"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

June 25, 2012

Bach Cantatas (35): St John's Day (June 24)

The feast of the birth John the Baptist is celebrated on June 24 - in 2012 this doubles with Trinity III. John the Baptist was a messianic figure, a forerunner of Jesus and most Biblical scholars agree that he baptized Jesus in the River Jordan. The prediction of the coming of John was very much like the message of Advent.

Isaiah 40:1–5, "Prepare the Way"
Luke 1:57–80, The birth of John the Baptist and Prophecy of Zacharias


  • Ihr Menschen, rühmet Gottes Liebe, BWV 167, 24 June 1723

    Aria (tenor): Ihr Menschen, rühmet Gottes Liebe
    Recitativo (alto): Gelobet sei der Herr Gott Israel
    Aria (soprano, alto): Gottes Wort, das trüget nicht
    Recitativo (bass): Des Weibes Samen kam
    Chorale: Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren

    ("You people. glorify God's love") Very compact cantata with memorable melodies. The cantata opens with a joyful, dancing aria for tenor and strings. The alto recitative compares the coming of John with the coming of Jesus. Next comes a densely textured duet for alto and soprano "God's word does not deceive," with oboe da caccia. After a bass recitative follows a surprise: a brilliant and joyous chorale “Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren.” This is the kind of melody to hum along with! (****)

  • Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam, BWV 7, 24 June 1724

    Chorus: "Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam"
    Aria: "Merkt und hört, ihr Menschenkinder"
    Recitative: "Dies hat Gott klar mit Worten"
    Aria: "Des Vaters Stimme ließ sich hören"
    Recitative: "Als Jesus dort nach seinen Leiden"
    Aria: "Menschen, glaubt doch dieser Gnade"
    Chorale: "Das Aug allein das Wasser sieht" 

    ("Christ our Lord came to the Jordan") About the baptism of Jesus in the waters of the River Jordan, and the meaning of baptism in general. Water images permeate every movement of this cantata. In the solemn opening chorus - based on a Luther chorale - which resembles an Italian violin concerto, the tenors sing the cantus firmus. There is a feeling of ebb and flow in this wonderful movement. The bass aria is only accompanied by the continuo. The descending motif suggest the cleansing effect of baptism. A secco recitative leads to a tenor aria, accompanied by two dueting violins. The triple measure symbolizes the Trinity and in the up-flowing music we hear the dove of the Holy Spirit. The following recitative is given to the bass as Vox Christi and accompanied by strings. The alto aria is graced by two oboes d'amore and the strings. It is the liturgical core of the cantata, stressing that believers can only be saved by faith and baptism and that "human deeds and holiness" matter nothing at all. The closing chorale is a beautiful four-part harmonization. (****)

  • Freue dich, erlöste Schar, BWV 30, 24 June 1738

    Coro: "Freue dich, erlöste Schar" for choir, flauti traversi, oboes, strings, and continuo.
    Recitativo: "Wir haben Rast" for bass and continuo.
    Aria: "Gelobet sei Gott, gelobet sein Name" for bass, strings, and continuo.
    Recitativo: "Der Herold kömmt und meldt den König an" for altus and continuo.
    Aria: "Kommt, ihr angefochtnen Sünder" for altus, flauto traverso, strings, and continuo.
    Chorale: "Eine Stimme lässt sich hören" for choir and orchestral tutti colle parti.
    Recitativo: "So bist du denn, mein Heil, bedacht" for bass, oboes and continuo.
    Aria: "Ich will nun hassen" for bass, oboe d'amore, violino solo, strings, and continuo.
    Recitativo: "Und obwohl sonst der Unbestand" for soprano and continuo.
    Aria: "Eilt, ihr Stunden, kommt herbei" for soprano, violins, and continuo.
    Recitativo: "Geduld, der angenehme Tag" for tenor, and continuo.
    Coro: "Freude dich, geheilgte Schar" for choir, orchestral tutti, and continuo.

    ("Rejoice, redeemed throng") Based on a secular cantata (BWV 30a, Angenehmes Wiederau) composed the previous year. Thematically, this cantata is praise of God for keeping His promise. Starts with a joyful opening chorus with syncopated rhythm. A bass recitative leads into a brilliant aria for bass with strings. The highlight of the cantata is the gentle aria for alto with flute and strings, which is permeated with a feeling of grace. A choral setting ends the first part of the cantata. While the first part zoomed in on God's keeping His promise, the second part gives us the reaction of the individual believers ("I now will hate and leave behind everything, which is contrary to You, my God"). The second half starts with a bass recitative and an aria, which surprisingly is in the gallant style (this a late Bach). In contrast, the following soprano aria is in antique gigue style. The arpeggios in the accompaniment illustrate the hurrying of the hours which soon brings the believer to the pasture of Heaven. A repetition of the opening chorus concludes the cantata. (****)

June 24, 2012

Bach Cantatas (34): Trinity III

The church year from Trinity until Advent is simply counted in figures as Trinity I, Trinity II, etc. This is the third Sunday after Trinity.

There are no major church feasts in this second part of the church year. Instead, issues of faith and doctrine are explored. On this Sunday, the theme of the tormented sinner, who can only be saved by Gods' grace, is explored.

1 Peter 5:6–11, "Cast thy burden upon the Lord"
Luke 15:1–10, Parable of the Lost Sheep


  • Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21, 17 June 1714

    Coro: Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis in meinem Herzen
    Aria (soprano): Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not
    Recitativo (tenor): Wie hast du dich, mein Gott
    Aria (tenor): Bäche von gesalznen Zähren
    Coro: Was betrübst du dich
    Recitativo (Dialogus soprano, bass): Ach Jesu, meine Ruh
    Aria (soprano, bass): Komm, mein Jesu, und erquicke/Ja, ich komme und erquicke
    Coro: Sei nun wieder zufrieden, meine Seele
    Aria (tenor): Erfreue dich, Seele, erfreue dich, Herze
    Coro: Das Lamm, das erwürget ist

    ("I had much affliction") Long cantata written in Weimar but later revised. Thematically it describes the pain felt by the lost sheep and its eventual reunification with God. The cantata introduces themes of pain and suffering and there is a mood of desolation that never quite lifts. The work was meant as a musical farewell to the critically ill Weimar prince Johann Ernst who had been Bach's pupil - Bach uses a Vivaldi melody in the first chorus that was a favorite of the prince. A sighing motif characterizes the music in the opening sinfonia with violin and oboe. The fugal opening chorus is followed by a beautiful soprano aria with sighing motifs and that in its turn by the tenor aria "Streams of salty tears" where the flood of tears is suggested by the upwelling music. A hopeless feeling of loneliness speaks from this aria, but a chorus that introduces a spark of hope concludes the first part. The uplifting second part starts with a dialogue between the soul and Jesus that introduces the material from the gospel reading - a favorite didactic device of Lutheran theology. It has a tripartite rhythm and a cute melody almost like Mozart's "La ci darem la mano." By trusting in the grace of God, the mood transforms into joy and praise. This is anchored by a great chorus, "Be at peace again, my soul", where the soloists weave their voices around the main melody. After a sprightly tenor aria follows the concluding chorus, now a forceful one with trumpets and drums (it must have been studied by Handel as there are echoes of it in The Messiah). This long work is often regarded as one of Bach's best cantatas. (****)

  • Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder, BWV 135, 25 June 1724

    Coro: Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder
    Recitativo (tenor): Ach heile mich, du Arzt der Seelen
    Aria (tenor): Tröste mir, Jesu, meine Gemüte
    Recitativo (alto): Ich bin von Seufzen müde
    Aria (bass): Weicht, all ihr Übeltäter
    Chorale: Ehr sei ins Himmels Throne

    ("Ah Lord, me a poor sinner") About the joy of a repenting sinner, which links to the gospel reading for this Sunday. Starts with an impressive harmonization of Hassler's hymn "Herzlich tut mich verlangen," the melody sung slowly by the basses to symbolize the "humbling" under the hand of God. This establishes a feeling of desolation right at the beginning. In the first recitative by tenor the tears running down the faces of sinners are illustrated by demi-semiquaver runs. The easy-going tenor aria "Comfort Jesus my spirit" with two oboes chasing each other offers some relief from the tension. The second aria is for bass and it is a rousing, militaristic affair that would have fit in an opera by Handel. The final choral is a more conventional harmonization than the opening of the cantata. (***)

June 17, 2012

Bach Cantatas (33): Trinity II

The church year from Trinity until Advent is simply counted in figures as Trinity I, Trinity II, etc. This is the second Sunday after Trinity.

There are no major church feasts in this second part of the church year. Instead, issues of faith and doctrine are explored.

This Sunday continues the previous Sunday’s injunction to give charitably to the hungry (BWV 75) by showing brotherly love manifested in action (BWV 76).

1 John 3:13–18, "Whoever doesn't love, remains in Death"
Luke 14:16–24, Parable of the great supper


  • Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, BWV 76, 6 June 1723

    Part I
    1. Coro: Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes
    2. Recitativo (tenor): So lässt sich Gott nicht unbezeuget!
    3. Aria (soprano): Hört, ihr Völker, Gottes Stimme
    4. Recitativo (bass): Wer aber hört, da sich der größte Haufen
    5. Aria (bass): Fahr hin, abgöttische Zunft!
    6. Recitativo (alto): Du hast uns, Herr, von allen Straßen
    7. Chorale: Es woll uns Gott genädig sein
    Part II
    8. Sinfonia
    9. Recitativo (bass): Gott segne noch die treue Schar
    10. Aria (tenor): Hasse nur, hasse mich recht
    11. Recitativo (alto): Ich fühle schon im Geist
    12. Aria (alto): Liebt, ihr Christen, in der Tat!
    13. Recitativo (tenor): So soll die Christenheit
    14. Chorale: Es danke, Gott, und lobe dich

    ("The Heavens declare the Glory of God") Long piece in two symmetrical parts, the second cantata Bach wrote in Leipzig with the apparent intention to impress the congregation and his employers. The cantata begins with a brilliant fugal chorus on words from Psalm 19 "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows His handiwork." In movements 2 (recitative) and 3 (a sweet aria for soprano) the text elaborates on the thought of the Universe praising God's creation. The soprano aria is a graceful movement in gavotte rhythm towards God's throne. In the following two movements, a recitative and aria by bass, it deplores those who did not follow the invitation of God, so that He had to invite people "from the streets." It is a forthright call to banish the tribe of idolaters. Part I closes with a haunting version of Martin Luther's chorale "Es woll uns Gott genädig sein," accompanied by a doleful trumpet. Part II starts with an intimate sinfonia, based on one of the trio sonatas for organ. The tenor aria illustrates the "masochistic" "Hate me, then, hate me with all your might, o hostile race!" by chromatic leaps and interrupting rests. The heavenly alto aria with oboe d'amore and viola da gamba is the musical highlight of the cantata. It reminds us of the uniting love that is a consequence of Christ's death and brings a feeling of peace and introspection. The third stanza of Luther's chorale closes the work. (***)

  • Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein, BWV 2, 18 June 1724

    Coro: Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein
    Recitativo (tenor, bass): Sie lehren eitel falsche List
    Aria (alto, violin solo): Tilg, o Gott, die Lehren
    Recitativo (bass, strings): Die Armen sind verstört
    Aria (tenor): Durchs Feuer wird das Silber rein
    Chorale: Das wollst du, Gott, bewahren rein

    ("O God, look down from Heaven") Cantata based on Martin Luther's chorale "Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein." Its theme is the barrenness of life on earth without the word, trust and love of God. In the choruses of first and last movements using the original words of the hymn the style of the music is consciously "archaic", the instruments doubling the voices. Bach often used such archaic music when he had to treat a severe subject. There is an austere beauty in the first chorus, which takes the form of a chorale motet a la Pachelbel. The alto aria is a condemnation of heresy ("Destroy, Oh God, the doctrines that pervert Thy Word!") and is surprisingly benign, considering the text, perhaps reflecting Bach's basically optimistic outlook. This is followed by a tenor aria stressing the need to be patient when suffering ("Through fire, silver is purified") - a quiet and composed acceptance of circumstances. The final chorale has a dissonant harmonization to symbolize that the heretics are around us, but not with us. (***)

June 12, 2012

Don Quixote (Book Review, Classical Literature)

The Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (first published in 1605; part two in 1615) has undergone the sad fate of so many classical novels: everyone has heard about the book and more or less knows what it is about (it has after all given us expressions like "tilting at windmills" and "Quixotic"), so nobody reads it. On top of that, those who have read it did so when children, which means they only know this great book in a shortened, infantilized and badly translated version.

Especially in the case of Don Quixote that is a shame. This is a first-rate masterwork and the first truly modern, psychological novel. Moreover, it is a story about a protagonist in the progress of losing his illusions and what is the history of modern literature other than a history of coping with "lost illusions?"

Here are some crucial points why this is such a great book (see Wikipedia when you need a full summary of the novel):
  • The Quixote is the classical reflexive parody: the adventures of a mad geriatric "hidalgo," a lover of chivalric literature, who sets forth to realize the purely literary ideal of the "wandering knight." Parody is everywhere, for part 2 of the novel parodies part 1 - here Don Quixote has become a famous man thanks to the publication of the first part of the novel about him! In Part 2, Cervantes also incorporates and reacts to criticism made of Part 1, and deals in a comical way with an apocryphal second part published by a rival author.
  • Don Quixote is very similar to today's otaku and fans of anime and manga, who like our mad hero are "passionate obsessives" engaging in "cosplay" or costumed role play - this is exactly what Don Quixote does when he dresses up like a knight without being one (he is just a member of the petty gentry), and rides around the countryside on his old nag, in full armor and with lance in hand. The only difference is that Don Quixote is not inspired by Sailor Moon, but by Amadis de Gaula and the Arthurian legends of the Round Table.
  • Obsession is something of all times, and can lead to real problems, as when Don Quixote in his delusion attacks others and commits crimes. He is punished by reality with such severe, repeated beatings that Nabokov characterized the novel as "an encyclopedia of cruelty."
  • On the other hand, we all to a certain degree need illusions - we can not live without dreams, just as Don Quixote dies when his illusions are broken. 
  • The Quixote is the start of the "self-conscious" genre in fiction, which continues with Fielding and Sterne in England and Diderot in France, and sees its greatest flourishing in the twentieth century with such authors as Queneau, Borges, Nabokov, Calvino, Pyncheon and Fowles. [The "self-conscious" genre is the opposite of the "illusion of reality" genre, where the author steps back and pretends that the story is a faithful imitation of reality.] 
  • In this genre, writers systematically show-off their artifice and reflexively engage their own procedures and techniques. It is an anti-illusionist art that makes us aware of the author and that finds its sources in the tradition itself. The artist does not imitate nature but other texts. Parody is therefore - as indicated above - an important device. In our novel, the most interesting moment in this respect comes at the end of Chapter Eight, when Cervantes suddenly claims to have run out of text just at the moment that Don Quixote is engaged in a fierce sword battle, leaving him frozen in time with his sword in the air (in Chapter Nine he "finds" the continuation of the story).
  • Cervantes was one of the first professional authors who tried to make a living from their writings. This meant a decrease in social class of authors but it was accompanied by a rise in invention and importance of the author (the higher classes only slavishly imitated older literature). By the way, Cervantes was a contemporary of Shakespeare - both died on almost the same day in 1616.
  • The world of The Quixote was a complex, multi-cultural world. Cervantes gives a realistic description of the Spain of around 1600: a well-ordered, modern state with a strong police force (as Don Quixote will notice) projecting its power to its colonies in South America but with a ruling house that was gradually weakening. As it was only a century after 1492, when the last Muslim state on Iberian soil had been conquered, there was also still a certain Muslim influence felt; and Spain also clashed with the "Moors" in the Mediterranean and North-Africa - Cervantes himself was captured by Algerian corsairs and spent five years in their captivity. In the novel, the story of Don Quixote is ironically attributed to an Arabic source. 
  • Finally, interesting is the multi-perspectivism in the novel: the writer speaks the truth but also engages multiple perspectives and opinions about that truth. In the novel, there even seem to be multiple perspectives within each individual, making them conflictive beings.
Don Quixote was already translated into English in 1612 and became an international bestseller. There are more than 12 English translations. Which is the best one? When you read the novel on the internet, you have no choice for the only edition available is the one by John Ormsby from 1885. This is an honest translation, with no things left out or added, and it has become the basis for various 20th century reworkings. It is, however rather stiff, and all those "thous" and "dosts" get rather boring. (The same is true for the Jervas translation that went before it, in 1742, and which forms the basis for the Oxford Classics edition). Moreover, these "Puritan" translations don't manage to bring out the fun of the original. That problem has finally been addressed in our century, with translations in truly modern English by John Rutherford (in Penguin Classics) and Edit Grossman (Ecco/Harper Collins). I started with the Ormsby version (also because the Librivox audio recordings are based on that version), but soon switched to the Penguin Classic translation by Rutherford, which I found very stimulating.

The Penguin translation also has the advantage of a foreword by Cervantes and Spanish literature scholar Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria of Yale University - and interestingly, on the Yale channel at Youtube, there is a long series of lectures by Professor Gonzalez about the Quixote, which I can warmly recommend - they greatly enhanced the understanding of the novel for me. Start here:

And now start reading the novel...

My assessment of the important points of the novel in the above was helped by Robert Stam, Literature through Film; Realism, Magic, and the Art of Adaptation (Blackwell Publishing, 2005). 

June 10, 2012

Bach Cantatas (32): Trinity I

After Trinity Sunday, all other Sundays until Advent are simply counted from Trinity as Trinity I, Trinity II, and so on.  The number of Sundays is variable as it depends on how early Easter was. The maximum is 27 (there are 25 Trinity Sundays in 2012).

There are no major church feasts in this second part of the church year. Instead, issues of faith and doctrine are explored.

1 John 4:16–21, "God is Love"
Luke 16:19–31, The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus


  • Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75, 30 May 1723

    Part I
    1. Coro: Die Elenden sollen essen
    2. Recitativo (bass): Was hilft des Purpurs Majestät
    3. Aria (tenor): Mein Jesus soll mein alles sein
    4. Recitativo (tenor): Gott stürzet und erhöhet
    5. Aria (soprano): Ich nehme mein Leiden mit Freuden auf mich
    6. Recitativo (soprano): Indes schenkt Gott ein gut Gewissen
    7. Chorale: Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan
    Part II
    8. Sinfonia
    9. Recitativo (alto): Nur eines kränkt
    10. Aria (alto): Jesus macht mich geistlich reich
    11. Recitativo (bass): Wer nur in Jesu bleibt
    12. Aria (bass): Mein Herze glaubt und liebt
    13. Recitativo (tenor): O Armut, der kein Reichtum gleicht!
    14. Chorale: Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan

    ("The wretched shall eat that they become satisfied") Bach's first full-fledged Leipzig cantata. The text embroiders on motifs from the story of Lazarus. The music is in the style of a French overture with dance movements. The first part of this cantata opens with a dramatic chorus plus fugue and plaintive oboes ("Those who suffer in this life, will one day be satisfied"). The bass recitative tells us that wordly pleasures are transitory and the tenor aria sings that Jesus is the greatest good. Those who overcome hell in this world will find joy in the next, tells the tenor recitative. The soprano aria refers directly to Lazarus, whose patient endurance of tribulations resulted in divine favor. The first part concludes with the choral "What God does is well done." The second part of the cantata (meant to be played after the sermon) starts in an interesting way: a very effective instrumental version of the chorale, with the melody in the trumpet. The bass recitative tells us that self-denial leads a person to find both himself and God. And, as he sings in his aria (with trumpet, the best of the whole cantata), the key to such a life is unreserved devotion to Jesus. This long cantata reaches a cumulative dramatic effect, without having any particularly outstanding individual pieces. It seems Bach at this first Leipzig performance wanted to be friends with everyone and divided the music evenly over all soloists. The number of movements, fourteen, is the sum of the letters for BACH in the numerical alphabet and the composer's symbolic "signature." (***)

  • O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20, 11 June 1724

    Part one
    Coro: "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort" for choir, tromba da tirarsi col Soprano, tutti.
    Recitativo: "Kein Unglück ist in aller Welt zu finden" for tenor and continuo.
    Aria: "Ewigkeit, du machst mir bange" for tenor, strings, and continuo.
    Recitativo: "Gesetzt, es dau'rte der Verdammten Qual" for bass and continuo.
    Aria: "Gott ist gerecht in seinen Werken" for bass, oboes, and continuo.
    Aria: "O Mensch, errette deine Seele" for altus, strings, and continuo.
    Chorale: "So lang ein Gott im Himmel lebt" for choir, tromba da tirarsi, oboes I/II, and violin I col Soprano, oboe III & violin II coll'Alto, viola col Tenore, and continuo.
    Part two
    Aria: "Wacht auf, wacht auf, verlornen Schafe" for bass and tutti.
    Recitativo: "Verlass, o Mensch, die Wollust dieser Welt" for alto and continuo.
    Aria (Duetto): "O Menschenkind" for altus, tenor, and continuo.
    Chorale: "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort" for choir, tromba da tirarsi, oboes I/II, and violin I col Soprano, oboe III & violin II coll'Alto, viola col Tenore, and continuo.

    ("O Eternity, O Word of Thunder") The first choral cantata of Bach's second year in Leipzig. Textually, this cantata is based on a long and rather grim hymn, "A serious Consideration of Endless Eternity," loosely inspired by the Lazarus story. The text speaks at length about the fate of the sinner - it is nothing but wailing and gnashing of teeth of the damned, with an emphasis on the eternal character of that unpleasant situation; and also stressing the justice of God. The opening chorus is in the form of a solemn French Overture, symbolizing the endless march of time. The tenor aria dwells on the fear of damnation, with some exquisite word painting in the accompaniment (semiquaver melismas for the burning flames). The bass aria exhorts the listener to save his soul. Part 2 of the cantata concentrates on the need to renounce sin and undertake action for the amendment of life. The bass aria here is quite lively. The duet for alto and tenor also exhorts mankind to leave its sinful ways. As this is again a very long cantata with 11 parts, the arias and recitatives are all relatively short. The two chorales are straight harmonizations. (**)

  • Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, BWV 39, 23 June 1726

    Coro: Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot
    Recitativo (bass): Der reiche Gott
    Aria (alto, violin and oboe obbligato): Seinem Schöpfer noch auf Erden
    (bass): Wohlzutun und mitzuteilen vergesset nicht
    Aria (soprano, recorders): Höchster, was ich habe
    Recitativo (alto, strings): Wie soll ich dir, o Herr
    Chorale: Selig sind, die aus Erbarmen

    ("Deal thy bread to the hungry") A cantata on the theme of generously helping the poor. The extended opening chorus has an orchestral introduction and fugal end and dominates the whole cantata. Do the short notes in the accompaniment represent the breaking of bread or the tears of the needy? The chorus is followed by a bass recitative and three delightful arias. As the cantata is formally in two parts, there is a break after the alto aria and before the bass aria. The alto aria has nice lines for oboe and violins. The bass aria (Vox Christi), in contrast, while forming the center around which the cantata is symmetrically organized, is stern and preachy. The soprano aria is almost childlike in its sweetness and features a nice pair of recorders. (***)

June 6, 2012

Best Cult films (Film Reviews)

Although the term pops up regularly, cult films are difficult to define because they have two sides to them. One is internal to the film, consisting of content and style, and leading to a particular type of film. The other is external and has to do with the way the film is received by the audience  - cult film has a particular reception in the form of an active and lively fan base, which turns the film into a sort of "cult." These cult followings were initially in the 1970s developed during midnight screenings, but have now mostly moved to the internet. In this sense, cult film is not a genre but a phenomenon.

Although mainstream films also sometimes develop cult followings (Star Trek, Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz), I will leave these aside and here only regard those non-mainstream films that possess a particular content that may lead to a cult following. 

What then is typical about the content and style of those films? I think it is their subversive and offbeat character, in the widest sense of the word. Notions of good and bad taste are often transgressed, and the same is true for notions of gender and morality, as well as cinematic conventions. There is also often a liberal dose of (very) black humor involved. These are boundary-testing films, and happily, there is no cult required to enjoy them today.

Here are some of my favorite cult films:
  • Showgirls (1995) by Paul Verhoeven and with Elizabeth Berkley, Kyle MacLachlan and Gina Gershon. A young woman arrives in Las Vegas with the intention of pushing her way to the top as a dancer. She starts as lap dancer, but quickly moves on to the chorus line of a show in a high-class hotel, and finally manages to become a star - at the cost of personal integrity. Bare bosoms were never more boundless and everything is deliciously over the top. The expensive production was mowed down by critics and the public for its gratuitous nudity (the Dutch director bumping against American political correctness), but since then the controversial film has become a cult classic. In fact, Showgirls has lots of humor and satire and is fun to watch, as long as you don't get upset by some bare flesh. 
  • The Big Lebowski (1998) by Ethan and Joel Coen and with Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Julianne Moore. "Dude" Lebowski is a great figure (both literally and figuratively speaking), a sort of aged hippy with pony tail and dressed in Bermuda shorts who all day long sips White Russian cocktails, goes bowling, and philosophizes. But when the laziest man in Los Angeles is mistaken for a millionaire and a hoodlum urinates on his precious rug, he has to come into action to redress the wrong done to his ruined tapestry. Luckily he gets some help from his bowling friends. The fun of the film is in the conversations, which properly lead nowhere at all.  
  • Pulp Fiction (1994) by Quentin Tarantino and with Uma Thurman, John Travolta and Samual L. Jackson. Three interwoven tales of hard-boiled violence reminiscent of cheap "pulp fiction." (a) Two hitmen have to retrieve a suitcase stolen from their employer, a mob boss. (b) The mob boss has asked one of them to take care of his wife when he himself will be out of town. (c) An aging boxer who is paid by the mob boss to lose his next fight. And (d) there is a pair of diner bandits as a sort of running gag. The chronology of these tales is out of order and the film is filled with bizarre incidents. Much time is dedicated to conversations and monologues that are so memorable one would like to put a frame around them and hang them on the wall.
  • Crimes of Passion (1984) by Ken Russell and with Kathleen Turner, Anthony Perkins and Bruce Davison. A mix of campy sex and suspense that was too much for the politically correct critics. A prim sportswear designer leads a double life at night as a kinky hooker named China Blue. A sleazy street preacher who is working the red light district and spends more time in peep shows than in church pews decides he has to save her soul by loving her beautiful body and begins hounding her in a psychotic way - his weapon of attack is a razor-tipped dildo. Luckily, an investigator from her company whose marriage is falling apart and who is increasingly interested to find out who she really is, is also on her track. Daring performances by Turner and Perkins in outrageous roles. One-liners with sly puns. Atmospherically filmed in red and blue neon to bring out the sordidness. 
  • Blue Velvet (1986) by David Lynch and with Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan and Dennis Hopper. After finding a severed human ear in a field, a young man discovers a sinister and voyeuristic underworld of crime lying just beneath his idyllic suburban home town. The destiny of his search is a mysterious beautiful women involved with a perversely evil man. A mix of neo-noir (including the femme fatale) and surrealism. Nightmarish atmosphere. 
  • Coffy (1971) by Jack Hill and with Pam Grier and Booker Bradshaw. Quintessential soft-core blaxploitation film which has it all: violence, pimps, drugs, nudity and sex, larded with crazy dialogue and overall campiness. An African-American nurse goes after drug dealers who turned her younger sister into an addict. She uses her not inconsiderable cleavage to attract the baddies and stands well-posed for the kill. Pam Grier shines in the action scenes, but she also has excellent acting abilities, which is why Tarantino asked her for the main role in Jackie Brown (see my post about neo-noir films). 
  • Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) by Russ Meyer and with Tura Satana, Haji and Lori Williams. Exploitation film originally meant for the drive-in circuit which became a famous cult film. Meyer's trademark super-busty chicks dominate the screen, especially the deadly vamp played by Tura Satana. Three strippers seeking thrills by racing in the desert kill a young man and take his girlfriend hostage. Next they visit a crippled old man living in a lonely place with his two sons to relieve him of his hidden cash. Lots of gratuitous violence, provocative gender roles as well as some great one-liners. A guilty pleasure. This film was in fact the inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
  • Audition (1999) by Takashi Miike and with Eihi Shiina and Ryo Ishibashi. A friend wants to help a widower find a new bride and arranges a fake audition with young women so that he can pick his choice. The demure girl he selects is, however, not what she seems at first sight - on the contrary, she is a disturbed and sadistic femme fatale as becomes clear in shocking scene upon shocking scene. You will never forget the way she says "Kiri kiri kiri kiri" while cutting off her suitor's foot with a wire saw - unless you walk out in disgust, as several persons did during the theatrical showings. 
  • Harold and Maude (1971) by Hal Ashby and with Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort and Vivian Pickles. If you think all cult films are violent or disgusting, watch this beautiful and life enhancing fairy tale about love between a 20-ish young man and a 79-year old woman. A self-destructive and alienated young man is obsessed with death and spends his leisure time attending funerals and simulating suicides to evade the girls his mother pushes him to meet. Then he becomes friends with an unconventional elderly woman which opens new perspectives on life for him. Existentialist drama with lots of black humor, urging us to have a purpose in life. 
  • Easy Rider (1969) by Dennis Hopper and with Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. Two counterculture bikers travel from Los Angeles to New Orleans to take part in the Mardi Gras. They encounter a commune of hippies, a drunken lawyer, a jail cell, and the death of a friend - until meeting their own fate at the hands of a couple of dim-witted rednecks. Groundbreaking soundtrack with The Band. The majestic landscapes in the first half of the film are very impressive. 
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) by Jim Sharman and with Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick. The quintessential rock opera. Kinky horror movie spoof about a square couple who after their car breaks down end up in a mansion peopled with transvestites where terrible orgies take place. Outrageously spiced up with transvestism, rock and sex. 
  • Battle Royale (2000) by Kinji Fukasaku and with Takeshi Kitano, Tatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda. The ultimate film of youth violence - harsh and cruel as youth can be. A group of violent delinquent youths on whom parents and schools have given up all hope is dropped on an uninhabited island with the order to kill each other - only the winner will be allowed to leave. They receive randomly selected weapons and are fitted with explosive collars that go off when they try to escape or are in the "wrong sector." Kitano plays the sadistic instructor who gleefully announces new deaths over a loudspeaker system. Film led to questions in the Japanese parliament, especially as real life cruel murders by juveniles were then getting much media attention. 

June 5, 2012

Musical Films (Film Reviews)

Just like Film Noir and the Western, the musical film is a typical American movie genre. There were years when on an annual basis scores of popular musicals were made. The heyday of this type of production spans the decades from the late twenties (the first sound film, The Jazz Singer, is after all a musical film!) to the late fifties.

What are the typical conventions of musical films? According to David Parkinson, the author of The Rough Guide to Film Musicals, these are:
  • On the surface escapist entertainment but spiritually in fact closer to the art house than the studio system.
  • Three types of stories: the backstage, the fairy-tale and the folk musical.
  • Structure and meaning of the film established not by the chronological story, but by the musical numbers - the oppositional aspects of the love relationship between the main characters are resolved in the music.
In other words: the musical numbers are not just loosely inserted, but in good musical films they carry structural meaning.

Musical film underwent the following transformations:

Backstage years (1929-1932): When musicals started being made, people were uncomfortable with singing and dancing in film stories, so they devised films where song and dance would be part of the story - the "backstage" story, i.e. a story about how against many odds a new stage production is made, which could then be shown. The first example is Broadway Melody (1929), which is also the first real musical film. This type of set-up remained popular in the next "Berkeley period." Also in this period Ernst Lubitsch made four charming musical films with Maurice Chevalier which fall in the story type of "fairy tale" (Love Parade etc.). In 1930 alone, 100 musical films were made, leading to rapid saturation.
Busby Berkeley years (1933-1934): Musicals revived thanks to choreographer Busby Berkeley (1895-1976) who used military drill precision to develop a unique style. His ingenious routines often transcend the limitations of the stage, such as when human bodies form kaleidoscopic patterns meant to be viewed from straight above. But for his many chorine close-ups he has also been accused of exploitation of the female form. In the later 30s and 40s Berkeley also worked as prolific director.

Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers years (1934-1939): formulaic screwball romances structured around set routines (Swing Time, The Gay Divorcee, etc.). "Chaste" big-screen musicals due to reinforcement of Hays Code. Fred falls for Ginger at first sight but is spurned because of an unintentional faux-pas. Later they are reunited by coincidence and dancing brings them closer together (their dance duos include both "challenge" dances and "woo to win" numbers). Then happens another misunderstanding after which a reconciliation concludes the film on a happy note. These films formed an antidote to despair in the Depression. Of course, this period was very rich in other musicals with a positive message as well.
War years: during the war, 400 musicals were made to boost morale and emphasize patriotism.
MGM Freed Unit years (1948-1957): Arthur Freed at MGM gathered a team of skilled professionals around him, such as Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra. Directors include Robert Mamoulian, Stanley Donen, Charles Walters, Busby Berkeley and Vincente Minelli. They brought new depth and refinement to the musical. In the same period, also the other studios churned out countless musicals.
Decline: Changing musical tastes in the sixties led to the demise of the musical film as a genre, although individual musicals keep being made to this day.

Dance in musical film was structured by three men: Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. All three worked as choreographers, designing the dance routines, and the last two were at the same time the most important dancers of all time in musicals. Busby Berkeley had a military background and devised the huge chorus routines popular in musicals of the early 1930s. They were made with clockwork precision. Berkeley uses frequent cuts to emphasize the legs of the chorines, or film geometrical patterns from above. Fred Astaire was a perfectionist, who wanted his difficult routines to look as if they were executed effortlessly. In order to bring out the nature of the dance, he had his routines filmed in one shot. Gene Kelly was an athlete who introduced contemporary ballet techniques into his routines. He also filmed in one shot, but in contrast to Astaire, had the camera move around to emphasize the flowing movement of the dance.

The best classical Hollywood film musicals are in my view:
  • Singing in the Rain (1952) by Stanley Donen and with Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen and Cyd Charisse. The perennial favorite, and that's easy to understand for it is a sparkling satire without any sentimentality. The music and dances are swinging off the screen, too. The story is a "backstage story" set in Hollywood during the transition to talkies: an aspiring actress who has to provide the words and vocals for a silent star whose voice "could shatter glass," falls in love with the leading man. MGM Freed Unit film. (10)
  • Love Me Tonight (1932) by Rouben Mamoulian and with Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald and Myrna Loy. Fresh and lively fairy tale. A tailor goes unpaid and follows the insolvent customer to his castle, where he is mistaken for a baron and falls in love with a princess. Playful and innovative way of filming, starting with a "symphony" of natural sounds as Paris awakens. The first song is started by the barber after which the catchy tune is taken up in sequence by various others, until the princess is finally singing it from her balcony, bridging the geographical gap that separates them. Sweeping tracking shots and shrewd use of the music to change scenes. The ending puts convention on its head, too - here the woman (on horseback) chases the man (in a train).  (10)
  • Silk Stockings (1957) by Rouben Mamoulian and with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Among the last of the classical (Freed Unit) musicals. Based on Ninotchka by Lubitsch (with Greta Garbo). Comparisons between both films are useless - Silk Stockings expresses with dance and music what Garbo expresses with her acting. The story of a female Soviet commissioner who on a visit to Paris to fetch three tarrying agents is herself encapsulated by a movie producer man-about-town. She surrenders to love but keeps her head high in this stylish movie - anyway, what attracts her most is a pair of silk stockings as the ultimate symbol of capitalism. (9.5)
  • High Society (1956) by Charles Walters and with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. All-star cast remake as musical of screwball comedy The Philadelphia Story. Here, too, comparisons are useless, as the nervous verbosity of the earlier film is replaced by music and style. A successful popular composer living in a mansion near his ex-wife's family estate tries to break-up her engagement to a bland and safe guy and win her heart again. Tabloid reporter also falls for her while covering the impending nuptials. Grace Kelly in her last film role is great as icy-cold blonde, Sinatra shines as the sleazy reporter and Crosby also does fine in his relaxed role as first husband. The icing on the cake is the presence of Louis Armstrong and his band. Energetic and highly enjoyable. See also the review by James Berardinelli. (9.5)
  • Footlight Parade (1933) by Lloyd Bacon and with James Cagney, Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler. A producer struggles against time, romance, and the competition to produce spectacular live "prologues" for movie houses. Blondell is great as the secretary who has her boss firmly in hand. Perhaps the most spectacular of Busby Berkeley's choreographies, with myriads of legs and a sexy water ballet. (9)  
  • Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) by Mervyn LeRoy and with Warren William, Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon. A millionaire turned composer rescues unemployed Broadway people with a new play. Great Busby Berkeley choreography. Even more than that, this movie ends with a flaming protest against the Depression and government inaction. It as as gritty as the year in which it was produced. (9)
  • The Band Wagon (1953) by Vincente Minelli and with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Aging musical star hopes a Broadway play will restart his career, but the play's director makes it a pretentious retelling of Faust, and brings in a prima ballerina who clashes with the star. Ballerina and musical star iron out their differences in a great romantic musical movement "Dancing in the Dark" and the star turns the failure of the show into triumph by remaking and financing it into a lively musical. Real melancholy of being passed up by the passage of time tangible in this beautiful musical. Only deficiency is that the story is a bit thin. (8.5)
  • 42nd Street (1933) by Lloyd Bacon and with Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels and George Brent. The ultimate backstager. An ailing director puts everything into what may be his last Broadway show. At the last moment a chorus girl has to replace the star who has twisted her ankle. Again sensational choreography by Busby Berkeley - watch for the violins glowing in the dark. On the other hand, this is the most conventional of the three 1933 Busby Berkeley musicals on my list. (8.5)
  • An American in Paris (1951) by Vincente Minelli and with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. Another famous MGM classic, set in a type of fairy-tale Paris that only exists in the Hollywood imagination. Lavish production in which the songs and dances blend perfectly with the story. The romance between an American painter - who rather coldly spurns a wealthy lady-sponsor - and a coltish French girl features a climactic, 17-minute, half-million-dollar "dream ballet" - one of Arthur Freed's dance highlights. Energetic and exuberant, and not devoid of satire. (8.5)
  • The Gay Divorcee (1934) by Mark Sandrich and with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The quintessential "Ginger and Fred movie," with a farcical story meant to bring some sunshine into the dark Depression years. To get a divorce from her unwilling husband, a woman has to pretend she is having an adulterous relationship. An American dancer is mistaken for the man who has to pretend being her lover, but of course he has already fallen in love with her. The story is just a pretension for the great dance routines. (8)
  • Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) by Howard Hawks and with Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. While MGM made the artistic musicals, Fox made the "vulgar" ones - and this one certainly is visually opulent fun. Two lounge singers make a transatlantic voyage to Paris, trying to hook a rich husband, although one of them is already engaged to the son of a millionaire. Sharp satire on a Gold Diggers level, featuring the iconic song "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friends." Monroe and Russel both give great performances - why is this movie never included in lists of best musicals? It's bubbly but great fun. (8)
  • Funny Face (1957) by Stanley Donen and with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. A sales girl in a book shop who is in the grip of French philosophy is scouted rather forcibly by a fashion magazine and on a shoot in Paris falls in love with the photographer who teaches her to prefer fashion to philosophy. Anti-intellectual stance harps on French Existentialism which was then going strong. But there is real chemistry between Hepburn and Astaire, and that makes a lot good. (7.5)
  • Cover Girl (1944) by Charles Vidor and with Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly. With its cliched and conservative plot this is no second film noir Gilda, although Rita Hayworth is more beautiful than ever. This 1944 flag-waving movie was meant to boost the morale of the country. Leggy dancer of a Brooklyn joint becomes "cover girl" as a step up in her career, endangering the relationship with her buddy who is the owner of the small theater where she dances. But in the end she gives up glamour and returns to her guy. Loyalty is an important virtue, especially in war years. Film boosted the career of Gene Kelly who does an ingenious dance with his own reflection. (7)

    This is a personal choice. It is often said that musicals are an acquired taste - and indeed, I only recently started liking them. What kept me from doing so in the past, is the sentimentality of many musicals, as well as the fact that some famous ones are really meant for children (Sound of Music, Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins). I have left these out - my preference is as always for the sharp and satirical (therefore the four Pre-Code musicals on my list). I also prefer classical musicals to the "rock" and other musicals of the 1970s and later, not only because of the music, but in the first place because these contemporary productions are flat and empty and have no soul. Finally, I have selected film musicals that are interesting as movies, and not just straightforward recordings of an original theater production.

    Classical musical is a typical American phenomenon, a quintessential Hollywood genre. It has never been as popular abroad as in the United States. Still, there are some interesting international musical films, such as Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (with a very young Catherine Deneuve) and its sequel, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort; a contemporary French musical film, 8 Femmes; and, though not technically a musical, Black Orpheus (not to mention Bollywood, but that is a phenomenon in itself).
    Filmsite has a more detailed article about musical / dance film.

    June 3, 2012

    Bach Cantatas (31): Trinity Sunday

    Trinity Sunday is the first Sunday after Pentecost and celebrates the Christian dogma of the Trinity, the three Persons of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It was not a feast of the early church but developed gradually and was established on the present Sunday by Pope John XXII (1316–1334). All Sundays until Advent are numbered from this day. There are three cantatas for this day - a fourth one (BWV 194) was originally written for the dedication of a new organ and has already been discussed.

    Romans 11:33–36, "depth of wisdom"
    John 3:1–15, "the meeting of Jesus and Nicodemus"


    • O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad, BWV 165, 16 June 1715

      Arie S: O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad
      Recitativ B: Die sündige Geburt verdammter Adamserben
      Arie A: Jesu, der aus großer Liebe
      Recitativ B: Ich habe ja, mein Seelenbräutigam
      Arie T: Jesu, meines Todes Tod
      Choral: Sein Wort, sein Tauf, sein Nachtmahl

      ("O holy bath of spirit and water") Intimate scale like other Weimar cantatas. Based on the text "Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" - in other words, the purification of the human spirit by baptism. Starts with a fugal soprano aria which uses the image of bath water as purifier of the soul. The first of two bass recitatives refers to the radiance of being clothed in the “white silk of Christ’s innocence.” After a slow but steady alto aria, follows the second bass recitative which is very expressive. It contains an image of the “blood-red serpent" which does not refer to Satan, but to the medieval portrayal of Christ in Limbo as a snake on the cross. And indeed, the ensuing tenor aria literally "snakes" along. It is a prayer for insight that the death of Jesus has brought salvation. The cantata concludes with a straightforward choral setting. It is interesting to see how in this cantata Bach manages to translates the difficult ideology into music. (***)

    • Es ist ein trotzig, und verzagt Ding, BWV 176, 27 May 1725

      Chor: Es ist ein trotzig and verzagt Ding um aller Menschen Herze
      Rezitativ A: Ich meine, recht verzagt
      Arie S: Dein sonst hell beliebter Schein
      Rezitativ B: So wundre dich, O Meister, nicht
      Arie A: Ermuntert euch, furchtsam und schüchterne Sinne
      Choral: Auf daß wir also allzugleich

      ("The heart is deceitful above all things") Again a short cantata. The fugal opening chorus brings the words of the title as a stern message. The alto recitative refers to the meeting of Jesus with Nicodemus, the reading for this day. The soprano aria is an attractive gavotte. Textually, it is a lament that "her sun is surrounded by clouds." After another recitative follows the alto aria which brings encouragement, but is all the same accompanied by dark tones. The cantata ends with a straightforward chorale harmonization. (**)

    • Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott, BWV 129, 16 June 1726

      Coro: Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott
      Aria (bass): Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott, mein Heil
      Aria (soprano): Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott, mein Trost
      Aria (alto): Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott, der ewig lebet
      Chorale: Dem wir das Heilig jetzt

      ("Praised be the Lord, my God") Lovely little chorale cantata, a general praise of the Trinity, without reference to a specific gospel reading. Bach left the chorale text unchanged and did not add any other text. Grand opening movement has trumpets and drums and wonderful motoric rhythm. The text is a praise of God the Creator. After that follow three arias in a row, for bass (with continuo), soprano (with flute and violin) and alto (with oboe d'amore), all elegantly crafted. The alto aria is a pastoral dance and the highlight of the cantata. The closing chorale is again joyful though somewhat pompous. Overall rather uncomplicated music. (***)