Sunday, 22 July 2012

A Dark Knight At The Opera

In his nicely balanced review of The Dark Knight Rises, The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw labels the film Wagnerian ('a superhero Bayreuth'). I think that this is an apt description of the film. No doubt its length (two and three-quarter hours) and various apocalyptic themes from apocalypse to heroes self-sacrificing and labouring in moral quandary justify this comparison on their own.

In addition, there is a technical but entirely appreciable way in which The Dark Knight Rises may be said to resemble a Wagnerian music drama. Wagner himself said that the most valuable part of his art was that of transition, from moving from one thought, mood or scene to another. Consequently his music doesn't always have clear arrival points. Rather it moves from one moment of tension or imbalance directly to another. Settling is deferred. Like a musical treadmill you can't help being carried forward. Wagner's goal was the propagation of unendliche melodie or never-ending melody, where the tune meanders like a stream of consciousness (Inception, anyone?).

Similarly Christopher Nolan's approach to editing has visuals, music and the dramatic sensibility overlapping. The original score composer, Hans Zimmer has a not-insignificant hand in this by writing self-perpetuating music. Feeding one another, tipping the next sequence of events off, informing the action not only of the moment at hand but of previous action, this tumbling causality keeps the temperature in motion - in fact this very mix of metaphors, climate and dynamism, though apparently oxymoronic, is precisely the character of opera, of any multi-faceted art form.

Nolan's great achievement in The Dark Knight Rises is that he manages this continual, homogenising imbalance consistently across the full span of this long film, a genuinely Wagnerian achievement, if only in stylistic terms. The downside is that it's a bit like a trying to read an extremely long sentence that sounds well-composed as you read it, but as it never finishes, one grasps neither its conclusion nor its basic argument. This, in addition to the widely reported inaudibility of the film means that its point is cut adrift of its patina, and risks leave the audience invigorated but unedified.

The Dark Knight's Pavane

It's the Dark Knight Rises weekend. There'll be plenty to say about it (I've seen it now and have a less-than-awed impression of the film) but just a quick note about the small chink of pre-composed music that crept in between the comprehensive wallpaper of Hans Zimmer's score. In a scene at a masked ball, Wayne dances with Selina to French composer Maurice Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte - or Pavane for a Dead Princess, surprisingly elegiac music for a film whose title suggests resurrection. Perhaps this conflict is symptomatic of the turbulence within the film, symptomatic of 'the coming storm' of which Selina speaks as she dances. Here is the orchestrated version as in the one in the film.

UPDATE: I've now taken the opportunity of seeing the film a second time. Understandably blind-sided by this curious but apposite use of Ravel I overlooked the excerpt of a Strauss waltz that precedes it at the ball.

Of course, it comes as no surprise to find Kubrick acolyte Christopher Nolan using the music of Johann Strauss in one of his films - Kubrick is single-handedly responsible for the cultural rehabilitation of Strauss through his use of The Blue Danube waltz in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The use of a Strauss waltz has no further symbolism in this situation, operating as much as a trope of the society dance as any other familiar symbol in genre film. Though there is, incredibly, no information in the closing credits about the title of the waltz or its performers, unlike the Ravel (performed by the Minnesota Orchestra under Stanislaw Skrowaczewski) I believe it is the Wine, Women and Song waltz Op. 333. See if you agree:

UPDATE 2: A well-informed friend has confirmed that this is indeed the waltz that Christopher Nolan uses in his film. Of course, this makes a great deal of sense, given that Bruce Wayne's appearance at the ball is partly by virtue of Alfred's instigation. The butler urges his charge to get back out into the world in order to try to start living life once more, the philosophical kernel of the adage of the title of the waltz.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Designing 007, Barbican Centre

This exhibition celebrating 007 in his 50th year on film is quite an undertaking for the Barbican. There being 22 films with a 23rd imminent, there is a huge inventory of design tat that could be put on show. As it is, the show needs a fair bit of space, so they've set it up in three locations - The Curve gallery, a fairly new area underneath the Library and in a cinema space in the basement.

Besides original clothing, gadgets, set design sketches and models there are a number of screens playing pertinent clips from the films and interviews with key designers. These videos, freely available on the exhibition site, are some of the best things in the exhibition. Additionally there are on-set photos and some period footage; that of the French premiere of Goldfinger is very entertaining.

There are some ill-considered things. There's a picture of Lucian Freud on a wallchart showing Ian Fleming's involvement in the films, but apparently no information as to why. I asked one of the staff but she didn't know (Google saith - the artist painted Fleming's wife Anne, right).

In the Villains section there's a cabinet exhibiting the fencing gear from Die Another Day which describes the two sabres used in the fencing club scene as 'foils' (more information on the basic difference via Wikipedia).

Particularly odd and, I'm afraid, irritating was the construction of an exhibit of Solitaire sitting at her tarot-reading desk. Her shoes are virtually concealed but worst of all, the most important card(s) 'The Lovers', a pack of which Bond rigs in order to win Solitaire over, are harshly obfuscated by shadow falling from the candelabra either side. I asked an usher if she could move the candle sticks and she (reasonably) said that she couldn't. Later I spoke to a supervisor who tried moving the candlesticks while no-one was looking but they are adhered to the desk.

I would have liked to have seen more exhibits that are period influences on the style. The show is exclusively 007 and we have to take the word of the curator every time we read the line '... it was very fashionable' or the suchlike.

Finally, while I'm exhausting my whinging, the gift shop tat at the end, though dismissably silly did have one excruciatingly lazy piece - a Martini glass with a picture of an olive on the side of it. The point about Bond is not that he likes Martinis but that he likes them 'shaken, not stirred'. He's not a drinker but a specific drinker. In Casino Royale, book and film he dictates the component parts of a Martini and how it should be prepared before naming it the Vesper. This drink does not have an olive but a twist of lemon peel... as one can see from the badges and tea towels on the next door table.

This give-them-any-old-shit mentality aside, I found myself drawn in almost exclusively by the women's costumes. Pam Bouvier's complicatedly-colourful halterneck gown by Jodie Lynn Tillen is not only worth seeing for real to get its detail. I also felt the teenager in me that clapped eyes on Carey Lowell and suddenly broke out into pubescence. I had a similar reaction to seeing Vesper Lynd's purple gown by Lindy Hemming. Tantalisingly, there's also a Jany Temine gown that will be worn by 'Severine' in the forthcoming movie Skyfall.

Touchingly, I also appreciated the industrial gnashers that were worn by Richard Kiel as Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me; there's a note next to them, describing how the actor had to remove them after every take as they were too uncomfortable to wear for long. A sweet anecdote about the most brutal henchman of the series.

There are bits and pieces outside the exhibition proper too, including the Aston Martin DB5 at the entrance + Tussauds-style Connery for the photo-op. But the now-ascendant cynic in me saw these simply as carrots to reel in passing trade. The obviousness and rather imperfect mounting of the exhibition coloured my view of it. The best exhibit is that which is not pointed at at all - the upper atrium of the Barbican Centre itself, used as a location backdrop in A Quantum Of Solace (2008).

Saturday, 7 July 2012

To The Light - Yoko Ono at The Serpentine

I have to confess to not being as excited about this exhibition as I might be at any of the other significant shows in London at any given time. However, my involvement in the forthcoming production of Stockhausen's Mittwoch aus Licht for Birmingham Opera fired my interest in this most famous advocate of the Fluxus movement. Stockhausen's aesthetic and compositional approach of the 1960s had much in common with the art group. Indeed it is likely that the composer met and worked with Yoko Ono on visiting New York in the early 1960s. To understand something of the approach of one of these sizeable figures of 20th century avant-garde art is to understand something of the other. Or at least that's the theory.

To The Light is largely a retrospective but it also has new work. In fact, much of the new work mirrors (if not 'updates') the original pieces of the 1960s. For example 'Cut Piece', the famous performance piece in which Yoko would invite an audience to snip of parts of her clothing as she sat impassive on the floor has a contemporary counterpart and both were on show.

There is also the famous piece by which John Lennon first made Yoko's acquaintance. Yes constitutes the word 'Yes' written on the ceiling. Being in such an unusual, inaccessible place and being printed in small lettering means that it is necessary to climb a step ladder and use a magnifying glass in order to read it. I liked the simplicity of a companion piece in the next room in which 'This is the ceiling' and 'This is the floor' are written on the floor and ceiling respectively (without accessibility aids).

At the centre of the exhibition is a maze constructed of perspex walls. It is possible to see right through the edifice - but, surprisingly, this makes it no easier to find one's way to the centre. It reminded me of Yayoi Kusama's mirror maze in Tate Modern's recent retrospective.

There's also a very new project in which visitors are invited to participate. Smile looks to collate photographs of everyone in the world smiling. This is a typically hippie conceit - impossible to realise but no less charming, or powerful for it. Unfortunately this one is hamstrrung by the photos actually on show, in which the British public manage to not look at the camera, do silly hand gestures or simply not smile at all!

The piece that got me though was Painting To Be Stepped On (1961). Like many of Yoko Ono's work it is concentratedly conceptual. A work with political roots, this piece of canvas left on the floor and designed to acquire the footprints of those who follow the instruction of the title has acquired another part - its date. Where, in 1961, Painting To Be Stepped On would have invited discussion about the uniqueness of the imprint of a shoe or about the acquisition of a record of neglect (those imprint being from passers-by), now the piece is also an artefact. It has moved from an object of little material worth inviting discussion to being an object in its own right - even if only as it represents the time of the the conception of the idea.

Painting To Be Stepped On records the unwitting 'beauty' of imprint and purpose in the footprint of someone walking somewhere - despite the piece's title, the instructions are less determinate, less inviting, the idea for the canvas to be left out to acquire footprints. Similarly, Stockhausen's text work of the late 1960s made an effort to strip away the composer as intermediary - even the performer-as-composer - and get the performer to play according to a more naturally realised instinct.

The ephemeral nature of music making means that creating an object that then remains as an artefact to help us get a grip on this is difficult. The point about Stockhausen's work in this area is that there is no score. However, the principals that such pieces fostered are carried over into the contradictory nature of later work such as the Licht operas, pieces at once formally highly prescriptive and yet peppered with instruction for approximation in both timing and pitch.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Willem Dafoe's iPod in The Hunter

Today sees the release of Daniel Nettheim's The Hunter. The film is a vehicle for Willem Dafoe, who plays a mercenary, Martin David, contracted to do a job in the Tasmanian outback.

A familiar sub genre of the right-of-passage movie, the hard-bitten professional David uncovers his deep-buried humanity as the film progresses. This is represented by the music that he plays on his iPod, which is all classical music, helped on its way with a sudden blast of Bruce Springsteen (I'm On Fire). It is particularly of note that the three 'operatic' extracts have pastoral texts, i.e. they are songs about the landscape and its wildlife, which, one might reasonably argue, is the main character of the film.

To begin with, we find David in his hotel, listening to Antonín Dvořák's Song To The Moon, from the composer's most famous opera Rusalka:

In the song, the eponymous protagonist Rusalka, who is a water sprite living in the wood, asks the moon to tell a human Prince of her love for him.

After David has taken the contract we get the second extract of music. Ombra mai fu, from the opera Serse, or Xerxes, is the most famous aria from Handel's entire operatic output. Again the chief character sings, this time directly to a tree about the shade it provides him.

Finally - of the three solo vocal excerpts - is the exotic Chant d'Auvergne, Bailero, by Joseph Canteloube. This is not from an opera but part of a set of folksong arrangements. Bailero is the best known and is in the form of a dialogue with a shepherd across a valley.

Later, after The Boss has forced its way into the party via a needle left on a record, David appropriates the sound system on which it was playing to broadcast the opening of Vivaldi's Gloria. This is a popular, bouncy piece of music, if rather bland, a sort of MOR classic of classical music. As in the film though, kids love it.

Finally, this scene is followed straight away by Vivaldi. After the churchy words of the Gloria we are back in pastoral territory with a movement (Largo) from the composer's The Four Seasons suite for orchestra and solo violin. Appropriately enough it's from Winter - and that plink-plink effect you can hear in the orchestra? Well that's supposed to be water dripping from icicles as they thaw. A bit like the thawing heart of a trained killer, see?

Please note that the performers in these clips are not necessarily the performers in the excerpts used in the film.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Spiritual Spacemen

Struggling with the whole concept of Stockhausen's Mittwoch aus Licht, a review of a new Bowie biography in this weekend's Observer has really captured my imagination. The book concerns the 6 July 1972 Top Of The Pops broadcast in which David Bowie appeared in his spaceman-from-Mars alter ego, Ziggy Stardust to perform Starman. It looked like this:

Space travel seems to have been a powerful metaphor during counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s. Star Trek's glossy fiction came off the air in 1969, the year that, photographed in grainy fact, man first set foot on the moon. Fiction gave way to fact.

This change in perspective (looking out into space becomes looking down from space) is mirrored in a pair of spacebound films meditating on man's relationship with one another, made either side of the landing. 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, takes off into space like a mind-expanding trip. By contrast, 1972's Silent Running soberly pines for a lost earth, as Bruce Dern's desperate astronaut refuses to destroy the last scraps of vegetation aboard his dystopian raft of a ship.

You can even watch the whole film via YouTube here.

Silent Running was released in the same year, 1972, that Bowie released Starman. The ambiguity of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust persona and how the singer used it to investigate a new tranche of cultural consciousness may seem different from Bruce Dern's rather more politicised, if visionary astronaut. Yet both characters are clearly making use of the new consciousness and acceptance of space travel to re-examine the nature of their place in society.

Indeed, Bowie famously abandoned his Ziggy alter-ego the following year but went on to make a film about the vulnerability of a visiting alien in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth in 1976. Roeg had already made a film, Walkabout (1971), using excerpts from Stockhausen's Hymnen in the soundtrack.

Twenty years on, the vulnerable alien highlighting the moral inadequacies of earth was reworked by electronic-dance outfit Orbital in a celebrated video starring Tilda Swinton to accompany their 1996 single The Box, released at the same time as the actual composition of Mittwoch (1995-1997).

This is all intriguing, pertinent stuff. Stockhausen's opera Mittwoch aus Licht is part of an operatic cycle involving the usual human drama of personal and political conflict but set within intergalactic context. Though the piece was completed more than a quarter of a century later, Stockhausen actually conceived of the opera's composition in the early 1970s (the story in which he was handed a copy of the theosophical text The Urantia Book, the Scientology-like opus on which the opera cycle became based, can be read in this New York Times piece).

For all this toe-dipping in to the material reality of the cosmos in the early 1970s, the usual questions concerning existence and purpose remained. One can see how a text that combines the familiar thematic narratives of Christianity with an account of a now more fixed intergalacticism might have an appeal to a lapsed Catholic composer pioneering electronic music.