" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

CULTURAMA: 12 great French composers

I don’t despise the French,

Allow me to apologize. I know it’s pretty standard to hate them. They’ve always been good to me, though – very tolerant of my gangster-film French and American enthusiasm.

I particularly love their classical music. Normally I don’t ascribe to the virtue of one nation’s culture over another, but something about their music is special. Maybe it’s the dynamic tension between the huge cultural institutions and oversight France produces, and the counterbalancing impulse not only to rebel against conventions, but to disregard them entirely. Keeps things fresh.

Sometimes this combination of gutsiness and playfulness can backfire, leading to thin, arch work that doesn’t resonate. Still, the batting average is pretty damn good, and the dozen listed here are consistently rewarding to hear.

Here’s a subjective list of my 12 favorites. Please note that there are many that almost made it, and are certainly worth listening to – Halevy, de Machaut, Delerue, Auric, des Prez, and more. I am counting out Chopin and Stravinsky – each has typed himself unmistakably as a son of his country of origin. AND there are many French composers that drive me NUTS – Gounod, Massenet, Rameau, Lalo, Lully, Ravel, Boulez . . .

So here we go.

Marin Marais (1656-1728)

Master of the viola de gamba, he was not afraid of complexity and dissonance, and created conceptual pieces such as “Le Labyrinthe,” “La Gamme,” and the “Tableau de l’Operation de la Taille.” A busy guy, he had 19 children. His life was horribly misrepresented in the film “Tout les Matins du Monde.”

QUALIFYING ANECDOTE: He hid under his mentor Sainte-Colombe’s special practice treehouse in order to steal his bowing moves. The little sneak.


Sonnerie de St-Genevieve du Mont-de-Paris
Suite from “Alcyone”
Le Labyrinthe

Francois Couperin (1668-1733)

Called Couperin le Grand to distinguish him from his musical relatives. It’s unknown whether this bothered them tremendously. An adventurous keyboardist who fused French and Italian styles and who vastly extended the expressive quality of the harpsichord. His work inspired Bach, Brahms, Richard Strauss, and Ravel.

QUALIFYING ANECDOTE: To sell some of his early sonatas, he packaged them under a fake Italian name – Italian composition was all the rage and a French composer of the time couldn’t get arrested. They were wildly successful.


Pieces de clavecin
Two Mass settings for organ

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

For some reason, most classical music lovers refer to the “three B’s” – Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. What about Berlioz? He was the first French Romantic. He invented modern orchestration (his ideal orchestra was 467 strong and included 30 pianos, 30 harps, and 12 cymbals); he was a masterful conductor; incredibly literate, a devotee of Virgil, Goethe, and Shakespeare, his criticism and memoirs are still instructive and enjoyable.

But somehow he squeezed “Symphonie Fantastique,” “Harold en Italie,” the song cycle “Les nuits d’ete,” “Messe solennelle,” “L’enfance du Christ,” “La damnation de Faust,” and the magnificent grand opera “Les Troyens” – the last so grand that it wasn’t performed uncut until 147 after its composition.

QUALIFYING ANECDOTE: Always falling in love, he basically stalked his first wife, actress Harriet Smithson, for years until she gave in. It didn’t work out. He planned to murder a fiancée that rejected him. Five years before he died, he wrote: “My contempt for the folly and baseness of mankind, my hatred of its atrocious cruelty, have never been so intense. And I say hourly to Death: ‘When you will.’ Why does he delay?” Not a happy guy.


Les Troyens
Symphonie Fantastique

Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)

The funniest of all classical composers, Offenbach could mock anything and get away with it. He composed more than 100 comic works; his final work, “Les contes d’Hoffman,” was decidedly serious but still delightful.


Orphee aux enfers
Le belle Helene
Les contes d’Hoffman

Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

“Carmen.” That’s all you need to know. The birth of real passion and verismo in opera with an unforgettable and complex central figure.


Jeux d’enfants
Symphony in C

Gabriel Faure (1845-1924)

Although he is better-known for his somewhat fluffy “Requiem” and “Pelleas et Melisande,” his piano pieces are fascinating, as are his songs, and chamber pieces. His work is clear, unified, as graceful as falling water. He was a marvel at the organ, but despised it, and left behind no compositions for it.

QUALIFYING ANECDOTE: He lost a job at a regional church as its organist when he showed up to play for Sunday mass still in his evening clothes from the night before, having never gone to bed.


Chanson d’Eve
Piano Trio
Works for solo piano

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

“For better or worse Claude Debussy must be seen as perhaps the most influential figure in twentieth-century music.” – David Mason Greene. His ears, perched on his bumpy oversized head could hear what others could not, and got it down on paper.

QUALIFYING ANECDOTES: He was, according to Mary Garden, who originated the role of Melisande in “Pelias et Melisande,” a “very, very strange person.” His funeral procession moved through the abandoned streets of Paris during a German bombardment of World War I. He was played, oddly enough, by Oliver Reed in Ken Russell’s fanciful documentary “The Debussy Film.” His wife had previously been Faure’s mistress.


Images for orchestra
Etudes for piano
La Mer

Erik Satie (1866-1925)

A free spirit, he is still ahead of his time. His work, embossed with absurd titles such as “Cold Dreaming,” “Four Flabby Preludes,” and “Desiccated Embryos” was alternately brilliant deconstructions of staid musical forms, and new, unbound work that didn’t obey harmony, rhythmic pattern, or any other musical norm. Ravishingly beautiful.

QUALIFYING ANECDOTES: He purchased 12 identical gray corduroy suits, and simply rotated through them day after day. He made sketches of imaginary buildings and kept them in a filing cabinet. Some of his best compositions were found and published after his death – they had fallen behind the back of his piano and Darius Milhaud found them there after Satie’s death.


Works for piano

Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957)

Like many of the nationalist composers of his time – Bartok, Janacek, Kodaly, Dvorak, and Smetana – Canteloube was a much a musicologist as a composer, traveling and researching regional, vernacular music with vigor. His “Songs from the Auvergne” took nearly 30 years to compile and complete.


Chants d’Auvergne

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)

One of the most knowledgeable, conductors, and teachers in history, Boulanger was an incredibly gifted interpreter of music. She trained, among others, Copland, Glass, Gardiner, Quincy Jones, Carter, Barenboim, and Piazzola. In her own right, her delicate songs and chamber pieces are wonderful – and unjustly overlooked.


3 Pieces for Cello and Piano
Fantasy for piano and orchestra

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Absolutely true to himself, Poulenc could write both the most absurd and transgressive works (“Les mamelles de Tiresias,” in English “The Tits of Tiresias,” after Apollinaire, whom Poulenc met shortly before the latter’s war-wound-related death) and the most movingly spiritual (“The Dialogues of the Carmelites,” “Litanies a la vierge noire”). “I wanted music to be clear, healthy, and robust,” he wrote.


The Dialogues of the Carmelites
Les mamelles de Tiresias

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Still far ahead of us. His slippery, spiky, otherworldly journeys can drive you mad, but if you sit down and push through them, the listening will reward you. He could and did absorb Western and non-Western styles; like a sculptor, he subordinated the elements he needed and used them to create a singular voice. He was a masterful organist. His study of birds led to many of his most striking compositions, such as “Oiseaux Exotiques” and “Catalogue d’oiseaux.” He was imbued with a profound sense of God, and this intense spirituality permeated his meditations, such as his “Concert for the End of Time,” his nature studies such as “From the Canyon to the Stars,” and opera and oratorio such as his epic “Saint Francoise d’Assise.” He said, “I want to write music that is an act of faith, a music that is about everything without ceasing to be about God.”


Catalogue d’oiseaux
Des Canyons aux etoiles . . .
Saint-Francois d’Assise

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

CULTURAMA: "Much Ado About Nothing" at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival: Perfect fools

Comedy is hard. Shakespeare is hard. Therefore, Shakespearean comedy carries the highest degree of difficulty possible, for performers and audience members alike.

Luckily, Shakespeare’s comedies are, by and large, actually funny. It takes an astute director and ensemble to flesh out the promise of those gags and the real feelings couched in that antiquated language. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of the romantic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” is blessed with that – and it’s triumphantly hilarious, one of the best shows they’ve staged in recent memory.

This show will cure anyone with Shakespeare-itis. You know if you’re afflicted – your eyes begin to roll back into your head when you hear iambic pentameter, doublets and hose give you the conniptions, and you fall into a narcoleptic coma well before the end of Act V.

Well, there are reasons the Bard is the Bard. He knows how to tell a story, he knows how to write dialogue, his characters are lively and intense. No amount of horrible English classes or other forced indoctrinations to his work will change that.

At CSF, everyone from director Lynne Collins down to the humblest supernumerary is focused on the same thing – making us laugh. They succeed splendidly. Collins has set her ensemble free: free to find the funny and work it. The dreaded Shakespearean language barrier is vaporized; you can follow the action with the same kind of relaxed clarity the players being to their performances.

The production is set in summery Spain in the mid-1930’s, a time when liberalism and conservative values warred bloodlessly, until the region tipped into civil war at the end of the decade. The warm, bright colors of Andrea Bechert’s attractive, straightforward set, anchored around a functional fountain in its center, give the proceedings a cartoonish flush.

The gist of the matter is love lost, found and confused. Geoff Kent and Karen Slack are perfectly matched as the witty, warring Benedick and Beatrice, two madcap personalities who are tricked into revealing their true feelings for each other. Neither is afraid to bend the play’s language, play with its rhythm, bring the audience into their confidence, or break up a speech with an apt bit of business or touch of physical comedy.

The play’s second, “serious” couple, Hero and Claudio are equally well-drawn by Caitlin Wise and Ben Bonenfant. The paterfamilias of the piece, Leonato, is played so adeptly and with such gravitas by Sam Gregory that he seems to gather the moral focus of the piece. Whether the trickster or the tricked as the plot demands, he radiates authority and emotion in clear and ringing tones.

Steven Patterson is just great as Don Pedro, the brother-in-arms of Benedick and Claudio. His rough-hewn, teasing soldier’s wit is pitched perfectly. The biggest surprise of the night is Michael Kane. He begins the evening as the peevish villain of the piece, Don John (his agonized melancholy is a great choice for the character) and then reappears, unrecognizably, as the affable, demented and stooped constabulary sidekick, Verges.

His crime-fighting partner is Chip Persons, as wonderfully daft a Dogberry as I can remember seeing. Clad in beret, luxuriant mustachios, and crossed bandoliers, he murders the language and the crowd with his stylized gestures and blissful ignorance.

It takes great diligence to strip away the layers of scholarship, and the intimidating reputation of Shakespeare, to get to the essence of his work and make a compelling show out of it. “Much Ado” does. Anyone who needs a laugh should snap up tickets for this show as soon as possible.

"Hell's Hinges"

This analysis first appeared in Senses of Cinema in June of 2005.

Hell’s Hinges
(1916, 64 min.)
Directed by: Charles Swickard, (William S. Hart, Clifford Smith)
Written by: C. Gardner Sullivan
Produced by: Thomas H. Ince
Cinematography: Joseph H. August

It seems highly unlikely now that William S. Hart could ever have achieved the iconic status he possesses in cinema culture. Even during his heyday, he was viewed by some critics and moviegoers as stolid, horse-faced, with an emotional disposition of slight but disquieting constipation (1).
However, an aggregation of personal qualities and external circumstances propelled him to the forefront of the national consciousness. In 68 films created over a mere 11-year span (1914-1925), he crafted an authoritative and compelling archetype, and created a moral/mythic context for film Westerns that still defines the genre today.
“Hell’s Hinges” is his most emblematic film, one whose simple power and apposite impulses transcends its most egregious clichés. It is at once reactionary and revolutionary, a film in which deeply felt piety gives its bearer license to unleash Armageddon – an emblematic American gesture that would find its way into other genres, and even invade the historical realm.
Like many who upheld the mythos of America’s Old West, Hart was an Easterner. He was born in Newburgh, New York, in 1864. His father was an itinerant miller, and his impoverished family traveled widely during his childhood. Some of this time was spent in the West and Midwest, at the tail end of the frontier period.
Though it is likely that his contact with this rapidly vanishing culture was glancing and superficial, the shy, daydreaming youth later inflated these memories, beefing them up into a recalled childhood that teemed with intimate contacts with Indians and famous frontiersmen. Hart would parlay this sense of anointment into a weighty sense of self-importance and authenticity in his work.
Hart spent nearly 25 years on American stages, working himself up into the leading ranks of Broadway performers. Adept at Shakespeare, he made his name as the original Messala in the first theatrical version of “Ben-Hur”. Then, in 1905, he filled his first Western role – that of the villainous Cash Hawkins in a production of “The Squaw Man.” From then on, “audiences … associated him with cowboy characters.”(2)
In 1913, Hart was on tour in Cleveland, Ohio, when he saw his first Western film. “It was awful! … I was an actor and I knew the West … The opportunity that I had been waiting for years to come was knocking at my door.”(3) Within a year, Hart set out for California and the movie business.
By the time “Hell’s Hinges” was made, Hart had appeared in 25 films, and captured the audience’s imagination, becoming one of film’s first genuine stars. In this, he was fortunate to fall in with pioneer film producer, and former fellow thespian, Thomas H. Ince, who applied the techniques of Ford’s assembly line to the nascent movie industry, cranking out a massive amount of product in an efficient manner – presaging the Hollywood system (4).
Given his head (and grossly underpaid) by Ince, Hart brought new qualities to the Western, which previously had been known best for chases, scenes of gunplay, and the broad emotionalism of actors such as “Broncho Billy” Anderson (another New Yorker, nee Max Aronson). Although the theme of the bad man achieving redemption through sacrifice was not unknown in the Western, Hart’s restrained gravity on screen gave new weight to as-yet-uncliched figure of the domesticated outlaw.
Hart’s subdued intensity was a marked change from the over-the-top histrionics of his predecessors. His practiced skill at manipulating an audience was honed through his incessant film work. Though his hamminess breaks through at times, the essential, “manly” stillness of his screen persona would be imitated by countless followers – most notably John Wayne.
Hart’s performances were also imbued with the sentiments of the Victorian era – giving a strangely stilted, almost Puritanical bent to even his most vicious characters. In the Hart universe, women are either catspaws of evil or vessels of light, to be spurned or worshipped. Children are devices to rouse pity and inspire sacrifice. In “Hell’s Hinges,” the simple cowboy film becomes a vehicle for an epic confrontation between good and evil.
The actions of men, or their tragic inability to act, dominate here. “Hinges” opens with the depiction of an anti-hero in unique garb – that of a minister. “Bob” Henley (Jack Standing), seen preaching to an assembly of adoring women, is characterized in the film’s intertitles as a mother-dominated, “weak and selfish youth.”
His superiors see seem as unable to stand up to the harsh demands of a city parish, and decide to send him West, “where the people live simply and close to God.” This is in keeping with the common cultural assumption of the time that the West was a more “real,” elemental place, simpler yet more challenging, a place where Darwinian processes could work themselves out unhindered. (Henley, told of this decision, fantasizes briefly about ministering to some lovely, flirtatious senoritas.)
Accompanied by his not-so-subtly-named sister Faith (Clara Williams), Henley finds himself in, not Hell, but a remarkable facsimile thereof. (The brother/sister relationship eerily echoes Hart’s own life. Frequently engaged, briefly married, he spent most of his life with his sister Mary Ellen, who jealously tended him. (5)) An introductory gunfight, taken in an overhead long shot, emphasizes the chaotic, antlike scurrying of the town’s inhabitants.
As was common in the Old West, Placer Centre – better known as Hell’s Hinges – is dominated by the pleasure palace of Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth), who is characterized with casual racism as part Mexican, part snake. As the town’s Mephistopheles, he will bring all his evil talents to bear on destroying Christianity and its followers.
Hart is Miller’s confederate Blaze Tracey, who is indicated as wicked mainly by smoking, drinking, and grinning. (He shoots up a tin can that’s been decorated with a caricature of the new preacher – a nice metaphor for the relative flimsiness of Henley’s character.)
Tracey’s resolve to run the preacher out of town is stymied by his instant attraction to Faith. His poleaxed gaze at her is accompanied by the intertitle: “One who is evil, looking for the first time on that which is good.” At that point, the film’s double set of parallel actions kicks into gear. Henley’s fall is inevitable, as is Tracey’s rise and redemption. Later, in contrast to Henley’s salacious earlier fantasy, Tracey has a vision of the proverbial old rugged cross.
Like a war campaign, the town’s two sides invade each others’ territories. Miller’s soused and rowdy patrons swarm into the barn in which the town’s churchly folk, the “petticoat brigade,” hold their first service – until Tracey forces them out at gunpoint. Later, when Henley is seduced by Miller’s Dolly (Louise Glaum), the church folk, led by Tracey, march into Miller’s saloon as a body and retrieve their fallen shepherd. (One of the strongest shots in the picture is an angled shot that of Tracey marching down the main street toward the camera with the unconscious Henley draped over his shoulders.)
The spiritual coterie builds its church, with Tracey’s help – his conversion process is punctuated by a simple, affecting scene of him reading the Bible, cigarette in one hand, bottle of whiskey at his side. Ironically, Henley’s turn to drink renders him a near-imbecile, and when the town rowdies shout, “To hell with the church! Let’s burn her down!”, Henley gleefully snatches up a torch and leads the way.
A pitched battle results in Henley’s death, the expulsion of the faithful, and the immolation of the church – in one of the film’s many powerful images, Faith weeps over her brother’s corpse in the foreground, while behind, smoke boils and hurtles, wind-whipped, from the isolated figure of the burning house of worship.
The final sequence is undoubtedly what propelled the film to eventual inclusion on America’s prestigious National Film Registry in 1994. “Killin’ mad, and with a gun in each hand,” Tracey, who’s been conveniently out of town during the battle, hears of its outcome from a ragged band of refugees (what happens to the expelled “petticoat brigade”? we are never informed) returns to settle the score.
His extermination of Miller is offhand – blink and you’ll miss it. Filled with a new-found, (self) righteous vengeance, Tracey becomes a bloodthirsty, vindictive embodiment of both the “social gospel,” a popular 19th-century kind of spiritual Manifest Destiny, and its coefficient, “muscular Christianity,” which basically gave its proponents license to whip the tar out of scoffers, nonbelievers, and those of other faiths.
Rivetingly, Tracey backs the saloon’s ne’er-do-wells into a corner and shoots down the oil lamps, turning the building into an inferno (“Hell needs this town, and it’s goin’ back, and goin’ damn quick!”) Shooting down those who try to bolt, he holds the men at gunpoint until the last possible second, then allows them to flee. Remaining behind, Tracey then seems to break focus, wandering distractedly, the flames leaping up behind him. Some judicially placed flares of combustible material to the rear give Hart a hellish nimbus. It’s almost as though his descent into violence has temporarily transformed him into a demon as well, later echoed in Eastwood’s similar climax in 1992’s “Unforgiven.”
Hart strides out of the building and into the streets, moving toward the camera robotically, a death-dealing machine, like some ur-Terminator. Cowpokes and dance-hall girls scatter amid the swirling smoke, “like vague demons in some primitive hell,” (6) as the entire town burns to the ground. There is redemption for Hart alone, and it’s savage. In a peculiar foreshadowing of the Vietnam experience, he destroys the village in order to save it.
No wonder so many claimed the director’s credit for the film – although Charles Swickard is officially credited, it is generally acknowledged that Hart directed at least most of the film, with the help of long-time assistant Clifford Smith. Ince took credit for helming the fire scenes, (7) but the extraordinary strength of the film’s compositions can probably credited to Colorado-born photographer Joe August, who shot over 40 of Hart’s films and went on to be an Oscar-winning cinematographer of such Hollywood classics as “The Informer,” Laughton’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and “Gunga Din.” (8) The climactic fire sequence was shot “day for night,” although prints without the colored gels that indicate day and night scenes make this difficult to remember.
At film’s end, Tracey takes up Henley’s body, and Faith’s hand, leading her into the distance. Though there is a conventional happy ending in sight, what’s gone before has tainted it, and thrown the film’s premise out of joint. Slaughter and wholesale destruction is sanctified by religion … or is it? In this wildly popular film, the audience got to have its cake and eat it too – a dangerous addiction that would crop up, for better or worse, again and again in American cinema.

-- Brad Weismann

Brad Weismann, a cinephile and former comedian, is a journalist, arts writer and playwright who lives with his wife and children in Boulder, Colorado, USA.

1. As cited in “Shooting Cowboys and Indians,” A.B. Smith, pg. 183

2 Smith, pg. 160

3. “My Life East and West,” Hart, pgs. 198-199

4. “The Complete Films of William S. Hart,” Diane Kaiser Koszarski, pg. xv

5. “William S. Hart: Projecting the American West,” Ronald L. Davis, passim.

6. “The Western,” Fenin and Everson, pg. 91

7. “The War, the West and the Wilderness,” Kevin Brownlow, pg. 270

8. Arthur Edelson, www.theasc.com/magazine/aug04/founding/page3.html