Wichita Symphony Orchestra: “The Gershwin Experience”

Wichita Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Hege, Music Director and Conductor
Lisa Vroman, soprano
Rick Faugno, dancer/vocalist
Jeffrey Biegel, piano

I reviewed “The Gershwin Experience,” a concert with multimedia elements (including still photos and archival footage projected onto a screen) celebrating the music of George Gershwin, presented by the Wichita Symphony Orchestra with the guest artists listed above. Many of Gershwin’s classic songs were performed, as well as the complete Rhapsody in Blue and excerpts from some of Gershwin’s other instrumental works. You can read my review for the Eagle here.

St. Olaf Choir in Wichita: An Interview with Conductor Anton Armstrong

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The internationally-renowned St. Olaf Choir arrives in Wichita next week as part of its 2016 National Tour. In advance of the concert, I had the opportunity to speak with conductor Dr. Anton Armstrong. He looked back at his longtime affiliation with the St. Olaf Choir (over a quarter of a century), provided details on some of the compositions the Choir will be performing, and spoke about his inclusive philosophy of programming and the challenges of balancing tradition and innovation in a church school.

Guy Vollen: Would you like to speak about the section of the program paying tribute to Kenneth L. Jennings (Armstrong’s predecessor as conductor, who passed away in 2015)?

Anton Armstrong:
Dr. Jennings served on the St. Olaf faculty for 37 years, and the last 22 he served as conductor of the St. Olaf Choir. He was my mentor; I actually sang under his direction my last two years at St. Olaf, and Kenneth Jennings was really almost without peer among choral conductors. He followed 65 years of the founder of this choir, F. Melius Christiansen, and his son Olaf, who in many ways, while he added his own distinctive mark, perpetuated the ideals set forth by his father. And when Dr. Jennings took the helm of the choir in 1968, he respected that legacy, and he built upon its best traits, but he also understood that it needed to grow in new directions. So first of all it was creating a natural and more healthy sound for the choir, which to use his own words “had gotten a bit stiff”; a wider repertoire, especially looking at music that was now being published and available to singers from a more modern period, but especially went back and started looking for earlier music with greater historical performance accuracy; and he introduced the use of instruments, because up until that point the St. Olaf Choir had been known primarily as an a cappella choir that sang without any accompaniment. He introduced the use of instruments, and also he began the use of secular music, and even some wider global music.

Kenneth Jennings was also a wonderful composer. Certainly, during his teaching career he didn’t have a lot of time for that. He did some: actually, the last work of that set, “All You Works of the Lord,” was written in 1981, while he was still on the faculty. The other two pieces come from the 1990s: he wrote the “Spiritual Songs” and “The Lord is the Everlasting God” in the first decade after his retirement. They show I think, though, the consummate craftsmanship that he brought to choral composition. Always text was paramount with him, and the beautiful setting, how that was handled as a composer, and you saw that revealed with how he interpreted text with a choral ensemble.

GV: I see you’re working with Andre Thomas.

AA: Andre Thomas and I have been friends for 38 years; we were in graduate school together, and our friendship has been both professional and he’s one of my closest friends, so it’s nice when you have talented people like that you can go to. And certainly, Dr. Thomas is a native of your city. He still loves Wichita, and he is a graduate of Friends University, he began his teaching career there some years ago, and he still considers that home, he still has family there, so it’s also neat to be bringing that piece on this tour to his hometown. This “Credo,” actually, I did not put “premiere performance,” because I cannot actually state that for a fact, but I know we’re doing some of the earliest performances. He and I will debut “Credo” at Carnegie Hall in March. The music was available now, and I don’t want to go to Carnegie Hall in March not knowing the piece. This was a great piece to take out. The New York people were a little bit miffed.

GV: So is that something I can say is a “preview”?

AA: It’s a preview, yeah, so he and I are doing what we’re now saying is the New York Carnegie Hall debut of this piece, with a choir of about 800 singers. I will be conducting, and he will be at the piano.

GV: That is exciting. And I notice you’re programming a piece by a student composer. Would you like to say anything about “And You Will Sleep” and the context of the composition?

AA: Yes. Philip [Biedenbender] is a senior in the choir, and you’ll also see him featured on this concert if you’re able to attend; he’s one of our two student pianists. He’s a very gifted young man. He actually approached me last spring and said, “I want to write a piece for the Christmas festival,” and to his credit he worked and had a piece ready for me when we resumed school in the fall. We went through a couple of periods of revision. First of all, I’m not a composer, but I will take the piece, I will sing through part of it, I will play it at the piano, and I thought, it feels good under my fingers. Vocally, there were some points where I asked him to do some rewriting where it was too complicated, and I think he was trying to do text painting, but I said it’s maybe too complicated. Less is more sometimes. Well, he found that balance, and there was a portion in the first version: most of the text is by his mother, and then they had inserted text from Scripture. Well, the first text that they used, the music changed, and it just didn’t work. I said, this sounds like two different pieces right here, and he said, “I know. I’m not happy with it.” He said, “We have another possibility,” and this was the verse from Philippians that we later used. And all of a sudden it became a cohesive entity.

What I appreciate is, his mom came in and shared: the text of this piece speaks of “The walls of a stable are not worthy of the King. You come, little one, born of the songs of angels, echoes of prophets, and the life of a strange star. Do not cry, though you must lie on this rough, unforgiving wood, wrapped in lengths of linen, and you will sleep.” And she goes into this text from Philippians from that. But she came to talk to the choir, and it’s a paradox: the “unforgiving wood” is not just the imagery of a manger, it also refers to the imagery of the cross, which Christ was killed on, and the linen is not just the swaddling cloth but also the linens that wrap the body of Jesus afterward. So this image of this paradox–he’s young, twenty-one, twenty-two years old–he really captured this.

This is an emerging talent and he is a very humble young man. Very gifted but very humble and very thoughtful. I am not one, especially on a tour program, to put a student composition out simply because I think it’s neat to feature. But we’ve had, especially in the last ten to fifteen years, wonderful growth in those coming to St. Olaf who want to study composition, and a fine faculty of mentor-composers on the St. Olaf faculty, so a number of our students are hitting things out of the park even before they leave college. We’ve had several students who have been award-winners, both state and nationally, for their compositional skills, and so I’m delighted to have found a piece that not only is very fine, but we’re able to say, “this is something that can stand on the same program with music of J. S. Bach, the music of Kurt Weill.” It’s a lovely piece, and I think one that is going to be very emotionally compelling and musically compelling to those who hear it.

GV: That’s great. I look forward to hearing it. So I can see from your program that, like you said, you’ve really broken it wide open in terms of repertoire. What else would you like to highlight about the pieces the Choir will be singing?

AA: The music of Bach has always been part of the staple repertoire, even back to the founding days of F. Melius Christiansen. “Ich Lasse Dich Nicht” is a motet that is not one of what I call the “Big Six,” things like “Singet dem Herrn,” and “Der Geist” and “Jesu, meine Freude,” but it is lovely. It comes from an earlier period of Bach before he was in Leipzig, and then the piece was added onto during his Leipzig years. It’s a delightful piece. For seventeen summers I’ve been on the conducting faculty of the Oregon Bach Festival, in Eugene, Oregon, so this is a piece I got to explore last summer, and wanted to bring it here. I found out later that this piece was done one time by the St. Olaf Choir back in the 1950s when Olaf Christiansen had the choir, but I think he did it in English. I didn’t recognize it at first until I was doing some reading.

The “Magnificat” by David Childs was commissioned by me for the Oregon Bach Festival. I direct a high school program there of extremely talented high school students. I founded that organization–the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy is what it’s called–in 1998 and two summers ago we were celebrating the 15th anniversary of the SFYCA, and so the “Magnificat” was a commission by the Bach Festival for that occasion, and so this will only be the second set of performances that it has. David Childs is a composer and a conductor in Dallas. I often try to find music at least that represent composers who are either in or have a connection with a region, so Andre’s piece for one, and this piece by David Childs. It’s a beautiful piece for organ and choir. David is a New Zealander by birth and upbringing, and moved to the United States as an adult, married an American, and lives and conducts in Dallas. But for many years David’s father was the organist and choir director at Christchurch Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, and you feel this very strong Anglican tradition coming out in this piece.

I think one of the unique pieces on this program, not only for the St. Olaf Choir, but I don’t think it’s a well-known piece at all, is this “Kiddush” by Kurt Weill. Weill you know as writing for the theater and other things. Last summer at a conference of Chorus America, the Zamir Chorale of Boston, which is maybe the preeminent choral organization in this country dealing with music of the Jewish tradition, had this as part of a workshop, and I was just captivated. It’s written for chorus and soloists, and it was written for Shabbat service for Weill’s father’s synagogue. You get the harmonic flavor of Kurt Weill, you get the influence of blues notes, but for choir and soloists and organ: it’s like a breath of fresh air. And the kids have enjoyed it and we’ve found soloists who can sing it in the choir, so it’s really turning into a neat piece.

And the last section, I was simply going to say was a collection of hymns and spiritual songs, so you know “Come, Ye Disconsolate” is actually a setting for men’s voices. Part of, for me in a college of the church, is to still keep a younger generation–it’s why the St. Olaf Choir actually was founded. F. Melius Christiansen started this choir because he felt the young people of these new immigrants–these Canadian immigrants, these Norwegian immigrant children–were forgetting the great hymns of their forebears. Well, the same thing could be said a hundred-some-odd years later, with the current generation. And you know for a lot of students, they did not know this hymn. When you hear the guys sing it it’s very moving. Terre Johnson’s setting is beautiful.

And “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” is not the typical tune that most people know about. This is actually an older version that is known mostly in the black community: [sings] “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Lord.” It has stayed in the black community. But I love that “Nobody Knows” because I think everybody’s going to be expecting us to sing something, and a lot of them won’t know this tune, and as an African-American I see a lot of people arranging spirituals, and even African-Americans, the younger ones. The slave song is basically a simple song that had a natural improvisation with layered melodies that came together to make harmony. So the essence of the true slave song is melody and rhythm.

I think of programming is a smorgasbord type of thing, that there needs to be something on the program for everyone. There are going to be those there because they will love some of the new pieces, those who just want to hear Bach and Mendelssohn (“Lift Thine Eyes”) and they could go to heaven with that. Ginastera (“O Vos Omnes”), you know, for some people that will be out of the box, not quite like Penderecki and Ligeti, but it certainly is pushing things for a lot of people. But I’m also cognizant that we’re going through areas in this tour that are still strongly faith-based communities on this tour. I call this the “I-35 tour,” driving around I-35 to get all the way down to San Antonio and back. There’s a reason we’re in many more churches on this tour than maybe a tour to the East coast. If you look at the tour book, we were in many of their major concert halls, college concert halls; that’s not so much the case with this one. There are strong communities of faith that have thriving music programs, and so the music reflects that, the tour program reflects that, but with a wide variety.

I always think, “If my mother was in the audience, what would she want to hear?” I mean, she would love Bach, she would love Mendelssohn. She might put up with some of the other stuff, but if I gave her those hymns and those spirituals, she’d be a happy camper. So there’s something I think on the table for everyone: for the choral aficionado, those people who want to come and maybe have no faith connection but they appreciate the artistry of the choir, maybe they’ve seen it on television or heard the recordings; and then for that person of faith who just needs to come and fill their soul in a certain way, and maybe some of the other music will be high-falutin and off-putting, but when you sing “It is Well with My Soul” it just goes right to the core of who they are. It transcends age and race, and all the other things that can be barriers. I hope that this concert can bring people together: we live in a country right now that is living in fear, that is living in division, and I hope that even for the ninety minutes people experience it they can find comfort, they can find hope, they can find unity.

GV: You mentioned the school’s foundation in the faith tradition and Norwegian immigrants, and obviously there’s this very concentrated Lutheran tradition in your part of the country, but with St. Olaf’s reputation I’m sure you attract students from all over now.

AA: We certainly do.

GV: So would you like to say anything about that diversity, and how far some of your students have come to be part of the choir?

AA: This is where we maybe are a little bit different from some of our wonderful sister schools in this region: if you were to look at the personnel pages for instance of, maybe, Concordia or Luther, you’d find excellent singers. Their choirs are excellent. But you’d find very regional schools. You’d find a lot of people from Minnesota, and Iowa, maybe South Dakota, Wisconsin. You’ll find certainly a fair amount of those populated in this choir; you’re going to find people from literally throughout the nation. I think this year I don’t have any international students; last year I did have three. But it’s a wide view.

And when we talk about diversity: now you’re talking to the African-American conductor, but I want to go beyond. You’ll see racial diversity: I have African-American students in there, I have Asian students in that choir, I have Latino students, I have biracial people in that choir that some of you wouldn’t ever recognize, depending upon how you’re looking at them. But for me diversity is also–and it’s not a cop-out–I have a variety of socio-economic [backgrounds]; I have young people in that choir who, yes, would say they are people of faith, they come heavily from a Christian tradition. But you see Kurt Weill’s in there because I also have students in that choir who do come from a Judaic [background], they come from mixed–I have a student in there who one parent’s Jewish, one parent’s Christian. Whether it’s Muslim, whether it’s Buddhist, or as they would say today, none (they have no faith affiliation, whether they call themselves atheist or agnostic), the only thing I ask–and there are a couple of students, I very well know, they’ve been very pronounced without being offensive about it–that they’re in this choir because they can appreciate, respect the high artistry and the music-making in the choir. They can understand and appreciate the wonderful texts that are experienced, whether or not they can formally say that this is their journey. But they are welcome, and I will say to the student, “You are free. What I won’t tolerate is somebody who will be dismissive of that, if you’re going to be part of that, but I’m not asking you to swallow something that you can’t personally believe.” But there is a mutual respect amongst that.

And I think that’s true Lutheranism in the broadest sense: it’s a very ecumenical movement. And I’m saying this to you because I’m on a committee that’s dealing with this, because as we’re diversifying our community at St. Olaf, there are a lot of people–some staff, some students–who feel that if you’re not Lutheran, you’re being excluded, and we’re trying to figure out, how do you explain that Lutheranism is about a global awareness, you know? And I think at least Lutheranism as it’s practiced in the twenty-first century, and not a parochial viewpoint but if you actually go back, it has always been, especially in Lutheran education, one that seeks excellence, so academic excellence is not to be compromised. It’s a very interesting paradox, an interesting tension, for the search for excellence and truth, and also that we believe that we’re rooted in a sphere of a creator God, but a creator God who doesn’t ask you to be myopic, and to be narrow about how you view things. So I think that over the years this choir has been kind of a microcosm of the college in saying yes, we are still faith-based, but we look beyond that. There is almost no secular music on the program this year: that was intentional. Last year you would have seen almost a third of the program was secular. And part of that was where we were going. We were out on the East coast, a very different thing, and an audience that is seeking different things. This is my twenty-sixth year as conductor, and I understand that much, and I travel the country as a guest conductor a great deal, and you get a feel for what people want. I’m not in any way trying to type-cast a region I think, but you understand what people seek. If I took this sort of program to the Pacific Northwest, it would not be met in the same way. They would enjoy part of it, but they would want something else, and I know they’d want something else.

The great work of F. Melius Christiansen, and John Finley Williamson with the Westminster Choir, and the heavy hitters like Robert Shaw, they did their work well enough that they planted seeds, and they’re no longer the only thing on the block, but I still think the St. Olaf Choir is a pace-setting choir, a choir that not only brings artistic excellence, but what we try to do through our concerts is a transformational experience. It goes beyond entertainment; it wants to touch the entirety of the listener, in body, mind, spirit, and voice.

Dr. Armstrong will lead the St. Olaf Choir in concert in Wichita at East Heights United Methodist Church (4407 East Douglas Avenue) 7 pm, Tuesday, February 2, 2016.

Interview conducted by phone Thursday, January 21, 2016. Edited for clarity and length.

David Bowie, Immortal

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Observing (and sharing in) the outpouring of grief following David Bowie’s untimely death at age 69, it’s striking just how diverse Bowie’s 40-plus-year career was, and how many avenues existed by which young fans might discover him: his appearances as an actor or the use of his songs in movies; as a continually reinventing man-of-a-thousand-faces fashion icon; as recording artist and producer, or as the writer of songs covered by the many artists whom he influenced. There are probably young people who first heard his name through the many references to Bowie on The Venture Bros., whose creators are obviously big fans. A Picasso or Stravinsky of rock music, Bowie was continually taking on new looks, sounds, and personae, always exploring.

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As a kid in the 1980s, I think my first awareness of David Bowie was his “pop” album Let’s Dance, followed within the next couple of years by his duet cover of “Dancing in the Streets” with Mick Jagger and his lead role in Labyrinth. It would be some years later before I was really conscious that Bowie had been a huge star before his dalliances with MTV and Jim Henson, and that Labyrinth wasn’t even his first starring film role. The Man Who Fell to Earth had previously been the perfect vehicle for Bowie, the story of an alien visitor who succumbs to the temptations of life on Earth.

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Bowie’s characters, musical and otherwise, were almost always otherworldly, even when playing down-to-earth self-caricatures like his cameo in Zoolander. What unified his most far-flung performances was his magnetism: he couldn’t help but be the center of whatever scene he was in. This is what I wrote on Facebook just last October, after watching The Hunger:

David Bowie is the man: you can slather him in old man makeup, and cast Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon as vampire lovers, and Bowie’s STILL the most interesting part of the movie!? That is star power.

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Reading A Year With Swollen Appendices, the 1995 diary by Bowie’s friend and collaborator Brian Eno, I was struck by the many appearances Bowie makes in its pages, just exchanging emails or meeting socially, or appearing at art openings, charity events, et cetera. By the mid-’90s, Bowie had amassed a body of work anyone could be proud of, and it would have been perfectly understandable for him to settle into famous rock star retirement. Yet he continued to produce music and videos up until his last days, releasing his final album, Blackstar, just last week. It’s obvious in retrospect that it was a farewell gesture from a man who knew he was ill, but nonetheless an act of courage and incredible will.

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It’s been heartening to see how much Bowie and his work meant to people, not to mention a reminder that seemingly unstoppable artists, even the otherworldly Bowie–chameleon, alien, vampire, Goblin King, magician–won’t be with us forever. He leaves behind an enormous body of work, much of which I still have yet to discover for myself.

My 2015 in Film

This year I saw 17 new releases (US release in 2015), mostly action blockbusters and animated family films, with a few outliers. As always, I didn’t see nearly enough to offer a comprehensive ranking (as subjective as those things are to begin with), but I can at least point to some of my favorites. (Also, I’m terrible at ranking things, so this could easily change tomorrow, and in fact has already undergone changes since I started drafting this.)

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5. The Duke of Burgundy
I loved a lot about this movie, the story of a troubled dominant-submissive lesbian relationship. Director Peter Strickland’s appropriation of a 1970s European soft porn aesthetic, all soft focus and chanteuse-style pop music, is right in my postmodern wheelhouse (one of the opening credits, after “Dress and Lingerie” is for “Perfume by Je suis Gizella“). And there is a surprising streak of dry humor amidst the angst-filled meditations on control and the rigid boundaries we set for ourselves and each other. However, too many of the visual and auditory flourishes were straight out of David Lynch, particularly a sequence that felt uncomfortably indebted to Mulholland Drive, crossing the line beyond “homage.” I still liked the movie, but it may have been a victim of my high expectations.

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4. Crimson Peak
After Guillermo Del Toro’s previous film, Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak was a welcome return to focus on human characters and their problems, while still featuring the director’s trademark grotesque monsters (this time the bloody ghosts that haunt the titular mansion). A gloriously gloomy gothic romance, it starred a perfectly cast Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain as siblings with a dark secret, and Mia Wasikowska as the innocent caught in their web.

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3. Mad Max: Fury Road
I was as surprised as anyone to see the post-apocalyptic Mad Max series come roaring back after a thirty year absence from the screen, but director George Miller had clearly spent the time away thinking about the logistics and meaning of his future-primitive setting. Tom Hardy is fine as the title character, but it’s really Charlize Theron’s show as the bad-ass Furiosa. In addition to updating the setting in light of concerns about environmental collapse and climate change, Fury Road gives a fiercely feminist reading of the traditionally testosterone-filled “road warrior” genre (here’s what I thought immediately after seeing it).

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2. Inside Out
A return to the daring conceptual heights of Ratatouille and Wall-E, Inside Out is simply the best Pixar film in years. Unsurprisingly, Inside Out was written and directed by Pete Docter, who also created Monsters, Inc.: there’s a similar fascination with factory-like spaces and a unique “backstage” interpretation of Pixar’s usual “secret life of ______” formula. Although the focus is on Joy, Sadness, and the other personified emotions inside eleven-year-old Riley’s head, the film benefits from the animation studio’s increasing confidence in creating expressive human characters that don’t resemble creepy dolls. I doubt it would work as well as it does if Riley and her parents didn’t hold up their end of the story in their scenes.

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1. What We Do in the Shadows
I already talked up this one as the funniest movie I had seen all year when I saw it in October, and in the two months since I haven’t seen anything to topple it from my top spot. In addition to its humor, however, What We Do in the Shadows is as tightly-plotted as an Edgar Wright film while appearing as off-the-cuff as a Christopher Guest mockumentary or The Office. It also turns out to have some clever (and often poignant) observations about family, friendship, romance, and ambition (the last represented by Jackie van Beek, a “thrall” who hopes to ascend to vampirehood, a process that resembles an unpaid internship and virtual slavery to her vampire “master”).

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Honorable Mention: Speaking of Edgar Wright, like many I was disappointed when Wright left Marvel’s Ant-Man, citing creative differences. But the movie we got, directed by Peyton Reed, still has Wright’s fingerprints all over it, from the fast cutting and clever narrative tricks to the visuals, which play with scale in a number of humorous and dramatic ways. In general I’ve enjoyed the free-standing Marvel movies more than the big team-ups: as exhilarating as it is as a comic book fan to see stories overlap and interact on screen just as they do in the comics, there’s a limit to how many characters and plot lines can comfortably fit in a feature film before I stop caring about any of them.

Surprisingly Good: Home did very well for itself at the box office and mostly got decent reviews. But unless you saw it you wouldn’t know how visually inventive it is and how its sense of humor is frequently a lot weirder than the clips of Jim Parsons as an overly-literal alien shown in the trailers suggested. (I’m willing to believe that the film’s stranger touches are drawn from the book it was based on, The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex, but I haven’t read it.) I also appreciated the film’s emotional stakes and the revelation that Inside Out wasn’t the only family movie this year to stress the importance of empathy and accepting that sadness and grief have their place as healthy emotions. Finally, props for the good use it made of Steve Martin, who should really be considered more often as a voice actor.

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Best Reboot (non-Mad Max category): I was pretty high on Star Wars: The Force Awakens after I saw it, and even after cooling off there’s still a lot I like about it. Under the new management of corporate owner Disney and director J. J. Abrams, The Force Awakens feels like a Star Wars film, visually and aurally. The return to largely practical effects is appreciated, and the new characters and their stories have some compelling hooks. As a passing of the torch to the new generation, it’s much more successful than, say, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which did little to make me care about Jones’ son Mutt. In fact, I liked just about everything about The Force Awakens except the plot, which is just too much of a rehash of the original 1977 film (especially considering the Death Star had already been redone in 1983’s Return of the Jedi). Considering that The Force Awakens‘ planet-sized Starkiller follows Star Trek Into Darkness, which used the same ploy of “like the Enterprise, but bigger” for its bad guy’s ship, I’m glad Abrams will be stepping aside for the next installment of the Star Wars saga. After the much-maligned prequel trilogy, however, this was probably just what was needed to right the ship and get audiences excited again.

Most Forgettable: Fortunately, this year I haven’t seen any new releases that I really hated, so I don’t have a pick for “the worst.” However, at the bottom of my list is Jurassic World, which delivered the big dinosaur action it promised but was lackluster in all other respects, both derivative and lazy. I also didn’t get much out of Avengers: Age of Ultron (see my above comments about team-ups), but unlike Jurassic World it at least had compelling characters and the advancement of the ongoing Marvel plot going for it.

2015 was also another big year for catching up on movies from the past. In addition to the second summer of exploring serials in my Fates Worse Than Death series and my successful attempt to take in 31 horror films in October, I took advantage of repertory screenings, DVDs, TCM, Netflix, and YouTube to watch a variety of older films throughout the year.

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First-time non-2015 movies that I liked were (in no particular order) El Hombre y el Monstruo (a Mexican riff on Jekyll and Hyde featuring a classical pianist who has sold his soul to the devil: whenever he plays a particular piece he transforms into a murderous wolfman), Polyester, The Man Who Laughed, The Thing, Repo Man, The Wicked Lady (1945), and the double feature Grindhouse (particularly Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s half, but I appreciated the spirit of the whole project). I also caught up with a few movies from 2014 that I had missed the first time around, among them The Babadook, Under the Skin (a film I respected more than loved, but which isn’t looking for my approval anyway), and Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live/Die/Repeat), which did something I wouldn’t have thought possible: delivered a military sci-fi movie that both held my interest and made me care about its characters.

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Worst non-2015 movie: This is easy. After seeing Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead last year, I wasn’t exactly a fan: the movie was pretty hard for me to take, both extremely gory and nerve-wracking in its disregard for conventional plotting. Still, that’s one way to make a memorable horror movie, and although I didn’t love it I was willing to explore Fulci’s filmography further. Unfortunately, the next Fulci movie I watched was 1981’s Conquest, a dismal sword-and-sorcery picture that was clearly made in work-for-hire mode. It has some stylish character designs and graphic fight scenes, and the trailer puts enough cool moments together that I expected a passable Conan the Barbarian rip-off. Alas, those moments are doled out in an extremely stingy manner and the rest is filled with walking and talking scenes that have almost no energy, resulting in a dull, lifeless slog. (As far as Fulci goes, I also ended up seeing The House by the Cemetery recently, and while I didn’t care for it much, it was a lot better than Conquest.)

That’s about it for my look back at 2015. Happy New Year, and see you in 2016!

My 2015 in Books

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As the year draws to a close, it’s time for another post to summarize my activity in the past twelve months. As I did last year, I kept track of the books I read this year (I’ll look back on films I watched this year tomorrow). As before, I’ve only listed books I read from beginning to end (that’s why only one of the Robert E. Howard collections I wrote about in October is listed, the others having been read before). All were first-time reads (although I know I had read parts of American Humor before, but apparently not the whole thing), and I managed to keep my resolution to read more than I did last year, including some classics (hey, it turns out Moby Dick is a pretty good book!).

How does one summarize a year of reading activity? I don’t read by working through a list: I have books in mind that I want to get to, and I own a lot of books I haven’t read yet, but in general I let the last book I finished help me decide what to read next. Sometimes I continue along a certain track (several threads appeared in my reading this year, including books about the art and craft of writing; Wonder Woman and the fascinating behind-the-scenes story of her creator, psychologist and sex researcher William Moulton Marston; non-fiction on a variety of subjects; and several novels and collections of fiction).

After reading so much about Wonder Woman, the opportunity to pick up a set of reprints of her contemporary Phantom Lady made for a useful comparison. For one thing, it’s interesting to observe how much bondage and role-playing is in the wholesome Wonder Woman as opposed to the supposedly racier Phantom Lady; the difference is largely in that Moulton’s Wonder Woman presents its themes of domination and restraint from a playful perspective, and Harry G. Peter’s simple illustrations don’t draw quite as much as attention as Matt Baker’s famous “good girl” art (although in Classic Phantom Lady Volume Two, Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. makes a strong case that Baker drew much less Phantom Lady than he is usually credited with).

At other times, after spending time in a particular headspace, I’m ready for a change: I was eager to part company with “Walter,” the narrator of the Victorian sexual diary My Secret Life, after nearly 600 pages (and the original work was published in eleven volumes!). “Walter’s” escapades are by turns titillating, horrifying, and deeply sad, the book itself a mixture of Victorian letters to Penthouse, inadvertent social history, and pre-Freudian psychosexual analysis. Even abridged, it’s “everything you wanted to know about Victorian sex but were afraid to ask.”

That made Edmond Hamilton’s The Valley of Creation, a short and breezy pulp novel, a welcome palate-cleanser. I used to read such short novels frequently; although I enjoyed most of them, I also thought of them as research, fleshing out my picture of the pulp era and stocking up on plot and character formulas for future reference. I still have many on my shelves that I haven’t gotten to (many of them were boxed up until this year, when I got some new book shelves and was able to unpack them), so perhaps 2016 will be a year to renew my acquaintance with the diverse output of the pulps.

ValleyofCreation

January
Danse Macabre, Stephen King
Ghost Story, Peter Straub
On Writing, Stephen King
Don’t Fear the Reaper: Why Every Author Needs an Editor, Blake Atwood
The Juggler, Rachilde (trans. Melanie C. Hawthorne)
Wonder Woman: the Life and Times of the Amazon Princess, Les Daniels

February
American Humor: A Study of the National Character, Constance Rourke
The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore

March
Moby Dick, Herman Melville

April
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume One, William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter
A Year with a Whaler, Walter Noble Burns
Wonder Woman: Feminism and Bondage in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948, Noah Berlatsky
Revival, Stephen King
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume Two, Marston and Peter
Cities of Dreams, Stan Gooch

May
Guardian of the Gods, Mark Rodgers

June
The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, ed. Sean Wallace
Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan, John Taliaferro
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume Three, Marston and Peter

July
Classic Phantom Lady Volume One, various
Classic Phantom Lady Volume Two, various
Classic Phantom Lady Volume Three, various
Ladies in Distress, Kalton C. Lahue

August
The Pentagon: A History, Steve Vogel
The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission, Jim Bell
Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder
Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle, David Tripp

September
The Orientalist, Tom Reiss
The Haunter of the Ring & Other Tales, Robert E. Howard

November
The Log of a Cowboy, Andy Adams
All the Wrong Questions: “Shouldn’t You Be in School?”, Lemony Snicket
The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell

December
My Secret Life, Anonymous, ed. James Kincaid
The Valley of Creation, Edmond Hamilton

So, readers, I ask you: what did you read this year? Did you meet any reading goals, and what do you look forward to reading in the new year?

Wichita Symphony Orchestra: Handel/Mozart, Messiah

I had the opportunity to review the recent performance of Messiah by the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and Chorus this weekend. The version they performed was the 1789 revision of George Frideric Handel’s work by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. My review for The Wichita Eagle can be found here.

Messiah
George Frideric Handel, orchestrated by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wichita Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Hege, Music Director and Conductor

Janet E. Brown, Soprano
Barbara Rearick, Mezzo-soprano
Dinyar Vania, Tenor
Timothy LeFebvre, Baritone

Wichita Symphony Orchestra Chorus
Michael Hanawalt, Chorus Director

Fates Worse Than Death: Feature-Length Serials Revisited

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This past summer when I wrote about the practice of cutting serials to feature length, I wrote, “Editing down a serial into a more modern feature length would undoubtedly be an interesting project for a film student or anyone who wants to learn more about the pacing and construction of these films.” A few weeks after that post, Wayne Keyser of goodmagic.com contacted me and offered to send me a DVD he had produced with his own cut-down version of two serials, Radar Men From the Moon and Undersea Kingdom. Of course I was interested, and after taking some time off from serials after my busy summer, I gave it a spin.

The disc, Serial Remix, promises “ALL the rayguns, spaceships, robots, action . . . LITTLE of the talk, ‘recaps,’ talk, car chases, and talk!” In his correspondence with me, Mr. Keyser elaborated, “I think it may be worthy of mention that every feature-length serial condensation I’ve ever seen is very short on what makes the serial interesting. When you’ve got rocket ships and robots, who needs bank robberies and car chases?” In that spirit, both films are cut to the bone, with a minimum of scene-setting and all the repetitive wandering around that pads out many serials eliminated. Readers of my reviews of these two serials will recall that they didn’t excite me that much, so I’m not offended by efforts to streamline them. (Unfortunately, Serial Remix is not commercially available, so my thoughts are offered in the spirit of a case study rather than a review.)

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The versions presented are truly “remixed”: in addition to being edited for time, they have been reformatted for 16×9 widescreen instead of the original 4×3 fullscreen; some effects have been digitally sweetened (ray and lightning effects are added, sparks added to explosions, and so forth); and some shots have been moved around for pacing or to show off the models and other effects. One could easily refer to these as “Special Edition” serials, but few of Keyser’s adjustments are as obtrusive as George Lucas’s additions to the original Star Wars trilogy.

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(It should also be noted that as ridiculous as both films are, the remixes are admirably straight-faced: there are no wacky sound effects or pop-ups added, and no Mystery Science Theater-styled riffs. The closest Keyser comes to making a joke of the material is a “Meet Our Characters” sequence preceding Undersea Kingdom that notes everyone’s propensity for funny hats. I can live with that.)

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For the most part, these changes don’t considerably alter the story, but they do move it along and gloss over some of the fine details (not unlike the feature-length cuts made by the studios). In fact, watching Keyser’s remixes made clear how much is left to the viewer’s imagination in modern editing: serials were frequently quite literal in explaining the plot and showing every step of an action, whether it be the villain setting a trap for the hero, the hero’s miraculous escape, or the villain getting in a car and driving away. To some extent that was a function of the serial’s need to fill time, and when poorly handled it would indeed smack of padding.

It was also, I think, natural to the procedural storytelling mode that serials often engaged in: whether obvious or subtle, the situation must be established if there is to be any suspense. We don’t realize that the hero is walking into a trap unless we see it set up, or at least have an establishing shot that clearly shows the threat. And while the audience might assume that a rickety bridge is going to pose a danger in an upcoming scene, serial writers were rarely above tipping off even the slowest viewers by having a character say something like, “Be careful on that bridge; it’s liable to collapse if there’s too much weight on it.”

I might go even further and speculate that it is the seeming solidity of cause and effect in classic serial editing that makes cliffhangers so susceptible to “cheats.” The danger to the hero is so firmly established in dialogue, in premonitory close-ups (on the lit fuse, on the stuck gas pedal, on the clock whose midnight stroke spells doom), and often in the scene as filmed, that his death seems inarguable. We saw him plunge from the cliffside or fall beneath a hail of bullets, and the only way he can be saved is to undo the peril, to rewind so that in the continuation fate takes a different path. The audience may cry “cheat!” if they are observant enough to notice the switch, but such reversals are, I’m starting to think, a necessary part of serial grammar and the ability to literally cheat death a superpower peculiar to the heroes of the form. (Or perhaps not so peculiar: when Superman reverses the Earth’s rotation in Richard Donner’s 1978 film, undoing the disaster that has killed Lois Lane, he is simply performing a large-scale version of what serial heroes had been doing on a small scale for decades.)

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Keyser (and other editors turning serials into features) swerves around that paradox by eliminating the cliffhangers, of course; each peril is now simply a beat in an action sequence. But the elimination of excess verbiage and travel is closer to the grammar of a modern action film, in which the audience is swept up in the heedless forward motion, and goes along with it because there is little time to take a breath and question it. I didn’t watch these films with a stopwatch, but my general impression is that the average shot length was shorter than in the original, again making the films feel more contemporary in their rhythm. (Consider how little down time there is in the Indiana Jones movies, particularly Temple of Doom, in comparison to the serials they draw from; at least Star Wars alternates its action sequences with moments of repose.)

To get down to specifics, Radar Men From the Moon, as you may recall, features George Wallace as Commando Cody, whose signature costume is his rocket-powered flight suit. The same concept (and effects) had appeared in Republic’s earlier serial King of the Rocket Men, and would later inspire Dave Stevens’ character the Rocketeer. In Radar Men, Cody and his team are dispatched to the Moon (on a rocket ship also designed and built by Cody) by government agents who suspect that recent disasters on Earth are linked to atomic activity detected on the lunar surface. After a trip as comfortable and uneventful as a coast-to-coast passenger flight, they discover a dying lunar civilization that is indeed softening up Earth for invasion; the lunarians are already on Earth, advance scouts coordinating explosions and acts of sabotage with the assistance of Earth criminals!

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In Serial Mix, Radar Men is cut to a brisk 64 minutes, with an emphasis on Cody’s flying suit and other gadgets and the adventure on the lunar surface. Excised almost entirely are several middle chapters focused on the lunarians’ Earth helpers, Daly and Graber, as they steal supplies or attack Cody’s laboratory. Those sequences are entirely mundane, and aren’t missed. Daly and Graber still appear, essential to the story as they are, but they get much less screen time.

Undersea Kingdom, at 77 minutes, is (to my mind) more successful in its adaptation. With a few exceptions, the story of Crash Corrigan’s journey to Atlantis is adapted closely but with transitions and redundant material elided (often with the use of wipes imitating those in the original). The scene in which Corrigan is forced to take part in gladiatorial combat and wins the loyalty of fellow prisoner Moloch is skipped, as is the scene in which Corrigan saves the life of Atlantean high priest Sharad, earning him an invitation to lead the Atlantean army. The comic relief subplot with Smiley Burnette is omitted entirely (and since his scenes were shot and included after the fact, and his character doesn’t interact with Corrigan or the others at all, it’s an easy decision to make and takes nothing away from the main story).

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As one of a few special features on the disc, Keyser narrates “Remixing the Classics,” in which he describes his love of the serials and their effects and describes the process of editing them to shorter length. He points out some of the enhancements he made to the special effects, with before and after shots, and discusses the challenge of finding appropriate places to cut while preserving necessary plot information. This feature was of great interest to me and further illuminated Keyser’s approach.

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Before and after: Keyser replaced a view of the lunar surface with a shot of the lunar city

Before and after: Keyser replaced a view of the lunar surface with a shot of the lunar city

Keyser also proves to be an engaging and knowledgeable host and storyteller; it’s clear that Serial Remix is a labor of love, and in addition to looking at the choices involved in editing, he takes a broader look at the conditions under which serials were made. Often rushed (he points out that Undersea Kingdom was made in 25 days) and made for low budgets, the serials naturally fell back on recycling props (such as the electrical devices built by Kenneth Strickfaden and used for set dressing in hundreds of films), costumes, story lines, and locations (such as Bronson Canyon near Hollywood). Keyser has no illusions as to the great artistic merit of the serials (I’ll accept his judgment that The Phantom Empire is “goofy,” but “bad”? No way!) but his enthusiasm is nonetheless one I share. Seen as one fan’s tribute to the boy’s-adventure spirit of the serials, Serial Remix is a very enjoyable and polished package.

Kenneth Strickfaden shown adjusting one of his electrical props

Kenneth Strickfaden shown adjusting one of his electrical props