Wednesday, September 24, 2014
We waste the little Puccini we have. Puccini wrote two operas before Manon Lescaut, and we hardly ever listen to or perform this one. True, the earlier operas were written before Puccini worked out his distinctive style, but they were still full of good music. Even the early Messa di Gloria has proven to be full of glorious music. Puccini was so good that almost all the music he wrote was at least worthwhile. But added to this musical savvy was an understanding of human psychology and a feeling for drama and the stage that made him into an opera composer for the ages. Le Villi was not even really an opera, but Edgar is fully engaging, downright terrific with a good tenor, and Ricordi his publisher, knew he had a genius on the line. This third opera was to make Puccini's initial fame, and he had decided on difficult morally questioning subjects, that Puccini was to broach in many of his subsequent operatic successes.
Ricordi at first tried to dissuade Puccini from this subject since Massenet had already written his version of Manon in 1884, and there had even been an earlier one by Aubert, but Puccini insisted on doing his version and took the idea to several writers until a version he liked, and likely shaped himself, appeared under a whole team of writers. Opera was a powerful popular force in this, its heyday, in Italy at the end of the 19th Century. The generation before had witnessed Verdi's works act as catalyst for the Risorgimento which created the Nation of Italy, and now Puccini was to launch another wave of influence which was to gradually transform many of the rigid repressive social and cultural attitudes to sexuality and morality. Where Verdi was interested in an agon between politics and personal love, Puccini was to investigate the less public domain of sexual politics.
The plot of the opera is shortened from its source book, a suppressed early 18th Century novel by the Abbé Prévost.
Act One shows a public square in Amiens, near the Paris Gate, a crowed ensemble acts as backdrop, and Des Grieux and his friend Edmondo emerge. The first sings of pleasure but his friend shows a melancholic romantic side. A carriage arrives containing Manon and her brother Lescaut, who is bringing her to a Convent to join the Sisters. There is also Geronte, the wealthy Treasurer General who is already captivated by the girl and has made friends with the brother. He obviously has designs on Manon. Des Grieux sees Manon and hastily makes an assignation to meet her later, and it becomes obvious that he has totally fallen in love with her.
Geronte plans to abduct Manon and arranges for a carriage. While he is gone, Edmondo tells Des Grieux of the abduction plan and Des Grieux seizes his opportunity, and declares his love for Manon, who is swept away in the carriage to Paris by Des Grieux, the others in pursuit.
Much happens before Act Two. Manon has settled with Des Grieux in Paris, until he has run out of money and then moved in, after all, with the wealthy Geronte as his mistress. She is bored amidst her luxury and misses Des Grieux. Lascaut is there hoping to benefit from his sister's fortune, but, realizing she misses Des Grieux. goes out to find him after Geronte leaves the house. Des Grieux comes and the lovers renew their passion, but are interrupted by Geronte, who Manon now tells she can never love.
Geronte leaves, giving them a chance to get away, but Manon cannot leave her jewels and is prevented from escaping by the police that Geronte has brought. She is arrested and taken away. Des Grieux is set to follow her to the ends of the world.
Manon has been condemned to be transported to Louisiana. Act Three is set at the port of Le Havre, and Des Grieux has come to see Manon amongst those condemned for transport, and there is a plan to have her escape, but it fails. At the end Des Grieux manages to get onto the ship to be with Manon to share her fate.
Act Four is in Louisiana. The novel has a sequence showing the lovers in decline in New Orleans, but the final scene shows them dying of thirst and starvation in the American desert. We watch their pitiful end. Des Grieux is offstage for her final despairing outburst: 'Sola perdutta, abbandonata', and he returns to witness her last breath before falling lifeless over her body.
This dramatic action examines the gradual destruction of a woman who is initially seduced away from a life as a nun, first by the passion of love, but then by an almost naive infatuation with comfort and luxury, which ultimately leads to her downfall. Her lack, perhaps, of a real moral core is her weakness.
Puccini repeatedly revisits certain subjects since there are a number of linked processes that he examines from various angles and at various stages of development.
The main one is the whole 'systemic' consideration of the 'fallen woman', in various social and culturally varied contexts from opera to opera. Manon, Mimi, Musetta, La Rondine, Cio Cio-San, and Sister Angelica are all fallen women to some degree. This is one of Puccini's recurring themes.
Connected with this is the function and nature of seduction frequently juxtaposed against the idea of truly, madly falling in love with somebody that breaches and trounces all these social and personal categories. Even Pinkerton convinces himself that he is in love with Cio-Cio-San, but he knows all along, that his ship will inexorably take him away eventually from his 'bride.' Des Grieux, who is the seducer in Manon Lescaut, is also one of the most honestly love-struck heroes in Puccini. Although he is the actual agent that gets Manon to commit to escaping, this seductive function is totally justified because of his true love for her. Calaf may be too self-destructively projecting onto his love object, Turandot, to even seriously count as a lover. He does not even meet her close up, until the end, when he finally tears her mask off, seeming almost more excited by the challenges she poses, than he is in a personal relationship.
Both the lovers, Manon and Des Grieux are victims of their circumstances. The whole predicament of the beautiful young girl forced by her family to join a convent has, in today's world, even more resonance and controversy than it did at the end of the 19th Century. Nowadays, even more than in Puccini's, most of the audience will automatically hope for her to be somehow rescued from this, and Des Grieux provides the remedy. Poor Manon is portrayed as so ingenue, that she cannot help but to be swayed by Des Grieux, but she later proves herself to be less swayed by lust or lasciviousness than she is by the even more recognizable desires for comfort, wealth, and luxury. Indeed, when Des Grieux runs out of money, she simply becomes Mistress to Germont without too many qualms. It is Des Grieux who overlooks her change of allegiance. He is really the victim of this tragedy, since after she devours his resources she turns to other men, and when she is deported as a dissolute, has Des Grieux come onto the ship to share her fate with her.
The Royal Opera production we will be seeing makes no bones about portraying Manon as a sympathetic victim. It is Des Grieux that eventually has to bear witness and share Manon's fate, but it is his extreme love for her that leads him to his own destruction. His is the greater tragedy.
Michael Doleschell keeps mostly to non-fiction, and is deeply devoted to music and culture and never tires of history, and is fascinated by science and the scientific method [as long as they are well explained]. He broadcasts a program of Classical Music for 3 hours every Saturday afternoon from noon till 3 on the U of G's Radio Station: CFRU.
Monday, September 22, 2014
In a recent interview with Sight and Sound, the topic of Dazed and Confused's reputation as a nostalgic film came up. "I had really mixed feelings about those years of my life," says Richard Linklater. "I tried to recreate it, but I didn't even know how I felt about it. I wasn't saying the 1970s were great. It was more like, 'Yeah, those years were kinda shitty actually!' I was revisiting a lot of not-so-great stuff."
Reviewing the movie in 1993, Roger Ebert, who liked Dazed a lot, picked up on Linklater's ambivalence, but acknowledged the sheen hard times acquires with distance. "The years between 13 and 18," he wrote, "are amongst the most agonizing in a lifetime, yet we remember them with a nostalgia that blocks out much of the pain."
Finally, let's get nerdy and consider what we're talking about when we're talking nostalgia. "The Greek word for 'return,'" Milan Kundera reminds us in his novel Ignorance, "is nostos. Algos means 'suffering.' So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return."
After a brief, pathetic run in theatres, Dazed and Confused began to build an inimitable cult following. It's now known and loved for its soundtrack, its last-day-of-school feeling, its unchecked, unpunished drug use, its unchecked, unpunished McConaughey. Fans who saw the movie as teenagers or thereabouts have warm feelings about the way it fits into their own experiences and maturations.
Linklater's currently being lauded out the wazoo for capturing formative years in Boyhood, and much of Dazed's lasting power has to do with its similar success in showing major pivots of youth. And so it's hard not to experience waves of nostalgia, not specifically for the 70s, or for bush parties, or for Aerosmith, but for those stages of our own lives. Dazed indeed doesn't declare the 70s to be awesome, and it doesn't claim being between 13 and 18 is awesome, but it does capture the importance of that spate, no matter how weighty the circumstances. If we feel good about any of that, it's on account of it being over.
But is Dazed an inherently nostalgic movie? Or is it us who truck in our own nostalgia, our own sentimentality for pubertal awkwardness and classic rock?
Consider that the movie takes place during America's bicentennial, a period of national nostalgia. Consider, too, that the Vietnam War, so divisive and destructive for the country had "ended" only a year earlier. Three years earlier, men in the position of the seniors would have had the pall of the draft lottery looming over of them.
Considering nostalgia literally, the movie's anything but. There is no yearn to return. If anything, Dazed is about the desire to leave the past behind. Mitch sees to opportunity to ditch his dink pals, and he jumps at it. Pink struggles with his own trajectory, whether or not football, and a certain braided loyalty to his friends, is what his future will be. Ranking the decades, Cynthia declares that the 70s suck, and "maybe the 80s will be, like, radical or something." (In some ways, it's an inside joke, because--those of us who lived through the 80s, as children or adults, know they were terrible.) And maybe the most iconic statement out of Dazed--aside from "Alright, alright, alright"--is Pink's declaration: "If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself."
Still and all, few movies get off on as cool a note as the opening talk boxing of "Sweet Emotion." It's not that the 70s were the coolest time to be alive, but for two hours it does sort of feel like it.
Monday, September 15, 2014
"'Generation X' is now a cliché, but then the whole notion that there was some other group, some other way of perceiving the world that was different from Michael Douglas's baby boom, or Jane Fonda's baby boom - it was heretical. To a certain tiny bunkered group of boomers, it still is."
Douglas Coupland, Wired interview with Richard Linklater, 1994
It's fitting that in Richard Linklater's first movie, a short documentary of the '85 Austin Woodshock Festival, the director runs into Daniel Johnston. A skinny, lisping Johnston holds up his "old new album" Hi, How Are You? and makes Linklater promise that he'll listen to it. Apparently recorded while Johnston was having a nervous breakdown, that album, and Johnston himself, eventually became a touchstone of the underground, DIY, outsider movement of 80s North America. The spool clunk of the boombox he was recording on is audible throughout, the tape hisses like a leaking tire, and Johnston's playing and singing lives on the cusp of unlistenable. But if you give yourself a chance to acclimate, to listen past the technical "flaws" you do achieve an access to the grandiose tunes that Johnston's hearing in his own difficult head.
With the rise in lo-fi and DIY, music--and whatever kind of art--could now be made by kids with limited means, limited talent, but limitless spirit. This lo-fi wave that grew out of and became braided with the hardcore scene was made available to the popular culture when Nirvana put out that "naked baby" album of theirs in 1991. We could argue about Kurt Cobain's prowess as a songwriter until the hipsters come home, but I think Cobain's importance as a music fan can't be understated. As a emissary for the underground, Cobain elucidated the darker corners of American music--whether or not you wanted to further explore those corners was your call. As good an example of any of this--and we can also cite Nirvana's covers of Vaseline and Meat Puppets--was the exposure Cobain gave to Daniel Johnston by wearing a Hi, How Are You? shirt everywhere during the highest heights of his popularity.
Nevermind came out in September 1991, Canadian author Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X had come out March of that year, and, smack in the middle, Richard Linklater's Slacker was released that summer. If you're a high school student writing a paper on "Generation X," this trio is probably the best source material. Coupland and Linklater's work managed to stay fairly underground, but the explosion of Nirvana brought the underground aboveground, and it didn't take long for a generation, for a type of person sporting a type of worldview or fashion-less fashion, to turn into a cliché or a brand.
"It was kinda sad to see slacker, the word, as it broke into the national mainstream, become kind of a negative," says Linklater in the film's Criterion Collection commentary. "Because I always saw it very positively. I always thought to be a slacker would be a badge of honour. It meant you weren't beatnik, or hippie--I never saw those as negative, either. But maybe that's me. Other people saw those as negative as well, to mean bummer, or loser-type people. But to me that was always kind of heroic if you were doing your own thing and living a life of purpose and passion and working on your own thing and not really selling out to commercial interests in your life. You felt good about how you spent your time and you didn't feel your life was too compromised. That that would be a worthwhile, successful way to live. To depict that, I thought would be a positive thing."
Slacker captures a type of living, thinking, talking, and making before that lifestyle became stereotypical, or romanticised, or derided. Acted largely by Austin musicians and artists, it's a kind of document of a collaborative artistic community pre-"Seattle," and pre-a time when everyone was eager to find "the next Seattle." Like the DIY, lo-fi movement in music, Linklater's film is scrappy, sometimes awkward, but genuine and unfettered in its interest in life machinations. Whether your see heroism in that is your call
Guelph Movie Club is back from Summer Break. To celebrate, we're going back to school with Dazed and Confused on Thursday September 25 at 9:00pm. It's time to welcome the new class to movie club with a good ol' fashioned freshman hazing.
We're kidding, obviously.
It's a new year of movie club, so we hope you'll come out and support what's become a monthly homage to the movies we love.
Next month is our annual Halloween Episode. Help us pick which scary movie we watching in October using the following handy poll. Note that you can only vote once. After that, the poll won't appear when you view this blog. The results will be revealed before we watch Dazed and Confused.
One more thing before I go. The Bookshelf is great. They let me run Movie Club. They let us watch the movies we want. For those reasons and many more, I want to make sure they get as good as they give. So please, come out on the last Thursday of every month and bring your friends. Let's make Movie Club a winner for them so they can continue to make it happen for us.
'Til then, see you at the movies!
Which Classic Do You Wanna Be Spooked By in October?
Monday, September 1, 2014
Christianity is so stained into the Western cloth that, really, that garment is more stain than cloth at this point. And Catholicism is soaked especially deep into those fibers, if not in terms of active faith, certainly the rituals. Maybe best evinced by Pope Francis joining Twitter (though Miley Cyrus has more followers; 18.5 million to the Pope's 4.4 million), the Catholic Church has taken strides to modernize themselves. Complicating this retrofitting is an ongoing history of ignominious abuse that is so egregious that it has, sadly, become a punchline by now. The depth of tradition and the prevalence of repugnant malfeasance can't help but make for imbalanced communities.
Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is a staffless shepherd to a flock on the West coast of Ireland. Hearing Confession, the Father is informed that he'll be killed the next Sunday. The would-be killer has had some of the above-mentioned repugnant wrong done to him, and his intention is to punishment an innocent representative of the faith instead of the guilty one. As we travel through the community, meeting its residents, we're ostensibly wondering who will do the killing--and then, gradually, who won't do it.
The second film in director John Michael McDonagh's "Suicide Trilogy" (following The Guard), Calvary--Calvary being the hill on which Christ was crucified--is as much a whodunit (or, who'lldoit) as it is a tour through a community that's come unmoored from its religious tradition. Said community is made up of the great ensemble of Dylan Moran, Chris O'Dowd, Marie-Josée Croze, Isaach De Bankolé, M. Emmet Walsh, and Aidan Gillen. Possibly about to leave them, the film weighs the worth of Father James in their lives--and the actual worth of their lives. The man, on the cusp of woebegoneness but still harboring a spark, quietly galumphs around town like a superhero who's lost his powers, but is still trying to do good for the self-destructive residents.
The more serious questions of morality knock consistently through the film like water under a dock. As well, the mystery of who threatened the Father is never far from thought. McDonagh has plenty of chances to get heavy-handed, stern, and morose, but manages a kind of quaintness and levity and humour. Imagine a version of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town where at the outset it's revealed that one Mariposa resident will kill another before the book's end.