Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Clockwork Cabret

Speaking of Howard Shore, he has abandoned opera for scoring films again, which I suppose is a good thing; in Hugo, Martin Scorcese's preening look at early cinema via the graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret the music certainly impels the viewer to follow the action up and down ladders, into various alcoves and chambers almost all of which look like OSHA nightmares, with open gears whirling, flywheels spinning, ratchets ratcheting. This makes for exciting visuals that constantly threaten; the gears don't seem to have any teeth.
It was a Chekhov maxim that if you show a gun on the mantel in Act I, it had better go off before Act III ends. Perhaps it is a perverse streak in me that wanted to see someone's coat get caught in the works, or at least the threat of it. Why make such threatening machinery? While this is an engaging fairy-tale, the dangers in the film consistently are only implied, which made it somewhat of a cool relationship with the audience.

The quasi-villain, Gustav, is played by Sasha Baron Cohen for both laughs and terror, neither of which seems to come off well. He is initially seen chasing Hugo, which we gather is rather like chasing the white whale for him; like Javert, he is obsessed with catching the young boy who lives above the train station in the clockworks. We see that he has a knee that is assisted by a metal hinged frame, making him somewhat of a clockwork man himself. In the first chase through the train station he thrusts aside the waiting passengers and luggage-handlers, the street musicians and cafe-denizens. It's an ugly scene that isn't funny in the least, and cannot be taken seriously.

He is always accompanied by a real bete-noir, a Doberman Pinscher and is always threatening Hugo with the Orphanage. Then his leg brace is suddenly caught by a protruding step on the train and is dragged on his back, off-screen. Immediate confusion in the audience. Is this farce? Drama? A Cartoon? A Borat out-take? In all this woolly world of a 30's Paris Gare, doesn't he have anything better to do? Then -- in one later scene, we see him climbing up the wall on a very strange-looking ladder (again, an OSHA nightmare). Why? Where is he going? By this time the audience has given up trying to understand what he is doing.

Throughout the film, Gustav keeps reeling from being the villain to the comic relief, to a sorry foil, back to the villain again, which is awfully tedious. (I am not the only one who thinks so.)

And while I love Georges Méliès, somehow I feel that the veneration the film shows him is a one-trick pony. We keep coming back to the Man in the Moon shot from his Voyage dans la Lune, which I've always found disturbing by any account; yet to see it over and over says to me that Mr. Scorcese doesn't know as much as he thinks he does about it. (Maybe he does, but thinks that the audience can't take much more than this tiny slice of Méliès's output.) I did love enormously the flashback sequence that Méliès narrates, about his career, much of which is perfectly true and was heartstoppingly wonderful to see re-enacted--and the perfectly matted-in shot of Mme. Méliès in the final shot.

But doing research at the "Film Library" in Paris ? Had M. Langlois knew of this, I am sure it would have warmed his heart. This little library looks larger than the library of congress. And in 1932 or so, how much film history would there have been?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Leap from Mimi to Minnie

The excitement of seeing Puccini's La Fanciulla del West staged by the Met (which commissioned it a hundred years ago), lies in not only buying in, but revelling in the melodramatic structure devised by David Belasco. The rough-and-tumble miners out in California of the 1850's are by turns are buddies, adversaries, sentimentalists longing for their mom and dog back home, and rough justice administrators, ready to shoot or string up someone who irritates them. Belasco was the king of sentimental melodrama (witness his "Madame Butterfly" pre
viously, and the operatic outcome of that one); known as the 'Bishop of Broadway," wearing a clerical collar for no ecclesiastical reason, he was full of contradictions himself (he may have invented what we'd call today 'the casting couch').

And deftly sitting in the midst of these contradictions, Maestro Puccini has written the horse-opera of all time.

The problem with this opera, of course, is the Italian aesthetic viewing American culture. Later on, it would improve to give us the 'spaghetti western' -- which was still odd, but more understandable to an American audience. But back in 1911, Europe (as well as other cultures) admired the rough-and-tumble reports of what the Wild West was like, and fueled by the nascent cinema, saw the cowboy as a heroic figure, a stock in trade character, built-in for melodrama, with its outsider come to town, showdown with the opposing force, with wide open spaces, and the idea that one could claim something and have it be yours. You could stake a claim on a silver mine, or claim a woman as long as you could prove that you could hold on to her. Whether or not this reflects reality of the time is up for debate, but something makes up myths that are forged from grains of truth.

It was Jean Cocteau who so loved American Westerns in the cinema that he wrote a long, poetic review of "The Narrow Trail (1917)" that baffled Americans; not only was the Western trope being taken seriously but taken to be Art . So when Puccini's long cantilenas of operatic fervor wrapped around a homely tale of a girl with a heart of gold it truly was an example of cognitive dissonance that fights itself to work on the stage.