returning. It’s an important part of my piano-playing life for there to be whole collections of pieces I can dip into that pose no emotional challenges, where everything being conveyed is basically positive, life-affirming, simple. This is a nicely varied such collection, and, within those terms, even a potentially deep one. The way fans of a pop album can find hidden depths in the interrelation and sequence of its songs, I can find it profitable to muse on the way “Guitare” does or doesn’t relate to “Marionnettes,” or the way the whole sequence does or doesn’t emerge from within the waterfall of the initial “Rêverie-Prélude.” Whether or not Shcherbachov conceived this set as an cycle (I suspect not), he assembled it into a real one, with its own internal life.

And what a great cover!

029Title 030Title 035Title

Next time, if a next time arrives, will be an all-Shcherbachov edition. So that we might continue to learn why moonlight is so feared by the prudent.

June 8, 2015

74. Sans toit ni loi (1985)

2000: 074 box 1 2008: 074 box 2
written and directed by Agnès Varda

Criterion #74: Vagabond.

(As last time: the current edition exists only as a component of boxset #418 “Four by Varda,” but it retains the original spine number 74.)

I have in the past used this space to express skepticism about the way titles are translated, but in this case the non-parallel English title is justified. Firstly: because I get the impression Agnès Varda chose it, and she’s entitled to choose whatever she likes. Secondly: because the French title (“Without Roof or Law”) is a play on a French expression, sans foi ni loi (“without faith or law”) which is just a stock phrase meaning ruthless/lawless/unscrupulous. Since there’s no way of translating the wordplay, there’s no way of translating the title.

Furthermore, Vagabond is a fine title.

Another art movie with integrity from Agnès Varda. The atmosphere and subject matter are entirely different from Cléo, at least superficially — the film stock and the era are 20 years removed, so the movie is made of a whole other sort of “stuff” — but the underlying attitude is recognizably the same. To me that indicates that the art is working: I could tell this was another communique from the same mind, without her having to insert any self-conscious signals (“It’s me again, so here’s my ‘style’!”).

The construction is very simple: there is a psychologically opaque person at the center, and then in orbit around her are various people going about their lives, occasionally affected by her gravity, as she is occasionally affected by them. We are invited simply to watch, and to wonder what to make of the life we are watching. This is the same as wondering what manner of thing a person is. The protagonist, Mona, is a drifter with no attachments and no apparent objective — her personal freedom of action is nearly absolute — so existential reflections become quite natural. What exactly is this business that she’s engaged in, this business of staying alive?

One of the intriguing peculiarities of this movie is that it begins with the discovery of Mona’s dead body, and then the rest is presented in a pseudo-investigative/documentary retrospect, where sometimes the various other characters comment directly to the camera about their encounters with her. Naturally, this imparts a certain underlying sense of urgency, tragedy, and even mystery to the whole film — we can’t help but want to know: how exactly will she end up freezing to death in a ditch? Varda has identified the device as being knowingly borrowed from Citizen Kane. It’s worth noting that, exactly as in Citizen Kane, the mystery-story frame doesn’t determine the spirit of the work; in fact, it actually relieves the material of the ordinary narrative burdens it would otherwise bear, and lets it speak more genuinely as itself, which is to say more ambiguously. The forensic attitude is a handy shortcut to a philosophic attitude, a trick that works on audiences that might otherwise not be inclined to approach things philosophically.

In fact I think this might be the secret appeal of all mystery stories: the rigid puzzle machinery so completely obviates any dependence on the “soft” tensions of standard narrative that all such human things are freed to appear in a philosophical light, in all their potential richness. That’s why Sam Spade’s musings about dames feel so full of juice: because the audience is 100% certain that they’re not load-bearing.

I said the subject matter was entirely unlike Cléo From 5 to 7, but from a certain point of view it’s actually very much the same: a woman walks (and is driven) from place to place, passing through a series of episodes and encounters, while the specter of death hangs over her. She is alone, then acquires companions, then is alone again, etc. An imposed formal scheme (the realtime clock in Cléo; the foreordained doom in Vagabond, as well as the recurring tracking shots with abstract music) contains her journey but does not define it.

I want to note that this very rich and flexible framework, shared by these two movies, is essentially the Alice in Wonderland framework, which has always meant a lot to me. One of the loveliest things about the Alice books is that the “specter of death” element is thoroughly soft-pedaled, hardly spoken at all, and yet still remains unmistakably present — I think because it is simply an existential reality of this particular dream-configuration. Over here is joy, and here in the center is the absurd, and over here is fear. They must necessarily all be present. As they are in both of these movies.

A thing that particularly struck me about Vagabond while I was watching was the fact that the various characters who populate Mona’s journey keep recurring and interacting with each other; they comprise their own little system of relationships and intrigues. So while Mona’s progress is inescapably, doomedly linear, the space around her is not, or at least not entirely. It loops back on itself, alive in its own way. This is also true of Alice: some of the most fascinating moments in those books are when characters who seem immutably fixed, each within their own wacky tableau, incongruously reappear later in other contexts (e.g. the Mad Hatter showing up in the courtroom to give evidence), as though to imply that there is a coherent social and geographical reality that functions even beyond Alice’s field of vision. Quite obviously there isn’t. But there is something, some principle of existence that operates without her, even in her own dream.

Mona’s gravity well at the center of her movie creates a similar bent-space effect: life in Vagabond doesn’t really go on without her, and yet it makes a point of demonstrating that it does, to the point of absurdity: when the student of the professor turns out to be the nephew of the old woman, the needless coincidence creates, if anything, the feeling that the interconnectedness of the people around Mona is from her perspective a supernatural phenomenon, a narrative dream-logic like Alice’s, to be understood in the same spirit. The world around Mona, with which she is only ever partially engaged, is not merely a world, it is the very principle of “a world,” condensed.

I took the tracking shots with music to be the “truth” of Mona’s existence, a kind of meaning that stands outside of the kind of pat interpersonal projections that construct her in the eyes of the other characters. She isn’t comfortable being with people because this tracking-shot essence of life is not compatible with them, nor is this undeclarative, frequently untonal music that represents the emotion of her truth. The way the music always ends abruptly on a cut is like a snapping-to, a loss of grace as the scene of the next human encounter organizes itself and Mona prepares once again to become an object of someone else’s story.

In her brief establishing voice-over at the beginning, Varda says she likes to imagine that Mona emerged from the sea. But it is made explicit later that Mona has had a real non-mythical background, used to have a secretarial job before she fled from her life. I take the narrator’s flight of fancy as a kind of performance of her own equal culpability in mythologizing and projecting; an acknowledgement that even this movie, about the silent core of a person that exists beyond projection, is a kind of projection. It has to be; it’s a work of art, it’s fiction, it’s public. There’s no way around it. But it knows what it is, and doesn’t make grandiose claims about what it’s accomplishing. The director’s control is both loose enough and precise enough that we understand that what we’re seeing is a process of consideration, of musing and observing, not an assertion of anything in particular.

I suppose I sound enthusiastic. I’m certainly being sincere in taking the film seriously. I admired it and found it stimulating. Nonetheless when it came time to tell Netflix how many stars it was worth in my book — a time that inevitably comes for every movie — I only gave it three, not the four that perhaps are here implied. So a note about why: the movie’s integrity was almost too great for me to be “moved” by what I saw. I felt I was in good company, worthy company, but neutral company at some basic spiritual level. I didn’t feel oppressed, but I also didn’t feel ennobled. I just felt life-y stuff. Take that as high praise for Agnès Varda. But it’s not the same thing as enthusiasm. I guess I reserve that fourth star for some degree of enthusiasm.

I felt more enthusiasm, I think, for the extras, where once again Agnès Varda has assembled her own little memoiristic bonus featurette-and-a-half with great warmth and charm. As I’ve said repeatedly, art is a social encounter, and Vagabond is very deliberately a social encounter with a moral and emotional neutral being, a Rorschach person. A Rorschach test can be interesting to undergo but it gives nothing; I could only come away with myself as I already had been, and with the neutrality I had been offered. Whereas Ms. Varda is a positive person and from her behind-the-scenes chitchat I felt I came away having been given something positive.

Am I really so dependent on others for my emotional experiences? No, not in life, not ideally; but when watching a movie, yeah, I guess. Isn’t that kind of the point?

I’ll grant that it’s often the case that this kind of bold, well-made Rorschach film turns out to be a long-term inflater (i.e. in my estimation, vs. a deflater; this is an old scheme of mine for talking about the afterlives of artgoing experiences). But only time will tell.

Connection to the preceding movie: I’ve already outlined major ones, not to mention the obvious credit continuity. I guess something really fleeting and superficial might be in order too. Fine. The protagonist walks into a cafe where she doesn’t know anybody and starts a song on the jukebox.

Music is by Joanna Bruzdowicz, a Polish composer who would go on to do several more collaborations with Varda. In this case the score is founded on a pre-existing classical composition, the second movement of Bruzdowicz’s String Quartet No. 1 “La Vita” (1973/83), which Varda heard and then asked Bruzdowicz to expand upon for the movie. The atmosphere it creates is of expressionism that has been allowed to develop freely in a purely conceptual space until it is nearly abstract, especially in relation to the noncommittal imagery of simply trudging across fields and roads. The immediate connotation is “high concert music,” but the juxtaposition with the completely earthy subject matter creates, as I said above, an impression of a kind of truth beyond mere drama. Unfortunately the music on its own isn’t anything special, at least to my ears. But that’s fine. It’s only “nothing special” within its own musical tradition, which is one that’s almost never heard in movies. So that makes it special after all.

Here’s our selection, the Main Titles:

We just upgraded WordPress, and now I suddenly I can embed this convenient music player. Pretty great, right?