Monday, March 21, 2011

Part 2 of Neil Sinyard's fascinating talk on Woody Allen at the IFI

Music, Madness and Murder: Some Reflections on the Cinema of Woody Allen Part 2 of 3

To coincide with the opening of Woody Allen’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, printed below is a transcript of the talk given by Neil Sinyard as part of last year’s Woody Allen retrospective.
Crimes and Misdemeanors

One of the things which gives the sequence from Crimes and Misdemeanors we have been discussing an unusual sheen and intensity is the music, chosen by Allen because he thought it a piece ‘gripped with tension’, ‘riddled with anxiety’. It’s the opening of Schubert’s last String Quartet, No.15, a piece of music Woody Allen had loved for years and which he thought seemed to fit that moment of the film exactly. To accommodate its inclusion, he inserted a line of dialogue which I think gives a whole new dimension to the sequence. There’s a moment where Landau and Huston have been together on the beach and he says her personality makes him think of Schubert (‘the sad one,’ as he puts it): she is to give him a recording of this piece as a present; so to hear it as a prelude then epilogue to her murder is particularly chilling, as is the string sound itself — if you didn’t know the piece, you might even be momentarily reminded of Bernard Herrmann’s all-string orchestra providing the ice-cold soundtrack to Hitchcock’s Psycho.

There are other things about the use of the music there as well:

a) it determines the editing — he can time the movement of the scene, e.g. her arrival at her apartment at the precise moment when there is a surge in the music — to fit the music, essentially doing there what Kubrick came to do in his films: instead of fitting the music to the editing, he fits the editing to the music.
b) there’s also a deliberate incongruity; a high-point of western culture is being used as an accompaniment to a murder scene, so there’s a disturbing counterpoint between a civilised surface and an undercurrent of violence, which relates to the characterisation of the doctor, an ostensibly decent, cultured and intelligent man secretly capable of collaborating in the vilest of human acts: what price, then, civilisation and culture?

Allen’s use of music in his films is highly distinctive and very unusual. Since his early films, he’s rarely used a conventional soundtrack score, which is one of the reasons why Philip Glass’ score for Cassandra’s Dream is so interesting: it’s the first orchestral background score to an Allen film for over thirty years. He uses classical music selectively but pointedly, rather in the way that Billy Wilder did. In my programme notes, for example, I briefly indicated why I thought the use of Erik Satie was a particularly well-chosen introduction to Another Woman (perhaps my favourite Allen movie). In Match Point, the hero’s deadly progress over the day that culminates in the murders he commits is accompanied over the soundtrack by an aria from Donizetti’s opera The Elixir Of Love. It irritated a lot of British critics who thought its use pretentious and distracting, but it’s worth remembering that it’s the main character’s love of opera that has initially propelled the plot and brought him into contact with the rich society he craves and which (like Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors) he is determined to hang onto by whatever means necessary. The aria is there to express a mood — ‘A furtive tear in his eyes dawned / Envy those young people who seemed happy / What else do I search? What else do I search?’ — furtiveness, sadness, envy of the uncomplicated happiness of others, uncertainty of his ultimate goal . . . the dilemma of the hero in a nutshell. And I always think that that aria is what is playing obsessively in the hero’s head as he goes about his dreadful business on that fateful day: in a way, it’s like Visconti’s use of Mahler in Death In Venice — not so much external accompaniment as inner reverie, a subjective immersion in an internal state.

Elsewhere in Allen, the quotations from classical composers are legion: Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Kurt Weill, Wagner, Grieg, Gershwin, to name but a few. The quotation is sometimes just incidental, sometimes more fundamental, but always very individual. Billy Wilder comes closest, but it’s not quite so pervasive; and, of course, Wilder comes from that European background and heritage which Allen doesn’t: when Wilder quotes Schubert in Double Indemnity, it has a very different connotation from Allen’s quotation of Schubert in Crimes and Misdemeanors. Typical of Allen, though, to underplay this, make a joke of it: ‘I don’t know much about classical music,’ says the hero in Stardust Memories. ‘For years I thought the Goldberg Variations were something Mr and Mrs Goldberg did on their wedding night.’
Stardust Memories
Stardust Memories
The driving force behind a film of his can often come from a popular song, which is used at the beginning almost like a Graham Greene epigraph as an intimation of the main theme: for example, What Is This Thing Called Love? for Husbands and Wives; You Made Me Love You for Hannah and Her Sisters; Cheek To Cheek in The Purple Rose of Cairo with its opening refrain of ‘Heaven, I’m in Heaven’. The narratives of Radio Days and Everyone Says I Love You are essentially driven by their songs. He himself wrote the score for one of his earliest films, Sleeper; is an accomplished jazz clarinettist who famously regards his Monday night jazz engagements in New York as far more important than turning up on Oscar night in Los Angeles to receive an award; his knowledge of popular song is compendious (again a link with Billy Wilder); though his particular love is of the classical jazz of the Big Band era of Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman (from whom, it is said, he took his name — he really is Allen Stewart Konigsberg). It is significant, I think, that one of the great epiphanies in Woody Allen’s work is musically inspired: that moment in Stardust Memories, when the hero is listening to Louis Armstrong singing Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust and simultaneously looks across at the face of his beautiful woman friend (Charlotte Rampling) and fleetingly experiences a moment of purest radiance and sublime serenity, the harmony and happiness he has been seeking. So music has all kinds of roles to play in his films — elegiac, nostalgic, idealistic, atmospheric, euphoric, ironic — and his deployment of it has an imagination and complexity to rival that of directors such as Wilder, Visconti and Kubrick.

I want to go back to the sequence from Crimes and Misdemeanors we watched and remind you of another odd detail. If you remember, at the end of the sequence, Landau is in the bathroom, no doubt still mentally washing his hands of the deed, when the phone rings: who can it be? Jack? There’s no answer. God? A reminder that he sees all? Or maybe just a suspenseful touch to suggest that, contrary to what Jack has said, this isn’t all over?

We never do learn who made that call: did he imagine it? It leaves us dangling slightly in mid-air — as if it might be some sort of voice from beyond the grave, something slightly unreal, even supernatural. It moves me on to another dimension of Allen’s work, which I have loosely termed ‘magic’, but which was intended as a broad term to cover the extensive element of fantasy, even the surreal, in his films.

End of the second section of the talk in three parts by Neil Sinyard.

Read part three here.

© Copyright Neil Sinyard and the Irish Film Institute.

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