As promised here, I spent Christmas with Jewish Friends watching a movie and going out for Chinese. The movie, True Grit, was the first of three very good films I’ve seen in the last month. Each of them was enhanced by a fine score.
I had my doubts about True Grit in the first minutes. I’m always a little leery of the Coen Brothers. Aside from the outstanding Fargo, everything I’ve seen of theirs gives me the uncomfortable feeling of not being in on some joke. I never know if they’re being ironic, or playing for laughs, and it makes me feel stupid.
Right off True Grit gave me that feeling. The actors spoke in some kind of weird dialect, which reviews later told me was them speaking without contractions. Why? If I found that aspect of the movie incomprehensible, the plot was the opposite. Though I’d neither read the book nor seen the John Wayne original, I’d seen enough Westerns as a kid to know from the first minute that the girl was going to avenge her dad’s death, that she’d try to enlist the old drunk Rooster Cogburn into helping her, that he’d initially refuse then reluctantly agree. I knew they were going to ride horses out into the Wild West to look for the bad guys, and they’d eventually get them. Did I want to spend two hours watching it happen?
True, there was Jeff Bridges. He’s so good that, as he proved in Crazy Heart, it’s fun watching him do anything – struggling to tie his shoes, sleeping one off, even puking in a garbage can. But that movie also had Maggie Gyllenhaal – another actor I’ll watch do anything. And it had plenty of heart, crazy or not. Haillee Steinfeld plays a properly spunky Mattie Ross in True Grit, but I wasn’t sure I was up to two hours of her avoiding apostrophes.
As predicted, they got on their horses and forded a river then headed out into the big country….and that’s where the movie suddenly came to life. Because, whether due to where it was shot, or how, that country looked like no cowboy country I’d aver seen in or out of a movie. It was beautiful, and strange.
And, thanks to the music, very moving. The memory of old cowboy movies had me expecting some rehash of the rollicking Bonanza theme, or warmed over Aaron Copeland. Instead Carter Burwell chose several 19th century American hymns just at that pleasant edge of familiarity where they’re comfortable, but don’t bring along a lot of baggage, like the Battle Hymn of the Republic would. Burwell arranged them for piano and strings with the right balance of feeling and restraint. The result is the American West viewed as a real place, not some Hollywood set. A place of tangible beauty in contrast to the grubby men and women with their unbeautiful acts of violence. The music gives voice to the better nature of our ancestors who’d gone West looking for something higher. Burwell’s arrangements express reverence for those ideals, whether God, or in Mattie’s case, Justice. The overriding feeling is elegiac, a mourning for ideals unfulfilled, for a past that’s not only gone but never was what we thought it was.
The music avoids the cheap sentimentality so common in Hollywood scores, and in the work of Ken Burns as he depicted 19th century America. I experience the theme to his Civil War series as an emotional violation. I feel it poking into my chest, grabbing hold and strumming away at my heartstrings. I wanted to yell –Hey, I didn’t ask to feel that! The taste of sentimentality is unmistakable – it’s cloying, overly sweet, and ultimately fake. Nutrisweet for the heart.
Burwell coaxes, seduces with his score. His piano and strings invite us into the mysteries of those Protestant hymns, and through them into the mystery of the Old West. I left the movie asking the question every real historian must wish for his audience to ask – what was it really like then?
Speaking of sentimentality, there’s Tchaikovsky. His sweeping melodies, while much finer than most Hollywood fare, have the mark of sentimentality, giving me the vague sense that my feelings are being manipulated. And though he possesses great orchestration skills, he often uses them to turn a sense of drama into melodrama.
His music was perfect for Black Swan.
This was one of those rare films that got deep into me, whose effect lingered for days afterwards. It’s painful to watch – especially for the fingers and toes. Not to speak of the heart. It sounds like I’m contradicting myself here, because director Aronofsky and Natalie Portman, in the role of a career, spend every moment assaulting the senses and feelings. The difference is that those feeling are not the ersatz of sentiment, but real. Real envy, twisted motherly love, crazed perfectionism, repressed sexuality, wicked Maestro manipulation, has-been despair…
I haven’t given Tchaikovsky a fair shake in part because I’ve never seen any of his ballets. He didn’t write their music to be heard alone, but to accompany visuals. As background to Black Swan I didn’t hear any hint of sentimentality, just cue after cue in which the music turned up the emotional volume of what was on screen. Which is to say, movie music at its best.
I’m, going to give Tchaikovsky another listen. Better yet, I’m going to go see Swan Lake.
The King’s Speech
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!!!
The King’s Speech is a fascinating tale, one which came to a history ignoramus like me brand new. It required the virtuoso performances of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. It didn’t require, but was enhanced by the skillful interiors, which in this case made me feel like I was getting a peek into the real lives of the Royals. The movie required the music to stay out of the way, until the climax. Which it did. The music avoided all the royal clichés – regal fanfares and noble strings –which was just right, because this is a movie about Royals as people, not Kings and Queens.
Then comes the climax, the stammering King rising to give the speech of a lifetime, to the world on radio, declaring war on Germany. The music playing behind the speech pole-axed me. Beethoven. One of the great products of Germany, who the King was busy declaring war on. The filmmakers didn’t choose something obscure, but the somber second movement of the 7th Symphony, one of Beethoven’s best known passages. I was sure the filmmakers were playing for some kind of irony. And they kept playing, because in the period after the successful speech, which despite the sober moment is filled with relief and congratulations – they play more Beethoven, the slow movement from the 2nd piano Concerto. Irony on irony, because this is one of the most peaceful, affectionate things Beethoven wrote.
All I could figure was that the filmmakers were highlighting the monumental irony that the same culture that produced Bach, Mozart and Beethoven could produce Hitler. More than irony, it’s perhaps the great historical mystery of the 20th century. Then again, they were stuck. There’s no other piece of music that comes close to the noble sorrow of that movement.
Then I happened to speak to my friend Jill Ker Conway, who was five in Australia when her parents sat her down in front of the radio to hear the broadcast of the King’s speech live. Wow. To think that I know someone who was alive then, who heard that! Jill has a keen musical ear, and distinctly remembers that the BBC played that Beethoven movement throughout the speech. I was further astounded. How could they do that? She said that no one even thought about the fact that Beethoven was German. I can’t imagine that today. The 24/7 news channels, surviving newspapers, blogs would be so busy dissecting the meaning of the BBC’s music choice that they’d forget that Hitler was about to try to take over the world.
Perhaps I’ve become just another old crank, but I do often feel we’re living in a cultural wasteland. It’s heartening to see three really good movies, and better, that they have great scores.