Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast

A few disconnected thoughts this week congeal around the subject of music:

1.)  Once again this year I showed a Dave Fleischer “bouncing ball” cartoon in class (Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, 1926), and once again I was greeted with incredulity that anyone would ever be willing to participate in singing in a public place like a movie theater.  I can never quite decide how to take that response, but it fascinates me.  Is the singing the problem?  Is everyone that worried about their own abilities?  Is it just too public?  There are a lot of things which probably enter into the equation, but it’s a striking break with pretty much most of recorded human history.  Singing has always been an acceptable social activity worldwide, whether around a campfire, in a parlor, or in a theater (with a live performer, lantern slides or a motion picture).  In the last fifty years we’ve reduced it to something which is acceptable in only a limited number of carefully controlled venues such as karaoke bars and the seventh-inning stretch at any baseball game.  Since my grandfather used to talk about going to a streetcorner to participate in impromptu singalongs (probably in the 1930’s) and films occasionally exhorted audience members to sing along with characters on screen through the end of the Second World War, one wonders what changed that made public warbling so anathema.  And this isn’t a question of asking anyone to solo, it’s just anonymous singing within a large group.  At a certain point after childhood, we simply cross it off our list of acceptable behaviors, and that’s that.  It’s unfortunate in a lot of ways, but it also says interesting things about how we relate to the image on the screen in a movie theater – and how we relate to each other.

2.)  Twice in the last week I’ve thought about how music interacts with memory, especially when it’s connected to film.  In the first instance I was in a bookstore, while they played the entire soundtrack to Fiddler on  the Roof.  Now, I have nothing against Fiddler on the Roof, but I wouldn’t call it a particular favorite.  The interesting part (to me) was that I pretty much knew every word to every song.  I haven’t seen or heard any of it for years, but it was all still there, sitting in my head.  I attribute this to a certain period in grade school when HBO would frequently show musicals, and when I spent an inordinate amount of time watching them (at least partly because of my sister’s enthusiasm for the form).  There’s clearly something about music that makes it useful as a mnemonic device, and that’s amplified when connected to a narrative.  I once sat with a friend of mine to watch The Sound of Music, and she recited (and sang) the ENTIRE film, word for word, as we watched.  As with me and Fiddler, it was something she hadn’t seen in a long time, but she’d seen it dozens of times as a child, and it just stuck.

The second time I thought about music and memory was while viewing my copy of The Music Man last weekend.  Once again, despite not having seen it for over a decade, I remembered nearly every word (and sang along enthusiastically in my living room).  The interesting part here was that I would have sworn (prior to re-watching it) that the film was a lively, vivacious piece of work from top to bottom.  In fact, it’s one of the least cinematic films you’ll ever encounter.  It single-handedly put the lie to my recent assertion in class that F.W. Murnau’s “unchained camera” ended the era of movies as simple filmed theater.  Clearly, it did for those who cared to see it ended.  But the director of The Music Man, Morton DaCosta, had engineered the Broadway version and was obviously loath to tinker with success.  This early shot does nothing more than reproduce a stage set:

But even worse, throughout the film the actual stage blocking is simply reproduced verbatim, as here:

The curious part is that this in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the film, especially when taking into account the tour-de-force performances of Robert Preston and Paul Ford.  My memory of those performances, but even more of the actual music, mitigated the staidness (and downright dullness) of the actual filmmaking.  The music, in other words, helped to cement the film in my mind as something more generally lively than it actually is.  Which is not to say that I enjoyed it any less, but the recent viewing helped to clarify why it works so well.

3.) My last musical observation involves the feature film I showed in class this week, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.  In many ways the pinnacle of silent filmmaking, Sunrise tells a deceptively simple story by applying the most advanced technical methods available.  The result is endlessly rewarding, and its reputation has continued to grow despite contemporary criticism which found it “cold” and “soporific.”  One of the keys to the film’s success is Hugo Reisenfeld’s pitch perfect musical score, which manages to hit every right note.  The lumbering motif which accompanies George O’Brien through the swamp to meet his lover, the cacophonic carnival music, and the muted horn which simulates the desperate cries of the rescue party seeking the lost Janet Gaynor (among other examples), perfectly reflect the tone of what’s happening on screen.  Watching it for the umpteenth time this week emphasized again the importance of music to my own responses to a film.  A good score plants itself in my head, and becomes a crucial component of most of my favorite films.  Music adds that extra emotional punch, but it also functions as an additional element of the narrative which colors the entire experience of the film.

None of this is especially new thinking, but the confluence of the bouncing ball cartoon, Fiddler on the Roof, The Music Man and Sunrise, once again emphasized how primal music is in determining our response to the images we see on screen, how we interact with them as an audience, and  how we remember them.

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On the complexities of LILO AND STITCH and the genius of OM SHANTI OM

I’ve always thought that the subject of ‘genre’ should be more vexed than it generally seems to be for many academics.  This stems, at least in part, from my abiding hatred for the kind of pigeonholing which people routinely use to sort their way through life, and which corporate thinking has turned into a high art.  But the flipside of the coin is the fact that genres often serve a purpose.  Advertising departments and people looking for something to watch on a Saturday night find them useful, as do (to a lesser extent) budgeting executives at movie studios.  It really can help to know that you’re in the mood for a “Western” and not for a “Romance”.  The problem is that while broad generic categories might helpfully steer you towards Silverado and away from While You Were Sleeping for a night spent cocooned in front of the television, the usefulness of those categories for sound critical analysis is quickly confounded by reality.  In class, I usually refer to this as the “Lilo and Stitch problem” pointing out that that particular film encompasses at least a half-dozen genres including science-fiction, family drama, comedy, animation, musical and “Disney.”  An equivalent problem is an approach where the definition of a genre can be so specific, and feature so many sub-categories, that it becomes meaningless.  Jeanine Basinger demonstrates this in her book on the “World War Two combat genre,” endlessly spinning off films into their own categories until each is essentially a genre of its own.

At any rate, it’s always baffled me that people accept this quite so readily, given the infinite variety of story possibilities and combination of story elements which can make an interesting film.  If I think about it, though, I suppose it’s less baffling than it might be.  The various media corporations and their outlets encourage audiences to view the world this way, since it’s easier to package and sell product when people believe that what they’re purchasing will adhere to a pre-ordained pattern.  Netflix, Hulu, Warner Brothers and Amazon (to name a few) all rely on this kind of arrangement when they use their frequently absurd “you might like” functions to gauge peoples likes and dislikes, and suggest further purchases.  It’s much easier to call something a “Western” than to try to explain that it’s a Roy Rogers, twentieth century, singing cowboy film in which the cowboys drive jeeps and fight Nazis.

What’s even more interesting than our ready acceptance of these oversimplifications, however, is the extent to which this approach is culturally conditioned.  One of my favorite films of the last five years is Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om.  Like many Indian films it’s long by American standards (162 min.). It’s also exceptionally reflexive and jam-packed with references to the history of Indian film.  The basic plot is lifted from Bimal Roy’s Madhumati (1958), but that’s in no way a denigration of Om Shanti Om – a film for which plot is frequently secondary.  What matters more is the sheer number of historical references packed into every scene in every way as Khan free-wheelingly pays homage to every Indian film she ever loved, and every living actor she could convince to do a cameo.  This approach is announced out of the gate as the film begins with a clip from Karz (1980):

Into which a daydreaming Shah Rukh Khan inserts himself:

Even more amusing are moments such as this one, where the photography, acting, set decoration, costuming and music are ALL making some sort of humorous comment on an aspect of Indian filmmaking (even in a single frame):

Of course, those not steeped in Bollywood might not get these references, but the film is entertaining regardless, while suggesting three particular points.  First, in the service of all this affectionate humor, Farah Khan is entirely willing to include any plot element which suits her purpose.  Consequently, Om Shanti Om is a comedy, a drama, a supernatural film and a revenge play, with a little action thrown into the mix.  In other words, it utterly defies any attempt to affix the straitjacket of genre.  Though this hasn’t always been true of Indian films, it is the case that Indian filmmakers have generally been comfortable with genre-mixing of a kind which would cause American corporate marketers to lose their lunches.  The standard inclusion of songs in any Indian film (a natural outgrowth of certain traditional dramatic forms) is enough by itself to make non-habitues scratch their heads in confusion.  That very comfort, however, leads to the second curiosity regarding Om Shanti Om, and Indian film generally, which is that film scholars have fairly resolutely ignored both.  Though this has begun to change a bit in recent years, the Indian film industry remains largely terra incognita in academia in part, I presume, because it’s more difficult to classify most of its productions into a traditional genre other than “Bollywood” (which is even less helpful for serious criticism than calling something a “Western”).  The supposition that scholars are just as culturally constrained in their interests as audiences are in theirs is hardly revolutionary, but remains telling in a supposedly “globalizing” world.

The last point is anecdotal, but I put it forward as food for further thought.  In the last five years I’ve been to China, the Middle East and Europe.  In those travels I’ve noted the dominance of American films and American cultural product, almost to the exclusion of indigenous work.  Theaters and video outlets in Beijing and Qatar were overwhelmingly filled with American films, and friendly Copenhagen salesclerks happily denigrated Danish films in favor of those from the States (in the very shadow of the Danish Film Institute, no less).  This American dominance being the case, if our thinking about standard categories is culturally conditioned, and if part of that conditioning is a result of helpful corporate suggestions to facilitate our buying habits, then what does that say regarding the fate of cultural products which don’t fit into those neat little boxes of “what we might like”?  It makes one wonder not only for Om Shanti Om, but a bit for Lilo and Stitch

She’s not REALLY like that…

Movie stars are funny things, and our relationship with them can be even funnier.  I’ve often told the story of my late grandfather’s reaction to watching Sandra Bullock’s performance in the film Forces of Nature.  Used to seeing her as the charming and lovable type of character she’d played in While You Were Sleeping and Two Weeks Notice, he simply couldn’t accept her as the problematic, vaguely crazy troublemaker of Forces.  When I asked how he’d liked the movie, he unequivocally said, “Well, that’s not her kind of role.  She’s not really like that.”  It’s a moment which absolutely confirmed both the overarching power of a star persona, and the straitjacket which stardom wraps around a performer.

For my grandfather, Sandra Bullock had only one personality worth watching, and any attempt to deviate from that was automatically a failure.  The implications of this are fascinating, and clearly indicate the Faustian bargain any true star (of which there are very few) makes with the public.  If you are able to personify a particular cultural moment or type of character, you’d better understand that you might be doing it for a very long time.  Presumably at least part of why a star is successful is that they are depicting some aspect of their own character on screen, but it ends up being a weirdly distilled version of themselves.  Marilyn Monroe may have been able to project earthy, vulnerable sexiness, but it’s now generally accepted that she was much smarter than she let on.  Buster Keaton may have been the “The Great Stoneface”, but that doesn’t mean that he never really laughed.  In effect, these actors worked so hard to perfect their particular  persona that it essentially took over their life, generating public images which weren’t quite “reality”, but weren’t quite “unreality” either.  In the case of someone like Mary Pickford, who portrayed exuberant young girls well into her thirties, this ended up being a bit of a curse, since she could never escape from that image, even as she aged well past youthful exuberance.  Perhaps the most famous (and successful) example of this phenomenon is John Wayne, and I’ve always thought that there’s no better illustration of his carefully calibrated craft than his performance in Hondo.

Wayne’s first appearance in Hondo is under the opening credits as he makes his way toward an isolated homestead.  Throughout the opening sequence, director John Farrow does all that he can to support Wayne’s persona, and that is immediately demonstrated by the way the actor stands out from the landscape as he moves forward.

For those even remotely familiar with Wayne’s films, there’s immediately no doubt who is walking towards us.  Wayne’s solid, reliable, capable, manliness shines forth from every frame.  Over the years the actor developed a distinctive way of carrying himself which can be seen in his walk and in the way he stands:

And even in the way he holds himself when he sits:

He’s squared-off, ready for anything and tough – without being mean.  Wayne spent most of the Thirties making low-grade Westerns and honing his craft, and his particular way of carrying himself owes something to many years of practice.  Farrow is clearly aware of this distinctive physicality, and comments on that repeatedly.  The most obvious examples of this are the constant movement of a performance in which the actor is always doing something with his hands (eating, shoeing horses, sharpening an ax, etc.) but we also see it visually, such as in the moment where the fatherless young boy on the homestead consciously imitates Wayne’s stance:

Wayne was also capable of manipulating the general sense of  his hard-bitten toughness, as he does in an early scene talking about his dead, Native American wife.  Though he guardedly makes light of the importance of the relationship when discussing it with Geraldine Page, the poetic cadence of his delivery and the expression on his face, betray deep emotion:

Though I love Hondo generally, my point here is not to sing the praises of either the film or the actor.  The issue at hand is the calculatedness of qualities which made John Wayne one of the dominant movie stars of the 20th century.  It’s easy enough (and it certainly happened in this case) to simply claim that the star isn’t really performing, but only being his or herself on screen.  But the sheer amount of work it takes to project such qualities is often given short shrift.  At this point Wayne had been honing those qualities for over twenty years, and he knew what he was doing.  The fact that these were learned behaviors would be demonstrated repeatedly in Wayne’s attempts to support the fledgling acting career of his son Patrick, who he regularly tried to mould into a younger version of himself (nowhere more so than in The Alamo, where poor Patrick gamely tries to pull off distinctive physical aspects of his father’s persona with absolutely no success).

Because the industry has changed so much over time, our current “stars” frequently don’t have the luxury of honing their personae down to key constituent parts.  The benefit to the actors, of course, is that they sometimes have the freedom to try different things, and to not be forced entirely into a straitjacket of “what they’re really like.”  As my grandfather demonstrated, that does remain a part of stardom, but perhaps not as rigidly as it once did.  It seems to me, however, that the net result is a certain loss of luster in the “Hollywood” firmament.  The comfort we once found in reliable stars who (with long and careful practice) embodied key qualities with which we identified has been replaced by more self-consciously versatile celebrities who never focus in quite the same way – and never shine quite as brightly.

Whither Al Jolson?

At the beginning of every semester, I always pass around notecards and ask students to list the last five films they’ve watched.  In a film class this helps to establish a baseline for conversation, but it can also be a moderately disturbing experience.  In this case, out  of the fifteen students who returned their cards, the most watched film was The Dark Knight Rises (eight saw it).  That’s neither a surprise, nor especially disconcerting.  The problematic part is the composition of the rest of the list which included three titles from the 1960’s (My Fair Lady, A Fistful of Dollars and 101 Dalmations – presuming that the student was not referencing the live-action version), and precisely one each from the 1940’s (Citizen Kane), 1950’s (Strangers on a Train), 1970’s (What’s Up, Doc) and 1980’s (This is Spinal Tap).  Putting aside the fact that each of these outliers is packaged, marketed and sold as an established “classic” (however that mushy term is defined), this list also means that approximately ninety percent of the films mentioned were from the last 20 years – effectively ignoring a full hundred years worth of film output.  Even more surprising/telling, aside from a few Miyazaki films and A Fistful of Dollars, everything mentioned was a product of the American film industry.  Such major production centers as India, Nigeria and China were completely ignored.

My point here is not to castigate my students for their viewing choices, but rather to comment generally on the absurdity of the entire situation.  We live in a time where vast amounts of cultural output are available to us from around the world and covering over a century.  So why do we insist on restricting ourselves to such a tiny slice of it?  Are the films or songs of the Teens worse than the films or songs of today?  Different, certainly, but just as valid as cultural products.  Are American films “better” than those produced by Bollywood or Nollywood?  Are my grandparents, or my Indian friends misguided in the placement of their cultural affections?  It’s almost as if we willfully put on blinkers as a defense against the sheer volume of material available.  The result, however is a narrowness of vision that isn’t helpful to anyone.  People pay lip service to “globalization” but blithely persist in not knowing anything about Mary Pickford, Googoosh, Shah Rukh Khan or Al Jolson.  This is despite the fact that each of them is or was a household name for huge swaths of the globe in their particular time (up to and including now), and each of them says important things about the culture from which they emerged.  Even more puzzling, performances by any of these people can be just as pleasant/rousing/entertaining now as when each was in their prime, so why ignore them?

The same phenomenon can be observed every year around this time when Beloit College publishes what it calls the “Mindset” list.  Started as a way to remind faculty that their cultural and historical references might eventually require further explanation, the annual list now invariably occasions a curmudgeonly article about “these kids today” and how innocent, naive and uninformed they may be.  As E.D. Hirsch suggested so many years ago in his book “Cultural Literacy” we need to make certain assumptions about cultural knowledge to communicate effectively.  Doesn’t it therefore make sense that in order to communicate with other cultures (temporal as well as geographic) we need to have a broader knowledge base?  Don’t those students need to brush up on things?

Well, yes, but we ALL do.  I’m not suggesting, that this is a one-way street.  Especially with the Beloit list, it always fascinates me how deaf the exercise is to its own implications.  It’s just as crucial that the faculty be aware of new references as they are of the meaninglessness to their students of old references.  Faculty should be held to just as much account for their lack of knowledge of Nicki Minaj, Psy and Community (to cite a few recent examples) as students might be for not recognizing Dean Martin, Birth of a Nation or Mao Zedong.  I’m not suggesting this is an easy task for anybody (it isn’t) or that the new references will end up being as significant as some of the old ones (many won’t), but it’s essential to our understanding of each other, it makes us more interesting people, and it opens up whole new avenues of thinking (and entertainment) for all of us.