Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Requiem for the Cinemat

The Cinemat, one of Bloomington's independent downtown movie-rental establishments is apparently closing. Too bad. Just another reason to start saying "Keep Bloomington Weird." To do that, remember that, if you're in the Bloomington area, you can patronize:

TD's CDs and LPs (Kirkwood, across from the library)
Landlocked Music (Walnut and 6th)
The Video Saloon (Walnut and 7th)
Plan 9 Video (Walnut, between 6th and 7th)
Suburban Lanes (Way the way up on Walnut)
Upland Brewing Company

Buy local. Bloomington isn't the north side of Indianapolis, and some of us like that idea.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


I've tried to write this review, and I can't.

When I first got the new Decca disc of Boulez leading the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Mozart's Serenade no. 10, KV 361, and Uchida and Tetzlaff in Berg's Chamber Concerto, I listened to it. I liked it, though I'll confess that I don't know nearly enough about Berg to really comment too authoritatively. I then listened to something else.

I got busy, so I forgot about the record. I remembered that I haven't been doing a very good job keeping TPW updated, so I picked it back up to review. Then Morrissey's Years of Refusal came out a few days back. I made my choice, and the Berg/Mozart disc wasn't it. À propos Morrissey: Don't believe the comparisons to Your Arsenal, but do check out the record.

So, what gives?

The record is boring. Boulez does his thing, and, if you like it (as I do), you'll like it here. His Mozart, better heard in a 1974 "Coronation" concerto with Sir Clifford Curzon, is competent – though it is a little light on that inner joy that one often finds in Mozart. The Berg is interesting, with Uchida and Tetzlaff in apparently solid form, but I usually return to Webern when I go to the land of the Second Viennese School. Truth be told, though, I will take Bruckner's 8th over the combined output of the Viennese gang at this point.

Boulez' recently mostly completed Mahler cycle (I doubt he's going to return to Das klagende Lied, which means that Sony should rerelease it) was interesting because Boulez had something to say about Mahler. There were some hits (the 6th), misses (the 5th), and releases that will please enthusiasts and no one else (the 2nd and 8th). Boulez is not the only person to adopt the lighter, precise approach to Mahler, but he has been a consistently interesting advocate for it. I should note that, in the concert hall, Mahler takes over the show – viz. that 2005 Vienna boot of the 2nd (not to mention my own experience).

I am somehow less sure that Boulez has anything terribly interesting to say about Mozart. What he has had to say about Berg is well known (on both Sony and DG). This release, then, became an exercise in technical prowess.

I made the right decision by sticking with Years of Refusal the last few days.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rediscovering Paul Schrader's Mishima

I have read several best-of lists from the last year, and, in so doing, have seen Paul Schrader's 1985 film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, several times. Now that I have seen it held out as an example of a "good" movie in a piece on Slate, I think it's time to discuss it briefly.

It's hard to define, with any real specificity, the charm of Mishima. It comes down to two things: the story (and storytelling) is interesting and the filmmaking good. It sounds simple, but how many movies manage to be technically brilliant and utterly vapid? How many more have a great story, but no technical elegance? It is a rare movie, like Ang Lee's 1997 The Ice Storm, to cite another example, that combines beauty with content. Schrader managed to make just such a film, though (unlike Ang Lee, who has, when he cares to use it, one of the best eyes for beauty since Stanley Kubrick) he did so by redefining the game.

Schrader redefined the biopic genre first. By balancing stylized representations of Mishima's "major" works (at least as major as any of Yukio Mishima's works are in the United States) with fairly realistic biopic fare, Schrader makes the individual points about Mishima's life more effectively – in addition to the overarching theme as life as art. The boring theme to do would have been to intercut scenes from Mishima's last day with scenes from his life up to then. Schrader turns that on its head by forcing the comparisons and contrasts between Mishima's life and his work (particularly when autobiographical material is "identified"). Like a good book, the subplots and digressions manage to further the overarching themes of the movie. Breaking the movie into four "chapters," balancing the three veins for each chapter, furthers this novel-like feeling in the movie.

The direction and cinematography, as I said, are extremely well done. The adaptations of Mishima's work are done in stylized, minimalist – almost abstract – settings in a limited environment. The stories, which are so crucially important to the main themes of the film, are allowed to come to the front. Recreating Kyoko's House in lush detail is less important than communicating the themes, as Schrader sees them, of the book. There is a concentration and precision to the "real-life" parts of the film, which, when coupled with Schrader's talent, combine to make them as compelling as the literary adaptations.

I should think that I've made it clear that I find this a beautiful and interesting film, and I don't think I'm alone. The Criterion Collection, which is just about the only really consistently interesting studio these days, has done us a favor by putting it back out there in fantastic packaging and with excellent features. They also issued Mishima's own film, Patriotism, separately. The rediscovery of this film forces me to ask, however, when did we lose it? This isn't like Sam Fuller's White Dog (beautiful, disturbing, intelligent, and haunting in its own way – not to mention another fine Criterion set), which wasn't mainstream to begin with; this had Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas backing it.

The problem, like White Dog, is that Mishima requires some concentration and some thought. Movies like Mishima are probably a little more taxing than "good" movies today; Capote does not require nearly as much intellectual labor as Mishima, for example. Twenty years' worth of utter dross have pushed serious movies to the fringes. Now, the Criterion Collection generally puts forth serious films, but there are plenty Criterion discs that don't really get a lot of press - why Mishima? What has happened, I think, is that people are ready for good movies. Mishima fits that bill. It is diverse enough to please almost any intelligent and serious cinéaste, though it doesn't rely on eclecticism.

The world of the enthusiast and connoisseur is full of recent "discoveries." Most of them suck. There is a reason why a lot of works are left in a drawer somewhere. Mishima, however, seems to have been a victim of changing tastes and what has been charitably called "the dismal tide." The fact that it has been rediscovered might indicate that, even in more-mainstream circles, that tide has begun to ebb.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sometimes the good [record] wins

I'm still doing a sub-par job keeping TPW updated, but blogging during property seems like a great way to do not-so-great on the final.

In any event, I was pleased to see Hilary Hahn's Schoenberg/Sibelius disc walk away with a Grammy. Given the fact that Coldplay's ersatz-U2 disc, Viva la Vida, took home some serious loot (thank God, though, for Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, and the stopper of the year), it is a refreshing tonic indeed to see an intelligent record get an award.

Of course, paying attention to awards shows like the Grammys or the Oscars is a great way to realize that, while great products of mainstream (and slightly off-mainstream) culture are still being made, the "industry" rewards itself as much as it rewards anyone else. The galling thing is, of course, the self-congratulatory tone that everyone gets when a slightly nontrivial choice is made – as though letting Little Miss Sunshine get Best Original Screenplay makes up for the tripe usually rewarded.

That having been said, it would be nice to see somewhat more coverage of the classical music awards. It might get people interested on something beyond Vivaldi and the first movement of Beethoven's 5th. Pop music is something like a vast wasteland these days, pace Chairman Newton Minow, and it isn't getting better. For every record like Byrne and Eno's Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, you get a Katy Perry or whatever. While those who appreciate serious art music can, will, and do argue over performances, stagings, and the like, they agree on this (for the central canon): the notes on the page are good. Beethoven's 7th is good. Wagner's Meistersinger is good. A lot of music today is crap.

You do the math.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Where is my mind?

I haven't been updating TPW as often as I should, since life at the Maurer School of Law has my attention all day most days. I promise I'll try to do better. I'll start now.

Testament is issuing Götterdämmerung from the second cycle of the 1955 Ring. Conducted, once again, by Joseph Keilberth and packing some cast differences (Mödl for Varnay seems to be a big one), this probably portends a second 1955 stereo Bayreuth Ring. At nearly $100 at Amazon, though discounts might crop up eventually, I don't think I'll follow this one as closely as I did the first-run Keilberth Ring. Indeed, if a whole Ring is forthcoming, though Testament doesn't make it clear, they did stick The Second Cycle on the box, I might wait until Testament drops the "bargain" complete box set. I would have saved some serious scratch had I done that the first time 'round the pole.

I applaud Testament for taking such an aggressive approach to releasing historical Wagner recordings, particularly Golden Age Ring cycles. Good luck convincing a major label to do that. In the past five years or so (I think), I've seen one Keilberth 1955 stereo cycle from Bayreuth, Kempe's 1957 Covent Garden set, and now another Keilberth 1955 stereo set (at least Götterdämmerung as of now). The problem is, particularly with the first Keilberth set, following three music-dramas at nearly $100 a pop and the Vorabend at $50 or something gets expensive. Following another cycle at that price gets, well, really expensive. I don't mind supporting independent labels with good ideas and good products, largely because one should reward creativity wherever it's found, particularly in an alarmingly dull environment, but there comes a point when a student can't drop the cash without making other sacrifices. Like food.

This, though, is where another good idea would be great. Why not go digital? Tahra, which is, despite being a darling of critics and collectors, not a mainstream label is on iTunes and Amazon's MP3 service. The bitrates could be higher, though that wouldn't help many of the source recordings, but it is a way to get scarce recordings easily and cheaply. I'm also the kind of guy who will buy a record on CD that he's already downloaded legally simply because he likes the record and wants the CD. If Testament started putting out these releases in digital format, I would bet that, assuming they were priced reasonably, sales would skyrocket, relatively speaking, without requiring manpower or infrastructure expansion.

Now, the response that anyone familiar with such enterprises would throw out would be (1) the licensing agreements probably don't allow for it, and (2) why would anyone license their historical recordings to Testament if they could drop them on iTunes themselves? Well, I don't know the terms of the licensing agreements, but it would be the dominant strategy to let Testament put the stuff out online. Depending on the royalty percentages, Universal could get a reasonable cut by just boxing up the tapes and shipping them. Since UMG doesn't seem obsessed with historical recordings, it would tap into a new market using someone else's labor and expertise. Everyone would profit. That bit about labor and expertise is the answer to the second part of the objection: why train engineers and producers to do historical work when someone else already has? Historical-recording aficionados know crappy transfers when we hear them.

There are probably more and better objections to my little scheme, though if I were betting, copyright issues might be the biggest hangup. Regardless, I've talked a lot about Testament, but that's just because the "new" Götterdämmerung has me thinking about the situation. Too many historical-recordings and archival-recordings labels seem to have missed the digital boat. When giants like UMG, which seems to be stuck in a rut of crossover packages, revenue-streaming reissues/repackages, and rare insightful or intelligent releases, can figure out how to play the digital market, it seems unfortunate to see a lot of really innovative and imaginative labels get left behind.