Friday, June 29, 2012

New Kind of Friday Playlist #20: The Ten Commandments, Mahler 9, Louie

Movie: The Ten Commandments

If I ever were able to write an opera – and let’s be perfectly clear, if I wanted it to be any good it would take me until I’m sixty if I started tomorrow and until ninety to produce – the first opera I’d ever write is the story of Moses in Egypt. No, not the Book of Exodus, instead it would be the C. B. DeMille Hollywood perversely sexed up yet tortuously boring version which is inculcated into every Jewish kid’s lexicon from the time he’s five until he can recite the whole movie at his Bar Mitzvah.

Let’s be perfectly clear. The Ten Commandments is an awful, awful movie. It’s very nearly unwatchable without copious doses of liquor – and yes I’ve learned that the fun way; when I was about 23, some friends of mine and I watched the whole 220-minute monsterpiece which I could barely sit through when I was six and took a shot every time a character said the word ‘bondage.’ At least one of us threw up (I don’t remember who).  

But let’s be perfectly clear. The awfulness of The Ten Commandments is of a particular time and place that has completely vanished from any modern sensibility. C. B. DeMille made this move, his last, in his mid-70’s. He grew up an upper-class kid in the late-19th century, an era of Empire and Great Power Poltiics when electronics did not exist and the most feverish pitch of excitement was made through gigantic displays like the circus or the imperial army drill. It’s a sensibility as alien to us as James Cameron’s movies will in all likelihood be to our grandchildren. A certain type of person, perhaps a particularly authoritarian one, would respond to DeMille’s gigantic displays of coordination even in our day.

So let’s be perfectly clear. I can’t stand the agonizing loftiness of this movie where everybody speaks in a Hollywood’s vision of the King James Bible and the special effects are not even as effective as a B-Movie thriller. If I have a soft spot in my heart for it, I can’t even call my love for it ironic. It’s simply a cornerstone of my life, something I first watched when I was three or four and which I could never imagine my life without.

Finally, let’s be perfectly clear. If I ever tried to make an opera out of it, it would fundamentally be a popera in which the slaves sing gospel and the taskmasters sing heavy metal. The spirit of The Ten Commandments – with its notes of freedom and shaking off oppression – is entirely contemporary and is why the story of the Exodus still means something to billions of people. The problem is that the sensibility of The Ten Commandments – the gigantism, the loftiness, the sluggish pacing  – was dated by the time DeMille’s career began.

Classical Music: Mahler’s 9th Symphony -

(Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic, which premiered the work 100 years ago this week, perform Mahler 9 in this live recording – two weeks before the Anschluss.)

It’s honestly not one of my favorite Mahler symphonies (3, 4, 1, 7, DLVDE, 5, 9, 10, 6, 2, 8). I love all 11 of Mahler’s Symphonies (and he wrote 11), but while some of them touch the kind of universality you find in Mozart and Beethoven, there are also symphonies which settle either for a kind of doom-and-gloom or a theatrical bombast which we’re supposed to interpret as profound. Less great Mahler is still greater than nearly any other orchestral composer, but by his own standards, perhaps most of Mahler’s later works were not quite as meaningful as the ones which came before.

It doesn’t help that a kind of DeMille-ish sanctimoniousness has come over many Mahler performances in recent years; for the most part the tempos get slower and slower, the playing smoother and smoother. Even at his most classically balanced, Mahler is not a composer who wrote anything by half-measures – too few artists attempt the very peaks and valleys of creation which you find on every page of Mahler’s scores, and if the listener doesn’t feel that overflowing diversity of vision, it’s not a true Mahler experience. As in so many performances of classical music, audiences would be a lot more inspired by sloppy playing if it had more commitment and character.

One of the biggest problems with Mahler 9 is that Mahler didn’t live to hear it performed. All of Mahler’s earlier symphonies underwent a trial-and-error process in which he revised his scores from performance to performance to get precisely the effect he wanted. And as I think about it, my real trouble with Mahler 9 comes from the first movement, often hailed as Mahler’s single greatest composition. I love the other three movements, but the first never does enough for me. It has too many inner voices and too many clumsy transitions (which seem undeliberate) for the ear to follow. Conductors don’t help matters by slowing the tempo down so we can hear everything. A great performance of the first movement, of the  type one finds from Abbado, Barbirolli, early Bruno Walter, Szell, Kubelik, Hermann Scherchen (and now Jukka-Pekka Saraste), has performers who understand that this is every bit the manic Mahler of the early years and there should be no trace of church-like solemnity. All those inner voices are not meant to be heard, they’re meant to be felt. The first movement is every bit as much a fist-shake at the heavens as anything in Beethoven.
Last year, I wrote about Johnny Cash and compared Mahler 9 to his America IV. Both are dirty, almost shitty mud-wrestles with death, but by the end the listener can detect a kind of peaceful transcendence – as though the musician has resolved that he can’t triumph, and peacefully starts his journey into the beyond. It’s only twelve years after what Leonard Bernstein termed the ‘Century of Death’, and perhaps because of the dark experiences of the 20th century we’ve managed to overrate Mahler 9 a little bit. It’s a wonderful piece of music, and it’s not a work completely about death, but it doesn’t embrace life in the way the very greatest music should. If I want an overwhelming spiritual experience, I go to Mahler 3.

TV:  Louie

I just finished watching Louie’s third season premiere. Or should I say, I watched half of it because I accidentally pressed a wrong button and it took me at least ten minutes to figure out how to correct whatever I did. What I saw was what exactly what I’ve come to expect from the show – which is that I have no idea what to expect. What I can say is that Louis CK clearly looks older; he’s even more bald, his ghoti is greyer, his skin hangs further off his face. And true to form, he’s letting us see every bit of it.

I’ve been planning on doing a long post on Louis CK for most of the time I’ve been doing the 800 Words thing. There’s a lot to say that I’ll hopefully get to by the end of Season 3, but no comedian seems to play a truer version of himself than Louis CK. He routinely exposes parts of his private life onstage to which no person in his right mind would ever allude, but the reason his talking about his personal life seems so dangerous is that we can all relate to it. In doing so, Louis CK says all the things about our own lives that we’re afraid of other people knowing.

I read an article the other day on Slate (I think) which claimed that Louie is the best show on television. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but the writer made the best possible case: think of all the TV shows you watch – now think of how many in which you have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen from episode-to-episode. No matter what the show is, 99.9% of them have a genre and a style, so even their surprises aren’t all that surprising.   The plots of most shows are either linear or surreal, which mean that you ultimately know exactly what kind of sensibility the show will give you. But occasionally, and I mean really occasionally, a show comes along that expands the Universe – TV’s that is. The universe of Louie is so large that literally anything can happen from low comedy to high tragedy, linear realism to the most surreal turns, and yet it all feels truer to life than most ‘realistic’ shows. Every episode is completely different from the one before, every moment of every episode can be completely different from the one before. In this way, Louie is truer to life than most ‘realistic’ shows. But when I think about that question, the only TV shows I can come up with which can do what Louie does are The Simpsons and I, Claudius. Is Louie really that good?


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