"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

September 24, 2016

Best Twentieth Century Operas (3): Die Gezeichneten (The Branded) by Franz Schreker (1918)

3. Franz Schreker, Die Gezeichneten (The Branded, 1918)
With its potent mix of love, violence and deformity, and a lush score, Die Gezeichneten is a typical opera from fin-de-siècle Vienna. Its composer, Franz Schreker (1878-1934), was a genius opera composer and libretto writer and it was in that last capacity that his fellow composer, Alexander Zemlinsky, asked him to write an opera libretto on the theme of "the tragedy of the ugly man."

Zemlinsky had a special reason to ask for this material, for he carried a love trauma with him: in 1900, Zemlinsky had fallen passionately in love with Alma Schindler, one of his composition students, who initially reciprocated his feelings, but then suddenly broke off the relationship to marry famous composer and conductor Gustav Mahler, within only two months of making his acquaintance. Zemlinsky's unappealing physical appearance and lack of success both seemed to play a role here, so he suffered a double psychological hurt. Rather tactless, Alma Mahler had called him a "hideous dwarf, chinless and toothless and always smelling of the coffee house." This humiliation festered on and led to the request for a libretto on the theme of masculine ugliness versus feminine beauty.

Schreker duly set to work, even though the request seemed a bit strange, but he became increasingly interested in tackling the musical setting for this weird story himself. Zemlinsky proved sympathetic to Schreker's wish (he would later write a new libretto himself called The Dwarf - see my next opera post) and renounced the project. And so Franz Schreker came to write Die Gezeichneten, an opulent work in which he contrasted outer deformity with inner beauty.

[Franz Schreker (Photo Wikipedia)]

The title contains an ambiguity in German: "zeichnen" means "to draw" but also "to mark out," so "Die Gezeichneten" refers both to those who model for artists and those who are marked out, or branded, by fate.

The story is set in 16th c. Genoa. The hunchbacked, crippled aristocrat Alviano Salvago (the man branded by fate) craves beauty as a compensation for his physical defects. On a small island near the coast he has created a park-like paradise of his imagination, a sort of Elysium (it reminded me of the story by Edogawa Ranpo called "The Strange Tale of Panorama Island"). But he doesn't set foot there himself, afraid to profane it with his ugliness. He wants to donate this island to the citizens of Genoa, but his aristocratic friends try to dissuade him. Unknown to Salvago, they secretly use an underground grotto on the island for orgies with young women abducted from prominent Genoan families, whom they abuse and even murder. Their leader, Count Vitellozzo Tamare, has let his eye fall on Carlotta Nardi, the beautiful daughter of the mayor, who is an accomplished painter; she also suffers from a weak heart and fears that excitement will kill her (making her another person branded by fate). Carlotta rejects Tamare, and instead approaches Salvago. She is fascinated by the ugly cripple and wants to "draw his soul," giving rise to confused feelings on his side, especially when she faints in his arms when her weak heart plays up. But after she has painted Salvago, she looses interest in him, even though she has promised to marry him...

In the last act Salvago has finally opened his island paradise to the citizens of Genoa, who are all visiting, awed by the beautiful things they see. Carlotta evades Salvago and wanders off alone on the island, right into the arms of the masked playboy Tamare, who entices her to the secret grotto. Salvago desperately seeks her, and finally discovers the underground cave, followed by the other visitors to the island. There he finds Carlotta, lying senseless on a bed (the excitement caused by Tamare's lovemaking has broken her weak heart), while Tamare boasts of his conquering abilities. Salvago stabs him to death. Carlotta awakens, Salvago rushes full of hope to her side, but with her dying breath she calls out Tamare's name. Salvago descends into insanity as the curtain falls.

This opera, written during WWI, has been called symbolic for a disintegrating society and the disorientation of modern man - something we perhaps are seeing again today. Die Gezeichneten is an extraordinary work, with extremely unsettling music that rarely lets one sense a genuine resolution of the constant dissonances.

It seems that the libretto also contains various cunning portraits of fin-de-siècle personalities - a painting incorporated in the libretto for example resembles one of Arnold Schoenberg's pictures (Schoenberg was also active as a painter).

Franz Schreker, who looked a little like Gustav Mahler, was one of the few young composers of his generation who refused to be overwhelmed by Richard Wagner. His first success had been “Der Ferne Klang” (“The Distant Sound,” 1912), an opera set in the present-day about an ambitious young composer who in his search for the highest art neglects the woman who loves him, so that she descends into the dregs of society, not unlike Lulu later in Berg's opera. Unfortunately, Schreker had also been born at the wrong time, living exactly at the fracture of two periods: in his youth, Mahler ruled supreme, when he turned forty Mahler had been replaced by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Although in the 1920s Schreker's operas were staged in all major Austrian and German theaters, by the time of his death he was almost forgotten. One additional reason was that his music was forbidden by the Nazis, as Schreker was partly Jewish - one of the many careers broken by the hate politics of 20th c. Europe. But his lush and decadent music had also gone out of fashion - in the 1920s, a new trend for neo-classical and more businesslike music broke through, as well as for jazz elements in classical music. Schreker was almost forgotten and for many years only the orchestral preludes to his operas could sometimes be heard. Happily, today a full revival is underway, bringing Schreker's operas again successfully to the stage after a hiatus of many decades.

Recording watched and listened to: Kent Nagano (conductor) and Nikolaus Lehnhoff (production) with Deutches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, and Anne Schwanewilms (Carlotta), Robert Brubaker (Salvago), Wolfgang Schone (Lodovico), Michael Volle (Graf Tamare) and Robert Hale (Herzog Adorno) on Euroarts (DVD). In the first two acts, the singers crawl over the surface of a gigantic broken statue, lying amid Salzburg's Felsenreitschule stage. In Act III, in the island scenes, Lehnhoff shows us an orgy as from Kubrick's “Eyes Wide Shut.” This production is done in high style and vividly brings Schreker's world to life. To emphasize Salvago's difference from others, in this production he first wears women's clothes; when he has won the heart of Carlotta, he starts dressing as a man, but then she has no interest in him anymore. 

June 25, 2016

Max Ophüls (Great Auteur Directors 5)

The German-French director Max Ophüls (1902-1957, real name Maximilian Oppenheimer) was a wonderful stylist of the cinema who used his endlessly mobile camera to tell nostalgic stories of doomed love and sexual passion.

Ophüls was born in Saarbrücken as the son of a Jewish textile manufacturer. He took the pseudonym Ophüls during the early part of his theatrical career so that he wouldn't embarrass his father if he failed. He first worked in the 1920s as actor and then theater director, staging about 200 plays, and made his first film in 1931.


The most acclaimed of his early films is Liebelei (1933), as several of his films based on a play by the great Viennese author Arthur Schnitzler. That same year, however, he had to flee for the Nazis to France where in 1938 he received citizenship. In his first French period (1933-1940) he made more than ten feature films, mostly romantic films and comedies.

In 1940 he had to flee again, now to the United States, where he experienced the same difficulties as other European directors to fit into the commercialized culture of Hollywood. It would only be in 1947 that he made his first American film (thanks to the help of Preston Sturges), to be followed by three more in the next two years. Two of these films are concise noirs; the best one is based on a story by Stefan Zweig, Letter from an Unknown Woman.

In 1950 Ophüls returned to France where he blossomed again and made his greatest films, four immortal masterworks, until his untimely death from heart disease in 1957: La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), The Earrings of Madame de... (1953) and Lola Montès (1955), his only film in color. In all, Ophüls made nearly 30 films.

His son, Marcel Ophüls, is a distinguished documentary-film maker.

Characteristic for Ophüls are the following elements:

1. Endlessly mobile camera
All his works feature brilliant long takes, distinctive smooth camera movements, complex crane and dolly sweeps, and tracking shots. In fact, Ophüls' flowing Baroque style of filming is like a Viennese waltz. In his own time, his style was sometimes criticized as "merely decorative," but now we see it has a clear thematic purpose, for example to record the contrast between the protagonists and their emotional problems and the hustle and bustle around them, where life goes on unfeeling. His opulent sets and glittering mirrors in the same way underline the unhappiness of his protagonists. In fact, Ophüls turned his camera into an extension of his characters, visualizing their interiority, adjusting every shot to their minds, desires and lives.

2. Films about women
Besides being the director of romantic regret, of the doomed love story, Ophüls is renowned for his sharply delineated female characters. Many of his films are narrated from the point of view of the female protagonist. In this sense, he made "women's films," but he far exceeded any stereotype of that genre, in fact he is working on the same level as Naruse Mikio and Mizoguchi Kenji.


The best films by Max Ophüls are:
  1. Liebelei (1933)
    The first characteristic film of the great director, based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler. A young lieutenant has an affair with a baroness but falls in love with a violinist's daughter (Magda Schneider, mother of Romy). Although he breaks with the baroness, her husband challenges him to a duel. He is killed and the girl commits suicide. Misplaced male honor leads to tragedy. Tinged with a forlorn mood unique to the director, this film is full of elements that we recognize as truly Ophülsian: settings like the opera house, the army barracks, the bachelor apartment; dances in cafés; a climactic duel, although, as in Madame de... and Letter from an Unknown Woman, we never see the actual killing; the theme of the choice between love and duty. And, at the heart of Liebelei is a woman, who is lured into the trap of fierce passion. This tender story of thwarted love also features several early examples of the director's magically gliding mobile camera. 
  2. Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
    The second film Ophüls made in Hollywood, a bittersweet melodrama. The film already exudes the grace, beauty and sensitivity characteristic of the masterworks he would make in the 1950s in Europe. The story, set in a nostalgic Vienna from around 1900, is loosely based on a story by Stefan Zweig. It is a joke from beyond the grave: a dying woman (Joan Fontaine) sends a long letter to a concert pianist (Louis Jourdan) who is about to flee Vienna to avoid a duel (and as he reads her long letter, he is prevented from leaving...). She has been her whole life in love with him, but was unacknowledged. The pair has crossed paths over many years, although the crossings never lasted more than a few hours. Still the woman, who appears saintly, has born the maestro's illegitimate child. This film has entered the canon and shows that personal expression was possible in Hollywood (though difficult).
  3. Caught (1949)
    Caught is one of the two noir films Ophüls made in the U.S., a concise, tense and mean little film, a criticism of capitalism run wild. Leonora (Barbara Bel Geddes), a poor model, dreams of romance, pouring over fashion magazines with mink coats and waiting for her Prince Charming. Then she happens to meet cynical control-freak millionaire Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan) - based on Howard Hughes, it is rumored - who marries her as a kind of joke, just to spite his psychoanalyst and to show her he controls her destiny. As a result, Leonora finds herself another piece of opulence stuffed in Ryan's Long Island mansion. On top of that, her husband has a psychotic streak. She tries to run away twice, but each time returns. When she is pregnant, her husband increasingly treats her like one of his many possessions. Struggling slum pediatrician Larry Quinada (James Mason) finally saves her from her Long Island prison, as she has a miscarriage brought on by Ohlig's violence. The film's title "Caught" not only refers to the marriage trap Leonora walked into, but more broadly to the wrong ideas that entrapped her: the materialistic view that money could be the source of all happiness. 
  4. La Ronde (1950)
    Based on Arthur Schnitzler's notorious play about the vanity and fickleness of love in late 19th c. Vienna (see my posts on Schnitzler's novella Dream Story and his short stories). La Ronde presents a series of vignettes between two lovers, with episodes featuring one lover from the previous segment coupled with a new character, a sort of daisy chain structure. Anton Walbrook gives the performance of his life as the master of ceremonies who connects the various episodes. Ophüls shared Schnitzler's vision of the ferociousness of sexual desire, which plays havoc with human beings. But the director shows understanding and forgiveness for the foibles of humankind. We are all weak, so let's smile about life, instead of setting strict rules for others. There is also a bittersweet note, as all romantic illusions of love are shown to be false. At the same time, it is a nostalgic film about European elegance that had been swept away by two terrible wars. The beautiful waltz melody was composed for this film by the last scion of the Strauss family, the at that time 80-year old Oscar Strauss. Ophüls has also assembled a great talented French cast: Simone Signoret, Simone Simon, Gérard Philippe and Danielle Darrieux. 
  5. Le Plaisir (1952)
    A triptych of stories drawn from the work of Maupassant and demonstrating that "pleasure" is not the same as "happiness." With Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux & Simone Simon. The first story ("The Mask") tells of a man who is so addicted to balls and women that he hides his aging face behind a mask - pleasure and youth. The opening sequence is an incredible tour de force of the camera, which follows the swirling beat of a 19th c. ball - typical for Max Ophüls in whose camera movements there is always a visual musicality. But the dancer collapses and is carried home, as the wild dance has become a Dance of Death. The third story ("The Model") is about a painter who falls in love with his model, then dumps her when he grows tired of the affair - the fatality of pleasure when it gives way to boredom. Desperate, she tries to commit suicide by jumping from a window and shatters her legs. But this sacrifice enables her to force the painter into marrying her... The second story, "The Maison Tellier," is the most elaborate, taking up about half of the film. It is about pleasure and purity: how Madame Tellier takes her "girls" (prostitutes) to the country for attending her niece's first communion. It starts with a virtuoso crane shot, inspecting the outside of a bordello and finally gliding into the Maison Tellier. The day trip in the countryside is beautifully filmed (Jean Gabin drives a cartload full of jolly whores, including Danielle Darrieux) and the church scene when all the prostitutes start to cry at the sight of the pure young girls is justly celebrated. We also are present at the ill-fated meeting between one of the prostitutes and the farmer. Ophüls looks with a gentle sense of humor at the proceedings. 
  6. The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)
    A frivolous woman is transformed by true love. We only get to hear the first name of the heroine of The Earrings of Madame de... - her last name is withheld with a wink. Louise has been indiscreet and as is the case with offenders whose names are withheld in the papers, Ophüls replaces her last name as it were with a few dots or a dash. This films contains some of the best long mobile camera movements Ophüls is famous for: such as the sweeping take when Louise enters the jeweler's shop and ascends via an open staircase to the second floor - not to speak about the incredible dancing scenes with their circling camera. Or, on a different note, the scene where Louise is on a forced trip to the Italian lakes and sits day after day writing letters to her lover, only to confess later to him that she lacked the courage to mail her letters - we see those letters, torn into shreds, dancing in the air, and then turning into the snow falling in the next scene. The story is ingeniously organized around the circulation of a pair of earrings, a present given to Louise by her husband. When she needs money, she sells them back to the jeweler, and then, without knowing this, her lover happens to buy them for her again... The Earrings of Madame De... sets out as a simple comedy of errors but goes on to plumb surprising depths. More than that, like all great directors, in the visual compass of film, Ophüls manages to make life's inexorable flow almost tangible which leaves us as viewers a bit sadder, a bit wiser.
  7. Lola Montès (1955)
    Ophüls' only film in color, the tragic story of Lola Montès (Martine Carol), a great adventurer ("the most scandalous woman in the world") who becomes the main attraction of a circus after being the mistress of such famous men as the pianist/composer Franz Liszt and King Ludwig of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook). Taking its cue from La Ronde, we again have a master of ceremonies (Peter Ustinov), who narrates Lola's sensational career as she revolves on a platform in a New Orleans circus. Later the aging courtesan will perform a dangerous trapeze act, and finally the customers will be allowed to kiss her hand after spending a dollar. Ophüls fully employs the devices of circularity and repetition that characterize his late films, as well as the flamboyant cinematic style he had mastered across a lifetime. This is arguably the director's greatest film, a tragic masterpiece that is a summing up of all he stood for. But it failed both critically and at the box-office, which may well have contributed to Ophüls' untimely death in 1957. 

    References: The Rough Guide to Film (Penguin Group, 2007); Have You Seen...? by David Thomson (Penguin Books, 2008). IMDBThe Criterion CollectionSlant MagazineSenses of CinemaBright Lights Film Journal. Photos linked from Wikipedia. This series covers two blogs, Japan Navigator for Japanese directors and Splendid Labyrinths for non-Japanese directors.
    1. Jean Renoir 2. Kenji Mizoguchi 3. Luis Buñuel 4. Yasujiro Ozu 5. Max Ophüls 6. Mikio Naruse 7. Luchino Visconti 8. Akira Kurosawa 9. Michelangelo Antonioni 10. Orson Welles (to be continued)

June 17, 2016

Luis Bunuel (Great Auteur Film Directors 3)

Luis Buñuel is one of the most inventive film makers of the 20th century, a mild Surrealist who looked with wisdom and acceptance at the foibles of mankind. He saw that we are hypocrites who say one thing and do another, but in his view that doesn't make us evil. It is only human, part of the way we are. Buñuel's films have the power to shock, inspire, and reinvent our world.

Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) started his career in the late twenties as an avant-garde enfant terrible, spent the thirties fighting Fascism in his native country, fled to the U.S. after Franco's victory and - not welcome in the U.S. with his "red" background - in the mid-forties ended up in Mexico as a director of commercial films. As these were quite successful, he was allowed to make some serious auteur films as well, enabling him to move back to Europe in the early sixties and there make his greatest films as "old master" of Surrealism.

Buñuel was born in a small town in Spain, which, as he often remarked, was culturally still stuck in the Middle Ages. He studied philosophy in Madrid and became friends with Salvador Dali, Frederico Garcia Lorca and other Spanish intellectuals. At the age of 25, Buñuel went to Paris, where he studied film with Jean Epstein and joined the Surrealist movement.


After that, Buñuel's working life can be divided as follows:

1. The Early Films (1928-1932)
In 1928, Buñuel wrote and shot the surrealist short film An Andalusian Dog with Salvador Dali, in only two weeks. Thanks to its opening sequence, of an eye being sliced by a razor, this became the most famous short film ever made. Two years later, Buñuel directed his first feature, L'Age d'Or, a scathing attack on the Church and hypocrisy, and this, too, became a succès de scandale. His third film was a fake documentary Las Hurdes (''Land Without Bread''), an account of Spanish villagers locked in poverty and ignorance, his last movie until 1946.

2. Film-less Interlude (1934-1946)
In his film-less interim, Buñuel dubbed American movies in Paris and aided the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. After the Fascists' victory, he fled in exile to New York, where he edited documentaries for the Museum of Modern Art.

3. Mexico (1946-1964)
Buñuel moved to Mexico in 1946 (where the film industry was at a high point) and began grinding out pot-boilers that proved so popular he was free to direct an occasional serious movie, starting with the 1950 street-gang drama Los Olvidados. I believe the years in Mexico were certainly not a lost period for Buñuel: after all, he had only experience directing two short films; in Mexico he finally learned the craft of film director. And he made some truly good films here, which are still underrated in his total oeuvre: Los olvidados ("The Young and the Damned," 1950); El ("This Strange Passion," 1953); The Criminal Life of Archibaldo Cruz (Ensayo de un crimen, 1955); Nazarín (1958); The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, 1962); and Simon of the Desert (Simón del desierto, 1965).

4. The Late Masterful Films (1963-1977)
There were eight of these; the first, Viridiana (1961), was made in Spain (and soon forbidden there for its anti-clericalism), the others from Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d’une femme de chambre, 1963) and Belle de Jour (1967) until his last film That Obscure Object of Desire (Cet obscur objet du désir, 1977) were produced in France. All of these later films were written by Jean-Claude Carriere, who shared Buñuel's conviction that hypocrisy was the most entertaining target. Backed by French producer Serge Silberman, these late films are also the best, as Buñuel was free to indulge his fancies, without having to worry about commercial or narrative requirements.

Buñuel's style is characterized by three elements:

1. Surrealism
Buñuel was an official member of the Surrealist movement (until he became a Communist in 1932). Early in his career he made the two most authentic surrealist films ever produced, and also his later films are famous for their surreal imagery, such as scenes in which chickens appear in nightmares, women grow beards, and aspiring saints are desired by lascivious women. Even in the many movies he made for hire in his Mexican period, he usually added some of his trademark disturbing images.

2. The Hypocrisy of the Church & Bourgeois Society
His whole career, Buñuel mocked the Roman Catholic Church in particular and organized religion in general for its hypocrisy. The atheistic humanist Buñuel fought a lifelong rebellion against the Catholic Church that had shaped life in his Spanish home village of Calenda with a heavy hand. In L'Âge d'Or, for example, one of the protagonists of the Sade's 120 days of Sodom is portrayed as Jesus; Viridiana culminates in a dinner party that parodies Da Vinci's The Last Supper; and in La Voie Lactée two men travel the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela and meet examples  of various Catholic heresies along the way. The Exterminating Angel is a scathing attack on bourgeois values, as are many other films, for example The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

3. Sexual Fetishes & Thwarted Desire
To Buñuel, sex was "something we take seriously when it involves ourselves and ribald or funny when it involves others," as Roger Ebert phrased it. What is more funny than someone saddled with a fetish that is absurd and not respectable? Or someone who is consumed by desire but can find no satisfaction? In the early L'Âge d'Or and in his last film, Cet obscur objet du désir, and many films in-between, we encounter human beings who crave to fulfill a strong passion, but are unable to do so: the couple in L'Âge d'Or wanting to make love; the servant boy in Tristana, with whom Tristana toys cruelly as he is fascinated by her disability; Mathieu's mad love for the young Conchita, who keeps teasing him, in Cet obscur objet du désir; and, on a non-sexual note, the group of upper class citizens who crave to have dinner together in Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie, etc. Foot fetishes appear frequently in Buñuel's films, from the kissing of the toes of a statue in L'Age d'Or to the foot washing in El or the old man who loves Céléstine's boots in Diary of a Chamber Maid.

Buñuel died in Mexico City in 1983, after having finished his autobiography, Mon Dernier Soupir (My Last Sigh).
  1. L'Age d'or (The Golden Age, 1930)
    Although the earlier Un Chien Andalou starts with a famous sequence in which an eyeball is sliced open in merciless close-up (a scene that still has people fainting), it is only 15 minutes long and therefore L'Age d'Or is Bunuel's first proper feature film. It has also more plot: a man and a woman are passionately in love, but their attempts to consummate that passion are constantly thwarted by the Church and bourgeois society. The feelings of the continually interrupted lovers find an outlet in Bunuelesque fetishism when the woman finally seeks satisfaction by sucking the marble toes of a statue - sex is both terrifying and hilarious. At the premiere in Paris in 1930, the film caused a riot as the outraged audience trashed the theater. Until the early 1980s, the film was banned in many countries.
  2. Los Olvidados (1950)
    Film about juvenile delinquents in the slums of Mexico City, which won Best Director at Cannes, putting Buñuel, who was slaving away making trite films in Mexico, on the map again after his 1930 film L'Age d'Or. Los Olvidados is a tough, unsentimental statement. After all, then and now, it is a fact that poverty, combined with broken families and lack of education, leads to crime. Of course, people also have a choice, although many are stuck so deep in the mud that they have no opportunity to realize that. But even if they do, like the young Pedro, the protagonist of this film, and try to better their life against all odds, the environment can cynically block those chances. Pedro tries to extricate himself from the influence of escaped teen prisoner "El Jaibo," but that is impossible as the older boy blackmails him and even shrewdly shifts the blame for his own crimes on Pedro. Another characteristic of Los Olvidados is, that nobody is "good." At the start of the film, the boys beat up a blind musician and destroy his instruments, so the viewer feels sympathy for the man, but that same musician then shows what a pervert he is by groping a young girl. Although the film superficially resembles the at that time popular Italian Neorealist films, by showing that the poor are capable of evil and are players in the same corrupt societal games, Buñuel has in fact parodied Neorealism with its sentimental view of the poor as goodhearted. He has also included his characteristic surrealist sequences, for example a rooster staring down a blind man. Los Olvidados was a major influence on Truffaut's The 400 Blows, and although less known than his later work, is one of the masterworks of Luis Buñuel.
  3. El (This Strange Passion) (1953)
    A brutal and absurd glimpse at one man's runaway paranoia. It starts on a Bunuelesque fetishistic high-note: while a priest washes and kisses the feet of altar boys in a church ritual, Don Francisco follows the trail of feet with his eyes and comes to rest on the shapely legs of Gloria - like a hunter finding his prey. The rich bachelor Francisco then courts Gloria until she agrees to marry him. He proves a dedicated husband - or rather too dedicated, for already during the honeymoon his passion starts to exhibit the disturbing traits of a jealous maniac. His paranoia escalates until one night he stealthily approaches her with the intent to "sew her up." He also denies her all contact with the outside world. Gloria stays with her mad husband, at least until it really becomes too much, thinking he is suffering more than she is (after all, the Church is responsible for having made him into a pervert) - and anyway, nobody, even her own mother, believes her complaints...  A masterpiece of psychosexuality. To Buñuel's great satisfaction, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would screen the film for his students to demonstrate paranoia.
  4. Viridiana (1961)
    Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) invites his niece, Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), to stay with him before she takes her vows as a nun, but the old lecher then attempts to use her for his necrophiliac desires - he wants to have sex with her in the clothes of his deceased wife. When his desires are thwarted and the Don next commits suicide, Viridiana inherits the estate. A true Christian, she sees her new wealth as a great opportunity to practice charity and invites all beggars and outcasts of the area to come, be fed by her and live in her house. Of course they repay her with ingratitude, cruelty and greed. The film ends with a big dinner party, where the poor enjoy a wild feast during Viridiana's absence, imitating Da Vinci's The Last Supper, a parody enacted to the ethereal strains of Handel's Messiah. As the film also contains the above mentioned necrophilia and mockery of Christian charity, the Vatican denounced the film as blasphemy and it was immediately forbidden in Spain - despite winning the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. A delicious, darkly humorous story about different kinds of corruption. 
  5. The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, 1962)
    While in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, made ten years later, a group of upper middle class friends is repeatedly unable to have dinner together, here a group of socialites have enjoyed a lavish dinner, but are then unable to leave the mansion where the party took place. An unseen force keeps them inexplicably inside, as in an extravagant prison, and they have to spend the night together in the living room. The group futilely tries to figure out ways of escape. The film's absurd situations and surreal images attack ritualistic habits and bourgeois culture. The vast, magnificent salon gradually descends into sordid squalor. A black comedy filled with anti-bourgeois and anti-clerical sentiments, but also a dreamlike story where the surrealism of Buñuel is manifested in all its fantastic wealth. And it is of course more than just class criticism of the bourgeoisie: the film is in fact symbolic of the powerlessness of the human race as a whole.
  6. Diary of a Chambermaid ("Le journal d'une femme de chambre") (1964)
    As I have written elsewhere on this blog, Buñuel based this film on Mirbeau's fin-de-siecle, satirical novel, but changed the story into a strong anti-fascist statement, by updating the setting from the late 19th century to the 1930s. Céléstine (Jeanne Moreau) becomes a chambermaid in the country estate of the Monteil family. She soon discovers that indulgence in the sexual frustrations/obsessions of her male employers may help advance her social and financial status. The lecherous head of the household not only hunts game but also women (he has impregnated the previous chambermaid), and his miserly frigid wife indulges her pent-up frustrations by tormenting her chambermaids. The grandfather is a shoe fetishist who dies embracing one of Célestine's boots. There is also the mystery of the murder of a young girl, of which the suspicion falls on the brutish gamekeeper and handyman of the family, Joseph, who is also a fervent Fascist. Nouvelle Vague icon Jeanne Moreau as Célestine gives a great performance: she is impeccably stylish and composedly serene, as well as wholly inscrutable - her face is a true enigma. Although more straightforward and lacking the surrealistic teases of Bunuel's later films, the director takes care to include his usual pokes at erotic repression and religious oppression, and satirize the strange ways of the bourgeoisie who live behind a facade of respectability while secretly indulging their lower instincts.
  7. Belle de Jour (1967) 
    Belle de Jour is Catherine Deneuve at her classic best: beautiful, elegant, ice-cold - and lustful. She plays an upper-class Parisian housewife, Séverine. Frigid towards her husband, she secretly entertains kinky bondage fantasies... To make these more concrete, she starts secretly spending her idle afternoons working in a boutique bordello. That, by the way, is also what the film title refers to: "Belle de Jour" is a "day-lily" that blooms only during the day, but the same French term can also refer to a prostitute whose trade is conducted during the daytime. So while remaining chaste in her marriage, in the afternoons Séverine satisfies the weird fetishes of the men that visit her high-class brothel. Her clients include a fat industrialist, a professor who dresses in role playing costumes and then abuses her, and a duke who likes to enact a mourning scene in a coffin. But she also meets a mean-looking, young gangster whose cruelty and ugliness rather please her - but when he falls in love with her and starts stalking her, things go horribly wrong... As is usually the case with Buñuel, this surreal, erotic tale forms a gentle criticism of the mores of decaying upper-class society. Deneuve is the ideal actress for this intricate study of female psychology. Despite that the character she plays revels in debauched desires, she retains a cool, inscrutable dignity, clad as she is in the chicest Yves Saint Laurent finery. This is the best and most iconic film Buñuel ever made. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1967. See my detailed review
  8. Tristana (1970)
    A wonderful but perverse film about power over others. Tristana (Catherine Deneuve) is a young woman, who when her mother dies, is entrusted to the care of her elderly uncle Don Lope (Fernando Rey) who lives in the beautiful city of Toledo. The innocent and naive Tristana, wholly in the power of her lecherous uncle, soon ends up in his bed. In the daytime, she is a virtual prisoner in his house. Still, she manages to meet a handsome young painter and elope with him. Two years later, ill, she unexpectedly returns to her uncle's house. But now - although she looses a leg to her illness - she turns the tables on the aging Don and forces him to marry her, after which Tristana mainly uses her position as mistress of the house to humiliate Don Lope. Eventually, winner takes all it seems - but in the process, Tristana has lost her soul and she has become as jaded as Don Lope was. As is usual, this Bunuel film is full of explicit Freudian images. Every scene is packed with visual interest. It also provides an interesting picture of catholic Spain and the hypocrisy rampant in such an ultra-conservative society as well as the marginal position of women in it - of course seen through the anti-clerical and anti-bourgeois eyes of the film maker. But above all, the most wonderful thing in the film is the transformation Catherine Deneuve undergoes from uptight virgin with her hair in braids to the bitchy and mean one-legged woman at the end. A most difficult role that is performed in a fascinating way. See my detailed review.
  9. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie ("Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie," 1972)
    Vintage Buñuel. A great comedy about a group of six upper middle class friends - very bourgeois - (Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Stephanie Audran, etc.) who repeatedly try to have a meal together but who find their plans each time interrupted and crossed by bizarre events. Dinner is the central social ritual of the middle classes, a way of displaying wealth and good manners - but here turned on its head. The participants never get what they want, they can never fulfill their desire for a good meal in a nice, sociable and cultivated environment. It doesn't help that the cast is suave and beautiful, superbly dressed in a suitably old-fashioned style. At the same time, the various interruptions reveal the secrets that lurk beneath the surface of the decaying European bourgeoisie: adultery, drug dealing, cheating, military coups, perversion and sheer boredom. The "discreet charm" of the title of course refers to their polite handling of their sense of futility and dismay - although gradually panic takes over. The film also contains some of the best Surrealist dream sequences Buñuel ever shot. In fact, reality and illusion soon blur into one, with delicious comic results. And we have the director's usual barb aimed at the Church in the person of a bishop whose fetish is to dress up as a gardener and work as a servant in the gardens of the wealthy.
  10. That Obscure Object of Desire ("Cet obscur objet du desir") (1977)
  11. Another film about thwarted desire, this time of a sexual nature. The elderly gentleman Mathieu (Fernando Rey) is madly in love with the young Conchita. Although she willfully attracts him, the next moment she tends to push him back even harder. As if she is two different persons, something Buñuel has underlined by having Conchita in the “attracting mode” played by the Spanish dancer Angelina Molina and in the “push-back mode” by French actress Carole Bouquet. 
  12. Conchita doesn't want Mathieu to have power over her; and Mathieu doesn't want her to have power over him, so he doesn't offer marriage. Their relationship is stuck in the same unholy groove, except that it escalates. Mathieu tries to kiss her, but she flees; he helps her poor mother financially, but Conchita doesn't want to be bought; he tries to make love to her, but discovers she is wearing a chastity belt; he follows her to Spain where she is dancing in a cafe, only to find out she is stripping for tourists; and after he buys her a house she locks him out and under his eyes embraces a young man. But each time she coyly comes back and smooths his ruffled feathers with her charms...
  13. This is the 30th and last film made by Luis Buñuel, and it has been called a summing-up of his work: respectable (or even pompous) middle class characters plagued by strong and sometimes peculiar erotic desires, and therefore revealed as ultimately weak and funny.
  14. Read my detailed review
References: The Rough Guide to Film (Penguin Group, 2007); Have You Seen...? by David Thomson (Penguin Books, 2008). IMDB, The Criterion Collection, Slant Magazine, Roger EbertSenses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal. Photos linked from Wikipedia. This series covers two blogs, Japan Navigator for Japanese directors and Splendid Labyrinths for non-Japanese directors.
1. Jean Renoir 2. Kenji Mizoguchi 3. Luis Buñuel 4. Yasujiro Ozu 5. Max Ophüls 6. Akira Kurosawa 7. Luchino Visconti 8. Mikio Naruse 9. Michelangelo Antonioni 10. Orson Welles
(to be continued)

April 25, 2016

Jean Renoir (Great Auteur Film Directors 1)

Jean Renoir (1894-1979) was born at the same time as cinema, as the son of the famous impressionist painter Auguste Renoir. His interest in painting was limited to marrying the last model of his father, Catherine Hessling, but he started making films because he wanted to immortalize her beauty, thinking moving images a better medium than paint. He made about 40 films between 1924 and 1962. His peak was in the 1930s, although even at that time he was not always recognized; fame came after WWII when he was highly praised by both Francois Truffaut (and other French New Wave directors) and Orson Welles.


In order to finance his first films, Jean Renoir gradually sold his father's paintings from his private collection. In fact, many family members were engaged in the film business: brother Pierre was an actor who played for example the role of Maigret in Renoir's adaptation of Simenon's Night at the Crossroads, brother Claude was a film producer and nephew Claude (the son of Pierre) was a cinematographer who would photograph Renoir's most beautiful films. 

Renoir's humanist films reveal his fondness of all social strata. In the 1930s he endorsed the Popular Front in a series of films celebrating working class solidarity and when the Nazis invaded France, Renoir left the country for the United States (Hollywood), where he became a naturalized citizen. He would never again live in France, although he would return for film making in the 1950s.

Renoir started with some strong experimental work in the age of the silent film (such as Nana based on Zola's novel, or the short film The Little Match Girl based on Andersen - see my post about Best Silent Films), but really came into his own in the 1930s with sound technology. In this decade, he produced his best work and made several of the immortal masterworks of world cinema (The Grand IllusionThe Rules of the Game). Renoir was drawn to shooting on actual locations and experimented with long takes and deep focus compositions and the traveling shot. He expressed his auteurist ideal in the phrase: "My dream is of a craftsman's cinema in which the author can express himself as directly as the painter in his paintings or the writer in his books." 

As his style was very different from that usual in Hollywood (and as Renoir was a strong individualist who didn't fit into conformist American corporate culture), he only made a handful of films in the 1940s, none among his best. The Diary of a Chambermaid is for example marred by lack of focus, political correctness and outright silliness. In the early 1950s, Renoir returned to France via India where he made The River, one of his masterworks and his first color film. 

The films he made in France in the 1950s were very different from his earlier work: instead of realistic films shot on location, these are theatrical films with lots of spectacle and music, such as The Golden Coach, French Cancan and Elena et les hommes. His expert use of color may remind viewers of the paintings of his father. The last twenty years of his life, in the 1960s and 1970s, Renoir almost made no movies anymore and only did some TV work. He died in Beverly Hills but was buried in France. 


Here are his best films:
  1. La Chienne (1931)
    "La Chienne" means "The Bitch" (in both senses), but obviously that would not be a suitable English title, so it is usually left in French. In this comedy-tragedy, Michel Simon (in a superb performance) plays a henpecked office clerk and amateur painter who becomes so smitten with a prostitute (Lulu) that he makes her his mistress. The weak-minded, respectable middle-class man thinks he has finally met real love in this "vulnerable woman" (who is in reality just a low-class prostitute), and refuses to see the obvious: that she and her pimp boyfriend are taking advantage of him. Lulu is really in love with her pimp and only accepts the clerk so that she can cash in on his paintings and so satisfy her boyfriend's need of money. The love triangle in this profoundly humane but unsentimental film finally leads to a very ironic conclusion: when the clerk finds Lulu in bed with her pimp, he kills her in a jealous fit (a great silent sequence in the film), but the pimp gets convicted of the murder and goes to the gallows. La Chienne was remade by Fritz Lang in Hollywood as the nightmarish Scarlet Street, but this remake lacks the irony and wisdom of Renoir. It also lacks its seedy sexiness, which was too much for U.S. censors, who banished the original film until 1975. Full of Renoir's elegant compositions and interesting camera movements and filmed on location in the noisy streets of Montmartre.
  2. Boudu Saved from Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux) (1932)
    An outrageous, anarchic farce about a tramp played by Michel Simon in a singular performance: not sentimental in the Chaplin style, but on the contrary, a big, smelly, loutish bum with only one belief, that in complete personal freedom. Boudu is saved from suicide by a Parisian bookseller (a true uppity bourgeois) and ends up taking over his benefactor's home, his wife and his maid/mistress! Never take a tramp into your house! The film also forms a lively document of prewar Parisian society, with interesting location shooting around the Quartier Latin. There are delightful touches, too, as when early in the film, Boudu searches for his dog and seeks help from a police officer - in one and the same take the patrolman ignores him, only to offer his services to an affluent lady in a similar predicament. See my full review here.
  3. A Day in the Country (Partie de compagne) (1936)
    A lyrical short film based on a famous story by Maupassant (a friend of Renoir's father). The film is only 40 minutes long as bad weather prevented its completion (the negative side of location shooting), but as it can perfectly stand on its own, it was ten years later brought out as a featurette. The film follows a Parisian shopkeeper, his wife, daughter and the shop assistant his daughter is to marry as they spend a Sunday along the Seine, in the countryside. While the two men fall asleep over their fishing poles after a copious lunch, both mother and daughter are (separately) wooed by two strongly muscled rowers and enticed to come to an island in the middle of the river. What happens there (or doesn't happen there) gives insight into the sad lives of both women. A warm and summery film that could have been Renoir's absolute masterwork had he been able to complete it. As it stands, it is the best short film ever made. See my full review here.
  4. The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Le crime de Monsieur Lange) (1936)
    A whimsical Popular Front film about a likable courtyard world of print-shop workers and laundresses, with a naive hero (Monsieur Lange, a writer of adventure stories), a vivacious and practical heroine (Valentine), and their boss, Mr Batala, as the ultimate cinematic scoundrel, an obnoxious fascist pig, this propaganda piece rises to high art (and is good fun, too). When the bad boss fakes his own death to avoid paying back a loan, the abandoned workers decide to form a cooperative, full of the spirit of "liberté, égalité, fraternité." They have great success with printing Lange's cowboy stories, but then Batala returns "from the dead" to reclaim his publishing company. After an argument, Lange shoots and kills him, and flees with Valentine to escape France by crossing the border into Belgium. At a time that fascism and Nazism were rife in Europe, this film about an "excusable homicide" questions authority and the ethical boundaries one should or shouldn't cross. But Renoir makes also clear that the idea of a socialist cooperative is, like the story, nothing more than a romantic fantasy, albeit a beautiful one.
  5. Grand Illusion (La grande illusion) (1937)
    The title of this (anti-) war movie refers to the illusion that WWI was seen as "the war to end all wars." Forbidden by the Nazis (Goebbels tried to destroy all copies of the film), it tells the story of a group of French prisoners of war in German captivity, with working class hero Jean Gabin sharing a cell with middle-class Jew Marcel Dalio and the aristocratic Pierre Fresnay, under the strict monocled eye of Commandant Erich von Stroheim. The film is as much about class as it is about the prisoners efforts to escape. Initially "class" is stronger than "nation" as the German aristocrat treats his French aristocratic prisoner with special respect, even becoming friends with him. This also shows what an immense watershed the Great War meant for European culture, as it was the end of the class relations described in the film, and the beginning of the epoch of the "commoners." The last part of the film is different from the rest, as we see how Gabin and Dalio trek across the Alps towards freedom, with beautiful long shots in the snowy landscape. Orson Welles much adored this film and picked it as his "desert-island movie." A humanistic film, showing how important compassion is among the senselessness of war.
  6. La bête humaine (The Human Beast, 1938)
    Jean Gabin wanted to make a film in which he could drive a steam locomotive and Renoir made that possible by adapting Zola's naturalistic novel. Gabin plays a solitary train engineer, Lantier, who drives a locomotive between Paris and Le Havre, a man whose tainted blood subjects him to fits of homicidal mania. He falls in love with Séverine (Simone Simon), the sexy wife of the deputy station master in Le Havre, who has helped her husband murder a man who tried to seduce her. Although Lantier was a witness, he says nothing to the police and begins an ambiguous emotional blackmail. One night, Séverine rewards him, but also suggests that he should get rid of her husband. Lantier lies in wait for the man but is unable to do the foul deed. Instead, in one of his fits of madness he ends up killing Séverine and the next day jumps to his death from the speeding train. What makes this hardboiled film noir great are the scenes with the steam locomotives: the film is larded with impressive traveling shots with the camera on the huge locomotive, racing through the French countryside or entering under the roof of a large station, spitting out steam. In a double sense a "steamy movie," this thriller was the greatest commercial success in Renoir's career.
  7. The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu) (1939)
    Again a scathing critique of the class system, this time in the form of a country house farce "with teeth." A weekend at a marquis' castle in the countryside lays bare some ugly truths about a group of upper middle class acquaintances. Made on the eve of WWII, it shows European society and its disintegrating values as doomed. There is no protagonist, but in this lavish ensemble piece we see the hosts and guests as a group, as the class that was responsible for the hopeless situation of Europe. "The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons" (as the most famous line in this film goes), and those reasons are used to justify acts like murder and suicide. In the center of the film stands a long hunting scene (with Renoir's expert long shots) that reveals the volcano seething below the feet of the characters. Booed and banned (and nearly destroyed) at its premiere, The Rules of the Game was rehabilitated by the New Wave and shown at the 1956 Venice Film festival. It is now generally considered one of the greatest films ever made.
  8. The River (1951)
    Jean Renoir's first Technicolor feature, shot entirely on location in India (with American capital and Indian cooperation - among them future Indian film maker Satyajit Ray), is a bittersweet, Ozu-like account of the growing-up pains of three (colonial) young women, contrasted with the immutability of the river flowing in front of their homes, and full of gorgeous documentary-like color-shots of life in India. Harriet - whose father runs a jute mill - has five sisters and a ten year younger brother. The life of the young woman is shaken up when the charming Captain John, a cousin of the family next door who has lost his leg in the war, comes visiting. Harriet falls in love with him and shows him her secret diary, but he reacts only in a friendly, fatherly way. She later is shocked to see him kiss her best friend - but this is just sport for Captain John, who is really in love with Melanie, the mixed-blood daughter of the family where he is staying. But Melanie finds him stiff and overbearing and senses a big cultural gulf between them. The Captain eventually leaves (still a single man), but not before Harriet - who also feels responsible for the death of her small brother because of a snake bite - has lost the will to live and tries to commit suicide by floating down the river in a small skiff - happily, she is rescued by fishermen. Not only a visual tour de force, but also a very poetic and wise film, enriched by Renoir's subtle understanding of India and its people (a new, non-colonial view; although the story is set in colonial times, Renoir made the film just after India's independence in 1947). The wisdom shows in the retelling of a beautiful Indian legend with the message that things are not always as they seem, and that other persons may see the same things differently, and also in the contrast between the transitory emotions of the protagonists and the unchanging flow of the River, a symbol of everlasting Nature. The River won the International Award at the Venice Film Festival of 1951 and was nominated for the Golden Lion.
  9. French Cancan (1954)
    A loving tribute to art and the theater that reminds me of a painting by Degas come alive. A lyrical film full of movement, color and romance in which Renoir was reunited with Jean Gabin for the final time. Gabin plays a  Belle Époque Parisian nightclub impresario determined to transform the cancan, an outmoded folk dance, into the rage of the city. The spectacle of the dance in the finale, with its crashing waves of color, is justly famous. The lives of the characters in the film and especially their loves, are just as fluid and evolving. The film also demonstrates the difference between show business people and the rest of the world. The female lead is expertly played by Francoise Arnoul. Although The Golden Coach (1953) is also very interesting - Truffaut based the name of his production company, Les films du Carosse, on this film - I prefer French Cancan for its joie de vivre and the fact that its bright, frivolous surface hides a deeper undercurrent. 
    Interesting article on Renoir by Peter Bogdanovich; Orson Welles on Renoir
    With the exception of Le crime de Monsieur Lange, all the above films are available from The Criterion Collection. 
    References: The Rough Guide to Film (Penguin Group, 2007); Have You Seen...? by David Thomson (Penguin Books, 2008). IMDB, The Criterion Collection, Slant Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal. Photos linked from Wikipedia. This series covers two blogs, Japan Navigator for Japanese directors and Splendid Labyrinths for non-Japanese directors.
    1. Jean Renoir 2. Kenji Mizoguchi 3. Luis Buñuel 4. Yasujiro Ozu 5. Max Ophüls 6. Akira Kurosawa 

    April 20, 2016

    Best 20th Century Operas (2): Richard Strauss, Salome (1905)

    Richard Strauss, Salome (1905)
    Alex Ross begins his survey of twentieth century classical music, The Rest is Noise, with the shock Richard Strauss' Salome caused with its radical harmonies and its violent story of deviant Freudian sexuality - this opera certainly meant the advent of a new age, just like Pelléas et Mélisande had done in France a few years before. The sensationally innovatory score sent ripples all over Europe. It also rekindled interest in Oscar Wilde, on whose French play the opera was based.

    [Salome's Dance by Gustave Moreau]

    The Salome legend itself originates in the gospels of Saint Mathew and Saint Mark. Salome is the daughter of Herodias, who has left her first husband and father of Salome to marry her husband's brother, Herod King of Judea, because he is richer and more powerful. This marriage was considered as unlawful by contemporaries, as Herodias' first husband was still alive; and as she had married her brother-in-law, it was also condemned as incestuous. One man who publicly criticized her was John the Baptist, an ascetic and fierce moralist. He had been arrested and jailed by Herod, but the king was afraid to put him to death as demanded by his wife Herodias, because of John the Baptist's holiness and great popularity.

    On Herod's birthday party, Salome is enticed to dance for her stepfather, after being told that she may ask whatever she wants, even half his kingdom. At the instigation of her mother, she then demands the head of John the Baptist as reward.

    [Salome and the Apparition of the Baptist's Head, 
    watercolor by Gustave Moreau]

    Since the Renaissance, the Salome legend has inspired numerous painters. An important example close to the time of Strauss is Gustave Moreau, whose painting of Salome's dance is also described in Huysman's decadent novel A Rebours (1884), where the erotic intent of Salome's dance is emphasized. Some years before that, Gustave Flaubert wrote a short story, "Herodias" (1877), the last of his Trois Contes; in this story Herodias uses her daughter as an instrument to obtain the head of John the Baptist and so take revenge on her critic. Salome herself is shown as a more or less innocent young girl, as she even forgets the name of the man whose head she has to request. Jules Massenet's rather tame 1881 opera Hérodiade was based on Flaubert's short story.

    Oscar Wilde wrote his very different, heavily Symbolist play in 1892. He wrote it originally in French, as British law forbade the depiction of Biblical figures on stage; it premiered in Paris in 1896. A new element added by Wilde, was that the sixteen-year old Salome takes a perverse fancy to John the Baptist. She shamelessly eroticizes the body of the ascetic preacher and causes him to be executed when he spurns her affections. In the finale, Salome takes up John's severed head and kisses it - the peak of decadence and necrophilia. Another new motif was that Wilde has Herod - who is already tired of Herodias - lust after Salome, his young stepdaughter and niece. When she dances naked for him, he is willing to give her anything she desires.

    [The Climax, Salome and the head of Jokanaan, 
    by Aubrey Beardsley, 1893]

    Richard Strauss, who after two failed operas in the early nineties, had mainly written large symphonic poems as Also sprach Zarathustra, was inspired by the German translation of Wilde's play by Hedwig Lachmann and decided to set it word for word, only doing some editing and cutting away superfluous passages (as Debussy had done three years previously in Pelléas et Mélisande). He had finally found the right material for a great opera.

    In the first part of the resulting concise 100-minute opera, he concentrates on the confrontation between Salome and John the Baptist, called by his Hebrew name "Jokanaan" in the play and opera. Salome could be called "the symbol of unstable sexuality," and Jokanaan the "symbol of ascetic rectitude (but he was also a ridiculous figure in the eyes of the composer Strauss)," as Alex Ross says. Salome is a bored teenager, but she is also very beautiful - Herod is in love with her, as are several others in his court (in an earlier scene, one of the guards even commits suicide out of frustrated love). But, as Strauss insisted, she is also innocent. Salome hears Jokanaan's voice emanating from the cistern in which he has been imprisoned and she is bewitched by it. She has him brought up by the guards and immediately has a crush on him and tries to seduce him, but he shrinks away from her and even utters a curse.

    In the second part we meet the tetrarch Herod, a man caught in his own base sensuality, a hypocrite and a hysteric. He persuades his stepdaughter to dance the Dance of the Seven Veils, and so she does, to kitschy music. The dance is a striptease, she removes one after another of the seven veils that conceal her body until she stands naked before Herod. She now calls for the prophet's head. Herod tries to make her change her mind, but she refuses. The executioner descends into the cistern prison and returns with Jokanaan's head which he hands her on a silver platter. Salome explodes in necrophiliac bliss (this is after all a love story), dancing with the head and kissing it, while the orchestra blares forth with erotic love music. Herod is so horrified by the spectacle his own incestuous lust has engendered, that he calls on the guards to "Kill that woman!" With a shriek and howl, the curtain falls. The opera ends with eight bars of sheer noise.

    [Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, by Titian]

    The combination of the erotic and the murderous with a Biblical theme, shocked opera audiences from its first appearance, but although Salome was censured in many countries, it also took the world by storm - within two years after its first performance in Dresden in 1905, it was playing in 50 opera houses around the world. Not all performers were comfortable with the role of Salome: some refused to perform the "Dance of the Seven Veils," thus creating a situation where a dancer had to act as "body double." And during the first performance in London, the head of John the Baptist, brought on a silver tray to Salome, was replaced by a (apparently more innocuous) bloody sword. But the twentieth century was underway, and modernity made this opera about extreme sexual obsession not only possible, but also a reflection of the age.  

    Recording watched and listened to: Maria Ewing as Salome, Michael Devlin as Jokanaan, Kenneth Riegel as Herod, Gillian Knight as Herodias; with the ROH Covent Garden conducted by Edward Downes; and with Derek Bailey as stage director; on Kultur Video (DVD). 

    A performance on DVD stands and falls with the singer playing Salome: she must be a dramatic soprano with a strong voice, but also convincingly look like a young woman. That is a difficult combination, but Maria Ewing perfectly fits the bill in this somewhat older recording. With her large luminous eyes, she is a perfect dramatic actress who aptly conveys Salome's journey from curiosity to infatuation and finally total insanity in her amorous pursuit of John the Baptist.  




    April 8, 2016

    Best Contemporary Crime Novels from Europe

    Here is a look at crime fiction from Europe, a genre characterized by atmosphere and character development above plot. Of course, there have been European authors in the past like Agatha Christie who wrote pure plot puzzles, but this was an aberration which only took place in England - after all, such novels are about just as engaging as the average crossword puzzle. The crime novel as a literary phenomenon about character was created in the 1930s in France by Georges Simenon (see my post about this author) - a writer who, as Andre Gide said, should have had the Noble Prize in Literature, and whose influence can still be felt today, for his manner was picked up by many different European authors after WWII. Somewhat older "character" authors are for example P.D. James and Ruth Rendell in England, or Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in Sweden.

    European crime writers in addition learned how to add atmosphere from Americans as Hammett and Chandler (and write in the noir style), but there are two big differences between both cultures: European crime fiction is generally less violent than its American counterpart, which especially in its contemporary form only seems to focus on psychopaths and serial killers. And while in American crime novels the private eye rules supreme as a "lonely wolf" investigator (typical for American culture), European authors (like Japanese ones, as Matsumoto Seicho) prefer the police procedural - most European sleuths are police inspectors who work within the framework of an organization. 

    So what are the best contemporary crime novels from Europe? Or, in other words, who are the most interesting fictional police inspectors from our time?


    [Ian Rankin (Photo Wikipedia)]

    1. "John Rebus" by Ian Rankin (so far 20 novels, from 1987)
    My mother had a special link with Scotland and when I was a kid, my parents several times took the family on trips to that wild and melancholic country. Nowadays, my interest in Scottish culture has shrunk to the enjoyment of Scottish whisky, especially the single malt peat whiskies of the Scottish Isles, but recently I also had to add the Rebus novels (and the TV series with Ken Stott based on the novels) by Scottish author Ian Rankin to that small list. Ian Rankin (1960), a graduate of Edinburgh University, who spent the time he should have been writing his Ph.D. on English literature producing his first crime novel Knots & Crosses, has written 20 Rebus novels, winning the Gold Dagger in 1997 with Black and Blue. The stories belong to the genre of police procedural detective fiction, with a decided hard-boiled aspect that has led to them being dubbed "Tartan Noir."

    Set in Edinburgh, the novels depict a stark, uncompromising picture of Scotland, characterized by corruption, poverty, and organised crime, a far cry from the holiday country I saw in my youth. Rebus is a misanthrope made cynical by the job he does. He is a maverick cop who drinks, likes to flout authority and ignore the rules. He struggles with his superiors and colleagues and suffers from internal police politics and office politics. He is a lone wolf, a flawed character, but also someone obsessed with his work. He is happiest when he can sit in hus favorite pub with a glass in his hand.

    The inventive plots show a broad spectrum of Scotland, from business districts to dying mining towns, from nightclubs and prisons to some better-known pubs and streets of Edinburgh (these latter based on real places, there is even an Ian Rankin tourist guide to Edinburgh!).

    Another important aspect, that is also present in the work of the other writers discussed here, is the continual linking between the books, so that we follow Rebus through the various ups and downs in his career and personal life. He has a daughter, but is separated from his wife. His immediate boss at work is a woman, Gill Templer, with whom he had a one-time romantic relationship, and his protege is DS Siobhan Clarke.

    The novels can be read apart, so it may be a good idea to begin with one of the best, Black and Blue, or pick a recent one, such as Saints of the Shadow Bible. You may also want to start with the first one, Knots & Crosses, when Rebus is 40 years of age and a Detective Sergeant working on the case of a serial killer who has been abducting and strangling young girls. Rebus receives anonymous letters containing knotted rope and matchstick crosses…

    [Henning Mankell (Photo Wikipedia)]

    2. "Kurt Wallander" by Henning Mankell (12 novels, between 1991 and 2009)
    I have only been to Sweden once, again when I was very young, and only to the Gotenburg area (unfortunately not to Stockholm, which I love because of the early 20th c. novels by Hjalmar Söderberg, as Doctor Glas). Ystad, where the Kurt Wallander novels are situated, is a small medieval town at the southernmost tip of Sweden, close to the large city Malmö. Copenhagen is only 1.5 hrs via the Øresund Bridge, so closer by than Stockholm (which is 5.5 hrs away). There is also a ferry connection with Poland.

    The author Henning Mankell (1948-2015) was born in Stockholm. He had an adventurous youth (traveling around the world and joining the student protest of 1968 in Paris) and first worked in the theater. He was a left-wing social critic and activist, and shared his time between Sweden and countries in Africa, mostly Mozambique. He constantly highlighted social inequality issues and injustice in Sweden and abroad. Also in the Wallander novels the overarching question is: "What went wrong with Swedish society?" But happily, Mankell never gets preachy.

    His protagonist, Kurt Wallander, is a police inspector living and working in Ystad. His wife Mona has left him and he has since had a difficult relationship with his rebellious only child, Linda. Linda later will follow in the footsteps of her father as a police officer. Wallander also has a difficult relationship with his father, an artist who thousands of times just paints the same landscape for money, and who disapproves of the career choice of his son.

    Inspector Wallander drinks too much, consumes junk food, doesn't take exercise and struggles with his anger. He is always very much emotionally involved in the crimes he investigates. Over the years he has also become disillusioned with his work, not in the least because of office politics and the censure by colleagues and bosses of his brusque manner and aggressive tactics (as in the case of Rebus). Mankell puts the character development of Wallander central in the books. We follow his daily life and thoughts about family, or about getting older and his fear of Alzheimer, also when this is not related to the immediate plot - and that is what makes the books so interesting. Like the Rebus novels, they follow Wallander's career and life trough time. These are all passionate and committed books.

    Although the novels can be read separately, it is a good idea to start with the first one, Faceless Killers, in which an elderly farm couple is brutally murdered with as only clue the word "foreign" - Wallander must find the killers before anger towards foreigners boils over...

    [Fred Vargas (photo Wikipedia)]

    3. "Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg" by Fred Vargas (so far 8 novels, since 1991)
    The character of Paris-based Chief Inspector Adamsberg was created by Fred Vargas, the pseudonym of medieval historian, archaeologist and folklorist Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau (1957). She became a two times winner of the International Dagger award. Vargas' police thrillers are a way to relax from her job as an academic and to combine her interests, such as Medieval legends and various types of folklore. The device of imposing fearful old myths and legends (such as werewolves, the plague or the "furious horde of phantoms") into a modern setting often leads to a supernatural background for human fear and paranoia, and results in surrealist scenes (but can also be a bit far-fetched).

    Like the two previous authors, also Vargas leads her readers in the series through the life and career of Adamsberg, his depressed personal relations, and the not always friction-free work relation with his colleagues, such as Inspector Danglard. Where the quixotic Adamsberg takes an indirect approach and relies on his Zen-like intuition, Danglard is the rationalist.

    Vargas breaks every rule of detective fiction and it is sometimes difficult to empathize with her strange characters, but she manages to win her readers by the universalism of her themes. It is best to read her novels in order (one point of criticism is that she assumes knowledge of the previous books and doesn't sufficiently fill in the background of Adamsberg for each individual book) and start with The Chalk Circle Man (L'Homme aux cercles bleus) from 1991, where we first meet Adamsberg and Danglard. A solitary man drawing blue chalk circles at night around stray objects in Paris streets manages to create a media sensation, but Adamsberg senses evil behind the act. When the corpse of a woman is found encircled in chalk, he's proven right...

    [Andrea Camilleri (Photo Wikipedia)]

    4. "Inspector Salvo Montalbano" by Andrea Camilleri (so far 23 novels, since 1994)
    Andrea Camilleri (1925) has created one of the most popular crime series at the moment with his Inspector Montalbano series. The books have a mischievous sense of humor and a lovable hero in the compassionate, but also cynical person of Montalbano. Interestingly, Camilleri, who studied stage and film direction and worked as a director and screenwriter as well as TV producer for RAI, started writing this series when he was almost 70 years of age, and he has already managed to finish 23 volumes!

    Salvo Montalbano is a detective in the police force of Vigàta, an imaginary Sicilian town, based on Camilleri's  home town of Porto Empedocle, on Sicily's south-west coast. The novels contain a substantial sprinkling of Sicilian phrases. The name Montalbano was selected by Camilleri as homage to the Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who wrote a series of crime novels about a fictional private detective called Pepe Carvalho. Like Carvalho, Montalbano is a great gourmet, and we even get some interesting recipes.

    These are light and bubbly books, full of Italian sunshine, although the criminals are deadly and cruel and the police officers working for Montalbano not very efficient. In contrast to the previous novels, there is little character development, Montalbano remains the same bon vivant, who never misses a good lunch, or the delicacies prepared by his housekeeper (he lives alone, but has a girlfriend who now and then visits from the Italian mainland). So you could in principle pick any novel, although The Potter's Field excelled by winning the 2012 Crime Writers' Association International Dagger. Generally speaking, I prefer the earlier novels when Camilleri's inspiration was still fresh, so the first novel, The Shape of Water, also forms a good start. These are books that will always put you in a good mood.

    [Arnaldur Indriðason (Photo Wikipedia)]

    5. "Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson" by Arnaldur Indriðason (so far 15 novels, since 1997)
    These novels with their stony Icelandic settings are bleak and dark books, indeed a form of Scandinavian noir. Author Arnaldur Indriðason (1961) was born in Reykjavik and after taking a history degree, worked as a journalist and freelance writer. He wrote the first book in the series with detective Erlendur in 1997, and has gone on to become the most popular writer of Iceland.

    Enigmatic Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, at roughly 50, is a brilliant police officer, but also a gloomy and thoroughly anti-social figure who jealously guards his privacy. He keeps stubbornly brooding about his cases and is haunted by the ghosts of the past. The stories reflect the silent, glacial progress of Erendur's battle with his own inner storms. Decades ago, he got divorced, and his son and daughter still can't understand how he could abandon them. His daughter, Eva Lind, suffers from a drug addiction, his son is an alcoholic. Erlendur's investigations also provide rich insight into Icelandic culture, old and new, from the criminal justice system, racism and immigration to genetic diseases. Interestingly, the characters in the novel also show little respect for the police and are often shown lying to them. It is the background atmosphere more than the plots which is interesting.

    The novels can be read separately, although here, too, they make up something like a life story (in fact, the first two novels have not yet been translated into English), good ones are Jar City (the earliest one translated into English) and Voices. However, compared to Rankin and Mankell, Indriðason writes more superficially and never digs very deep, resulting in books which are enjoyable, but not much more than that.

    [John Banville (Photo Wikipedia)]

    6. "Pathologist Quirke" by Benjamin Black (so far 8 novels, since 2007)
    These books are not police procedurals, but a series about a consultant pathologist in the Dublin city morgue. They have been set in 1950s Dublin, and were written by Irish literary author John Banville (1950) under the pseudonym "Benjamin Black."

    John Banville is known for his precise prose style, Nabokovian inventiveness and for the dark humor of his (often immoral) narrators. He won the Booker Prize with The Sea in 2005. In 2007, Banville wrote his first crime novel, Christine Falls, set in buttoned-up 1950s Dublin as the author remembered it from his early youth, "a poverty-stricken but also beautiful city, dingy and ramshackle with a melancholy beauty." Benjamin Black's Dublin is full of fog, coal grit, whiskey fumes and stale cigarette smoke. His protagonist is a troubled man, who is hard-drinking and intolerant, in many ways a damaged person - more at ease among the dead bodies in his pathologist's lab than among other humans. He lives alone, and his depression is made worse by his longing for his dead wife's sister, or the difficult relation with his daughter Phoebe.

    Banville was inspired to write these novels by Georges Simenon - not the Maigret books, but the "romans durs," such as Dirty Snow, Monsieur Monde Vanishes or Tropic Moon. Banville felt these were masterpieces of existential fiction, far better and less self-consciously literary than anything by Sartre or Camus.

    They inspired Banville to try his hand at crime fiction and he has eminently succeeded. Here, again, we have a life story of the protagonist, especially in the first few novels of the series, so it is best to read them in the order of publishing, starting with Christine Falls.

    [Written with some input from the Wikipedia articles about these authors and detectives]




    March 31, 2016

    Best 20th Century Operas (1): Claude Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)

    At the start I have to make a confession: I am not an "opera fan." I prefer abstract symphonic and chamber music (in my view the highest peak attainable in music) to music depending on words and stories. The only operas I could stomach so far were those by Mozart (Mozart's music always is complex and in his last five operas his characterization is deep and subtle), and single arias from Baroque operas by for example Handel and Vivaldi (but not the whole operas because their stories are too silly and the characters too flat). I can't stand 19th c. belcanto (Donizetti, Bellini), Grand Opera (Meyerbeer), German Romanticism (Weber), Verdi or Wagner (all those grown-up people strutting around with card-board shields and spears and pretending to be mythical deities, in static but blown-up stories that move at a glacial pace and never seem to end).

    But then I discovered 20th c. opera. From Richard Strauss via Alban Berg to John Adams, these modern operas are mature and serious, and I discovered quite a few that are simply fascinating. What also makes a difference is that 20th c. composers were in the first place symphonists and not opera specialists, so that the orchestra is center stage - the symphonic aspect is often more important than the singers. In addition, most 20th c. composers have given up on individual arias, choruses or set pieces, but instead build one overarching musical edifice; a sort of declamation takes the place of belcanto singing, making those operas a more realistic form of theater.

    Here is the first of my favorite 20th century operas:

    [Mary Garden, the first Mélisande]

    Claude Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)
    Let's first set one thing straight: Debussy has often been called an "Impressionist" - but Impressionism, which was a trend in painting, had long been surpassed by other fashions when Debussy wrote his music. As also his preference for poets as Verlaine and Maeterlinck demonstrates, Debussy was first and for all a Symbolist - the major trend in literature, painting and music around the turn of the century. As Constant Lambert says in Music Ho!, "By suspending a chord in space, as it were, Debussy recalls the methods of the literary Symbolists."

    So not surprisingly, Debussy's only completed opera is based on a Symbolist, allegorical play by Nobel-Prize winning Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck (whose plays were very popular around that time). The radical novelty Debussy brought to opera - and why Pelléas et Mélisande became the first truly modern opera - is that he used the play as it was (only making some judicious cuts), having the original prose text declaimed over an ever-moving orchestration, staying close to the rhythms of natural speech in French (this was something radically new - so far, professional librettists had always been employed to fashion prose texts into metrical verse - for how do you fit melodies to unmetred prose?). There are no arias, choruses or set pieces. This enables Debussy to capture the subtleties of human behavior, with the orchestra's delicate texture playing a bigger expressive part than the singers. Instead of using leitmotifs in the unsubtle "visiting card technique" of Wagner, Debussy employs them as a way to draw musical shapes that represent his characters' psychological states. This resulted in the single most innovative opera from the fin-de-siècle. Not all contemporaries were enthusiastic, though - the opera was also seen as "full of the germs of decadence and death."

    [The opera Pelléas et Mélisande painted by 
    Edmund Blair Leighton]

    The music itself is indeed often ambiguous and undecided, as if symbolical of Maeterlinck's pessimistic denial of free will. The emphasis is on quietness and subtlety, allowing the words of the libretto to be heard and understood; there are only a few fortissimos in the entire score. But the lack of operatic refulgence does not mean the music is monotonous: the love scenes between Pelléas and Mélisande are filled with passion, and the grim fourth act, when Golaud takes his revenge, is violent but also filled with ecstasy as the lovers, knowing they are doomed, embrace each other for the last time. Debussy's example influenced many later composers who edited their own libretti from existing prose plays, such as Richard Strauss in Salome, Alban Berg in Wozzeck and Lulu and Bernd Alois Zimmermann in Die Soldaten.

    What had changed by 1900 is that the dominance of the "opera specialists" was over - Puccini was the last traditional opera composer. Debussy, Strauss, and others were instrumental composers who came from a different sonic world than traditional opera and who dared make radical changes - Pelléas et Mélisande has little to say to people who like narrative thrust and self-contained arias. But after some years of divided reception, by 1910 it was recognized as the masterpiece it is.

    [Claude Debussy, by Donald Sheridan]

    The story of the frail Mélisande and her adulterous love for her brother-in-law is a sensuously sinister exploration of sexuality. In the mystical land of Allemonde, Golaud is out hunting when he finds a mysterious young woman by a pond, who is defined be her beautiful, but abnormally long hair, longer than her whole figure (and fetishized in both play and opera): Mélisande. She has lost her crown in the water but does not wish to retrieve it. She keeps her identity and origins hidden, and yet Golaud falls instantly in love with her. He marries her and takes her to his family castle, where she wins the favor of Arkel, Golaud's aged father and king of Allemonde, who is ill. However, she soon falls in love with the young Pelléas, Golaud's stepbrother and Pelléas also becomes enchanted by his sister-in-law's beauty. They meet by a fountain, where Mélisande rather symbolically loses her wedding ring in the deep water.

    Later, the two gradually grow closer to each other, especially when Mélisande from a window in the castle tower lets her extraordinary long hair be caressed by Pelléas standing on the ground below - he even binds her tresses to a tree. They are caught by Golaud, but he is not suspicious (yet) and as the older man thinks this is just a children's game. But as Mélisande is pregnant, he warns Pelléas not to make her tired. Golaud however feels his brother is hiding something from him and interrogates his young son, Yniold, about how the couple behaves when alone together. Afterwards, he has the boy stand on his shoulders and spy on the couple through Mélisande's window. Through the boy's innocent answers he now is awakened to the reality of the situation.

    [Mary Garden, the first Mélisande]

    Next, as the old king has recovered from his illness, Pelléas is requested to go on a trip. He asks Mélisande to come to the well in the garden at night to say goodbye to her. In the meantime, Golaud quarrels with Mélisande in front of Arkel, dragging her around the room by her long hair, and she tells her father-in-law that her husband doesn't love her anymore. At night, Pelléas and Mélisande meet at the well and confess their love for each other. When they kiss, Golaud appears from the shadows and kills his brother, severely wounding Mélisande.

    In the last act, Mélisande has given birth to a baby girl. She lies on the bed under a white sheet with her gorgeous hair flowing down to the ground. Golaud presses her to tell the truth about her relation with Pelléas. After maintaining her innocence, Mélisande dies, leaving Arkel to comfort the sobbing Golaud.

    The Maeterlinck play, by the way, inspired several other contemporary composers: Gabriel Fauré and Jean Sibelius both wrote incidental music for it, and Arnold Schoenberg based a lush, late-Romantic symphonic poem on the tragic story. But Debussy's conception is the greatest of them all.

    Recording watched and listened to: Pierre Boulez (conductor) and Peter Stein (production) with the Orchestra and Chorus of the Welsh National Opera, with Alison Hagley (Mélisande), Neil Archer (Pélleas), Donald Maxwell (Golaud) and Kenneth Cox (Arkel) on Deutsche Grammophon (DVD 1992). Peter Stein's production is uncluttered and vaguely suggestive rather than becoming too literal. The scenery and dresses are often dark, but also lustrous, like black lacquer. Alison Hagley plays Mélisande as a woman-child with a mysterious smile. She also sings gorgeously. Neill Archer is an appealingly young Pelléas.