Bright Lights Film Journal

Art Thou Troubled? Musicals May Calm Thee

But don’t forget DVD opera

It’s the late 1920s and you’re out with your pals in Weimar Berlin. The night is young, hyper-inflation is just a bad dream and the world economy has yet to collapse; but the conversation is flagging. Perhaps if you were in Munich you’’d try to perk things up by saying how much you adore Wagner. But quite a few things are adored in Berlin, and frankly opera can be a bore. In any case, your true passion is das Kino and, as everyone knows, there’s not much out there to match the achievements of German Expressionism. But change is in the air and, despite its own advances in sound technology, the most independent film industry in Europe could soon be swamped by American “talkies.” You can see the case, then, for slamming down on further imports of visual pap and aural claptrap, brilliantly synchronised though they might be. In fact you’re beginning to think that sitting in a Bavarian bier kellar discussing the wonders of Wagner mightn’t be so dull after all . . . This brief look at music-and-cinema starts at a point in history when, on the Nazi analysis, all other nations — especially those with no cultural heritage to speak of — were just going to have to step aside and allow Germany its turn at world dominion. Whatever else, German Opera was still the international touchstone for the gesamtkunstwerk: the complete — and completely spiritual — artwork. And with German Film as opera for the eye, it was only natural to assume that as soon as non-Germanic doubters caught a few bars of Tristan — preferably as accompaniment to a tried and trusted stummfilm — complete soul-surrender would follow.

Unfortunately, the sick irony isn’t isolated to my own ward in the rest home; in fact, something like it flutters freely in the large thoracic cavity of Doctor Faustus, the 1940s novel written during his American exile by Thomas Mann and to which I was introduced by Alex Ross in his magnum opus on 20th-century music, The Rest Is Noise. On my reading, if Mann wasn’t the Gore Vidal of 20th-century German letters, in his mandarin way he was familiar not just with the basic handbook of Nazi demonology but with the deeper metaphysics of world Kulturkampf itself. Bossing this hellish zone and driving everyone mad was, of course, that ancient mother of ills, die Musik.

Imagine, then, the complex harmonic thrill that would have gone through the German body politic when, in September 1928, almost a year after its American release, The Jazz Singer came to town. I say “would have” since it’s not clear that many audiences on either side of the Atlantic ever did get to see and hear this most talked about of talkies. Lack of standardised sound equipment as well as obstructive trade practices between Germany and America probably explain the uncertainty. What’s never been in doubt, though, is the fact that, technologically and commercially, Warner Brothers had the jump on all their rivals at home and abroad. Jolson’s second feature, The Singing Fool, (1928) was certainly a big international hit; but it was only after these artistically faltering prototypes that, in the year Germany finally gave itself to Hitler, decadent democracy was given the more durable and enduring: 42nd Street, from Lloyd Bacon, February1933; Gold Diggers of 1933, Mervyn Leroy, in May; and Footlight Parade, again Lloyd Bacon, in September. Having already set the agenda for gangster movies with Little Caesar (the clearly versatile Mervyn Leroy, 1931), Warners were now busy defining the musical; and if their successful blend of pure escapism with serious social comment is a celebrated enough feat, in our own troubled times it looks more amazing than ever.

“Minstrelsy” was an essentially white-working-class product of early 19th-century America that didn’t finally lose all consumer appeal until the 1950s. In less colour-conscious Britain it actually lingered on into the 1970s. But by the ’20s, even to segregation-hardened black Americans, blacking up and “jazz” must already have seemed an odd combination. Yet despite its excruciating social history, The Jazz Singer just happened to provide me with one of the most spine-tingling viewing experiences of my life. In my defence, this was a first viewing and the first thing to say is that, whatever proved so electrifying, Al Jolson’s hands — gloved or otherwise — weren’t on the switch. Meanwhile, in an example of type-casting that at one time seemed to characterise all Hollywood films, the real-life son of a cantor with a zest for putting over latter-day minstrel songs plays the son of a cantor with . . . etc., etc., etc. As for the plot, predictable and intractable father/son tensions give rise to all the so-called twists. On the other hand, though the idea has been used many times since (notably in a bigga bigga hunk of Presley films), it was intriguing to see this banal and sentimental look at generation politics being defined entirely and exclusively in terms of music.

If this seems only moderately interesting, I’m still coming to what really zapped me between the eyes and ears. But for now, I admit that when populism, traditionalism and even a small degree of technological avant gardism all meet for a conference in my remaining brain cell, maybe I’m not the calmest of judges. For example, after watching Sergei Eisenstein’s startling debut, Strike/Stachka (1925), I felt fully prepared, there and then, to risk my life seeking justice for the world’s downtrodden masses. Though the mood didn’t last, it was a dangerous half-hour; and to anyone who might be equally susceptible, I humbly suggest following up the Eisenstein with ein augenblick at Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex (Uli Edel, 2008), which should limit anyone’s plans for a career in mindless violence, however selflessly motivated.

Yet, as is often the case with movies of whatever quality, little wedges of moral/emotional information linger on, revealing their presence as we try to make sense of the world — and not just ongoing events in Iran. (The day that Islam versus The West is literally the only show in town is the day we should all consider moving somewhere else. Another planet, perhaps.) However, if I do let myself comment on a country that might or might not be very far away, having fights over music that don’t have to end in bloodshed will certainly be sign of better times. If we doubt this hunger for more open cultural debate, we could perhaps turn to Iranian film directors for their views. On the other hand, the tiny signs of relaxed censorship that some of us have perceived are probably an illusion caused by skilful avoidance of Iran’s moral guardians — most often by the expedient of filming abroad. In that case, fans of Iranian cinema will simply have to go on dealing with the Kafkaesque impenetrability of home products that, with or without interesting sound tracks, somehow find their way out. This trademark narrative fogginess, by the way, remains the clearest possible satire on, and indication of, an ever-present Thought Police.

For sure, my simple response to the blazingly unironic Eisenstein was not sparked solely by the rhythmically edited visual montage, famously quick-fire though it is. In fact, on my DVD the new accompanying score from the Alloy Orchestra produced a set of clanging dynamics that also challenged any would-be complacent patriarchs in my soul. Oddly enough, these little lurches between revolutions past and present get me further through the tangled woods into which Thomas Mann and Alex Ross have dragged me. Having reached a clearing where some sunlight straggles down, now I realise that, apart from telling people to watch it for themselves, not much can explain the effect of seeing and hearing the Kol Nidre — the sung evening prayer for Yom Kippur with which The Jazz Singer opens. All I know is that it wasn’t the over-ingratiating, spot-lit Jolson, but glimmering footage of a cantor and fellow-worshippers in a static, crowded synagogue tableau whose thrilling fervour overthrew any idea of resistance. Perhaps on reflection I shouldn’t have been so surprised because, easily unimpressed secularist though I’ve tried to be, all attempts to excise the God Spot from my psyche have so far met with limited success. The serious and shocking truth now being revealed is that, especially from this period in history, one just doesn’t expect to see, hear and most of all feel such unequivocally sympathetic views of Judaism.

Suddenly we’re back with Thomas Mann and his perspective on art and politics: Mephistopheles, Music, Mass Madness — an unholy trinity where everything awful begins with “m.” And invaded again by the wandering spirit of a 1920s Berliner, you recall that a few of your more adventurous friends tried alerting you to that incredibly persuasive tale of cosmic insanity, Wozzeck, which premiered in the Staatsoper in December, 1925 (above). Based on a very powerful — and very German — early nineteenth century play which had just been discovered mouldering in an attic, Alban Berg’s madly atonal musical setting was — so your friends still insist — a perfect match for the unpitying, pitiable human craziness of the story. What’s more, this wasn’t a case of the usual suspects waving their sorry standard of Marxist discontent but, as it seemed to your discerning kameraden, a completely apolitical and nonetheless pointed warning of impending catastrophe . . .

Understandably, even the most impressed of Wozzeck’s audiences still find themselves after the show more than ready for the schnapps, also perhaps for one of the less intellectually stimulating of late-night entertainments. Having seen the 1994 DVD of Wozzeck (from the modern Berlin Opera, conducted by Daniel Barenboim), what struck me most of all was that, under the direction of Patrice Chereau, this is as much filmed theatre as opera — or musikdrama, as those trendy old-timers might have said.

However, I can’t blame every bit of aestheticised gloom on Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Even from Alex Ross we get the feeling that music, politics and human suffering are all far more deeply interfused than we might have guessed. The hint of Wordsworth reminds me that in the Lines written above Tintern Abbey, one well-known survivor of his own revolutionary enthusiasm . . .

. . .learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity . . .

Whatever he was listening to, the poet could hardly have known how much more was to come. (Adding to my sense of connection isn’t just the fact that the poem was part of a long ago A-Level course but was written less than an hour’s drive from my hometown — or, in Wordsworth’s spot of time, less than twenty-four hours from my not particularly lonely couch.)

Yet — when and if we emerge from our more pensive moods — we don’t necessarily find that our worst fears, as if by iron decree, have all actually come true. In terms of 20th-century movies, no-one understood this better than Frank Capra. In terms of moving images and music, however, the maestro of artistically-managed nightmare is surely Walt Disney; and from his 1940s masterpiece, Fantasia, I immediately pick out what has always been for me — visually and aurally — the most gripping scenario.

French composer Paul Dukas was a perfectionist who left few surviving works; and, though born within a couple of years of Debussy and Satie and living much longer into the 20th century, he’s unlikely ever to figure in many theses on modernism. Nevertheless, as conjured up in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, his particular slant on what it means to be human — that it isn’t always a case of irrevocable Faustian bargains; that sometimes it’s more a case of cack-handed and, yes, occasionally very dangerous experimentation — meant something not only to Disney’s generation but to many of us in the next. Well into the 1970s, this powerful little allegory of the human condition was a regular filler on TV, which is how I came to know it. Indeed, via what was in its day the high point of filmed animation, Dukas looks set to keep finding a small but steady supply of fans. I hope so, though I fear that the giant maws of musical taste will keep spitting him back out as insufficiently anti-Wagnerian.

This kind of thinking is historically understandable, but by now we should have learned to trust that a panic-stricken preference for bourgeois pleasures, or even for the pleasures of the downtrodden masses, has never been able to put a magic Ring around Good Taste. Not that these corpse-strewn old battlegrounds aren’t fresh in the folk memory. I’m thinking now of one of Weimar’s last flings at cutting-edge, Die Drei Grosschen Oper/The Threepenny Opera. Based on an 18th-century “low comedy” from John Gay, this Brecht/Weill stage show adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera was itself adapted for film in 1931 by G. W. Pabst. If in the meantime we can forget that, along with the Wagnerian bathwater, Brecht and Weill were throwing out Verdi, Gounod and pretty well all 19th-century opera, they did give us the defining moment of socialism-as-cabaret. An earlier Weill/Brecht vehicle, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, is the clear prototype; but, judging by a fine performance from the L.A. Opera, filmed for DVD in 2007, its spirit is closer to that of the more apolitical Wozzeck and its music, too, is more avant garde opera than sleazy nightclub. Be that as it may, in 1933 the young eyes of the Third Reich immediately spotted the threat posed by Pabst’s grubby little contribution to music-and-cinema: yes, one or two of the tunes were rather catchy, but you couldn’t make a serious bid for world power with stuff like this circulating everywhere and creating all sorts of wrong impressions about the Aryan new deal.

Decades on we can see — if not fully explain — the close link between one of music’s most sterile evolutionary stretches with the rise and fall of totalitarianism. Yet even the most madly macho of avant garde filmmakers never disappeared quite as far up their own artistic vanity as some of their counterparts in musical composition. Perhaps wisely avoiding a deeper socio-political analysis, John (Nixon in China) Adams sees the problem as research mentality winning out over the urge to communicate. Too many sorcerer’s apprentices? Or too few? If we take the political plunge, we could say that one Hitler or Stalin is always several million too many. But staying with film history, it’s clear that the problem for music was not atonalism itself: pretty well from the start, composers for cinema were happy to make use of its emotionally expressive potential, notably though not exclusively via the horror genre. Yet, while many film lovers are aware of this fact, closely argued critical appreciations are not exactly eight to the bar. For me, this invokes a long and sad history of snobbery directed against what’s seen as the essentially trivial and manipulative use of music in cinema. Undoubtedly we could all draw up our own lists in cinema’s defence, and mine would probably start with 2001, A Space Odyssey, or — to hell with all this avant garde awareness — the wonderful zither music of Anton Karas that blazes and shades all the action in the postwar Vienna of The Third Man. Amazingly enough, however, there are a few serious, non-manipulative musicologists who seem, when asked, to know the score — and not just to one-off songspiels like Les Parapluies de Cherbourg/The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964). This is probably another example of that undervalued human attribute, ideological inconsistency; and no doubt one shouldn’t spurn these little proofs of enlightenment.

Meanwhile, music’s postmodern recovery has led us to — and by now a little beyond — the son et lumiere uplands of Michael Nyman in, for example, A Zed and Two Noughts. In fact it has already become rather too easy to forget the unexpectedly positive contribution of atonalism to film music, especially as kick-started by the success of Wozzeck from Alban (“music is music”) Berg. This capacity of cinema to absorb and rescue “research” from hopeless isolation seems to me the most culturally inclusive gift to humankind in all the arts. All right, maybe I won’t be leading a posse of starey-eyed old gits in their sit-in at the local opera house as they struggle to free this strangely affecting (and strangely filmic) musical genre from its own social inhibitions. All the same, given the personal cost to artists of never being seen or heard at all, given the price to the public of an actual night at the opera compared, say, to the price of cinema tickets, DVDs and CDs, and last but not least, given the present global economic crisis, I am saying that more kinds of show for more kinds of audience must — more than ever — go on.