Tuesday, February 14, 2012

2010 Oscar Nominees Overview

Last weekend I finally watched Julie Taymour's version of The Tempest (2010).  While I loved Titus (1990) and was excited to see this film, I also had an ulterior motive for wanting to watch it.  The Tempest was nominated for an Academy Award last year in the category of Costume Design, and (until I watched it last Saturday) happened to be the only film nominated in any category in 2010 that I hadn't seen.

So, with that in mind, I'm going to take a few posts to reflect on the 2010 nominees, right in time for the 2011 Oscars.  While I don't especially feel that the Academy Award is sacred, in that only good movies or performances or work get nominated or win, I think that it is a good litmus test for some quality in film-making.  2010 was an incredibly solid year for films, and there were a lot of good things going on.  Afterwards, I hope to start writing about 2011, but that will have to wait...

Friday, September 23, 2011

Carmina Burana (Carl Orff)

Three weeks ago, I attended a concert by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, where Carl Orff's Carmina Burana was the featured piece. Because this blog deals with a wide variety of media in the arts & entertainment world, I wanted to make sure that I wrote about this concert.

This concert was under the baton of Krzysztof Urbánski, the ISO's new Music Director. I had not seen him before, so I went into this concert with a little hesitation. Since the departure of Mario Venzago (who I thought was great in his own right) from the ISO, I have been eager to see what direction the orchestra is going, and with Urbánski's appointment to the ISO at age 27, I had doubts. On top of this, the ISO has invested a great deal in a media campaign to brand the ISO as entering the "Urbánski Era". That being said, Urbánski is all that people say he is and more. He handled the monumental task of conducting Carmina Burana with all of the gravitas needed from the podium, but also crafted wonderful performances of smaller works that required a more subtle interpretation. And all of this was done without any music in front of him during the concert, which is a huge feat in itself. Also fresh was his decision to program the first two pieces, from his native Poland. From what I've read, Urbánski is a champion of Polish music and that should help the ISO carve out a new space in its unique repertoire. I am looking forward to seeing and hearing more of Urbánski's work in the future.

The three pieces performed were Górecki's Three Pieces in Old Style, Kilar's Orawa, and Orff's Carmina Burana. The first two were for string orchestra; the last was for full orchestra, chorus, and child's chorus. I'll go through each of them, one at a time.

Trzy utwory w dawnym stylu (Three Pieces in Old Style) (1963) by Henryk Górecki (1933-2010)

The first movement, a slow one, starts out with seemingly atonal chords, but the listener soon realizes that there is a specific tonal chord progress going on, complete with repetitive melody on top. The minor melody begins with only two chords alternating below it, but changes at a mid-section. It eventually goes back and forth between the two sections, playing them each three times, and growing in volume as it goes.

The second movement is in a moderate tempo and more neoclassical sounding when it first begins. But it, too, is minimalist, and the motif of the top strings is repeated as much as possible, with rhythm being the primary purpose of the movement, moving back and forth from duple to triple time.

The third and final movement is again slow. The harmonics of the strings are used to create an eerie sounding set of drones above the melody. Gorecki tries a unique technique in this movement and stacks the melody on top of itself as the movement goes along. By the end of the piece, there are eight distinct parts, each playing the melody starting on a different note of the scale, with the top and bottom parts being doubled. While this parallelism may seem very dissonant in theory, the performance of it creates a melody that in some ways is very pure: no extra notes but those of the melody get in the way of the music.

Three Pieces in Old Style originally premiered on April 30th, 1964 by the Ensemble 'Con moto ma cantabile'.

Orawa (1988) by Wojciech Kilar (1932-)

This piece is technically minimalist, but I the same way that Ravel's Boléro is minimalist.
It starts very simply with the concertmaster playing a very rhythmic motif which is played for a few measures, changed to a different set of notes with a slightly altered rhythm and then and then we go back and repeat. Sections of different strings are added slowly until the piece finally gains critical mass, and then out of nowhere (about 4 minutes in), a melody played by the cello comes out of nowhere. This melody is in itself also minimalist, but within the context of the first motif, it has a real color that distinguishes it from the other music. While this melody is being played with, the first motif is added again underneath, and the music goes through a wide variety of development of the two themes going at one point back to the small orchestration and theme of the beginning and then growing faster and louder than before. Right after the climax, the strings end with an elongated version of the first theme, and then hurry to finish the piece, with the "tonic" chord sounding, followed by a chord related to the second half of the first theme. While this can many times ruin a piece, the last chord really ended the piece perfectly and gave it a sense of urgency. Through the development, Kilar utilizes whole-tone and pentatonic scales to give an almost pure sound to the building of the piece.

While this piece seems very simple and monotonous, it is actually quite addicting, and I've been listening to it quite regularly since the concert. In the same way that Bolero can get under your skin, this one forces you to keep listening to it.

Wojciech Kilar was born in Poland right before the start of World War II and has worked during his life as a composer of concert music and film scores. At the end of the 1950's, he studied with Nadia Boulanger, one of composition's master teachers. He is perhaps best known in the American film world for his soundtracks to Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and The Pianist (2002). Orawa is a region on the Polish-Slovak border, which has a river of the same name. It is known as a pastoral mountainous region, and while Kilar did not live there, he wanted to invoke the type of folk music typical of the area, albeit in a minimalist fashion.

Carmina Burana (1937) by Carl Orff (1895-1982)

To give you an idea of the scale of piece that Carmina Burana is, here's a picture from the dress rehearsal (notice the two grand pianos!):

After reading through a set of poems by European Medieval goliards, Carl Orff set forth on the ambitious task to set 24 of them to music. Orff’s Carmina Burana, or in Latin “Songs from Beuern,” is a monumental work that covers the gamut of songs from the original poetry book:
love songs, drinking songs, and moral songs. It is divided into three main sections, with the famous “O Fortuna” acting as bookends for the work.

The introduction, Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (Fortune, Empress of the World), comprises of two pieces which set the landscape for the work by focusing on the idea of Fortune (the archetype) being a fickle lady; as reflective of the hard times in 11th-13th century Europe, Fortune could be very generous, but then in an instant take everything away from a person. I think my favorite descriptor of this is the line:
“It is written in truth,
that she has a fine head of hair,
but, when it comes to seizing an opportunity
she is bald.”
(2. Fortune plango vulnera)

The first section, Primo Vere (Spring), with eight movements, is much happier and describes pastoral scenes and songs of love. This section features a Dance movement with the orchestra only that is particularly vibrant, but also sporadic. It changes meters almost every-other measure and mixes duple and triple meters within measures, so that the listener has a hard time keeping a steady beat.

The second section, In Taberna (In the Tavern), with four movements, is very much a section of drinking songs. But, each song gives a very specific view of tavern life. The first talks about the tavern being a warm place for travelers to stop on their way. The second is a comedy, with a swan singing about the misery of being roasted. The third is told by an abbot, who tends to “an assembly of drinkers.” The final song talks about all of the various types who can be found drinking and gambling in the tavern.

The third section, Cour D’Amours (In the Court of Love), with 10 movements, is perhaps the most erotic of the poetry in the whole piece. The movements portray love, but not the type usually associated with the fine amour of the Middle Ages. This love is very directly sexual, and each movement conquers love in its own way. The final piece of this section unexpectedly ends by going from its happily regal and epic scope, directly and without stop back into the minor epic scope of “O Fortuna,” in a very chilling way for the audience. This move reminds us that Fortune gives love and can take it away just as easily.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Note on Lists; and Three 1930's Animated Shorts

I like to keep lists. While the big list I'm keeping at the moment is the movies, TV show episodes, and books that I've seen or read, I also keep lists of ones that I want to see/read in the future. One of these is the Academy Award nominee list.

To be honest, I don't put full blind faith in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to always pick the right winner or to even nominate the top choices. But I also don't think that calling a film "THE BEST" can ever be definitive, and that many times it takes away from the value of the other films in contention. BUT...I think that the list of nominees from each year serves as a decent time capsule of the relatively good movies of the year, and it can serve as a starting point for viewing movies.

So, I use the AMPAS list as a guide (not a Bible) to help me choose which movies that I will eventually need to see. I have other movie lists, too (BAFTA, Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, and too many to name), and I will even watch movies that aren't on any list.

This segues into the main topic of this post: Three 1930's Animated Shorts. In my quest to watch all Oscar contenders (at this time, I have 3,411 left to see), I turned to one category (Animated Shorts) for one specific ceremony (1931/32) and decided to watch all of the nominees. This happened to be the first year that the Academy had an animated shorts category, so it's a very interesting look at how cartoons used to be. You may be familiar with Flowers and Trees, but the three shorts aren't shown very often. All three are currently playing on YouTube.

dir. Burt Gillett
Walt Disney Productions

To begin with , Flowers and Trees was the first animated short to use the three-strip Technicolor process. Before this point, Technicolor had used a two-color process which involved filming in black and white, but using red and green filters to make color. From what I've seen, the two-color process gave films a very muted and almost pastel look, making them look live they had almost been colored after the fact. As you can see above, the three-color strip process allows a more vibrant use of colors.

Flowers and Trees does make use of these amazing colors, and its innovation was what undoubtedly won it the Oscar in the animated shorts category. If it were in black and white, many of the effects (the fire and use of color to highlight the different characters) would have not gotten through as much.

But, Disney never used innovation as a replacement for good storytelling, and the other qualities of this short are also remarkable. The cartoon is basically about two trees who fall in love and who are almost thwarted by a jealous tree stump that tries to set them on fire. With the help of flowers, the trees prevail in the end.

While watching the short, I couldn't help but think of children's cartoons today. Throughout it, there is constant movement, not only in the foreground, but also in the background. The anthropomorphic characters do very imaginative things that make you forget that this is a cartoon about two trees in love. Thinking about today's cartoons, I'm not sure that that premise would be able to be made, let alone sold to a studio.

dir. Rudolph Ising
Leon Schlesinger Studios

This short was decent enough, but I was not as enamored with it. To be honest, it's probably just the fact that I'm living today and not in 1932, mixed with me watching the other two cartoons. Like I said above, rating films can cause collateral damage to ones that are good, but not rated "best." This one was still of high quality, and (again) had more in it than one of the flash cartoons on TV today.

It's Got Me Again!'s premise is pretty simple: mice want to play, cat wants to eat mice, mice get revenge, hilarity ensues. The amount of imagination is again very different from what kids see today. With all three of these shorts, I would highly recommend them if you have kids and want them to start watching something better than SpongeBob.

dir. Burt Gillett
Walt Disney Productions

This final short is a holiday must-see. In it, Mickey and Minnie are decorating the tree and a sack of orphan kittens is left on the doorstep. In order to keep the holiday spirit alive in these orphans, Mickey dresses up as Santa (with Pluto as a reindeer), and the kittens proceed to wreck havoc on Mickey & Minnie's house.

Overall, this is a solid cartoon. One thing I noticed was the similarity between the kittens running around in this short and the mice running around in It's Got Me Again. I don't think that the latter was copying Disney, but I do think that it's indicative of the style of animation of the day: having many of the same-looking characters run around in one scene. As with the other two cartoons, I highly recommend this one for children who are inundated with today's media.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Media Diet

Steven Soderbergh keeps a list of the movies, TV shows, and literature that he watches and reads. The list was published a few months ago and I became interested in the idea to keep a log of everything that one has viewed in the media. Besides just being a historical curiosity, a list can tell quiet a bit about the owner's interests. For instance, Soderbergh logs quiet a few episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; that makes sense, because he's planning on making a film adaptation of the TV show. But he also logged in The Social Network 5 times (4 of those being within a month), showing his ability to be interested (and even possibly obsessed) with a particular film.

So, I've started my own list, and now I plan to use this blog to reflect deeper on what I've been watching/reading/participating in. I'll be focusing mainly on films and books that I'm watching/reading, and on musical pieces that I'm working on; but occasionally, I'll talk about television shows, live performance, art, and other topics related to arts and entertainment media. My up-to-date media log will always be accessible in the right column.

I look forward to where this blog could go, and I welcome any suggestions on future posts and discussions on the current ones.