Friday, May 27, 2016

What's Funny About The Comedians?

So there are these guys named Brown, Jones, and Smith. They arrive at Port-au-Prince where a giant banner reads, "WELCOME TO HAITI." A public relations man gushes about the island paradise.  The thing is, we see only beggars and the ominous, omnipresent tontons macoutes in their para-military khakis and reflective sunglasses.

Brown owns a hotel in town, big, luxurious, empty.  While in the US, he didn't meet any buyers for the hotel, only promoters for martini-flavored toothpaste.  Delighted to have Jones and Smith for customers, he rushes home to discover a big to-do list:  Jones has been arrested; of the hotel's staff, only the bartender remains; the electricity's off, and there's a body in the pool.

Wouldn't you know, the lights go on to reveal the bloody mess just as Smith approaches the pool?  Smith, who ran for President of the United States on the Vegetarian ticket, would like a swim. Brown diverts him with the story that Erroll Flynn may have once stayed in Smith's suite.  Did we mention that Brown is also concealing his love affair with the gorgeous young wife of the stuffy German ambassador?

That's just the set up.  As they say in the synopsis for every farce, "complications ensue."  Jones, a diminutive braggart-warrior, having arranged to sell useless guns to the regime for kickbacks to the munitions minister, has been found out -- his Haitian patron is the guy in the pool. The minister's son, an art student who has never held a gun, decides to take up arms against the evil dictator Papa "Doc" Duvalier, and he wants Jones to be their leader. With Brown's help, Jones escapes in drag and black face to the German embassy, where he flirts with Brown's mistress -- with, of course, complications. Twist follows twist, and, by the end, Brown is the one urging on a band of unarmed rebels who don't understand his English as he cheers, "You are fools!  We will all get killed!"  They shout "hooray!"

That, in brief, is Graham Greene's book and screenplay for The Comedians.  The cast included comical Alec Guinness as "Brown," Paul Ford lumbering around in a beige Hawaiian shirt as sententious "Smith," wonderful Lillian Gish as his chipper little lady, and Peter Ustinov, perfect for the stuffy ambassador.  To play Haitians, the movie had a cast that included sonorous James Earl Jones as the politicized doctor, and, as the silent tonton assassin, South African Zakes Mokae, familiar to me for his work with Athol Fugard.  With all that potential, why is the 1967 film so tedious?

I understand that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (as Brown and mistress) had a great deal of creative control over the project, and neither of them, I suspect, had much sense of humor. (I've read Frank Langella's memoir.) They wanted to be the serious artists who made Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, not the celebrity adulterers who made Cleopatra. Perhaps it was for them, or for deference to Greene's heavyweight literary rep, that director Peter Glenville blunted the sharp funny bits with long stretches of medium range camera shots and earnest talk about lovelessness, politics, and faith.

Certainly, there's a serious theme here.  The title isn't a reference to comedy, but to playing parts. The Ambassador says, "We all pretend," in a diplomatic way, just to get along.  His wife delivers a line to her lover, "We are real people, independent of you. We don't just play the parts you assign us." Well, yes: isn't recognizing that the essence of growing up?  Even more strongly, there's the theme of "not getting involved" where one is already complicit.  As my philosopher friend Susan Rouse points out, that's a theme strong in Sartre, haunting the World War II generation as far back as Casablanca. 

One scene stands out for what could have been a great movie, where the horror that truly was Duvalier's Haiti meets the absurdity of the USA's supporting Duvalier as a "bulwark against Communism": Smith and his wife, out shopping at night, seeing a procession of singing children in white with priests and street musicians, follow.  "It must be some sort of festival," says Lillian Gish's "Mrs. Smith" with her characteristic twinkle.  But it's a mass execution, and Mrs. Smith turns away gasping, instantly in tears.  They leave the next day.

Greene often wrote of men who, like Brown, having lost faith in God and all causes, find themselves fighting God's battles, sometimes finding courage and God Himself in the end.  It's ironic, and it's there to enjoy in Greene's novel.  Too bad the movie didn't live up to its potential.

Posts of related interest on this blog:
Saints in Spite of Themselves: Characters in Graham Greene's Novels.
Escape Clause:  The Heart of the Matter

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Stephen and Steve: Sondheim Appreciates Reich

Onstage at Lincoln Center for a concert - with - conversation earlier this year, Steve Reich and Stephen Sondheim fairly bubbled with shared enthusiasms and mutual admiration. (watch: Reich and Sondheim: In Conversation and Performance.) One composes music that repeats with only minute changes over long stretches of time, while the other compresses vast stretches of story in song with dramatic music and incisive lyrics. But the connections are clear to longtime fans of Sondheim.

First, as Sondheim himself says during the discussion, "we both are interested in harmony." Both vary the harmony under repeated phrases.  Both men agreed that there's been little harmonic variety in popular songs for the last fifty years or so, which have depended on beat and production values for interest. Sondheim said that rock music did Broadway composers a favor by freeing them from the pressure to write popular songs; he and his colleagues were free to write for the drama.  But both men found interest in the rock group Radiohead.  Reich explained how his latest piece is based on an odd harmonic pivot under the phrase "everything's changed" in a Radiohead song. 

Second, in Sondheim's words, both like "vamps."  In Tin Pan Alley-speak, that's a bit of accompaniment that introduces a song and repeats under the melody:  Think the rolling chords under Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" or the intro to Kander and Ebb's "New York, New York."  At the end of the Lincoln Center show, we hear a single vamp repeated with little variation during a performance Sondheim's "Someone in a Tree" from the musical Pacific Overtures.  Sondheim adds elements to fill in gaps of the vamp as it repeats, while each singer adds a different perspective on a slice of Japanese history.  The description may sound dry; the song feels joyful.  This, Sondheim tells us, was composed under the influence of his first exposure to Reich's music.

Steve Reich - A Personal Music Journey
When John Simon commented in a review of Sunday in the Park with George that the music -- "if that's what that is" -- was a "superficial" imitation of the "modish minimalism" of Steve Reich, I took it as a challenge:  I'd better get to know the music of Steve Reich.  I started with The Desert Music, Reich's setting of poetry by William Carlos Williams in which block chords sung by voice and brass float in stately succession over waves of pulsing percussion.  Conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas likened it to directing ice bergs.  I was hooked.

I soon added to my collection Reich's exhilarating Tehillim ("Psalms"), Variations for Orchestra, Eight Lines, and Violin Phase.  I branched out to composers who, different as they were, shared with Reich the label "minimalist":  John Adams, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Michael Nyman.  When Reich in album liner notes mentioned 12th-century composer Perotin and jazz great John Coltrane, he opened up other musical vistas for me.

In those pre-internet days, I sat in the public library to read cover-to-cover a pamphlet Reich published around 1970 to explain that listening to his "process music" was like watching the patterns that shift in sand between our feet as waves recede. Over time, changes accrue to create something quite different from what we saw at the start.  His early music for tape loops, clapping hands, or blocks of wood best fits that description, culminating in the pulsing, shimmering Music for 18 Musicians.

Reich's later music, such as his "counterpoint" series, interweaves ten or so lines pre-recorded by the soloist to make a kind of trampoline from which the live performer can spring into improvisation. Vermont Counterpoint for flute, New York Counterpoint for clarinet, and Electric Counterpoint for guitar, all sharing musical material and structure, each has its own character, thanks to the colors of the instruments.

Still later, Reich used sampling technology to make music from the notes of spoken phrases, adding up to a kind of dramatic collage, as in his marvelous, emotionally touching Different Trains.  Adding video to the mix, with his wife Beryl Korot, he created The Cave, a kind of musical documentary.  They co-wrote Three Tales, a video documentary with live chorus.  This, he said, was as close as he would ever come to writing musical theatre -- although I found a lot of theatrical pleasures in a live performance of Drumming, an austere piece of absolute music (see my appreciation of Drumming in live performance.)

Mutual Appreciation
For a public presentation in 2012,  Sondheim wrote, "Stealing ideas from [Steve] is one of the more satisfying pleasures that I’ve had." He concluded that Reich's music is ...
...a constant delight, by turns dramatic and joyful, its energy infectious, its surprises exhilarating. It is not a coincidence, but astonishing nonetheless, that he comes from a show business family.  Show business may not produce much art but, on occasion, it can produce a first-rate artist, even if indirectly, as this award attests. Recorded for the May 16, 2012 award ceremony where STEVE REICH received the Gold Medal for Music. Mr Sondheim was in China.
Reich returned the compliment by contributing to pianist Anthony De Mare's massive project Liaisons, a program of composers' piano pieces inspired by Sondheim's music.  (See my reflection on Liaisons.)  Naturally, Reich chose "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday, with its lyric about the creative process, and Sondheim's accompaniment composed of repetitive small cells of music, Sondheim's version of Reich's music being a good analog to painter George Seurat's pointillism.  First the song, then Reich's response to it, opened the Lincoln Center concert.

For me, the pleasures of the evening were many.  The performers, including singer-actors Alexander Gemignani (whose father is longtime Sondheim conductor Paul Gemignani), Kate Baldwin, and Michael Cerveris sang in character(s), note-perfectly.  The two composers were jovial and eager to tell how they wrote what they wrote.

If there's a negative, here, it's that all their talk is about stuff they did years ago. To quote "Dot" in Sunday, I send out this plea to both Steves: "Give us more to see."