Thursday, May 14, 2020

HORROR MUSIC REVISITED


Music can’t be trusted. While listening to even the most sweetly beautiful strains of music, be afraid. Be very afraid.

I have already written at some length about the use of classical music in horror films (see my earlier blog, “Horror Music”). It’s a rich subject, inasmuch as those classical standbys by the likes of Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, and Bach, for example—respectively, Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz,” Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” and Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”— are spooky enough even without their cinematic applications. But recent viewings of two Hollywood films noir, the 1946 UNDERCURRENT, with Katharine Hepburn and Robert Taylor, and the 1947 POSSESSED, with Joan Crawford and Van Heflin, prove a very different point. In these two examples, it is remarkable that the music chosen to literally underscore sinister doings is itself relatively benign when heard in its original contexts.


Take UNDERCURRENT, wherein newlywed Katharine Hepburn finds herself yoked to a pathological killer. Running throughout the dark proceedings is the theme from the Andante from Johannes Brahms’s Third Symphony. This lovely, pastoral theme from what is perhaps Brahms’s most beautiful and lyric symphony, is given a real workout, repeatedly played diegetically on a piano and everywhere omnipresent on the soundtrack of musical arranger Herbert Stothart. Who knew, as it passes in and out of minor modes and collapses into distorted fragments, how disturbing this music really can be?


Likewise, the music deployed to evoke Joan Crawford’s descent into insanity in POSSESSED, is a particularly graceful and lyric excerpt from Robert Schumann’s Carnaval. It’s a lovely little thing, a musical portrait of Chopin, that could hardly be twisted into a darker pretzel shape. Yet, here it is, in the hands of music arranger Franz Waxman, its fragile wistfulness now a musical gargoyle of Joan Crawford’s deranged jealousy and madness.

It goes without saying that neither the Brahms nor the Schumann music can be heard again in the concert hall without this darker cloak of instability clouding our listening experience. What have we learned? That context is everything? That within the most gentle of musical expression lurk demons? That music itself possess its own “Jekyll and Hyde” identity, by turns, outwardly sweet, proper, and well-behaved, and malignant, dangerous, even homicidal?

Musical purists may howl. But we fans of film noir already know that you just can’t trust what you see—and what you hear.

Friday, April 17, 2020

ALLEN DAVIAU HAS DIED


High in the list of happy encounters I have enjoyed over the years with filmmakers was my first meeting with cinematographer Allen Daviau. The occasion was the New York premiere in 1985 of Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, for which Daviau was the cinematographer. While everyone was scrambling for interviews with Mr. Spielberg, I had the good fortune to meet the burly, congenial, and bewhiskered Daviau in a New York watering hole for the first of what would be two conversations. The second, which transpired in Hollywood in 2010, constituted an update of the first. Both are published in my book, THOSE WHO MADE IT. In the five decades of his astonishing career, Daviau has earned Five Oscar nominations, two American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Awards, an Art Directors Guild’s Distinguished Career Award, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the ASC.

In our first conversation, from 1985, the 43-year old Daviau spoke of his long involvement with Steven Spielberg, which began with the short film, Amblin, and continued through The Color Purple. In the 2010 conversation, he talked about his subsequent work on Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun and his work with other directors, notably, John Schlesinger’s The Falcon and the Snowman. He also comments on his subsequent years in and outside of the industry.

In both interviews he paid tribute to the many Hollywood camera persons and operators of his generation. I can still hear, amidst the clatter of coffee cups and the hum of background voices, Daviau’s compelling voice, gruff and gentle, by turns, the words tumbling out with vehemence and conviction.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

THE SONG OF NAMES


Directed by Francois Girard and starring Tim Roth as Martin, Clive Owen as David Rapoport. Based on the novel by Norman Lebrecht.

THE SONG OF NAMES has lured me back into the movie theaters, after a period of absence through indifference to a recent string of forgettable titles. And for me it was a welcome return. Here is a movie that is about something. It is about friendship, identity, and betrayal. More importantly, it is about the power of music—the power of a song to remember and memorialize life and loss.

The abrupt disappearance in 1951 of young violin virtuoso, David Rapoport, moments before his London concert debut, precipitates a 35-year search by his boyhood friend, Martin. The motives behind Martin’s quest are complicated: Not only is he trying to solve a mystery, but he wants to avenge a tragedy: David’s desertion of the concert was a betrayal of Martin’s father, who had sponsored the concert at great cost, and who subsequently had died of a heart attack.

This information comes to us only gradually, by fits and starts, through a series of flashbacks, while Martin spends decades relentlessly tracking David’s course from London to Warsaw to America and back to London.

The flashbacks reveal that the two friends had first met in 1939 when David’s father entrusted his ten-year old violin prodigy to Martin’s family before taking his family back to Poland. The two boys conquered their initial hostility and bonded in friendship during to the London Blitz and beyond. It is only when, shortly after the war, David learns, almost by accident, of the fate of his family during the Holocaust, that he abruptly deserts the London concert, regains the Jewish identity that he had abjured, and embarks on an odyssey of his own that eventually takes him to Treblinka, the site of the deaths of his family and millions of other Jews. There, amidst the grave markers, he again takes up his violin and plays a song—
the song of the movie’s title—the song whose melody he has composed to a text comprised of the names of the Jewish dead.
Martin knows nothing of this when he finally catches up with David, now living quietly in a Jewish faith community in London. A phenomenally gifted violinist, he no longer pursues a concert career. He performs music exclusively in the service of this faith. Martin’s anger at David quickly turns to sympathy. But not before he demands that David finally redeem the tragedy that befell his family and perform the concert that he had abandoned thirty-five years ago.

This time David shows up. He performs Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. Then, unexpectedly, after the intermission, instead of playing music by Bach, he reappears garbed in traditional Jewish cloths and plays the music he had composed for his “Song of Names.”

Then, true to form—he disappears. Again.

The letter he leaves behind is an apology to Martin for the pain his past actions had caused his family. He wants only to turn his back on a selfish life of personal gain and return to his faith community.

But there’s more. It turns out David has more than his desertion of Martin’s family to atone for: There’s the mystery of his actions immediately prior to that concert of long ago. It’s a mystery that only Martin’s wife can solve: She confesses: Martin had been with her.

Martin says nothing. But he turns inward and, in the dark, silently recites Kaddish for the friendship that once was.

This is only one among many wonderful set pieces of the film. There is an impromptu violin duo of Paganini’s music between David and another boy while huddling in a London bomb shelter. In another scene, David stands alone in long shot performing his Song of Names in a Triblinka memorial site. And there’s the key sequence of the film, when David first visits a London Jewish community and hears the Rabbi chanting the music and the names of his own family, victims of Treblinka. The collective impact of these musics and these names is overwhelming.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE


Written and directed by Celine Sciamma and starring Noemie Merland as Marianne and Adele Haenel as Heloise.

“Do all lovers feel they are inventing something?”

The question hovers over two women who indeed are inventing something—not just creating their mutual love but telling a story about it.

Which also describes what writer-director Celine Sciamma is doing in the acclaimed French film, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE. She inscribes on the screen a series of deft images, that coalesce into an unusual love story, a process not unlike the painter named Marianne whose brush strokes on canvas gradually reveal a portrait of the woman who will become her lover.

Marianne has come to the wild coast of Brittany on a commission to paint a portrait of young Heloise. In this world of mid-18th-century France, a woman’s portrait introduces her to the hitherto unknown man she has been obliged to marry. Thus, we can understand why Heloise is reluctant to sit for the portrait which, in effect, will seal her doom. What results is a miracle that nothing to do with the arranged marriage: While Marianne studies the face and form of her subject, Heloise all the time is looking back at her—in effect, painting Marianne’s portrait. Call this a dual portrait. Call it a collaboration.

Which brings us to the central conceit of the movie—the relationship between Marianne the artist and Heloise her lover is compared to the Greek myth of the poet Orpheus and his great love, Eurydice. According to the myth, Orpheus descends into the Underworld to retrieve his lost love, Eurydice. With the power of his words (the song) and his music (the lyre), he persuades Hades to release Eurydice to the upper world. But there is a catch: During the ascent, Orpheus is forbidden to look back at her. However, pausing on the threshold, torn in a moment of doubt, he does look back. And loses Euridice. Moreover, Orpheus himself is forbidden to return and he is slain.

What is the meaning of this story? The Romantic philosophers, for whom this myth is a key text, suggest that while Orpheus yearns for ideal love, he is ultimately trapped by the impossibility of his dream, claimed by the pragmatic reality of the everyday world. This is called THE ROMANTIC IRONY: The true Romantic never attains—or even deep down never wants to attain—that higher realm that he’s yearning for.

Heloise offers her own interpretation as to why Orpheus looks back at Euridice: “Maybe Euridice asked him to.” It’s a startling insight. It is Euridice, not Orpheus, who seals the lovers’ doom. Let’s consider this in terms of this movie: When Heloise returns Marianne’s gaze, their fates are sealed. Like Orpheus and Euridice, they are fated never to be together. While Marianne loses Heloise, Heloise must live on elsewhere in an arranged and loveless marriage. Both are condemned to an emotional limbo.

This brings the film to a beautiful, yet tragic conclusion.

So far so good.

But I have a problem with all of this. It involves the music on the soundtrack. Early in the story, Heloise tentatively pick out a few notes of a melody on the piano. This is music, she says, that burns in her memory, something she had heard once before. And it is this music that wells up on the soundtrack—the only moment in the film when orchestral music is heard— during the final scene in an opera house as Heloise, now a married mother, looks back, in effect, and laments the lost love for the absent Marianne. We might expect this music of memory to be the most famous music ever composed to evoke the Orpheus myth—Gluck’s “Dance of the Furies” from his opera, Orfeo and Eurydice. But instead, to my shock and disappointment, what we hear instead is the “Summer” section of Vivaldi’s The Seasons! While this music in its violence bears a fleeting resemblance to the Gluck, it is not the Gluck. Director Celine Sciamma must have her reasons for this unfortunate substitution, but for the likes of me, it seems that she is evading the core myth she has been at such pains to create.

Now, go ahead and blame me for committing the cardinal sin of movie criticism—rewriting the movie.


Tuesday, January 7, 2020

THE KING



Directed by David Michod. Starring Timothee Chalomet as King Henry V, Joel Edgerton as John Falstaff, Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin of France.

The sight of Timothee Chalomet as the lovestruck Laurie in Little Women hardly prepares us for his blood-spattered King Henry V in the new Netflix production, THE KING. But his dark-eyed intensity is the same, even if his force of arms is wielding a broadsword against rival Percy Hotspur rather than hugging the reluctant Jo March.

The story of the warrior King Henry V and his exploits at Agincourt in 1415 come to many of us via the play by William Shakespeare and latterly the films of Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. We know that young Henry reluctantly assumes the throne after the death of his father, Henry IV. He now must abandon his days of drinking and wenching, ignore his former drinking buddy, Sir John Falstaff, take up arms against the blood-lusting Dauphin of France and his superior forces and, even more dangerously, negotiate a marriage to Catherine de Valois

But now, the historian has his or her say. The backdrop is late Medieval England during the Hundred Years War between England and France, when Henry V was the second English monarch of the House of Lancaster, and England became one of the strongest military powers in Europe. There is a decidedly downbeat cast to it all. Here, we have history at close quarters—with no quarter given. For all its expanse and scope, it’s lowdown and dirty. Vulgar invective replaces Elizabethan soliloquy. Grinding poverty stains pomp and heraldry. When combat is not waged from a safe distance, with catapults and longbows, it is nasty business at close quarters, where it’s largely a question of trying to stay on your horse while bashing away at heavily armored foes. Everything and everybody ends up down in the mud, where there is little to distinguish English from French, friend from enemy. No medics attend the wounded. A finishing sword stroke is the only compassion, the only remedy. Politics, then, as now, consists of the mantra, “Trust No One.” Patriotic fervor and King Henry’s war was in reality a fraud and a land grab.

Timothee Chalomet’s King Henry is boyish and impulsive, and we are reminded that the historical king was barely twenty when he came to the throne and only thirty-five at his death. His friend, John Falstaff, is not the bloated caricature of Orson Welles but Joel Edgerton’s wise and canny drinking buddy-turned battlefield advisor (who depends upon the pain in his right knee to predict impending rains). Fairly stealing the show is a barely recognizable Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin of France. In a key scene, this blond, sniggering creature delivers a jaw-dropping taunt to Henry. It belongs in a highlight reel—but not for the faint of heart. His own demise is a startling pratfall.

Watch for Oscar nominations all around—and kudos to Chalomet who, like Henry, is a star on the ascendant.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

HIS DARK MATERIALS: MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE


HIS DARK MATERIALS. Adapted by Jack Thorne from the trilogy by Philip Pullman. Starring Dafne Keen as Lyra Bevacqua, Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby, and James McAvoy as Lord Asriel.

Now that all eight episodes of Season One of HBO’s HIS DARK MATERIALS are available for streaming, let’s pause a moment.

Witches fly, armored polar bears prowl the Northern Wastes, and gas-balloons and metal zeppelins hover over the towers of Old Oxford. Alternate worlds mix and blend. Toss in a mad scientist and a 12-year old girl battling a cosmic conspiracy and you have more than a taste of HBO’s new adaptation of the classic trilogy of heroic fantasies of British author Philip Pullman.

But, unfortunately, that’s only a taste. As a kind of steampunk odyssey filled with adventures and terrors, the HBO series emerges as a cross between Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series and C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegories. Fair enough? Not really? So far, Season One falls short of the profound subversive text beneath the surface of Pullman’s original trilogy. More than an adventure story for the kiddies, it’s really a sharp critique of the Catholic Church. Consider these words by author Pullman. They are at the core of his books: “What Christianity calls the Fall of Man is the best thing, the most important thing that ever happened to us, and if we had our heads straight on this issue, we would have churches dedicated to Eve instead of the Virgin Mary.”

And that’s exactly what HIS DARK MATERIALS is—or should—be all about.

What sounds blasphemous to conventional Christian ears is the reason why the first attempt to bring HIS DARK MATERIALS to the screen bombed. It adapted the first of the trilogy, The Golden Compass and contained enough of Pullman’s message to raise the alarm and discourage the continuance of the second and third installments, respectively, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

The three books spanned seven years of Pullman’s writing life and were published in 1995-2000. Two children, a precocious young teenager, Lyra Bevacqua, and her older friend, the stalwart Will Parry, stride across parallel worlds in their battles against the monolithic consortium known as The Magisterium, an organization masking global control under the guise of religious doctrines. The saga, moreover, introduced two thematic ideas, first, that every one of us possesses a guiding genius, a “familiar,” here called, a “daemon,” a changeable animal shape that accompanies and guides us from our birth to adolescence; and two, that all of the cosmos is constructed out of particles called “Dust.” Just what this atomistic matter is, exactly, is quite complicated. Certainly, it’s not the grime of the streets; and it’s not what we call God, but the material that created God. As we reach maturity, this material becomes a part of us—but we must lose our innocence to acquire what is wisdom. Dust is a metaphor for enlightenment. Unlike conventional Christianity, which preaches that our loss of Innocence is the result of the Fall of the Biblical Garden of Eden that precipitates us into a sinful state—Original Sin—His Dark Materials reveals that this “Fall” is actually our salvation.

When I first ventured into these wonderfully complex books, I thrilled to the adventures and the fertile imaginative worlds therein; subsequently, I found myself, as per Pullman’s guidance, immersed in his avowed sources, namely, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which provides the themes and the title of the trilogy (see Book Two, line 916); William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which abolishes easy boundaries between Good and Evil (and which gives us, among other things, the image of a “golden compass” that creates the world); the martyred monk Giordano Bruno’s beliefs in multiple worlds; and that peculiar little story by Heinrich von Kleist, “The Puppet Theater,” which mandates our search through innocence and beyond to wisdom. In brief, they all suggested that the character of Satan, as envisioned by Milton, reveals that when God forbade Adam to partake of the Tree of Life, he kept humankind in ignorance in the service of God’s ego. But to the contrary, should we not ask: Should not God be flattered by Adam’s interest rather than be frightened by his curiosity? Is not the desire to understand God’s world not heresy but true devotion? Thus, author Philip Pullman, who insists he is a Christian atheist, seems to embed in his trilogy the conviction that the parable of the Garden and the Fall of Man is merely a selfish demand for obedience; and that our resistance, our hunger for knowledge is admirable. As Pullman says--“What Christianity calls the Fall of Man is the best thing, the most important thing that ever happened to us.”

If all this seems to stretch the trilogy’s meanings ‘way out of whack, many steps beyond the juvenile trappings of an adventure story, just make your way through the spiritually profound third volume of the trilogy and it’s all there, no mistake.

It remains to be seen if these ideas, only tepidly introduced into the first season of the HBO adaptation, will be further explored in the second and third seasons. Season Two is already in the can, and we can only assume (and hope) that it and a third season will see the light, as it were. So far, the performances by the admirable Dafne Keen as Lyra, Ruth Wilson as her scheming mother, Mrs. Coulter, Lin-Manuel Miranda as the swashbuckling adventurer Lee Scoresby, and James McAvoy as the maddened scientist Lord Asriel are gripping; and the production values impressive. But will the series follow through on the “illumination” of Pullman’s profoundly anti-conventional religious ideologies; or will it obey only the vulgar glare of commercial storytelling?

In the final analysis, declares Pullman, HIS DARK MATERIALS functions consciously what Blake said Milton was doing without knowing it—“telling the story from the devil’s point of view.”

Thursday, December 19, 2019

BOMBSHELL



Directed by Jay Roach. Starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, and Katherine McKinnon.

Already the media is asking questions about BOMBSHELL’s gallery of lookalike actresses and actors: How many prosthetics did Charlize Theron wear in her portrayal of Fox newswoman Megyn Kelly? Did lowering her voice damage her throat? Is John Lithgow’s prosthetic padding more lifelike than Russell Crowe’s in his portrayal of Ailes in The Loudest Voice earlier this year? Etc. This is unfortunate, because that sort of verisimilitude is bound to fail at close quarters. Too often the screen is crowded with a gallery of lookalikes—Chris Wallace, Rudy Giuliani, Judge Jeanine Pirro, Bill O’Reilly, etc.—that comes across as one of those crowded Al Hirschfeld panels of caricatured celebrities. The best we can say is that as caricatures they are playing an amusing game of charades. But “amusing” is not what we’re after, here.

Otherwise, BOMBSHELL switches the polarities of the standard newsroom expose. Recent films like Official Secrets (one of my favorite movies earlier this year) and Dark Water deployed media to uncover scandals and misdeeds. BOMBSHELL turns inward: It’s the Fox News operation that is itself exposed. And I’m not just talking about Roger Ailes’s infamous directive that the Fox anchor women sit at desks whose transparent glass revealed their legs. Ailes’ spectacular fall from grace (?) is by now well known and documented. The same holds true for the bitter struggles of anchorwomen Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlsen against the predations of Ailes.

So, I found myself looking more at the edges of the frame, looking for characters and stories that are not well known. The presence of Kate McKinnon, for example, as a closeted lesbian concealing a picture of herself and her lover under her newsroom desk, is more than a disturbing footnote to this story. While the gender politics play out in the heterosexual arena, it is her character of Jess Carr who must remain silent—concealing not just her sexual identity but her liberal views. Praise must go to BOMBSHELL for craftily inserting this disturbing secondary story, for it points out the fact that the “bombshell” revelations of the doings at Fox News are only part of a much more complicated picture. Behind every desk at Fox News—or any other print and broadcast newsroom, for that matter—there are other stories, like Jess’s, that remain muffled and hidden.

When will those stories be told?

Pardon me now. Emerging from the toxic waste dump of BOMBSHELL, I’m washing my hands. Then I’ll go back to see The Two Popes again. There are secrets there, too. But played out in a rather different arena.