Thursday, December 30, 2021

Best Reads of the Year

Best fiction I read this year:
1. The Mahabharata trans. Ramesh Menon
2. Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
3. Sinai Tapestry by Edward Whittemore
4. Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
HM:
Madame Bovary Lydia Davis trans.
Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin
Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Baltasar and Blimunda by Jose Saramago
The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric
Children of Gebelawi by Naguib Mahfouz
Red Sorghum by Mo Yan
5 best non-fiction I read this year:
The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield
The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand
The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Packenham
Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama
A Promised Land by Barack Obama

In Defense of Horenstein

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doqGV_tVwCI


For me, next to Tennstedt, this is the most inspired Bruckner 8, and I'll take it over all the usual recs: Karajan, Giulini, Wand, Celibidache, Furtwangler, it all pales in comparison to this.


Horenstein's bound to be misunderstood because there is no one out there like him. A lot of later conductors go out of their way to praise Horenstein, but there is no conductor out there with a similar aesthetic. He clearly didn't care about getting the technical niceties in the way that conductors did with some similarities like Erich Kleiber and William Steinberg. A lot of the greats of his generation have some similar qualities, but no one goes to his particular extremes.

On the one hand, he carries extreme classical balance to an extent well past Toscanini and Szell, nearly every tempo has a metric relationship to one another, which leads to a myth that he does everything in the same tempo. It's a lot more sophisticated than that; it can also, frankly, be a little ridiculous at times... But he uses that extremely classical framework to go to the most incredible violences of expression. The tempi are usually steady and broad, and he uses that slight amount of extra time to get sounds from the orchestra that at times go to the extremes of cantabile passion, and at others are extraordinary in their raw ugliness, and it can't be explained just by bad recorded sound or lack of care or skill, they are entirely deliberate and bring out the music's darkest qualities.

Is Horenstein the most underrated conductor out there? Not at this point, there are always some people singing his praises even if others want to break his reputation for all time... I wish there were people who championed William Steinberg, or Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, or Paul Kletzki (a new discovery of mine) the way they champion Horenstein. They don't go to Horenstein's extremes, but they're also less severe than Horenstein, and can paint in milder colors than Horenstein's constant urgency.

Horenstein never got a major appointment, he was probably too musically curious and uncompromising. He already had an aesthetic that was already more concerned with expression than execution, and had limited rehearsal time with second-to-fourth rate orchestras. Music is unfair, the visionaries are usually ignored and second-raters who go for business as usual are promoted to the top of the profession. There is no earth on which Horenstein was a worse conductor than Ormandy or Bohm unless you love pointing out mistakes more than you love music, but that's exactly what some people do because they're just mean-spirited and enjoy bullying people over trivialities.

Eventually, you just have to call a spade a spade and just say it outright. They're the enemy.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Underrated Classical Musicians: The Old Concertgebouw

 Let's talk briefly about the Old Concertgebouw.

This is, for me, the closest you get to an ideal orchestra. For all their battalion of virtues, the old German orchestras, like the Staatskapelles Dresden and Berlin, or the Leipzig Gewandhaus, have a problem in extremis that seems more of a problem as the decades wear on:
There is so much emphasis on precision and blend and intonation... what can possibly be expressed individually when any expression of individuality come at the expense of the ensemble's aesthetic? There is something about it that's repressive, redolent of the dictatorships under which they thrived.
But the old Concertgebouw has much of the same blend as the great German orchestras from their best periods, but it also has that French distinctness of timbre that draws attention to each and every instrument, and that clarity allows for a massive amount of individual freedom. Listen to the Concertgebouw's many extraordinary soloists, they phrase with a freedom and individuality to which few if any orchestras can compare. The same goes for the Czech Philharmonic, but the Concertgebouw has a cantabile that the Czech Philharmonic's near-staccato attacks do not generally permit.
However you feel about Willem Mengelberg as an interpreter, this orchestra is his achievement, tailor designed for an aesthetic at once beautiful and explosive, capable of visceral passion and relaxed repose. There is nothing like it in all of orchestral music, and if you don't care for Mengelberg, there's always Beinum and Haitink, and if you want a middle ground between Mengelberg's erratic liberties and Haitink's stringent discipline, there are plenty of recordings with everyone from Kubelik to Jochum to Erich Kleiber.
It's not just the perfect orchestra for Mahler, it's magnificent for everything from the whiplash attaca of Beethoven to the bass-heavy weight of Bruckner, to the delicate transparency of Debussy, and captures details from all the orchestral wizards from Tchaikovsky to Ravel to Strauss that no other ensemble finds.
An orchestral sound in itself is a stupid way to judge performances. What matters is the idiomaticity of the sound, but what distinguishes this orchestra is the way it preserves an extremely distinct aesthetic that is utterly appropriate for whatever they play; and in that way, the old Concertgebouw is utterly unique.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vG2iXFWGvNg

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Conducting - The 5%

There aren't as many frauds in conducting as supposed. In any profession, by laws of probability, there are likely 25% who are just bad at it. There are 50% who are sometimes good at it but whose approach is fundamentally flawed. Then there's the 25% who are genuinely good at it. Then in the 25% there are 5% who are great. And then within the 5%, the 1% who are truly exceptional.
At this point in the life of an OCD (pure O mostly to be frank...) sufferer who compulsively makes lists.... Here are the conductors who see music in the 'lit from the beyond' way I see it. Perhaps pianists another time. As for composers? I don't think you compose great music without illumination from the beyond (not a Messiaen reference...).

But in terms of the ones I listed, we all have our aesthetic priorities or conception of what music is. My conception of music is something that projects something more than just profoundity, but captures all the emotional nuances, capturing light amid dark passages and dark amid the light ones, what's tragic in comic passages and vice versa, and having a conception of music that is neither too weighed down by the search for profundity yet also not too light-hearted to miss it. In doing that, it creates a sense of spirituality, the human comedy in all its expressive modes, the type you find in Rembrandt or Shakespeare, and it gives the musicmaking a glow that partakes of the divine.
There are two things I profoundly dislike in the arts. One is ideologues. I don't really care for musicians who take stands on HIP that are either pro in extreme or against in extreme, and I particularly have a fondness for those musicians who already came to some of the more salient conclusions of the HIP movement and also didn't have to change their approaches at all because they'd already practiced what was best about it in their musicmaking (like Dohnanyi or Jansons). And at the same time I don't like Wagnerian interpretation that bloats everything to maximum profundity, because what seems deep about it is often just heavy and thick, and obliterates the ability to hear fun and wit in musicmaking.
The other is extreme militance. The sort of extreme exercise of authority that creates an atmosphere that expresses little but precision and aggression. I don't think that's the point of music, and perhaps I'm too lenient on ensemble sloppiness, but personally, I'd much rather hear the music expressively communicate at the expense of the details lined up with orderly precision and clarity than the other way around. Perhaps that's my own personal weakness, but at this point in my listening life, that's what I prefer.

1%
Maybes: Tennstedt, Mackerras, Wand, Schmidt-Isserstedt, Cantelli, Mitropoulos, Koussevitzky, Gielen, Horenstein, Semkow

Sunday, December 26, 2021

The Inner Who Part 1

 In the six months since Bubbie died, the world seems different now at its deepest levels. But it isn't the lack of Bubbie that makes it different, or just the lack of Bubbie... it's the lack of twenty-five years of daily memory that left my life with her. It's the whole ethos those now missing years created, the whole cast of characters that she brought to time spent around her, and it's the whole worldview she brought to literally every day spent in her company. It's the world of ostentatious gifts and long thank you notes and three hour phone conversations, and also her continual umbrage at people who did not take social niceties as seriously as she did. It's her belief in the common ordinary decency of all people to whom she spoke so volubly for hours on end. It's also her contradictory belief that vulgarity and 'commonness' is something to be avoided like the most dreadful horrors. It's her belief that learning and culture for its own sake is the highest of all callings and one that should be pursued to the ends of the earth. It's also her contradictory belief that those impractical artistic dreamers like her oldest grandchild who can't do enough to make their way in the world have only their lack of character to blame for their troubles since people like me didn't apply ourselves to do something realistic with our lives like becoming a realtor or shoe salesman. Her world was made by Classic Hollywood, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Life Magazine and Norman Rockwell, broadcasts of the NBC Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera listened to by a literal ten million a week. Her America, the America of her generation, was an America newly the preeminent culture of the world, and consequently, still barely distinct from the culture of Europe. The entire century thereafter was what happened when America finally was able to shape the world's destiny.

World War II is basically now out of living memory, and The Great Depression is almost definitively out. Yet everyone in America still feels as though we know everything about them, and yet these events which shaped everything about our country are all second hand now. Our whole society is shaped by a history no one remembers anymore. So it stands to reason that history is very much coming to these shores again, and rather than being the protagonists of the new age, we may in fact be very much the antagonists.
Everyone over the age of 75 was alive during the 'Old America', but no one under the age of 93 was ever an adult in the old America for even a day, and Bubbie was not only an adult in the year before the German invasion of Poland, she was fully able bodied and compos mentis until a year and a half after the Trump election. She was an emissary from America as it evolved from Lincoln to FDR whose mind and body were fully functional through the entire Obama Presidency.
But suddenly everything from the League of Nations to World War II is now second hand. Bubbie, like Modern America, was an entire worldview, and in her, I and we can see everything was glorious about what they both represented, why it has to end, why we should mourn its ending, and why, at this moment, we need their advice more than ever. The people who could best tell us how to endure our current struggles are probably the people who just left us.
When most of the people reading this were born, the twilight past started at World War I, and the recent deceased were living witnesses who could have told the Baby Boomers about where the process of rebellion and decadence would lead.
So for the Baby Boomer generation, this historic twilight zone was the world pre World War I, the world of the Belle Epoque, the fin-de-siecle, the world of decadence; overripe cultish romanticism and rebellion that created a golden age of art and music just like the Boomer's golden age of popular music and New Hollywood movies. But no one would have been better equipped to tell Boomers that however pleasurable and common sensical their rebellion seemed, nothing would lead more quickly to making right-wing populism more powerful than ever before.
The world that created every generation is always the world that just disappeared from living memory. We all were created by Bubbie's generation, for good or ill, and the people who created our world were responding to a series of circumstances they inherited just as we have. They, the generation of everyone from Kennedy and Johnson to Nixon and Reagan, ran the world through a series of unwritten moral codes that were nearly impossible to break because, when they were broken, the world dissolved into chaos. To us, all these codes seem arbitrary, and many of them clearly are arbitrary.And yet, they did break these codes - they desegregated schools and the military, they enacted civil rights and the Great Society, and they helped save the world first from Nazism and then from Communism. What they show is that it's possible to gradually break down these arbitrary codes, but breaking them is a very fraught process that is either done with the utmost care, the way they generally did, or quick and dirty, and quick and dirty results in the return of all kinds of things Bubbie thought the world was done with: the collapse of democracy, mass refugee crises, dwindling natural resources, even world war.
At least a third of everything in our life is determined by our birth. Not just who we are at the objective genetic level, but the 'inner who', the circumstances handed to us as a deed at birth, that tells our stories both to the world and to ourselves. The 'inner who' that determines the life circumstances that allowed our parents to meet each other, and gives sense and animation to how we see the whole world.
The great tragedy of the 'inner who' is that the further we are from our births, the more perspective we have about what made us what we are, and yet the less people are there to interview about what those circumstances might have been like.

Underrated Classical Music - The Czech Christmas Mass

 I almost forgot to write about the Czech Christmas Mass this year.

It's not actually a mass, it's a 'Missa Pastoralis', whatever that means, but what it ultimately is is a Czech folk oratorio recounting the birth of Christ.
Just as all Christian cultures recount the crucifixion in the Passion Play, so too do many Christian cultures have Nativity Plays, which is particularly common in the Czech lands - at least according to three seconds on wikipedia...
Ryba was five years older than Beethoven, nine younger than Mozart, and wrote the piece in 1796, that weird musical twilight between Mozart's death and Beethoven's deafness. And while there is plenty of evidence in this piece that Ryba knew The Magic Flute backwards and forwards, there is a folk coloring in this music that cannot be explained by any music yet written down. There is absolutely no Bartered Bride without this piece, and one can easily picture the various characters having a beer with other archetypal Czechs like Schweik or the Hrma family. One does not hear these kind of folk rhythms again until Smetana and Dvorak, or at very least Liszt, and occasionally you can hear the 20th-century composers of Central Europe peaking through...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCHzz8M3oTc

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Tales from the Old New Land - Century 1

  In the beginning was the Old New Land. 

All things and nothing. 

Heaven was earth and earth was heaven and both were hell. 

And hell was bad and good. 

And good was earth and bad was heaven. 

And heaven and hell were inextricable. 

Therefore in the beginning man created God, who created the Heaven and the Earth.

For the earth was both with form and void; And the spirit of God moved upon the face of men. 

Who said, There was light, and light there is, therefore light let there be. 

And man saw the light, that it was good, and man divided the light from the darkness. 

And some men called the light Night, and some men called the darkness Day. And the evening and morning were the first generation. 

And man discovered firmaments in the midst of the waters, and waters in the midst of firmament.  

And man divided the firmaments and used the waters to grow the firmaments, and in competition for the water, man rose up against man, and it was so. 

And man called its own firmament Heaven, and the firmament of others Hell. And the evening and morning were the second generation. 

And man said, let the men under the Heaven be gathered unto one place, and let God appear, and it was not so. 

And man called the others with land heretics, and the occupation of lands he called Holy, and man saw that it was bad, and he called it good. 

And man said, since the earth brings forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, and it is so:

Let us bring forth more and better grass, more and better herb yielding seed after his kind, more yielding trees bringing forth more and better fruit, upon the earth, and man saw that it was good and saw no bad in it.

And the evening and the morning were the third generation.

And man said, there are lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from night, let them be signs, for seasons, and for days, and years: 

And the firmament of the heaven gave only the light upon the earth that was already upon the earth, and it was so. 

And man made two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night,

But man set them both in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, 

And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness, and man saw that one light was good and one light bad, but none could determine which to each, and man fell eternally upon man over which light was the greater and which light the lesser. And each man called that which he was good. 

And the evening and morning were the fourth generation. 

And man said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly for our people of the light, and scarcely for their people of the darkness, that farming may fail upon the part of the earth closed to the firmament of heaven.  

And man created great works, and every living creature that moveth were forthwith affected abundantly after their kind, and every work fulfilled after its kind, and man saw their works benefit all men, and men saw that it was not good. 

And man cursed their works, saying, be fallow, and divide, and fill the waters with poison, and let division befoul the earth. 

And the evening and morning were the fifth generation. 

And man said, we brought forth on the earth living creatures after our kind, but thou art cattle, and creeping things, and beasts of the earth after thy kind, and it is so. 

And man made men into beasts and cattle and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after their kind, and man saw that bad was good. 

And man said, let us make all men in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. 

And to every man that is like beast, to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth, all wherein there is life shall serve us, and it was so. 

And man said, Behold, we have taken every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to us it shall be for meat. 

And man saw every thing that he had taken, and, behold, he saw that it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth generation. 

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 

And in the seventh generation all life that served men did rebel against that work which he had made, and they fought to rest in that seventh generation from all work which they had made. 

And they did create a new god to bless that seventh generation, and sanctify it: because in that god they would rest from all their work which without a god they created and made. 

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they are created, in the days that men make the earth and the heavens,

And every plant of the field after it is in the earth, and every herb of the field after it grows: until the Lord God shall not cause it to rain upon the earth, and there is not man to till the ground. 







Saturday, December 18, 2021

Spielberg and Light

Picture, just for a moment, that it's 1970, and there's a party in Hollywood of young artists. It's not the louche drug dens with bikini babes around a pool; frequented by Nicholson, Beatty and Polanski -` it's a party where lots of University of Southern California film students and recent graduates pile into a small suburban house, drinking cheap beer and smoking schwag weed. Unlike at Jack Nicholson's parties, nobody's having sex. This is a party where awkward film students (almost all male) go to meet actresses who in high school were A-students who played in the marching band. Even if the room was deafeningly loud, every film brat was talking. The subject of every conversation is movies, everybody is trying to one up each other with their knowledge of camera techniques in obscure movies with obscure actors.

And if you successfully one-upped everybody, you'd get a buzz going for yourself as being particularly knowledgeable, and you were invited 'upstairs' to hang out with what passed for 'VIPs' sitting on the floor in the master bedroom. Presiding over the conversation is an unassuming midwestern guy named Roger Corman, looking way too old to be there, who makes 'the world's best bad movies' and is on the lookout to hire the most knowledgeable members in that VIP room to come work for him, where they acquire the practical knowledge to know how to make films in more than the abstract. And those in Corman's chosen circle, even the ones who don't work directly for him, operate with a kind of halo around them, as though everybody knows that these young upstarts will change movies forever.

Corman doesn't say much himself, but around him like Leonardo's last supper sit his chosen proteges, all of whom are opining as Corman sits patiently to listen. Every one of them has ambitious plans for the films they're desperate to make, and every one of them has drawn up battle plans which they tell Corman about. Corman listens attentively to them all, and every five minutes or so offers just a sentence or two of suggestions.
On one side of him is a diminutive Italian kid with a beard named Marty Scorsese, he's constantly sniffing and everybody knows why he keeps going to the bathroom. But he's talking a mile a minute and no one can keep up as he relates one film to the next from every country and era. On the other side of him is a much bigger, more expansive Italian kid, named Francis Coppola, who talks in long, winding monologues in which he relates every movie to literature, classical music, and painting. Next to Marty is yet another Italian kid named Brian de Palma who's already sporting a combover, kind of a mean-spirited kid who's constantly making bitter asides at Francis and Marty, very funny, but he's much more interested in talking cameras and aspect ratios and even if he has all these conceptual avant-garde ideas, he doesn't buy into any of this 'art' stuff. 'Movies aren't art, there's no such thing as art!" he chortles, 'it's just a fun game, a magic trick.' Agreeing with Brian and sitting next to Francis is a short California nerd named George Lucas with a ridiculously elaborate pompadour, sporting a beard and buck teeth that make him look like a beaver. If Francis relates everything to Conrad and Flaubert, everything for George is Isaac Asimov and Flash Gordon.

There are others in the circle too. A right-wing hothead always carrying a gun named John Milius, a depressed religious kid always writing things down named Paul Schrader, a hippie performance artist named Walter Murch, and a lanky slightly older Jewish kid named Phil Kaufman who acts a little above it all by trying to read a book
But seated across from Corman is the nerdiest looking Jewish kid anybody's ever seen, and he doesn't say a word. He looks like an accountant, and seems to have all the personality of one. Nobody knows what he thinks of anything and nobody really knows anything about him - where he's from, what he believes, what he knows. Nobody even knew if he'd show up because he doesn't even really socialize. He just spends spent all day in the USC library, taking out a mountain of archived prints and reviewing them twelve hours a day, emerging every night with a hundred pages of notes. He just goes home, he goes to bed, and he does it all over again the next day. All anybody knows about him is how hard he studies, and how good his student films are, as though he was born knowing how to film anything at all. Nobody knows how he gets the results he does, but the results are all there, on the screen, and everybody knows that if they can get any insight out of him, any at all, each of them will become twice the filmmakers they already are, but they never get him to say anything.

And from that very beginning, they know, there is something about this kid that's a threat. He's not saying anything because they know that whatever he's planning, it's in direct contradiction to their plans. If they can neutralize him, get him onto their side, they will have the best of them and the filmmaker whose success can finance every risky project they ever make.
But if he doesn't, they know that this is the filmmaker who will put every one of their ambitions out of business.
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These film brats were doomed to success. By the end of the 60s, the generation of movies was so starved for good pictures that the first few pictures from each of these prodigies were greeted like manna from heaven. And by the time they all were 40, their energies were so sapped by the price of greatness that they couldn't do it again. It's just too much stress.

Coppola and Lucas can't strike lightning in middle age, and they basically retire to Northern California to count their money and lick their wounds. The cocaine and divorces almost kill Scorsese, and for the rest of his career he finds again and again that he can only make masterpieces about the fast life in New York. De Palma becomes a kind of hired gun, and he makes the best cheap thrillers in Hollywood, but any substance in his pictures happens entirely by accident. Milius makes too many enemies to do much work after his mid-40s. Schrader and Kaufman spend their whole careers hustling to get their pictures made against all odds, and what are the odds against them?
That nerdy Jewish kid. There is something about him like a robot. Nothing phases him, nothing holds him back. It's easy to make everybody want to keep working with you when you don't even have a personality to impose. He just goes from picture to picture that are pure marvels of technique, but compared to the movies of these other guys, they're nothing more than technique; they have no style, no substance, no character in more than one dimension. You can almost imagine a machine directing them, and what emotions they have seem almost completely synthetic. The characters in his movies seem like how a computer would perceive humans feel - just a series of well-lit sentimental gestures with bombastic music.
That's one way to view Spielberg's movies. Here is the other way:

Isaac Babel said of Tolstoy that if the world could write itself, it would write like Tolstoy. Just as Tolstoy had so much art that he was completely artless, so does Spielberg. Spielberg's movies are as though the world is filming itself, or, perhaps even more to the point, God filming the world he created, with God's own arbitrary mixture of savagery and compassion.
Every one of the greatest Hollywood directors has their niche on which they base their absolute mastery: Scorsese is the master of motion - the moving shots in every one of his films have an electrifying physical energy. Coppola is the master of production design, wherever the camera moves, every one of his movies has a hundred things to look at - even the bad ones. Hitchcock? The master of storyboarding, in which one gesture leads to the next in ways that can never be other than they are. Welles? The master of shadows. Lynch? The master of color.
But film itself is light's projection, and Spielberg is light's master. Light, in Spielberg, is everything and everywhere. It is the engine that drives the plot in every one of his movies. It blinds, it causes shadows, it causes rays, it causes color refraction; look closely and the light against windows show entire other sets possibly built just for that shot.
The light in Spielberg is eternity and infinity calling to us. It is everything in the universe that's awesome, dangerous, and loving. It's the most visual proof of God's existence a person living on either side of 2000 will ever encounter. Apparently Spielberg himself refers to this technique as 'The God Light,' I didn't even know that until I accidentally stumbled on this on the internet.

Even before I'd read that term, I'd thought that a Jewish person should not be able to think of the light in Spielberg without thinking of the "Ner Tammid", the eternal light that illuminates the ark of every synagogue every day and night. In the beginning, whether big bang or divine command, there was light, and at the climax of film as a worldwide influence, shared by everyone in every culture, there is Spielberg.
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Whatever you think of Spielberg, take a still from every shot, and see how many of them don't use light as meaningfully as Rembrandt and Leonardo. Whether Spielberg is as great as Rembrandt or just a mere Reubens, he's essential, inescapable, in 500 years many descendants of ours will still watch him in fascination.
But after a generation of masterpieces, Rembrandt made his very greatest paintings at the end of his career: The Anatomy Lesson, Lucretia, Bathsheba, the Jewish Bride... And in every one of them, Rembrandt paints not just with light, but with an inexplicable inner illumination. The light is so embedded in the painting's fabric that mere mastery can't explain it. It can only be made by a great human, a great soul, the invisible fabric of morality itself is in those paintings. And however many billions of dollars Spielberg's been rewarded with, you cannot make a Spielberg movie unless you're a great soul.
Is Spielberg Rembrandt? Of course not. Rembrandt wasn't even considered Rembrandt until after his death and spent his final decade in poverty. Steven Spielberg is Steven Spielberg, a director worth 3.7 billion dollars whose films sculpt an entire half-century - for 50 years, Victor Hugo WAS France, Giuseppe Verdi WAS Italy, and Steven Spielberg IS America. Every aspiration, every fear, every conflicted motive, every misbegotten intention of our country is present in Spielberg's movies. Are his movies the greatest of the great? Not quite... But what they did was more than enough for posterity. And in so many ways, of greater value to more people than aesthetically greater, crueler souls.
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Spielberg turned 75 just yesterday, an old man by objective standards, but if West Side Story is any indication, COVID seems to have unearthed an entirely new filmmaker. This was the filmmaker who believed in America, he is that man no longer. He is worried about America and simultaneously more American than ever. He is tracing America's current problems back to their roots as only an old man can, and he is naming names as he never has. Only now has he made his greatest film, and it heralds an entirely new director with a decade or two more of these movies in him.
And at the same time, along with pointing fingers, he is giving characters all the compassion you find in Jean Renoir and Ozu. He is using light to get inside their heads as never before, giving characters room to exist in their third dimension, understand what motivates them at their deepest level, and make us realize why they come to the decisions they do.
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It's unfair.
Spielberg's blockbusters ate up the entire biosphere of movies. He gave the most artful production to the trashiest thrills, and in the process conditioned a whole country to adrenaline. He made us forget that movies can be there, like any art, to make us ask questions about our society, which is exactly what we need art to do. He made us hooked to the blockbuster like a drug, as much a fact of American life as credit debt, bad mortgages and crack. He reassured us just like Ronald Reagan, that everything in America was not just OK but great. Reagan cut taxes and created modern deficit spending, Spielberg made Indiana Jones cheat death a million times and reassured us that the universe's unknown was a benevolent place. And now the creditors are coming for our bills, bills which Spielberg conditioned us to double down on.
And what does Spielberg do now? He makes all the grown-up movies the film brats always wanted to make, but couldn't, because Spielberg ran their movies out of business.
The mid-budget, subtle movie about real things is Spielberg's greatest achievement, and he did what Scorsese and Coppola never could. He moved from subject to subject and created masterpieces about ideas and history and science which always flummoxed the others:
Domestic abuse and racism? Color Purple. Imperialism? Empire of the Sun. The Shoah? Schindler's List. Slavery? Amistad. World War II? Saving Private Ryan. Robotics? AI. Warrantless surveillance? Minority Report. Israel/Palestine and terrorism? Munich. Civil War and Presidential leadership? Lincoln. The Cold War and espionage? Bridge of Spies. Feminism and journalistic freedom? The Post. Political partisanship and immigration? West Side Story.
Are they all masterpieces? Of course not. Will they have provocative sentiments? Not particularly. But they all get to the heart of what is at stake in every one of these issues. They're not 'issue movies' like Aaron Sorkin makes, which simply list the terms of the debate. And these movies don't really make us think either, they do something much more valuable: they get us inside the heads of the people to whom these issues matter most. Together, they form a kind of canon: if you want a primer on what it means to be American in our era, to think like an American and feel what Americans feel. These are exactly the sorts of movies that should be no trouble for Hollywood to make and to which audiences should always flock.
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Is he really that gifted? Well, yes and no...
The opportunities other artists have to struggle their whole lives to make for themselves is just Spielberg's to pick like an apple off a tree. There's no such thing as an artist who achieves all on their own, but film makes that process particularly obvious. And Spielberg, being worth $3.7 billion, can get the best collaborators money can buy. Need a great script? Hire Tony Kushner, the great American playwright of our time, or Tom Stoppard, the great British playwright of our time. And for the rest, he finds collaborators who are near-geniuses in their own right who work with him movie after movie, because who will pay better than Spielberg? Who will give them more prestige? Who will crteate a more harmonious working atmosphere?
But Spielberg's two most important collaborators, his editor Michael Kahn, and his composer John Williams, are both around 90. And Spielberg is going to be called upon to change his style and substance as never before.
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If you gotta replace John Williams, Leonard Bernstein is the way to go, and in the place of relying on music cues, Spielberg relies on light as never before.
The 'god light' makes its first appearance at the moment Tony and Maria meet, causing all the blinding, shadow, rays, and rainbow refraction which permeate Spielberg like stained glass in a cathedral. But for just a small moment, the light disappears when Tony and Maria kiss. It comes again when Tony starts singing Maria only for it to show that it was turned on by a janitor carrying a trash can on wheels. Tony stands in a pool of water refracted by light. This is the New York we all know, with those little puddles of magic that appear all around its grimiest parts. In Tonight, the light is not on the streets but on the lovers: in their eyes, in their teeth, the oil on their skin...
Anita, realist to their romantic, gets much less light in her eyes. Spielberg rarely backlights her, but lights her from above. The light is all over every inch of her skin, and in their apartment (which Anita and Maria share with Bernardo), there is laundry everywhere, through which light and shadow of every single type permeate. You see Anita again and again in a haze or a shadow through the laundry. For the first time in Spielberg's career, you really feel the sexual heat: Spielberg is really, really thirsty for this actress. And when Maria sings I Have a Love, the light begins to come into Anita's eyes as she tears up, only for her to walk to the other side of the room. And yet... when they sing together at the end of the song, Anita is the one filled with light, portending that Maria's love is over, and Anita is about to fulfill an act of love more severe than was ever demanded of Maria. And when she leaves her apartment, she experiences a brief panic attack, and her eyes practically widen into suns. After Anita's assult, the light flashes from her eyes, but rather than from her pupils, the light is from the balls themselves, as though to say what went through her mind was the devil's whisper.
But the masterpiece of the whole movie is One Hand One Heart, set in the Cloisters Museum. It is one of the greatest scenes ever made in any movie. There is so much to say here, but I'd bet no American movie had light this inventive since Citizen Kane. Spielberg literally paints with the brushes of the Old Masters. Maria literally looks like Mona Lisa. Again, the light disappears when they kiss, and then Maria walks past Tony, and the light completely disappears.
When Tony and Maria sing Tonight in the reprise, they sing it against a gorgeous, possibly painted sunset, and Tonight ends in darkness, with the same blinding lamp against a dark backdrop as in the most dreadful moments in Schindler's List and Jurassic Park. And that continues all through the Rumble. God's compassion has become God's wrath.
And finally the hellscape of the end is darkness visible. Bright light against sheer darkness, and mist everywhere. We are no longer in the America Spielberg's always painted, but a dark hellscape like the bombed out Europe of Saving Private Ryan. This is a portend of an American future, and it feels like a prophecy. When the police come for Chino after he shoots Tony, the entire movie fades to dark. It surely has to be the first Spielberg movie that ends in darkness.
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The credits show the sun rising again, this is Spielberg after all... But it's difficult to state how much of a departure this is for Spielberg. He just made a movie more suffused with the Spielberg light than any movie he's ever made, and then he ends it in darkness.
This is a movie from a new man: sick with worry for the future as many of us are. The America he knew is dead, and he, like the great soul he sometimes seems to be, is taking account of how it happened, and for the first time seems to realize that the vision of America he conjured is a lie and admitting to his responsibility in it.
Just as ours has, Spielberg's light has become darkness, and by letting the dark really and truly in, he's made one of the two greatest American movies of the new century.
Hopefully America will still have enough money to finance it when it's time for someone to make a third.