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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Something for Thursday

From three Westerns (although I suppose Legends of the Fall might not actually be a Western):

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

"I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution!"

So a few weeks ago I was on my own at night, as The Wife was at work. (Well, The Daughter was there too, but she’s of the age when she’s doing her own thing.) I made something for dinner and decided to watch a bit of something as I ate. I saw that The African Queen was on Netflix, so I thought, “Hey, I love that movie! I’ll watch a few minutes of it while I eat, and then I’ll write.”

I ended up watching the entire movie.

It’s every bit as good as I remember, and if you haven’t seen it, well—you need to.

Yes, it’s an old adventure movie, but the emphasis is on the characters, so when the thrills come, they genuinely thrill, because you end up caring about these two people on this little boat on a river in Africa.

Our story: World War I has broken out, and Charlie Allnut, captain of the tramp steamer The African Queen, takes on Rosie Sayer as a passenger after her African mission is attacked and her brother killed in the wilds of Africa. Charlie’s intention is to take Rosie to safety, but she has other ideas after Charlie tells her about the German gunship Louisa that patrols the giant lake downriver: she wants to convert the African Queen herself into a floating torpedo and crash her into the Louisa, sinking her and winning an important victory for King and Country.

The African Queen is engrossing every time I watch it. The slowest part is the opening, the section of the film establishing who Rosie and Charlie are and why they’re in this remote part of sub-Saharan Africa. This is all over pretty quickly, though: it only takes about fifteen minutes before Rosie is aboard the African Queen, heading downstream with Mr. Allnut. I honestly can’t remember what the original plan is, but as soon as Charlie explains to Rosie why they can’t just boat to freedom, she comes up with her plan to strike for the good of the British Empire. Our plot is underway very quickly, and then it’s all about the obstacles they find along the way. These are predictable: massive rapids, a spot where the river bends around a German fortification, more rapids, engine trouble, worse engine trouble, and finally a morass of swampy channels as the river reaches its delta before entering the lake. There are underwater dives to repair the ship, there is heroic derring-do as Charlie has to keep the engine going while the Germans are shooting at them, and there are leeches.

The real obstacles to their success come in the relationship between Charlie and Rosie. Charlie is tough and cynical, but not in the way that Bogart’s Rick Blaine of Casablanca is tough and cynical. Charlie is the person who thinks that nothing is possible at first, until he goes and does it. Rosie is the one who thinks that nothing is impossible, and thus she cheerfully prods Charlie into all manner of ill-advised dangers. She is also offended by Charlie’s drinking, which she lives with until the night he drinks too much and says some awful things. The next morning he awakens, morbidly hung over, to find her pouring every one of his remaining bottles of gin into the river. Ouch.

It can’t be a surprise to anyone that Charlie and Rosie end up falling in love over the course of their shared trials and adventures. What I love most about it is that it’s not totally a typical screen romance. Charlie and Rosie come to form a partnership, and Charlie shifts gradually to seeing things with Rosie’s optimism and “can-do” spirit. Halfway through he pretty much stops insisting that everything is impossible before they do it, and they end up working together to get through the rapids and rebuild the boat and even, before what they think will be the African Queen’s final voyage, give her a thorough sprucing up, as befits a boat that will be doing the work of the Royal Navy.

The African Queen is a beautiful, funny, loving adventure film that is as engrossing as it gets. Bogart and Hepburn are awesome together, the action sequences are exciting and riveting even with their 1950s special effects, and it succeeds in being thrilling without giving us some mustache-twirling villain (at least, not until the very end, in the form of the German Captain of the Louisa, who gamely postpones executing Charlie and Rosie to marry them...a move which he likely regretted later). Most of all, The African Queen lets the boat be a character. That’s important!

Anyway, if you haven’t seen The African Queen, what are you waiting for?

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Tone Poem Tuesday

I don't know anything at all about this piece. I heard it while driving to work one morning last week, and I liked it quite a lot. It's a dramatic and romantic miniature by Anatoly Liadov, called About Olden Times. Liadov is a composer I haven't heard much at all, mainly because he appears to have mostly written "miniature" works, at least some of which may have been written with the intention of using them as part of longer works that never reached completion. Still, what little Liadov I've heard has been like what we have here: lyrical and potent pieces that manage to make their point in less time even than a typical Franz von Suppe overture. I am often drawn to the big-and-epic, but there's something to be said for short-and-sweet, too.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Symphony Saturday

OK, after much hemming and hawing, it's time.

The symphonies of Gustav Mahler represent perhaps the apex of the symphony itself as a musical form. These are enormous works that make enormous demands on the listener. They are dense in concept and epic in scope, with musical architecture that is so complex that it calls to mind the large-scale works of JS Bach.

Mahler's symphonies are also deeply human, reflecting the loves and hopes and dreams and despairs of one of classical music's most driven and tortured figures. Mahler's vision was almost Herculean, and there is scarcely a moment in any of his symphonies when he is not plumbing deeply personal depths. In his symphonies one encounters entire worlds, with sunrises and songs to nature and starry skies and loves both found and lost. One also finds meditations, both fearful and elegiac, of death and what lies beyond. Mahler's art is a testimony to a depth of feeling that is only found in the greatest artists, and his ability to translate that feeling meaningfully into musical terms is one of art's great mysteries.

Mahler lived a relatively short life, from 1860 to 1911. He was a late Romantic, and thus did for the symphonic form what Richard Wagner did for opera. Where Wagner's work was lionized and celebrated and nearly worshiped, though, Mahler's was largely rejected and did not start to gain serious traction until after World War II, partly as the musical pendulum began swinging back from the modernism that was already astir as Mahler's life drew to a close. This was partly due to the very enormity of many of his works and the demands they placed on huge orchestral forces; the rediscovery of Mahler probably owes something to the arrival of long-playing recording technology in the middle of the 20th century. It's also hard not to suspect that the world's reluctance to embrace Mahler's music was partly due to anti-Semitism (Mahler was a Jew). It seems fitting that one of Mahler's greatest interpreters and champions was Leonard Bernstein (whose work we hear today).

Mahler's compositional output is relatively small, not consisting of much beyond his symphonies. This is not due to laziness, but because he was actually one of the hardest working musicians in history. In addition to his composition, Mahler focused strongly on conducting, serving for a number of years as the head of the Vienna State Opera. He ruled over that organization with a fiery, dictatorial zeal, micromanaging nearly every detail. A later experiment with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and then the New York Philharmonic, ended poorly and Mahler had to return to Europe. By this time his health was failing.

By all accounts Gustav Mahler was a difficult person with few social graces, so it can be hard to square the coldness of the man with the depth of feeling in his music, some of which is filled with warmth. Mahler seems to have had no outlet for his deep emotion other than his music.

David Dubal writes:

Mahler's music seems to encompass the total range of human emotions. For countless numbers of people, it has become their Bible of sounded emotion. They feel Mahler's elation, rejection, panic, terror, sentimentality, and drunkenness as their own. In short, the music expresses dozens of sensations so pointedly that the true Mahlerite surrenders himself completely, becoming, it seems, at one with the composer's inner world.

The Symphony No. 1 opens mysteriously, like a dawn on an uncertain day, and descending motifs are heard in a kind of call-and-answer until we arrive at the main melody of the movement which is suddenly warm and genial. The entire first movement is filled with pastoral pleasure, even in a few stormy passages which lead to pleasing fanfares. The entire movement closes in a burst of rhythmic energy that leaves one smiling.

In the second movement we have not a traditional scherzo but a tune that sounds like a Landler, which is an Austrian folk dance that preceded the more famous waltzes to come. This dance is lumbering and forceful, but it too is laced with moments of genuine tenderness. The mood darkens further in the third movement, where Mahler's masterstroke is a minor-key rendition of the tune "Frere Jacques" in a funereal procession. Mahler's lyricism shows up here as well, and the verdant warmth of the first movement is mostly forgotten at this point.

Then we get to the finale, where all is storm and passion. A mighty cymbal crash ignites the fire which bursts forth in a torrent, and this long movement goes from violence to lyrical torture to violence again...but there are hints along the way of a triumph to come, when we hear a very soft passage of hope in the brass midway through. This is heard again a bit later, more loudly, and then at the end--after Mahler finally returns to the mysterious sounds of the symphony's opening pages--the triumph is complete. The symphony closes in tremendous, victorious light and the sense that a true journey has just been completed.

And that's in a little under an hour. Mahler's second symphony will take another thirty minutes, and his third will take even longer than that.

Here is Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D Major, with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

Next week: Hopefully, the Mahler Second. I will likely not be doing all of Mahler's symphonies in consecutive weeks, because I need to give them the hearing they deserve before I write about them. I'll probably alternate my way through them over the next couple of months.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Bad Joke Friday

One time I played poker with a Tarot deck. It was fun until I got a full house and three people died.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Something for Thursday

So I'm always a little confused by the way a song's lyrics relate to the rest of it. Some songs have lyrics that are so indelible that it seems almost sacrilege to put any other lyrics to that tune and vice versa ("New York New York", for example). Other songs have wonderful tunes but awful lyrics that are so bad they almost make the rest of the song laughable in itself ("McArthur Park" is a good example here). And then there's a third category, where the lyrics aren't necessarily good, but rather...just weird. It's easy in songs like that to get wrapped up in trying to figure out just what the heck a song means, and if the melody and rhythm aren't good, the song just disappears.

Here's a song whose lyrics make no sense to me at all. I haven't the faintest idea what this song is trying to say, if anything. And you know what? Maybe it's not. Maybe it's just a rhyme that exists for no other reason to fit an incredibly catching melody and compelling dance beat. I dunno...but I know that I love this song.

Here are The Killers with "Human".

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

On Fantasy and Film

George RR Martin lists his Top Ten Fantasy movies. Of course I have thoughts!

First off, a stipulation: lists like this are mainly meant to inspire discussion and debate and, being that this is the Internet, rock-throwing and name-calling and aspersion-casting-upon-one's-children-and-parentage. OK? OK!

Second: Well, Martin actually has a pretty good list here. You'll have to click through to see his comments on each film (worth doing, also for the honorable mentions), but here's the Top Ten by itself:

1. The Lord of the Rings (complete)
2. The Princess Bride
3. The Wizard of Oz
4. Ladyhawke
5. Dragonslayer
6. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
7. Dark City
8. Pan's Labyrinth
9. Beauty and the Beast (1946, dir. Cocteau)
10. Raiders of the Lost Ark

Martin's "honorable mentions" include some Disney movies (more on that below), Dracula, Frankenstein, Legend, Labyrinth, and Excalibur.

So. Discussion!

As noted, Martin generates a pretty decent list. I've seen seven of his ten (Dark City, Pan's Labyrinth, and the 1946 Beauty and the Beast are the ones I've missed). I personally quibble a bit with Raiders: even though it has supernatural elements (as do all the Indiana Jones movies), I see them as primarily adventure films rather than fantasies. But that's quibbling, and the fact remains that if you've never seen fantasy on film, watching all of the movies on Martin's list is a great start. Also, I do not quibble at all with his Number One pick, which is as good as filmed fantasy gets.

Ladyhawke and Dragonslayer? Hmmmm. I like both, but I'm not sure I'd rank them this highly on my Filmed Fantasy Pantheon. In fairness, though, it's probably twenty-five years since last time I saw Ladyhawke, and not too much shorter than that since my last viewing of Dragonslayer. I remember the latter being a well-made and exciting fantasy, if a bit dour in tone. I owe both a rewatch, though.

My biggest quibble with Martin's list is that in his latter commentary he notes that for this list he adopted a "No animation" rule:

Going into this, I decided I had better exclude all animated films. Otherwise the list might well have been dominated by Disney's classic retellings of time-honored fairy tales: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, and The Little Mermaid.

See, the problem here is that animated films are still films and animated fantasy films are still fantasy films. Likewise, there's no reason to assume that the animated films will dominate the list, or that those animated films that will be doing the dominating are Disney films. A Top Ten list is often going to be exclusionary to the point of absurdity to begin with, but this is particularly bizarre, like making a Top Ten Restaurants of New York City list, but excluding those restaurants that focus on French or Italian cuisine. And in mentioning Disney, Martin makes a telling omission: he omits the masterpieces of Studio Ghibli. Looking at the list above, I would quite willingly trade Ladyhawke and Dragonslayer for Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.

Then there's Martin's dismissal of Willow:

Then there's Willow. Sorry, no. Yes, I liked Val Kilmer as Mad Martigan, but that's about it. Willow set filmed fantasy back 20 years.

Look. Taste is taste and if you don't like a movie, so be it. I don't think Willow is a classic either, and I wouldn't put it on my Top Ten Fantasy Movies list either. But yeesh, it ain't that bad. I genuinely think that Willow has received a bum rap over the years. It's an OK, fun, swashbuckling Sunday-afternoon-on-a-winters-day movie, and there's a lot more in it that's good than Val Kilmer.

And "Willow set back filmed fantasy by 20 years"? That's a very silly statement to make, and Martin has to know better. Look at all the fantasy movies that came out in the 1990s, within just the first ten years after Willow (which came out in 1988). And just ten years after Willow, The Lord of the Rings was in pre-production. No, Willow did not hurt filmed fantasy. It's a dumb thing for Martin to have said.

Let's see, what else? Well, Martin doesn't mention any of the Harry Potter movies, which seems odd, because they're giants in the filmed-fantasy world, and they are a highly underrated achievement. They got the same cast together for eight movies over about ten years and told a big story. A little more respect for Potter, please!

And finally, Martin has this to say about Excalibur, which is probably the best version of the King Arthur story filmed yet:

I mentioned Excalibur earlier. There's much to admire about John Boorman's film. The visuals are a feast for the eyes, and the movie includes some wonderful performances. But Nigel Terry has to be the least charismatic King Arthur in film history, pouting his way from start to finish, and the film tries to cram in too many different aspects of Arthurian legend, and does justice to none of them. Some studio really needs to step up and film the definitive modern treatment of the Matter of Britain, T.H. White's The Once and Future King. And not as a cartoon (Disney's The Sword in the Stone) or a musical (Camelot) either. White's trilogy deserves to be done as three films, the way Peter Jackson did Lord of the Rings.

OK. If you use the word "cartoon", that tells me that you don't really respect animation. Not really. Maybe the Disney film of Sword in the Stone wasn't particularly good, but to dismiss the effort entirely makes me think there's a little more to Martin's stacking-of-the-deck against animation. As for a musical, well--no, Camelot isn't great. That's not why the "definitive" version of the Arthurian story hasn't been filmed, though.

I think it's because the Matter of Britain's very nature is stacked against a film or even a tetralogy of films (The Once and Future King is a gathering of four previous books, not three, as Martin should know). The Arthur story isn't one story but rather a whole bunch of them clustered together under one banner. I don't know how one film or even several films could make that all work without significant re-casting of the story and removal of some of its key parts. Gillian Bradshaw's trilogy of Arthurian novels, perhaps, or Mary Stewart's wonderful trilogy of Merlin novels. Any telling of the Arthurian story is going to leave something behind, because it can't possibly all be squeezed in there. I doubt very much if we'll ever see a massive filmed trilogy of the King Arthur story, to be honest. That's a bummer, but I think that's the way it is.

So, what would be my Top Ten Fantasy Films list? Well....

1. The Lord of the Rings (complete)
2. Princess Mononoke
3. The Princess Bride
4. Conan the Barbarian
5. The Thief of Baghdad
6. Time Bandits
7. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
8. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
9. Excalibur
10. Monty Python and the Holy Grail

How about yours?