Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora); Dir. G. W. Pabst. 1929. 100mins. Louise Brooks, Fritz Kortner, Francis Lederer, Carl Goetz, Gustav Diessl.

I had the privilege of listening to pianist/composer Steve Sterner accompany the Film Forum’s showing of this treasure from the end of the silent era. Shot in Berlin, the film is a dizzying allegory of the mayhem wrought by the over-the-top allure of a carefree young woman. As the film opens we see Lulu (Brooks) languidly throwing herself about a plush apartment with a revolving door of male admirers spanning three generations, each with a different plan for this bewitching chanteuse. Carl Goetz’s tipsy Schigolch aims to put her in a trapeze act, while the lovestruck Dr. Schön (Kortner) and his equally enchanted son Alwa (Lederer) cast her in a stage revue. The backstage antics of this scene are a hilarious stream of petulant foot-stamping, the frantic scurrying of a wide-eyed stage manager, and steamy dressing room seduction. More innocent and endearing than a Madame Bovary, and yet somehow more beguiling than a Sister Carrie, her morality is so compartmentalized as to be almost non-existent. We see her flipping through a catalog of decadent, racy flapper dresses, and she eventually gets to model, in turn, a bridal gown, mourning weeds, and the rags of an exiled fugitive gamine, though this latter sign of her demise cannot dampen the spirits of this ebullient party girl. Pabst’s camera deals with Brooks and her willowy beauty on her own flighty terms, without the suspended facial close-ups that treated her contemporary Greta Garbo as a porcelain icon rather than flesh-and-blood woman. Anyone who longs to see the screen equivalent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s jazz-era gentlemen laid low by impossibly headstrong, demanding vixens should keep an eye out for screenings of this erotic classic.

Mystery Train; Dir. Jim Jarmusch. 1989. 113mins. Masatoshi Nagase, Youki Kudoh, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Cinque Lee, Nicoletta Braschi, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi.

Die-hard Elvis fans might find this cooky-noir tribute to the King unsettling, but Jarmusch succeeds in capturing the simple, elegant seediness of Memphis in three droll, loosely-connected tales.  Centered around a cheap hotel run by a flamboyantly-dressed clerk (Hawkins), this film, more than any other I’m aware of, anticipates Tarantino’s ideas of cinematic cool, including sliced & diced chronology, cavalier gunplay, and the humorous skirting of racial and linguistic boundaries.  The art-house ethos thrives on this sort of a screenplay, devoid of strong leading characters and rigid plotlines, so that the mundane flavor of real life can be toyed with by a gallery of losers and budget travelers.  The initial vignette is in Japanese without subtitles, but if we pay attention we can pick out names like Carl Perkins and Elvis from the smoke-filled dialogue of Jun & Mitsuko (Nagase and Kudoh).  Jarmusch would go on to explore the theme of unlikely cross-cultural pollination in films like Ghost Dog.  Visually, the director excels in framing seemingly ordinary events (a purchase at a magazine stand, breaking glass, a guided tour in the tiny Sun Studios), and then stepping back and allowing their core absurdity to distill at it’s own pace.  The vintage Rock-a-billy soundtrack is the perfect complement to the gritty nostalgia of a decaying American city.  Star performances include Nicoletta Braschi as a slightly confused Italian widow, and Steve Buscemi in perhaps the first of many roles as the obligatory recipient of gruesome bodily harm.

Ladri di biciclette; Dir. Vittorio De Sica. 1948. Lamberto Maggiorani.

Most urban residents who have a bike stolen today have to treat it as a loathsome right of passage.  But to Antonio Ricci (Maggiorani), his bicycle is his meal ticket, and also a means of humble pride for a man trying to raise a small family.  Post-war Rome is seething with unemployed men and Antonio lands a job posting bills on walls.  When the inevitable crime occurs, he must endure a Joyce-like Odyssey through the city on foot, his young son at his side, trying in vain to pick out his bicycle from the dizzying array of thousands wheeling through the streets.  Indeed, his journey takes him to a brothel, an alms-house, and an unsympathetic police department, all unmistakable signs of a fractured, unruly urban space.  Much of the film is a stark tableau of isolation viewed from different angles.  Rain forces the protagonists to press up against a wall, the roar from a nearby soccer stadium emphasizes their exclusion from the realm of leisure, and even the foreign chatter of German religious pilgrims underscores their disconnection from the bustle of everyday city life.  Antonio’s stoic bearing gradually breaks down, his muscles visibly straining in his neck and jaw, as desperation severs him even from his son.  The great source of this film’s unresolved tension is a balance between the impotence of the protagonist and the cruelty of his circumstances; you can’t blame either one entirely, and so sympathy with Antonio is tenuous at best.  From the outset, when he is shown sitting apart from the bustle of the job queue, we’re shown that a taciturn character has little chance where survival of the fittest is the governing rule of life.  There is poignancy on the level of his marriage to a patiently suffering wife, and his tender efforts not to disappoint his son.  In his dealings with the system, though, where his fate is ultimately decided, it is the mob versus the outcast, and the ease with which he is brutally discarded from the current of life casts a chilling gloom over any sense of hope.

De Profundis: The Deep End – Yale in New York closes season with music for low instruments

Bassoon, trombone, tuba, double bass, cello – in many musical textures, low voices are employed as a harmonic foundation, while a violin or soprano steals the spotlight and carries a melody.  Tonight at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall, Yale students, alumni and faculty demonstrate what instruments with low registers can do on their own.  From the Baroque era to our own new century, composers have employed bass and tenor voices to create music ranging from jocose to somber, crafting melodies which test the limits of these instruments’ ranges, and even dispensing with melodies altogether in a profusion of experimental timbres.  It must be a great privilege for students and recent alumni to perform with such accomplished faculty as bassoonist Frank Morelli, but also the ultimate incentive for musical discipline and maturity, which were on full display, though without detracting from the festive, sometimes tongue-in-cheek atmosphere of this exclusive club of musical characters.

Mozart’s Duo for bassoon and cello in B-flat major, K. 292 starts simply enough with the notes of the tonic triad, and as the instruments move either in parallel thirds or independently of one another, it is refreshing to hear the bassoon with the space to express itself removed from a thick orchestral texture where it often doubles another instrument.  Morelli reached up into the high tenor range effortlessly and made good use of the hall, a great space for this throaty timbre.  His vibrato was very smooth and natural.  He and faculty cellist Ole Akahoshi proved this to be no mere novelty piece, but a full expression of Mozart’s expressive grace.

Penderecki’s Serenata for three cellos (2007) was composed for his wife’s birthday.  Opening with hesitant pizzicato notes, the theme then emerges with the first five notes of a chromatic scale, thus: 5-4-1-2-3-4.  A climax is reached with bowing so violent that it resonates more as slashing and grating than as tone.  Akahoshi, alum Arnold Choi and student Sungchan David Chang ended the piece with an aggressive minor pizzicato chord.  The composer’s Capriccio for solo tuba (1980) employs notes and scale fragments from widely different registers, which when juxtaposed give the effect of several voices interjecting upon one another.  Alum Jerome Stover demonstrated an impressive array of timbres, from warm and smooth to rattling of bones.  His controlled bursts of breathing almost become part of the musical line.  The piece ends with a final flurry, a Gordian knot of indeterminate tone and flood of breath, before a final octave cadence.

Jacob Druckman’s Valentine (1969) for solo double bass is a real showcase of a performer’s extended techniques and even comic delivery.  Donald Palma (faculty) begins playing the instrument with a timpani mallet, on the tailpiece, and eventually over every surface of the instrument.  He whispers musical instructions (“performer switches from mallet to bow”) in a hurried frenzy, to the delight of the unsuspecting audience, then engages in vocal percussion while bowing, essentially creating a duet with the voice – “Yow! Whoop?”, as though it were a Roy Lichtenstein pop art piece turned into performance art.  Pizzicato tremolo is matched with “Manamanamana” – is he mocking his own instrument?!  His teachers Copland and Persichetti no doubt, influenced Druckman in the dominance of these comic events and surprise rhythms, but passages of the piece almost resemble an ironic, self-deprecating kabuki-meets-Luciano Berio.

Prokofiev’s Humorous Scherzo for eight bassoons is the sound of a circus tent being struck, the instruments evoking many characters, from an elephant to a trapeze artist, but coming together in a rich harmony.  The same instruments, plus contrabassoon, tackle a monumental transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor.  Although it starts out sounding like a novelty arrangement, it becomes evident that the performers (Morelli and assorted students) are driven to prove their bassoons equal to the task of expressing the diverse styles contained in this piece.  Imitative passages showed the subtle differences in tone between individual instruments.

Schütz’s Absalon, fili mi was the sole Baroque piece in the program, scored for four sackbuts, bass voice and continuo and based on a text from the second book of Samuel.  The sackbut is progenitor to the trombone, with a smaller bell flare and tubing of varying length, and these instruments handle resolutions of dissonant suspensions and cadences in various keys – hallmarks of the Schütz style – with elegance.  One wonders why such beautiful instruments ever went out of fashion, able to achieve the brightness of a trumpet without losing their essential richness and warmth.  Bass-baritone Taylor Ward captures the dignified lament of the biblical tale of David losing his third son.

Sofia Gubaidulina

Sofia Gubaidulina’s Concerto for bassoon and low strings (1975), conducted by Ranson Wilson (faculty), featured Morelli as soloist and an assortment of students and recent alums on four cellos and three double bass.  It opens on a bassoon recitative in the extremely high register (a nod to Le Sacre du Printemps?).  Strings echo short bassoon motifs, but these motifs then quickly decompose into tremolo glissandos.  Tutti sections experiment with abrasive timbres and effects from all the instrumentalists.  Harmonics in the strings provide a Ligeti-like atmospheric dread.  The second movement features tone-clouds in the strings, dry, but moving in step, until they coalesce into a single tone, taken up by the bassoon, only to have the soloist break down into a multi-phonic growl.  Nature sounds can be heard in the third movement, birdsong in the bassoon, buzzing of locusts created by cello harmonics, etc.  There is a playful experimental quality in the bow-bouncing (spiccato), unpredictable dynamic and rhythmic surprises, the eight voices rarely producing the same sound but always clearly outlining a compositional plan.  The fourth movement is an industrial frenzy, not so much composed as choreographed, the instruments striking poses, which seem like the antithesis of melody (laughing in the bassoon!).  The last movement features aleatoric pizzicato (the conductor standing still and allowing freedom to the performers) and col legno battuto (hitting with the wood of the bow) while the bassoon spins out a jazzy swing line.

It is often suspected that unusual scoring is a contemporary composer’s attempt at a new marketing strategy, but tonight’s inclusion of repertoire from diverse historical periods proves that the focus on low voices has long been fertile ground for creative experimentation.  As listeners, we strive to develop our appreciation of musical idiosyncrasies as well as more standard fare, and Yale in New York’s engaging program, for which Artistic Director David Shifrin should be commended, successfully brings these low voices “out of the depths” and onto equal footing with their higher-register relatives.

An Inconvenient Truth; Dir. Davis Guggenheim. 2006. 100mins.

Twelve years ago, who would’ve thought we’d ever be sitting in movie theaters getting a science lesson from Al Gore – and not falling asleep?  And yet, this is the Al Gore we could’ve seen back then had his campaign aides and the media not chosen to pass over his passion for climate change and focus instead on his hair and his lack of dramatic skills.  Let’s note the documentary’s shortcomings from the start: his lecture audiences are as adoring as any pre-screened Bush audience, and the reflections on his sister’s death from lung cancer seem intended more to imbue him with gravitas than to make any point about heeding scientific advice.  That said, what we get is a compelling scientific warning of human-caused climate change at a time in our history when the very Enlightenment seems under assault (the “debate” over evolution makes the fight against global warming seem an even more Herculean task).  The inevitable comparisons with Fahrenheit 911 are totally without merit, and seemed transparently designed to discredit the film by associating it with the far left.  Perhaps what some critics don’t care to admit is that the documentary genre has been quickly evolving unique new formats for framing issues, filling a sizeable niche left by a somnambulant press corps and out-of-touch government.  As for the Michael Crichtons and George Wills of the world, it is increasingly clear their continued mockery of this issue is all about an inability to admit error.  The film seeks to connect us in new ways to the world in which we live, as photos of the disappearing snows of Kilimanjaro, the breakup of Antarctic ice shelves the size of Rhode Island, and, of course, New Orleans, bring Gore’s slideshow charts to life.  More importantly, though, Gore’s presentation also builds a bridge to our remote past as humans, as samples of prehistoric ice give us a window into the less carbon-drenched climate of our ancestors.  The inevitable question arises: how will future generations judge our response to this mounting evidence?