Wagner’s Dream

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Originally published in 2013

Wagner’s Dream (2012) directed by Susan Froemke documents the most recent production of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle by the Metropolitan Opera.  If one has even a passing familiarity to opera, the idea that a new staging of the Ring Cycle would be bombastic is obvious, but this film illustrates how much more grandiose this version is.  To be plain, this production could have been the equivalent disaster that the Broadway play, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark became.  How could an opera that is over 140 years old be a potential debacle? The documentary illustrates this fact clearly, to the extent that an opera novice will be excited and entertained by the production’s trials and triumphs.

The ambition of Wagner’s Ring Cycle cannot be understated, both historically and for present performances.  The composer never realized his complete vision for this massive piece; he passed away having only produced it once.  Any production changes, which Wagner hinted at making, have to be imagined by subsequent companies.  The Metropolitan Opera’s idea to bring Wagner’s dream vision to light was to contract French-Canadian stage producer Robert Lepage to oversee the massive undertaking. Lepage and his team aimed to build one set that would be used for the entire 16 hour Ring Cycle; a 90,000 lb. computerized and manually operated set dubbed “The Machine”.

What unfolds through the course of Wagner’s Dream are the trials that the Met encounters using “The Machine”, along with regular theatrical problems, like losing a conductor during the run and bringing in a new Siegfried a few weeks before opening.  It is fascinating watching the stage crew deal with the unruly, gargantuan set and the frustrations this puts upon the rest of the company.  The opera house had to be reinforced or the set may have collapsed the floor.  The singers, though accustomed to expressive acting in Wagnerian operas, are highly challenged by the set and have understandable arguments against even stepping foot on it.  At one point a Rheinmaiden is nearly crushed when the set moves into position and she is not correctly hidden in a crevice.  Having to navigate such a daunting set, as well as having to perform in one of the most difficult operas ever written, illustrates how utterly amazing the company is as a whole.

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The documentary is more an ode to theatrical innovation and efficient teamwork, than a tale about the Ring Cycle.  Audience members are interviewed throughout the film about their impressions of the newly imagined pieces. The reactions range from the upset traditionalist to the young “hip” opera-goer who doesn’t mind the deviation in set design.  Wagner’s Dream is swift in its treatment of the operas; the labyrinthine story is quickly explained with a few sentences.  The real action of this film derives from the overhanging audacious artistic vision of Wagner, Mr. Lepage and his team’s engineering feats and the enthusiasm of the crew and cast.  The sheer joy, energy and expertise which the Metropolitan Opera Company exudes, fills this documentary with a universal quality.  Opera is an unfamiliar art form for many; the backstage view presented helps to normalize and bring down to human scale the audacious task they hope to accomplish.

Author’s Note: I had the good fortune to procure one of the few remaining tickets for the May 11, 2013 performance of Gotterdammerung; the final performance of the entire production.  The words epic, entrancing spectacle do not even get close to describing how amazing this opera was.  “The Machine” is terrifying; it creaks and swings about wildly(there was even a short techincal stoppage during the first intermission due to it malfunctioning). The orchestra kicks complete ass; 6 harps! SIX!!  I spent Act 3 sobbing because it was so mind-blowingly beautiful.  Due to this being the very last performance, the stage crew took a bow.  “The Machine” lifted up and 50 or more stagehands emerged and started waving at the audience. They got the largest ovation of the day and damn, did they deserve it. I cried and cheered along with everyone else.  An amazing life experience; transcendent.

 

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Pulp: a Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets

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My high school yearbook quote in 1997 was from the Pulp song Bar Italia “If we get through this alive, I’ll meet you next week, same place, same time.” I thought that line was ever-so-clever, as it denotes the drudgery of high school and also because no one knew who Pulp was.  Until reaching college, I was alone in my fandom of Pulp, despite the fact that they are one of the greatest English bands of all time and were wildly popular in Europe when I was a teen.  I randomly found out about them from alternate radio and their music has been a lasting part of my life ever since.  The music has a movie-like grandiosity, with knowing, darkly humourous lyrics which intrigued me as a young woman. I may not have been able to directly relate to the song I Spy, with such lyrics as

“You see you should take me seriously/Very seriously indeed/Cause I’ve been sleeping with your wife for the past sixteen weeks/Smoking your cigarettes, drinking your brandy,messing up the bed you chose together/And in all that time I just wanted you to come home unexpectedly one afternoon and catch us at it in the front room”

yet I sure was excited by the delivery. Such honesty about adult life and the trouble of it all, paired with lush music, was too much to resist.

The documentary, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets(2014), directed by Florian Habicht, is an exploration of how the band Pulp evolved as well as the city they hail from, Sheffield, England. This is not a concert film or even a strict biographical overview, it’s more of a series of portraits of the residents of Sheffield and how the band Pulp fits into the city. There are multiple interviews with Sheffield residents young and old and how they feel about the band. All generations are equally proud of their hometown band, with varying levels of knowledge of their musical output. Some amusing episodes involve an older woman critiquing why Pulp is better than Blur and a young girl hearing Disco 2000 for the first time and meekly stating that it might be good to dance to.

The interviews with Jarvis Cocker and the rest of the band reveal some insights on their relationships and how their sound changed over 20 years. We see the drummer Nick Banks, who coaches his daughter’s soccer team, complete with Pulp-sponsored kits, looking like a fairly normal guy. Keyboard player Candida Doyle speaks of how an early diagnosis of arthritis lead her into music, which helped her to overcome her affliction. The other band members are shown to be equally regular, or Common People, even Cocker to an extent. Jarvis is obviously the most noticeable member of the band and speaks about how celebrity was not much to his liking.  For such a revered and celebrated band, this documentary almost makes them seem like a humble outfit from a small city who just happened to stumble into stardom. A very interesting stylistic choice for both the band and the director; too self-deprecating to admit their own excellence, they downplay their successes and strive to still be of a Sheffield-mindset.

The cinematography displayed in this film is masterful. Not to be unkind, but Sheffield, England is a little rough around the edges. The camera captures the housing schemes, graffiti and fish markets with crisp clarity. Sheffield may not be the most aesthetically pleasing city; the people are the real draw.  The most engaging portion of the film is a vignette in which a diner full of elders sing Help the Aged.  Hearing the lyrics “Help the aged/One time they were just like you/Drinking, smoking cigs and sniffing glue” sung with playful gusto by a group of white-haired seniors is delightful and touching.

Pulp is a band which never went with the trends and produced their own unique sound and style, not unlike the city of Sheffield.  The elderly, the young, the outcast all collectively gained understanding and comfort from Pulp’s music. The farewell concert the band plays in Sheffield is interspersed within the daydream scenes of Sheffield, a quant portrait of music and regular life. I wanted more songs and was left with a bit of longing. As Cocker states, being on stage is the closest thing to living in the moment.  “NB: Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings.”

A few of my favorite songs:

Sunrise from the album We Love Life

Seductive Barry from the album This is Hardcore

Underwear from the album Different Class

 

Sound City

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In his directorial debut, musician Dave Grohl tells the story of the Los Angeles recording studio ‘Sound City’, which was the birthplace of several iconic rock albums.  The star of this documentary is the Neve console, an incredibly rare analog mixing console which produced a rich, wonderful sound. The recording studio is repeatedly referred to as dumpy by those who recorded there, yet the highest praise is heaped upon the Neve console.  The wide array of musicians surveyed for this documentary agree ‘Sound City’ may have been gritty, but the music which was created from the Neve was priceless.

Grohl’s high regard for this studio is very apparent; he practically leaps out of his seat with boyish glee many times while recounting stories of ‘Sound City’.  His personal praise is understandable, due to having recorded Nirvana’s Nevermind there, which propelled him into super-stardom.  A good deal of significant contemporary musicians, such as Fleetwood Mac, The Grateful Dead, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Rick Springfield, Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Bad Religion, Nine Inch Nails, Weezer, and many others recorded at this unassuming studio due to the analog recording offered by the Neve.  Not every album produced at ‘Sound City’ was as exceptional as Grohl believes, despite the passionate championing of the recordings. For example, as an avid Nine Inch Nails fans, I can assert with authority that the two albums which the band produced at ‘Sound City’(With Teeth and The Slip) though decent, do not possess the best sound fidelity(The Downward SpiralThe Fragile, and Year Zero) that the band has ever produced.

Despite Grohl’s possibly disproportionate praise of every recording which emanated from ‘Sound City’ and the Neve, his narrative arc of the studio ultimately closing due to digital recording is an important story.  In the early 1990s digital recording began to transform the landscape of the music industry.  The revolution in digital recording and editing resulted in less need for physical studio space and the corresponding analog equipment therein.  Pro Tools digital music editing software became affordable and preferred over analog studio recording, due to ease of use and economy.  Though everyone knows that analog music sounds better (compare a CD recording with a vinyl version; the vinyl will always sound richer), digital recording is for the masses, not the few and this is why it caught on.  Digital manipulation is a good thing on one hand, due to the democratizing of music production, but the experts who utilized analog production were fine artists who have been pushed to the wayside.

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Grohl was such a fan of the Neve board that he purchased it for an undisclosed amount of money (originally priced at $75,000 in the early 1970’s) when ‘Sound City’ closed its doors.  The Neve was installed in Grohl’s home studio, so that it could be available for musicians in the future who crave analog sound.  The end portion of the film showcases artists like Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield and even Paul McCartney recording in Grohl’s studio.  Though this film may be slightly apocryphal, witnessing the huge smile on Grohl’s face as he jams with his remaining Nirvana band mates and Sir McCartney is a true delight.

Happy Friday: Treme returns to HBO…eventually

treme_hbo1It has been announced that David Simon’s Treme will return to HBO in December 2013 for it’s final season.  Only five episodes of the New Orleans- after-Katrina program will be aired.  Read more here to find out the particulars.  Since the return has been pushed back again I urge you to borrow the previous seasons at your local library in the meantime and catch up, if you haven’t watched it yet.  I have a feeling that not many have watched this show, as I usually get blank stares when I mention it or people say, “It’s boring”. Admittedly, the show does not have the swiftest narrative, but it pays off if you stick with it.  The musical performances alone are enough to keep you watching; fantastic stuff. The cast is also exceptional; John Goodman, Khandi Alexander, Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters, Steve Zahn and my personal favorite Phyllis Montana LeBlanc.  Ms. LeBlanc appeared in Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts and told her story of the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  This is her first acting job and she knocks it out of the park. Treme is a little fish that swims in the sea of flash that dominates the serious television world.  But it is the prettiest of them all.


Old (Film) School: Musicals

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Originally written on October 24, 2002

In recent years, there has been a slight resurgence in musical films. The musical genre has gone through many changes throughout film history. It initially started as a grand spectacle not tied to any narrative. Later on, the musical was relegated to specific sequences throughout a film that helped to advance the narrative. Recently, three films have used musical conventions to varying degrees of effectiveness. The overly ambitious Moulin Rouge! used contemporary popular music in a tradition musical narrative. In Dancer in the Dark musical conventions were used, but in a massive repudiation of all that was known of musicals. In Hedwig and the Angry Inch conventions of traditional musicals are blended with a shocking story. The latter two films will be discussed for their ambitious and inventive use and redirection of musical conventions.

Though there are general rules of the musical form, much has changed over time in these films. Early in cinematic history, musicals were not part of a narrative. The musical was just a grand spectacle with popular music of the day. In 1952, the release of Singin’ in the Rain became a landmark film musical. The superb singing and dancing of the stars upped the ante of musicals. This film also used the convention of spontaneous singing. Though people do not generally start singing about their emotions in real life, in a musical this is seen as normal. In the case of Singin’ in the Rain the film follows actors who are meant to sing. Therefore their singing is not seen as so weird(Berliner, 2).

In 1960’s brought forth two notable musicals that are now classics. In 1961, West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, presented a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet. This film used spontaneous singing and masterful choreography to tell the story of the doomed lovers. This musical is a repudiation because it is not a happy story and leaves audiences running for the Kleenex. In 1964, My Fair Lady arrived on the screen. This is a lighthearted retelling of Pygmalion, which starred Audrey Hepburn. This musical also used spontaneous song as a narrative device, but has a happy ending. In this way, My Fair Lady is a repetition of musical form.

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In the 1970’s, musicals became more serious, more adult, so to speak, then previously. These musicals were not often appropriate for children, for they dealt with subject matter in a much more realistic manner. In 1972, Cabaret, starring Liza Minelli and Joel Grey, debuted. The film takes place in the Weimar Republic right before the Nazi takeover. This musical is an amplification because the musical sequences take place at the Kit Kat Club and are sometimes interspersed with scenes from “real” life. The singing only takes place because Sally Bowles is a singer at the club and the songs reflect her feelings and those of the Germans, in general. Another amplification is the character of the Master of Ceremonies, played by Joel Grey, who is an omniscient narrator who does not exist outside the club. He somehow knows the inner workings of Sally’s psyche and also embodies the distrust of all people towards the Nazis.

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In 1973, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar was adapted for screen. This musical is a repudiation of both the musical genre and the subject matter. This film portrays Jesus as not only the messiah, but as a rock star. Judas is both annoyed with Jesus’ flagrant disregard for authority but also his seeming need for the adulation of his followers. The traditional musical sequences take place on location, in Israel. The dancers, though obviously trained, all look like ragged hippies. The final sequences of the film are not joyful, but disturbing. Jesus is crucified while a frightening montage of portraits of the crucifixion are shown on screen. Then Jesus (possibly) goes to heaven and is sung to by the reviled Judas. In the end, a somber melody is played while the cast rides off into the desert, without Jesus on the bus. This scene is chilling and shows the lengths that director Jewison went to repudiate the musical form.

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In present cinema, the musical is fairly rare. That is why Dancer in the Dark is such an interesting example of a musical. One does not even know that this film is a musical until about forty minutes into the film. Up to this point in the film non-diegetic music does not exist. The only music comes from the rehearsals Selma participates in for a community production of The Sound of Music.

When the film turns into a musical, the audience is caught off guard. This shift is a massive repudiation on the part of the director, von Trier. The musical sequences are filmed in brilliant color and transport Selma into a fantasy world of the musical. This is her only escape from her awful life of drudgery and blindness.

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The musical scenes themselves are repudiations. In these scenes, Selma’s change of reality is so drastic, that they seem fairly magical. Right after she brutally murders Bill, he is dancing with her and forgives her. So does his wife and her son Gene. In reality, these people would never have forgiven Selma, but her musical fantasies help her cope with the stress of her doomed existence.

The scene when Selma is in isolation at the jail is a repudiation of musical conventions. In this scene she does not sing her own original tune. She sings My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music to distract her from the silence of the jail. This scene is disturbing because the audience can see that the artifice of musical-as-coping-mechanism is not working any more. The use of music from another prominent musical is also a strong repudiation.

The final sequence of Dancer is most disturbing and uses the convention of spontaneous song, without launching into a fantasy world. Selma is being hanged for the murder of Bill, and is apoplectic over her demise. When Kathy informs her that Gene has gotten the operation and will see, Selma’s attitude changes drastically. A calm washes over her face and she sings a haunting song about this “Not being the last song.” This is a reference to her distaste of the end of musicals when you see the crane shot that goes out the roof and you know the film is over. Unfortunately, for Selma, she is hanged and we see the camera crane up in just the motion she described. With her death and this camera movement, we know the film is over, for the audience and also Selma.

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The repudiations in this film are used to show the fallacy of musicals. Lars von Trier was aiming to show that musicals are quite fanciful and untrue. Selma came to America because of musicals and the hope that everything there would be as wonderful as in a musical. She unfortunately found that in America money and status mean more to people than hard work for the medical care of a child. This film is truly an indictment of American culture and the void it creates in people’s hearts.

Another recent musical that is a repudiation in content is Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This film follows the exploits of the transgendered rock singer Hedwig. Hedwig began life as a man and to escape Communist East Berlin, got a sex change operation to become a woman. While in America, Hedwig is left by her husband and then starts a musical career. This is when she meets with her muse, Tommy Gnosis, who breaks her heart and steals her songs.

The context in which musical sequences are used in this film are mainly performance. The songs that the band plays are of a narrative mode. We learn of Hedwig’s entire life through the songs. Wig in a Box is one of the performances that most closely mimics the style of traditional musicals (Seminara, 3). Hedwig has just been left by her husband and then her band enters her house as a grand sequence ensues. Her motor-home becomes a grand stage and the use of a sweeping crane shot in the end signals a throwback to old musicals.

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The story told in Hedwig is not of a usual musical variety. Very few, if any, musicals have centered on a transgendered subject. The only film to come close to this was Victor/Victoria from 1982. This film dealt with gayness in a joking and gay (no pun intended) way. Though the subject was unusual for a musical, Victor/Victoria was mainstream because Julie Andrews played the lead role. In Hedwig, the subject, though amusing at times, is also consciously serious.

This film is important because it offers a transgendered character who is sympathetic. Though Hedwig is often hassled for being transgendered, it is heartening to see that she will not apologize for herself. Hedwig is reminiscent of old time women performers who were oh-so-cool. When speaking of her past attempts at singing in public (though really just in front of his mother) she says, “I had tried singing once and they threw tomatoes so after the show I had a nice salad.” Or when the young Tommy Speck asks her if she had accepted Jesus Christ as her personal savior she replied, ” No, but I love his work.” These zany one-liners illustrate that Hedwig is a vibrant woman who can take anything that is thrown at her and make it entertaining and insightful.

The examination of the musical genre finds many discrepancies within the genre. The conventions of spontaneous singing and the use of song as a narrative advancing device are commonly present. The use of song as emotional expression is usual, especially in Dancer in the Dark. Yet these few modes do not seem to correlate to a common ground on what musicals are.

The stories of the musicals examined are incredibly diverse. They run the gamut from biblical drama to the suffering of poor, blind Selma. The main characteristic of musicals, then seems to be, not the repetitions, repudiations, or amplifications of the genre, but the strong characters presented in each. When speaking of melodrama, which can also be compared to musicals, Noel Carrol stated,

 “One important, recurring motif here is that the victim of melodramatic misfortune often accepts her suffering in order to benefit another, often at the expense of her own personal desires and interests. Sometimes, in fact the character’s misfortune is a result of the sacrifices she has made on behalf of others (Plantinga, 36).”

Most of the films examined follow this argument. Selma is no less dying for the sins of Bill, as Jesus is dying for the sins of the Israelites. Hedwig must endure constant identity crisis because of the choices that were made for her. This comparison can be made with most musicals, and shows the real link between them. Strong lead characters who must rise above diversity to meet their goals are the mainstay of musicals. The conventions of the musical lend themselves to telling stories about the most uncommon, yet interesting people whose stories would not be as vibrant without the musical mode.

References

Aloi, P. (2001) Little Seen, Long Remembered. Art New England, 22 no 6 3, 83 0/N. Retrieved on October 17,2002, from the Wilson Web database.

Arroyo, J. (2000) How do you solve a problem like von Trier? Sight & Sound, ns10 no 9 14-   16 S. Retrieved on October 17, 2002, from the Wilson Web database.

Berlinger, T. (2002) The Sounds of Silence: Songs on Hollywood Films since the 1960’s. Style, 36 no119-35. Retrieved on October 17, 2002, from the Wilson Web database.

Plantinga, C. and Smith, G.(Eds.) (1999). Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion.Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Seminara, 0.(2001) Music (Wo)Man. American Cinematographer, 82 no 7 20-7. Retrieved on October 17, 2002, from the Wilson Web database.