June 06, 2008

Fancy paints on memory's canvas/Scenes that we hold dear


Musicians are always talking about form. You learn all the forms in music school—bar form, binary form, sonata form. You learn how to spot the signposts. You learn how to articulate the form (which is basically just being aware of the signposts in performance). It's useful in talking shop: "Maybe get softer when we get to the trio"; "We should slow down as we come into the recapitulation." But is it really that important?

Last weekend, I went to the local multiplex (capitalist absurdity update: my iced coffee was cheaper than either a small soda or the box of Whoppers I needed to wash down) to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I enjoyed the hell out of it. But critical reaction has been decidedly mixed. Here's a sample from the negative side of the ledger. Rick Groen in the Toronto Globe and Mail:
The once-pressing question of how long a culture can go down that particular well—or bat cave, or torch-lit cavern, or fortress of solitude—has itself become a weary cliché. By now the answer is obvious: Interminably, albeit with diminishing aesthetic returns and at some risk to its creative vibrancy, but that's a small price to pay to ensure the safety and well-being of a thriving box office. Familiarity, our culture has learned, breeds enough mass adoration to extinguish any lingering critical contempt.

So, nearly two decades after the last appearance, Indiana Jones is back, along with its diminishing returns and its aging principals and their trademark tools.
Peter Travers in Rolling Stone:
Audiences looking for emotional resonance in Indy 4 are doomed to the temple of disappointment. Spielberg and Lucas aren't upping their creative game—they're taking care of business.
Manohla Dargis in the New York Times:
There’s plenty of frantic energy here, lots of noise and money too, but what’s absent is any sense of rediscovery, the kind that’s necessary whenever a filmmaker dusts off an old formula or a genre standard.
Most of the bad reviews that I read hinted at this point—that the formula is tired, that the movie is too formulaic, that director Steven Spielberg et al. are just going through the motions. I'm not trying to say that those critics are wrong—my own cultural consumption would strike enough people with sufficient horror that I'm willing to give that benefit of the doubt, up to a point—but maybe they're watching the movie in a different way and with different expectations than I was.

Indiana Jones movies are formulaic, and the latest fits the pattern like a glove. Crazy opening action sequence? Check. Hallowed halls of academia? Check. Plane/map superimposition on the way to exotic locale? Check. Audience-surrogate sidekick? Check. Puzzle-like clues? Check. Over-the-top vehicular chase scene? Check. And so on. Part of the genius of the first of the bunch, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was that all this stuff already felt like a formula—neat trick. But now it really is a formula. In a broad-stroke sense, you know what's going to happen before the thing even starts.

I got sucked in anyway, because I started watching for craft. Over the opening credits, there's a scene in which a hot rod full of 50s teenagers tries to egg an army convoy into a drag race through the desert. It's not much more than a kinetic establishment of period and locale. (It's over the opening credits, for God's sake.) Early on in the sequence—I think it was a cut to a long shot of the convoy, Spielberg using a long lens to flatten the procession against the desert landscape like a cave painting—I started looking at it in mind of just what it took to get those shots on film: camera placement, camera movement, lighting, &c. And it's pretty amazing. Over the opening credits, Spielberg (abetted by his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski) is tossing in shots that a lot of other directors would kill to be able to pull off. Low angle, high angle, reverse tracking, deep focus, all in high-speed motion down the highway. If you're only focused on the formula, it's liable to breeze by you—after all, you're still essentially waiting for the movie to start. But pay a little bit of attention, and suddenly Spielberg is slipping you extra candy which the movie hasn't structurally bothered to pay for.

Which, it strikes me, is what at least I listen for in a lot of the classical repertoire. Even the most adventurous Mozart symphony is still at least as structurally formulaic as an Indiana Jones movie, and often much more so. But the form—the formula—is just the scaffolding for craft. It's not the signposts, it's how you get there—the lead-up to each dramatic waystation determines the dramatic payoff. Some might demur that you listen to music for the emotional effect, and craft is not emotion. But the emotional content depends on the craft with which it's implied, illustrated, imparted—and I would strenuously argue that craft carries its own emotional content, that there's a shared exaltation of the human condition in the apprehension of exceptional craft. (Cf. Palestrina, Bach, Schubert, Berg, Gershwin, not to mention Einstein, Joyce, Gehry, etc.)

I think this is something that popular culture might actually be evolving away from. Pop songs are formulaic in the extreme: verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus. You can still dig deep into the craft, the idiosyncratic variations on the formula, the expertly shaped turn of phrase within the formula, but to my ear, there's even more of a sense of diminishing returns than Groen finds with Indy. I saw a fair amount of American Idol this season—my wife was pulling for Archuleta—and one of the things that really struck me about Idol performances is how one-dimensional they are from the standpoint of craft as well as form—from the outset, you don't just know what's going to happen (melisma, octave leap, high note), you can fairly accurately predict how it's going to happen. The song becomes a self-contained artifact, consistent from every angle. There's a certain impressive craft in conjuring a specific sonic atmosphere that is both immediately emotionally perceptible and impeccably maintained over the length of the song. But it does go against music's temporal aspect, its forward motion in time—a frozen lake rather than a swirling river.

This isn't always a bad thing—I'm a big punk rock fan, and most of the classic punk repertoire is high-octane blocks of undifferentiated mood. But there, the torrent of energy was the point, and besides, a three-minute punk song would be considered epic. And I don't think all pop music is like this, but it does seem to be more prevalent. Put it this way: every so often, a pop song will surprise me at the outset—a strong riff, a particularly heavy groove, an unexpected instrumental combination—but it's been a long time since a pop song surprised me in the middle. I find myself more and more listening to only the first thirty seconds of a lot of pop songs, not just because I know where it's going to go, but because there's nothing left to hear that I haven't already heard.

A number of years back, I caught a Phil Woods gig at the old Jazz Showcase in Chicago. I still remember it, because every song on the playlist had the identical form—I don't recall it exactly, but it was something like this: everybody played the head, then four choruses of sax solo, then four choruses of piano solo, then the drums and the bass traded eights, then everybody played the head. Exactly the same for every song. Was it too formulaic? It did get funny after a while, and I suppose if you were really attuned to structure, it would have been maddening. But Woods and company got away with it because most of us, even those of us who traffic in musical form, are not that attuned—we're listening for detail, for individual moments, for everything that happens along the way. The fact that we knew where each chorus was going to roll around gave the players something to work with and against. Every chorus was there, but every chorus was different; the transitions came in the same places, but in different ways.

I wonder if some of the critical skepticism at the latest adventures of Dr. Jones is, in part, because popular culture is eating away at our ability to get past the surface formulas of culture. (I mean, there is the possibility that they simply didn't like it, but that wouldn't be much of a basis for a blog post.) If all you sense is formula, three minutes of shiny pop is not going to feel like much of a burden, but two hours of Hollywood might seem rather bloated indeed. But if you're used to regarding formula as merely the boundaries of the playing field, Crystal Skull is pretty generous fun. (One of the main reasons I didn't like the last one, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, was that the screenplay regarded articulating the formula as the main point, and didn't leave enough time for the movie to waste on gratuitous entertainment.) Musical form is the same way—it's effectiveness is in the way it provides room for invention. I've learned—and taught—classical sonata form in all its technical detail: is that a transition or the closing theme? Is that a recapitulation or just a developmental feint? Is that particular cadence a modulation or a tonicization? It's easy for such minutiae to suck the life out of a piece. But in the context of the sonata's overall dramatic arc—the end of the development, the transformation of the exposition's dominant into the recapitulation's tonic—all that minutiae becomes the tricky camera shots and throwaway jokes that make the ride so much fun. Pay a little bit of attention, and that sonata starts to resemble an Indiana Jones movie.

7 comments:

rootlesscosmo said...

Some might demur that you listen to music for the emotional effect, and craft is not emotion. But the emotional content depends on the craft with which it's implied, illustrated, imparted—and I would strenuously argue that craft carries its own emotional content, that there's a shared exaltation of the human condition in the apprehension of exceptional craft. (Cf. Palestrina, Bach, Schubert, Berg, Gershwin, not to mention Einstein, Joyce, Gehry, etc.)


Or Oscar Peterson? I think this is a terrific blog post but while I agree that imparting emotion requires craft, and that craft itself can arouse emotion (I have a strong affection for the opening shot of Sirk's "Written on the Wind" because the lighting and cinematography are just so fucking polished), the composer/improviser also has to convince me that craft is straining at the seams to contain the emotions being engaged. "Written on the Wind," for all its craftiness, is only a glossy soaper; it doesn't touch my heart, though it does tickle my funnybone.

Matthew said...

One of the subcategories of art that's always fascinated me are those artists for whom the emotions they're straining to contain are the emotions of craft—the joy/determination/defiance/surprise that a flawed human being can produce something so technically flawless. Is that a legitimate emotional playing field for creativity? Completely in the eye/ear of the beholder, certainly. Still, I always imagine that mathematicians get the same thrill from a great piece of mathematics as musicians do from a great piece of music. Craft is emotional, and for some artists, that emotion is the most important expressive vehicle. The ones we perceive as being more directly emotional? I wonder if the emotion of craft becomes a surrogate for the heightened versions of "everyday" emotions—or vice versa?

I find technically freewheeling music fun and sometimes moving, but the works I find really emotionally devastating (La Valse springs to mind as a good example—talk about straining at the seams, huh?) are always also impeccably crafted. Which takes the lead in those pieces? And how much of that has to do with myself as a listener? (A lot, I would guess.)

It's a terrific topic because I think it's one of the things that, paradoxically, a listener can perceive without any real technical knowledge—whether the craft of a piece is being deployed joyfully and/or insistently, or whether it's just note-spinning. The hard question is, where does it cross the line?

jodru said...

The formula was fine. It's always been with Indy. But the problem here was the actual plot itself. Roswell? You gotta be kidding me! And what on earth was the point? Just to return the skull a few paces past where John Hurt's character had managed to go?

And as to craft, Spielberg's chops are always on point, but he let the overlit Kaminski style is soooooooo incredibly not welcome in the anamorphic world of Indiana Jones. Did we really need crap like a reference to The Wild One, which only, by the way, played up how little Shia LeBeouf resembles Marlon Brando?

One of the best things about all the films is that they are essentially self-contained little episodes in the continuing adventures of an absurdly heroic college professor. There is no relation between the Temple of Doom and Raiders by design. The 2nd happens before the first, in fact. Different girl. Different villain. It's all meant to be pure fun.

This installment overreached and as soon as Karen Allen turned up (though she was nearly the best thing in the film), it turned into a god-awful family adventure. The whole thing was so bad it was stunning. I couldn't believe that they felt they had to keep that plot so closely guarded.

The saddest thing is that Harrison Ford can still carry that kind of film. It's a shame he had such crap to work with this time around.

Matthew said...

Jodru: You're right, really; I just didn't mind. I freely admit that I go to a movie bound and determined to have a good time, and it takes a special film indeed to overcome that sense of Midwestern industry. (Armageddon, for example—which may just mean that I'm more partial to a gratuitous Wild One reference that a gratuitous Right Stuff reference. Then again, Temple of Doom managed to plunder at least a decade's worth of the RKO catalog.) Although, absolutely, Karen Allen was nowhere near drunk or pissed off enough as I would have liked.

You might be as pleased as I was to note how much love Temple of Doom gets these days. My memory of the critical reception of Last Crusade is that it was along the lines of "at least it's not another Temple," but perusing the Crystal Skull reviews (and I perused darn near all of them) reveals that it's become a close second in the franchise, with even a couple of not-disreputable voices ranking it superior to the original. Short Round—his time has come!

(I confess to being all over that wildly predictable Roswell plot with glee. Back in the third or fourth grade, we were assigned a report on American History, and I opted for Project Blue Book and the subsequent government cover-up. The era being what it was, the nuns probably blamed it on a lack of medication rather than an excess.)

rootlesscosmo said...

It's a terrific topic because I think it's one of the things that, paradoxically, a listener can perceive without any real technical knowledge—whether the craft of a piece is being deployed joyfully and/or insistently, or whether it's just note-spinning. The hard question is, where does it cross the line?

It is indeed a terrific topic and one I don't think I'll ever get a good handle on. Ever seen the movie "Gospel"? (Not a church service or a music-history documentary but a concert movie, shot at the Oakland CA Paramount Thrater, of touring gospelperformers like Shirley Caesar, Rev. James Cleveland, and the Clark Sisters.) At one point Rev. Cleveland's drummer, lost in the passionate devotion of the moment, refuses to leave the stage when the number's over; at length he's gently relieved of his drumsticks and led away. A moment later he reappears, produces a spare set from his pocket, and falls to drumming again. Presumably this happens at every show, yet that doesn't mean his religious feeling isn't genuine. It doesn't mean it is genuine, either. The line you mention seems to me to divide, not "real" from "false" but "convincing" from "unconvincing," since in any case we're dealing with art and artifice. Somehow Monk convinces me that his art is the vehicle for emotion, Oscar Peterson convinces me only that he has great chops and swings like nobody's busness. Why? I have no damn idea.

rbonotto said...

This isn’t *really* a parallel to the Indy-Chases-Formula-Critics-Razz, but here goes: a similar weirdness in music history is the trash bin that Sibelius’ piano music has been repeatedly tossed into. One of the problems is that the critical drubbing is deserved. Another is that it doesn’t matter –these ‘shavings off the master’s workbench’ are fascinating, if you’re interested in form, content and context.

Consider what Sibelius was trying to do here: most of the piano suites were written to keep the bill-collectors at bay, and he obviously wanted to Write Something Popular. But, in the end, they’re divided as hell: he'll start writing a piece that’s easy to play, and then puts in a section For Advanced Players Only. Or he’ll try to write a piece in the manner of Chopin (and he's a good melodist for this); but his experimental side dive-bombs it with odd turns, and – sometimes – downright bizarre and/or abrupt endings.

In addition, from the opus 75 pieces on, it sounds like he’s thinking aloud about works to come --rather like an actor on stage alone, rehearsing his lines. From a formalistic standpoint, these hundred odd pieces are a disaster. But for some of us, they’re fascinating doors within doors.

academic said...

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