Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

Opus 45: The Return of Maxim (1937)

February 23, 2011

The Return of Maxim, op. 45 (1937)
Film on YouTube (ten-minute segments) via SHOSTAKOVI.CH

My experience of watching the second entry in Kozintsev’s and Trauberg’s “Maxim Trilogy”, now that I’ve finally quit dragging my heels and done it, was much the same as that of watching Maxim’s Youth, accomplished with YouTube and without English subtitles.  The Return of Maxim keeps all of the hallmarks of the earlier film’s style:  Its easy-to-watch editing, an abundance of diegetic song and instrumental tunes, and, most pleasantly, Boris Chirkov’s puckish on-screen magnetism in the title role, which remains charming if not particularly interesting despite the language barrier.  The story here seems to focus on printing and delivering issues of Pravda and swaps out most of the original’s factory scenes for depictions of heated backroom discussions and raucous parliamentary sessions.  The film and score both perk up a little bit at the movie’s climactic showdown between workers and police but there is nothing as lively as the earlier film’s sleigh-ride prologue.

Shostakovich produced more original music for this film than for Maxim’s Youth but his contributions — presumably written during or soon after the onset of his political trouble — are still sparse.  He provides thirty seconds of interesting, or comparatively interesting, murky music for a nighttime parting of Maxim and his beloved, before the hero is waylaid on the street; his score for the climactic street scenes hits the required somber and defiant notes.  The most high-spirited music accompanies a billiards contest between Maxim and a drunken, bourgeois antagonist, for which Shostakovich supplies a characteristically energetic but rather perfunctory dance number:

It’s workmanlike stuff, which makes it fine enough film music due to the uniformly high level of Shostakovich’s work, but it doesn’t draw deeply from the composer’s talents.

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Opus 41a: Girlfriends (1935)

December 6, 2010

Girlfriends, op. 41a (1935)
CD:  Various soloists, Camerata Silesia, The Katowice City Singers’ Ensemble, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mark Fitz-Gerald (Naxos 8.572138)

Lev Arnshtam’s Girlfriends is another of Shostakovich’s early film collaborations available in its un-subtitled entirety on the Internet but I opted instead for the music without images, because I want to get to know Mark Fitz-Gerald’s disc and, with Love and Hatred and Maxim’s Youth in recent memory and still more films (the rest of the Maxim Trilogy!) looming ahead, I want to pace myself on the intriguing but also sort of tiresome act of watching a propagandistic, somewhat dated, frequently incomprehensible movie in discrete and sometimes slow-to-download chunks.  Actually, between Maxim’s Youth and Girlfriends I may have picked the wrong one to watch in full, as this score — largely reconstructed from the original film soundtrack by Fitz-Gerald — is the richer and more varied one, a mix of chamber music, large orchestra work, novel solo instruments, and revolutionary song.  As in The Golden Mountains, Shostakovich deploys a pipe organ, in a voluntary accompanied by brass instruments that heralds the 1919 civil war; as in Alone, Shostakovich makes a rare use of the theremin, in an unstable rendition of the Internationale, then the Soviet national anthem, that plays as the titular girlfriends (serving as nurses) and some wounded soldiers flee from the enemy by train.  Whether the effect is more comical or unsettling in the film I don’t yet know, but in its pure audio form the electronic solo wavers neatly between the two:

I’ll eventually need to watch the film, too, to take in the contrast between the vintage recording of the score and Fitz-Gerald’s thoroughly contemporary, clean-lined account.  Based on the past films I’ve watched there’s a lot of charm in that older, warblier sound, but my tastes in vocal music are very much a product of my times, I think, and I appreciate the lucid, filigree-free (and, certainly, well engineered) solo and ensemble singing on the Naxos album:

Our enemy did not mock you,
At your death you were surrounded
By your own people, and we,
Your friends, closed your eagle eyes.

That excerpt (text translated by Anastasia Belina) comes from the revolutionary song “Tormented by a Lack of Freedom”, one of a couple such numbers that Shostakovich incorporated into the Girlfriends score and, notably for Shostakovich theme-spotters, one he much later worked into the emotionally searing medley of his eighth quartet.  The film score actually has a more direct relationship to his string quartet writing:  Music from the 1938 first quartet serves as the movie’s introduction, which seems uncanny until you read in the booklet essay (by John Riley, he of the ever-helpful film handbook) that the usage dates from a 1960s restoration.  There is original quartet music in the film, though, sometimes augmented by other instruments, and it presents a view of the composer’s emerging chamber music sound, as well as the expressiveness of his general middle-period style:

All in all it’s a fine forty-five minutes of music.  I expect its joys would be diminished outside the context of Shostakovich’s career and the music, designed to coexist with moving images without overwhelming them, suffers on its own as most film scores do (I learned this phenomenon well enough from playing John Williams’ official Jurassic Park soundtrack CD over and over at a tender age), but it very much supports Riley’s thesis that Shostakovich’s cinematic work deserves more credit and attention than it usually gets.  If nothing else, the ties between it and his string quartets — that most respected, intimate, consistently high-quality body of Shostakovich’s work — puts the lie to the idea that his film music can all be dismissed as perfunctory, politically expedient stuff.  It’s a neat facet of his compositional personality to get to know, all these years after becoming so deeply attached to his music.

Opus 41: Maxim’s Youth (1934)

November 23, 2010

Maxim’s Youth, op. 41 (1934)
Film on YouTube (ten-minute segments) via SHOSTAKOVI.CH: The Page of Shostakovich

As Love and Hatred did, Maxim’s Youth provided me with a web-enabled, unsubtitled, Harvey-Keitel-in-U-571-like, “Everything’s in Russian!” sort of home video experience: Kozintsev and Trauberg’s 1935 film lacks an accessible DVD release, so it’s back to the YouTube library at the SHOSTAKOVI.CH fan site for me. This time I availed myself of John Riley’s plot summary beforehand, to whatever extent that helped: Maxim, a waggish young factory worker, wakes up politically after a pair of industrial accidents, organizes covertly, demonstrates, goes to jail, and ultimately escapes to carry on his work. The story is a Soviet archetype but the film, the first in a trilogy, was very popular in its time, and the character of Maxim apparently became something of a folk hero, one not always entirely understood by the citizenry to be fictional. More useful is Riley’s description of Shostakovich’s involvement in the soundtrack, for which he acted more as a co-curator than as a composer. A popular waltz tune serves as Maxim’s theme song and most of the soundtrack corresponds to action within the film itself: Characters sing and very frequently play the accordion, dance tunes play from behind closed doors, pastiches of industrial sound set an appropriately proletarian mood.

The exception to that is the nighttime sleigh ride in the prologue, set to the only music in the film that Shostakovich composed himself. He mashes up four melodies for the scene, including a polka that he would reuse down the line in a galop in his operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki and a song (sung by a giddy woman in the middle of the scene) called “I am a Footballer!”. The prologue’s exuberant satire of a gaggle of decadent bourgeoisie recalls the visual energy of the directors’ earlier New Babylon more than any Shostakovich film collaboration I’ve watched since then. In fact the scene seems to have little reason to lead off the film other than that it looks nifty, a formalist appetizer before the directors settle into the film’s plainer, more populist attitude, aided by the absence of Shostakovich’s thick orchestral sounds.

The other notable scene for Shostakoviphiles highlights the song “You Fell as a Victim”, which the composer used prominently within his eleventh symphony two decades later. Here it serves within a long, initially very moody sequence in which a worker is killed in a factory accident. Maxim, initially backed only by a soundscape of keening whistles, comes to the factory floor and sees his fallen comrade, whose status as martyr is sealed by a shaft of sunlight; the assembled workers then spontaneously begin singing the revolutionary song as they bear the body away in a funeral procession that boils over into political demonstration.

I was pretty bored by the film by the end. Most likely that’s because I don’t know what any of the words mean, less of a handicap than commonly thought, I suspect, when watching narrative movies but a handicap nonetheless. Or perhaps it’s because the film becomes more somber and self-constrained as it works towards its didactic close; perhaps too because most films have trouble sustaining their energy and novelty all the way through to the end. For all that, the film has a number of evocative sounds and, more so, a visual panache that I find hard to define; the filmmakers’ editing is consistently snappy, as in their earlier New Babylon and Alone, and there is some striking, dramatically shadowed close-up photography of the actors. Boris Chirkov in the title role has enough high-spirited charisma to carry many scenes for me even though their finer details were incomprehensible due to the language barrier. In contrast to when I watched Love and Hatred a week ago, I didn’t push myself to try to understand what precisely the story is. Instead I took in the movie’s visual and auditory pleasures, when present (including the gritty but still somewhat fantastical factory setting, with its chorus of hooters and its tiny steam locomotives) and let myself be carried along, half distracted, through it’s duller stretches. It’s a satisfactory way to watch a film.

Opus 38: Love and Hatred (1934)

November 15, 2010

Love and Hatred, op. 38 (1934)
Film on YouTube (ten-minute segments) via SHOSTAKOVI.CH: The Page of Shostakovich

Chopped-up YouTube uploads are no way to watch a movie, if you have a choice.  But it’s the easiest way to get to Shostakovich’s score for Albert Gendelshtein’s 1935 film, Love and Hatred (the music was composed the previous year):  The movie isn’t available in any recent DVD edition that I can track down and the soundtrack is otherwise unrecorded.  Tokai, the young Japanese proprietor of SHOSTAKOVI.CH, seems sincerely to believe that the Shostakovich-scored films he’s uploaded are in the public domain in Japan.  I hope that’s correct, or at least that they remain on the web for a while, as they’re an excellent resource for exploring the composer’s film music.

Another hurdle is that the movie isn’t subtitled or translated, and I don’t speak Russian.  To some extent that is a problem.  I think of the middling submarine movie U-571, in which an American engineer played by Harvey Keitel, forced to control a commandeered U-Boat, complains desperately that “Everything’s in German!” (at 1:10 in the preview there) — Love and Hatred‘s narrative, like a foreign submarine, is almost but not quite possible for me to work out properly.  Yet, there’s a liberation in focusing on the visuals and the flow of sound while abandoning the words, particularly since I suspect much of the text is propagandistic boilerplate.  The heroes and villains are established more than broadly enough and I doubt there is much lost in the dialog that’s better than the mystery of not knowing.

I could look up John Riley’s summary of the film but, to see just how explicable it would be to me if I watched it cold, I did not; I’ll check later and write an update if I’m wildly wrong about anything.  (The actors’ names, which I can’t read, are listed on the meager IMDB entry.)  It’s a story of women in a mining town fending for themselves in Revolutionary times after their men all go to war.  (The time is clearly established by the opening shot, which solemnly considers a socialist-realist sculpture of women clearly labeled “1919”.)  Some male officers, I think anticommunist Russians, arrive and take charge of the town; the women ultimately organize, take up arms against their oppressors, and finally meet a group of soldiers who, after some tension, prove to be their returning husbands and sweethearts.

Gendelshtein’s film isn’t nearly as visually exciting as Kozintsev and Trauberg’s New Babylon or Alone, despite instances of sharp editing.  Some promising montage sequences early on largely give way to longer, more static, talkier scenes.  I’m struck most by the frank images of women laboring in the mines and fighting with enemy men:  The scenes have the unreality of propaganda but they are far less softened and sexualized than virtually anything I’m used to seeing in contemporary American film.  Without understanding the words, I understand something of the film’s ideal of the Soviet woman, who fills both the role of provider and fighter.  The women trade impassioned speeches while bathing their children; in one particularly telling scene, a shot of a woman coddling her baby cuts to another woman stroking a rifle.

On to Shostakovich.  Really, the film seems a little bit thin on Shostakovich.  The credits play out to one of the score’s longer orchestral selections, but solo and choral songs and some smaller instrumental numbers are more prominent after that.  The style accords with what little I heard of his music for The Counterplan.  It isn’t cut off completely from Shostakovich’s non-cinematic output — his incidental music for The Human Comedy most clearly bends towards his emerging film style — but to this point in his career the composer did write differently for movies, more clearly and romantically, I assume because he anticipated a broader audience, not to mention responded to the needs of that audience as laid out by the Soviet film industry’s minders.

The most interesting sonic episode in the film happens at about the ten-minute mark, in a sequence of mixed sound and silence that I doubt Shostakovich was directly involved in.  The men go marching out of town to a choral number accompanied by organ — an odd aggrandizement of the squeezebox played by the soldier at the front of the column — but this fades off into an uneasy silence as the abandoned mining facility is shown.  Women wail, briefly; then machine guns and shells provide the soundtrack as they tear up some pastoral scenery.  Finally, church bells toll, completing a mural in images and sounds of the troubles of war.

Also notable is some diegetic music that issues from the gramophone of a boorish, slovenly military officer — first an oafish march, and later a leering dance number.  The scenes make explicit what Shostakovich had in mind when he deployed such tunes in more abstract settings:

As has become typical of Shostakovich’s works by now, the music becomes more dramatic and bombastic at the end.  A stern orchestral procession accompanies the women as they arm themselves and march out from the town, carrying the bodies of their fallen comrades on an artillery piece.  The music looks forward to Shostakovich’s eleventh symphony two decades later:  It is direct, tuneful, humorless, revolutionary.

The quality of the recorded sound is obviously poor, but I like that it preserves the style of orchestral playing of the mid-1930s — More than a finer, contemporary audiophile recording, it feels like a direct line to the function of Shostakovich’s music within the film.

Opus 36: The Tale of the Priest and His Worker, Blockhead (1934; incomplete)

November 9, 2010

The Tale of the Priest and His Worker, Blockhead, op. 36 (1934; incomplete)
CD:  The Tale of the Priest and His Worker, Balda; Suite from “Lady Macbeth”; Various soloists, Moscow State Chamber Choir, Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Thomas Sanderling (Deutsche Grammophon 289 477 6112 9)

Only about two minutes remain of Shostakovich’s intended collaboration with the animator Mikhail Tsekhanovsky, a feature-length cartoon based on Alexander Pushkin’s adapted folk tale “The Tale of the Priest and His Worker, Blockhead”:

(That Vimeo link comes via a short but informative thread on the Giuviv Russian Film Blog.)

Shostakovich aside, I find the visual style of that bazaar scene mesmerizing.  I’ve always vaguely preferred animation to “live action” film, though I’m not very well informed on the genre — more of a gourmand than a gourmet — and I hadn’t previously heard of Tsekanovsky, or for that matter seen much Russian animation at all.  A quick search for available DVDs doesn’t turn up much (although his later, smaller-scoped The Silly Little Mouse is a semi-secret bonus on absolut MEDIEN’s Alone disc) but I’ll have to keep looking.  I wish Balda had been completed but, sadly, it fared as poorly as many of Shostakovich’s other cooperative projects of the early 1930s:  Work progressed slowly, the state-backed studio soured on Tsekanovsky’s style, and the film was canned; for good measure, almost all of the completed footage (save the bazaar scene) was destroyed during the Nazi siege of Leningrad in the 1940s.

The work’s promise is also shown off well by Thomas Sanderling’s cracking studio recording of the score with the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, in an hourlong, two-part version completed by Vadim Bibergan.  It’s an album I picked up a couple of years ago, in the midst of the glut of releases timed to Shostakovich’s centennial year.  I never listened to it enough to justify the purchase but I found a lot to like in it, nothing more than the imitative animal noises that open the bazaar scene:

Sanderling’s cut is cleaner than the original film soundtrack (a plus) and more traditionally choral (a minus), but energetic enough to do the original concept justice.  It’s not Stravinsky’s Petrushka but Shostakovich colors his score with a winningly folksy hue; most of the score’s high points are here.  Notable, too, is the music for the mechanical toy seller (about 1:35 in the video), a forerunner of the clicking-and-popping percussion effect that Shostakovich would use in a few years in his fourth symphony, and then many years later in the finales of his second cello concerto and fifteenth symphony:

The film’s plot, not advanced by that early marketplace scene, concerns the lowly Blockhead (or Balda, as it’s often given in English, taking the Russian word), who agrees to work for a priest for a year in exchange for knocking him on the head three times, then performs some seemingly impossible tasks (mostly involving outsmarting some devils) as the priest unsuccessfully tries to weasel out of his payment.  The satire of the Russian Orthodox Church ranges from cheekily irreverent to plainly anticlerical — this element is very much advanced by that early marketplace scene, as vendors hawk religious wares alongside foodstuffs and erotic paintings — but a lighthearted tone prevails.  As in The Nose and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, nineteenth-century Russian literature provides better and more workable source material than contemporary agitprop scenarios.

Stylistically, Shostakovich isn’t up to anything new here, with dance numbers and more restless, Lady Macbeth-derived scenes that could be swapped out with any of the incidental scores that he had composed in the past few years.  For stretches, the music settles into skillful-but-unsurprising, Bolt-like dance sequences that sap the score’s momentum and interest.  Some of this — it’s not clear how much from the album notes — is probably due to Bibergan stretching the available musical material to cover the entire story.  All in all, though, it’s one of Shostakovich’s better functional scores, with lively numbers and some nifty instrumental effects.  Shostakovich — or I presume it’s Shostakovich — accompanies “Balda’s Song” with a balalaika, echoing a similar musical episode in The Nose, and “The Priest’s Daughter’s Dream” is a mysterious, somnolent slow dance initially carried by saxophone and guitar:

Slightly earlier, the “Balda’s First Job” track unleashes some of the warm, cinematic sweep of the scant Counterplan excerpts that I listened to, further establishing Shostakovich’s mature film music style:

It’s a sharp enough score and I think Balda would have made a very good movie.  With Tsekanovsky’s animation following Shostakovich’s composition (as noted by John Riley), not vice versa, the work pushes towards a sort of film-opera, a more even synthesis of image and music than Shostakovich ever achieved.  Where it lacks novelty it sounds more incomplete to me than perfunctory.  Maybe my opinion is too colored by the circumstances of the work but so be it.  It’s an intriguing might-have-been.

Opus 33: The Counterplan (1933; excerpts)

October 27, 2010

The Counterplan, op. 33 (1933; excerpts)
CD:  “Shostakovich: The Film Album”, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly (Decca 460 792-2)

Shostakovich recycles!  I’m at risk of just posting variants on the same musical passages but the composer’s winningest musical ideas are the ones he’s likeliest to reuse.  Fairly so, in this case; Chailly’s recording of Counterplan excerpts comes out of the gate with an episode that cropped up earlier in Declared Dead and The Big Lightning, but, at least before music was comprehensively recorded and distributed, there was no sense in letting good material languish in a vaudeville score and an unfinished operetta:

But the real hit of The Counterplan, the “Song of the Counterplan”, would be recycled quite a bit itself.  (The lyrics were written by Boris Kornilov, who, according to John Riley, would not gain much luck from the song himself; he was purged in 1938.)  The tune was a palpable hit in the Soviet Union — and Shostakovich worked hard to make it so, according to Laurel Fay, although she and Riley (both citing biographer Sofia Khentova) passingly note accusations of plagiarism as well.  I confess, though, that although I’ve looked up the song at various times over the years I’ve rarely remembered how it goes for long.  Who knows what it is that makes a melody memorable to a person, but whatever that quality is, the song lacks it for me.  Not that it isn’t attractive when I listen to it in real time:

The song enjoyed some popularity in the U.S. too, for a while anyway.  With English words it was released as “The United Nations” (referring to lower-case united nations, as in the Allied forces of World War II) and sung by Kathryn Grayson in the 1943 MGM spectacle Thousands Cheer; it was also apparently recorded by, among others, Paul Robeson, whose sympathy for the USSR famously exceeded the patriotic demands of the war years.  None of these recordings seem to be easily available on the Internet, nor have I heard them.

Commerical recordings of the score, too, are limited to the eight minutes of orchestral excerpts covered by Chailly on his Film Album.  The sound of the two excerpts above is characteristic, at least for the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s velvety recording; it’s the musical equivalent of a saucer of warm milk.  You have to go back to a work from his teenage years, the Theme and Variations op. 3, to find music as unambiguously pretty.

In contrast, Riley rates the soundtrack as a whole as one of Shostakovich’s most interesting, blending music with mechanical sounds.  Just this evening I discovered the shostakovi.ch site recently put together by a Japanese computer science student, who offers chunked-up YouTube versions of several of Shostakovich’s early film collaborations — in his evaluation, those released up to 1953 are in the public domain in Japan — so I hope to use his site to fill out my understanding of the score.  (The site should also be invaluable for hearing a few more of Shostakovich’s less-available film scores later on.)  I imagine I’ll find out quickly how workable it is to watch an untranslated, unsubtitled, wonkily transfered Soviet movie on the Internet.  I know the plot of The Counterplan (directed by Sergei Yutkevich and Fridrikh Ermler) deals with the then-pressing, not actually real issue of industrial wreckers, so I could see a more detailed understanding of the story either adding to or detracting from my enjoyment of the film.

Opus 30a: The Golden Mountains, Suite (1931)

October 19, 2010

The Golden Mountains, suite, op. 30a (1931)
CD:  “Dmitri Shostakovich: Orchestral Works”, Nicolai Stepanov (Hawaiian guitar), Ludmila Golub (organ), USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2)

Sergei Yutkevich’s The Golden Mountains lacks a DVD release, so the concert suite will have to do for Shostakovich’s third film score.  The plot, according to John Riley, focuses on the political awakening of a young worker during a 1914 factory strike.  He notes too that the composer penned a widely popular title song which he decided for whatever reason to leave out of the suite.

The orchestral music that is here ranges in style but fits within the stylistic circle described by the works of the late 1920s and early 1930s that I’ve listened to so far.  The short Introduction opens the suite with a thick spreading of musical cream cheese, a fanfare close to what would become his mature light-music style, friendly to audiences and officials alike.  The Waltz that follows it is easy on the ears, too, though right away it’s more notable for its unpredictable use of a Hawaiian guitar to introduce its first theme:

The waltz, per Riley, is used in the film to satirize the bourgeois industrialists, but it’s characteristically catchy and, unlike some of Shostakovich’s more snide dance numbers in The Golden Age and elsewhere, there are few signs of mockery within the music itself.  Rather, once the waltz hits its full stride, it sounds like gleeful music for a trapeze act:

The eight-minute fugue that follows it, for a pipe organ eventually joined by the orchestra, is much chewier.  It bears a strong family resemblance to the funereal passacaglia from Act 2 of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, especially in that Shostakovich transcribed that selection for organ sometime in the early thirties:

Both, too, take a stern-faced approach to a baroque form, more striking for their instrumental gigantism than for formal tightness.

The suite ends with an atmospheric Funeral March that leads into a bigger, louder Finale; the very end of the the third symphony is grafted on as a coda, in a coarse-grained and not particularly seamless instance of Shostakovich’s self-borrowing.

The Golden Mountains music reminds me of that for The Bedbug in its loopiness and instrumental novelty.  This two-disc Rozhdestvensky reissue continues to be both pleasantly surprising and weird.  (Derek Hulme lists Rozhdestvensky’s recording of the suite as complete, although it seems either to be missing an Intermezzo or to have rolled it up into another track.)  One particular oddity / pleasure is the audio engineering of these Melodiya studio recordings of the late 1970s and early ’80s — their sound palette has the same, slightly unnatural quality of old color film stock, a little bit washed out in places and preternaturally intense in others, particularly in some cases of overly prominent percussion instruments.  It’s all good fun; I think I enjoy this suite more for chipping at the edges of my expectations of what Shostakovich’s music sounds like than for anything directly in the music itself.

Opus 30a:  The Golden Mountains, Suite (1931)

Opus 26: Alone (1931)

October 1, 2010

Alone, op. 26 (1931)
DVD:  absolut MEDIEN, Stummfilm Edition 868; soundtrack rerecorded in 2004 by Basel Sinfonietta, reconstructed and directed by Mark Fitz-Gerald

The most exceptional moment in Shostakovich’s score for the film Alone, released in 1931, comes in the middle of the missing sixth reel, when he deploys the theremin to illustrate a near-fatal snowstorm.  I apologize for the clipping in this extract and I’ll try to pull a higher quality one later, but it’s a haunting effect and, from Shostakovich, a surprising one, since as far as I know he never touched the electronic instrument in his concert music:

Despite this and a bit of overtone-singing used to set the movie’s first Central Asian scene, it’s not an adventurous score.  The composer makes some pointed musical jokes and, as the story progresses, provides music of increasing dramatic weight, but for the most part he writes in a straightforward and songful style that he hadn’t used much to this point.  In fact the entire film — Grigori Kozintsev’s and Leonid Trauberg’s first since New Babylon and a project that essentially reunited that film’s creative team — features some witty and thoughtful visual storytelling but entirely lacks New Babylon‘s tone of anarchic satire.

Yelena Kuzmina, who as the salesgirl in New Babylon was last seen laughing bitterly in the face of her own execution, here plays an idealistic, freshly graduated teacher assigned to teach the Altai people near Siberia’s border with Mongolia.  Thinking of her fiance and of material comfort, she initially lodges a formal protest, but after some carrying on she embraces her mission to educate and modernize the isolated herders’ children.  It’s a plot loaded with propaganda value and racial condescension, the latter a recognizable cousin to attitudes towards native or foreign people in Western movies, then and now.  (Via PostBourgie, this “remix” video, taking Avatar as the latest big-budget example, mashes up several mostly recent, mostly apt examples of stories in which a downtrodden, exotic population requires an American or British hero; Alone fits somewhere on this same spectrum, although Kuzmina most certainly does not “go native”.)  Political elements specific to the filmmakers’ times are present too:  A late subplot in which the village’s backwards-thinking Bey tries to sell their communal sheep to a cattle dealer explicitly (and, in hindsight, chillingly) ties into the USSR’s campaign to liquidate the kulaks.  At any rate, Kuzmina challenges both the Bey and the lazy Russian president of the village soviet, is left for dead by the cattleman in the theremin blizzard, and her grave situation becomes a cause célèbre both for her Altai charges and for the populace back home.

Shostakovich’s score for the early scenes is lighthearted and brimming with cheerful songs.  In the opening sequence, in which Kuzmina wakes up into the bustle of city life, a chirpy tune (reused later in his career) mingles in a collage of birdsong and street noises.  The film was shot at least initially as a silent feature, with synchronized sound added late in production; this scene among others shows the filmmakers making thoughtful and inspired use of then-dubious Soviet film technology.  I watched the film with the DVD edition’s 2004 rerecording of the score by Mark Fitz-Gerald (here is a good interview with him on the subject) but I sampled the also-included original audio track, and despite dire quality the original blends the elements of that scene more effectively:

In another cheeky early sequence, Kuzmina, having received her marching orders, wistfully looks at china in a shop window, which operatically entices her to stay.  The scene establishes one of a few major visual motifs in the film (clocks, teapots, a flayed horsehide drying on the steppes) and leads into another striking visual:  A loudspeaker, not so much a symbol as a recurring character in itself, whose anonymously stentorian voice exhorts her to think of her duty to society:

Shostakovich’s music becomes more somber and Asiatic once Kuzmina is deployed to the Altai, with gruffly supercilious bassoon music for the Bey and the village soviet.  The early tunefulness returns occasionally in callbacks within the more thickly dramatic score; the music throws out some barbed humor, too, most notably in a curdled reprise of the song “Life Will Be Beautiful”, played as Kuzmina observes the sleeping village soviet and his defeated-looking wife.  Note the teapot, a symbol throughout the film of material pleasures:

The music reaches its apex of drama and complexity in the snowstorm sequence — unfortunately the footage itself was lost in the bombing of Leningrad during World War II, pushing the film’s most action-oriented scene offscreen — and, after hitting the expected dramatic notes in the poor villagers’ showdown with their negligent leaders, feeds into a tremulously ecstatic finale as Kuzmina is flown back home, vowing to return.

Kozintsev and Trauberg understandably eschew the barely-controlled chaos of their previous film in assembling this one.  Although it mostly lack’s New Babylon‘s rapid-fire montage, there is liveliness and wit in Alone‘s editing.  The arc of the story, though, despite some gestures towards bitterness and character complexity, is too slow and too compromised by the demands of propaganda (John Riley’s book notes that the directors’ original concept had the despairing Kuzmina commit suicide) to function as a good narrative.

The absolut MEDIEN DVD is a fine production — the packaging and notes are in German but the disc includes English subtitles and, contra my expectations, plays on my decidedly non-European DVD player.  As noted above it includes both new and archival soundtracks, with better sound than I managed to extract in my excerpts above, and as an unexpected bonus the disc includes the short animated film The Silly Little Mouse, also with Shostakovich music.  I could only wish that Alone itself were more unequivocally worthy.

Opus 18: New Babylon (1929)

September 21, 2010

New Babylon, op. 18  (1929)
DVD:  New Babylon, The Eccentric Press

I’ve been looking forward to watching New Babylon, to hear an unfamiliar, early Shostakovich score (his first for film) in something like its original element.  Just prior to starting this blog survey I tore through John Riley’s Dmitri Shostakovich: A Life in Film, a fine account of each of the composer’s film scores.  Practically, I expect it to come in most handy in the many cases when I can’t get ahold of a DVD copy of a movie and Riley can flesh out the plot as well as the context of the musical cues that made it into the concert suites.  One of Riley’s bigger points, though, is that Shostakovich’s film music is too often dismissed as perfunctory and unworthy of much attention, while in his view the film scores, though they exhibit as much inconsistency and varying quality as the rest of Shostakovich’s output, constitute a coequal branch of the composer’s career.  I’ve been interested in hearing and seeing what I can; Riley makes a good case for Shostakovich’s seriousness in crafting some of his scores and in seeking a viable film-music language but he doesn’t describe the composer’s film style in contrast to his concert or theater works.

This DVD edition of Grigori Kozintsev’s and Leonid Trauberg’s film, prepared by Marek Pytel, comes bundled in a special-edition set (at a fairly premium price point) with his informative but haphazardly edited book New Babylon: Trauberg, Kozintsev, Shostakovich, based on his research into the film’s history.  It doesn’t speak directly about the version of the film on the disc but lays out Pytel’s justification for trying to restore it to a version prior to several studio-mandated cuts just prior to its premiere, which besides adding a more propagandistically appropriate ending (still in place) muted some of its formal experiments and threw the final edit of the film out of sync with Shostakovich’s score.  Pytel fails to credit the musical performance in his disc; it’s not entirely clear to me to what extent the soundtrack has been recut.  There is another, apparently similar, considerably cheaper DVD release on Arte Edition, though I haven’t (yet) seen it for comparison; in a quasi-public exchange of emails through a reviewer at DVDBeaver.com Pytel asserts that his own edition’s frame rate is the correct one.  Both are based on an old print of the film which, for international release, censored some of its allegedly racier shots.  All of this to say, it doesn’t seem there is an authoritative version of New Babylon currently on the home video market, and the concept of authority itself gets tricky for such a long-troubled film, but the energy and inventiveness of both film and score both shine in the present version.

The film presents a predictably one-sided account of the 1871 Paris Commune with a romance, not often in the foreground, between a perpetually fiery salesgirl / eventual Communard (Yelena Kuzmina) and a thoroughly miserable-looking soldier (Yevgeni Chervyakov).  Its 1929 premiere of the film was a disaster by all accounts:  The film’s avant-garde techniques baffled the audience, despite the above-mentioned late cuts, and an under-rehearsed and uncomprehending cinema orchestra butchered Shostakovich’s unconventional score.  On disc now it’s lucid and bracing.  My previous exposure to early Soviet film consists of Battleship Potemkin and Man with a Movie Camera (and my familiarity with early film in general doesn’t go much beyond that) but, compared even to those strikingly constructed works, Kozintsev and Trauberg deploy an extraordinarily kinetic editorial style.  Unlike anything else I’ve seen in film, too, is an uncanny, muddy quality they bring to out-of-focus figures moving in the middle background of several scenes, most notably dancers in a restaurant early in the film and soldiers digging graves for executed Communards late.  Maybe due to the directors pushing at the bounds of a not yet settled cinematic language and maybe due to their freedom from the stagey anchor of dialog, the film frequently pushes into swirling near-abstraction, full of high contrast (both photographically and thematically) and extremely fast-cutting montage.  The clearest example to me is this scene of a journalist attempting to announce the defeat of the French army over the din and bourgeois nonchalance of a Parisian dance hall:

The film works as propaganda but, by propagandistic standards, it still seems sardonic and gloomy by turns, willing to find dark humor in the Communards’ circumstances and show their pessimism:  In a scene near the end, the salesgirl, awaiting her execution, notices that her soldier is digging her grave and bursts into hysterical laughter before breaking down into tears.

The music here — to turn finally to Shostakovich — is one of his characteristic sweet-sour dance numbers, both comical and cloudy.  His score, which according to Trauberg he wrote in three weeks, is stylistically of a piece with The Nose, although it’s also thinner in texture and more repetitive.  The brash instrumentation is, by now, recognizably the composer’s, for instance in the eerie use of a flute paired with, I think, a quiet flexatone (I do love mentioning the flexatone) to indicate nighttime bugle calls.  It almost constantly propels itself and the film forward, although a very few dramatic silences and lowerings of the music occur at key moments.  It’s highly parodistic — the composer and filmmakers alike are at their most exuberant when lampooning the excesses of wealthy Parisians.  One thing it’s not is directly tied to what’s happening onscreen:  At some times the score is illustrative of the images (most literally when a solo piano shadows an old Communard as he plays a sentimental song onscreen) but more often Shostakovich’s music suggests a more abstract level of drama, or else just seems to exist on its own plane entirely.  The latter kinds of moments have their joys, especially when the music is in its elbowy, high-energy mode, but the sequences in which Shostakovich draws out a lower emotional layer are some of the most powerful.  In my favorite example, a group of radical women trying to protect cannons from a French army detachment give the starving soldiers milk and attempt to win them over to their cause, only to have the soldiers turn on them when reinforcements arrive; the score, in marked constrast to the fury of the filmed action, is pensive, tragic, tender, evocative of the women’s feelings of betrayal:

I’ll conclude with an example of the film’s overall mood of anarchy, visual energy, and warped humor, as the French army mounts its final assault on the Commune’s defenses.  (The burning mannequin belongs to the titular “New Babylon” shop where the salesgirl worked before joining up with the Communards.)  This excerpt also shows off Shostakovich’s willingness to repurpose existing music, his own or anyone else’s:  A prominent musical theme throughout the film, including here, is a distended, wrong-note-ridden version of Offenbach’s famous cancan from Orpheus in the Underworld, associated with the Parisian bourgeoisie.  (Riley suggests that Shostakovich’s tendancy to recycle was exacerbated in this score’s case because of his close deadline.)

It’s just a stunning movie for its youthful exuberance all around and the music, while not Shostakovich’s most careful score, is a fine specimen of his spirit.  I wish he’d written music like this longer (although there is more work in this vein to listen to) and I wish more narrative movies today were made with this level of visual daring.