Tag Archives: Classical Music

REPRINT: KLAUS KINSKI’S PAGANINI (1989)

Alfred Eaker has the week off, but here is a reprint of a classic column originally publishedDecember 12, 2103.

Films about composers are rare, and probably for good reason. Few can forget Hollywood’s sickeningly sanitized version of Chopin’s life, A Song To Remember (1945) with Cornel Wilde’s Hallmark-style portrayal of the composer literally (and hammily) dying at the keyboard (of tuberculosis) after a grueling tour for “the song to remember.” It was Liberace’s favorite movie for good reason. At the opposite end of the spectrum were the 1970 composer biopics by . Russell being Russell, these were, naturally, highly irreverent and decidedly idiosyncratic takes on Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers), Mahler (Mahler), and Liszt (Lisztomania). Then came Milos Forman’s Academy Award winning film about Mozart, Amadeus (1984), which, though largely fictional, does capture the spirit, personality, and drive of the composer. If Forman’s triumph seemed to signal a new, respectable artistic trend in musical dramas, then along came Klaus Kinski with Paganini (1989) to prove that notion wrong. Script in hand, Kinski attempted to solicit to direct the life story of the demonic 19th century virtuoso violinist, Niccolo Paganini. Kinski had long felt a strong identification with the famed musician and repeatedly implored Herzog to direct. Upon reading Kinski’s treatment, Herzog deemed it an “unfilmable mess.” Not one to be dissuaded, Kinski, for the first and last time, took over the director’s reigns himself. The result is absolutely the weirdest musical biopic ever made, and that is no exaggeration. It has aptly been referred to as Kinski Paganini since it as much a self-portrait as it is the composer’s portrait. Picasso once said “every work of art, regardless of subject matter, is a self-portrait.” Kinski Paganini is the second of two highly personal self-portraits Kinski left behind before dying at the age of 56 in 1991. The first is an actual autobiography, titled “All I Need Is Love.” Both works sparked an outrage amongst the status quo. Kinski’s written manifesto has since come to be regarded as one of the great maniacal bios.

To call Paganini a biopic is a bit of a stretch. As Herzog predicted, the film is a mess, and a repellent one at that; but it is such an individualistic mess that it demands attention. Kinski’s movie is an unquestionably disturbing example of what happens when the lunatics take over the asylum.

The film is available on DVD via Mya Communications in both the 84 minute theatrical cut, mandated by aghast producers, and Kinksi’s own, fourteen minute longer “versione originale.” With Kinski’s cut, there is no reason to watch the theatrical version, which was an impossible attempt to downsize the director’s monstrously egotistical vanity project.

Kinski’s version opens with two priests, racing towards the dying musician. They bicker back and forth over whether they should offer last rites to that vile seducer of young girls. To make his point of hypocrisy about as subtle as a pair of brass knuckles, Kinski intercuts the carriage ride with shots of priests’ hands distributing the Continue reading REPRINT: KLAUS KINSKI’S PAGANINI (1989)

266. 200 MOTELS (1971)

Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels

“I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.”–Frank Zappa, Baltimore Sun, October 12, 1986
Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Tony Palmer, Frank Zappa

FEATURING: , , , , , Jimmy Carl Black, Frank Zappa

PLOT: A collection of absurd sketches about life on the road as a rock band, 200 Motels offers very little in the way of plot. Running bits include Ringo Starr playing a large dwarf enlisted to portray Zappa, Theodore Bikel as a Mephistophelean figure trying to get the band to sign documents in blood, and Keith Moon as a groupie dressed as a nun; amidst the chaos, the band members constantly try to either get laid, get high, or scheme to form spin-off bands. In between, Zappa and the band perform musical numbers like “Lonesome Cowboy Burt,” and Zappa conducts an orchestra playing his avant-garde classical compositions.

Still from 200 Motels (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Frank Zappa thought up the idea for the film while on tour with the Mothers of Invention. He wrote much of the music in 200 Motels from motel rooms while on tour.
  • The opening credits explain the split in the directorial duties, with Tony Palmer credited for “visuals” and Zappa for directing the “characterizations.”
  • Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (“Flo and Eddie”) formerly comprised the Turtles, who had a smash hit with “Happy Together.” They joined Zappa’s band, the Mothers of Invention, as featured vocalists in 1970, and stayed in the Mothers until 1972—just long enough to have featured roles in 200 Motels.
  • Ringo Starr’s chauffeur played the band’s bass player: according to one anecdote, he was cast after the two bass players quit the band and a frustrated Zappa vowed to hire the next person who walked through the door.
  • 200 Motels was one of the earliest films shot on video and transferred to film. Shooting on video allowed Tony Palmer to create visual effects that would have been too expensive to shoot on film.
  • In his review of the soundtrack album, Palmer called 200 Motelsone of the worst films in the entire history of cinema, a criticism which I can confidently assert because I was in part responsible for its direction.
  • In 1988 Zappa made a documentary about the film called “The True Story of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels. That rarity is long out of print on VHS and has never had an authorized DVD or Blu-ray release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Tony Palmer overlaid trippy experimental video effects—the visual correlative of Frank Zappa’s oddball music—over almost every minute of the running time, making this a particularly difficult movie to choose a single image for. These tricks accumulate to build up a hazy impression of whirling psychedelia. Since we have to pick one image, however, we’ll go with our first view of Centerville, the small town enveloped in a wavering pattern of lysergic zebra stripes, which represents the hazy, melted-together vision of every two-bit town the band soldiers through.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Hot Nun; towel smoking; penis oratorio

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If anything sets 200 Motels apart from the other psychedelic cinematic noodlings of the hippie era, it’s Frank Zappa’s extraordinarily weird music—a unique mix of jazz-inflected blues/rock, avant-garde 12-tone classical music, and junior high school sex jokes. Mix concert footage (both of the Mothers of Invention and the orchestra Zappa retained for the shoot) with experimental videos, underground cartoons, oddball rock star cameos, and no plot whatsoever and you have a movie worthy of the production company’s name: “Bizarre Productions.” Zappa is a latter-day saint of pop-surrealism, and although he’ll always be best known for his music, this is the canonical record of his twisted sensibility on film.


Original trailer for 200 Motels

COMMENTS: The original tagline did not read “Ringo Starr IS Larry Continue reading 266. 200 MOTELS (1971)

THE SHORT FILMS OF OLIVER HERRMAN

was quickly proving to be an artist of provocative potential after creating the innovative short films “Dichterlieb” (2000), “One Night, One Life” (2002), and “Le Sacre du Printemps” (released 2004). Tragically, Herrmann’s life and career were cut short when he died of a diabetic stroke at the age of 40 in 2003.  A few months after his death, his partner, soprano , a specialist in 20th/21st century music, gave birth to their second child.

All three have been released on home video with “Dichterlieb” and “One Night, One Life” available together and “Le Scare du Printemps” on a second DVD. The primary interest in the “One Night, One Life” collection is Herrman’s film of Arnold Shoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” conducted by modern music specialist Pierre Boulez and starring Schäfer. A bit of history may be needed for Schoenberg’s atonal 1)Although atonal, “Pierrot Lunaire” does not employ the twelve tone method., expressionist melodrama. Set to Albert Giraud’s text, the poems, usually spoken by a soprano, are delivered in “Sprechgesang” (spoken singing). Upon its 1912 premiere, “Pierrot Lunaire” predictably offended the traditionalists. Much publicity was made about it, mostly bad, but at least this was a period when new music and new composers actually grabbed headlines. As late as the 1970s, conservative NY Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg claimed that “Pierrot Lunaire”‘s’ failure to enter the standard repertoire was an indictment of contemporary music. Yet, the 21st century has (somewhat) rendered Schonberg’s assessment as premature. If not quite part of the daily repertoire diet, “Lunaire” is extensively recorded and performed. One might envision it someday becoming as commonplace as Beethoven. However, together, Herrmann, Boulez, and Schäfer produce a commendable effort to rectify its potentially harmful respectability. The proof is in the pudding as far as music forum reviews go, with the hopelessly puritan music fans expressing outrage towards Herrmann’s blasphemous filming of music that was labeled blasphemous in 1912. One would think, with the combination of Schoenberg, Boulez, Herrmann, and Schäfer, blasphemy would and should be expected. Schoenberg is a composer who was and remains spiritually antithetical to the tenets of fundamentalism, and yet, long dead in his grave, he holds no sway with that lot. Fortunately, the principals speak blasphemy fluently and refuse to appease those who prefer art-music to be neutered, polished, and pedestaled. Schoenberg’s sense of danger is not only intact, but expanded upon.

Still from Pierrot Lunaire (2002)The haunting lyrics are besotted with imagery of sick moons, flowing blood, brandished swords, gruesome communion, blue murder, bloodied crosses, ancient gloom, one-legged storks, coffins, and giant black butterflies ready for the kill. It’s hardly “La Boheme,” Continue reading THE SHORT FILMS OF OLIVER HERRMAN

References   [ + ]

1. Although atonal, “Pierrot Lunaire” does not employ the twelve tone method.

205. FANTASIA (1940)

“…action controlled by a musical pattern has great charm in the realm of unreality.”– on Fantasia

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Norman Ferguson, James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe, Jr. Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen

FEATURING: Leopold Stokowksi and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Deems Taylor, Walt Disney (voice of Mickey Mouse)

PLOT: An orchestra files in to a concert hall, followed by classical music critic Deems Taylor, who introduces the film and describes the different purposes of classical music. The first musical selection, Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor,” illustrates “absolute” music, and consists of a series of abstract images combined with views of the orchestra in silhouette. The six animated musical sequences that follow compose the bulk of the movie, following the adventures of fairies, Mickey Mouse, dinosaurs, centaurs, hippo ballerinas, and demons set to the music of Tchaikovsky, Dukas, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Ponchielli, Mussorgsky, and Schubert, all introduced by Taylor.

Still from Fantasia (1940)
BACKGROUND:

  • The meeting of conductor Leopold Stokowski and animation god Walt Disney, in 1937 at Chasen’s restaurant, is the stuff of legend. Disney was starstruck with the conductor’s celebrity, mysterious accent, and fierce mane. The seed of an idea for a “concert film” sprang from the meeting. At this time Disney had only produced and released one previous feature: Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937). The idea of an animated feature had seemed risky and radical, with the naysayers predicting bankruptcy. The profits and critical acclaim from Snow White forever silenced those doomsday prophets. Now, Disney was ready to take another risk. 1940 saw the release of Disney’s second and third feature films. Artistically, it paid off as Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia are, to date, Disney’s two greatest films, released only nine months apart. The former was a critical box office hit. The latter did not make money for nearly twenty years.
  • Fantasia was an expansion of Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” series of musical shorts (which were set to original music commissioned by Disney studios rather than classical masterpieces). The “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment, starring Mickey Mouse, was originally made as a Silly Symphony but cost over $100,000 to animate, and Disney realized the only way to recoup that budget was to make it part of a feature.
  • Fantasia was (mostly, despite some notable howls of derision) well-received by critics and audiences on release. It failed to turn a profit because of its enormous budget, difficulties in distribution (new sound systems had to be installed in any theater that wanted to play it, so it was rolled out piecemeal as a roadshow feature), and the fact the the onset of WWII cut off the foreign markets. Disney studios continued to re-release the film every five to ten years up until 1990, however. By the late 1960s, spurred by its discovery and embrace by the psychedelic generation, Fantasia had become both a beloved classic and a cash cow.
  • Bits from the original “Pastoral Symphony” sequence were later erased due to their depictions of black centaurs, who were caricatured and depicted as servants to the white centaurs.
  • Disney had planned more editions of Fantasia (one of which included a collaboration with ), but its initial failure laid such plans to rest until sixty year later, when Walt Disney Productions released Fantasia 2000Fantasia 2000 had fleeting moments of brilliance, but was mostly a disappointing sequel; too clean, too crisp, lacking the risk-taking intensity and provocativeness of the original.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  In an entire film of indelible images, alligators swooning over and dancing with hippos may have been the “eureka, it’s weird!” moment for the film’s 1960s acidhead crowd. We concur.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dancing mushrooms; Stravinsky dinosaurs; alligator/hippo romance

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Pinocchio may have had boys turning into jackasses, and Dumbo (1941) had it’s mind boggling “pink elephants on parade,” but Walt Disney’s Fantasia is chock-full of progressive strangeness and an ardent embrace of art for the sake of art. It’s Walt’s weirdest.


1956 re-release trailer for Fantasia (including part of the scene later deleted from prints due to charges of racism)

COMMENTS: Over a thirty year period I have seen Fantasia (1940) Continue reading 205. FANTASIA (1940)

CAPSULE: VISITORS (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Godfrey Reggio

FEATURING: None

PLOT: A series of black and white shots, mostly of human faces but also of abandoned buildings, hands, and landscapes, set to a new composition by Philip Glass. Still from Visitors (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though a curious experiment for sure,Visitors is too dry, slow and minimal to make the list of the best weird movies of all time. It’s got the “weird” part down; I’m less sure about the “movie” part.

COMMENTS: Visitors is composed of about 75% shots of human faces, captured by a slow motion camera, staring into a monitor with hard-to-gauge expressions for about a minute at a time. To break up the monotony there are also shots of abandoned buildings, disembodied hands, a gorilla, a lunar surface, and so on—all beautifully photographed, but seemingly inserted at random. Now, the human face is fascinating in its infinite variety and its singular expressiveness, but I confess that, like a normal person, I found this exploration boring. Five minutes of this parade of faces would have been enough, fifteen minutes would be pushing it, but ninety minutes sets the movie up as a challenge. It’s not that there isn’t a great deal for the eye to appreciate, or that there are no surprises to be found, especially in the film’s final moments; it’s just that a little bit of this goes a long way. You might compare Visitors to looking at an exhibition at an art gallery, except that at the gallery the observer decides whether he wants to invest his attention in the portrait of the young Asian girl or the gorilla or the cypresses in the swamp, going at his own pace; here, director Godfrey “Koyaanisqatsi” Reggio selects the image and dictates in what order and for how long we gaze at each installation. If there is sense to the progression of images, it’s lost on us. The idea of a film where we simply peer at people’s faces while they stare back at us has a certain experimental purity; but why break it up with the shots of the abandoned amusement park? The flock of seagulls? The piles of garbage? (The Louisiana swamp that figures heavily in the film’s last third is a spot Reggio loved from his childhood, which subverts the notion that there is some sort of objective, non-personal meaning to the flow of images). There is a disconnect between the shots of isolated faces followed by abandoned buildings that might suggest some sort of looming post-apocalyptic future, but basically the audience is left on its own to find any thematic relevance in the imagery. Unlike Reggio’s previous films, such as Koyaanisqatsi (where the imagery consistently critiques the hectic pace of modern life), the material of Visitors seems like a bunch of pretty pictures inserted because each of them looked cool in isolation, not because they resonate with each other. In this way Visitors is a legitimately Surrealist documentary. It is also much, much slower in its progression than Reggio’s already stately previous work. Overall, Visitors is a noble experiment, but it would be hard to call it a successful one, except on a shot-by-shot basis.

Philip Glass’ slow, deep, moody score adds additional artistic heft to the project, and serious orchestral music fans may consider Visitors as nothing more than the music video for Glass’ latest composition. It’s also worth nothing, although I doubt Reggio would agree, that Visitors may actually play better on home video than in theaters. At home, you can walk away into the next room to read your email or unload the dishwasher, let Visitors play in the background, and check back every now and then just to assure yourself that nothing about the movie has actually changed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… weirdly beautiful film, eerie in its complicated simplicity.”–Maryann Johanson, Flick Filospher (contemporaneous)