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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Biopic as Opera (originally published 2/95)

Last week I took a look back at the long tradition of film biographies of famous composers, the most recent of which is "Immortal Beloved," featuring Gary Oldman as Beethoven. In recommending the films that I did, I was careful to point out that film biographies of composers, like all film biographies, should be regarded as sources of good entertainment rather than as sources of good history.

One fascinating case in point is the considerable body of work in this area by a filmmaker whom I did not mention last time. He's actually made more films about the lives of composers than any other filmmaker I'm aware of, but it certainly is not an interest in documenting the true and indisputable facts of the lives of these musicians that keeps him returning to this subject matter. He's got other fish to fry.

His name is Ken Russell. As the purveyor of one of the most interesting visual styles in the world of contemporary cinema, he makes films that rarely fail to evoke strong reactions -- both positive and negative. Whereas most films placidly unfold on the screen in front of you, a Russell film is more likely to grab you by the scruff of the neck and rough you up a bit. His imagery is big, broad, and passionate -- in a word, operatic.

That, I think, is the reason for his fascination with composers. His own relationship to the medium of film is more musical than dramatic. Indeed, he reminds me of no one so much as Ludwig van Beethoven, whose piano playing is said to have been so ferocious as to threaten to reduce the instrument to cordwood and splinters. That's more or less the way Russell makes a movie.

It's a style that is not for everyone, to be sure. In addition to sacrificing cinematic conventions on the altar of electrifying imagery, including some of the sacred cows of moviegoers for whom the play's the thing, Russell can be especially cavalier about historical accuracy. He'd much rather lay bare the soul of the music and see what it reveals about the soul of the composer.

Russell's early experiments with his unique style of composer biographies were produced for BBC television, including films about Elgar, Debussy, Richard Strauss, and Delius. None of these early works is currently available on video [2010 NOTE: Happily, this deficit has since been ameliorated. Of the programs mentioned here, only the Strauss bio remains unavailable.], but his three feature films dealing with composers' lives have been released. If you're ready for a unique viewing experience, give them a try.

"The Music Lovers" (1971). By way of presenting the life of Tchaikovsky, Russell offers us a meditation on the idealism of 19th century Romanticism. That may sound dry and academic, but I assure you that Russell has no difficulty bringing such musings vividly to life. We watch in growing alarm as Tchaikovsky uses the theatrical fantasy world of his music to retreat from harsh reality into a particularly disturbing kind of madness.

"Mahler" (1974). Russell's screen biography of Gustav Mahler is, on the surface, relatively conventional. We see Mahler toward the end of his life on a train journey with his wife, Alma. As they reflect on their turbulent relationship, the film provides illustrative flashbacks. Underneath, however, as Russell himself has pointed out, he was up to something rather crafty, borrowing the structural principle of the rondo from music and applying it to film. A piece of music in rondo form alternates a central theme with any number of variations, but always returning to the original theme before proceeding to the next variation. In "Mahler," Russell says, the central theme is love while the variations are scenes representing aspects of death.

"Lisztomania" (1975). Last week I mentioned "Song Without End" (1960), in which Franz Liszt is portrayed as a matinee idol. In "Lisztomania," Russell takes that concept to its logical conclusion, recognizing that Liszt was in effect the first rock star. To nail down the point, he cast a sure-enough rock star, Roger Daltrey of The Who, to play the part of Liszt. The imagery here is about as wild as it gets, so you may not want to make this your first Russell movie.

Like the audience who staggered out of the first performance of Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony, those who see Ken Russell's work experience the vertiginous sensation of the aesthetic ground shifting under their feet. You may emerge elated or infuriated, possibly both, but you won't be unaffected.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Maestros (originally published 2/95)

Motion pictures, right from the beginning, have always had a special relationship with music. Even in the silent film era you'd find some form of music wherever movies were exhibited. It might be anything from an orchestra or elaborate theater organ in the fancier venues to an out-of-tune upright piano of questionable lineage in the small-town theaters. Indeed, even the introduction of spoken dialogue could not replace the musical accompaniment. Instead, music and dialogue became more or less equal partners in the aural dimension of the movie experience.

Given this intimate relationship between movies and music, what could be a more natural subject matter for a film than the life of a composer? The current release of "Immortal Beloved" gives us the very talented Gary Oldman in the role of Beethoven, following in the successful footsteps of Tom Hulce's Mozart in "Amadeus" (1984). In fact, though, the tradition of movie biographies of famous composers goes much farther back than "Amadeus." Some of them haven't yet made it to home video, but a number of the better-known examples are available.

One caveat, however. Movie biographies of composers have one thing in common with all other movie biographies: you can't expect historical accuracy from them. Movies are show biz, after all, and life stories are simply too complex to make for good drama, even when the life in question is the fascinating story of a musical genius. So, if you want to learn the facts about the lives of the musical masters, the library will be your best bet. But if you just want an entertaining story and lots of good music, look for these titles.

"Rhapsody in Blue" (1945). Robert Alda (Alan's dad) stars as George Gershwin. One of the most interesting things about this picture is the supporting cast. Because the film was made only a few years after Gershwin's premature death, many of the composer's contemporaries were still around to portray themselves in the film. For example, Paul Whiteman, the bandleader who popularized the "Rhapsody in Blue," appears as himself, as does Oscar Levant, a close friend of Gershwin's. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer. As you will see, the film is a product of its time, proudly featuring Al Jolson performing "Swanee" in full, cringe-inducing blackface. O tempora, o mores...

"A Song to Remember" (1945). Cornel Wilde stars as Frederic Chopin. Merle Oberon plays his love interest, novelist Armandine Dupin, who is better remembered by her pen name, George Sand. The third principal cast member is the formidable Paul Muni as Professor Joseph Elsner, the music teacher who recognizes the genius of the young Chopin and helps launch his career.

"Song of Love" (1947). Katharine Hepburn and Paul Henried portray Clara Wieck Schumann and Robert Schumann in one of music's most poignant love stories. Clara Wieck was one of the finest pianists in Europe. Her marriage to Schumann, the romantic's romantic, undeniably impaired her musical career. At the same time, we have no way of knowing how much of Schumann's music might never have been written without her stabilizing influence in his life. The movie stretches the friendship between Johannes Brahms (played by Robert Walker) and Clara into a romantic interest on Brahms's part. (Show biz, remember?)

"Song Without End" (1960). Is it just me, or are you beginning to notice a trend in these titles? Maybe there's still time to change the Beethoven title to "Song of the Immortal Beloved." This one is about Franz Liszt, with Dirk Bogarde in the lead role. In a way, Liszt is an ideal subject for a movie, because he was something of a matinee idol in his day. His first and greatest acclaim came not as a composer but rather as a performer. He was, by all accounts, one of the most gifted pianists of all time. As we see his head being turned by the adulation of his fans, especially women, we can easily relate his story to those of more contemporary performers.

In fact, there's another film about Liszt that develops that aspect of his life even further than "Song Without End" does. Next week, I'll tell you about that film, and about the visionary filmmaker who largely built his early reputation on biographies of the great composers.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Table (originally published 1/95)

During the extraordinarily fecund decade of the 1920s, the city of Paris saw an amazingly stellar confluence of creative talent, from Ernest Hemingway to Pablo Picasso to Gertrude Stein. But across the Atlantic in New York City, a similar amalgamation of talent regularly gathered around a single table at a single restaurant. It was, of course, the famed Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel.

A list of Round Table regulars reads like a who's who of 20s and 30s theater and journalism. It included playwrights George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood, as well as newspaper columnists Heywood Broun, Ring Lardner, and Franklin P. Adams. The group encompassed everything from drama critics like Robert Benchley and Alexander Woollcott to performers like Harpo Marx and Tallulah Bankhead.

It was indeed a heady group of potent personalities that gathered for those illustrious lunches, but perhaps the most compelling personality of all was packed into the diminutive form of Dorothy Parker. Combining a sweetness of manner with a quick and lacerating wit, she was no one to trifle with. Clare Booth Luce, for example, learned the cost of crossing verbal lances with her when she allowed Parker to precede her through a door with a derisive "Age before beauty." Walking past Luce with a flourish, Parker replied, "Pearls before swine."

In the current release, "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," the formidable Mrs. Parker and her talented associates are recreated for a generation that has, incredibly, forgotten most of them. If the film and its attendant publicity has stirred your curiosity about these remarkable men and women, here are some titles featuring their work to look for on video.

"The Man Who Came to Dinner" (1941). Based on a play by Round Tabler George S. Kaufman, the title character of this comedy is in turn based on another member of the group, critic Alexander Woollcott. The character's name is Sheridan Whiteside, an irascible and imperious radio and newspaper columnist. Forced by an accidental injury to convalesce in the home of a family whom he clearly considers beneath him, he makes certain that everyone in the household stays at least as miserable as he is.

"A Star is Born" (1937). Janet Gaynor stars as a small-town girl gone to Hollywood in search of stardom. The roots of this familiar story extend back to a play called "Merton of the Movies" by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, both Round Tablers, and this version was adapted for the screen in part by Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell.

"Abe Lincoln in Illinois" (1940). Round Tabler Robert Sherwood adapted his own Pulitzer Prize winning play focusing on Lincoln's life and careers before winning the presidency. Raymond Massey, who had played the title role on the stage, repeated his widely praised performance for the film version. George Kaufman's comment was, "Massey won't be satisfied until he's assassinated."

"The Sky's the Limit" (1943). The many delightful short films featuring Robert Benchley giving mock-pompous lectures remain, so far, maddeningly unavailable on video. [2010 NOTE: Happily, this is no longer the case. Several of the Benchley short subjects can now be obtained on DVD from Warner Brothers' Warner Archive collection.] Until this outrage is rectified, we'll have to make do with this Fred Astaire musical which includes one of those Benchley lectures as the highlight of one of its scenes. When he begins fumbling around with charts to make a point that he's long since forgotten, you may well get the eerie sensation that Benchley was lampooning Ross Perot some 50 years before Ross got it together.

"Dinner at Eight" (1933). Based on a play by Round Tablers Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman and adapted in part by Round Tabler Herman Mankiewicz, this was one of the all-star productions in which the MGM studio showcased its impressive stable of talent. The film portrays an elegant dinner party at which the patina of glamor and refinement barely masks the miserable lives of its participants. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

In a way, the dinner party of "Dinner at Eight" comes uncomfortably close to mirroring those Round Table luncheons. As talented and clever as they were, most of the Round Table crew were substance abusers, and many of them came to a bad, lonely end. Their story is an object lesson in the frailty of the vessels that incarnate the entertainment and wisdom we most treasure. We might do well to bear that frailty in mind as the chill winds of partisan politics begin to blow through the institutions that support today's creative talents.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Vaulting Ambition (originally published 11/95)

If you buy the premise that storytellers do their best work when dealing with familiar subject matter, the recent success of "To Die For" makes perfect sense. Who would know better about driving ambition and a blind, amoral hunger for success than the filmmaking community? As you might imagine, it's a subject they've dealt with many times before. Here are some earlier movies about vaulting ambition and its victims. Each is available on video.

"All About Eve" (1950). Writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz's classic turns a jaundiced eye on the rise of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), the newest toast of Broadway. The film begins with a ceremony honoring Eve for winning the Sarah Siddons award for acting, then flashes back to show us how many people she stepped on to reach that pinnacle. Most especially she steps on Margo Channing (Bette Davis), the Broadway star whom Eve befriends only to betray. The seamy proceedings are narrated for us in appropriately cynical fashion by dyspeptic theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders).

"Room At the Top" (1959). The late 1950s and early 1960s in Britain saw the emergence of a group of playwrights and filmmakers who have been collectively labeled the "angry young man" dramatists. This pungent indictment of the British class system is a product of that movement. Laurence Harvey stars as Joe Lampton, an ambitious working class fellow who is determined to rise in the world. Recognizing that no amount of industriousness will accomplish this goal, he resolves to marry into the upper crust. He pursues and wins the affection of a young woman from a highly placed family. At the same time, he begins an affair with a woman nearer his own station in life, for whom he has genuine feelings. Needless to say, the time comes when he must choose between love and ambition.

"The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" (1974). Based on the novel by Mordecai Richler, this Canadian film offers an early look at the developing talents of Richard Dreyfuss, who plays the title role. Duddy is a driven and ambitious young man, torn between the example of his father, a two-bit hustler, and that of his uncle, a successful and ethically responsible businessman. Duddy, hungry for quick success, elects the low road, achieving some success but losing his uncle's respect in the process.

"The Day of the Locust" (1975). It took only 36 years for Nathanael West's caustic short novel on the underbelly of Hollywood to be adapted into a movie. Considering the intensely unflattering portrait West paints of the movie colony, it's actually a little surprising that it ever made it to the screen at all. Karen Black plays Faye Greener, an ambitious, amoral young actress who is determined to make it in the movie business. In furthering her aspirations she does not hesitate to use those who fall under the spell of her superficial charm. The first of these is Tod Hackett (William Atherton), a set designer through whose eyes we see the story unfold. More tragically, she strings along a simple-minded fellow named Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland), who becomes her sugar daddy without even receiving the usual benefits in return. Faye sacrifices Homer to her ambition without a thought, despite the fact that she never even achieves the success for which she has ruined his life.

"Macbeth" (1948). The ultimate tale of ruinous ambition, of course, is the one that gave us the phrase "vaulting ambition" in the first place. Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman and kinsman of King Duncan, is tricked by three witches into coveting the crown. Spurred on by his ruthless wife, he murders Duncan and diverts suspicion of the deed onto Duncan's sons, who therefore flee the country. This leaves Macbeth free to claim the throne. In the end, however, it is Macbeth himself who is the victim of his own reckless ambition. Orson Welles, one of the best cinematic interpreters of Shakespeare, made this stylish version of "Macbeth" on a shoestring budget for Republic, a studio best known for its B-Westerns and serials.

"Macbeth" is renowned in the theater as a bad luck play. Maybe that's because it, like each of these films, is about the attempt to forge one's own luck out of the misery of others. It's a doomed endeavor but, as Nicole Kidman knows, it makes for good drama.