On A Mission From God – Music In Film (Part III)

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Cabaret (Bob Fosse 1972) is a great film and is the vehicle for the defining role of Liza Minnelli’s career. Minnelli is Sally Bowles as she works the stage of the Kit Kat Klub in the Berlin of 1931. The Weimar Republic is shortly to give way to the rising wave of National Socialism but Sally is largely indifferent to all of that. Sally has given her heart to the Kit Kat Klub and her relationships with the audience, her fellow troupers and her lovers have the appearance of warmth, of intimacy – but are only theatrical. She is the film’s decadent heart.

Fosse’s direction of the actors and the action creates a supple ease to accommodate the now familiar juxtaposition of Nazi ‘purity’ and an amoral society. The extraordinary set pieces build to a performance of the title song at the finale which echoes the nihilism and desperation not only of Sally’s soul, but of nations about to experience the most profound tragedy of modern history.
‘Cabaret’ is that most difficult of things; a downbeat musical masterpiece.

 

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9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom 2004) is a plain film. At the time of its release it was considered controversial due to its frequent bouts of unsimulated sex, including an actual male orgasm. It earned the twin signposts of mediocre critique – ‘notorious‘ and ‘pretentious’. It is neither.
The story follows the year-long relationship between a young Brit, Matt, and an American student, Lisa, in and around London. They share a liking for live music and go to gigs at the Brixton Academy and elsewhere where they see bands such as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Franz Ferdinand.
I could describe Winterbottom’s direction of the sex scenes as being sensitive and I might make a case for them as being somehow metaphorical. But the truth is that, for me at least, such scenes are like a trip to the circus; once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. I’d be more inclined to parley a sort of Benny Hill connection between these scenes and the director’s surname, complete with raised eyebrow and lecherous leer. That would, at least, alleviate a plainness matched only by the Norfolk Broads.

 

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Taking Sides (István Szabó  2001) was always earmarked to be the concluding piece in this series. It is undoubtedly flawed – but it strives to encompass important aspects of the human condition;  moral obligation, both personal and national loyalty and the role of art, and artists. We are asked if the aesthetic should be above the political – so the title is as much an invitation as it is a statement of intent. It’s make your mind up time, folks.
The story, as best as I can tell, is a true one. Wilhelm Furtwangler, played by Stellan Skarsgard,  is the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra as WWII begins. He elects to stay in Germany even though he is encouraged by friends to leave and even though other notable musicians, such as Otto Klemperer, have fled. Once the war is over, the Allies establish De-Nazification Tribunals to determine the extent to which prominent German citizens ‘collaborated’ with Hitler’s regime. Furtwangler’s interrogator is Major Steve Arnold, played by Harvey Keitel.
What follows is complex and we may place differing constructions on what we see and hear. Arnold is brutish and unsympathetic toward his prisoner, treating him and his rationalisations with scorn. An angry idiot torturing a genius because of his genius? Or a skilled investigator determined to unravel the dissembling of a closet Nazi? Furtwangler argues that his loyalty was to his music, his orchestra and his nation; that art is always above politics and that he never joined the Nazi Party. Arnold asks him, ‘Why, then , did you play at Hitler’s birthday party?‘ And so on.
There are several junctures in this story where you may feel that you have reached an understanding of the actions and motivations of Furtwangler and slip comfortably into the guise of moral arbiter and reach a decision. But István Szabó has second-guessed you if you have. He produces some newsreel footage at the conclusion of this film which will most likely confound you. Which was probably his purpose all along.

Author’s note  That concludes this series and I do hope that you’ve found something enjoyable, maybe something to take further. I will write about some music documentaries, live concert movies and soundtracks soon. I do appreciate feedback, whatever it is, so feel free to drop a coin in the hat marked Comments below.

Closing Trivia The movie ‘All Night Long’ (Basil Dearden 1962)  was an updated version of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ set in the 60s London Jazz scene. Patrick McGoohan is ambitious drummer, Johnnie Cousin, playing Iago to Paul Harris’ Othello, bandleader, Aurelius Rex.
Patrick McGoohan‘s character, Johnny Cousin,  uses the phrase “Be seeing you” when he says goodbye to the road manager, Berger, towards the end of the movie. This is a commonly heard phrase in The Prisoner (1967), The Prisoner (2009), and was also one of McGoohan’s catchphrases in Danger Man (1960) and Danger Man (1964) .

 

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