"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 29, 2012

Bach cantatas (23): Third Sunday after Easter

The third Sunday after Easter is called Jubilate ("Praise God"), going back to Psalm 66; it is also the first word of the Introit for the Mass on this Sunday. It is an exhortation to universal joy and thanksgiving. The liturgy for this day continues to celebrate the Easter Resurrection, as will be the case on the following two Sundays as well.


References:
BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText

Readings:
1 Peter 2:11–20
John 16:16–23, Farewell discourse, announcement of the Second Coming

Cantates:
  • Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, BWV 12, 22 April 1714

    Sinfonia
    Chorus "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen"
    Recitative "Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal"
    Aria "Kreuz und Kronen sind verbunden"
    Aria "Ich folge Christo nach"
    Aria "Sei getreu, alle Pein"
    Chorale "Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan"


    ("Weeping, wailing, lamenting, fearing") This early cantata in somewhat archaic style describes the affliction of the disciples who have to take leave of Jesus, as well as the hardship that waits for them during His absence. The moving sinfonia for plaintive oboe and strings sets the mood for the elegiac opening chorus. The first section of this chorus is a passacaglia, a traditional lamenting figure. The only recitative of this cantata, "We must enter the Kingdom of God through much sorrow," is set for alto - with a rising scale used for the "entering." After that follow three arias: alto solo with oboe, in which the tortuous element of the music reflects the "Cross" in the text; bass with two solo violins - here the whole structure is based on the word "following" as expressed by the violins following the bass and each other; the mournful tenor aria is accompanied by the chorale melody "Jesu meine Freude" on a tromba (often replaced by oboe). The chorale "What God does, is well done" closes this moving cantata. (****)

  • Ihr werdet weinen und heulen, BWV 103, 22 April 1725

    Chor und Arioso B: Ihr werdet weinen und heulen
    Rezitativ T: Wer sollte nicht in Klagen untergehn
    Arie A: Kein Arzt ist außer dir zu finden
    Rezitativ A: Du wirst mich nach der Angst auch wiederum erquicken
    Arie T: Erholet euch, betrübte Sinnen
    Choral: Ich hab dich einen Augenblick


    ("Ye shall weep and lament") Based on the Gospel verse for this day, that weeping will turn into joy. That is marvelously expressed in the intricate opening chorus: falling chromatic lines for "weeping and wailing," staccato phrasing for "the world shall be rejoicing," and above it all we hear the shrieks of the piccolo recorder, either of pain or joy. The following recitative-aria pairs continue the antithesis of sorrow to joy. The tenor recitative ends on "sorrows," which is taken up by the alto aria which is accompanied by a wonderfully florid recorder; the next alto recitative ends on "joy" and leads to an exuberant tenor aria with interesting obligato trumpet part. The mood has evidently changed to joy about the future return of Jesus. The cantata closes with the usual chorale, a proper benediction on the words "Was mein Gott will, dass g'scheh allzeit." (***)

  • Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal, BWV 146, 12 May 1726 or 18 April 1728

    Sinfonia
    Coro: Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen
    Aria (alto): Ich will nach dem Himmel zu
    Recitativo (soprano): Ach! wer doch schon im Himmel wär!
    Aria (soprano): Ich säe meine Zähren
    Recitativo (tenor): Ich bin bereit, mein Kreuz geduldig zu ertragen
    Aria (tenor, bass): Wie will ich mich freuen, wie will ich mich laben
    Chorale: Denn wer selig dahin fähret or Ach, ich habe schon erblicket


    ("We must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of God") In keeping with the liturgical character of the day, the text traces a spiritual path from grief to rejoicing. The first three vocal  movements deplore the sufferings in the world, after which the next three depict hope for a better life in the Kingdom of God. This is interwoven with a longing for death. The cantata starts with a lengthy sinfonia and chorus, both based on the lost violin concerto that was also transformed into the BWV 1052 harpsichord concerto. Here the first movement takes the form of an organ concerto. The second movement - also with obligato organ part - is used for the elegiac chorus. The chorus focuses single-mindedly on "troubles," through sustained dissonances on that word. This is followed by an expressive alto aria with violin accompaniment. Rising scales represent the passage to heaven, and the aria is full of "Todessehnsucht." The following recitative is a lament on the persecution in the world, accompanied by long chords on the strings. The soprano aria ("They that sow in tears") is accompanied by flute and two oboes d'amore and illustrates in two sections the opposition of "sowing with tears" and "reaping with joy." Despite the mournful text is has a galant and even sensuous quality. Finally there is a joyous duet for tenor and bass. It may have been derived from a secular dance movement. For the finale chorale the text is missing. The melody is based on "Werde munter, meine Gemüte," and this is paired with various texts in different performances.  (***)

April 24, 2012

"In Praise of Older Women" by Stephen Vizinczey (book review)

In Praise of Older Women was written in lucid English by Hungarian born author Stephen Vizinczey (1933). Published in 1965, it has since come to be regarded as a small classic of modern literature. It is a sort of "Vita Sexualis" (to borrow the title of a novel by Japanese author Mori Ogai), a "Bildungsroman" with the emphasis on the sexual development of the protagonist. It is subtitled "The Amorous Recollections of András Vajda." In fact, the background details of the narrator’s childhood in Hungary match Vizinczey’s own. The brutality the author experienced at a young age (his father was murdered by a Nazi sympathizer), made him determined that violence and hatred are to be avoided at all cost.

Happily the narrator doesn't take himself too seriously, so his story is full of humor. As the book describes life in Budapest under both the Germans and the Soviets, it is also much more than only an erotic novel. Neither is the novel in any way "explicit:" it is a tender and beautiful book about relationships and the author is never crude. We could very well call it a study of the psychology of love.

As a young man, András has a strong preference for mature women in their thirties or forties (therefore the title), rather than giggling girls his own age. The book takes us from Hungary to exile in Italy and Canada, but the most interesting part comes in the beginning. Very funny is the section where as a boy who has fled from Hungary to Austria the narrator serves as interpreter on an American base - he mostly has to help the soldiers get along with the local women. And the best relationship in the book is the first one, in which a married woman living upstairs in his apartment building patiently introduces the young András into the ways of love.



April 23, 2012

"Pale Fire" (1962) by Nabokov (Book review)

Academic publications usually boast a foreword, notes and an index, trappings that are a publisher's nightmare when publications are meant for a wider public. So it is all the more admirable that Vladimir Nabokov published a novel (in 1962, in the U.S.) that consisted not only of these three elements, but also included a 999-line poem. In fact, the poem could even stand on its own as a musing on nature and mortality. But the foreword, notes and index give it real interest, for it is in these that a suspenseful novel is hidden.

Foreword, notes and index are purportedly written by a man who calls himself Charles Kinbote, a recent immigrant and lecturer at a northeastern American university. He tells about his brief friendship with his neighbor, John Shade, a colleague at the same university and above all, a poet. Shade was murdered just as he had almost finished the present poem (an autobiographical work in four canto's) and Kinbote has absconded with this final opus, to make it fit for publication. The poem, called "Pale Fire," was written in manuscript on a series of index cards (as Nabokov himself used to write his novels), and follows after the foreword.

As soon as we read the commentary, we notice that it is not a true commentary on difficult passages in the poem at all. The German word "hineininterpretieren" comes to mind: the commentator forces an interpretation on the reader, which clearly has no relation with the poem. That interpretation is the story of Charles the Beloved, the last King of Zembla who has been dethroned by a revolution and fled his palace and country with grave danger for his own life. Commentator Kinbote wants us to believe that that story is "hidden" in the poem (and especially in the discarded lines he quotes now and then). Already early on, we also get the idea that the heavily bearded Kinbote himself is in fact that King in disguise, now seeking a safe haven in the U.S. He desperately wanted the great poet John Shade to make his life story known to the world. John Shade politely listened to Kinbote's stories, but never used them, and his wife Sibyl positively disliked the immigrant who always seemed to be stalking them.

Another grave thing becomes clear in the notes: a killer called Gradus has been sent by the new regime to murder Charles the Beloved. He is coming gradually closer and closer to the campus. But Gradus is a blundering idiot and in the finale, which is both comical and tragic, he shoots the wrong man, the poet. Kinbote flees to a cheap motel in the American West where he madly scribbles his annotations, trying to prove that the poem is after all about himself, the former King of Zembla.

The book contains many layers as is usual with Nabokov. For example, there is a strong hint that the murderer Gradus is in reality one Jack Grey, a madman escaped from a nearby asylum. Charles Kinbote himself may also be a delusional madman - there is a hint in the index that he is Botkin, an American scholar of Russian descent. In other words, he may have fabricated the story about operetta-land Zembla. And so on...

One thing is certain: Pale Fire is a satire on literary criticism - all too often literary critics interpret things into novels that the author has never consciously thought about. In a way, that has also happened with Pale Fire (the subject of more than 80 academic articles and studies), only look at the fierce discussion that various critics have had about the narrator of Pale Fire: do both Shade and Kinbote exist in the world of the novel, or has Shade dreamed up his own commentator - perhaps even from beyond the grave? Or is it the other way round, and is Kinbote (Botkin) a madman who is entertaining us with his lunatic fantasies?

(In my view, such surmises goes too far. After all, it is Nabokov who has created both Shade and Kinbote/Botkin, and therefore they both exist in the world of the novel. There are also clear echoes from Nabokov's own life as a refugee from the Soviets, and immigrant in the U.S. who taught for many years Russian at small colleges; and above all, Nabokov's father was also murdered by mistake - when trying to shield a liberal politician from a far-right Russian activist).

But then again, there is nothing wrong with this game and Nabokov has on purpose hidden what he called "plums" in the novel to tease the critics. Pale Fire is a masterwork that cries out to be read many times over.


Some notes of my own:
  • The title "Pale Fire" is based on Shakespeare (Timon of Athens): "The moon's an arrant thief, and her pale fire she snatches from the sun." This line is usually read as a metaphor for creativity and inspiration. But on a lower level, Kinbote is the thief who has stolen Shade's poem and uses it for his own purposes. 
  • Note the mirrors and shadows in the poem, present from the start: "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / in the bright azure of the window pane." 
  • It is possible to read Pale Fire in a linear manner, but you can also each time jump to the commentary when reading the poem. It is a novel crying out for a hyperlink treatment!
  • Geographical names in the book are mostly fictional, not only the obvious Zembla (a small country subservient to the Soviet Union, so perhaps one of the Baltic countries), but also in the U.S., like the university town New Wye where Shade and Kinbote live and work.
  • Shade's poem is autobiographical. Canto 1 includes his early encounters with death; Canto 2 is about his family and the suicide of his daughter; Canto 3 focuses on Shade's musings on the afterlife, culminating in a "faint hope" in higher powers; Canto 4 concentrates on the creative process - Shade sees poetry as a means of understanding the universe.
  • Kinbote tells three stories in his foreword/notes: (1) that of his interactions with his neighbor Shade in New Wye, (2) that of Charles the Beloved, the deposed King of Zembla (himself), and (3) that about the assassin Gradus.
  • The adventure of the escape of the King of Zembla owes a small debt to The Prisoner of Zenda.
  • The poem "Pale Fire" is the best poem ever written by a fictional author.
Review by Mary McCarthy, one of the earliest and deepest ones. Criticism at Zembla, the web site of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society. Contains a time line of Pale Fire and many essays, also on other works by Nabokov. 

April 22, 2012

Bach Cantatas (22): Second Sunday after Easter

The 2nd Sunday after Easter is also known as "Misericordia Sunday" or "Misericordias Domini" after the incipit of the Introit for the church's worship of this Sunday: "Misericordia Domini plena est terra" ("The land is filled with the mercy of the Lord"). There are three cantatas for this Sunday, all about Jesus as the Good Shepherd, an image that must have appealed to Bach for he wrote wonderful music on this theme. It was also an excuse to write arcadic, nostalgic music, a vein popular in the Baroque Age.


References:
BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText

Readings:
1 Peter 2:21–25, Christ as a model
John 10:12–16, the Good Shepherd

Cantatas:
  • Du Hirte Israel, höre, BWV 104, 23 April 1724

    Coro: Du Hirte Israel, höre
    Recitativo (tenor): Der höchste Hirte sorget vor mich
    Aria (tenor): Verbirgt mein Hirte sich zu lange
    Recitativo (bass): Ja, dieses Wort ist meiner Seelen Speise
    Aria (bass): Beglückte Herde, Jesu Schafe
    Chorale: Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt


    Pastoral, Arcadian music is an important genre in the Baroque and the story of Jesus as the Good Shepherd gives Bach an excellent excuse to write gorgeous bucolic music. The cantata starts with a wonderful chorus ("You Shepherd of Israel"), a simple fugue in the rhythm of a lilting gigue. The tenor aria also continues in a pastoral vein, although darker in tone ("Though my Shepherd may remain hidden"). The bass aria in a gigue rhythm is again first class bucolic music ("Happy flock, sheep of Jesus"), although the aria also gives the faithful a glimpse of the heavenly kingdom after "a gentle sleep of death." The cantata ends as usual with a richly harmonized choral ("The Lord is my faithful Shepherd"). One of Bach's most beautiful cantatas. (*****)

  • Ich bin ein guter Hirt, BWV 85, 15 April 1725

    Arie B: Ich bin ein guter Hirt
    Arie A: Jesus ist ein guter Hirt
    Choral S: Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt
    Rezitativ T: Wenn die Mietlinge schlafen
    Arie T: Seht, was die Liebe tut
    Choral: Ist Gott mein Schutz und treuer Hirt


    BWV 85 is set in a more doleful tone than either BWV 104 or 112. It starts with a bass aria as Vox Christi ("I am a good Shepherd"), emphasizing that a Good Shepherd gives his life for his sheep. The same sentiment is expressed in the acrobatic alto aria (with violoncello piccolo), but now from the point of view of an observer. With the ensuing choral, "The Lord is my Shepherd," we finally are in pastoral territory again. The tenor recitative has a subtle accompaniment, that brings out the various images. The artistic and emotional highlight of the cantata is the pastoral tenor aria with flowing accompaniment "Behold what love does" which doesn't forget to remind the faithful of the fact that Jesus has "poured out his blood on the trunk of the cross." The choral sums it all up: Jesus as protector and faithful shepherd. (****)

  • Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt, BWV 112, 8 April 1731

    Chor: Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt
    Arie A: Zum reinen Wasser er mich weist
    Rezitativ B: Und ob ich wandelt im finstern Tal
    Arie (Duett) S T: Du bereitest für mir einen Tisch
    Choral: Gutes und die Barmherzigkeit


    The beautiful opening chorus ("The Lord is my faithful Shepherd") is accompanied by two horns, adding a sort of heroic character to the pastoral atmosphere. The ensuing alto aria "He reveals pure water to me" is accompanied by a spinning cantabile in the oboe d'amore and has a gloriously flowing melody that seems almost without end. The bass recitative gets serious in singing about the "shadow of the valley of death," but surprising is the duet between soprano and tenor, which is a whiff of church militarism on the words "you prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies." The music marches away with the soloists singing in very high voices. The final chorale again features the horns from the start. (****)

April 16, 2012

"Titanic" (1997) by James Cameron (film review)

Yesterday, April 15, it was 100 years ago that the Titanic sank, killing 1,500 of its 2,200 passengers in the chilly waters of the North Atlantic - a disaster that has always figured large in the public consciousness because of its epic qualities - the largest and most luxurious ship ever built, with as passengers the creme-de-la-creme of society, goes down after hitting an iceberg on - of all things - its maiden voyage. It seems a very apt illustration of the saying "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall."

In the past I had seen the 1953 movie, and I remembered it as a rather depressing vehicle. That memory is probably the main reason why I never had watched the 1997 movie by David Cameron - with as additional obstacle that this new Titanic was advertised as a sort of spectacular disaster movie, a sort of blockbuster I always try to keep away from. Well, yesterday I had my private "Titanic commemoration" by watching the 1997 Titanic and must say that despite my initial misgivings I greatly enjoyed it. It is the best Titanic movie I know (also better than the British half-documentary A Night to Remember from 1958) and an excellent, flawlessly crafted movie in its own right.


I believe it is so good for the following reasons:

  • There is an authentic, human story: the love affair between the penniless artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the 17-year old Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), who is forced by her mother (Frances Fisher) to marry a rich American - her snobbish fiancee Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane) is also on board which leads to interesting complications and even violence in the end. They are both a sort of prisoners - Jack of his financial circumstances, Rose of her family - and it is great to see them standing on the prow of the big ship looking towards the sea and sky inhaling the fresh air of freedom. 
  • This human story takes the central place in the film. In contrast to the bulk of disaster films, where we have scores of characters who are all followed to their doom or redemption, here we have only Jack and Rose. This allows us to really get to know them, in other disaster films we only see a little bit of many (usually not very interesting characters) and therefore we immediately forget them.
  • The story of Jack and Rose is deftly interlinked with the disaster, for example when Jack has been accused of theft by Rose's fiancee and chained to a pipe on one of the lower decks where, as the ship starts sinking, the water dangerously rises. Rose comes to the rescue!
  • The special effects are wonderful: from the majestic ship itself when it sails out, to the disaster - for example the breaking of the ship in two halves where the lower part finally stands vertically in the water. At $200 million this apparently was the most expensive film ever made until 1997, but the money was well spent. Above all, the special effects are always in the service of the story, never a goal in themselves.
  • And finally, there is an interesting contemporary framing story, of treasure hunters searching the wreck of the Titanic (there is some real footage of the submerged ship here) for a precious diamond which belonged to the Rose of the story - and she still is alive, now 101 years of age but still going strong (played by Gloria Stuart). She visits the treasure hunters to tell her story and that story, shown in flashback, is the major part of the film. This also proves that we are following at least one major character who survived, which makes the film much less suffocating than its predecessors.

My evaluation: 9 points out of 10 for the meticulous detail of this film, that makes us "experience" the Titanic as if we were ourselves on board.
Ebert; Berardinelli; DVD-Talk


April 15, 2012

Bach Cantatas (21): "Quasimodogeniti" (1st Sunday after Easter)

The first Sunday after Easter is also known as "Quasimodogeniti Sunday." The Latin "quasimodogeniti" means "like newborn babes" and is the opening phrase of the Introit for the church's worship of this Sunday: "Like newborn babes desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby." (1 Peter 2: 2-3)


References:
BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText

Readings:
Epistle: 1 John 5: 4-10 (Faith overcomes the world);
Gospel: John 20: 19-31 (Christ appears to the Twelve; the "doubting Thomas").

Cantatas:
  • BWV 67 Halt im Gedächtnis Jesum Christ (Leipzig, April 16, 1724)

    Chorus: Halt im Gedächtnis Jesum Christ
    Aria: Mein Jesus ist erstanden
    Recitative: Mein Jesu, heißest du des Todes Gift
    Chorale: Erschienen ist der herrlich Tag
    Recitative: Doch scheinet fast
    Aria and chorus: Friede sei mit euch!
    Chorale: Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ.


    ("Hold in remembrance Jesus Christ"). The text of this cantata is allied to the gospel reading of the story of the doubting Thomas: one of the disciples who is seen as a doubtful Christian with his heart not at peace. Starts with a lively chorus which establishes a joyful Easter spirit, an exhortation to hold on to the memory of the risen Christ. The interesting  piece contains three elements: a marching theme, long held notes on the world "hold" and rising melismas to express the resurrection. This is followed by a tenor aria with obbligato oboe d'amore which expresses conflicting emotions ("My Jesus is risen, why am I afraid?"): joy about the Resurrection, but also doubt concerning its reality. The next recitative-chorale-recitative structure provides a wonderfully dramatic narrative which continues the spiritual vacillation of the tenor aria, built around the Easter hymn "The glorious day has arrived." This is followed by an extraordinary duet between the bass soloist as Vox Christi ("Peace be with you") and the chorus. The strings play a sort of martial music, as if war is waged for the soul of the believer - until in the last part heaven and earth combine in harmony. As this cantata proves, contrapuntal music is perfect for expressing conflicting emotions. The cantata ends with a peaceful harmonization of the choral "O Prince of Peace." (****)

  • BWV 42 Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats (Leipzig, 1725)

    Sinfonia
    Recitativo (tenor, bassoon): Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats
    Aria (alto, oboes, bassoon): Wo zwei und drei versammlet sind
    Aria (soprano, tenor, bassoon): Verzage nicht, o Häuflein klein
    Recitativo (bass, bassoon): Man kann hiervon ein schön Exempel sehen
    Aria (bass, violins, bassoon): Jesus ist ein Schild der Seinen
    Chorale: Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich


    ("On the evening of the very same Sabbath") Starts with an extended orchestral sinfonia, instead of an opening chorus. The sinfonia has a concertino woodwind group and may well go back to a now lost concerto. It has lyrical and tender character, and again evokes the joyful atmosphere of Easter. The tenor recitative quotes from the gospel about the appearance of Jesus to his disciples. The long and gentle alto aria takes up the same theme and may well have been based on the slow movement of the lost concerto used at the beginning. This highlight is followed by a duet for alto and soprano in a jerky rhythm ("Do not despair"), and then a bass recitative and aria. In the bass aria we hear the impotent rage of Christ's antagonists in the restless violin figures, while the vocal line expresses the reassurance of faith and the unassertive rhythms in the continuo symbolize persistence and strength. As usual, the cantata finishes with a choral setting. Like BWV 42, this a great and very original work, more impressive than the cantatas Bach wrote for Easter itself. (****)

April 13, 2012

"Little Buddha" (1993) by Bertolucci (film review)

Little Buddha, the 19th film by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, was neither a critical nor a box office success, but that doesn't say anything about the real qualities of the film, as we shall see. Like many films by this director, it was an international project, with a British producer and international cast, shot in Seattle and Bhutan. The impressive cinematography was by Vittorio Storaro and the music was written by Sakamoto Ryuichi. The title may unfortunately seem to refer to a Chinese restaurant, but that is not the case: this is the life story of the young Buddha, told to an American boy who may be the reincarnation of a Tibetan Lama master (and therefore another "little Buddha" himself).

Lama Norbu (Ying Ruocheng) travels to Seattle in search of the reincarnation of his teacher, Lama Dorje, and thinks he has found one candidate (later in northern India two more are found) in a Caucasian boy, Jesse Conrad (Alex Wiesendanger). This is not so strange as it seems as Lama Dorje had been engaged in missionary activities in North America. The parents, Lisa (Bridget Fonda) and Dean (Chris Isaak) are wary, but finally agree that Jesse and his father travel to Bhutan where Jesse - with the other two children - has to undergo a test to prove the true reincarnation.

Lama Norbu gives Jesse a storybook about the life of the Buddha and Bertolucci intercuts the story of Siddharta, who later became known as the Buddha, with the contemporary scenes. The story of Siddharta's search for enlightenment is shot in rich red-golden hues, the Seattle scenes in a cold blue. In the end, past and present are mixed as the three children find themselves actually in the scene with Buddha, watching him as he is overcomes the temptations of Mara while meditating under the Bodhi-tree. His mission fulfilled, at the end of the film Lama Norbu dies peacefully while meditating.

Central to the film are the characters of the kind Lama Norbu (very ably played by the Chinese actor Ying Ruocheng, who also shone in Bertolucci's The Last Emperor), Siddharta (played by Keanu Reeves with just the right balance) and the three children, who are all able actors. Negative reviews have harped on the weak acting of the father (Chris Isaak) or the fact that it is rather unnatural that American parents would agree to have their child engaged in this way with a foreign religious group. I believe that Bertolucci has done this on purpose, he wanted the focus of the film on the beauty of the timeless story of the Buddha and not on contemporary bickering. For the same reason, he made the parents consciously into rather vague non-entities - their presence is to a certain degree necessary, but they should not interfere with the main story. The focus is wholly on the introduction of Buddhism to a wider audience.

Bertolucci tells the Buddha's story as if to children, for aren't we all ignorant about this subject? These scenes have disparagingly been called a "Buddhist Sunday school story," but isn't that the best way to present the Buddhist "gospel"? After all, Siddharta's life was very peaceful, there is no violence here as in Jesus' Passion story, so Gibson-like sadomasochistic antics are out of the question.

Siddharta has been brought up as an Indian prince in a very secluded environment and is shocked when he realizes the unforgiving truth of impermanence: every living being must ultimately perish. After a hundred years, none of us now living will be still around. Siddharta discovers the Middle Way between a worldly life and asceticism and teaches the Four Noble Truths: that all is suffering, that this is caused by our attachment to external things, that such suffering can however be stopped, and what the path is that leads to the end of suffering. The suffering of all living things also leads Siddharta to the development of a great compassion, and the wish to help others, for basically all life is one.

By the way, the film introduces Tibetan Buddhism which differs from other types of Buddhism by putting reincarnation central -as seen in the film through the search for a reincarnated master. But in fact, the Buddha never talked about reincarnation (which is a sort of pan-Indian / Tibetan folk belief rather than part of the Buddhist teachings) and most Buddhists today (as in Japan) also do not believe in reincarnation.

That is my only point of criticism about what is a very beautiful and warm film, a film that takes us right into the heart of the world's greatest religion by illustrating the impermanence of all life and stressing the value of compassion.

My evaluation: 10 points out of 10 for the snake that protects the Buddha from rain while he meditates in the forest. It is unbelievable that this wonderful film at present only scores 5.8 at the IMDB. The beautiful cinematography and the impressive scenes of the life of the Buddha or those shot in the monastery in Bhutan are alone worth 8 points! The music by Sakamoto Ryuichi is also of a very high standard.
Dharma site review.

April 12, 2012

"The Third Man" - film and book (The Art of the Novella 6)

The Third Man is a truly classical film made in 1949 by Carol Reed and based on a script by Graham Greene. As Greene felt film scenarios are too dry, he first wrote a novella for the film, which was later published as a book (together with the short story for The Fallen Idol). The novella is the film's embryo, so to speak, and several changes were made, in the names of the characters, but also more important ones. The novella is enjoyable, but the film is the greater artistic work, so I will limit my discussion to the film.

As is often the case with Graham Greene, the story is one of deceit and double-dealing - a method Greene uses to bring out the moral ambiguities in which our contemporary world is steeped.

Pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) has been invited by his old school friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) to come to postwar Vienna (a bombed out city still occupied by the U.S., the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France, and split in four sectors), but he just manages to be in time for his friend's burial. He starts investigating the death of Harry Lime and discovers that there are various mysteries, such as the appearance of a strange "third man" at the site where Harry was run over by a truck. He talks to Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), the investigating officer and a powerful man who considers him as a nuisance. Calloway finally fills him in on Harry's criminal activities: selling diluted penicillin on the black market, which led to the deaths of many patients, including children.

Holly also meets with Harry's friends and acquaintances, such as Anna (Alifa Valli) who was Harry's lover. Holly himself falls in love with Anna, but she is still so full of Harry that he simply doesn't exist for her. She sees him as a rather weak and laughable figure (he manages to get bitten by a parrot, of all things). And then in nightly Vienna, Anna's cat leads Holly to a startling discovery... Harry Lime is alive, standing in a doorway, bathed in shadow.

The film was shot on location in Vienna and the city is in fact the real protagonist. Reed spent two months filming in Vienna, only a few extra scenes were shot in the studios in England. Reed's Vienna is a dark and lonely place, very different from the waltzing city of Strauss. Reed had the streets hosed down with water, so that the cobble stones would glitter on the screen. He also flew in four huge searchlights, which helped him cast enormous shadows on the walls of the nightly city. Unforgettable is also the finale in the extensive underground sewer system, or the central scene where Holly and Harry meet each other in the big Ferris wheel on the Prater. This stood in the Russian sector and had just been put back in operation.

This fairground scene also contains the moral of the film: in the war, millions of innocent people were killed by governments, as so many flies. What is he doing wrong when for money he kills a few of those "dots" himself, Harry says? Isn't this the way of the world, that the strong squash the weak? In other words, Lime serves as the embodiment of the banality of evil and forms a symbol for the moral breakdown after the Second World War.

To reinforce this story, Reed used expressionistic techniques as chiaroscuro lightning and canted camera angles - almost like Welles had done in Citizen Kane (giving birth to the legend that Welles had been involved in the direction of the film, which was not the case - he only barely showed up for the few scenes in which he figures). Reed also discovered the zither player Anton Karas and had him do all the music for the film. The film's signature tune catapulted Karas to fame and led to one of the first musical "hits" of the postwar period.

The Third Man became Reed's best film by far, and one of the best films ever made, the result of perfect team work of the director with author Graham Greene, cinematographer Robert Krasker, producer Alexander Korda, screen icon Orson Welles, and many others.


The novella The Third Man is available from Penguin Books; the film is available in the Criterion Collection

April 11, 2012

"The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" - book and film

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is a bestselling novel written in 1963 by John Le Carré (real name David Cornwell, *1931). It tells the tale of a burned-out spy in the years that the cold war was very real in Western Europe and many people feared it would turn hot. Soviets troops were massed at the East-German border, only a 7 or 8 hour drive from Amsterdam, Brussels or Paris. In 1961, the Berlin Wall was built. The action of the novel takes place before the advent of the swinging sixties, in a period that was a sort of extension of the dour fifties and that I can only see in monochrome. People wore thick, dark overcoats. They lived in tiny apartments with few belongings. Modern amenities were still out of the reach of ordinary people.

The "hero" of Le Carré's espionage novel is Alec Leamas, a disillusioned middle-aged man working for the British Secret Intelligence Service. Disgraced because of the poor performance of his Berlin Station, and afraid of being filed away in an administrative retirement job, he accepts a last dangerous mission: he has to pretend to defect to East Germany and with a false story topple the head of the East German Intelligence Service. Leamas' world consists of lies, but unfortunately for him, there are always bigger liars: his bosses in the Service cynically use him as a pawn in a larger game, which costs the life of the only person in the world he cares about.

The early sixties with their East-West dichotomy seem a very straightforward place, as in those other spy fictions, the two-dimensional James Bond fantasies by Ian Fleming. But in fact, the chillingly realistic world of John Le Carré is very different from those vulgar spy fictions. Above all, it is startlingly contemporary in its ambiguities: to Le Carré, morally there is no major difference between "us" and "them" as both East and West in the name of national security practice the same expedient amorality. In other words, our own governments are just as cynical and devoid of ethics as those of our opponents, with at most a difference in degree.

Le Carré paints a devastating picture of human frailty and duplicity, his message is unremittingly dark and nihilistic. This, together with the skill with which the book is written and composed, lifts The Spy out of genre fiction to the level of serious literature.

The film (by director Martin Ritt) has been properly shot in black-and-white to do justice to my monochrome memories. It is a vehicle for Richard Burton, who acts forcefully with just the right amount of world-weariness and disillusionment - a great characterization. The film follows the plot of the book without any major deviations. Again, a valuable counterweight to the James Bond fairy tales with their silly action sequences which were just then starting to attract film goers. It may be difficult to stomach, but The Spy shows how the world really was... and is.

April 10, 2012

Bach Cantatas (20): Easter Tuesday

Easter Tuesday is the third day of Easter. In Bach's time, important church festivals were celebrated on three consecutive days instead of two. There are three cantatas for this day.

References:
BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText

Readings:
Acts 13:26–33, sermon of St. Paul in Antiochia
Luke 24:36–47, the appearance of Jesus to the Apostles in Jerusalem

Cantatas:
  • Der Friede sei mit dir, BWV 158, after 1723

    Rezitativ Bass: Der Friede sei mit dir
    Arie Bass und Choral Soprano: Welt, ade, ich bin dein müde
    Rezitativ und Arioso Bass: Nun, Herr, regiere meinen Sinn
    Choral: Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm


    ("Peace be with you"). Solo cantata for bass voice. Could well be a fragment of a larger work - normally there would have been one more aria before the chorale. On the other hand, it is also satisfying as it is. The center of the cantata is formed by the bass aria woven around a soprano chorale. This chorale is accompanied by a singing violin accompaniment (originally for violino piccolo). Textually, the cantata is one of Bach's frequent meditations on the necessary readiness to leave the world. (***)

  • Ein Herz, das seinen Jesum lebend weiß, BWV 134, 11 April 1724

    Recitativo (alto, tenor): Ein Herz, das seinen Jesum lebend weiß
    Aria (tenor): Auf, Gläubige, singet die lieblichen Lieder
    Recitativo (alto, tenor): Wohl dir, Gott hat an dich gedacht,
    Aria (alto, tenor): Wir danken und preisen dein brünstiges Lieben
    Recitativo (alto, tenor): Doch würke selbst den Dank in unserm Munde
    Coro: Erschallet, ihr Himmel, erfreuet dich, Erde


    ("A heart that knows the living Jesus"). Reworking of a secular, congratulatory cantata for New Year. The text sings the praises of the risen Christ. It is full of adulatory phrases of the type also used to sing the praises of worldly lords. Starts with a tenor recitative that leads into an alto arioso. Very pleasant is the ensuing tenor aria, which goes quite high ("Auf, auf!"). Next follows a fine duet for alto and tenor with a wonderful string orchestral introduction, in the style of the Brandenburg Concertos. The cantata ends with soloists and chorus gloriously answering the tenor aria. (***)

  • Ich lebe, mein Herze, zu deinem Ergötzen, BWV 145, 1729

    [Chor: Auf, mein Herz, des Herren Tag]
    Arie (Duett) T S: Ich lebe, mein Herze, zu deinem Ergötzten
    Rezitativ T: Nun fordre, Moses, wie du willt
    Arie B: Merke, mein Herze, beständig nur dies
    Rezitativ S: Mein Jesus lebt
    Choral: Drum wir auch billig fröhlich sein


    ("I live, my heart, for your delight"). An oddity, as this cantata survives only in a 19th c. manuscript prefaced with an opening chorus by Telemann. Bach's original opening must have been lost. The substance of this cantata are therefore the two arias (one a duet for soprano and tenor and the second for bass), both  thoroughly pleasant pieces of music. The first is a dialogue between Jesus and the Soul, the second has the character of a passepied. The text calls on the believer to be mindful of the salvation that Christ's resurrection has brought. (**)

April 9, 2012

Bach Cantatas (19): Easter Monday

Easter Monday is the second day of Easter. There are two cantatas for this day.

References:
BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText

Readings:
Acts 10:34–43, sermon of St. Peter
Luke 24:13–35, the road to Emmaus

Cantatas:
  • Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen, BWV 66, 10 April 1724

    Coro (and alto, tenor): Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen
    Recitativo (bass, oboes, strings): Es bricht das Grab und damit unsre Not
    Aria (bass): Lasset dem Höchsten ein Danklied erschallen
    Recitativo, Arioso (alto, tenor): Bei Jesu Leben freudig sein
    Aria (alto, tenor, solo violin): Ich furchte zwar/nicht des Grabes Finsternissen
    Chorale: Alleluja


    ("Rejoice, ye Hearts") Goes back to a secular cantata written in 1718 - Bach had little time for new Easter cantatas in 1724 as he also composed the St. John Oratorio for performance on Good Friday that year. But no music could better fit the occasion. At the beginning of this joyful cantata stands a large-scale, multi-sectioned opening chorus in festive mood. The da capo bass aria in dancing motion is accompanied by an oboe figure that sticks in memory. The ensuing recitative and duet are a dialogue between Hope (that Christ is the Messiah) and Fear (because of the disappearance of Jesus' body). This is in fact the only part in the cantata text that directly relates to the readings for this day. A confident setting of the chorale melody closes this joyous hymn of praise. (****)


  • Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden, BWV 6, 2 April 1725

    Chorus: "Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden"
    Aria (alto): "Hochgelobter Gottessohn"
    Chorale: "Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ"
    Recitative: "Es hat die Dunkelheit an vielen Orten"
    Aria (tenor): "Jesu, laß uns auf dich sehen"
    Chorale: "Beweis dein Macht, Herr Jesu Christ" ("Reveal your strength, Lord Jesus Christ")


    ("Abide with us, for it is toward evening") The theme of this cantata is based on the Gospel reading for this day, St. Luke's account of the two disciples evening walk to Emmaus with the risen Christ. At the start stands a wonderful chorus in which two chordal sections in madrigal style flank a double fugue. There is also a lot of word painting: the descending theme evokes approaching nightfall and the recurring phrase "Bleib bei Uns" is given urgency by repetition. As a whole, this chorus has an elegiac character, a moving statement of fear and isolation. The warm, consoling alto aria is accompanied by an oboe da caccia, and forms a plea for Christ's continuing presence. The somber colors again symbolize the approaching darkness. Next the soprano sings a solo chorale, "Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ," with a prominent violoncello piccolo. Then follows a tenor aria with string accompaniment, a very insistent piece that brings back the atmosphere of the opening chorus ("Let the light of Your word shine brightly upon us"). Among the many recycled Easter works Bach composed of necessity, this is a striking new cantata. (****)


April 8, 2012

Bach Cantatas (18): Easter Sunday (April 8)

Easter is the most important feast in the Christian liturgical year. According to the scripture, Jesus was resurrected from the dead on the 3rd day after his crucifixion.


Easter marks the end of Lent, a forty-day period of fasting, prayer, and penance. The last week of the Lent is called Holy Week, and it contains Good Friday, commemorating the crucifixion and death of Jesus. By the way, on Good Friday, there were no cantatas performed in Lutheran churches in Bach's time, but in Leipzig on this day a Passion was performed in a Vespers service.

Easter is followed by a fifty-day period called Easter-tide or the Easter Season, ending with Pentecost Sunday.

Easter is a "moveable feast," set by the First Council of Nicaea (325) on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. The date of Easter varies between March 22 and April 25. In 2012 it falls on April 8.

There are two cantatas for Easter Sunday plus the Easter Oratorio. Two more cantatas ascribed to Easter Sunday are in fact not by Bach: BWV 15 is by Johann Ludwig Bach, and BWV 160 is by Telemann.

Readings:
Epistle: 1 Corinthians 5: 6-8, "Christ is our Easter lamb";
Gospel: Markus 16: 1-8 "Resurrection"

References:
BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText

Cantatas:
  • Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4, probably 1707

    1. Sinfonia: strings and continuo
    2. Choral: Christ lag in Todes Banden
    3. Duet S, A: Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt
    4. Choral T: Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn
    5. Choral: Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg
    6. Aria B: Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm
    7. Duet S, T: So feiern wir das hohe Fest
    8. Choral: Wir essen und leben wohl


    ("Christ lay in the Bonds of Death"). Chorale Cantata on Martin Luther's Easter Hymn. This early cantata is in archaic style (the chorale text returns in every vocal movement, the orchestral accompaniment contains two violas). The cantata starts with a sinfonia for strings and continuo that establishes a grave mood. The fist chorale (Versus 1) is for full ensemble; the chorale melody appears as cantus firmus in long notes in the soprano. This a grand fugal setting of the chorale melody. Versus 2 is for soprano and alto, singing above a walking bass line, versus 3 for tenor accompanied by a brilliant string line. The central versus is for the whole ensemble in motet style. Then follows versus 5 for bass voice set against the strings - it is a very rhetorical movement (low notes for "Tod (death)," suspension on "haelt (hold)," etc.), a meditation on the meaning of Passover. Versus 6 is for soprano and tenor, singing in a more lively rhythm and the cantata concludes with a four-part chorale for the whole ensemble, a suitable close to this impressive work. (***)

  • Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret, BWV 31, 21 April 1715

    1. Sonata
    2. Chorus: Der Himmel lacht! die Erde jubilieret
    3. Recitative B: Erwünschter Tag!
    4. Aria B: Fürst des Lebens, starker Streiter
    5. Recitative T: So stehe dann, du gottergebne Seele
    6. Aria T: Adam muß in uns verwesen
    7. Recitative S: Weil dann das Haupt sein Glied
    8. Aria S: Letzte Stunde, brich herein
    9. Choral: So fahr ich hin zu Jesu Christ

    ("Heaven Laughs, the Earth Rejoices"). Christ's Resurrection is celebrated in the initial sinfonia, an instrumental tour-de-force with its trumpet call. The festive character is continued in the ensuing jubilant chorus in five parts, with divided sopranos. Three recitative-aria pairs follow, for bass, tenor and soprano - the last one containing a chorale cantus firmus. Textually the cantata morphs from joy about Easter to the longing of the believer to be united with Jesus and therefore a looking forward to the personal "last hour." The bass aria is accompanied by a vigorous dotted motif symbolizing Jesus' princely power. The tenor aria is very attractive and the soprano aria even more so, a tender lullaby on death as sleep ("Last hour, break forth, to press closed my eyes"), almost a duet for soprano and oboe. The above mentioned chorale cantus firmus is played by the strings. The cantata concludes with the usual four-part chorale. This is one of the most majestic of the Weimar cantatas, a masterwork of Bach's first maturity. (****)

  • Easter Oratorio "Kommt, eilet und laufet", BWV 249, 1735

    1 Sinfonia
    2 Adagio
    3 Aria Duetto tenor, bass: Kommt, eilet und laufet
    4 Recitativo soprano, alto, tenor, bass: O kalter Männer Sinn
    5 Aria soprano: Seele, deine Spezereien
    6 Recitativo alto, tenor, bass: Hier ist die Gruft
    7 Aria tenor: Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer
    8 Recitativo soprano, alto: Indessen seufzen wir
    9 Aria alto: Saget, saget mir geschwinde
    10 Recitativo bass: Wir sind erfreut
    11 Chorus: Preis und Dank


    ("Come, hasten and run"). Based on a secular laudatory cantata written ten years before. As there is no evangelist, this is more a "dramma per musica" than an oratorio. The story is the discovery of Jesus' empty tomb by the disciples Peter and John and the women Maria Magdalena and Maria, the mother of Jacob. The work opens with an upbeat sinfonia that features trumpets and drums. This is followed by an elegiac adagio with prominent flute which paints the atmosphere of the peaceful cemetery where the action takes place. The chorus returns to the opening melody and describes how Jesus' followers hasten and run to his grave. (These three sections may well have been parts from a now lost concerto.) In the SATB recitative for all four characters mentioned above and the ensuing soprano aria with fine traverso line, Jesus' four followers realize they don't need herbs to salve Jesus body, but that rather a laurel wreath would be more fitting. In the next SATB recitative they discover the empty sepulcher, the stone moved aside. The also find Jesus' shroud. This is followed by one of the most beautiful pieces of music Bach ever wrote, the tenor aria "Gentle shall my death-throes be," a meditation by Peter on Jesus' shroud with a delicately evocative melody, a comforting "slumber" aria with a rocking accompaniment by recorders and muted strings. In it, the Christian soul celebrates Jesus' power to triumph over death and reduce its pains to mere sleep. For both Marias the shroud is not enough, they want to see Jesus himself as is expressed in the sighing recitative for soprano and alto and the more upbeat aria for alto. "Tell me, tell me quickly, say where I can find Jesus, whom my soul loves!" is based on the Song of Songs. The bass recitative by John affirms Jesus' resurrection and the final chorus is a glorious song of praise. A delightful oratorio suffused with dance-like rhythms. (****)



April 6, 2012

"The Thin Man" - book and film

The Thin Man is both a novel and a film and the one is as enjoyable as the other.

The novel was written by Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) - it was the last of five thrillers he wrote, in 1934, and stands apart from the rest for not being hard-boiled but rather a drawing room comedy with dead bodies. The main characters are Nick Charles, a former detective who is seldom without a drink in his hand, and his clever young wife, Nora, a wealthy socialite. Nick has stopped working to take care of his wife's fortune and spends most of his time getting cheerfully drunk. The novel is set in the period the U.S. suffered under the Prohibition (1919-1933), but that doesn't seem to be a problem for Nick, for there is always enough alcohol, for example in swanky speakeasies.

Unless you like puzzles (which I don't) the plot is of little consequence - interesting are the witty dialogues between Nick and Nora and the bantering detective duo that is "playfully in love" eventually became a media archetype. The two characters are thought to have been based on Hammett and his longtime girlfriend Lillian Hellman. A reluctant Nick is dragged into solving a sensational murder involving the weird Wynant family and various gangsters, all the time cheered on by the thrill-loving Nora.

The fun of the book is even heighthened in the film made in 1934 by W.S. van Dyke, for there is real chemistry between Nick and Nora as played by William Powell (of My Man Godfrey fame) and Myrna Loy. They often seem to be improvising just for the fun of it.

Not surprisingly, the film became a wild success and was followed by five sequels, between 1936 and 1947, all in the same vein, although no longer based on a story by Dashiell Hammett. Powell and Loy played their screen marriage so naturally that people mistakenly thought they were a couple in real life as well. They revolutionized the portrayal of marriage in films, doing away with its virtuous and staid image and making marriage sexy. Of course, they have a dog (Asta) rather than kids, a dog which actually plays an integral - and humorous - part in solving the various mysteries.

P.S. the five sequels of the film are: After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945) and Song of the Thin Man (1947). They are all hugely enjoyable, but After the Thin Man is probably the best. See a review of all six films in DVD-Talk.

April 5, 2012

"The Fallen Idol" (1948) by Carol Reed

The Fallen Idol (1948) is a film by British director Carol Reed, based on the short story "The Basement Room" (1935) by Graham Greene. As was the case with the other films they made, The Third Man (1949) and Our Man in Havana (1959), the author worked closely together with the director on the script. 

The iconic image of the film comes somewhere at the beginning and is repeated several times after that: a boy staring down from an upstairs landing, peering through the railings at the doings of the grown-ups in the hall, almost as a spy or double agent. Both worlds are connected by a huge staircase - perhaps the main actor in this film which is almost a film noir, thanks to the cinematography of Georges Périnal and Vincent Korda’s set designs. The interior of the Belgrave mansion takes on the same mythical proportions as the streets of Vienna in The Third Man.

The film is mostly seen through the naive eyes of the boy on the landing, who is further set apart for not being an actor and playing his role very awkwardly. But that fits the intention of the film marvelously, for in the story the grown-ups are all the time "acting" and scheming, while the young Phillippe indeed can't "act."

Phillipe (Bobby Henrey) is the son of a diplomat, neglected by his parents, who idolizes his father's butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson), the only human being he feels close to. In order to entertain the boy, Baines tells strong stories about his non-existing exploits in exotic Africa, such as single-handed putting down an uprising, or killing a man in self-defense. The sad reality is that the butler has never been out of England and is stuck in a loveless marriage with a veritable harpy. Mrs Baines (Sonia Dresdel) also works in the Embassy, where she rules with an iron fist as the top maid. She is a sour killjoy, even destroying a small snake the boy secretly keeps, and Phillippe and Baines are naturally bonding against her.

Phillippe catches Baines in a teashop with a young woman and Baines asks him to keep quiet about his "niece" - in fact she is Julie (Michele Morgan), a typist at the embassy with whom he is in love.

And then death invades - Mrs Baines has fallen down the massive staircase after a fierce argument about Julie with her husband. Police officers come to investigate. Phillippe naturally believes his "idol" Mr Baines has done the deed of killing the harridan, and desperately tries to protect him. But his lies are so awkward that they only serve to betray Baines and lead him into deeper trouble. Baines' tall stories also come to haunt him.

Next the police discover evidence that the fall was accidental and Baines is off the hook, but he has had to admit that his stories about Africa were all lies. He has lost his heroic status and so from his side also betrayed Phillippe. The boy, who has been ordered to tell the truth, now pathetically insists to the police that their new evidence is wrong (as he honestly but wrongly believes), but nobody listens to him anymore...

This is a subtle movie that rewards leisurely viewing.

April 4, 2012

"Pretty Baby" by Louis Malle

Pretty Baby, an American film made in 1978 by French director Louis Malle, tells the story of the last days of Storyville, New Orleans' fabled red-light district. The area counted over 2,000 prostitutes, 70 professional gamblers and 30 piano players. In 1917, it was closed down by the U.S. Navy, due to the country's entry into WWI. These years also saw the end of the ragtime era of Scott Joplin which gave way to the improvisational swing of the Jazz Age. A pivotal figure in that transition was Jelly Roll Morton (1885-1941), who appears in the film as a piano player called "The Professor" (portrayed by Antonio Fargas) and whose rags syncopate the visuals.

Even more important for the film is the character of professional photographer John Ernest Joseph Bellocq (1873-1949), who worked in New Orleans during the early 20th century and took haunting photographs on glass plates of the prostitutes of Storyville (a strong role played by Keith Carradine). In its settings and costumes, the film beautifully brings Bellocq's photography to life. One is reminded of Degas, or Toulouse-Lautrec. The cinematography is by Sven Nykvist.

The story of the film is less important than the images and atmosphere. It is a sort of "Memoirs of a Geisha," American-style, about growing up in a house of pleasure. The central character, through whose eyes we see the events, is Violet (Brooke Shields), the 12-year old daughter of Hattie (Susan Sarandon) - both mother and daughter live in the elegant bordello of Madame Nell (Frances Faye), where Hattie works while Violet babysits the various incidental children. When the modest Ernest J. Bellocq happens to come by at an early hour to take photos of the ladies, they are the only ones awake. He takes pictures of Hattie and befriends Violet who is fascinated by his camera equipment.

Over the next few months, coke-sniffing Nell arranges for the auction of Violet's virginity ($400) in a dramatic grand-guignol scene. Hattie manages to catch a reliable husband from among her clients and goes to St. Louis but Violet decides to stay behind. Eventually, she runs away from Madame Nell and goes to live with the friendly photographer, who finally even marries her out of compassion - there is a strong hint that he is not sexually interested in women and the marriage anyway is not a success due to Violet's childishness. Bellocq is more like a foster parent taking care of a brat.

Eventually, Hattie and her husband come to reclaim Violet and take her to their home in St. Louis - the most poignant moment in the film is when Bellocq asks her if she wants to go back with her mother or stay with him, and she answers "Can't we all go?" At that moment, it is clear he has lost her.

Pretty Baby is a gentle and tender film. Malle constantly demolishes voyeuristic expectations, and has filmed this difficult subject in good taste, a sign of his artistry. Brooke Shields is natural in her role, both childishly innocent and mature for her years, but without any cheapness.

My evaluation: 9 points out of 10 for the piano player. The title of the film was inspired by a Tony Jackson song from the same period, which is heard on the soundtrack.  
Ebert.

April 3, 2012

"Our Man in Havana" by Graham Greene

Our Man in Havana (1958) is a perfect entertainment, a fine dark comedy with a serious undertone. The novel is a spoof on the murky world of spies and political paranoia, showing how silly the world of secret information is. For after all, when something is top secret, who can check whether it is true?

The British Secret Service in the person of the suave Mr Hawthorne are setting up a new network in the Caribbean and recruit meek expatriate Mr Wormold who lives in Havana, Cuba, and is the owner of a vacuum cleaner shop. The year is 1958, the tail end of the repressive Batista regime. Wormold has a 17-year old adolescent daughter with expensive tastes and needs the extra income, for his daughter is all he has in the world and he cannot deny her anything. But as he has no idea at all how to go about the spy business, he follows the advice of his German friend Dr Hasselbacher and manufactures the reports from his rich fantasy. He also sets up a fictional network of sub-agents, pocketing the money himself.

When he sends in some fanciful drawings of what seem to be rockets - in reality he has drawn the inside of a vacuum cleaner - his work is so much appreciated in a London in the throes of Cold War paranoia, that they reinforce his operations with a secretary (Beatrice Severn) and a radio man  (interestingly, Greene presaged the Cuban missile crisis, although Mr Wormold was making it all up!).

Now Wormold has to cheat with his bogus spy activities on two persons eager to get a piece of the action who are all the time sitting on his lip. Another problem is that daughter Milly is getting too close for comfort to Captain Segura, a representative of the dictatorial regime who boasts of his torturing capabilities and carries a cigarette case made out of human skin.

On top of that, Wormold has made one fatal mistake: instead of wholly relying on fantasy, he has used the names of real people (members of the club of expatriates) for his agent network. The shit hits the fan when these people start being killed - for real. Someone has been decoding Wormold's reports, but it remains unclear whether that is the Cuban government or a group of agents from another nation. Beatrice forces Wormold to visit the other "members" of his sub-agent network and warn them - but how do you warn somebody whose name you have borrowed but whose spy activities only exist in your head?

Gradually things slide hopelessly out of control and panic rises along with the body count, especially when Wormold hears that he himself will be poisoned at the Trade Association Luncheon where he has been invited as a speaker. As a result he is very careful with the food - handing the plate meant for him to a neighbor who also hands it on so that eventually it poisons a dog in the kitchen - but the one who gets killed is his friend Dr Hasselbacher, from revenge as he had warned Wormold.

Despite the seriousness of an event like this, the story remains a farce until the end when Wormold plays a game of checkers with Captain Segura to obtain a list of all secret agents in Havana - he has been taking the money from MI6 for the lies he manufactured but now wants to offer something "real" in return. They play with the mini-bottles of whiskey and bourbon Wormold collects and when a piece is taken, the winner has to drink it. Segura is the better player and therefore he gets so drunk that Wormold not only can steal the list, but also his pistol - to take revenge with on the murderer of his friend Dr Hasselbacher.

Repatriated to London with daughter and secretary, the fictionality of Wormold's reports is no longer a secret within MI6. But if they would punish him for it, their own jobs would be at stake - for who was so stupid to hire this guy and believe everything he reported? So Wormold gets a nice retirement position as lecturer and marries Beatrice. The final joke is on the public that assumes the government men in their grey suits render selfless service for the common weal - while they are only protecting their jobs.

The novel is perfect in its tight construction and remains seriously funny till the end. Graham himself briefly worked for MI6 in the war years and obviously writes from experience where the shifting sands of the truth in secret service work are concerned.

Our Man in Havana was filmed, in 1959, by Carol Reed, who had already given us another Graham Greene classic, The Third Man. There is a strong cast with Alec Guinness as Wormold and several scenes were filmed in Havana for that extra bit of realism. Perhaps because Graham Greene worked together with Reed on the script, the film is very faithful to the novel.

April 1, 2012

Bach Cantatas (17): Palm Sunday (April 1)

Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, commemorates Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, an event mentioned in all four canonical Gospels.

Although Palm Sunday was tempus clausum, a Sunday without music, in Leipzig, we have one cantata for this Sunday from Bach's previous period in Weimar. In March 1714 Bach was appointed Konzertmeister to the Duke of Weimar and his new tasks included the provision of cantatas for the ducal chapel. In Leipzig, Bach used this same cantata on March 25, the Feast of Annunciation.


Readings:
Epistle: Philippians 2: 5-11 / 1 Corinthians 11: 23-32 (Christ humbles Himself even unto death);
Gospel: Matthew 21: 1-9

References:
BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText

Cantata: 
  • Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182, first on Palm Sunday 25 March 1714

    1. Sonata
    2. Coro: Himmelskönig, sei willkommen
    3. Recitativo (bass): Siehe, ich komme, im Buch ist von mir geschrieben
    4. Aria (bass, violin, two violas): Starkes Lieben
    5. Aria (alto, recorder): Leget euch dem Heiland unter
    6. Aria (tenor): Jesu, laß durch Wohl und Weh
    7. Chorale: Jesu, deine Passion ist mir lauter Freude
    8. Coro: So lasset uns gehen in Salem der Freuden

    ("King of Heaven, be thou welcome"). One of Bach's earliest cantatas, with a charming chamber-sized orchestration. The text describes the joyous Entry in Jerusalem followed by a meditation on the Passion. The Entry is compared to Jesus' entry into the heart of the believer, who will reap heavenly joy in return. The opening sonata is in the French style and depicts the arrival of the King. The da capo chorus begins with a permutation fugue. After a short recitative, follows a (for Bach unusual) sequence of three arias, by bass, alto and tenor. The bass reflects on divine love. The alto - accompanied by treble recorder - urges Christians to have Faith in the Savior. "Lay yourselves beneath the Savior, hearts that are Christian" - these phrases have been aptly set to a descending melody, symbolizing the prostration before Christ. The tenor expresses the agony of the via crucis, accompanied by a cello continuo. The cantata concludes with two choruses, an elaborate fugal choral and a lighter, almost dancing choral fantasia that resembles a 17th c. German motet. Overall, this is a light and joyful cantata.  (***)