Top 20 Albums of 2011

These were my favorites:

1. Hilary Hahn & Valentina Lisitsa – Charles Ives: Four Sonatas
2. Oregon Symphony – Music for a Time of War
3. Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson – Berlioz: Les nuits d’été – Handel: Arias
4. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
5. Lise de la Salle – Liszt
6. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
7. Various Artists – Jonathan Harvey: Bird Concerto with Pianosong
8. Thomas Gould & Aurora Orchestra – Nico Muhly: Seeing is Believing
9. Hélène Grimaud – Mozart
10. The Decemberists – The King is Dead
11. Tom Waits – Bad as Me
12. Béla Fleck & The Flecktones – Rocket Science
13. John Adams – Son of Chamber Symphony & String Quartet
14. Alexandere Desplat/Various Artists – Tree of Life Score/Soundtrack
15. Various Artists – The Muppets Soundtrack
16. Los Angeles Philharmonic – DG Concerts: Adams: Slonimsky’s Earbox – Bernstein: Symphony No. 1 “Jeremiah”
17. Okko Kamu & Lahti Symphony Orchestra – Sibelius: The Tempest; The Bard; Tapiola
18. Stephen Malkmus – Mirror Traffic
19. Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi – Rome
20. Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts

On These Amazing Shadows

A run of the mill advertisement for the National Film Registry, which is an admirable foundation (a subset of the Library of Congress) with a fascinating group of films covering a surprisingly wide range of American film.  The doc is all talking heads and movie clips, but the clips are great and some of the heads are inspired (Nina Paley!, The Self-Styled Siren!, George Takei!).  Unfortunately, the last 20 minutes devolves into a minority roundup, with boxes checked for marginalized groups the Registry recognizes: documentaries, animation, experimental film, women directors, African and Native Americans, etc.  This wouldn’t be so bad, merely plainly schematic and a bit pandering, if they didn’t pair The Searchers with The Birth of a Nation as racist films that are countered in turn by The Exiles and Boyz N the Hood.  Setting aside the fact that Boyz N the Hood is a pretty lame film, the mistreatment of The Searchers is criminal.  And it’s not just the filmmakers at fault, though they include clips from the film taken out of context to prove how racist Hollywood was against Indians (which is kinda the point of the film but never mind), they get a Native American studies professor to talk about it, though it’s unclear if they’ve misedited him.  No, the worst is Charles Burnett, director of the marvelous Killer of Sheep, talking about how he never knew how racist The Searchers was until he watched it with a friend who walked out in the middle of it.  When he asked her what was wrong, she asked “Can’t you see all the racism?”  I don’t know which is worse, Burnett for not realizing the film was about racism despite seeing it several times, or the woman drawing such an extreme conclusion after walking out halfway through.  I don’t know how this idea that one of the most complex, powerful and moving indictments of racism ever to come out of Hollywood was in fact racist itself merely because it showed acts of racism in all their ugliness, but this kind of thing has got to stop.  And equating this with one of the most vile perversions of the art form in its history?  Unconscionable.

On Vincente Minnelli’s Tea and Sympathy

Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 adaptation of the play Tea and Sympathy by Robert Anderson necessitated a few changes in order to make it past Hollywood censors.  As a result, the film is often derided as a watered down version of the original, another casualty of a culture that sought to systematically tame the daring and provocative in the name of of bourgeois morality.  On the contrary, I think the film as is is much superior to the play, that the censor-forced changes Minnelli and Anderson made make the film a simultaneously broader and deeper work, with a more nuanced view of human sexuality and relationships.  The film as Minnelli made it is one of the great melodramas of the 1950s, and one of the key works in this brilliant director’s career.

This synopsis from the questionably named All Movie Guide provides a reasonable example of the general attitude toward the film, as well as a decent summary of the plot:

1956’s Tea and Sympathy is a diluted filmization of Robert Anderson‘s Broadway play. The original production was considered quite daring in its attitudes towards homosexuality (both actual and alleged) and marital infidelity; the film softpedals these elements, as much by adding to the text as by subtracting from it. John Kerr (Tom) plays a sensitive college student who prefers the arts to sports; as such, he is ridiculed as a “sissy” by his classmates and hounded mercilessly by his macho-obsessed father Edward Andrews. Only student Darryl Hickman treats Kerr with any decency, perceiving that being different is not the same as being effeminate. Deborah Kerr (Laura), the wife of testosterone-driven housemaster Leif Erickson, likewise does her best to understand rather than condemn John for his “strangeness.” Desperate to prove his manhood, John is about to visit town trollop Norma Crane. Though nothing really happens, the girl cries “rape!” Both John’s father and Deborah’s husband adopt a thick-eared “Boys will be boys” attitude, which only exacerbates John’s insecurities. Feeling pity for John and at the same time resenting her own husband’s boorishness, Deborah offers her own body to the mixed-up boy. “When you speak of this in future years…and you will…be kind.” With this classic closing line, the original stage production of Tea and Sympathy came to an end. Fearing censorship interference, MGM insisted upon a stupid epilogue, indicating that Deborah Kerr deeply regretted her “wrong” behavior.

The changes from the original play occur mainly at the beginning and end of the film.  In the beginning of the play, the event that touches off the bullying Tom receives is that he’s caught swimming naked with a (male) teacher.  The teacher is fired and Tom becomes an assumed homosexual and his every action (the way he walks, the way he cuts his hair, the music he listens to) is used as further evidence of his deviance.  In the film, the inciting incident is much less obvious, Tom is espied one afternoon sewing with Laura and some of the other older women, instead of playing sports and roughhousing with the other boys on the beach (the homoerotic elements of the “straight” boys’ play is apparent but not emphasized, one of the many ironies Minnelli plays with in the film).  For this, he is taunted as “Sister Boy” for the remainder of the film, which follows the events of the play more or less closely until the end.  By making the inciting incident less sexual (sewing is hardly akin to skinny dipping), the film muddies up the question of Tom’s homosexuality.  Indeed, for most of the film, it’s unclear if Tom has any sexual inclinations one way or the other (or both).

For Nathan Rabin, this makes the film a necessarily flawed work.  He writes at The AV Club:

Simultaneously bold and a cop-out, Tea And Sympathy is a film divided against itself, a drama about a young gay man’s awkward, fumbling initiation into the adult world of sexuality that doesn’t have the courage to embrace its destiny as a groundbreaking queer film. (Unsurprisingly, the film features prominently in the stellar film and book The Celluloid Closet.) Yet this subtext makes the film even more poignant during its many subdued scenes where John and Deborah Kerr talk around what they’re really feeling because they can’t come right out and say what’s on their minds. Like the film’s troubled protagonist, Minnelli simply made the best out of an impossible situation with this flawed, fascinating time capsule.

On the contrary, the film as is is not a failed attempt at a “groundbreaking queer film”, but rather it is queerer than Rabin realizes.  For queer doesn’t simply mean “homosexual”, but rather a rejection of the dominant image of sexuality, that of the middle class heterosexual masculinity of the 1950s which was seen as the only viable option for a man to be a productive member of society.  Minnelli has taken a play that appears to be about sex (gay kid gets teased, may sleep with Deborah Kerr) to one about sexual identity and its relation to social codes.  In the film, there’s every reason to believe that Tom is gay, but he’s just as likely to be a straight kid who just happens to like to sew and listen to classical music, or even a straight kid who doesn’t like sewing at all, but is just pretending to so he can hang out with the older woman he’s passionately in love with.  Or all of the above.  The point is that none of those things (sewing, classical music, Deborah Kerr) prove anything definitive about Tom.

Tom’s relationship with Laura is highly ambiguous: he may see her as a friend, another lonely person who needs someone to talk to (Laura’s husband is cold and distant towards her, and is explicitly identified throughout the film with Tom, especially in his youthful love of classical music (to which he regresses in the end) and the bullying he received when he was Tom’s age for that non-conformity, thus her husband can be read as a homosexual who has been closeted since his late teens); a mother figure (Tom’s own mother abandoned the family when he was very young, Laura throughout the film is wearing earth tones, greens and yellows (Tom always wears light blue: powder blue for his effeminacy or baby blue because he has not yet matured into a proper man) and Tom first sees her in her garden and their sexual encounter takes place in an Edenic, womblike forest (in the play, it takes place in Tom’s dorm room, I believe), Minnelli thus identifies her with Nature, whether that is Mother Nature, or a comment on her effect on Tom’s true nature (fulfilling it if he’s straight or repressing it if he’s gay) is undetermined); or a potential lover (this is apparently what Laura believes: he is acting strange because of his burning unrequited passion for her, by sleeping with him, Laura is helping Tom “become a man” in the sense of maturation, not repression).

The film’s epilogue settles none of this.  Here, Tom receives a letter Laura has written him after confessing her infidelity to her husband.  The husband is wrecked and alone (listening to classical music), Laura is apparently also alone, and Tom is a successful writer, married with children.  Suffice it to say, being married and having children in the 1950s says very little about one’s “true” sexual orientation, so even this tacked on, mandated-by-censors ending solves none of the ambiguities Minnelli has opened up.  Far from dividing the film against itself, the epilogue concludes the film in the same variable state the rest of the film has occupied.

The film rejects the idea that Tom can be defined by any of the usual methods we use to identify someone as “gay” or “straight” and in so doing undermines the very idea that people in general can be so defined.  The truth is, we don’t know anything about Tom’s inner life, all we ever see are outward manifestations that we then choose to interpret one way or the other.  By making those outward clues more ambiguous and potentially contradictory than they are in the play, the film opens up more possibilities for Tom’s sexuality, and forces us to consider whether he really is gay or not, and what it is that makes us think so and why.  Thus the film, instead of being merely an admirably pro-gay melodrama is instead a deeply subversive work, one that undermines not only homophobia, but all of our assumptions about what it means to be a “man” (non-biologically speaking, of course) as well as the very idea that we should have such definitions to begin with.  It’s a wholesale rejection of heteronormativity in the name of non-definitional ambiguity.

Thematically, this ties in with a recurring strain in Minnelli’s films, one that it is very tempting to read as autobiographical (though we should probably refrain from such things).  That is the story of an artist’s struggle to fit into or escape from a constricting social environment.  Tom’s ambition in life is to become a folk singer (very prescient for a film from 1956, a full five years before Dylan showed up in the Village).  He also reads poetry, likes to listen to classical music, and by the end of the film has become a writer.  His troubles in school arise largely because his artistic inclinations are read as “gay” by the other kids at school (as well as his father).  The film is therefore not only about a sexually ambiguous man struggling against social mores, but also about a society that reads “art” as “deviance” and attempts to repress its manifestations.  Tom therefore joins other Minnelli heroes like Tootie in Meet Me in St. Louis, Manuela and Serafin in The Pirate, Jerry in An American in Paris, Van Gogh in Lust for Life and Dave in Some Came Running (along with many others) as artists trying to remake the world to match their vision of it, despite all the pressures of social obligation and expectation weighing them down, repressing them.  The results aren’t always the same: in Minnelli’s dramas, the artist usually fails and ends in tragedy (Tom can be read as either fully closeted or finally free); in the musicals, the artists usually triumph — after all, what is a musical if not a fundamental subversion of restrictive social codes (it is highly improper to just start singing and dancing whenever you feel like it).  The conflict is uniquely sexualized in Tea and Sympathy, but Minnelli’s goal, and his hero’s, remains the same: the breaking down of normalcy in the name of a freer, more open world full of possibilities.


1. A Trip to the Moon –  Possibly the first great narrative film, George Méliès loosely adapted Jules Verne and HG Wells into this film about a group of bearded scientists shooting themselves to the moon in a giant cannon, where they take a nap, assassinate the King of the Moonmen then make their escape back to Earth.  The parallels with European colonial adventures are obvious.  The wonder of the film though is its ambition: Méliès weds the stop motion magic tricks he perfected through the first 6 years of cinema to fantastical, multi-layered and interactive set design, elaborate costumes and a cast of dozens to create a unique cinematic world, one that, for one of the first times in movie history is less a recorded artifact of a stage performance and more its own creation.  The movie starts a bit slow, as the scientists pose for an interminable group photograph, but once they change into their space suits (really just suits) and get loaded into the cannon by what appear to be a phalanx of chorus girls, the film piles mind-blowing image upon image.  My favorite: that the moonmen, after what must have been millennia of evolution prove vulnerable only to that most dangerous weapon of all: the umbrella.

2. Gulliver’s Travels – Another Méliès literary adaptation, though a much less successful one.  Rather than a coherent narrative in its own right, this is more a set of illustrations of scenes from the book.  The best part is a tour de force bit of double exposure split screen action at the center of the film, where Gulliver is served a meal by the Lilliputians.  Méliès almost seamlessly integrates the two images (filmed on separate sets with the camera at different distances, to create the size distortions, it looks like) in a way that remains marvelous even to modern eyes.


1. The Pan-American Exposition By Night – Directed by Edwin S. Porter and James Blair Smith, working for the Edison company, this one minute film consists only of a slow pan across the eponymous exposition.  Midway though, the shot fades to black and returns, only now it is nighttime and the exposition is lit by the wonder of electric light.  As cinematic miracles go, this is about as simple as it gets, but it’s a miracle nonetheless.

2. Excelsior! The Prince of the Magicians – Magician Georges Méliès uses the power of editing to create a magic routine greater than any possible in continuous reality.  Some of the edits are pretty obvious, but the speed and abandon with which Méliès commits himself makes it all work.

3. What Happened on Twenty-Third Street – A cute little joke movie, anticipating a certain iconic Marilyn Monroe image by over 50 years.  Edwin Porter directs what appears to be a documentary street scene that turns risqué when an actress comes onscreen.

4. The Devil and the Statue – Another Méliès magic movie, though much clunkier and pedestrian than Excesior!.

On The Spanish Earth

Is it just me or does the Hemingway narrator in everyone else’s head always sound like Orson Welles?  Anyway, Welles narrates Hemingway and Jon Dos Passos’s text in this documentary film, made in the midst of the Spanish Civil War by Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens.  As if that wasn’t enough star power, the musical score is by Marc Blitzstein (Cradle Will Rock) and Virgil Thomson, one of the first great American classical composers (along with Charles Ives, Aaron Copland and George Gershwin).  Thomson won a Pulitzer for his score to Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story, and while this isn’t that good (there’s a lot of pastiche Spanishness to it, as opposed to Thomson’s usual all-American style), it’s still pretty charming.  The film is newsreel-style footage with sound effects and voiceover added later, but Ivens has an eye for striking images and some of his editing is quite clever (a particular cut from a gun firing to a hole of sunlight peeking through the crook of a soldier’s elbow comes to mind).

Set during the fascists’ march on Madrid, the film splits the focus onto two stories, that of the capital’s populace preparing themselves for the eventual attack (evacuating children, forming militias out of soccer players and bullfighters) and a nearby village’s construction of an irrigation ditch to turn their unoccupied waste land into crops to feed the to-be-beseiged city. The script throughout is filled with pithy Hemingwayisms, sounding at times like the parody Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.  My favorite: a post-battle riff on how sixes went out and only twos and threes came back.  The farm scenes are OK, but they pale in comparison to the similar construction effort in King Vidor’s communitarian classic Our Daily Bread, released three years earlier.  Perhaps the final scenes of water flowing to relieve the parched Spanish earth (get it?) would have had a more triumphant effect if we didn’t already know the ultimate fate of the Loyalists and those farmers.  Then again, that adds an unintentional poignancy to the whole film, and Vidor’s communist farmers likely didn’t end up much better off when McCarthyism and groups like Vidor’s own Randian anti-Communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals got ahold of them.

There’s something that continues to fascinate me about this war.  Unlike the fascist takeovers in Germany and Italy, it wasn’t a matter of an evil political party capitalizing on social conditions to get itself elected to power.  Unlike totalitarianism in France and Russia it wasn’t the byproduct of a revolution corrupted by its own power.  Like many dictatorships, this one began with a coup, but only a partially successful one.  Instead of creating a military junta overnight, which could then proceed to its dastardly ends (purging the population, annoying and/or allying with US corporations, etc), the Spanish coup only managed to split the country politically in half, between the Monarchists and Fascists on the right and the Republicans, Communists and Anarchists on the left.  And so the war makes manifest, in a way no other conflict does, the divide between the political left and right in Western politics.  World War II, for example, wasn’t a fight for Democracy against Totalitarianism, it was a fight against territorial aggression by rogue nations that happened to be totalitarian (with one of Democracy’s key allies, the Soviet Union, being itself a totalitarian state).  But the Spanish Civil War was a real left vs. right conflict, where the political rhetoric of the most extreme elements of both sides for once became a reality.  The idea that these arguments between Left and Right really could degenerate into the kind of civil war Spain went through is an idea that seems wholly alien to us (though it can be found in many political films of the 1930s, particularly those of Frank Capra, which I think are greatly enhanced by seeing through the politics of the time, where Democracy was an existential choice and not merely a platitude), where our political parties throw around words like fascism and socialism with little regard to their actual meaning or their relevance to the people being so accused.  No one really believes Dick Cheney would organize a military coup to overthrow the elected government of the United States, nor does anyone serious believe that Barack Obama is plotting a government takeover of American industry or a mass collectivization project.

It is this seemingly obvious fact that Ivens’s documentary makes clear to me: that this was a war fought by actual people who actually believed in and put into action the most extreme variants of modern political theory.  He focuses on the Left, the loyalist side with its poor folks banding together in a communitarian ideal to protect themselves from the invading fascists (helped, he repeatedly notes, by the foreign influence of the Germans and Italians, the assistance the Loyalist side received from the Soviets goes unmentioned), but in seeing those Loyalists as individuals, the fact that the fascists were also a mass movement becomes clear.  We don’t see them in The Spanish Earth, I imagine Ivens would prefer to see the fascists not as individuals but as abstract forces of evil, but in their conspicuously off-screen existence, their presence, their threat, is inescapable.  Spain didn’t have its democracy stolen, or totalitarianism imposed upon it: a sizable portion of the Spanish population wanted to live under dictatorship so much that they fought and killed and died for the right to create a fascist state.  I find that truth to be absolutely terrifying.

On a much lighter note, this was the first film my daughter watched, and she made it almost the whole way through its 55 minute runtime.  I don’t know what exactly about it fascinated her so much, she usually prefers color images and flashier editing, and has very few interesting opinions on politics or history.  Maybe it was the score (she’s heard a lot of Thomson over her 13 1/2 weeks of life), or maybe she just likes Orson Welles’s voice (who doesn’t?).  Regardless, she was rapt with attention until she slumped over asleep.  As far as she knows, the war had a happy ending.