Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Benjamin Button didn't leave me any younger

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button proved that, while a good movie can make you forget about time, a bad one can make one acutely aware of time's passage. Perhaps that was the meta-message of a movie about time's passage, in two directions, but I doubt it. It is, perhaps, better to explain the mess that I saw in terms of an attempt to make a deep, sensitive movie gone horribly awry.

If you want to read a review, but don't want to read mine, Charles T. Downey at Ionarts makes the points I would make if he had not made them. On to my take, then. I'll keep it short, since this isn't a movie site and I don't want it to be a movie site.

My problem with Bryan Singer's Valkyrie was that the film made too many safe, easily anticipated choices. Fincher's Benjamin Button didn't even do that. It belabored the same two or three points, even going so far as to include a superfluous and deeply redundant coda, for three hours. There were no choices: this is Calvinist movie-making, as everything is predestined. This movie was like M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, but with the twist given away at the beginning of the movie. A good movie should draw you in, force you to surrender to its ebb and flow -- like a powerful river; Benjamin Button was like watching a pond. You pretty much get the idea and then you're ready to move on to something else.

I figure that this was supposed to be the holiday feel-good flick to counter the more serious run of Changeling, Milk, The Wrestler, Doubt, and Valkyrie (to name a few of the more noteworthy last-minute releases). The problem is, of course, that, if one wants to be the sort of family/date-night alternative, then one must either be as good as the competition or a mindless comedy. Even then, the mindless comedy can't be too bad, viz. Yes Man. The movie is deeply flawed because it doesn't actually do much, and it looks worse against movies that are actually really pretty good.

That having been said, as much as I was looking forward to Gran Torino, I'm on pins and needles, if only to cleanse my palate of the repetitive schmaltz with some good, old-fashioned Clint Eastwood vigilantism glorification.

'Fact, I'm going to go watch Magnum Force.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The rise of digital recordings

Pliable, who worked for EMI back when EMI was a record company, has a fascinating post about the advent of digital recordings.

I knew that Willi Boskovsky's 1979 Neujahrskonzert was the first major-label (i.e., European) digital record, but I didn't know much about why that delightful concert was the first choice. I certainly didn't know about EMI's damage-control. I had always assumed that digital recordings just sort of happened, so it really is intriguing to learn a little bit about the competition and the circumstances surrounding digital recordings.

Of course, I can't say I have the experience to comment with any great authority on the quality of those early records. I'll take Pliable's review of the Boskovsky Neujahrskonzert on faith. In my experience, the perfect signifier for the whole affair comes with the reissue of Glenn Gould's 1981 Goldberg Variations. Originally done as a digital recording, when it came time to remaster the set, Sony went back to the analogue tapes. A lot of those early digital recordings were too shiny, too slick, and not too great on the ears.

Good engineering, now as then, overcame a lot of the problems that digital presented, but -- in the days of spot-miking and already-slick sound -- there were a lot of crappy-sounding records made, digital or not. Well-recorded analogue tapes sound great, even on CDs, as Wilma Cozart Fine's loving remasters of the Mercury Living Presence series and the RCA Living Stereo reissues (either project) can attest. Those records were fifteen or twenty years old, in many cases, when digital appeared. They still sound better than those early digital records.

It is amazing to think that, save for half-hearted stabs toward HDCD and SACD, the technology for recording most classical records burst into the major labels in 1979 (1976 if you count American labels). Analogue recording technology has been around for a long time and was around for a long time when digital appeared, but look at video. In my lifetime, Betamax, VHS, and DVD all rose and fell. Blu-Ray looks like it's the new format, replacing DVD in ten or fifteen years. There has not been a viable contender to the CD (as far as hardcopy music media goes, which is to say, other than the MP3) or digital recording since the introductions of both. One would think, given the essential requirement of accurate reproduction of sound that serious music presents, that wouldn't be the case. One would be wrong, though.

Since classical music is in some turmoil right now, I doubt we'll see much happen any time soon. Interesting reading from Pliable, however, and something about which one should think.

Friday, January 02, 2009

A brief comment on a missed opportunity

Note: There are some spoilers below, so please do bear that in mind.

I saw Bryan Singer's Valkyrie a few days ago. It wasn't terrible, despite the misgivings I had about putting the story of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg on film. People, of course, need to remember that, in the darkest moments of Germany's night, there were men and women willing to try to do the right thing. I think Singer oversimplified the German Resistance, but there are limitations to a holiday blockbuster that are best solved in a multi-part documentary. That would, of course, defeat the purpose of the holiday blockbuster. I also had a problem with the idea that the 20 July 1944 plot could be turned into a thriller, since the result is easily determined.

That aside, I felt that one scene could have been utilized to make a powerful point. When Stauffenberg (as played with admirable two-dimensionality by Tom Cruise) presents the revised Walküre plan to Hitler at the Berghof on the Obersalzburg, Hitler asks whether Stauffenberg knows his Wagner. He rambles on about the Valkyries and their role in selecting heroes to live or die and their role in carrying them to Valhalla. All well and good (I suppose), but then the film has Hitler make the dramatically obvious comment that in order to understand National Socialism, one must understand Wagner.

This topic has been much-debated and will continue to be debated by scholars and critics, but not here. What I will say, however, is that it would have been powerful for one of the characters to quote (or, better still, the music play) Wotan's act 2 monologue, particularly,

Zum Ekel find' ich
ewig nur mich
in allem, was ich erwirke!
Das andre, das ich ersehne,
das andre erseh' ich nie:
denn selbst muss der Freie sich schaffen:
Knechte erknet' ich mir nur!

That would have, properly understood, had a lot of dramatic impact: the free man must create himself. Compare that with Wotan, who finds only himself in all his plans. Archetypal as the Wagnerian drama is -- and I hazard to say that Wagner the dramatist produced one of his greatest scenes with this monologue; indeed, the best analogue is Aeschylus' hoi Persai -- one can draw all manner of ambiguity and pathos from this scene and its music.

It is my view, then, that Mr. Singer missed a grand opportunity to make a dramatically powerful point subtly (which his use of the Walkürenritt during the bombing raid was assuredly not) with Wagner, rather than repeating a contentious old saw about Wagner. That was, others have noted, the problem with the movie: it was neither good nor bad, great nor terrible. It was competent and did everything one would expect it to do. It tried to the whole ambiguity thing, but it's hard to introduce too much moral ambiguity or sympathy without causing problems with both dramatic sufficiency or historical accuracy. To say nothing of moral appropriateness.

That was a minor "mistake," then, but it was characteristic.