May 24, 2008

The Song Remains the Same

directed by Otto Preminger, 1944

I've always enjoyed this movie, and I watched it a few days ago for the first time in a couple of years. I fully admit that the music is the main draw for me - David Raksin's score permeates the film thoroughly, and for me it's what answers the questions raised by the action on the screen.

The legend goes that Raksin was having extreme difficulty coming up with a suitable musical theme for the film, and the producer and director had Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" picked out as a substitute. Then, a couple of days before the score was due, Raksin's wife left him, he sat down at the piano, and the theme came out. Romantic story in the extreme, and perhaps deserving of its own Hollywood treatment.

The film is built on a mystery-thriller structure, contains noirish lighting and snappy dialogue, includes the postwar preoccupation with class differences, has a Jungian streak a mile wide, and has some of the most depressing and fatalistic views on love this side of "Sex and the City." It's also a meditation on the psychology of narrative - this is no "just the facts, ma'am" kind of police procedural. In fact, Sturges is using the mystery frame (and the camera, and the music) to probe at the nature of truth throughout.

There are lots of theories about what's going on in the movie, and I've usually fall into the camp that says the movie is divided up into two parts: everything before Dana Andrews falls asleep on the couch is something like objective truth, and everything thereafter is a dream he's having. Very Tao. Very Hammett. Very Faulkner. Very Virginia Woolf. If not for the music in the second half of the film, it would be more of a puzzle to me - the characters seem to go places just a little to much out of keeping with the way they were set up in the first half, the visual style seems to change in subtle ways too (though I'm not adept at picking up the visual clues, so I'm probably not the best judge). The theme music that was mostly diegetic in the first half of the film becomes a lush commentary in the second half, saturating the quiet moments, underpinning the actions and relationships, giving everything a dreamlike quality. Like the movie has crept sideways into a Wagner opera without us noticing.

I think the key to Laura's success is that this self-reflexive filmmaking and meta-commentary on storytelling are layers atop the foundation of a dynamic and rich straightforward mystery narrative. It works quite well taken at face-value, with brilliantly-wrought characters in Clifton Webb's Waldo Leidecker and Vincent Price's Shelby Carpenter. There's a whiz-bang thriller finale, romance galore, long lurid close-ups of Gene Tierney, humorous asides, bad guys losing and good guys winning. It took a second viewing for me to notice things that seemed off-kilter, and the score was what pointed me in interesting directions to try and resolve that unsettling feeling.

Tone is a tricky thing in movies, as I remarked many times in other posts, and when it's put over well it draws me in like nothing else. Preminger and Raksin are at the top of their game here.

May 08, 2008

Internal Music

The Piano Teacher
Elfreide Jelinek, 1983

Wow, no summertime beach-reading, this. Brilliant straight through, highly demanding, horrible to contemplate, and extremely rewarding, this is a novel that will stick with me. The kind of book that makes me want to learn German just so I can read it untranslated.

The writing reminds me of Henry James in its psychological density (and willingness to spend pages of packed prose on it), and of Virginia Woolf in its evocation of states of mind across broad distances in text. It's also something of a narrative tour de force...

There's a "trick" in the narrative style that boggles the mind (well, my mind) at first, then pays the reader back when he or she slows down enough to grasp the rhythm. Jelinek seemingly writes from many characters' perspectives at once. In mid-sentence, I'll realize that this isn't the voice of character A after all, but what B is imagining A to be thinking about her. Or wait, maybe it's how A wants B to imagine A thinking about her. Or is this all just what C thinks of the dynamic between A and B? Ultimately, it's all those things at once - not a mystery to be unravelled, but a web of interconnections drawn from multiple angles. Desires and needs and imaginations overlap and fold in on themselves. I can't say that the prose style is effortless in this regard, but neither is it laborious - it's taut and considered, and moves at a controlled pace. (I can't help but think that such twists would be more streamlined in German, though I know very little of the language, really.)

The characters are all self-conscious in the extreme. Every attempt at communication is so fraught with anxiety and problems that it's no wonder each character spends so much time inside his or her own head, imagining the gaze of everyone else. In particular, the protagonist Erika Kohut has a real desperation in her need for human connection and has absolutely no skills with which to accomplish it.

The drama of frustration and disconnectedness spreads out to encompass the landscape of Vienna too, and in a beautiful, organic way. I have a fondness for stories that investigate urban spaces and urbanism in general, and Jelinek does a marvellous job of it in this novel - the "diseased" relationships in the book are clearly slivers of larger social dynamics.

So it's fitting that music is such an important part of the milieu. They are cultural artiacts of Vienna, of course. They provide opportunity to speak about descent into madness (Schumann), the anxiety of influence (Beethoven, Schoenberg), the culture of interpretation, the expression of emotional states in sound, the calcified roles of teacher and student, etc. For the most part, it's music for solo piano that's under the lens here - no interaction with fellow musicians required. To some degree, I think Jelinek is commenting on modern fallout from the romantic ideal of the Artist: one who lives aloof from society, in a cottage with his piano and his muse, a tortured genius who isn't understood by contemporaries.

Really great stuff here - I know I'll be reading it again in the future, and I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks great novels aren't being written any more.