Letter from the Editor

by Chad Perman


"Music melts all the separate parts of our bodies together."
— Anaïs Nin

A few weeks ago, my wife and I took our kids to a mid-afternoon matinee showing of the new Annie movie. By almost any objective account, it was a pretty terrible film. Still, whenever some of the more familiar songs began—songs I’d first heard some thirty years ago, sitting on an old blue sofa with my own parents—I felt something: those wonderful chills, that strange happy/sad hit of nostalgia.

Afterwards, I thought about this far longer than any reasonable human being probably should, trying to tease apart how something so largely awful—we’re talking Jamie-Foxx-singing-in-a-helicopter-over-New-York-City awful here—was somehow capable of bypassing my critical faculties entirely and making a beeline straight to my central nervous system. How could an awful remake of an average musical, starring Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz, possibly produce within me that which Nabokov once famously referred to as “that little shiver...quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art”?

As is so often the case, science has the answers—or, at least, it mostly does (leaving a slight space open for the unexplainable). I had read Daniel Levitin’sThis is Your Brain on Music several years back, but beyond remembering that I loved it at the time (and the odd fact that infants can “see” music because their senses haven’t yet sorted themselves out, rendering a good deal of their baby days rather like an extended acid trip), I couldn’t recall a whole lot about it. So I did some 21st-century “research” and typed “Why does music make us feel?” into Google. I promptly fell down an internet rabbit hole, clicking endless links and quickly littering my screen with an abundance of tabs: Art, psychology, music, math, neuroscience, Einstein, Schopenhauer, research studies, brain scans. Even now, weeks later, I’m not all the way out of that rabbit hole, nor do I particularly want to be.

So why did Annie give me chills? Maybe it has something to do with this:

“Music stimulates an ancient reward pathway in the brain, encouraging dopamine to flood the striatum—a part of the forebrain activated by addiction, reward, and motivation. Music, it seems, may affect our brains the same way that sex, gambling, and potato chips do.
 

Strangely, those dopamine levels can peak several seconds before the song’s special moment. That’s because your brain is a good listener—it’s constantly predicting what’s going to happen next ... But music is tricky. It can be unpredictable, teasing our brains and keeping those dopamine triggers guessing. And that’s where the chills may come in. Because when you finally hear that long awaited chord, the striatum sighs with dopamine-soaked satisfaction and—BAM—you get the chills. The greater the build-up, the greater the chill.”

Of course, that music moves us is hardly a new idea. William James—the father of American psychology, among other things—pointed a good deal of this out over a century ago, remarking not only on music’s chill-inducing powers, but its ability to move us to tears as well: “When listening to music we are often surprised at the cutaneous shiver which like a sudden wave flows over us, and at the heart swelling and lacrymal effusion that unexpectedly catches us at intervals.”

And before James, no less a figure than Charles Darwin himself opined on music’s propensity to make us feel things deeply. "Music has a wonderful power of recalling in a vague and indefinite manner, those strong emotions which were felt during long-past ages, when, as is probable, our early progenitors courted each other by the aid of vocal tones,” he wrote, back in 1872. “And as several of our strongest emotions – grief, great joy, and sympathy – lead to the free secretion of tears, it is not surprising that music should be apt to cause our eyes to become suffused with tears."

Striatums sighing with dopamine-soaked satisfaction? Heart swellings and lacrymal effusions? Strong emotions felt during long-past ages?

Yes, please.

*

And so, we’ll spend the next two issues chasing after those chills. This month, we’ll take a look at musicals and soundtracks, two different themes cut from similar cloths. We begin with musicals: Molly Parent views The Music Man through the eyes of her father, exploring nostalgia, musicals, and memory; Bruno Alves tells the tale of his Portuguese family growing up with The Sound of Music at Christmas; John Douglass connects with his grandfather through The Court Jester; Matthew Lawrence wrestles with the multi-faceted panoply that isNashville; and Chris Donald takes an up-close look at his favorite scene inEvita through the particular lens of his own autism.

After that, we segue into a focus on the use of music in films. Greg Cwik breaks down David Lynch’s unique use of music throughout his filmography; Olivia Collette explores the way music speaks the unspeakable in Tous les matins du monde; Morgan Davies examines the relationship between artist and fan in Velvet Goldmine; and Kyle Meikle pulls off the seemingly impossible, comparingGuardians of the Galaxy and Blue is the Warmest Color by way of their soundtracks.

*

Lately, my own life can feel a bit like a musical at times, especially the hours spent at home, soundtracked as they are by endless variations on a theme. I wake up to my kids singing “Yellow Submarine” at the top of their lungs, eat breakfast with them as they make up new lyrics to Katy Perry songs (“'Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me...eat cereal!”), and then walk them to school as they dance their way down rain-slicked sidewalks. After school, the house is filled with the sounds of pianos being practiced, living room dance parties being had, and yes, repeated requests to listen to that new Anniesoundtrack just one more time.

For the record, they loved the movie, simply and unabashedly, and spent exactly zero hours of their lives trying to figure out why. Still, I will spend far too much time trying to figure out why, reading about it and writing about it and trying to pick apart all the various brain chemicals behind these ‘heart swellings and lacrymal effusions’. But all the while, something forever inexplicable will sit, perched on my shoulder, singing its way into even the most logical corners of my heart.


—Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief


Thundering, Thundering

by Molly Parent

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

My father cries at parades. Especially at the small town variety in which scouts march behind banners made of top sheets and a junior high school band goes by in a clatter of excessive snare drums. At these events there is usually a moment, at least once, when you can catch him wiping away a few tears, grinning.

I spent half my childhood in a small New England town whose top three claims to fame are all Revolutionary War landmarks, so the opportunity to glimpse my father crying at parades while a piccolo whistled by came at least a few times a year. There were other events that had this effect on him too, mostly community theater productions, sometimes the Thanksgiving Day high school football game. As a child, I mostly found it amusing that we could giggle as a family at the parade-crying phenomenon – it made for a comforting family shorthand, a way to demonstrate that we all knew each other well. I also didn’t “get” it, and will admit that the parade-crying made me slightly nervous, in that way one feels when one’s parents’ suddenly demonstrate a mysterious interior life. I didn’t know what it was that could tap so deep a well in my decidedly not weepy or wimpy dad.

It’s always been clear to me, though, what those spectacles had in common: People practicing hard to get where they were. Everyone in it together. And of course, music.

*

I knew that The Music Man (1962) was Dad’s favorite film long before I’d ever seen it, which finally happened on a day spent home from elementary school with a fever, swaddled in an afghan with ginger ale and soup on a card table next to me. Though I’d heard him quote it often, I had never been particularly drawn to the storyline. But a sick day was an opportunity for Dad to give me some assigned viewing, and musicals were a comfort to me. For years, just about the only movies I watched were Mary Poppins and Peter Pan, both of which had been recorded for me by my grandfather on an old VHS tape when they aired on TV. That tape became an object both beloved and full of love, as I wound and rewound it over and over again, never even skipping the commercials, as they too were part of the joy.

When people groan about musicals, as I’ve discovered many of them do, they often drop the accusatory phrase: “And then suddenly someone just bursts into song.” The complaint seems to be that this feels inauthentic somehow, that it actually pushes the viewer away from the story and into the role of skeptic. That things just don’t happen that way.

And yet time and again, upon winding and rewinding, they do.

The Professor sells marching bands. He rolls into places that are plagued by what plagues us (“River City ain’t in any trouble,” says his friend when the professor first appears in the small Iowa town to ply his trade. “Then we’ll have to create some,” he replies) and offers a solution to all the town’s woes in the form of music, choreographed marching, and sharp uniforms.Please observe me if you will, he says, I’m Professor Harold Hill, and I’m here to organize a River City Boys’ Band.

After the Professor has instilled his foundational fear in the townspeople and gathered them up to sell the cure, he abruptly transitions away from singing of his phony credentials in the put-put cadence the musical opens with (a beat that forges ahead through the entire score, connecting one place to another like the train it emulates). Suddenly we have a drumline’s rhythm and a brand new song, already familiar to me on my convalescent couch — a story in the past tense, sung with the kind of dreamy-eyed wonder than can only be found imbued in memory. The Professor recalls -- performs, really -- the first time he heard this music: a day when the greatest names in marching band history came to his town when he was young.

And so we’re dropped, right into that awe:

Seventy-six trombones caught the morning sun
With a hundred and ten cornets right behind…

*

There’s something about live music, more so than other art forms, that makes me feel deeply impressed, the grandeur and power of what people can do in groups displayed at its finest. I get this feeling whenever a chorus sings in five harmonious parts, or a symphony saws away in unison at a piece of centuries-old music: the feeling goes, we humans created this?! Whether I find the music itself enjoyable or interesting is a separate matter. It’s like standing on the steps of a cathedral; that it is a feat is undeniable.

I can’t say I find parades to be such a feat themselves, but I will allow that there’s something deeply impressive about any group of people coming together and coordinating something so easily verging on chaos. And there’s something uniquely moving in the air when they do it out of joy, even if that joy is not exactly projected by sweltering adolescent clarinet players. A parade is a joyful act, and it sort of flies in the face of logic with its ultimate awkwardness.

Musicals, too, are often awkward. They’re such a staple of high school life and community theaters that most attempts are doomed to be mild and endearing catastrophes right from the start. That they can also be performed expertly—without a seam showing, and with perfect pitch throughout and set changes that barely rustle—only makes our stumbling through them in auditoriums a few times a year all the more lovely.

The Music Man is about a marching band that cannot play, as so many plays and parades and sporting events are about people who cannot fully do the thing that they are there to do. But oh, what pride there is inherent in the trying.

*

When I was fifteen, I made my first and best ever mix CD. I dubbed it, in self-conscious Sharpie lettering on its grey grooved surface, “The Happy Sad Mix”. I remember explaining the title as “songs that make you so happy you get sad, or so sad you’re kind of happy.” While everything about this now makes me cringe with the fifteen-ness of it all, I still stand by every track, and can’t imagine a more apt title. These songs provoke the same feeling in me today, with the added wistfulness of remembering those hormone-flooded late nights of CD burning, feeling like the only person in the world who was still awake, the precise person to whom my music really spoke.

I suppose that nostalgia is a word that could more efficiently explain “happy sad”. But if nostalgia is the word for it, it’s qualified by the fact that, to me, the particular nostalgia provoked by music that I’ve loved is usually an ache for something that never was, or at least something I have never actually experienced. This feels particularly true when remembering the music of my teenage years – sentiments I would sing and quote and copy into notebooks with the deep resonance of someone who had been through much more heartbreak and sorrow than I ever did in my first couple of decades. I went through a decent amount of both, but somehow I felt that the versions of longing and loss described in those song lyrics were truer than the ones I lived. So I joined my voice to the chorus and mourned all sorts of people and places that I had never known.

Portuguese has an achingly beautiful word, saudade, a not-quite-translatable longing for something that is gone and may or may not return. It’s the “may or may not” that seems to defy translation – a part of the definition that isn’t frivolously wordy, but rather contains the ambiguity and wonder that is so key to the feeling.

In other words, the thing that separates saudade from nostalgia is hope.

*

I must admit: the allegation that musicals are inauthentic puzzles me. What I get in those bursting-into-song moments is more like an overwhelming feeling of feeling. When sung, especially when sung by many people all at once, everything that feels big suddenly becomes big. It fills my stomach as it fills the room. It tugs at me in a familiar way.

It’s the feeling of late night, teenaged emotion and yearning, and a palpable connection with the sound in one’s headphones, the feeling that words written decades ago are coming from some place deep in one’s own gut.

It’s the feeling of being a part of a group that has worked hard and built something bigger than its members.

It’s the feeling of standing on the sideline of a small-town parade and knowing—maybe not knowing personally, but somehow knowing—all the people in it, and clutching one of those little flags they hand out, and being there with my dad.

These moments of sudden music are actually exaggeratedly authentic, so real that they’re nearly unrecognizable as the inner monologues we go to such lengths to mask and keep inside us at those times in our lives when we just want to burst.

*

But nostalgia has its negative connotations, too. The essayist Michelle Orange writes that “What we call nostalgia today is too much remembrance of too little.” This accusation stings a bit for those prone to the feeling, though most of us will quickly point it out when someone more conservative lashes out against change and demands a return to purity, order, and manners.

To sell his bands, the Professor must first sell the idea of going back to a Golden Age that we know from the beginning probably never existed. We know that he can’t teach music, and that he’ll never teach anyone to march. We know that the people of River City are ridiculous for being so easily mongered into fear, and for believing that they can ever buy back the past. We also know that the past cannot possibly have been so golden, that it was in fact a time of dust bowls and slavery and great depression.

We know and yet as we watch we yearn for the promise of a band to be true, even while we hope that The Professor will be caught red-handed and leave the people of River City to their changing times.

And then he starts to yearn for it to be true, too. To lock down a girl, sure (there’s that going on, which I haven’t mentioned, but you must have guessed) but also because, after all this time hearing the story coming out of himself and filling the room with sound, he wants to be able to touch it for once. His performative nostalgia turns into an against-all-odds hope. Without realizing it, he had been joining his voice to the chorus, joining River City in yearning and hoping for a time that he’d never known either, though he’d sung of it so many times before.

*

This, then, is what musicals can do: they give us a chorus of happy sad mourning for something none of us have experienced and for which all of us are nostalgic, this version of the world in which people burst open and beauty comes out.

At some point in my mid-twenties I started to cry happy sad tears on a regular basis for the first time. It still makes me feel refreshingly adult, like how I also acquired a taste for olives. It makes me feel grateful that my dad showed me that crying at parades, or your parade equivalent, is part of being a grown up—the more simple beauty you’ve seen in the years you accumulate, the more it bowls you over. Now, the happy sad feeling seems less like teenaged angst and more like a side effect of the accumulation of wonder. Some of the wonder I’ve accumulated I’ve experienced – no, all of it I have, in one way or another. How wonderful. How deeply impressive, that we’ve experienced all that.

There were copper bottom tympani in horse platoons
Thundering, thundering louder than before.
Double bell euphoniums and big bassoons,
Each bassoon having its big, fat say!

Horse platoons! Who knows. What’s important is that this is a mighty return, an eternal reprise, a dialogue with the past. It’s as if every song is lined up in front of another. It’s as if we’ve been doing this forever, as if we keep getting better. At making music. At being human. Thundering, thundering, louder than before.


Molly Parent lives in San Francisco and works at 826 Valencia.


The New National Anthem

by Matthew Lawrence

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

"Let's consider our national anthem. Nobody knows the words. Nobody can sing it. Nobody understands it. I suppose all the lawyers supported it, because a lawyer wrote the words and a judge wrote the tune."
—Hal Philip Walker, Nashville

I.

Released in the summer of 1975, Robert Altman's Nashville opens with an almost painfully hokey ode to the country's bicentennial. With a military drumbeat, "200 Years" lists generations of military achievements, equates prayer with patriotism, and argues in its chorus that America "must be doing something right" to last as long as it has. It’s an over-the-top parody of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The USA” written nine years before Lee Greenwood ever wrote “God Bless The USA.” But diminutive superstar Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) can't seem to get the song right. First the session is interrupted by Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a nosy radio reporter from England, and then Hamilton repeatedly blames one of the session players for screwing everything up. "You get your hair cut," he tells the piano player, stomping out of the studio. "You don't belong in Nashville." (In one of the film’s many self-aware reflections, the pianist is played by Richard Baskin, the song’s composer.)

Haven Hamilton is a glittering star in the country music galaxy and his diva-like behavior is tolerated, both by the other musicians and by his family. (In Nashville music is nearly always a family business.) With his sparkly white jumpsuit and massive furry toupee, he’s a ridiculous man, but his fans and business collaborators eat it all up.

Things are harder for Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), the wildly popular singer-songwriter who’s just returning to Nashville after a fire landed her in the hospital for a while. Barbara Jean wears all white, just like Hamilton, but she has none of the sparkles and none of the power. She sees adoring fans through the airport windows but collapses on her way to meet them. Later she has an on-stage breakdown during some between-song banter. The fans boo, and controlling husband/manager Barnett (Allen Garfield) steps in to defend her. Confined to the hospital room, though, he scarfs down Kentucky Fried Chicken and yells at her when he fears that she's having "another one of those nervous breakdowns." Notably, the film never directly states the origins of the fire that put Barbara Jean in the hospital in the first place.

The lessons of Nashville resemble those of Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty, an equally epic film that uses a specific city (Rome) to analyze the dying heart of a nation. In both films men achieve a life of fame and comfort with minimal effort, while women learn from a young age that they’ll only get any attention if they constantly hurt themselves, preferably in public. In Sorrentino's film the pain is largely physical, but the stages of Nashville are too genteel to allow for actual violence. Until the end of the film, when they aren’t.

II.

Nashville has twenty-four main characters, some more important than others, but that’s a lot for a drama or even a musical. Still, this was the middle of the seventies, the heyday of the disaster epic. The craze kicked off in 1970 withAirport and grew with The Poseidon Adventurein 1972. The highest-grossing movies of 1974, the year before Nashville came out, includedThe Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and Airport 1975, all of which crammed a reality show’s worth of minor celebrities into a closely confined space. The casts were all over the place (Helen Reddy! O.J. Simpson! Myrna Loy!) and tension mounted as time ticked down for one reason or another.

Nashville has many elements of a disaster film. The cast was large and peculiar—Henry Gibson and Lily Tomlin were both best-known for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, after all—and the film starts with an event that affects nearly every single character. But the disaster here is pretty minor: a massive traffic pileup that unites twenty-one of the film's twenty-four characters. Despite Opal carrying on into her microphone about “mangled corpses”, there seems to be only one actual injury, and the pile-up is so insignificant that none of the characters even mention it again afterwards. So maybe the disaster is just life itself?

III.

But Nashville is a musical as well as a disaster movie. There are more songs performed in the film than there are actual actors, which is to say that a whole lot of the screen time is taken up by musical numbers. There are country songs and gospel songs and folk-rock songs, most of which were written specifically for the film, many by the actors themselves, at Altman’s encouragement. Most of them are performed on stage, at places like the Grand Ole Opry, the Old Time Pickin’ Parlor, and Nashville’s reproduction of the Parthenon.

Musicals weren't very popular in the mid-seventies. American audiences much preferred bleak realism and Mel Brooks slapstick. The era of family-friendly blockbusters like The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins soon led to flop after flop in the late sixties (Dr. Dolittle, Star!, Paint Your Wagon). Mainstream musicals never went away completely, but despite the occasional critical success (Cabaret, 1972) or commercial hit (Grease, 1978), they’d never again be as prominent as they once were.

In the early sound era, musicals were always about putting on a show. There were subplots and love interests and auditions, but everyone’s eye remained fixed on the big show at the end. In Nashville the big show is an outdoor rally for Hal Philip Walker, a third-party presidential candidate who appeals to draft-age youth by mixing Libertarian ideals with mysterious one-liners. (“Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?”) Walker is never seen but often heard, represented on-screen solely by a slow-moving white van. (A motor vehicle representing a man named Walker pretty accurately sums up the film’s opinions about political rhetoric.) The irony of the rally, though, is that none of the performers really care about Hal Philip Walker, anyway. Barbara Jean doesn't care. The folk-rock trio don’t even vote. The gospel choir is probably only there because their leader is married to one of the organizers. The dotty Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) finagles her way to the edge of the stage but there’s nothing to indicate that she cares, either. Haven Hamilton cares, but only at the last possible minute, when Walker's smarmy spokesman mentions the possibility of Hamilton becoming governor one day.

In Nashville, the men wheel and deal while the women are largely passive and mostly at the mercy of buffoonish husbands and business managers. Altman’s film was criticized in some circles on its release for being sexist, but sexist characters and a sexist film are not the same thing. On the contrary, the women here are often far more sympathetic and interesting than the men. They also get the meatiest roles. (At the Golden Globes the following year, Nashvilleset a record when four of its stars were nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Henry Gibson was the only actor nominated.)

IV.

Nine of the twenty-four characters in Nashville are women, and six of those women are performers. There are the big names, the firmly established Barbara Jean and the up-and-coming Connie White (Karen Black); Linnea (Lily Tomlin), who fronts an otherwise all-black gospel choir, and Mary (Cristina Raines), the center of a Peter, Paul and Mary-esque folk-rock trio; and then there are Sueleen and Albuquerque, the two women trying the hardest to be heard. All these women are flawed but likable, with the possible exception of Connie, though her character is underwritten—maybe intentionally—so we can’t really say what her flaws are, beyond that she’s popular and wears bright flashy reds while the country establishment dresses all in white. Early in the film, one of Hal Philip Walker’s groupies sticks a bumper-sticker over a blown-up photo of her face. Her three songs, delivered one after the other in a performance at the Grand Ole Opry, are decent songs performed decently. She’s fine, in other words.

Like Connie White, Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) is ambitious, but unlike White she lacks any kind of songwriting or vocal talent. As the audience, we give her the benefit of the doubt when we see her working in the airport diner, singing a composition called "I Never Get Enough" to the unresponsive Tricycle Man (Jeff Goldblum). But we laugh later when she choreographs a number in the mirror, stuffing her bra with gym socks. The song is called "Let Me Be The One," and as she says the word one she signs the number with her hands. Sueleen gets her big chance, in a room full of drunken businessmen, and she sinks to their level (quite literally, since the stage descends from the ceiling.) The inebriated jeering turns to applause when she starts stripping, and after the second song she flees the stage.

Sueleen doesn’t have a husband to manage her, which is maybe part of why she’ll never be successful. Albuquerque (real name Mildred) has one and she can’t wait to get away from him. When the pileup strands all the characters on the highway she bolts, trying her best to integrate herself into the top tier of Nashville celebrity. It works. When Haven Hamilton throws a party on his property, Elliott Gould (playing himself) is asked to leave, while the uninvited Albuquerque just hangs out on the grass, with no one paying her any mind. And then, by the end of the film, she’s suddenly the only one anybody’s paying attention to.

V.

The men in Nashville don’t seem to like women very much, with only a couple of minor exceptions. There’s the military man whose mother saved Barbara Jean from the fire, and there’s the old man in the hospital who’s watching his wife die while looking after an airhead niece who calls herself LA Joan—but these characters are all peripheral to the music industry.

There’s Tom (Keith Carradine), of the folk-rock trio Bill, Mary and Tom. He likes women a lot, or at least likes sleeping with them. He probably doesn’t like them in the right ways. When he sings “I’m Easy” on stage one night, there are no less than four women in the club who think he’s singing directly to them. He takes three of them to bed, and at least once his own song is playing on the 8-track as they lay in bed together. (Does he make every woman do this?) The next morning, when one woman leaves he can’t even wait until she’s gone before calling the next one. When she kisses him on the forehead to say goodbye, she is fully aware that Tom is just an overgrown child.

But back to that national anthem.

If Nashville proposes that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a bad choice, as an alternative it recommends “It Don’t Worry Me,” composed (in the real world) by Keith Carradine. Written (in the film) for Bill, Mary and Tom’s debut album, the song appears in the film no less than seven times. In the noisy opening credits montage, after the car crash. At a race track. And finally, in the film’s last scene, when Albuquerque finally gets her big chance at the mic.

“It Don’t Worry Me” is the opposite of the “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It doesn’t require a whole lot of range and no one’s voice is going to crack on the word “free,” which it does, frequently, whenever people sing the national anthem. It doesn’t have the flowery syntax, no “O, say, can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?” There are no big words or nineteenth-century contractions. There aren’t actually very many words at all.

Nashville’s nowhere near Hollywood, but it’s not all that far from Washington. A ten-hour drive. (According to Google Maps it’s a prophetic 666 miles.) And “It Don’t Worry Me” is the kind of song that would have gone over well in Washington in 1975, or for that matter, in 2015. It encourages apathy. War, inflation, a bad economy: “It don’t worry me.” Freedom doesn’t mean what you think it does: “It don’t worry me.” The assassination of a beloved country music star? That don’t worry the people of Nashville, either.


Matthew Lawrence is a writer and editor living in Providence, Rhode Island. He co-edits Headmaster, the art magazine for man-lovers, and sometimes hosts all-ages spelling bees. He is on twitter a lot at @beefcakefactory.


Look/Listen

by Fran Hoepfner

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Look: Moulin Rouge! is a bad movie.

Listen: Moulin Rouge! has an amazing soundtrack.

Look: Moulin Rouge! is a melodramatic, campy love story about an English writer named Christian (Ewan McGregor) and a French courtesan named Satine (Nicole Kidman) at the height of the Bohemian revolution in Paris. At its core, Moulin Rouge! is a run of the mill romance movie about a young, inexperienced young man wooed by what can be best described as a Manic Pixie Dream Courtesan.

Listen: Moulin Rouge! might not be the first jukebox musical, but it’s the definitive jukebox musical. It’s one of, if not the, most popular soundtracks of the 2000s. Not only does the music work perfectly within the context of the film, but several of the songs were hits in and of themselves. Director Baz Luhrmann and his team reworked classic Broadway, pop, and rock n’ roll songs in order to formulate one of the most complex and interesting arrangement of songs in a film.

Look: I loved Moulin Rouge! as a teenager. It checked all my boxes; I bought into all of the Bohemian ideals; I laughed at all the jokes; I cried through the entire second half. There were whole sections of the film that I had memorized. But it’s almost a painful experience to re-watch now. It’s so cheesy and overdone. I find almost all of the characters unlikable–and not in a good, anti-hero way–with the exception of Zidler (Jim Broadbent), who is funny, sympathetic, and has very good facial hair.

Listen: I’m making an assumption that everyone has seen Moulin Rouge! but can you remember when you were first struck by the film? The moment it all started to click for you? Watching Moulin Rouge! can feel a little bit like being trapped in an elevator with the circus. The scene that always hooked me, regardless of my age, was when Christian and his entourage of artists and painters and musicians go to the Moulin Rouge for the first time. Under the guidance of Toulouse-Lautrec (yes, that Toulouse-Lautrec, played by John Leguizamo), Christian's absinthe-driven trip to the Moulin Rouge is nothing short of an experience.

What follows is a mash-up of several songs: the pop version of “Lady Marmalade” by Lil’ Kim, Christina Aguilera, Mya, and Pink, “Children of the Revolution” led by Bono, Gavin Friday, Maurice Seezer, and much of the male ensemble cast, and a rap version of the can-can called “Because We Can” by Fatboy Slim which also subs in verses from Broadbent’s Zidler. Sound overwhelming? It is. But it’s also a colorful mashup of pop and rock and rap, with can-can dancers and tuxedos. The sequence is incredible, and I would gladly watch two straight hours of just that.

As if that wasn’t enough, the film almost immediately segues into Satine’s feature performance–a medley featuring pieces of “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” fromGentlemen Prefer Blondes and Madonna’s “Material Girl.” It’s simultaneously funny and beautiful to watch, all sparkles and glitter. Kidman owns the scene with such confidence. Never has a character been more extravagantly introduced.

Look: The love story is stupid. None of these characters act like real people.

Listen: if you don’t know all the words to “Elephant Love Medley,” I don’t even know who you are. In one of the film's most iconic scenes, Christian and Satine serenade each other in her apartment, located in the head of an elephant sculpture. (If, by chance, you haven’t seenMoulin Rouge!, just go with me on this one.) “Elephant Love Medley” directly references at least ten different songs, everything from “All You Need Is Love” (The Beatles) to “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” (KISS) to “One More Night” (Phil Collins). It’s a love song mash-up like none other. It should sound disjointed or overwhelming, but it works. It worksso well. The songs blend together like one beautiful, original creation. Parts are almost conversational, as Christian uses song lyrics to convince Satine to fall in love with him. (If only that worked in real life.)

The sequence is sentimental but altogether very romantic. Ewan McGregor is at his most swoon-worthy in the film. He’s doe-eyed and humble, hair hanging down in his face. Nicole Kidman is graceful and reserved; Satine is strong, almost too strong to fall in love. But the two challenge each other, pushing the other closer and closer to the edge of something bigger than the both of them.

Look: Can we talk about The Duke? The Duke doesn’t make any sense. Who is The Duke? He’s Christian’s rival for Satine’s affections. He’s financing every major project at the Moulin Rouge and he expects to be paid with a courtesan. What is he the Duke of? Who even knows. He’s the antagonist, though, and a somewhat lacking antagonist at that. He’s smarmy and effeminate; by the end of the film, he’s completely lost sight of what his goal is and fades almost entirely into the background. What’s the point of The Duke, other than to create conflict between two otherwise lacking characters?

Listen: if you don’t at least crack a smile during his rendition of “Like A Virgin,” then I don’t think you’re human.

Look: Moulin Rouge! is–

Listen: Stop. It’s time to talk about “Roxanne.”

In what can be safely argued is the most famous scene in Moulin Rouge!, a nameless Bohemian character–known only as the Narcoleptic Argentinean (Jacek Koman),—sings a cover of “Roxanne” (The Police) in attempts to explain Christian’s jealousy to him. Except it’s not just a cover of “Roxanne.” It’s “El Tango de Roxanne.” It’s a full-blown re-imagining. It’s everything a tango should be: dark, sexy, frightening, all-consuming. It’s the third act show-stopper. It takes up an entire ballroom, with row after row of young male dancers and Moulin Rouge prostitutes.

Christian is haunted, watching the Argentinian dance with another prostitute, trying to picture how his relationship with Satine will eventually crash and burn. “Jealousy,” the Argentinian snarls, “will drive you mad.” Christian runs from the tango. He leaves the theater, seeks out Satine, who, as it turns out, is with another man for the benefit of both their careers. The damage is done.

Look: It’s just that–

Listen: Here’s the thing. Moulin Rouge!, whether you like it or not, is a huge Bohemian undertaking; it’s a sloppy, over-the-top, fantastical mess of a film with a daring soundtrack. You can hate it (it’s possible that I hate it), but I have to respect it. I have to respect it because I’ve yet to put it on and turn it off. Even when I know it’s not good, I keep watching, endlessly entertained, because everything about it is deliberate. It’s as if Luhrmann literally threw everything he had into it, and what comes out may not be perfect, but it is everything. It’s all there. Freedom, beauty, truth, and love. I’ll be damned if Moulin Rouge! itself doesn’t represent all of those Bohemian ideals. I get a fair amount of joy making fun of Moulin Rouge!and laughing at everything it tries to be, but it’s not even half the amount of joy I feel when I watch parts of this film. It’s still a spectacle. It’s still worth marveling over. Listen, it’s worth a look.


Fran Hoepfner is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer and comedian based out of the Chicagoland area.


And Then I Don't Feel So Bad

by Bruno Alves

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Every Christmas Eve, my family gathers at my aunt’s house. As is customary in Portugal, we eat bacalhau, or codfish, and wait for the clock to strike midnight so we can open our presents and go home to finally get some sleep. After keeping such late hours, our Christmas Day lunch—which features borrego, or lamb—doesn’t start before three o’clock in the afternoon. By then, each and every year without exception, there is at least one channel on Portuguese TV that’s airingThe Sound of Music, and so, each and every year without exception, we sit at my aunt’s table devouring lamb to watch it.

And yet I always forget that the film opens with shots of the Austrian Alps, before the camera descends upon a twirling-in-the-grass-as-if-she-were-starring-in-a-Terrence-Malick-movie Julie Andrews. We’re informed—through song and choreographed dance, of course—that she, Maria, nun-in-training, is a problem: “unpredictable as weather,” and “flighty as a feather.” Her Reverend Mother believes that what innocent Maria needs is to be tempted by the ways of the secular world, so she sends her to the service of the Von Trapp family, a Captain and his seven motherless children (motherless not by some miracle of Immaculate Conception but rather by the tragedy of Mrs. Von Trapp’s untimely demise.)

Soon, Maria is falling in love with this man who leaves his children running all over the countryside to go spend time in Vienna bedding the millionaire-by-widowhood, Baroness Schraeder. Still, one hour and twenty minutes into the film, he’s singing “Edelweiss” and clearly reciprocating Maria’s love, which everyone seems oblivious to except for the Baroness, who cunningly embarrasses Maria into fleeing back to the Abbey. At this point, the “Intermission” title card appears on the screen and the TV channel broadcasting the film goes into a commercial break.

By then, my family has sung along to several numbers. We normally begin with “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” my father and I murdering the melody, stopping only to cast aspersions on Rolfe’s subtextual sexual inclinations (suspiciously away from Liesl, the attractive Von Trapp daughter). Then, as thunder roars through the Von Trapp residence, scaring the children into Maria’s bedroom, my two cousins join me to sing with Maria as she instructs her wards to clear their minds of all that’s worrisome in the world by remembering their “Favorite Things.”

And, every year, without exception, my mother is consumed by the urge to accompany Andrews as she sings “Do-Re-Mi.” The problem is that, contrary to the song’s message, my mother doesn’t actually know the notes to sing. It is not an indictment of my writing abilities that I find myself unable to describe how awful her voice sounds; rather, it’s a testament to the fact that my mother’s singing is beyond the human race’s capacity to contemplate.

It’s Christmas. No one should have to suffer through that.

*

There’s an old Pearl Jam song called "Let Me Sleep (It’s Christmas Time)". “When I was kid,” the chorus goes, “how magic it seemed, oh let me sleep, it’s Christmas time.” What had seemed “magic” to Eddie Vedder’s childhood self had, by his early adult years, become something so alien, something so long lost, that all he now wants for Christmas is to stay asleep. And, as much as I enjoy being with my family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, these are sentiments I, too, now sadly feel every year.

Everyone, I would guess, goes through this: Christmas nowadays is essentially a festivity for kids and, when we grow up, most of us lose at least some of the sense of its specialness. If we do manage to recover any of our childlike wonder, it’s mostly through watching the children in our families demonstrate it anew, discovering the traditions we love. We become spectators of Christmas joy, not true participants. We grow up, and what was once “the most wonderful time of the year” becomes, if we’re lucky, another relatively pleasant family event, or, if our worst fears come true, an occasion in which we’re constantly reminded by the culture around us of how happy we should be, but aren’t.

In one of his Letters from America, Alistair Cooke tells a story about his four-year-old grandson Adam, and how, by Christmas morning 1976, he was already out with the skis he had received the year before, prompting Cooke to observe how “extraordinary” Adam’s childhood was, how “all the life Adam knows” was one of being out “at 4”, skiing in Vermont. But then Cooke adds a bit of melancholy.

“One day,” Cooke writes, “he will grow up and, I’m afraid, taste of the forbidden fruit. One day, he will read the New York Times. And Adam will be out of the Garden of Eden, out of Vermont, for ever.”

When I was a kid, I spent all of Christmas Eve watching the clock. I couldn’t wait until it was midnight so that I could open my gifts and, since I was the youngest child, my whole family was almost as eager to see my reaction as I was to tear up the wrapping paper that stood between me and my new toys. On the 25th, even though I’d gone to bed very late the night before, I woke up early just so I could get my hands on those presents and eat the cookies my grandmother gave me every year.

Nowadays, if I’m checking what time it is, it’s only because I’m getting hungry. Eagerly awaiting the opening of gifts would be childish. My grandmother has passed away, and the cookies she used to buy me have suffered a precipitous decline in quality. So by Christmas morning all I want to do is stay asleep for as long as possible, just like Eddie Vedder. Almost everything that used to make Christmas special to me has either disappeared or lost its appeal.

I have read the New York Times. I am out of the Garden of Eden. I am out of my figurative Vermont, forever.

And yet, every year, Portuguese television makes the hills—not the snowy ones where Cooke’s grandson grew up, but the green ones in Austria— come alive and to my rescue, and then, just like Maria, I don’t feel so bad.

*

Perhaps, like Maria, I had a “wicked childhood,” because in my early years I didn’t like The Sound of Music. It seemed to go on forever, everyone was always singing instead of talking, and its poor excuse for an action sequence fell flat to a boy growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But once I, too, reached the age of sixteen going on seventeen, something changed. It wasn’t just my hormones going into a frenzy over Liesl singing, ironically, about how “unprepared” she was “for a world of men” while clearly demonstrating that she’s a bomb of sexual thirst waiting to explode. It was something else.

Movies turn us all into children, or at least the good ones do. They make us think like children, feel like children do. Even when they elicit experiences and feelings only an adult would undergo, they do so by subjecting us to a very childlike process: placing us in an imaginary world. Just as a child pictures himself to be Snow White, Dumbo, or King Arthur, so to does an adult find himself taken over by whatever the screen tries to impress upon him. It might be a very adult thing, sadness over the dissolution of a marriage in Blue Valentine, or the desperation inherent in any one of Clint Eastwood’s moral tragedies, or all the emotional turmoil in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. It might also be an unsophisticated emotion, like the wonder provoked by Kubrick’s 2001, or the thrills and suspense-filled anxiety of a Hitchcock film, or even the hysteria of a Monty Python comedy. Either way, we’re carried by the story through experiences we can only ever live vicariously.

And that’s what The Sound of Music does for me. It strings together the somewhat underwhelming adult Christmas of today with the ghost of all those Christmases past that I recall so fondly. All I have to do to step back into that past and I become a child again, the one who was excited for Christmas and the chance to cycle through its annual rituals: my uncle pretending to be annoyed that we’re watching The Sound of Music yet again, my aunt remarking that the Reverend Mother’s song, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” should have been removed from the movie, my grandmother professing amazement that I like the film, and my cousins and I singing “So Long, Farewell,” together.

And that’s why, even though the story has arguably two climaxes—the first when Maria comes back from the Abbey and the Captain marries her, the second when the Captain sings “Edelweiss” as a love song for his country at the Salzburg Folk festival—the heart of the movie, to me, lies in a moment that comes long before either one of them.

After the Captain has ordered Maria to pack her things and return to the Abbey, the sound of his children singing fills the mansion. “Who is singing?” he asks. When Maria says that the children are, he walks into the room where they are performing, and instead of telling them to be quiet, he starts singing in their place, indicating that his cold heart has melted and he’s now ready to love again—and not someone like the Baroness (“there will be no Baroness”), but the kind-hearted Maria, who brought the music back into his house.

Every time I watch that scene I well up, and as my cousins and I join the Von Trapp children in harmonizing with the Captain, I feel like a kid again. At that moment, a film about the power of song to bring back happiness ends up becoming an example of cinema’s power to transport us, not only to worlds we never lived in, but also to a past we still hold dear, to transplant us back into childhood, not just by looking in wonder at superheroes, dinosaurs, spaceships or time machines, but also simply by making us sing every year about lonely goatherds, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.

*

One of my cousins has a 6-year-old son. He doesn’t care much about The Sound of Music. To him, Christmas still seems magical, and he never asks people to let him sleep. All he wants is to enjoy his presents. But one day, he’ll grow up. One day, he’ll taste of the forbidden fruit and read the New York Times. And when the day comes that he, like Adam, is out of the Garden of Eden, I hope that, like me, he’ll find comfort in the “songs they have sung for a thousand years,” that he'll “want to sing every song” he hears, and that The Sound of Music will become one of his own favorite things, too.


Bruno Alves lives in Caxias, Portugal, but sometimes wishes he didn’t. He writes about politics, film and TV for the Portuguese website O Insurgente, is an op-ed contributor to the Lisbon daily Diario Economico and a weekly commentator on its cable television show, Assembleia Geral. Bruno welcomes both writing job offers and insults at alves.bm@netcabo.pt, and you can also find him on Twitter.


A Teacher To Take Me, Mold Me and Make Me

by John Douglass

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

When I was about nine years old, my grandparents came to watch my siblings and I for a long weekend while my parents were at the wedding of some old college friends. I have only one recollection of that weekend, but it is a formative one; it involves my grandfather, the public library and the 1956 Danny Kaye musical comedy, The Court Jester.

I grew up in a small Minnesota town and throughout my young life, I absolutely revered the city’s public library. It wasn’t a big building, but it housed untold and undiscovered stories. I was the kind of young reader who methodically made my way through the children’s section (the chapter books, not the picture books—but not yet the “young-adult” ones), starting at A and working my way through the entire alphabet. On the occasions when my family went away together, I would stock my child-sized suitcase—which, as I recall, had a picture of a cartoon boy with a suitcase on it—full of books. On that particular weekend when my parents went away, my grandfather took me to the public library. He was always a very friendly man, and extremely kind, but he was also soft-spoken and carried within himself a weight of potential discipline I’m sure colored our opinion of him as children. Thankfully, I have no memory of that potential ever being realized.

He walked me over to the side of the circulation desk and we paged through a giant three-ring binder filled with old card catalogue-style cards. Apparently, this heretofore undiscovered bible contained a record of the library’s entire film collection, a new fount of untapped potential. I loved movies as a child. My parents rarely allowed us to watch television, and we hardly ever made it to the cinema. This left VHS tapes as the sole outlet through which we had access to what Hollywood had to offer. At that point our home collection consisted mostly of the Disney Classics collection, the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit, and the BBC versions of The Chronicles of Narnia. We loved these to death, but at that point it was only through visits to various friends’ houses that we were really able to expand our cinematic education. At least until that day at the public library with my grandfather. That moment changed everything.

At the library, Grandpa turned to the “musicals” section. This genre-specific ordering strikes me today as implausibly romantic. I don’t remember the specifics of the conversation, only that my apparently egregious ignorance in regard to someone named Danny Kaye was exposed, which led to us heading home with an old VHS tape with a battered brown plastic cover, an early word-processed label stuffed into the plastic sleeve in the front. This was The Court Jester, and I don’t think I’m entirely overstating it to say that my life was never again the same.

The Court Jester is one of a handful of Danny Kaye vehicles from the 1950s, and the one I think is unquestionably the best. And, while I've read about it here and there—and occasionally stumble upon it on some classic movie channel—it appears to remain largely unheralded. I do not understand this. The film is a pastiche of epic swashbuckling tropes, not a spoof exactly, but certainly a farce, and one that plays well in relation to old Errol Flynn-style barnburners. Kaye plays Hubert Hawkins, a sort of entertainer to the troops; a Robin Hood knockoff known dashingly as "The Black Fox", the kind of name no character says without adding an exclamation point.

In a surprisingly meta riff, the opening credits feature Kaye alone on a stage, dressed in the most traditional jester outfit the film will ever feature, singing a delightfully self-aware song about the creation of this particular musical directly to the audience. It’s an audacious breaking of the fourth wall, an acknowledgement of the absurd clichés of the musical as well as a riff on this musical’s status as a film. While Kaye extols the story’s virtues in song, the credits are rolling, and they eventually push him off to the sides and bottom of the frame as he interacts with them in a sort of rudimentary, pre-Dick-Van-Dyke-cavorting-with-animated-penguins way. Throughout this title sequence Kaye is stalked by the name “Basil Rathbone”, in increasingly nefarious fonts, alternatingly cowering in fear and chasing the name away with his jester’s scepter. Rathbone plays Lord Ravenhurst, the foremost “villain full of villainy,” as Kaye sings in the opening number. “This is the bad guy,” the movie says, “and we acknowledge he is both a character and an actor. This is that kind of movie.” Only the movie sings it, in delightfully tongue-twisting rhyme.

It’s the kind of movie that my grandfather loved. He listened to an iPod full of John Phillip Sousa marches as he did his daily two-mile jog the last few years of his life. He wasn’t a man interested in moral ambiguity. And, while we might have differed on that account, he taught me an appreciation for that kind of simplicity—especially when it was presented with an appropriate amount of silliness.

In the film, Kaye’s Hawkins is a crackerjack performer in front of a crowd, but a bit of a milquetoast off stage. At one point, he fumblingly attempts to express his feelings toward his love interest, the Maid Jean, played by Glynis Johns. Just before the couple kisses, after a romantic rainy evening spent in a rustic woodman’s hut, Jean assures Hawkins that, “sometimes tenderness and kindness also make a man…a very rare man.” His lack of traditional masculinity is his defining feature, and it is enough to win him the heart of the fair maiden. I know this is Danny Kaye’s schtick, to a certain extent, but I also like to think that it's one of the reasons my grandfather liked him. I like to think that that kind of vulnerability was something he could admire.

The film’s first big musical number features Hawkins impersonating The Black Fox and singing all sorts of dynamite lyrics—there’s no shortage of them in this film—about how “Those who try to tangle with my derring-do/End up at the angle like herring do,” to which the backing crew of little people (yeah, it’s alsothat kind of movie) echo in unison, “They hold their head like very dead herring do!” After this number, Hawkins is completely emasculated when forced to assume his normal task: holding an infant, the rightful heir to the throne in exile, and pulling down his diaper so that all members of the merry band of outlaws can bow down before the baby’s royal, purple, flower-shaped birthmark, “The Purple Pimpernel.”

The rest of the film features a comically labyrinthine plot of mistaken identities. Hawkins must impersonate the usurper king’s court jester, who is, unbeknownst to Kaye, actually an assassin in disguise hired by Basil Rathbone’s evil Ravenhurst. It’s a comic whirlwind of a performance, as Kaye quickly winds up under the thrall of the castle’s witch, prompting him to drop in and out of a trance in which he becomes the model of a swashbuckling hero with a snap of the fingers (which allows Kaye to literally snap back and forth, at times incredibly rapidly, between the two opposite personas). The dashing, enchanted persona wins the heart of Angela Lansbury’s princess but gets Kaye into a real pickle when their love affair is exposed, to him as well as to the kingdom. If the movie has one defining flaw, it is the criminal underuse of Lansbury, who has little to do other than to serve as a beguiling plot device. Kaye’s is not a subtle performance, and the least bit of reading about Kaye's career certainly implies that subtlety wasn't really his forte, but it works. It really works.

The Court Jester initiated my own, very specific, cultural awakening, kicking off an intense love of movie musicals, as well as musical theater in general. I checked it out from the library again and again. I even stole a copy in high school after the library had finally just given me a job, essentially for being around so much; a VHS copy found its way into the donation bin, and I simply took it home—though to be fair, the library was converting its collection of tapes to DVD at the time, and it likely would have just ended up on the “for sale” cart for a dollar or so, so to call it stealing might be overly generous.

Though the movie and my experience of it was very important to me, I’m not sure what the whole thing ever meant to my grandfather. When I called my grandmother to ask whether she had any memory of the film, or of seeing it with him, all she could remember was that it was “a goofy one.” Maybe my grandfather would remember it that way too. Maybe he wouldn’t even remember it at all. I kind of hope that’s not the case.

My grandfather spent a lot of time in a hospice bed in the four season porch at my parents’ house—the same home in which we'd watched the film together that very first time—watching movies and melodramatic CBS procedurals with my parents. I wish I could have watched The Court Jester again with him in those last days. I regret not being there more as it is. If nothing else, Danny Kaye might have made him laugh; the “Vessel with the Pestle” bit certainly would have.

I think people tend to overlook the sense-memory sort of association that a film—like songs, smells, and certain holiday foods—can carry in its reels. To watch The Court Jester now is to be immediately back in the basement of my parents’ home, burrowed into the scratchy couch next to my siblings and my often stoic grandfather, all of us giggling madly at every pun and pratfall.

I’m not sure he knew it, but I learned a lot from my grandfather over the years, only the least of which was that one could check out movies from a library, or that there was a legendary performer named Danny Kaye, who made a practically perfect movie called The Court Jester. In the film’s most famous musical number, Kaye sings about his fictional journey to become a jester, and notes that he had “no teacher to take me, mold me and make me/a merry man, fool or an elf…but I’m proud to recall that in no time at all/I made a fool of myself.” It's one of the most purely joyful movie musicals in existence, but to this day I can’t watch it without thinking of my grandfather. It’s a lot of weight to put onto such a fluffy movie, but that’s what happens sometimes.


John Douglass spends his day job teaching literature to high schoolers. He lives, works, and enjoys summer in Minneapolis.


Viewing Films with Autism and Evita’s Rhythmic Sway

by Chris Donald

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“The best show in town was the crowd outside the Casa Rosada crying ‘Eva Peron!’”

Film rhythm is something one has to learn about to become familiar with, but there has always been a part of me that has been aware of it, at least on a subconscious level. Timing the speed and pacing of editing, visual movement, and sound to align in a cohesive manner is something most directors want to do, but rarely do the beats wholly match up. It’s not something a lot of people think about, but I cherish it as a rare joy of cinema—and one that has always has a uniquely profound effect on me.

Because of my high-functioning autism, my childhood was spent in an alternating cycle of crying over some arbitrary thing and crying because I felt guilty about crying; being able to escape into the pattern-like groove of films always helped calm these anxieties. Watching the first Austin Powers over and over, I loved hearing “Secret Agent Man” kick in as Austin started chasing Dr. Evil through his secret subterranean lair. The editing, matched with the frenetic nature of the song, gave the scene both a climactic and comedic tone which always kept me intensely involved.

Even though I have more of a handle on my autism now than I did back then, I continue to be drawn to the sensations that films can provide. I think that’s why Alan Parker’s 1996 film version of Evita connects with me so heavily. It’s not necessarily that the content of the film is masterful, but the manner in which it is handled appeals to that baser pleasure I get from a film that knows how to coordinate its formal elements into something that is remarkably cohesive on a sensory level. It’s not that the film is great so much as it feels great.

Evita’s most iconic scene is undoubtedly when Eva Peron (Madonna) stands on her balcony, soothing the crowd below with assurances that she is as worthy of glory as any one of them. However, my favourite scene in the film is probably the opening number, “Oh What a Circus,” because of how well it exemplifies the film’s ability to match picture and sound. The changing dramatic scope, range, and volume of this single song encapsulates everything that makes the film so special to me as a naturally attentive observer of aesthetics.

This is not to neglect the song itself, though. As an introductory number it works effectively, raising questions of whether or not Eva’s rise to glory was really worthwhile for the people of Argentina, or if it was just that “she didn’t say much but she said it loud.” It also sets up Che (Antonio Banderas) as less an active character in the film and more an observer, commenting on Eva’s actions and decisions without being affected by them. On paper it works for what it needs to do, but that’s also why its sensory overlap is as important as it is to conveying the material effectively. The sequence’s juxtaposed fragments reveal that both sides of the film’s internal discussion—love for Eva and hatred for Eva—are equally valid. And the impact of Eva’s death is equally intense—whether that impact is on a crowd of thousands or a group of dancing farmers, whether it is full of angered violence or impassioned mourning. “Oh What a Circus” wants to convey the power that Peron had over all the people shown in the film, and Parker’s cinematic depiction of the song is meant to convey that sentiment in a way that affects the audience on both a primal level and an intellectual one. He communicates the effects of Peron’s death through the text of the songand through the subtext of shot composition, editing, and movement within the frame.

The scene initially establishes an intimately subdued scope, with a shot of Che sitting alone in a rustic, desolate bar. A fan spins slowly in the background, but otherwise Che is the only animate figure in the frame. His movements are deliberate and precise, tilting his head upward on the higher pitched ending of the lyric “oh what a show.” The nation is in shambles and all he does is comment from afar. The shot composition places Che, a vocal but powerless player in the story, in the background as the guitar-dominated music humbly places itself behind his singing. The bar is deserted, abandoned by the people attending Eva’s funeral procession. Except, that is, for the ever-skeptical Che, who stays not only for himself but for the audience.

Even as he leaves the bar and walks around the crowd, we follow him, and as the image becomes busier, the music picks up tempo and prominence. More instruments join in and Che’s voice becomes blunter and more cutting, his critical side never faltering even amidst widespread sorrow. He doesn’t go into the crowd for fear of becoming part of it, but still concedes that Eva “had her moments” while walking outside the group. He still narrates to us, but the way the camera follows him into the midst of the crowd gradually raises the scope bit by bit, shot by shot.

And once Che goes offscreen, the entire crowd suddenly starts solemnly singing in Eva Peron’s memory with organ accompaniment. A major jump in scale, the film is now showing the breadth of the event while still conveying it sympathetically. Just as impressive, though, is the sheer ambition in the scene’s execution. Thousands of extras stand at attention, having been meticulously coordinated for a scene that lasts less than thirty seconds. The movie lover in me is astonished at the attention to detail and the effort it must have taken to get this scene exactly right, considering the numerous figures onscreen, and the autistic child in me is absolutely delighted by how Parker found a way to visually represent the epic scale of the original score. As I tap along with the singing, I notice how well the vocals and editing fit one another, even though the singing is quicker than the cutting. Because the song’s lyrics highlight sustained final words and syllables, the visuals accompany that trait by holding on shots for a few seconds longer than usual. They match in a necessarily unconventional way, keeping the synchronized rhythm of the film afloat without ever feeling tacky or distracting.

Suddenly, the film shifts from Che’s frustrated musings to his full-on outrage, and the rest of the country follows suit, exploding into anger-fueled chaos over Eva’s death. Whether this unrest is a result of sadness or disdain for Eva is left up to audience interpretation, again allowing the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions from the events onscreen. Che, despite being the voice of reason, does nothing to quell this, and even encourages it in his lyrics.

“Your queen is dead,
your king is through,
and she’s not coming back to you!”

Parker, in under forty seconds, packs the next stretch of film with nothing less than drive-by bombings, riots, vandalism, police retaliation, and mass protests—yet it never feel incomprehensible because the music practically demands this kind of forceful editing and imagery. If it there were a wholly static moment or a limply-done shot in this segment, it would fall apart. Even the clips of Eva speaking are given a forceful life, reinforcing how this single person warrants all this mass anger, passion, and mourning.

The song starts to wind down—visually and aurally—as Che holds on the final “you,” and the shot of angry protesters begins to fade into slow-dancing citizens in a hall of some sort. The room is lit by a prominent white light, but darkness and soothing choir melodies, in honor of Eva Peron, surround the citizens. They have none of Che’s anger, only sadness that this person they admired so much is now gone. With the use of a match cut, Parker transports us to a farming village where the citizens are doing the same form of dance. A small scene is quickly turned into a far-reaching one, but none of the tenderness of the moment is gone. The grief may cross cultural boundaries, but the people of Argentina are no less at the mercy of their woe. Then, the loud sound of an orchestra enters the soundtrack, as the dancing farmers buckle because of their emotions, and a couple seconds later we find out why.

“Don’t cry for me, Argentina.
For I am ordinary, unimportant.
And undeserving of such attention, unless we all are.
I think we all are.
So share my glory. So share my coffin.”

Historical quibbles could be lobbied against Evita and its source material in spades, but as a work of art separate from reality this moment shows just how much Eva Peron seemed to care about those beneath her. As someone who started from the bottom and made her way up the societal ladder, she has lived at every level possible. Nevertheless, her starting place is no less a deciding factor in her stance, as shown by the way the film cuts from her casket to her crying younger self. The people of Argentina connected with her largely because she seemed to connect with them, and that meant the world to the populace. Yet as she finishes her verse, Che can be heard ominously singing “it’s our funeral too,” their simultaneous play a reminder that no matter what your assessment of her legacy is, nobody in the film really benefited by the death of Eva Peron.

And so, after the film has given a preview of everything it has to offer, the story begins. As an introductory scene, "Oh What a Circus" uses every tool it has to connect with its audience, before we even get to know any of the characters, and it does so through pure filmmaking. We get minimal concrete information about Eva, but in the span of only six minutes, Parker concisely sets up every single tone, beat, style, and pace that the film will eventually undergo. The sequence moves and sways so melodiously with the ever-changing music that it’s more like a cinematic dance than standard musical directing.

And I sway with it, moved into its emotional groove, either because of my condition or because the film is just so properly directed. I think it’s likely a combination of both. The grasp Evita has on its own intention satiates me, both as the movie-lover I am today and the crying Austin Powers-loving kid I used to be.


Chris Donald is a third-year university student studying film theory in Waterloo, Ontario. He likes Wes Anderson, Monty Python, and tacos. Some insist his name should be Ted.


The Music is the Mask

by Morgan Leigh Davies

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

The first time I ever watched any part of Velvet Goldmine, which by that time was already over ten years old, was on YouTube. The video was not good quality. Its picture was blurry and I’m sure the sound was terrible. I don’t remember how it came up, or why my college roommate told me I had to watch it, but this is how the movie circulates: girls in teenage bedrooms and college dorms passing it around like some kind of illicit substance, red-faced with enthusiasm, never failing to bring up that one particular scene in which Ewan McGregor’s dick features prominently. The clip I saw on YouTube that day was a music video, essentially: a fantasy, in the film, featuring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers camped-up in a pink wig and platform shoes and then again as a weird alien creature. For reasons that have never been made clear to me, it begins with McGregor—very dirty, dressed like a faun—jumping down a chimney. It was, I concluded, amazing.

These days Velvet Goldmine has maintained an odd reputation as a kind of failed (if interesting) experiment, though it certainly has its fair share of ardent, raving fans. It’s a profoundly weird and spectacular movie, in the literal sense of the word: a quasi-biopic of David Bowie that pays tribute to the glitter-infused, sexually fluid glam rock movement that hit Britain in the early 1970s, but also repeatedly invokes Oscar Wilde and borrows liberally from Orson Welles. The fact that it ever got made at all is probably nothing short of a miracle.

Unsurprising, then, that it was a commercial disaster, even by art house standards: it made just over $1 million domestically and $4.3 million worldwide, off a production budget of $9 million. As with much of director Todd Haynes’ work (like the Bob Dylan “biopic”, I’m Not There), critics found it excessively esoteric, too packed with references to be truly accessible. To be fair, they have a point: there’s hardly a moment in the movie that isn’t referencingsomething, be it Bowie’s life and work, The Picture of Dorian Gray, or the narrative structure ofCitizen Kane. Still, what many critics seem to forget is that you don’t need to understand all of those references to “get” Velvet Goldmine—at least, not entirely.

You just need to get the music.

*

As Brian Eno’s “Needle in the Camel’s Eye” begins playing over the opening credits of this quasi-biopic, we meet our first principal character. It isn’t the film’s David Bowie stand-in, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), or even Curt Wild, Ewan McGregor’s Iggy Pop approximation. Instead it’s Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale, more recognizably, sympathetically human than he’s ever been since), running down a London street with a gaggle of other provocatively decked-out kids, wearing truly remarkable shoes, a green velvet jacket, and a leopard-print scarf. He looks young, and stupid, and excited: his cheeks are perpetually flushed an almost unhealthy shade of red. He’s overexerted. He loves things too much—chiefly, music; and, more specifically, Brian Slade.

When the movie begins, Arthur is living with his oppressive middle-class English parents, furtively buying Slade albums at the local record store (to the great amusement and derision of his peers), reduced to hiding his more conservative clothes in the bushes in front of his house when he goes out. When he watches the sexually omnivorous Slade out himself to the world on television, Arthur fantasizes about shouting, “That’s me, Dad! That’s me!” to his father, who’s watching alongside him. He doesn’t do it, though – just retreats to his room with provocative album foldouts and photos from the newspaper, to do the things that teenage boys do (eat potato chips; masturbate).

Later, after his father eventually, inevitably walks in on him engaging in said typical teenage boy behavior – but with the wrong people in mind – Arthur winds up fleeing to London, where for a brief moment his life seems sweet and free and easy. In other words, too good to last. But for a little while, at least, he is liberated: everything does get better.

*

The fact that Velvet Goldmine opens with a young Oscar Wilde announcing to his teacher that he wants “to be a pop idol” isn’t a coincidence. Stars who can inspire that type of feeling in other people become idols in a literal sense: their photos pored over, their bodies no longer their own. Arthur does this lovingly, but his obsessive gaze nevertheless amounts to a desperate act of fetishization. For a period of time, Arthur depends on Slade—and the musical scene of which he is the brightest-burning star—to catalyze his own identity: when Slade ultimately vanishes from the limelight after staging a faux-assassination at a major London concert, understandably enraging and alienating his devotees, Arthur’s newly won liberation inevitably follows.

Despite his struggle to find some semblance of independent, authentic identity as a teenager, by the time Arthur is an adult, he’s back in the closet: affect flat, clothes unremarkable, office and apartment the same dreary shade of gray. Slade may be Velvet Goldmine’s Charles Foster Kane, but unlike the anonymous reporters tracking down Kane’s life story in Welles’ classic film, Arthur is not a neutral presence here. When his editor gives him an assignment to figure out “Where Brian Slade Is Today”, it becomes an opportunity not only for him to piece together the puzzle of Slade’s life, but also to reassess his own.

Of course, Arthur’s journalistic enterprise is focused on one question: what did happen to Slade? What happens to those shining people whose photos grace the record albums and are printed endlessly in newspapers, those stars who appear on our televisions or go up on stage night after night? Velvet Goldmine is as much a story about these fragile, ill-fated pop idols as it is about Arthur, the archetypal fan. If Arthur invests too much of his identity in their music, well, so do they.

*

Brian Slade cycles through all sorts of identities before ultimately hitting on the one that will make his name: Maxwell Demon, an otherworldly creature who corresponds almost exactly to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust (Demon’s hair, however, is blue). He exists in public and for the public: which version of me, he seems to be asking, do you prefer? But, if there ever really was a Brian Slade to begin with, more and more of him inevitably gets sloughed off each time he performs his little acts of self-destruction and rebirth.

The idea for Maxwell Demon comes to Brian immediately after he first encounters Curt Wild, at a music festival where his performance (sporting very long hair and a dress) has bombed spectacularly. Wild isn’t exactly popular with the audience, but he’s certainly compelling: topless, confrontational, eyes bugging wildly. By the time he’s finished his set, he’s bared literally everything. Brian is transfixed—jealous—aroused. “I wish I had thought of it,” he tells his wife Mandy (Toni Colette) the next day. “You will, love,” she says. “You will.” The film cuts from his forlorn expression directly to Curt, in full faun drag, jumping down that chimney, leading both Brian and the audience directly to Maxwell Demon. Brian may be something of an otherworldly creature himself, but his greatest creative breakthrough comes out of a moment of pure adulation, and leads to what is arguably the only truly authentic relationship in his life—albeit one mediated by countless cameras, newspaper articles, and outside eyes.

Curt Wild’s particularly seductive quality is the fact that, despite what Brian might have thought, he didn’t simply “think of it.” The person Wild becomes on stage isn’t some persona he’s created for the public: it’s a raw, unfiltered self. Wild’s particular blessing (and curse) is that he is seemingly incapable of insincerity. He’s pure id. Whereas Brian is so good at shielding himself from his adoring public that he often forgets to leave anything intact behind the facade, Curt just cuts open his veins and bleeds and bleeds upon the stage until he doesn’t have any blood left to give. Opposites, after all, attract.

But in a strange twist of fate, Arthur winds up in Curt’s orbit, too, however briefly: following a concert at which Brian Slade quite convincingly stages his own assassination (an event so traumatic it’s heralded as the “Death of Glam”). Arthur – dressed, naturally, as Slade – encounters Wild, emotionally spent as a result of recent events, and winds up sleeping with him.

The episode is depicted as a positive moment for both characters – but as we all know, there’s an invisible, impermeable wall between idol and fan that isn’t meant to be breached, certainly not sexually, and once it has been, there isn’t really anywhere left for the two of them to go. Wild and Slade’s relationship is doomed, and Arthur’s encounter with Wild has its own odd, melancholic aftereffects. Wild, like Slade, fades into dispirited obscurity. Arthur, in that strange, antediluvian moment, finds that Slade is gone, and that Wild is no longer a model for some kind of alternate way of being, but instead just a regular human being, whose flesh and blood is real rather than metaphorical. In attempting to push himself into the world of his idols – by dressing like them, by fucking them – he realizes that they are, in fact, false gods.

*

Velvet Goldmine is full of the ecstasy of music, jam-packed with actual songs from the seventies, as well as other songs meant to sound like they were. Sometimes, when someone, especially Wild, is performing in the film, Haynes’ camera cuts to or pans over the audience. The crowd becomes one undulating, almost orgiastic body: a sea of hysterical faces, suspended in a kind of prolonged ecstasy. The performer has managed to capture that indefinable alchemical thing that gets into people’s bones and their blood, like liquor, like a drug, like sex. But it always must come to an end: the lights always come up, the audience is always pushed out into the night. The musicians are left alone backstage, the crowd is forced to return to the unsympathetic embrace of reality. The ecstasy we feel in those magical moments, listening to live music in the dark, is real—but it’s also fleeting.

None of the characters in Velvet Goldmine ever figure out how to be outside of that ecstasy. All of them are left behind, except Slade himself, who just vanishes. They flew too close to the sun and got burned so badly that they never figured out another way to live. But, as it turns out, Slade has: Arthur eventually discovers that Slade has refashioned himself—through considerable determination and plastic surgery—into conservative rock star Tommy Stone. When Arthur finally sees him again in the flesh, at a concert and in the press line afterwards, he sees him for the first time as he truly is: a shadow of a person, someone who might have become a real boy, but never quite managed it. They don’t have anything to do with each other. It’s liberating. Arthur isn’t the kid he was ten years before, and no longer has to be.

*

I’ve seen Velvet Goldmine literally countless times: when I was writing about it for my senior thesis in college, I lost track. I know every shot, every single music cue, every line of dialogue. I can’t say I get all of Haynes’ references—I suspect Haynes himself has forgotten some of them by this point—but I get most of them. There aren’t many other films I know this intimately, that I understand with this level of sophistication. And it’s rewarding to know a movie that well, inside-out, to feel that level of understanding while I’m watching it.

But that very first time I saw it—lying on the bed in my dorm room during my freshman year of college—I didn’t understand any of the movie’s context: I’d never seen Citizen Kane, barely knew who David Bowie was, and the only Wilde I’d read was The Importance of Being Earnest. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that I watched the movie on what we’d now consider an archaic version of Netflix’s streaming service, which was frequently blurry to the point of incoherence, and stopped to buffer itself every ten minutes. Because the final, greatest trick of Velvet Goldmine is that, even as it carefully and thoughtfully breaks down celebrity idolatry, it never underestimates the power or seductive appeal of being a fan. This movie gets it: Brian Slade may not be a very appealing person, but it’s hard not to become a fan of Maxwell Demon. We’re along for the ride with Arthur – and on the way, we fall for the movie, too.


Morgan Leigh Davies is a writer whose essays on film and culture have appeared in The Toast, Mic, and elsewhere. She is the editor-in-chief of Big Bang Press and can be found on Twitter at @MLDavies. She lives in Brooklyn.


Each Morning A Regret: The Music of Tous les matins du monde

by Olivia Collette

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Biopics annoy me, especially ones about musicians. Even those that are largely lauded, like Control (2007), tend to cover too much ground, and they try so hard to associate certain events with specific pieces of music. I call these “milestone moments,” and they essentially posit that art can’t happen unless it collides with life.

It happens in The Doors (1991) on several occasions, like when “Love Her Madly” plays as Jim and Pam have yet another fight; she leaves while the song blares “don’t you love her as she’s walking out the door.”

It happens in Amadeus (1984), when Salieri remarks that the ghost-statue of Il Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a manifestation of the composer’s just-deceased father.

If I find this narrative device tiresome, it’s because the relationship I’m really interested in is the one that artists have with their art. It can be a very complex coupling, and one that’s often a burden on the people surrounding the artist. It’s why Jim and Pam were fighting in the first place. It’s what made Mozart spend all day composing Don Giovanni instead of dealing with his father’s death.

That’s part of what draws me to Tous les matins du monde (1991) (tr. “All the Mornings of the World”). Alain Corneau’s film is ostensibly the story of a musician who lives over half his life in mourning. But the film does more than show us what his grief sounds like; it also forces us to contend with music itself as a potent entity. It’s the master these characters serve—at varying degrees of competence.

Do you feel anything?

Set in 17th-century France, Tous les matins du monde follows two central figures, Marin Marais and Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, who actually existed; the former was a Versailles court musician, the latter was a talented violist. The historical verity ends there.

The film is set up as one long flashback, narrated by an elderly Marais in the court’s music chamber, as he remembers his viol teacher Sainte-Colombe.

Sainte-Colombe (Jean-Pierre Marielle) is your typical socially awkward, reclusive genius. If art can’t exist without an audience, Sainte-Colombe counts as one, and that’s good enough for him. After his wife dies, leaving him widowed with two daughters, he falls into a deep depression. He finds solace only when he locks himself up in a shed and plays his viol until his body begs him not to.

Young Marais (Guillaume Depardieu) is no genius at all. He’s certainly got skill and technique, but there’s no soul to his craft. “Do you feel anything?” Sainte-Colombe asks him during their first lesson, predicting that the young man will “earn a good living, your life will be surrounded by music, but you won’t be a musician.”

Tous les matins du monde is also about Marais’s redemption. As an older man (played by Gérard Depardieu), he sees himself as an imposter. He’s wealthy, dressed in gilded, frilly frocks, fashionably wigged, barely conducting the court musicians through his dull rondo, “Sonnerie de Sainte-Geneviève.” A cobbler’s son, he escaped his father’s trade through music, but it wasn’t enough. He sought fame as a young lad, and it turned out to be hollow. He’s still no musician; realizing his viol master was right is more painful than losing a loved one.

What Words Can’t Say

The movie makes the argument that music speaks where words fail, and it gets there with very little dialogue. It lets music share the negative space your contemplations usually inhabit during a film.

In one scene, Sainte-Colombe watches his young daughters sing a sorrowful air. The room is dimly lit—a choice Corneau makes throughout—and the camera zeroes in on the girls singing, then cuts to Sainte-Colombe. This goes on for a minute before another word is said. In that time, the haunting song sets the scene’s tone. You inevitably begin to wonder what the characters are thinking. The girls look to their father, eager to please him. He reciprocates with a melancholy expression, giving in to either the minor melody or his lingering depression. It’s the sole time they get to communicate with him in the only language he’s able to use with any finesse.

Later, when young Marais auditions for Sainte-Colombe for the first time, we get to peer in at their curious and telling dynamics.

Marais improvises on the “Folie d’Espagne” while Sainte-Colombe and his daughters, Madeleine and Toinette (both about Marais’s age), watch. In his bright red shirt, Marais is easily the most ostentatious and colorful person in the drab Sainte-Colombe home. He keeps looking at his frets, as if he isn’t completely sure of himself. Going into the second variation of the piece’s theme, he looks out, not staring at anything in particular. He’s concentrating to get it right.

By the final variation, he swings his hair to the rhythm, but it’s for show. It’s what emoting is supposed to look like, but it isn’t authentic.

Toinette, the youngest daughter, is rapt with the handsome Marais. She watches him but doesn’t listen to him. Madeleine, who’s inherited her father’s innate musicality, is paying close attention. As he wraps up his improvisation, she squints, like she finds his choices odd, or maybe worth mulling over.

Sainte-Colombe, for his part, looks away the whole time, even closing his eyes. He’s listening and searching, not paying heed to showiness. As Marais closes in on the final variation, Sainte-Colombe actually starts to look a little irritated.

This scene sets up a few things: Marais isn’t capable of any real depth when he plays, and Sainte-Colombe is on to him; Toinette crushes on him; and Madeleine, despite her attraction to Marais, is listening carefully because she knows what to listen for. Immediately after Marais’s audition, Madeleine’s head is down; she’s worried, expecting that her father is about to refuse to take Marais on as a student.

When he does, Toinette begs him to let Marais play one of his own compositions. To be honest, it isn’t a particularly good piece, but at least it’s his. When he plays, Madeleine finally cracks a smile. She knows Marais’s gotten through. Sure enough, Sainte-Colombe tells him to return in a month for his first lesson.

The Sound of Regret

It bears mentioning that the viol is unlike other conventional string instruments. While the violin, viola, cello and double bass have four strings and can only play two notes simultaneously, the viol has six or seven strings (it’s said Sainte-Colombe added the 7th), and it can play full chords because of its flatter bridge.

Like all string instruments, the viol mimics the human voice. So playing one is really like singing—or, for Sainte-Colombe, speaking. It replaces much of the dialogue we’d expect from a movie, rendering the viol nearly omnipresent (or even, as Sainte-Colombe puts it, “not quite human”). That supernatural quality is impossible to ignore in a few areas.

It’s worth mentioning here that the viol pieces in the film’s soundtrack are all performed by a violist named Jordi Savall. As the film unfolds, Savall plays each character differently. He’s usually light and detached as Marais, but morose and intense as Sainte-Colombe.

Once Madeleine and Marais fall in love, however, these tones shift. A montage following their affair unfolds to “Le Badinage” (translation: “playful banter”), a piece composed by Marais. Playing as Marais, Savall now is surprisingly meditative. Any actual banter between the two characters is willfully taken over by the viol. The piece’s jittery theme suggests fun, but its minor key doesn’t quite let us commit to the pleasantries without a touch of sadness.

Almost predictably, Marais leaves Madeleine for the splendor of Versailles. But he’d unknowingly impregnated her, and when she gives birth to a stillborn baby, she gives in to a deep despondency. Many years later, on the verge of dying from her depression, she asks Marais to return and play the piece he’d composed for her when they were in love.

When they finally meet, he’s older, fatter, and arrogant. She musters up the strength to tell him to shut up and play. The piece is called “La Rêveuse,” or “The Dreamer,” because Marais couldn’t help but idealize Madeleine with such an empty sentiment. Still, it’s the sentiment he reserved for her, and it’s what she wants to hear before ultimately offing herself in the tragic scene that immediately follows, while “The Dreamer” continues to play. “More slowly,” she instructs him just before he starts. It isn’t clear if she’s drawing it out or if that’s really how she likes it. Either way, it speaks to her.

And finally, there’s Sainte-Colombe’s “Tombeau des regrets”—“Tomb of Sorrows”—an opus he composes just after his wife dies. We hear bits of it throughout the movie, mostly when he’s alone in the shed. It certainly delivers on the title; the main tune, “Les Pleurs,” or “Tears,” is a perfect stand-in for the anguish Sainte-Colombe can’t shake. Because the film gives us the time to absorb the music, we can feel his pain, and sometimes even invoke our own.

During one of Sainte-Colombe’s shed sessions, the ghost of his wife appears to him as he plays. The first time it happens, it’s utterly heartbreaking. His eyes light up as he sees her, but she motions to him to pay no mind and keep playing. She sits down, rests her head on her hand and listens. Tears racing down his cheeks, he finishes the piece and silently wails with his head down. When he looks up again, she’s gone.

It’s a moment of pure cinema, and it’s also grief itself.

Waking the Dead

As his viol master, Sainte-Colombe tries to teach Marais what music really is and where to find it. He tells him to listen to the painter’s brushstrokes, to the wind’s murmur, to a young child relieving himself on the side of the road. But Marais just doesn’t get it. Not as a young lad, anyhow. Only much later does it begin to make sense.

Knowing that Sainte-Colombe is going to die soon, Marais pays him one last visit. Their exchange is surprisingly amicable.

“So, you’ve discovered that music is not for kings,” Sainte-Colombe says.

“Yes,” Marais responds, “I discovered that it’s for God.”

But he’s still wrong. It isn’t for God, the ears, gold, glory, or anything tangible and human. Marais, exasperated, is about to give up.

“I don’t know anymore,” he says. “Maybe it’s better left for the dead.”

“You’re getting warm,” Sainte-Colombe tells him, grabbing his hand.

Marais begins to glean from his own regrets: music is for the dead, for the shadow of children, to soften the sound of a cobbler’s hammering, for the unborn, with no breath or light.

Satisfied with Marais’s reflections, Sainte-Colombe suggests they play from the “Tomb of Sorrows,” because, he says, “it can wake the dead.”

They play, and Marais’s recollection of the duet spills over to his present-day narration in the king’s music chamber, among tearful musicians. In the distant end of the room, light streaming in from the window, Sainte-Colombe’s specter appears.

“I’m proud to have had you as a student,” he tells Marais. “Would you play that song my daughter loved?”

The film ends on that note.

A Jake Eberts Epilogue

In 1998, during one of my film studies classes, producer Jake Eberts was invited to give a lecture, after which he premiered The Education of Little Tree. Though the film didn’t do very well at the box office, it had its moments. Near the end, the character of Little Tree receives a letter from his grandmother, announcing to him that she’s planning to commit suicide. The scene then cut to an overhead shot of a jagged mountainside, which made me weep.

I couldn’t understand why that pastoral image had me sobbing, so I asked Eberts about it during the Q&A, describing that particular scene.

“What makes audiences emotionally engage with the material to the point of crying?” I said.

He didn’t hesitate.

“Music,” he told me, saying it again, “music.”

Years earlier, when I first saw Tous les matins du monde in a theater, I remember looking around me when the movie ended, and seeing the entire audience in tears, including my father.

I have no idea if any of what happened in Tous les matins du monde is true, but on the subject of music, its truth is unshakable.


Olivia Collette is a journalist and writer based in Montreal. She contributes to the Montreal Gazette, The Huffington Post, RogerEbert.com, and Urbania, among others. Most recently, she wrote an essay in Matt Zoller Seitz's book, The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which she closely studied the film's score.


Adèle and Emma’s Infinite Playlist

by Kyle Meikle

Side A

If you saw James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy last year—and, judging by the numbers, you probably did—what do you remember about it? Do you remember the characters? Sure. There are couple of odd ones, like a talking raccoon and a trisyllabic tree. Do you remember the visuals? Maybe, though they’re mostly stock sci-fi CGI, not far from Star Trek Into Darkness. Do you remember the plot? Probably not. The titular group-in-the-making chases down an orb containing an Infinity Gem, a MacGuffin that ultimately matters more to the Marvel Cinematic Universe than to this particular outpost.

Here’s what you definitely remember about Guardians of the Galaxy: the soundtrack. A compilation of seventies pop rock, it lends the film its fizzy edge. Indeed, the movie opens not on some distant planet but on “Earth 1988,” with a static shot of a truly alien object, a 1979 Sony TPS-L2 Walkman. The Walkman belongs to a kid named Peter Quill, who, as the film begins, is sitting in a hospital, listening to 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” and waiting for his mother to die. Through the plastic window of the Walkman, the spools of a tape whirl. Its title, scrawled in all caps, is AWESOME MIX VOL. 1.

The mix, a gift from Peter’s nearly and then dearly departed mother, becomes the soundtrack for the film itself after the boy is whisked light-years from the hospital to a galaxy far, far away. A grown-up Peter, aka Star-Lord, strolls along the surface of Morag, home to the mysterious orb, while listening to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” on his Walkman; the Raspberries’ “Go All the Way” blares from the stereo of Star-Lord’s spaceship when he flees the planet, orb in hand. As the sphere ping pongs from party to party, so too does the soundtrack bounce from one bubbly seventies hit to another: Star-Lord and the Guardians escape the prison planet of Kyln to the strains of Peter Holmes’s “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”; the Guardians gear up for their battle with the villainous Ronan the Accuser as the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” bristles in the background; the Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child” plays amidst the wreckage of their final showdown.

Part of Guardians of the Galaxy’s appeal (maybe its primary appeal) is the way it marries its MOR soundtrack with the fantastical exploits of Star-Lord and the gang. As Marvel Studios’ president Kevin Feige said in an interview with i09, the soundtrack “allows you to have action sequences set against … unlike anything you’ve ever seen in a sci-fi space opera” at the same time it acts as “an emotional anchor for people … [who] don’t know science fiction, or don’t care for spaceships going through space.” Despite its title, Guardians of the Galaxy always has one foot planted firmly on Earth—more specifically, on the floor of your or your parents’ basement circa 1988. It’s like Star Wars if Star Wars were soundtracked with hits from the sixties instead of John Williams’s score. The extraterrestrial meets the terrestrial. The majestic meets the mundane.

The juxtaposition worked. Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 became the second-bestselling soundtrack of the year, iced out only by the white-hot Frozen—a not inconsiderable feat given the film soundtrack’s precarious position in our post-album moment. “When was the last time a movie soundtrack made you feel something?” Alex Hardy asked in a recent pieceAwesome Mix Vol. 1 made you feel something. Guardians of the Galaxy inspired not only nostalgia for the songs on its soundtrack but also nostalgia for the soundtrack itself.

Just as Peter’s attachment to Awesome Mix Vol. 1 forms the emotional core of the film, our attachment to Awesome Mix Vol. 1 forms the emotional core of our relationship to the film. Peter uses the mix to remember his mother; we use the mix to remember Guardians of the Galaxy. The Awesome Mix Vol. 1 is made to be awesome, most especially to seventies and eighties kids, comics kids, cassette kids (director James Gunn was six when Star Wars was released). And this, finally, is what we remember about Guardians of the Galaxy: its music more than its meaning.

At one point in the movie, Star-Lord berates a prison guard for playing with his Walkman: “‘Hooked on a Feeling,’ Blue Swede, 1973. That song belongs to me!” he shouts. Not “that Walkman belongs to me” but “that song belongs to me.” The Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack says, These songs belong to you.
 

Side B

If you saw Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color the year before last—or on Netflix sometime since then—what do you remember about it? Do you remember the characters? Of course: Adèle and Emma’s romance is the film’s nucleus, and so intense are Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in portraying the lovers that they were unprecedentedly awarded the 2013 Palme D’Or along with Kechiche. Do you remember the visuals? Very likely. Kechiche relies mostly on handheld close-ups, forcing an intimacy that’s amplified in the film’s overlong sex scenes. Do you remember the plot? How could you not? It’s a knot tied and—after Emma asks, How could you?—undone, two bodies untwisted, two lives untangled, leading finally to Adèle’s half-lonely, half-liberating walk down a city street.

Here’s what you may not remember about Blue is the Warmest Color: the soundtrack, which is almost entirely diegetic. We rarely hear songs that the characters don’t. Save for a track at the end—a reprise of a steel-drum number that a street musician is performing when Adèle sees Emma for the first time—we hear what the characters hear, when they hear it. Music comes from the streets, from students (in a march, in a classroom), from stereos, from speakers. Whereas in Guardians of the Galaxy, a song like “Hooked on a Feeling” jumps from the headphones of Peter’s Walkman to play over a montage of his and the Guardians’ incarceration, the songs in Blue is the Warmest Color don’t overtake the frame but stay tucked away inside it, a strategy that suits the film’s naturalism. If Guardians of the Galaxysays, These songs belong to you, Blue is the Warmest Color says, These songs belong to them.

And music matters to Adèle as much as Awesome Mix Vol. 1 matters to Peter. In one early scene, she discusses musical genres with her classmate Thomas (who’d like to be more). Adèle tells Thomas that she listens to “Everything. I can get into reggae, gypsy music, classical, dubstep. Everything. Only thing I really can’t stand is hard rock. People with long hair who scream. No words, no melody – not my thing. It’s annoying. But everything else.” A chagrined Thomas replies, “Oh, fuck.” Adèle asks why. “Because my big thing is hard rock,” he answers. Thomas’s big thing is rock hard a few scenes later; Kechiche’s camera pans past it as Thomas beds Adèle, or as she beds him. But it’s not her thing. Adèle breaks up with Thomas soon after to take up with the brusque, blue-haired Emma.

Adèle talks music with Emma, too. Bob Marley is the “[s]ame as Sartre,” she tells Emma. “Have you heard ‘Get Up, Stand Up’?” Music—reggae, classical, dubstep—scores Adèle’s growing self-possession, a self-possession spurred on by her romance with Emma. At her eighteenth birthday, Adèle dances to an exultant remix of Lykke Li’s “I Follow Rivers,” mouthing along to the words as she snakes her hands skyward. It’s nothing like the hesitant, stilted dancing Adèle does to a Mark G. Hart/Stephen Emil Dudas song later on the film, at a party where she warily eyes Emma flirting with the woman for whom she’ll eventually leave Adèle. In these scenes, and in the movie at large, music serves less as a soundtrack than a witness.

That is to say, Guardians of the Galaxy’s soundtrack happens before the fact, Blue is the Warmest Color’s after. Peter’s mother gives him the mix that will soundtrack his (and our) intergalactic adventure. Only in hindsight are the songs in Blue is the Warmest Color the soundtrack of Adèle and Emma’s union and dissolution: that song that played the first time their eyes met; that song that played in the club the first time they talked; that song that played at Pride after they’d fucked for the first time. Peter’s mixtape, like Guardians of the Galaxy’s soundtrack, is constructed from the very first frame (or even before, since Gunn reportedly wrote the songs into the screenplay); the music in Blue is the Warmest Color, meanwhile, seems to arise more organically, more spontaneously, as if these were just the songs that happened to be playing there and then.

Kechiche suggested as much in an interview: “I find it very difficult to underscore or illustrate my scenes with music. However, as strange as it sounds, I hear music all the time when I am creating my films. I hear it when I watch my characters faces, when they move.” Guardians of the Galaxy’s soundtrack is determined, or overdetermined, while Blue is the Warmest Color’s soundtrack is indeterminate, almost impressionistic. The soundtrack never even received a formal release, existing only as a playlist (partially edited by me) on the website WhatSong, where users can match songs from films to the scenes in which they appear: an infinitely changeable playlist, a playlist that moves with memory.

This, after all, is the tricky business of movie soundtracks, the business of remembering, or half-remembering. The soundtrack of a musical likeFrozen wears its meaning on its sleeve; each song announces the part it plays in the movie. So, too, do most films’ instrumental scores, with tracks named, more often than not, for specific moments (e.g. “Morag,” “The Final Battle Begins” or “Plasma Ball,” from Tyler Bates’s Guardians of the Galaxy score). But the songs on Awesome Mix Vol. 1 or the songs in Blue is the Warmest Color are equally imbued with the momentary, with the memory of a scene, a shot, a line—just less obviously so.

In the cold January days after I watched Blue is the Warmest Color for the first time, I couldn’t get the remixed “I Follow Rivers” out of my head. I couldn’t get Adèle out of my head, either. For me, the song became a way into and out of the film, a way to remember its hopes and heartbreaks, its passions and promises. Like a novelization or a licensed video game, the soundtrack became a way for me to experience the film again, to experience the film anew, no different from reading the graphic novel or the comic upon which Blue is the Warmest Color orGuardians of the Galaxy is based.

We don’t tend to talk about soundtracks in this way, as adaptations in their own right, but we should. Every soundtrack is an awesome mix not just of songs but also of our half-remembrances of the films in which they, and then we, play a part. Guardians of the Galaxy and Blue is the Warmest Color foreground this fact by asking, Remember? Remember remembering? Songs, they say, can be decontextualized and recontextualized; songs can drift from soundtracking a film to soundtracking our lives and then back again, on and on, ad infinitum, from star-crossed loves to the constellations of a distant galaxy. These songs belong to them. These songs belong to us.


Kyle Meikle is a doctoral candidate at the University of Delaware who researches and writes about adaptation.


We Are the Best!

by Arielle Greenberg

© Magnolia Pictures

© Magnolia Pictures

(We Are the Best, d. Lukas Moodysson, 2013)

We are punks! I am punk rock! I am mad at you about how that boy in the dog collar likes you more than me! (But boys don’t matter and I like you very very much my friend so let’s hug on the train!) We are not a girl band! It’s Sweden, so let’s wear bigger woolen sweaters and have a food fight and make everyone stare at us in the lunchroom! I am mad at you for your nicer prettier face! (But punk’s about the SONGS, which have to be played loud on a Walkman in a bedroom on a single bed and have a FUCK OFF or at least an I feel so alone a misfit in the crowd of blond idiots!) I can’t believe this! We are terrible! I am mad at you for your better parents but my parents are really good but parents are on the toilet! (Parents fuck, so good for them I guess!) It is not about a haircut or a neck scarf, but it is, and with enough soap I can make spikes! It’s about rooftops in the suburbs and your older brother’s party where I puked on the records he put on the floor, which is so sad because he’s so cute and has such good taste in music! (It’s so cold!) I don’t know how to play the drums, but I am a thirteen year old girl and I am angry and I am extremely good at drums! Anything can be a revolution, and should be, if the quality of life is so high that there is hardly anything to complain about at all, except how strangers call us cunts, and strangers give us French fries and money for an electric guitar and so much so much candy yum! Stockholm! All girls need a rehearsal space to be with their only one or two best friends! We are anti-makeup! Let’s shake hands with my one bandaged hand from where I cut myself on the scissor slicing up garbage which really hurt and I thought I was going to die when it bled so much! (But you held me and now you know it does look kind of cool!)


Arielle Greenberg is the Resident Poet at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the co-author of Home/Birth: A Poemic; author of My Kafka Century and Given; and co-editor of three anthologies, including Gurlesque. She lives in Maine and teaches in the community and in Oregon State University-Cascades' MFA; she is currently teaching a course in American cinema to insightful students at the Maine State Prison enrolled through the University of College at Rockland (hi, guys!). Arielle writes a regular column on contemporary poetics for the American Poetry Review.