Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Valentine Bouquet

This post is unlike any of the others I’ve done, but with only 18 posts in all, I suppose that I haven’t yet established a pattern....   

I’ve written about books as objects; about auctions; about theater and opera and film; about public and private libraries; about aspects of literary analysis and different ways of telling stories; and I’ve written about my store.  I’ve even had “guest posts” and plan more of them. 

Besides, this is my blog, so I can post anything I want!  

Today is Valentine’s Day and the airwaves are filled with the films and the music of love; and everywhere, flowers are being brought and sent. 

“Classical” music stations seem to be spending much of the day playing romantic waltzes and tangos; and primarily classical music that has been used as themes in romantic films.  Actually, this post is a perfect follow-up to my last one about telling stories without [necessarily] using words.  Here, music is the main story-teller, and it inspires the action. 

So as a Valentine from me to you – and through the wonders of the Internet – here is a “bouquet” of music and video to make this a romantic day, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. 


Ravel's "Bolero" in the movie, TEN starring Dudley Moore and Julie Andrews:

     THE SEVEN-YEAR ITCH starring Marilyn Monroe: 

  SOMEWHERE IN TIME starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour:  

    from an old Rudolph Valentino film:

     from Robert Duvall’s film, ASSASINATION TANGO: 

     from the film SHALL WE DANCE starring Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere: 

              and several breathtaking clips from TANGO ARGENTINA:


         from THE ARTHUR MURRAY DANCE PARTY, a television  show from the 1950’s:
the New York City Ballet performing THE MERRY WIDOW, choreographed by George Balanchine and featuring Peter Martins:
           Disney's spin on Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty Waltz:"

And one of my favorite pieces, a “bouquet” of sorts: Natalie Dessay and Delphine Haidan singing the “Flower Duet” from the opera LAKME:

And finally, The Kiss: 

The Kiss
Happy Valentine’s Day!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Telling Stories Without Using Words

Is it possible to tell a story without using words?  


It’s been done for centuries; and sometimes — even today — it can be the most effective way to tell a particular story well.

Last month the Hollywood Foreign Press Association gave the prestigious Golden Globe award for best film in the comedy/musical category to THE ARTIST, a film without words:  a silent movie.  Never mind that this film was not exactly a comedy; this silent film was appreciated by both the critics and the movie-going public;  they were moved, touched, and involved in a story presented silently on the screen.  

Words and the stories they tell seem inseparable, but neither is necessary for the other.  

Cave paintings, of course, are an early example of story telling without words.  

Those who have been in or have seen photos of the caves in Lascaux remain astonished by the sophistication of the art and “stories” painted on its walls.   

Cave Painting, Lascaux
Cave Painting, Lascaux

Paintings, sculptures, music and dance continue to tell us stories: of devotion, of history, of emotion and thought. 

Pantomimes have been performed for centuries.  Even in the most sophisticated of societies, people like the famous beauty, Lady Hamilton, gave performances of what she called “attitudes:” frozen poses and tableaus from myths and other tales.

Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante, by Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1790–1791

Books, too, can tell stories without words. 

I’m not thinking about comic books with their “bubbles” of dialogue; I’m not even talking about more serious “graphic novels” like Art Speigelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning MAUS: A SURVIVOR’S TALE, which uses cartoon art to tell the story of his father’s survival in Nazi Germany; for in these, too, there is dialogue, and there are words to describe the characters’ actions or thoughts.

What comes to my mind is the Belgian artist Frans Masereel’s stunning woodcut novels: graphic, powerful stories and social criticism told without a single word.

 Through the stories he tells in woodcuts,
“Masereel pitilessly castigated man’s ugliness, while praising his beauty.  With rare force, he carved the image of the misery man calls down upon himself, but which he has the power to prevent if he would. With the intensity that characterizes him, he extols humanity, and a society…in which all men are brothers.”
— (Maurice Naessents, Preface to AVERMAETE)
Woodcut from Masereel's THE CITY

So powerful were Masereel’s novels — despite having no words — that the Nazi’s banned his books; and he was even forced to flee from Paris during World War II.

Masereel’s work had a lasting influence on many artists — most famously Lynd Ward and contemporary artist Eric Drooker — and his work remains highly esteemed throughout the world.

Lynd Ward from GODS' [sic] MAN

Lynd Ward

Film would seem a natural medium for telling stories without words; it was, after all, first called “motion” pictures!  But though that’s how film began, it's "talking" — speaking words — that's become the way to tell a story on film.   Even so, today's movies have elements of the silent film within them.  Chase scenes, for example, have become a staple of many films, and would be just as effective with silent movie style musical accompaniment as with the screeching tires which accompany them now. 

THE ARTIST has stripped away the words and is a throwback to that earlier way of story-telling on film. 

Anyone who’s ever seen a movie knows the basic story of THE ARTIST:  it's the story of Greta Garbo, moving gracefully from silent movies to “talkies” as opposed to her leading man, John Gilbert, who could not manage it; or it’s SINGING IN THE RAIN — the famous Gene Kelly film which tells the story of that change.  It’s also A STAR IS BORN (1937, 1954,1976) and countless other stories about show business success and failure. 

Yet THE ARTIST manages to make this old story new — and ironically, it makes it new by using an old format: it’s black and white and silent. 

And this film is much more than simply a retelling of those familiar stories.  As actor James Cromwell (who plays the chauffeur in the film) says in his article, ”Why the Quietest Movie in My Career is Making the Most Noise,” the film is
“not just an homage to a bygone era, it [is] a story that would be as contemporary today as it was [then]…[as it depicts] the idea of the world moving on without you, and the knowledge…that we are replaceable.”
Who among us cannot identify with that?  (Certainly, booksellers can!)  And what better way to make that universal fact seem timeless than to illustrate it using the storytelling methods of a “bygone” era? 

All of the other films released in time for the awards season are ones with words, often lots of them!  But the words do not necessarily move the plot along, or foreshadow what’s to come, or reveal a person’s character.
A DANGEROUS METHOD purports to show the birth of modern psychoanalysis through the interactions between Freud, Jung and their patient (the future — and first female — psychoanalyst), Sabina Speilrein.  This is a wordy movie in which the words serve to obscure what is actually occurring:  Jung is using word-therapy to rationalize an affair with this young woman; and to try to establish himself and his methods as superior to Freud’s.

Words, words, words:  yet everything important we learn about Jung in this film is learned from his actions:  the way he enjoys beating his female protégé; the way he “talks” his reluctant mentor, Freud, into joining him on a working tour of America, yet thinks nothing of taking his privileged, clueless self to a first-class berth and leaving Freud — speechless! — in tourist.   And finally, we get to know Jung’s driven personality best through the words written on the screen at the film’s end:  he had a nervous breakdown and emerged from that breakdown as one of the most influential of psychiatrists.  

In a better film, these written words would not have been necessary; perhaps the film needed more action.   Certainly, the spoken words didn't avoid the need for writing that explanatory note on the screen….
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is a wordy film about British spies that is based on the John Le Carre novel of the same name.  This is no James Bond thriller:  there is little action; there are no car chases; and few murders.  Instead, it’s primarily about words, paper, and power.  As must be true of real espionage, the words are often meant to obscure, are meant to cover up what’s actually occurring.  (This slow-paced, wordy film can be so obscure that some reviewers joked that it should be seen early in the day, when the mind is still “fresh…!”) 

It’s an interesting film; yet perhaps the most exciting scene — the one that has you sitting on the edge of your seat, the one which makes you understand that these wordy old men do dangerous work and can themselves be dangerous — is a scene with almost no words. 

Throughout the film, one is silently shown stacks of papers that are housed in intelligence headquarters:  papers read, filed, put on dumbwaiters, stored.  In this suspenseful scene, we watch a spy try to steal a file.  There he is in a building filled with other spies, trying to remove classified papers from the building. Without getting caught.

He needs to sign in and out; he needs to relinquish his briefcase; he needs to make appropriate small-talk; he needs to keep his cool….  This scene is riveting, and gives one a fuller picture of the world of spies and spying:  a fuller story than the one they’d been conveying with words.
CARNAGE is a Roman Polanski film based on the play, GOD OF CARNAGE.  Like the play, this is a wordy story of two couples — strangers — meeting to discuss what’s to be done about a violent playground altercation between their 9-year old sons. 

Theater is a wordy medium.  Even when film was silent, theater was not.  Nevertheless, in this wordy play which has four adults say unbelievably horrible things to one another, the scene in the play which most roused the audience was a strictly visual one:  a guest  vomits all over a table laden with precious “cocktail table” books.  The audience roars. 

The film is almost like a stage reading, but even the shortening of the title shows an attempt here to be less wordy and more visual.  As with the play, that very visual vomit scene gets the most audience attention.  But the thing that brings the point of the story home — and is not in the play — is a wordless scene at the end of the film. 

For almost two hours, we listen to four adults saying the most outrageous and uncivilized things; we see all kinds of fighting — couple against couple, husbands against wives, women against men, men against women — in their attempt to deal with their children’s bad behavior.  We watch as relationships change, perhaps permanently.  Then, in this final scene, while their parents are still arguing, we're shown [from a silent and respectful distance] the two boys playing together again:  as though nothing bad had ever happened between them.  The boys are more civilized, more rational -- more adult! -- than their parents. 

Here, we see silence telling a story, and telling it very well.  Again, James Cromwell makes the point quite clearly: 
“Ultimately, acting on any film…is telling the truth while pretending it’s fiction.  It’s often very difficult to do with words...because [words] so rarely mean what we use them to say.”
I can end here — but I won’t; because although "a picture is worth a thousand words," often enough, it’s not:  you need words to know the whole story.  

I hope you enjoy this “story” that's been all over Facebook; the words are very important.