Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sight and Sound Movie List - La Rahman


Not favorites, but movies I have happily watched multiple times...

1)      Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996): It’s best if you watch this alone the first time around, or maybe with a friend or two who know not to talk a whole lot during movies, because the jokes are quiet and disguised as throwaway lines. If you root for the underdog you will love this movie. Also has one of the cutest love scenes ever.

2)      Bhaji on the Beach (Gurinder Chadha, 1993): A movie about a bunch of multigenerational South Asian women going on a day trip to a Blackpool beach resort. The fight, they laugh, they cry, they flirt, they lament. This movie is smart, funny, touching, and on point. I relate to every character in this movie.

3)      Devdas (1955 and 2002 remake): The 1955 version is dark and devastating. So much pain, so little joy.  The 2002 remake is absolutely gorgeous—the music, the costuming, the colors, the scenery. I want to live inside of it forever. But the glitzy Bollywood treatment takes away from the story a little, I think.  Also, I find Sharukh Khan to be SO irritating and hate his trembly scrunched-up crying face. Ugh, annoying. Really, though, both versions are classics.

4)      Mississippi Masala (Mira Nair, 1991): South Asia in the Deep South. This one is about a woman working in her family’s crappy motel in South Mississippi, the political circumstances that brought her family there, and her romance with a Black man. Sarita Choudhury and Denzel Washington are SUPER HOT together. I love the juxtaposition of two cultures that are fiercely loyal to their roots and their ways of being.

5)      Hype! (Doug Pray, 1996): I wasn’t even that into grunge music and don’t even necessarily like all the music in this film (although it did introduce me to “Second Skin” by The Gits, which is one of my favorite songs ever), but it’s a really well-made documentary and I’ve seen it way more times that I can count.  Good examination of how artistic communities grow, get talked up, get exploited, and then become “forgotten”.

6)      The Wedding Banquet (Ang Lee, 1993): I seem to gravitate towards movies involving cultural norms and the ways children and parents negotiate their way around them, I guess? Great movie about a gay man who not only feels that he cannot be honest about his sexuality with his Taiwanese parents, but who also goes through a traditional wedding ceremony to avoid hurting them with the truth.  Ultimately it’s about the lies families tell to protect one another. Warning: the trailer is TERRIBLE, so misleading and super corny, if I hadn’t already seen the movie it would have made me want to pass on it.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Sight and Sound Movie List - Eta Boris's Contribution

Well, the usual disclaimer that the list is not especially ordered. 

1. Pulp Fiction (1994, dir. Quentin Tarantino)
I consider this movie one of the perfect expressions of American Cool. For this reason, everyone loves to love this movie. But I don't care. This movie change the way I look at storytelling, dialog, and cinematography. It did with negative spaces and silences what many movies can't do with pages of words and action. During the diner scene at Jack Rabbit Slim's, there is a moment when both John Travolta and Uma Thurman are silent. They just smoke, and look off into the distance. It's not awkward, or strange, or forced. It's just one of the coolest shots in American movie history.

2. Amelie (2001, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Right? This is the perfect romantic comedy. I assume that upon finishing this movie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet dropped the mic and walked off the stage. On top of that, it's gorgeously shot, meticulously written, and superbly acted. 

3. Animal House (1978, dir. John Landis)
This movie is such a legend, every college comedy since then has tried to be it (and failed utterly). It is juvenile a thousand times over, which is why it's so brilliant. It is always immensely gratifying to watch a group of extraordinarily talented people do their best and just not give a fuck. Best of all, instead of insightfully addressing the subtleties of human condition, or whatever, they do this.

4. Predator  (1987, dir. John McTiernan)
The first one - accept no imitations. It's Arnold doing what he does best - wearing makeup and punching things with bullets - and so much more. It is also a surprisingly (*) intelligent examination of militant masculinity and the hunter / prey duality. Both the soldiers and the Predator go through the hunter-to-prey transformation. What's more, they actually have clear and interesting psychological responses. All of this - in an 80s Arnold movie.

(*) I'm pretty sure it was surprising even to the writers, as they are the brains behind such incredible follow ups as Wild Wild West and AVP.

5. Requiem for a Dream (2000, dir. Darren Aronofsky)
It is such a brutally beautiful examination of life's downward spiral, it left me in a deep depression for several days. Then someone told me that Trainspotting was even heavier, and today, ten years later, I still can't bring myself to watch Trainspotting. This movie is simply flawless.

6. Ink (2009, dir. Jamin Winans)
This is an obscure indie that seems to have started out when someone wanted to make a mediocre martial arts demo tape. Then this somehow snowballed into an amazing concept and a final reveal that - even though you can probably see it coming - leaves you sobbing like a goddamned child.

7. The Dead Poets Society (1989, dir. Peter Weir)
Maybe my love of stories about alienation and self-discovery are a commentary on who I am. The first time I saw this movie was in English class, just a couple months after moving to the States. I'm sure I didn't actually understand much of it, but it hooked me. There's a measure of great acting and directing. 

8. Funny People (2009, dir. Judd Apatow)
Maybe this movie doesn't mean as much if you've never done live comedy. It's a good, honest, true portrayal of what it's like. 

9. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990, dir. Tom Stoppard)
Alright, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman are two of the best, easy. Tom Stoppard's intelligence, however, is frightening in its reach and depth. This is surely one of the smartest plays there is. It simultaneously filled me with wonder and made me feel like the least dullard.

10. Ghost in the Shell (1995, dir. Mamoru Oshii)
The first time I saw it, I was going through some particularly low and difficult times. It was a bizarre and exhilarating experience to see my mood so perfectly expressed on the screen. I think to this day the effect hasn't really lessened on me.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Sight and Sound Movie List - Die Steggy

Here you go. I just picked some films at random from my collection and gushed some thoughts.

Jurassic Park (1993, dir. Steven Spielberg)
My love for this movie is no secret. It is the only good film made about dinosaurs. It's also just great from beginning to end, not a scene wasted. The special effects, largely not CG, still hold up even after a decade has passed. I still find it hard to believe that the raptors are actually people in suits (also where do I get one of those suits). That first scene where Dr. Alan Grant sees the dinosaur just perfectly captures the magic of the park before it all goes to hell. 

Brazil (1985, dir. Terry Gilliam)
Oh what Terry Gilliam film to include? Brazil is my personal favorite, it's also my first so maybe I'm biased. Jonathan Pryce is the perfect protagonist for the film and Michael Palin is wonderfully cast as the mild manner torturer. Brazil doesn't take you to new worlds like its informal trilogy (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Time Bandits) but makes a bizarre world out of the reality we live in.

Spirited Away (2002, dir. Hideo Miyazaki)
I admit I'm torn about which Miyazaki film to include here. I enjoy Howl's Moving Castle more (I chose dubbed which I know is controversial but Christian Bale and Billy Crystal do a great job) but I think Spirited Away is a better movie. Miyazaki creates these entire worlds that are just fantastical. Spirited Away is the most robust and fascinating of those worlds and the animation is astounding. It is a little darker than most of his movies (not Princess Mononoke dark, but no cute and fluffy Totoro either) at times scary without losing that warmth that is so characteristic of Studio Ghibli films. 

The King and I (1956, dir. Walter Lang)
When I was a kid, I thought the scene where the King swirls Anna around the ballroom in "Shall Me Dance" was the pinnacle of romance. Scratch that, I still think that to this day. Oh yes, it is grossly stereotypical, but my sheer delight every time I watch that can almost make me forget that, if only for a few hours. This is the crown jewel of my emergency kit of VHSs I reach for when I've reached my all time low. Joining it (and thus receiving an honorable mention to this list) are Singing in the Rain and The Pirate which is this obscure Cole Porter musical with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland that one of my contains my favorite songs "Be a Clown." I'm not sure you can find the latter of films but if you love old time musicals it is worth hunting around for. 

The Lord of the Rings (2001-3, dir. Peter Jackson)
Lord of the Rings will never reach a higher pinnacle than Peter Jackson's trilogy. Thanks to the magic of New Zealand and the folks at WETA workshop it is stunning and about as entertaining as you can ever wrought out of Tolkien. If you want an example of the epic crap those movies could have been in the wrong hands just watch The Hobbit movies. Lord of the Rings was a labor of love and it shines. I'm not sure how the fates aligned to allow PJ to create such a spectacle but his films but I thank him for introducing a whole new generation, including myself, to Middle Earth. 

Big Fish (2003, dir. Tim Burton)
Some people have a movie they love for the sheer fact it is able to encapsulate a spirit so remarkably akin to their own family. Big Fish is that movie for me. The tall tales are right out of my own childhood growing up with the Stegmans, a family heralding from a circus town and forever emulating that big top spirit. It's also the last decent movie Tim Burton ever did, before he kept making the same movie over and over again with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter *shudder*. 

O Brother Where Out Thou  (1999, dir. Joel Coen)
Hands down my favorite Coen Brothers film. A) I've been a fan of the Odyssey since I was in elementary school thanks to Wishbone B) It is responsible for many modern American's affinity for bluegrass C) It's just a great movie, an amazing adventure, a visual thrill ride. 

Om Shanti Om  (2007, dir. Farah Khan)
This should be everyone's introduction to Bollywood. Then they should spend the next year of their life devouring other great films of the Indian cinema and then they should watch it again so they can get all the jokes the missed and love it all the more. It is so much fun that it worms its way even into the most skeptical of hearts. 

Life and Death of Peter Sellers  (2004, dir. Stephen Hopkins)
Geoffrey Rush is an incredible actor and it is nowhere more apparent than this movie. The movie is as zany as the man himself while dealing with some hard truths of the man's life. Peter Sellers considered himself a vessel for his characters, empty except for the fictional beings he embodied. In the same vein Geoffrey Rush becomes a vessel not just for Sellers but for everyone around him. It's a fantastic film. 

Hotel Rwanda (2004, dir. Terry George)
I have to put this on the list because it inspired me to want to join the United Nations. It was a misguided path I know but it someways you have to admire a movie with such an inspirational ability. It is heartbreaking but it is effective. 

Cashback (2006, dir. Sean Ellis)
I first saw Cashback when it was a Academy-Award nominated short because I had a crush on Sean Biggerstaff (most will know him as Oliver Wood from Harry Potter), who plays the lead. However I ended up like the short for its own merits. Basically about a art student working at a grocery store who has the ability to stop time. What follows is beautiful and the love story that dominates full length film is pretty good. Oh and lots of naked women...if you're into that sort of thing. 

The Matador (2005, dir. Richard Sheperd)
This is is an odd and final pick for my random list of movies that strike my fancy. I always say people have two favorite Bonds: their first Bond, the first actor they ever saw in a Bond movie who makes an imprint on you like a little chick to its mother and their favorite Bond, the one that after seeing far more Bond movies becomes their favorite through merit. Pierce Brosnan was my first Bond and so perhaps I have that strange chicky imprint to blame for why I like this film that if I were honest to myself, is not that great. However I find Brosnan as an aging assassin just perfect and a trainwreck I want to watch over and over. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

800 Words: The ABC's of the Marriage of Figaro - Draft 2 - Part B - Figaro and Susanna - The New Man and Woman

The best Figaros are mostly Italian - Renato Capecchi, Giuseppe Taddei, Lucio Gallo, Lorenzo Ragazzo, Ruggiero Raimondi, Luca Pisaroni, Claudio Desderi - the only non-Italians who can punch at Figaro’s weight are Bryn Terfel, Gerald Finley, and the little-known Anton Scharinger. Figaro doesn’t require a great voice. There are many Italian basses and baritones who fall on the rocks with Figaro ( Ezio Pinza, Cesare Siepi, Sesto Bruscantini) because they don’t understand what makes him tick and sing the entire role as though they were Don Giovanni seducing Zerlina. Figaro is not a singer’s role, it’s an actor’s role - and Comic Actor’s at that. But Figaro must be sung beautifully, but to sing Mozart only with beauty is to do a terrible disservice to his infinite-sided music. In order to understand Figaro, you must understand the Italian culture from which he hailed - an Italian culture that doesn’t have much currency anymore, as well as the French notions of beauty which good singing conforms to.


It’s a far more common problem with singers who play Susanna, who usually try to sing Susanna as though she’s just another beautiful woman with no real depth of her own. For my money, there are a few good ones, but only four unreservedly great Susannas whom I’ve found so far - Anna Moffo, Alison Hagley, Lucia Popp, and Cecilia Bartoli - two of whom are Italian (or Moffo was at least the American daughter of Italian immigrants). Most sopranos try to sing the role rather than embody it. The loss is the audience’s, who will never understand just how much is lost in the process. As in everything with Mozart, duality is the key to all - Figaro and Susanna are both equal parts poet and peasant, and both sides must be present at all times.


The Marriage of Figaro is more grounded in reality than any opera (than any work of theater?) ever written, but like so many Mozart operas, Mozart arrives at that reality by standing a fairy tale on its head. All one has to do is to think of The Magic Flute, a nobleman or knight is sent on his quest to defeat an evil sorcerer to recapture a damsel in distress, only to discover that the evil sorcerer is in fact benevolent and the Queen who sent him on his quest is vengeful.


(Children of Paradise - One of the greatest movies ever made, and a movie impossible without either Commedia dell’arte or Mozart.)


In the particular case of Figaro, the Fairy Tales in question are the stories of Italy’s ancient and now hallowed Commedia dell’arte tradition - though it was hardly hallowed at the time of its most common practice. The Commedia dell’arte stood in direct opposition to the ideals of humanism and realism of the Renaissance era which birthed it - it was an application of the modern means and technology of the Renaissance to a Medieval ethos. While Michelangelo and Raphael were painting ever more realistic figures, Commedia dell’arte used caricatured masks and exaggerated movements. While Machiavelli and Erasmus probed the workings of the human mind, the characters of Commedia dell’arte were strict archetypes with no interior life. Petrarch and Tasso aspired to prove that the Italian colloquial language could hold riches as great as anything from the Classic poets of Ancient Greece and Rome. But Commedia dell’arte aspired to a language that could be understood by all. All throughout the Renaissance era, individuals of genius proclaimed their mighty work to inspire the world’s awe, but Commedia dell’arte was a completely derivative work - with the same basic stories told over and over again, and each troupe putting its own variation on the same theme. For hundreds of years, Commedia dell’arte was a popular artform with no intellectual aspirations. It was common currency throughout Europe, and everyone knew its characters as well as all of us today might know characters from the old network Sitcoms which were watched every week by tens of millions.


The most basic plot of Commedia dell’arte involves an evil nobleman named Pantalone - greedy, selfish, tyrannical, who must be brought to heel, mostly because he oppresses a young pair of fresh faced lovers - known in Italian as Innamorati. He is inevitably brought to heel by his servant - Arlecchino (Harlequin) - who is inevitably much smarter and more skilled than his master.


Within this framework can be an infinity of plot variations, but the additional characters were usually all the same. There is Colombina - the mistress of Arlecchino, who aids his schemes with her female cunning. There is La Signora, who marries Pantalone for his wealth and usually cuckolds him. There is Il Dottore, the learned man brought in to help Pantalone who is in fact rather stupid and can’t keep up with Arlecchino’s cunning. There’s La Ruffiana, the ugly old woman who used to be a whore and whose love is unrequited. There’s Pedrolino, the servant, who acts as the go between that moves the plot forward and can help or hinder Arlecchino’s plans. There’s Tartaglia, the doddering old servant who has a stutter...


There are some stock characters from Commedia dell’arte who don’t make their way into The Marriage of Figaro, but at least half of them do. Mozart knew about these characters in Austria, and Beaumarchais knew about them in France. There is neither a Marriage of Figaro nor a Don Giovanni nor a Cosi fan Tutte without the example these characters provided. Nor is there any way Moliere could have written Tartuffe, or Shakespeare could have written a Midsummer Night’s Dream.


But the tropes of Commedia dell’arte are the gears through which Mozart turns everything we ever knew about popular art. Through this popular artform, Mozart and Da Ponte created a ‘new man.’ Mozart did not have much time for reading, but he would have had to have a great deal of familiarity with the ideas of his day in order to move in social circles like the ones from which he hoped to gain employment. And the most commonly read authors of his time were still the philosophes of France - particularly Voltaire and Rousseau. The French Revolution and the German intellectual revolution were just around the corner, but at the time, Mozart’s head would be filled with Rousseau notions, with his characters Emile and Sophie, who were brought up to be both masters of and in natural harmony with their surroundings, with Rousseau’s notions of how innate goodness was corrupted from birth by society, of how the lower classes lack of finish presented a more true and healthy view of life, and how a firmer social contract must be established to allow all people better lives. The air throughout Europe was of reform, not revolution. It was thought that a greater welfare, a higher standard of living and culture for the world’s masses, could be brought to fruition in strictly controlled surroundings like crops on a farm. Through Figaro and Susanna, Mozart and Da Ponte showed how Arlecchino and Columbina can be transformed into Emile and Sophie.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Sight and Sound Movie List - HaWestbrook

The Godfather (1972, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

The Godfather Part II (1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

Watching The Godfather again. (1972, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

Watching The Godfather Part II again. (1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

Watching either film on the big screen (1972, 1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola) in any year when it's revived as though it were a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Watching The Godfather Saga on television where they take all the parts they cut out and make it chronological and almost liking it a little more than the separate movies. (1977, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

Watching The Godfather Part III (1990, dir. Francis Ford Coppola) and remembering how masterful and brilliant the first two movies were compared to this steaming pile of dung travesty.

Goodfellas (1990, dir. Martin Scorsese)

Scarface (1983, dir. Brian DePalma

My Little Pony: The Movie (1986, dir. Mike Joens)

(No horses or ponies heads were harmed in the making of this list.)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Sight and Sound Movie List - The Decker

I'm not sure if I'm qualified to list the ten best movies of all time, but I can list my ten personal favorites.  Even that's hard, I narrowed it down to thirty or so and had a tough time crossing anything off.  These ten, though, I can watch at anytime and have repeatedly:

1. Logan's Run (1976, dir. Michael Anderson) - My first favorite movie, I made my mom rent the vhs multiple times back in the day.  Great 70's analog synthesizer sound effects and silly miniature future-scapes, and the acting is actually not bad...well, with the exception of Farrah Fawcett. Renew!!!

2. Dune (1984, dir. David Lynch) - My other favorite movie, tied with Logan's Run, and also my favorite book.  More great actors in a cheesy sci-fi setting, and I love every bit of it.  Not very true to the book, but fun anyway.

3. Singles (1992, dir. Cameron Crowe) -  Set in early 90's Seattle, lots of cameos by grunge icons.  Probably my favorite soundtrack of all time and a good story.  Sometimes it feels like I'm living in this movie, which is pretty cool :)

4. Amelie (2001, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet) - Just simply beautiful and warms my heart.

5. The Shawshank Redemption (1995, dir. Frank Darabont) - Kind of brutal but uplifting at the same time. 

6. The Princess Bride (1987, dir. Rob Reiner) - I don't see how anyone could not love this movie, awesome cast including Andre the Giant!  Yes, Fred Savage is annoying as hell, but at least you can focus on the awesomeness of Peter Falk in those scenes. A great one for an all ages crowd.

7.  Poltergeist (1983, dir. Tobe Hooper) - I saw this movie when I was way too young, so it made a big impression! It's holds up really well for an 80's film, still freaks me out.

8. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, dir. Irvin Kershner) - My favorite of the original trilogy, although I absolutely love all three.

9. The Fellowship of the Ring (2001, dir. Peter Jackson) - Again, I love all three but have watched this one many more times.

10. That's the Way of the World (1975, dir. Sig Shore) Starring Harvey Keitel as a music producer and Earth, Wind, and Fire as "The Group."  A cool drama set in the ugly recording industry of the 70's, great soundtrack and a satisfying ending.  There's a scene with Earth, Wind, and Fire playing at a roller disco, worth watching for that reason alone!

It pained me to cross some movies off the list, so here's a list of runners-up which I love just as much:  Idiocracy, Festival Express, The Thing(1982), The Big Lebowski, The Joy Luck Club, Napoleon Dynamite, The Evil Dead I&II, The Never Ending Story, Bloodsport, Amadeus, Jurassic Park, Clash of the Titans(1981), Akira, The Color Purple, and Spaceballs.

Sight and Sound Movie List - The Goodell

 I’m not saying best because I’m just a guy who’s seen a couple of films; I don’t qualify as a cinephile or cineaste or whatever.

Favorite Science Fiction Movie: Blade Runner. (1982, dir. Ridley Scott) The problem with sci-fi is the ones that I’ve seen tend to be either/or: either they have good special effects story or they have an interesting concept. This is one of the few that had both and more impressively, it’s pre-CGI.

Runners-Up: 2001, The Terminator. The former is obvious I suppose but the latter may be a surprise. That being said, think about it. The story is simple but it works. The concept isn’t that crazy. The only things that the film suffers from are very dated special effects and bad 80s haircuts. I’m willing to overlook both of that.

Favorite Western Movie: Unforgiven. (1992, dir. Clint Eastwood) Good story, good acting and also, I’ve never seen Shane, The Searchers, How The West Was Won, or High Noon.

Favorite Action Movie: Road Warrior. (1981, dir. George Miller) All three of the Mad Max films are good. I actually like Thunderdome a little bit better but I don’t really think of that as an action film. I may not want Mel Gibson as a neighbor or as an explainer of Scottish or American Revolutionary history but he’s great as a post-apocalyptic anti-hero. Also, as long as there’d be a designated driver, I bet he’d be fun to grab a drink with.

Favorite Historical Movie: The Baader-Meinhof Complex. (2008, dir. Uli Edel) At best, a historical film is often only good at showing historic atmosphere in Technicolor. Usually the history is totally off or it doesn’t even bother trying to be anything than a costume drama to serve as a vehicle for some actor to get an Academy award. This one is different, and it wasn’t made by Ken Burns.

Favorite Ahistorical Movie: Amadeus. (1984, dir. Milos Forman) Nope. Mozart wasn’t indirectly killed by Salieri or buried in a mass grave (the last one makes no sense; he was the most famous musician in Europe!). Nonetheless, this film is very entertaining and has a great soundtrack. I like that one of the guys from Animal House got to play possibly the greatest musical talent in history.

Favorite Gangster Movie: Casino. (1995, dir. Martin Scorsese) No, this is not as good as The Godfather, Goodfellas, Godfather II, or whatever, but I like it better, because a) it moves faster than The Godfather, and b) the story is much more tightly told than Goodfellas. Also, I’m always interested in the intersection between legitimate and illegitimate business (“Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” Honore de Balzac), which Casino has much more of than the other films.

Favorite Romance: Amélie. (2001, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet) I like the main character. I like the story. I like how she turns to water. I like a happy ending. Maybe Jonathan Richman was right when he asserted Paris was made for love.

Favorite Film About Teenagers: Dazed & Confused. (1993, dir. Richard Linklater) Most teenage films are vapid wastes of time. This one I like because all of the characters were to some extent believable. Also, it’s set in the South but there’s very little caricature. And it looks it was shot in the town I was a teenager in.

Honorable Mention: Wargames. (1983, dir. John Badham) my all-time nerdiest moment? I don't know if this qualifies but it's up there. Remember Wargames? I loved that movie as a child. Matthew Broderick's greatest role. Still relevant seeing as nukes are still being pointed at each other. Anyway, one day I watched it and I was totally fascinated by the different strategies listed in this scene: http://youtu.be/NHWjlCaIrQo

I wrote down as many of them as I could read for purposes of further research (which didn't happen, so I guess I never reached my apotheosis of nerdery.) I watched it again and decided some of them wouldn't be bad as a down-tempo or lounge fusion band or something like a cheap Thievery Corporation knock-off.

Possible candidates include:

Far East Strategy

Iceland Maximum

Atlantic Heavy

Arctic Minimal

Denmark Massive

Pacific Defense

Spain Counter

English Thrust (also a possible swash-buckling themed porn title)

Venezuela Sudden

Thursday, January 2, 2014

800 Words: The ABC's of The Marriage of Figaro - Take 2 Part A

As we still think of it today, Western Classical Music does not begin with Bach, it begins with Mozart. Certain older composers - Gluck, Handel, Scarlatti, Rameau, Vivaldi, Couperin, Purcell, Lully, Monteverdi, Palestrina, et al, and especially Bach - were adopted along the way as grandparents and forerunners. But the canon of Classical Music as it's developed begins with Mozart. Everything before Mozart is a ‘revival.’ Even Mozart’s music is technically a revival, except for that the revival began only a year after his death at the Jahn’s Hall benefit concert for his widow. One could almost date the emergence of modern Classical music to that auspicious concert at which Mozart’s Requiem was premiered. Even Haydn, a generation older than Mozart chronologically, is in many ways his successor - living nearly twenty years past Mozart’s death, enjoying his highest regard after Mozart disappearance, and deserving so in part because he wrote his finest compositions during his autumn years.


Mozart is the ‘universal composer,’ excelling not only in expressing all conceivable human emotions, but in expressing them excellently in every musical form to which he put pen to paper - which was every musical form available to him during his era. Even among later composers who might be said to have done the same - Schubert, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Hindemith, Martinu - just maybe excepting Schubert, they all lack either his diversity of expression, or they lack his formal perfection.


Milan Kundera once likened the history of the novel to a soccer game with two halves. In the first half was the undefined, playful novel of Cervantes and Rabelais, full of formal experimentation from feeling out its possibilities until the late eighteenth century. Right before halftime appear Fielding and Sterne, continuing their work two-hundred years after Don Quixote and creating works of prose in which anything could appear conceivable by the human imagination. On the other side of halftime lies the realist certainties of Samuel Richardson and Balzac and all their successors - the implications of whose work we still live with, in which the novel acquires a ‘purpose’, which is to explore the psychology of the human mind and create stories which remain true to real experience.


In the same way, the history of music may be said to contain two halves, but the fundamental difference is that the formal experimentation comes in the second half. Before Beethoven, music was strictly controlled by its form, and any music which violated form’s iron-clad laws was considered a vulgar exhibition in bad taste. In the aristocratic mein of Baroque and Classical Europe, a musician could no more break the rules of musical form than he could run naked through a royal court. Whether the form was polyphonic or harmonic, symphonic or ecclesiastical, there was a manner in which music was made, and those eras are littered with period pieces by competent artisans whose individuality was crushed by the limitations placed upon them. Music was, by general consensus, a plastic art, and a composer was like a designer of furniture or vases - incapable of rendering emotions with specificity. Occasionally, a composer like Handel or Gluck would come along to challenge that notion and achieve widespread fame for doing so, but fundamentally, music was a diversion which was meant to please the senses without challenging them. In this sense, it can be compared to so much music from today's popular canons, which must be designed within a certain form, and with a certain time limit, so that they may achieve their economic utility. As it was in the 17th and 18th centuries, it’s possible for a popular musician to create meaningful art, but it's not bloody likely, and becomes less by the year. The most meaningful musicians are almost always those who reject popular taste and pursue their own personal vision.


These musicians owe their ability to do so from the revolution - political, scientific, cultural, and aesthetic, which began roughly two and a half centuries ago, and reached its apogee approximately a quarter of a century later.


Within every era is its two halves. The first half of The Renaissance is called ‘The Renaissance’, in which movable type and printing presses spread the dissemination of ideas more quickly, which in turn allowed for the development of literature in the vernacular, which in turn lead to a resurgence of learning, which in turn lead to the developments of perspective in art, diplomacy in politics, separation from the Catholic Church’s dominance of Northern Europe, and most importantly, the Scientific Revolution, which allowed Europeans lives to develop more greatly in quality by every generation than the one before.


But the Renaissance’s second half is what we now call the ‘Baroque.’ In response to all these developments, the aristocracy fortified its dominance. Gains in science and aesthetics were used for aristocrats to proclaim themselves with still more ornate splendor, and with these splendors with art and music which proclaimed its gorgeousness to all who saw it. And with this gorgeousness came gorgeous corruption; deadlier wars and more repressive policies to the commoners who lived under their jurisdiction.


The Renaissance was a revolution of the Brain, but after all this corruption and war came the revolution of the Heart. The Enlightenment can be tied to many things - the Newtonian explanation of the Universe and other scientific advances, the beginnings of the industrial revolution, long-delayed widespread rebellion against Catholic dogma, the greater availability of world travel - and it seems odd to connect such a ‘rationalist’ point of view with emotion, but the most fundamental view of the Enlightenment was that it was irrational to treat fellow humans without dignity. The Renaissance was about the Heart awakening to the wonders of the Brain, the Enlightenment was about the Brain awakening to the wonders of the Heart.


And once the Enlightenment reached its climax in the American and French Revolutions, then began the long trek towards overthrowing hierarchies which prevailed for a millenium in the search for greater freedom, greater enfranchisement, and greater empowerment. All around Europe, people desired to determine their own rulers and cast off the authorities which told them that their place was determined by God. Were they better off afterward than they were before? The certainties of Newton were replaced by the anxieties of Darwin, who explained that our position in the universe is by no means assured and that the struggle for dominance is little different than the struggle for survival itself. The concept of the self and its quest for expression became all-powerful, its own religion, and the Enlightenment ripened into the Romantic Age.


In an Age of the Brain, it follows that the written word, with all its potential expressions of thought, is where the mind can stretch itself widest. But in an Age of the Heart, only music, with its transcendence of linguistic barriers and illiteracy, and its ability to implant emotion into the listener, can make the leap past the Brain to the Heart. Music, not literature, became the primary mode of aesthetic experimentation, and that experimentation began with Mozart.


(Don Giovanni, 1787, perfection is shattered into a million explosive pieces...)


In the summer of 1786, something in Mozart snapped. The pressure of mounting The Marriage of Figaro stretched him to the verge of a nervous breakdown. And after the incredibly successful first performance of The Marriage of Figaro, just when his career seemed on the verge of stratospheric success, his rivals managed to confine his spectacularly received run to merely nine shows.


Short of certain Shakespeare plays, there is not a single more perfect work for the theater in existence than The Marriage of Figaro. It is, in fact, so perfect, that its perfection is almost a flaw in itself. If The Marriage of Figaro must, in fact, take back seat in its perfection to certain Shakeapeare comedies like Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is because there is not a single intimation of anything irrational or incomprehensible in this perfectly formed world. It is an opera with ten crucial characters, all of whom have beliefs, motivations, and souls, captured perfectly on the stage. Aside from the general mysteries of human behavior, there is not a single mysterious moment on the stage - no behavior which the music cannot explain, no attitude which the score cannot elucidate. This miraculous perfection was never again achieved, nor could it ever.


Exempting any historical consideration except for music, the composition of The Marriage of Figaro happened at two crucial moments in the development music history. The first was the widespread dissemination of the new keyboard - the fortepiano (or pianoforte), which enabled composers to think on a new level of dynamic contrast which no composer ever previously could. It was also an instrument perhaps developed more ideally by builders in Vienna than in any other city, and enabled composers like Mozart and Haydn, partially grounded in the ‘old’ art of polyphony, to get a ‘head start’ in experimenting with the new instrument and its musical implications.


The second development came as a result of the first. As the piano became still more important to music, and as polyphony became ever less, a new manner of musical development had to be constructed which endowed music with meaningful content. The diatonicism of the pre-Enlightenment days was simply not enough. What was required was a means to utilize all twelve tones of the keyboard. Chromaticism certainly existed before Mozart, and even well before Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, but it was not de rigeur for musical content. With chromaticism came a sense of tension, struggle, and uncertainty. In the days of Mozart and Beethoven, chromaticism was there to certainties of diatonicism were always guaranteed to prevail, but by the age of Wagner and Liszt, chromaticism triumphed, and with its triumph came unhappy musical endings, the triumph of ambiguity, and the domination of musical dischord. In an almost mystical way, one can see within chromaticism the ideals of the Enlightenment come undone when they were put into practice.




On one side of music’s halftime stands The Marriage of Figaro - in which all musical relationships are resolved in a perfect hierarchy of notes, dramaturgy, societal relationships, form, and diatonicism. Humanity advanced to the point that all of Figaro’s characters, from the highest station to the lowest, are equally deserving of portrayal, but everyone ultimately stays within their place, and there is no accountability for those who violate their privileges. But on the other side of the abyss lurks another abyss. Don Giovanni’s protagonist is such a bundle of animal urges that he lacks all the interior life which every character from The Marriage of Figaro possesses in abundance. There is not a single aria in which he expresses his inwardness, instead, there are only arias in which he expresses his insincerity. He is so much more animal than man, that he must be eradicated from the face of the Earth and sent to hell so that others may have a chance of living a purposeful life. So long as Don Giovanni exists on earth, none of the other characters know their place in the world. When he dies, they can begin the long, and just as messy, process of pursuing their happiness. One might read into Don Giovanni a manifesto of the French Revolution in which abusive aristocrats receive their just deserts. But if we view history purely through the lense of music, then who can deny that the Nineteenth Century gradually revealed the complete triumph of Don Giovanni’s chromaticism?

Mozart was a creature of his time enough that even in Don Giovanni, he required a reconciliation scene. Any great opera creator after Mozart - except Janacek - would have ended it with the spectacularness of the Commendatore scene. But in the world of the greatest genius among all musicians, the world must always be humanized. What is most important to the opera is not the demonic powers of Don Giovanni, but how his diabolism affects the rest of us mortals. The Marriage of Figaro is the music of a stationary world, which has enough dignity to allow the entire world to express itself and for the classes to jostle, but not enough that the lower classes can triumph in any meaningful way over the upper class except for by making the Count ask for forgiveness. Don Giovanni is the music of a world in flux, in which some characters have no personality outside of their addictions, in which vengeance is meted, and characters are uncertain about how to relate to one another. We long for the world to be like Figaro’s, but our world, messy, irrational, and inexplicable as it is, is the world of Don Giovanni.