Last week, I spent two and a half very pleasant days at the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual meeting of intellectual leaders from around the planet, with a focus this year on China. I moderated two panels, one on telling stories through film, another on re-imagining public space. I wrote up a few thoughts I brought home from my time there at the Post’s The Style Blog.
Category Archives: film
Joseph von Sternberg’s “Der Blaue Engel” is generally acknowledged the first great German sound film, and no surprise then that it is remembered primarily as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich, who sings up a storm of desire and despair. But while the film made Dietrich a star, the real genius of the film is Emil Jannings, as the bourgeois professor Rath who is seduced into Lola Lola’s lair at the cost of all his middle-class, fatuous respectability. And it is the music associated with Rath that makes this film impressive as an early (and amazingly confident) exploration of the power of sound in film.
Of course, Sternberg borrows heavily from precedents. Visually, the film is almost old-fashioned in its devotion to expressionist design. Its narrative is taken from Heinrich Mann, who in turn borrowed from a long line of stories about the downfall of respectable people. The tone of the film, the emotional extremity of Rath’s humiliation and jealousy, will seem operatic to most viewers, and recall very specific operas to opera lovers, especially “Pagliacci” (and the whole superheated, degenerate milieu of the verismo tradition).
The film’s score, and a musical clock which chimes the hours, associates a song, “Ub’ immer Treu und Redlichkeit,” based on a ballad by Ludwig Christoph Holty with the character of Professor Rath. Curiously, Siegfried Kracauer notes the song in his discussion of the film in “From Caligari to Hitler,” calling it “a popular German tune devote to the praise of loyalty and honesty–a tune expressive of Jannings’ inherited beliefs.”
But Kracauer fails to note the most important thing: That the song appears as Papageno’s “Ein Madchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” The reference to Mozart’s famous bird catcher helps explain why the film opens with Rath calling to his bird, why birds flutter about as the musical clock intones the melody, and it gives extra force to the screenplay’s harrowing use of bird imagery–at his nadir, Rath appears on stage dressed as a clown, crowing like a cock.
“The Magic Flute” is, among other things, a tale of two marriages, a high-class marriage of a prince to a well-born young woman, and a lower-class marriage of Papageno to his perfect soul mate, Papagena. The bird catcher and his gal are mostly a comic foil to the tale of trial and tribulation faced by Tamino, the high-born hero. The reference to Mozart’s beloved comic character underscores what is often forgotten about “Der Blaue Engel”–its substantial comic element. Mozart adds irony.
It is a stunning film, so much more interesting and complex than the posters of Dietrich suggest. And it’s fascinating to see how much opera offered a template for thinking about music in this earliest of German talkie masterpieces.
Catching up on a few recent Washington Post stories. Last Sunday I wrote about a new exhibition of art from Lebanon, art which is sadly but understandably preoccupied with war, sectarian division and the political future of one of the world’s most beautiful and volatile countries. I also took on a new documentary about I.M. Pei and the museum he designed for Islamic Art in Qatar. It may be his late great masterpiece. But how can a respectable film festival screen a film that was commissioned by the subject of the film? If I’m interested in one thing when writing about documentary, it’s the contract of trust–or lack of one–between film makers and the public.
For a few months shy of a year, I called Detroit home in 1995. I loved the city and the people I met there. I loved its architecture and its sadness, its empty streets and surreal highways. It was an endless phantasmagoria, and I barely scratched the surface of its richness. Detroit is the jumping off point for a PBS documentary, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, that looks into the public transit mess that afflicts so much of the United States. I reviewed the film in today’s Post.
WETA will premiere a new documentary about the great, but often neglected architect Benjamin Latrobe, tomorrow evening. I wrote about Latrobe’s masterpiece, the Baltimore Basilica, after it was renovated in 2006. The film is a good primer on what the producers call “America’s First Architect.”
The title, which I don’t much like, strikes me as one of those clever mixing of ideas and media that doesn’t yield anything meaningful. But the film Visual Acoustics is great fun for people who love architecture, especially those who already know the huge role that photographer Julius Shulman played in promoting the mid-century modern architecture that defined an era and an ethos. I reviewed it in Friday’s Post.
Which I do, but this is also the title of a new film, and a very starry one. I’ll be curious to see how it does with its large and beautiful cast, given that it’s not conventional Hollywood fare. Rather, it’s part of a project looking at love and desire in cities around the world (beginning in Paris three years ago). Different directors lead little vignettes, which are then woven together into a feature-length film. Some, obviously, are better than others. I reviewed it for the Post.
On Sunday at 4:30 p.m., the best selection of the National Gallery’s Carl Theodor Dreyer festival is screened. I wrote about the series a few weeks ago. This is a reminder: For anyone who has equivocated about attending, Sunday is the day to commit. Ordet is a masterpiece and a deeply moving study of God, faith, doubt and decency. I’ve had a few moments when I’ve thought of converting. Once, in a church in Rome, when the organist began playing Frescobaldi. A few times in the Sierra Nevada, at sunset. And, most recently, watching Ordet.
For years I reserved a special animus against the Flipper show, the dolphin drama that had a popular run in the 1960s. It wasn’t the cute cetaceans, it was the show’s title, which is also a nickname anyone named Philip must resist, at home and abroad, until you pass out of the age when adorable diminutives seem to apply. A new film, The Cove, features Ric O’Barry, the dolphin trainer turned activist, whose dolphins we remember from the Flipper show. He now works against the capture of dolphins (for aquariums and live dolphin shows) and the far more disturbing practice of dolphin slaughter in places such as Taiji, Japan. The film follows the efforts of O’Barry and a film production crew (led by National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos) to film the grisly proceedings in Taiji. This is one of those rare documentaries that aims for the pacing and entertainment drive of a feature film, and yet still manages to pack in a lot of basic information and argument. As I say in my review, it’s tendentious and by no means objective, and it may elevate dolphin consciousness a bit higher than science is quite ready to accept (surely someone is smarter than he…). But it makes its arguments openly and honestly.
*Genuine lyric from Flipper theme song.
Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters, an embarrassingly bad 1988 film that stitches together classic cartoons from the golden age of Warner Brothers cartooning with a flimsy plot line about ghost busting, is proof that corporations can’t be trusted with classic Americana. The film, which is being released by Warner Home Video on DVD in August, shows a glaring cleavage between the work done by classic animators such as Chuck Jones (whose chef-d’oeuvre, the 1953 Punch Trunk, is cannibalized for this compilation), and the new segments, which are garish, choppily animated and clumsily written. Even the posture and the gait of Daffy and Bugs have changed, and they have been neutered of anything remotely transgressive. Quackbusters does as much damage to the legacy of Warner Brothers as the despicable 1990 “Tiny Toons Adventures,” which respected the tender gender sensibilities of America’s youth by dividing the androgynous Bugs into a blue “boy” rabbit and a pink “girl” bunny.
In the United States, the line between commercially produced entertainment and “folk” entertainment can be very porous, in part because we have no single, shared reservoir of folk sources and traditions. The Happy Birthday song? It’s under copyright protection, at least according to its corporate owners. So too half the songs you think are traditional Christmas carols but are, in fact, ditties owned and harvested for profit every yuletide.
Classic cartoon figures, like classic songs, belong to what seems a gray area between commercial product and the world of old quilts, marching bands and campfire stories. But it’s not really a gray area. Warner can do whatever it pleases with its cartoons, even unto subverting their characters, ruining their sense of humor and trashing their dignity. It can also decide when and where Bugs and Daffy are seen and if you’ve noticed that there are never any decent cartoons on Saturday morning network television anymore it’s in part because the Warner Brothers classics are now limited to Warner-affiliated outlets. If you don’t have cable, you’re stuck with pre-pubescent superheroes, incomprehensible robots and other technicolor enforcers of Manichean morality. Hence, a tradition as old as making Mom and Dad really crap pancakes and eggs in the pre-dawn hours of the weekend is now history. Until the rules change, at some inscrutable corporate whim, and Bugs, Daffy, Sylvester and Tweety return in all their atavistic splendor.
If I were writing a stupid, one-idea book aimed at frequent fliers and other suits, it would be something like Daffy in the Boardroom: Classic Advice from One Funny Duck. It would have mind-numbingly idiotic chapter titles like “Tooning In: How to Listen Your Clients,” and “Beep-Beep: Staying Ahead of the Competition.” The only substance in the book would be an in-depth look at an interesting problem in the history of management: How did the various and disparate teams of cartoonists, under the leadership of directors such as Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Friz Freleng, manage to put out such consistently high-quality product? How did such a large and changing group of creators stay true to something as delicate as a sensibility, a form of humor, a style of dialogue and the nuance of consistent characters? And how did all that wisdom utterly elude the corporate hacks who made Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters?
Sometimes you wish culture fell under historic covenants, like old houses, and once it reached a certain venerable age, it could be conserved.
For more on cartoon ducks, and famous French comics…