Halloween 2018 Roundup

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It is once again the last day of October, and as always I am here to report on what I have been doing with my time in activities both spooky and spoopy. October was quite a busy month for me this year, and I consciously made an effort to keep some balance in my life (I even read some books, including such seasonal fare as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and a reread of Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October). After last year’s high-water mark of watching thirty-nine films, I felt glutted with movies, as if I had gorged all month long. Sure, there are many fans who watch more movies than that in October, but for me that is a lot. So while I kept track of my viewing, and took advantage of screening opportunities when I could, I wanted to keep my goals reasonable, watching thirty-one films. Imagine my surprise when I reached the weekend before Halloween with only a couple left to go, necessitating some tough choices: what would be left out?

My screening of Dawn of the Dead in 3-D was scheduled for last night, so I decided to make that movie no. 31. I go back and forth on which of Romero’s Dead trilogy is my favorite, but seeing Dawn on the big screen, and with a beautiful (and until now rarely-seen) 3-D conversion, made it a fitting culmination to my Halloween pregaming.

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This year I didn’t approach my viewing with much of a plan, other than working my way through the pile of unwatched movies I already own and checking out the offerings at the Regal Horrorfest (formerly October at the Oldtown) organized by Leif Jonker and Big Screen Wichita. The resulting list is less diverse than in some years, with over a third from the 1980s and nothing from earlier than the 1960s. There was also very little foreign film on my list this year. On the other hand, it’s been a boom year for new horror, and I watched more films from the current year than in past Octobers, both in theaters and catching up with films released earlier in the year on home video.

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1. The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)
2. Evil Dead 2 (Sam Raimi, 1987)*, **
3. Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi, 1992)**
4. Happy Death Day (Christopher Landon, 2017)
5. Puppet Master II (David Allen, 1990)
6. Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (Don Coscarelli, 1994)
7. Phantasm IV: Oblivion (Don Coscarelli, 1998)
8. Chopping Mall (Jim Wynorski, 1986)
9. Hell Fest (Gregory Plotkin, 2018)*
10. House of the Damned (Maury Dexter, 1963)
11. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)*
12. Venom (Ruben Fleischer, 2018)*
13. Horror Hotel aka The City of the Dead (John Llewellyn Moxey, 1960)
14. The Devil’s Bride aka The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1968)
15. Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez, 2013)
16. A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018)
17. Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985)*, **
18. Slaughterhouse Rock (Dimitri Logothetis, 1988)
19. Hellbent (Richard Casey, 1988)
20. Blood Diner (Jackie Kong, 1987)
21. Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)
22. The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980)*
23. C.H.U.D. (Douglas Cheek, 1984)*
24. C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud (David Irving, 1989)
25. Waxwork (Anthony Hickox, 1988)
26. Winchester (Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, 2018)
27. Paganini Horror (Luigi Cozzi, 1989)
28. The Midnight Hour (Jack Bender, 1985)
29. The Nightmare Before Christmas (Henry Selick, 1993)*, **
30. John Dies at the End (Don Coscarelli, 2013)
31. Dawn of the Dead 3-D (George A. Romero, 1978) *, **

* seen in the theater
** rewatch

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Best movie: Groundhog Day as a slasher? Sure, why not? Happy Death Day delivers on that high-concept premise, as spoiled sorority girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) relives the same day over and over again, each time dying at the hands of a mysterious baby-masked stalker, only to wake up again on the morning of her birthday, the clock reset. Lots of fun is had as she comes to understand her situation and uses it to discover her killer; a montage in which she follows various suspects, crossing them off her list, is one of the most purely joyous sequences I’ve seen this year; she learns a few lessons and grows as a person, as you might expect. But the film isn’t content only to hit the beats of its model, and even when Tree thinks she’s got it all figured out, it doesn’t let her (or us) off the hook quite so easily. I loved this movie: it’s funny and scary and satisfying, a movie about death brimming with life, anchored by a fantastic lead performance from Rothe.

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Worst Movie: I didn’t see anything that struck me as truly terrible this month, but horror as a genre often means gambling on the unknown, and they can’t all be winners. The most disappointing film I saw this month was surely House of the Damned; at barely over an hour, it feels padded: it opens with an estate lawyer calling architect Scott Campbell (Ron Foster) to offer him a job surveying a long-empty mansion built by an eccentric heiress so it can be sold; then Scott repeats the same information to his wife in a second conversation. Once the pair move into the house and begin their work, strange things begin to happen: doors are locked, keys are missing or found moved, and they are watched by unseen eyes. Perhaps the last tenants never really left? The middle section features some eerie imagery reminiscent of the classic Freaks (and includes an early performance by Richard “Jaws” Kiel), but just as it’s getting good the whole thing winds up and all the tension and mystery dissolve in a puff of smoke with an explanation even tamer than I would have guessed. This was shown on FXM Retro, with movie channel FXM taking a page from Turner Classic Movies and showing old movies from the Fox vault, uncut and without commercials. Sometimes the movies are pleasantly surprising discoveries; other times they are justifiably forgotten programmers like House of the Damned. Oh, well, it least it had a cool poster.

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Scariest Movie: Would I lose credibility if I named Hell Fest as the movie that most tightened the screws on me while I watched it? I’ve been in the position of heroine Natalie (Amy Forsyth), as the scaredy-cat dragged into things by friends with thicker skin, and the movie ramps up so subtly that I was convinced in the first forty-five minutes or so that it wasn’t scary at all. Only once I grew attached to the characters and invested in their story did things get intense, but it worked on me. I’ve previously expressed my relative lack of interest in slashers (although I did see several this year, including the classic original Halloween, finally), but Hell Fest‘s setting–a pop-up theme park devoted to horror, of the sort that have become popular in recent years–is colorful and intriguing, and the idea of a real killer being loose in such a place provides copious opportunities to explore one of my favorite horror tropes: the thin line between theater and reality. Some of the best moments in Hell Fest involve killings taking place in front of blasé parkgoers, convinced that they’re just seeing another performance; and who will believe someone is really stalking Natalie when the entire park is set up to instill and exploit that fear?

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Also Scariest, In a Different Way, Movie: Another movie from this year, Hereditary, has gotten a lot of buzz, with comparisons to The Exorcist (although in my opinion Rosemary’s Baby might be the more apt comparison). Suffice it to say that this was one of the most intense, dread-inducing films I watched this month, but much of that came from the barrage of horrible events that befall the family at the center of the story (made all the worse because they are things that could plausibly happen, outside of the supernatural business) and Toni Collette’s volcanic performance as the mother of the family whiplashed by grief, guilt, and fear for her own sanity. One could imagine tackling this material as a psychological drama without the occult overlay, but the film telegraphs early on that witchcraft is brewing, so there’s not as much tension as there could be in the notion that Collette is losing her mind. This was still a disturbing film whose imagery will linger with me for a long time, though.

Goriest Movie: Only two films are really in the running this year: Blood Diner features a cannibal cult hiding behind the façade of a vegetarian eatery (O irony!); as such, it gleefully transgresses all notions of good taste, filling the screen with severed limbs and dismembered body parts, all washed down with gallons of stage blood. But since Blood Diner is a comedy (no, really!), it’s all phony and it’s hard to take too seriously. By contrast, the 2013 Evil Dead remake is in deadly earnest, and is one of the most violent movies I’ve seen recently. (Since I revisited Sam Raimi’s original trilogy this month, I figured I might as well check out this later installment. It earns points for remixing some of the original’s iconic moments in the context of a new story rather than remaking the original beat-for-beat: for one thing, there’s no replacing Bruce Campbell’s Ash.) The original Evil Dead was a grotty supernatural spin on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and it is quite intense (only in the later sequels did the comedy come to the fore), but realistic it is not. The 2013 Evil Dead is both more graphic (and plays nothing for laughs) and doesn’t flinch; there’s no cutting away from the self-mutilation of the demon-possessed victims or the extreme measures the heroes must take to save themselves; director Fede Alvarez dares you to watch.

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Weirdest Movie: After reading director Don Coscarelli’s memoir, True Indie: Life and Death in Film Making this month, I decided to fill in some of my blind spots in his filmography, including the Phantasm sequels I hadn’t seen and his most recent feature, John Dies at the End. I haven’t read the David Wong novel upon which John is based, but it’s easy to see the appeal the material would have for the director of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep, including parallel dimensions, mysterious supernatural adversaries, and grotesque monsters (there’s even a cameo by Angus Scrimm, Phantasm‘s “Tall Man,” as a priest). Like the Raimi-influenced Phantasm sequels, John Dies at the End handles its ideas in a tongue-in-cheek manner, centering on a drug nicknamed “soy sauce”; the drug gives its users psychic abilities with the unfortunate side effect of opening rifts in time and space, placing (authorial self-insert) Wong in the middle of an interdimensional invasion. John riffs giddily on themes pioneered by H. P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, and William Burroughs, and the snarky humor, frequently scrambled chronology, and unreliable narrator (as Wong, in fits and starts, tells his story to a skeptical reporter played by Paul Giamatti) bring to mind cult film forebears like Donnie Darko and Fight Club.

Funniest Movie: Every year, there is at least one film in my October viewing that stretches the category of horror movie: this year that film is Venom, the action-horror-comedy hybrid starring Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock, a loser who becomes entangled with a hungry alien symbiote. I was skeptical when I heard about this project: in the comics, Venom is inextricably linked with Spider-Man, but with Spider-Man busy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, how would Sony credibly produce a spin-off without the main character? That turns out to be less of a hurdle than I expected, but the comic-book origins are still, in my opinion, the main challenge to categorizing Venom as a horror movie. Of course, I will be the first to admit that Venom isn’t scary, and while there’s quite a bit of violence there’s not a drop of blood; still, based on its premise and plot points, this is a movie about a shape-changing alien who takes possession of a human and bites off the heads of his enemies, leading to scenes of body horror and split personality. What really makes Venom take off is Hardy’s commitment to the bizarre premise (and his penchant for adopting funny voices, even before the symbiote takes over his body), throwing himself into contortions and chewing the scenery like Jim Carrey in The Mask. That’s not a comparison I would usually make as a compliment in a superhero movie, but the key to the movie is just how little actual heroism is involved: Eddie Brock is a loser, and he finds the friend and supporter he needs in his alien companion–who, it turns out, is also a bit of a loser. Forget the requisite CGI monster battle, which comes off blurry and incomprehensible anyway: it’s beside the point. The heart of Venom is an off-the-wall, sometimes kinky buddy comedy.

Most Inspired by Actual Events: We all know that when Sarah Winchester began, on the advice of a spiritualist, the decades-long expansion of her California mansion in order to evade the pursuing spirits of those killed by her late husband’s rifles, she couldn’t have been in her right mind. What this year’s Winchester supposes is, maybe she was? The words “inspired by” do a lot of heavy lifting in this tale of an alcoholic physician (Jason Clarke), himself marked by death, who arrives at the constantly under-construction mansion in order to evaluate Mrs. Winchester’s (Helen Mirren) state of mind. Will it surprise you to learn that the place really is haunted? The labyrinthine Winchester house is a fantastic setting, and the film is a well-constructed ghost story, but the elegant Western gothic that could have been is overpowered by a constant need to prod the audience. If jump scares produced actual fright instead of momentary surprise, this would be the scariest movie of the month by far, and I would now be under treatment for acute hypertension.

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Musical Horror: Finally, longtime readers of Medleyana may be aware of my longstanding interest in musical horror, particularly fables in which musicians trade their souls to the devil in exchange for success (“Instruments of Death,” still my most-read entry, is a good introduction to this topic). Of the three music-related films I watched this month, two had exactly that premise (Slaughterhouse Rock, despite its title and the presence of Toni Basil as the ghost of a dead rock star, isn’t really about the rock scene at all): in Hellbent, punk Lemmy (Phil Ward) makes a deal with “Mr. Tanas” (David Marciano)–the film is not exactly subtle; it similarly makes much of the anagrammatic relation between Santa and Satan–and becomes a junky almost overnight, crossing paths with other desperate people caught in Tanas’ web. A quintessential indie film, Hellbent features plenty of grimy L.A. atmosphere and broadly-drawn characters, as well as some big laughs (whether they are intentional or not, I can’t say for sure, but I was never bored with it).

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Paganini Horror came to my attention on Twitter as a movie that was hilariously inept but all the more entertaining because of it, a description that fits it exactly. Made by infamous Italian low-budget filmmaker Luigi Cozzi, this one filters themes of Dominic Argento through the context of MTV music videos and the legend of the violinist Niccolò Paganini selling his soul; Paganini himself turns up, wearing a gold Carnaval mask like the Commandatore in Don Giovanni, killing off the members of the all-girl rock band who hope to turn his lost composition into New Wave gold. Those who aren’t murdered directly fall victim to increasingly bizarre ends, such as the girl whose body is consumed by a mold only found in the wood of Cremona and Stradivarius violins. Also, Donald Pleasence was there for a day to film a couple of scenes and wrap things up with a suitably diabolical explanation. Ah, Italian genre film, never change.

That wraps up October until next year. Happy Halloween!

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Hi there! Wow, a month and a half sure flies by, doesn’t it? But I think I’ve given Pee-Wee Herman the top spot for long enough. More long-form content will appear on Medleyana soon, but in the mean time I haven’t been idle. If you missed it, you can catch up on Tune in Next Week, my ongoing series at The Solute in which I’ve been writing about the 1939 Buck Rogers serial one chapter at a time (and the most recent installment of which was just published yesterday). With only two chapters left to go, I’ll soon have a little more time to write over here.

Another project that has occupied me this spring is putting some more of my compositions on my long-neglected YouTube channel. I haven’t posted everything, but the pieces that are up represent a good cross-section of my output, including some of my ragtime piano, wind band, and electronic compositions. The big one is my symphony Carnival of Souls, recorded by the Wichita Wind Ensembles Professional Band in 2012.

If you haven’t already done so, I invite you to subscribe to Medleyana and/or follow me on Twitter to get instant notifications of updates and announcements. Thanks!

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.

Revisiting Farinelli il Castrato at The Solute

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Gérard and Andrée Corbiau’s 1994 film Farinelli il Castrato was released in the US twenty years ago this month. At the time of its release, the film received a lot of attention for its use of digital editing to simulate the castrato‘s unique vocal qualities. I took a look at it to see how it holds up as cutting-edge technology and as a drama about some age-old concerns (sex, money, and artistry). Visit The Solute to read the article.

Film Review: Following the Ninth

It’s easy to be desensitized as a defense against hype; all around us we are being sold, told that something is the biggest, the best, the newest. Folding our arms and saying, “Oh, yeah? Prove it!” isn’t just reflexive cynicism, it’s practically a self-defense mechanism, the only way to protect ourselves against the barrage of pitches clamoring for our attention.  Arts advocacy, sadly, isn’t immune to hyperbole, and even well-meaning statements like Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Mozart Effect can overstate their cases, ringing hollow.  I’m as guilty as anyone else: music can be a powerful experience, and difficult to put into words. If we sometimes go overboard when speaking on its behalf, it’s because we have been transported, and words are rarely big enough to explain it.

Kerry Candaele (the director of Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and other documentaries) described himself in his 20s as full of “angst, existential dread, and spiritual maladies,” before his discovery of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, specifically a cassette recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  The music touched him so deeply that he became a convert, digging into Beethoven’s music and wanting to pound on people’s doors, asking them, “Do you have Beethoven in your life?”  Fortunately, instead of doing that, Candaele wrote and directed Following the Ninth, which takes a different tack (I caught the film at the Wichita Orpheum Theatre Wednesday night, co-presented by the Tallgrass Film Association and Wichita Symphony Orchestra).

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Before Wednesday night’s screening of Following the Ninth, Candaele spoke briefly to those brought to the screening “not under their own free will,” seeking to allay their fears by stating up front that his film is not a biopic, and not an academic analysis of the music.  Indeed, as the film proceeded there were relatively few pronouncements from musical experts and almost no references to Beethoven’s biography, other than the fact that by the time he composed the Ninth (his last completed symphony) in 1824, he was completely deaf.  The film focuses squarely on individuals from China, Japan, Chile, and Germany, speaking in their own words (and with the support of copious historical and newly-filmed footage) about what the Ninth Symphony has meant to them.  Candaele makes his case for the power of art by example.

Following the Ninth celebrates the communal nature of Beethoven’s masterpiece, concentrating on times and places in which the complete work (especially the famous “Ode to Joy” of the last movement) gave solace or energy to people desperate for freedom, equality, brother- and sisterhood.  In 1989, mere months apart, demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and crowds celebrating the dismantling of the Berlin Wall adopted the Ninth as anthems under very different circumstances: the Chinese student demonstrators, represented by student leader Feng Congde, hijacked public PA systems and blared the Ninth Symphony to drown out official announcements and threats; in East Berlin, Lene Ford grew up being forced to sing Beethoven’s work in school, taught only that he was a “social revolutionary.”  After the collapse of the Wall (only two months after Lene’s brother had been shot trying to escape to the West!), the Ode to Joy symbolized a moment of sudden openness: for a young woman who had been spied upon by the Stasi simply because she had pen pals in other countries, “who were like fiction to me, because I knew I would never see them,” the experience of freedom was overpowering.

While the Chinese student demonstrations would be crushed by government force, and East Germany would be reunited with the West as the Soviet system crumbled, both Feng and Ford speak to the transformation they underwent during those events: the sense that they could do anything, that both they and the world had changed.  Ford comments that the feelings she experienced, and the welcome she received from West Germans the first day the border was opened, have stayed with her, forming a reserve of strength she has drawn on throughout her life since then.  At a concert after the Wall fell, conductor Leonard Bernstein famously changed a single word in the Ode from freude (joy) to freiheit (freedom)–a change not without some controversy; while both words were appropriate for the moment, it is the sense of utter joy that comes through as Ford recounts her story.  As for Feng, when he describes the plaster statue of a woman holding a torch aloft that the students erected in Tiananmen Square–an iconic image that was interpreted as a Chinese Statue of Liberty in the U. S.–he refers to her as Joy personified.

Feng’s recollections of his role in the protests dwell on the liberation of the students’ artistic impulses during the protests, and emphasize that the restriction of the Communist system was not only physical, but a sort of prison of the mind: while the protesters faced physical violence, they were protesting against a more pervasive “violence of culture,” in which art, music, and dance were all “bourgeois,” forbidden.  A sad irony of totalitarianism is that the same creative outlets were forbidden under the fascist government of Chile under General Augusto Pinochet: in the words of one activist, “there was no culture, because all culture was Left culture.” It was forbidden to sing Chilean folk songs or the “Himno de la Alegria,” as the Ode to Joy is known in Spanish, because of their association with popular socialist movements, or simply because the majority of musicians were known to have leftist sympathies. It is a reminder that, as Czech author Josef Škvorecký pointed out (in “Red Music”),

when the lives of individuals and communities are controlled by powers that themselves remain uncontrolled–slavers, czars, führers, first secretaries, marshals, generals and generalissimos, ideologists of dictatorships at either end of the spectrum–then creative energy becomes a protest. . . .  Totalitarian ideologists don’t like real life (other people’s) because it cannot be totally controlled; they loathe art, the product of a yearning for life, because that too evades control.

Some of the most harrowing passages in the film describe the paranoia and secrecy that marked Pinochet’s Chile, as suspected dissidents were “disappeared,” rounded up by the government for torture and (sometimes) execution.  Indeed, many of the public protests against Pinochet were led by women: so many of the men had been taken that the women left behind became the public voices of dissent, keeping the names and faces of the “disappeared” in the public eye and leading non-violent demonstrations (including singing the forbidden “Himno”).  Although Pinochet is gone, the recollections of the Chilean activists are bittersweet, with a sense of grievous loss that can only be processed through wry humor or simply by moving on.

Unlike the examples of the Ode taking on heightened significance at moments of political crisis, the annual performance of Beethoven’s Ninth has been an established tradition in Japan since World War I: professional orchestras, schools, and Daiku (“great nine”) associations stage hundreds of performances of the symphony every year in December, where it is associated with the New Year, similar to choral societies in the West that perform Handel’s Messiah and other works annually.  Candaele sits in on rehearsals with some of these groups, made up of amateurs who sing for both musical fulfillment and camaraderie; as in the West, Daiku choruses are civic and social as well as artistic in function, with a great emphasis placed on the value of cooperative endeavors.  Following the Ninth was six years in the making; at the outset of filming, Candaele could not have expected the horrific earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Japan in March 2011; but in the aftermath, Beethoven’s Daiku was an obvious symbol for the Japanese people to express their resilience and solidarity.

Following the Ninth is not a straight concert film, but it does roughly follow the order of Beethoven’s symphony, with the Ode to Joy as a recurring touchstone, introduced at the very beginning and referred to throughout the film (whereas in the symphony it is heard only in the final movement).  The four countries’ stories are intertwined, cutting back and forth, leaning on the similarities more than the differences (after all, the theme of the Ode is universal brotherhood).  Beethoven’s music is frequently heard in the background under dialogue or in tandem with footage of crucial events, but longer passages are also played over montages of images cut to match the rhythm of the music.  It’s in these sections that Following the Ninth comes closest to being outright manipulative: scenes of children playing, people marching, and breathtaking natural vistas are like cinematic candy–tasty but not very nutritious–and Beethoven’s music doesn’t need the extra juice.  Likewise, the scenes of goose-stepping German soldiers, Chinese tanks rolling over student encampments, and massive walls of water bearing down on the Japanese coast are chilling enough without Beethoven’s timpani or ominous harmonies making the point.

Still, even those scenes contribute to the film’s theme: the unity of mankind in all its diversity, as optimistically celebrated by poet Friedrich Schiller in the Ode that Beethoven would set to music in his monumental symphony; and the ways in which Beethoven’s music has been adopted and given meaning in settings quite different from that which he experienced.  Candaele opens the film with punk/folk singer Billy Bragg telling the story of the time he was invited to rewrite the words to Schiller’s Ode; like Bernstein’s change of a crucial word, that is sacrilege to some people, but it is similar to the way in which each person interviewed in the film has made Beethoven their own, and the way Candaele has used the symphony as a vehicle for telling their stories.  I think that’s the reason so little of Beethoven’s specific history is included in Following the Ninth: it’s already well-known, sure, but more importantly it’s beside the point.  For the Chilean and Chinese protesters, for the suddenly liberated East Germans, and for the Japanese coming together in the face of disaster, Beethoven’s music wasn’t history, or even a convenient symbol: it was alive and it was speaking to them in that moment.  I suspect that’s what we really mean when we say a work of art is “timeless,” and it’s the reason it’s so difficult to put into words after the moment is over.

Art Rules: A Brief Example

In my last post, I described the process of discovering affirmative formal rules during the process of composition. I thought I’d share an example from my own work, a short piece for piano four-hands entitled Odell Lake.

Most of my compositions for piano are in a ragtime style, and while Odell Lake started off that way, it took off in a different direction as I composed it.  Formally, it is not a rag: it doesn’t follow the typical AABBACCDD arrangement of themes, and the themes are not 16 bars long.  It does, however, contain repeated sections, and as I composed it I focused on how to use repetition as a constructive element: was there a way to change the context of a repetition so that it sounded different, or had a different musical function, each time it was played?

The rule that emerged was twofold: first, everything in the piece (except the very beginning and end) would be repeated, sometimes more than once (two sections contain “nested” repetitions, echoes within echoes).  Second, most of the phrase endings don’t correspond to the points of repetition, giving the impression of phrases that end in two different ways, depending on whether the music circles back to a previous point or continues into the next section.

This formal approach led to a piece that is fairly sectional (appropriate, given the ragtime influence), but in which the themes and ideas are continually developing, as if the listener were examining them from every angle.  I didn’t worry too much about thematic consistency (although the initial ideas return at the end in the manner of a recapitulation), given that everything would be repeated.  Because it was a duet, I also gave thought to where the repeat signs would fall on the page, in order to avoid excessive page turns; that was also a contributing factor in the sectional design.

The end result was a piece that had formal integrity without being predictable, and was fun to play.

Art Rules (or, “Freedom! Terrible Freedom!”)

You could say I’m a formalist, both in my work and in how I relate to others’ work.  Formalism has often been a term of abuse, implying a concern only for formula without regard to “content,” as if they could somehow be separated.  But I think my previous posts have made clear my interest in the different ways ideas can be organized and expressed, and the layers of meaning that can be suggested by a smart deployment of familiar elements.  Concern for formal elements doesn’t preclude evaluation of ideas and execution as good or bad, nor need it imply a completely intellectual approach by which quality is an objective truth that can be proven one way or the other.

It does allow for some wiggle room, however.  A symphony, a film, or a comic book can be evaluated on its own terms, asking “What is this work setting out to achieve?” and “Does it succeed?”  Does it work within the established boundaries of the medium and genre or seek to challenge them?  Most people nowadays have varied interests, and are accustomed to engaging works of art or entertainment pitched at different levels, adjusting their expectations based on cues within the work itself (or implied by its marketing or venue, which can lead to disappointment or the occasional pleasant surprise if the work doesn’t match expectations).  In this pluralistic environment, we are all formalists, to a degree.

What does this mean to the process of creation?  Is it just a matter of hitting the right story beats or composing four-bar phrases, of Drawing Comics the Marvel Way?  Obviously not, although those are the starting points of craftsmanship as traditionally understood.  When people dismiss stale or soulless formula, it’s often this kind of basic “how-to-do-it” stuff that they’re referring to: “By the numbers.” “Hackwork.”  Sometimes the contempt is richly deserved, and we’ve all encountered enough impersonal, indifferent work to understand that calling something “merely” professional isn’t meant to be a compliment.  It’s one thing to cling to formula, to imitate, when just starting out; it’s quite another when you feel the artist isn’t trying or thinks you’ll be satisfied with the bare minimum.

The reverse, though, can be a search for “originality” with no foundation of technique or (sometimes) knowledge of what has already been done.  And that contempt for “rules” can lead would-be artists to actively avoid formal training: “You don’t learn what you can do in school, you learn what you can’t do.”  “I don’t want to be made to fit into a box.” “I want to be able to color outside the lines.” Et cetera.  Never mind that any artist worthy of the name should hope to graduate to drawing their own lines to color in (metaphorically or otherwise).

So, yes, I’m on the side of discipline, whether it’s channeled by an established institution or developed individually on one’s own. (The point that is often overlooked in this school vs. autodidact debate is that, when you come down to it, all artistic discipline is self-discipline; no one is going to do it for you, no matter where you are.)

As for rules?  Like any other artistic resource, they can be a help or a hindrance, and this is where the formal approach comes in.  Igor Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music contains a famous passage which nails down the problem with unlimited freedom:

The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free. . . .  I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me.  If everything is permissible to me, the best and the worst; if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable, and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile.

For a long time I considered that my mantra, placing sometimes-arbitrary restrictions on my compositions in the name of “structure,” but frequently alternating this approach with an anything-goes, all-inclusive aesthetic.  Thus did I refute Stravinsky!  My guide at this opposite pole was Frank Zappa, who defined his approach as “Anything, Any Time, Anywhere—for No Reason at All,” and who did as much as he could to upend and undermine what he called the “hateful practices” of music.*  Sometimes I found a happy medium between these two extremes, but I caused myself a great deal of trouble by misunderstanding musical rules and how to apply them.

There are negative rules and affirmative rules: rules that say you can’t do something and others that say you must do something.  Unfortunately, the early years of musical training are often filled with the negative kind: don’t have parallel fifths, don’t use retrograde chord progressions, don’t double the leading tone. There are good reasons for all those rules, but it can be awfully restrictive if you see yourself as a loner working outside the system: save those exercises for the sheeple in Theory I—I’m going to do things my own way.  It gets worse when you get into historical counterpoint (in the styles of Palestrina and J. S. Bach), and even Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system had quite a few “don’ts,” as he originally intended it to avoid tonal implications.  It’s not hard to see why school sometimes seems to be all about NO.

It can also be easy to carry that mindset into composition: sometimes the “don’ts” are merely pedagogical tools, obstacles put in the student’s way to make them avoid the obvious, or to prevent bad habits, and as such they are useful.  Many composers (and other artists) never get past those rules they’ve internalized, turning a brace that was meant to make them stronger into a crutch they depend on.  I’ve spoken to many mature composers who said they still heard their teacher’s voice in their heads when working, but whether they heed or ignore it is part of the decision-making process.  I remember vividly the first time I included a bass drum roll in a composition, something that my first composition professor had discouraged me from doing.  I had a good reason for using it, but it still gave me an illicit thrill—and I had been out of school for eight years!  Composition education, at least in schools, is still very much a one-on-one teacher-student relationship; I don’t know if my remarks apply fully to other disciplines, but I’d be surprised if writers and studio artists didn’t have similar stories to tell.

I might have made smoother progress if I had kept in mind a passage from a few pages earlier in Stravinsky’s book (emphasis added):

Invention presupposes imagination but should not be confused with it.  For the act of invention implies the necessity of a lucky find and of achieving full realization of this find.  What we imagine does not necessarily take on a concrete form and may remain in a state of virtuality, whereas invention is not conceivable apart from actual working out.

An important principal of form that isn’t always obvious is that very often the “rules” of a given work of art are discovered in the process of the “working out” Stravinsky describes.  Rules set out beforehand are apt to be negative: formal boundaries of the sort described in the first passage from the Poetics, and they may or may not fit the material chosen to elaborate.  Rules discovered in the process of creation are more apt to be both affirmative and organically related to the material, leading to the kind of creative freedom that is the goal of all this discipline.  Sometimes the discovery of internal rules is part of a painstaking process at the writing desk or in the studio, and sometimes it takes place on the fly, as in an improvised jazz solo, but either way it comes across to the audience as freshness and spontaneity, in which developments can seem both surprising and inevitable.

As an example, comics writer Alan Moore is known for the tight formal approach and attention to detail he brings to his work; his discovery of the guiding principles he would apply to Watchmen (in collaboration with artist Dave Gibbons) is worth quoting at length (from an interview with Tasha Robinson):

I was writing the opening pages [of Watchmen No. 3] and, as is my custom, making tiny little thumbnail sketches to actually be able to envisage what the page would finally look like when it was drawn. I had two or three strains of narrative going on in the same page. I had a truculent news vendor giving his fairly uninformed commentary on the political state of the world, the likelihood of a coming war. Across the street, in the background, we have two people fixing a radiation sign to a wall. Sitting with his back to a hydrant near the news vendor, there’s a small boy reading a comic, which is a pirate comic. And I think while I was doodling, I noticed that an extreme close-up of the radiation symbol, if you put the right sort of caption with it, could look almost like the black sail of a ship against a yellow sky. So I dropped in a caption in the comic that the child was reading about a hellbound ship’s black sails against a yellow Indies sky. And I have a word balloon coming from off-panel, which is actually the balloon of the news vendor, which is talking about war. The narrative of the pirate comic is talking about a different sort of war. As we pull back, we realize that we’re looking at a radiation symbol that’s being tacked to the wall of a newly created fallout shelter. And finally, when we pull back into the beginning, into the foreground, we realize that these pirate captions that we’ve been reading are those in the comic that is being read by the small boy. . . . But, like I said, it was purely while I was scribbling, doodling, writing bits of dialogue and crossing them out that I suddenly noticed these possibilities for things that could be done in a comic and nowhere else.

Thus, Moore and Gibbons developed a visual language in which images are paired, never standing for only one thing, but in relationship with other ideas.  The use of mirrors, symmetry, and double meaning became the underlying formal principle.  In another interview, Moore discusses his series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which brought characters from nineteenth-century fiction together in a single narrative continuity:

Round about the second issue, I suddenly thought ‘Hey, what if I did this so that any character that’s mentioned by name had got to be a real character from fiction?’ . . . Well, a genuine character from fiction, someone that has existed in other people’s work. And I think that it was when, possibly in the first issue, where I suddenly got to a bit where I realized that I’d got Emile Zola’s Nana being killed on the Rue Morgue by Mister Hyde, I thought, well, ‘This is great! This is going somewhere!’

The relevant point here is that in both cases the rules Moore set for himself, discovered in the process of creation, are affirmative, opening up possibilities rather than closing them off.  They set up challenges, but ones that require invention and creative thinking to overcome.  In the language of improv theater, such rules are the equivalent of “Yes, and . . . “ rather than the “NO” that often comes to mind when the topic of rules comes up.

To bring it back to the audience, does it help to be aware of such processes when reading, watching, or listening? I think it does, but I’ve already revealed myself as someone who geeks out over these things.  Not everyone wants to dig so deeply into their entertainment, and that’s fine. Despite appearances, I’m actually a strong believer in the “gut reaction:” it’s okay to like or dislike something without preparing a thesis about it or reading volumes of background to appreciate it.  Sometimes things just strike us a certain way, and the surface is as legitimate a layer to interact with as any other.  In some cases all that formal scaffolding is for the benefit of the artist, and a façade is erected to hide it from the public.  There’s something to be said for both the “holistic” and “granular” approaches to art—but I think I’ll leave it for another post.

* It is now widely known that Stravinsky wrote very little, if any, of the Poetics published under his name.  Indeed, as Richard Taruskin notes, Stravinsky had a life-long relationship with ghost-writers, and in any case Stravinsky’s public comments were often deliberately misleading, as if to throw armchair analysts off the scent.  Similarly, Zappa (for whom Stravinsky was an important influence) frequently downplayed the rigorous structure of his own compositions, preferring to be seen as an audacious prankster and provocateur. My struggle to reconcile these contradictory teachings was, in part, the price of reading too much at a young age and taking it all at face value.