The Brothers Karamazov

August 30, 2008

I thought I’d try and get at least ONE post in here during the month of August…

I recently completed my first Dostoevsky novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Having finished War and Peace only a couple of months ago, another long, involved Russian novel seemed risky. Dostoevsky is nowhere as “easy” to read as Tolstoy. Karamazov involves lengthy discussions of religion and philosophy. The impatient, instant gratification American in me wished some of these had been edited out. But then it certainly would not have remained true to Dostoevsky’s vision.

Like War and Peace, Karamazov deals with complex themes. And what could have been a simple murder story turns into something far deeper in Dostoevsky’s hands. Thankfully, the Russian patrinomics were easier this time around. Perhaps I’m just getting used to reading Russian literature.

For me, the novel can be summed up in the Devil’s lecture to Ivan (in his dream):

    Precisely because we are of a broad, Karamazovian nature–and this is what I am driving at–capable of containing all possible opposites and of contemplating both abysses at once, the abyss above us, an abyss of lofty ideals, and the abyss beneath us, an abyss of the lowest and foulest degredation… Two abysses, two abysses, gentlemen, in one and the same moment–without that we are wretched and dissatisfied, our existence is incomplete.

The Brothers Karamazov was, for me, a difficult read. It’s not the kind of novel that encouraged me to keep reading, breathless to see what happened next. However, it certainly needs no endorsement from me as to its place in classic world literature.


The Red Shoes (1948)

July 25, 2008

The Red Shoes has probably been responsible for more little girls (and probably some little boys) wanting to slip on a pair of toe shoes than any other film. Based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, the film tells the story of tyrannical ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), up-and-coming ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), and the young composer she falls in love with (Marius Goring).

The film is a classic on every level and it all looks splendid under Jack Cardiff’s color cinematography. But it was Brian Easdale’s Oscar-winning score that raised the barre.

Though there are a couple of jazz source cues for restaurants and nightclubs (provided by Kenny Baker) and excerpts from famous ballets (including Swan Lake, Les Syllphides and Giselle), it is Easdale’s “Red Shoes Ballet” that is the focal point of the score. And when we get there, it is glorious.

It is fascinating to hear snippets of the ballet music throughout the film and hear how they all fit together in the seventeen-minute ballet. Shearer recalled in an interview that it was “exotic strange music, a quite advanced modernistic score. But good to dance to, and written with great rhythmic feeling.”

Aware of his own limitations, Easdale asked his producers to approach Sir Thomas Beecham to conduct the orchestra when the score was recorded, believing that the film would be better served by his superior skills. Beecham was impatient of the filmmaking process and simply came to the studio to record the music and left it to the dancers and director to make sure that they danced and filmed to HIS account of the music.

Staccato woodwinds and pizzicato strings convey the mystery of the red shoes. The music takes on a lilting quality when Vicky happily tries on the shoes for the first time. Also memorable is the love music and the chorale used for the funeral sequence.

At the emotional climax of the ballet as Victoria sees the figure of the ballet master (Leonide Massine) turns into Lermontov and then Julian (Goring), the eerie sound of the ondes martennot (which sounds much like a theremin) swoops up to the rafters, conveying the character’s confusion and madness.

Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly have stated that the ballet served as one of the inspirations for their own ballet at the end of An American in Paris three years later. In fact, if you compare the two, there are certain movements of people and camera angles that match and Easdale’s music even has touch of Gershwin here and there.

Though there are other scores nominated in 1948 that delve more into character and situation, there is no denying the impact of Easdale’s music on the The Red Shoes. The score also won a Golden Globe.

But Darling, I’m Your Auntie Mame!

July 24, 2008

From bestselling novel to hit Broadway play to hit Hollywood film, and back again as a hit Broadway musical and finishing as a reviled movie musical, the travels of Auntie Mame from page to stage and everywhere thereafter are exhaustively recounted in Richard Tyler Jordan’s But Darling, I’m Your Auntie Mame!

The book will especially appeal to fans of Rosalind Russell, the play, and its 1966 musical, Mame. However, Jordan skimps on his coverage of the celebrated 1958 film, the one property most of us are familiar with. If Jordan’s writing style isn’t particularly fresh, the book is still an entertaining read, full of just the right dosage of juicy gossip and behind-the-scenes and backstage stories.

Top 100 Books Checked Out of the Library But Not Read

July 24, 2008

In my trolling through the book blogs today while trying to keep my muscles from atrophying at work, I stole this interesting topic from Eleanor’s Trousers, who took it from another blog, who took it from another blog, and so on and so on… I have no idea where the list originated. Like Eleanor et al, I’ve bolded the books I’ve read and italicized the ones I’m interested in reading. And since I couldn’t tell from the earlier lists if they were actually in any order, my list is alphabetized.

Top 100 Books Checked Out of the Library But Not Read

The Aeneid
American Gods
Anansi Boys
Angela’s Ashes
Angels & Demons
Anna Karenina
Atlas Shrugged
The Blind Assassin
Brave New World
The Brothers Karamazov
The Canterbury Tales
The Catcher in the Rye
A Clockwork Orange
Cloud Atlas
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
A Confederacy of Dunces
The Confusion
The Count of Monte Cristo
Crime and Punishment
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
David Copperfield
Don Quixote

Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Foucault’s Pendulum
The Fountainhead
The God of Small Things
The Grapes of Wrath

Gravity’s Rainbow
Great Expectations
Guns, Germs, and Steel
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

The Historian
The Hobbit
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Iliad
In Cold Blood
Jane Eyre
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
The Kite Runner
Life of Pi
Love in the Time of Cholera
Madame Bovary
Mansfield Park
Memoirs of a Geisha
The Mists of Avalon
Moby Dick
Mrs. Dalloway
The Name of the Rose
Northanger Abbey
The Odyssey
Oliver Twist
The Once and Future King
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
One Hundred Years of Solitude
On the Road
Oryx and Crake
A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Poisonwood Bible
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Pride and Prejudice
The Prince
Reading Lolita in Tehran
The Satanic Verses
The Scarlet Letter
Sense and Sensibility
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Silmarillion
The Sound and the Fury
The Tale of Two Cities
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
The Time Traveler’s Wife
To the Lighthouse
Treasure Island
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Vanity Fair
War and Peace
Watership Down
White Teeth
Wuthering Heights
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

47 out of 100… It could be worse.  (God, I love lists!)

Since You Went Away (1944)

July 24, 2008

Producer David O. Selznick’s tribute to the homefront during World War II, Since You Went Away stars Claudette Colbert as a mother to daughters Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple, who must cope with her husband gone to war and find some meaning in her life beyond being a wife and mother.

Except for Colbert, the performances are a bit broad for today’s audiences. The film is far too sentimental for my tastes, but it must have packed quite a wallop upon its release in the midst of the war. Coating the film in a saccharine film of sweetness is Max Steiner’s score.

The film has more melodic material than any other Steiner score except perhaps Gone With the Wind, and that’s what ultimately hurts it—there’s just too much music. Steiner contributes his usual wealth of beautiful melodies, but the overuse hampers their effectiveness.

The main theme closely resembles the song “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” which had been made popular the year before by Bing Crosby. The theme conveys Colbert’s longing for her husband. In addition, Steiner borrowed the tender waltz “Together” from his 1937 score for A Star Is Born as the song for Colbert and her husband.

Typical of Steiner scores, most of the main characters have themes. A bluesy theme for Hattie McDaniel’s maid is heard in the muted trumpet, accompanied by bassoon and loping clarinets. A military trumpet call conveys General Smollett’s (Monty Woolley) irascible character. There is a lively theme for Temple’s rambunctuous Brig, and even a bass clarinet and contrabassoon melody for the bulldog, Soda. The most effective theme is the tender melody that accompanies the budding love affair between Jane (Jones) and Bill (Robert Walker).

The most famous scene in the film occurs as Jane says goodbye to Bill at the railroad station. The music heightens the poignancy and sadness of the scene, and eventually the music picks up steam as the train pulls out of the station with Jane running alongside it. What makes the scene even more touching was that Jones and Walker were at the end of their real-life marriage and finding it painful to act together, especially since Jones was being courted by Selznick. Though the scene has been parodied in numerous films ever since, it’s an undeniably heartbreaking moment that Steiner thankfully doesn’t overplay.

Steiner’s music for Since You Went Away is, as always, intensely melodic. However, a more judicious use of the music might have served the film better. Still, just “good” Steiner is better than most composer’s finest. And Since You Went Away is, if not great, very “good.”

The Song of Bernadette (1943)

July 23, 2008

In The Song of Bernadette, Jennifer Jones stars in her film debut as Bernadette Soubirous, a young peasant girl who has a vision of a “beautiful lady” in a city dump at Lourdes. Her visions make her the ridicule of the town until a spring miraculously appears whose waters have healing powers. Based on Franz Werfel’s bestselling novel, the film gave hope to audiences everywhere at a time when the surrounding war had people questioning their beliefs.

Jones’ wide-eyed innocence is ably supported by the always excellent Anne Revere as her mother and the imperious Gladys Cooper as a nun who doesn’t believe Bernadette because she hasn’t “suffered enough.” But what makes this film truly soar on the wings of faith, in addition to Jones’s performance, is Alfred Newman’s heavenly score.

There is no better example of the legendary “Newman strings” than in this score. Coupled with an angelic women’s chorus for the apparition scenes, as the title card says, “for those who believe, no explanation is necessary.”

Werfel originally recommended his friend Igor Stravinsky to compose the score. With producer Darryl Zanuck away at war and unable to veto the idea, Newman, who was head of the 20th Century Fox music department, let Stravinsky compose the score. The music was rejected but Stravinsky later turned his own “Apparition of the Virgin” music into the middle movement of his Symphony in Three Movements.

Bernadette’s theme consists of four ascending notes which, according to Jon Burlingame in his commentary for the DVD, is “as if she’s gazing toward heaven.” The tender melody in 3/4 time for Antoine (William Eythe) and Bernadette speaks their unspoken affection for each other. Newman employs the same melody later in the film as the Dean (Charles Bickford) warms up to Bernadette’s story.

Without a doubt, the scene that probably won Newman the Oscar is Bernadette’s first vision. As Newman once stated:

    “My first reaction to the scene was to ‘hear’ it in terms of the great religious experiences that had previously been interpreted by Wagner in his Grail music and Schubert in his ‘Ave Maria,’ which is a terrifying standard to have to approach. I first wrote for the scene in this vein but I wasn’t happy with anything I did. It then occurred to me that I was wrong in thinking of the scene as a revelation of the Virgin Mary. I read back over Werfel’s book and found that Bernadette had never claimed to have seen anything other than a ‘beautiful lady.’ I now wrote music I thought would describe this extraordinary experience of a young girl who was neither sophisticated enough nor knowledgeable enough to evaluate it as anything more than a lovely vision. With this in mind, I thought the music should not be pious or austere or even mystical, or suggest that the girl was on the first step to sainthood. She was at that point simply an innocent, pure-minded peasant girl, and I took my musical cues from the little gusts of wind and the rustling bushes that accompanied the vision, letting it all grow into a swelling harmony that would express the girl’s emotional reaction. And it was important that it express her reaction, not ours.”

With the use of flutes to suggest the breeze, oboes for the birds, and strings for the rustling bushes, Newman paints an orchestra of nature until the violins and chorus ascend while the basses descend–as if the heavens were parting–and the trumpets herald the appearance of the “lady.” As Newman stated, “The theme was fragile and yet loaded with dynamite.”

Film Music Notes stated that though the “score offers nothing original to film music, it vitalizes and enriches the story and adds to its mystic and inspirational appeal and value.” Sigmund Speath, in the same magazine, wrote: “Newman’s music has a consistently ehtereal, mystic glamour, conveying a true sincerity of religious feeling.”

The Song of Bernadette was the second soundtrack to be commercially recorded (on an 4-disc 78 rpm Decca release), following Miklos Rozsa’s The Jungle Book in 1942.

In a career that spanned over thirty-five years and countless classic scores, The Song of Bernadette remains Alfred Newman’s crowning achievement and heavenly music indeed.

Now, Voyager (1942)

July 22, 2008

Now, Voyager is one of the great romantic melodramas in the Warner Brothers’ canon and features a classic Bette Davis performance. Davis stars as Charlotte Vale, a Boston spinster under her mother’s tyrannical thumb (the imperious Gladys George), who blossoms under the tutelage of psychiatrist Claude Rains and finds love with married man Paul Henreid.

The performances are uniformly excellent but you won’t be able to take your eyes off of Bette. Anchoring the shipboard romance is Max Steiner’s lush, passionate score.

If you’re looking for the “typical” Steiner sound, this score is it: dramatic strings, memorable melodies, and wall-to-wall music. As for the often carped about wall-to-wall comment, when the music is this good, it’s hard to take it to task. Without someone like Steiner at the podium, the drama and romance wouldn’t have been half as effective.

The theme for Jerry’s daughter is sweet and innocent. Steiner gives the score a hint of Latin flavor as Charlotte and Jerry land in Rio de Janeiro.

But the most famous melody in the score is the love theme, first heard when Charlotte meets Jerry (Henreid) aboard the ship. It’s pure Steiner all the way–sweeping, tender and unapologetically romantic. And who can forget that final scene as Charlotte and Jerry light one last double cigarette and Steiner goes for the tear ducts one last time with that memorable theme.

The tune was so popular that in 1943 lyrics were added by Kim Gannon and turned into the hit song, “It Can’t Be Wrong.” The recording by Dick Haymes went to #1 and stayed on the charts for nineteen weeks. The song was later covered by such diverse artists as Ivy Benson and Her All Girls Band and even Frank Sinatra. Three years later, Steiner used the popular theme again in Mildred Pierce.

Film Music Notes praised the score as “beautfiul from the very outset…Once again Steiner assists the mood and dramatic intent by giving this picture a symphonic musical background of impressive strength.”

Now, Voyager is one of Steiner’s finest scores. Even with some other fine nominees in the mix, such as Miklos Rozsa’s The Jungle Book and Alfred Newman’s The Black Swan, nobody could hold a candle–or a cigarette–to Steiner this year.