Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Late Quartet

The accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works....But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction? What if age and ill health don’t produce serenity at all?
—Edward Said, "Thoughts on Late Style," London Review of Books, 5 August 2004

When we think about an artist's "late style," Edward Said writes, we may think of Bach creating the crowning masterpieces A Musical Offering (1747), Mass in B-Minor (1749), and Art of the Fugue (1751) in his final years.* Or of Shakespeare writing The Tempest (1611), his bittersweet farewell to the magic of the stage. Or of Henri Matisse, often wheelchair-bound or bedridden and unable to paint, making the playful, brilliantly colored cut-outs that were published as Jazz (1947).

But there are also artists whose late work is difficult, dark, and challenging, posing problems that can never be finally resolved. Goya's Black Paintings (1819-1823), which he painted on the walls of his house when he was in his 70s, feature horrifying scenes of violence and rapacity. Monteverdi's final opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642), features some of the most ruthless, corrupt and cynical characters ever put on stage.

In his final years, Beethoven continued to push the accepted boundaries of his chosen forms, producing works that achieved new extremes of scale, complexity and technical difficulty. Said, following Theodor Adorno's essay "Late Style in Beethoven," devotes much of his essay to a consideration of Beethoven's last compositions. These include his final string quartets, works which I think are aptly described as presenting a "bristling, difficult and unyielding—perhaps even inhuman—challenge" to listener and performer alike.

A Late Quartet (2012, directed and co-written by Yaron Zilberman) focusses on the fictional Fugue Quartet as its members prepare for a performance of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. This quartet was composed in the final year of Beethoven's life, after he had gone entirely deaf and while he was struggling with illness. Much about this quartet is unusual, if not unprecedented: it's in seven movements, instead of the then-standard four; it begins with a slow movement instead of the then-standard fast movement; the movements range in length from nearly 15 minutes to under a minute, and were intended to be played continuously, without a break; the movements modulate over six different keys, instead of the usual two or three, and can feature abrupt shifts of mood and tempo.

Here is the opening movement of the quartet, marked "Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo" (Slowly, but not too much so, and very expressively):

In Zilberman's film the Fugue Quartet's cellist, Peter (Christopher Walken), is diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson's disease, a disorder that affects motor control and will soon make it impossible for him to play.

Peter's revelation of his diagnosis to the other members of the Quartet throws the group into crisis. And from my point of view, far too much screen time is spent on the melodrama surrounding the rocky marriage of second violinist Robert and violist Juliette (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener), and on the affair first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) initiates with Robert and Juliette's daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots).

Peter's story—that of a musician facing the loss of his ability to perform the music that has been his life's purpose, dealing with the many diminishments of old age, and mourning the recent death of his wife Miriam (a brief but poignant cameo by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter)—is far more compelling, and I wish it had remained the central focus of the film. Instead, for long stretches Peter remains in the background as we follow the increasingly erratic behavior of the other characters. It is a huge relief to return to Peter, who is the only member of the quartet who seems to deal with the situation like an adult.

The film includes some thoughtful touches. To commune with his memory of Miriam, Peter puts on one of her recordings; the music he chooses is "Mariettas Lied" from Erich Korngold's opera Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City, 1920), about a man seeking consolation after the death of his beloved wife:

The words mean: "Joy, stay with me. Come to me, my true love. Night falls now; you are my light and day. Our hearts beat as one; our hopes rise heavenward...Though sorrow darkens all, come to me, my true love. Bring your pale face close to mine. Death cannot separate us. If you must leave me one day, know that there is a life after this."

Another thoughtful touch is the cellist that Peter suggests to the other members of the Quartet as his replacement: Nina Lee, who in real life is the cellist for the Brentano Quartet, the group that performs on the film's soundtrack.

These kinds of touches, and the fascinating discussions among the characters about the challenges of playing Op. 131, are hints of the more music-centered (and in my view, more interesting) film that A Late Quartet could have been. As it stands, with its focus on not-very-engaging interpersonal melodrama, Zilberman's film feels like a missed opportunity.

Beethoven's Op. 131 in its entirety, played by the Quatuor Mosaïques on period instruments:


* But I've also written about why Bach isn't (yet) carved on my musical Mount Rushmore.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


Mothers, don't let your sons grow up to join the Indian Air Force. At least on the evidence of our Bollywood viewing, characters in the Air Force may as well wear a sign saying "I'm doomed." We've seen Air Force pilots:
  • Get killed when their defective planes crash (Flight Lt. Ajay Rathod (Madhavan) in Rang de Basanti (Paint it Saffron, 2006))
  • Get imprisoned for decades by a certain hostile neighboring country (Squadron Leader Veer Pratap Singh (Shah Rukh Khan) in Veer-Zaara (2004))
  • Get shot down during a border conflict with a certain hostile neighboring country (Squadron Leader Shekhar Malhotra (Shashi Kapoor) in Silsila (Connections, 1981))
So when we discover early in Aradhana (Adoration, 1969; directed by Shakti Samanta and written by Sachin Bhowmick) that Arun (Rajesh Khanna) is an Air Force pilot, it can only be a matter of time before the inevitable happens. First, though, he woos Vandana (Sharmila Tagore) by serenading her from a jeep as she travels through the mountains on a train in "Mere Sapno Ki Rani" ("Queen of my dreams"):

(You may recognize this song as one of the many to which Shah Rukh Khan pays homage in "Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte" from 2009's Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (A Match Made in Heaven).)

Vandana is swept off her feet by Arun—who could resist?—and a few days later as they are visiting a temple they exchange wedding garlands in the presence of a priest. Caught in a sudden thunderstorm, Arun and Vandana take shelter, and of course Vandana has to remove her wet sari and warm herself by the fire. Although she modestly covers herself with a blanket, the temptation proves too much for both of them, as the thunderstorm raging outside echoes their own overwhelming passions ("Roop Tera Mastana" ("Your beauty is intoxicating")):

Afterwards, Arun assures the guilt-stricken Vandana that they will be married in the eyes of their families as well as in the eyes of God in just a few days; first, though, he just has to make a short flight to bring his uncle and aunt to meet Vandana...

I don't think it will be much of a spoiler if I reveal that, sure enough, Arun's plane crashes and he is fatally injured. On his deathbed, he exacts a promise from the pregnant Vandana that their son will grow up to be an Air Force pilot. That seems reasonable: what parents wouldn't want their son to take up the same profession that killed his dad?

Of course, Arun's death is only the first of a series of tragedies that strike Vandana; mild spoilers follow. Her father dies, leaving her impoverished, and Arun's family rejects her and her story about their secret marriage. She agrees to anonymously give her son Suraj up for adoption, but return to adopt him herself the next day. But her plan goes horribly wrong when another couple, the wealthy but childless Saxenas (Anita Dutt and Abhi Bhattacharya), adopts him first. Vandana then takes a job as a servant in the Saxena household so that she can be close to Suraj as he grows up, even though she can never let him know that she is really his mother.

As if this giant helping of Maternal Self-Sacrifice isn't enough, her employers' sleazy relative Shyam (Manmohan) tries to rape Vandana. The assault is only averted when Suraj comes to his beloved "nanny"'s rescue with a sharp pair of scissors. To protect him, Vandana takes the blame, even though she realizes that it means prison and a lengthy—perhaps permanent—separation from her son.

In the intervening years Suraj (Rajesh Khanna in a double role) becomes a young man, joins the Air Force (gulp) and, like his dad, woos a local beauty with a flirtatious song, "Baghon Mein Bahar Hai" ("Has Spring come to my garden?")

Will Suraj find happiness with the lovely Renu (Farida Jalal)? Will Vandana and Suraj ever be reunited? Will he ever learn that Vandana is his mother? And most importantly, can Suraj somehow avoid the Curse of the Air Force?

Even if you can guess the answers to most of these questions, Aradhana is very much worth seeing for Sharmila Tagore's whole-hearted performance as the devoted Vandana (I'm already seeing Vidya Balan playing the lead in The Sharmila Tagore Story), for the obvious chemistry between Sharmila and the far too handsome Rajesh Khanna (this was the role that made him a superstar), and for the classic S.D. Burman/Anand Bakshi songs sung by Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Kishore Kumar, Mohd. Rafi, and S.D. Burman himself.

For additional thoughts about Aradhana, please see the reviews by Filmi Geek and Philip Lutgendorf.

Thanks to RajShri Films, you can watch Aradhana with English captions on YouTube for free.

Update 21 March 2013: Memsaab has written two wonderful appreciations of Rajesh Khanna, My ten favorite Rajesh Khanna songs and The complicated superstar.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Suggested reading: Kerry Howley, Hilary Mantel, and Andrea DenHoed

Arthur Schopenhauer, age 58, 1846
Another in the occasional series of links to some of my favorite recent articles and reviews:  

Kerry Howley imagines a conversation between pastor Joel Osteen, the toothy writer of inspirational best-sellers such as Become a Better You, and Arthur Schopenhauer, the author of Studies in Pessimism, conducted in alternating quotes from their works ("Hope Against Schope," Bookforum, Feb/Mar 2013):
"JOEL OSTEEN: Arthur, I’m so glad you came to join us at Lakewood Church today. We love you. You are one of a kind. You are a masterpiece. You are a prized possession. When you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, instead of getting depressed, instead of saying, 'Oh man. Look how old I look. Look at this gray hair. Look at these wrinkles,' you need to smile and say, 'Good morning, you beautiful thing. Good morning, you blessed, prosperous, successful, strong, talented, creative, confident, secure, disciplined, focused, highly favored child of the most high God!'
ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER: This world is a scene of tormented and agonized beings, who only continue to exist by devouring each other, in which, therefore, every ravenous beast is the living grave of thousands of others, and its self-maintenance is a chain of painful deaths; and in which the capacity for feeling pain increases with knowledge."

Hilary Mantel meditates on Kate Middleton, Princess Diana, the wives of Henry VIII, and our fascination with royalty ("Royal Bodies," London Review of Books, 21 February 2013):
"The royal body exists to be looked at. The world’s focus on body parts was most acute and searching in the case of Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife. No one understood what Henry saw in Jane, who was not pretty and not young. The imperial ambassador sneered that ‘no doubt she has a very fine enigme’: which is to say, secret part. We have arrived at the crux of the matter: a royal lady is a royal vagina."

Andrea DenHoed writes about the viral YouTube video (posted below) in which actress Mila Kunis is interviewed by Chris Stark, a novice BBC reporter. Stark starts out by confessing that he's "petrified," and then "quickly veers off-script" to talk about his pub mates and their favorite drinks, the soccer team he follows, and pre-wedding bachelor rituals. Kunis, obviously heartily sick of robotically mouthing the same answers over and over, "encourages Stark to stay away from his planned questions" ("Mila Kunis and the Lad Interview," The New Yorker, 8 March 2013):
"Great interviewers often describe their craft as something between a dance, a seduction, and a magic trick. You have Truman Capote spinning webs of trust and charisma around his subjects. You have Joan Didion, dependent on being 'so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.' You have Janet Malcolm using the fine touch of her 'Japanese technique' to elicit information and draw people out of themselves. And then you have Chris Stark, talking about eating chicken, scoring 'massive lad points,' and 'dropping trou' at his friend Dicko’s wedding. And it works. The result is great. Good for him."
This interview is highly enjoyable, and it reminds us that when stars are interviewed they are on the job for the studio's publicity department. Kunis's 30-second monologue where she spouts every press-release cliché that she's been instructed to hand out to other interviewers is hilarious.

But I hate to break the news to Andrea DenHoed: the interview didn't "veer off-script." Chris Stark had clearly planned everything he was going to say; in essence, it was shtick, and probably shtick that was pre-approved by his bosses. Nonetheless, Kunis was charming, and graciously rolled with it in classic Hawksian woman fashion (as she did with Sgt. Scott Moore's video request that she attend the Marine Corps Birthday Ball as his date in 2011). Seeing her relieved and spontaneous responses to Stark is a reminder of just how tedious being a star must be most of the time. If you haven't already seen it, here's the interview:

Sunday, March 3, 2013


Awāra (The Tramp, 1951) is one of the most acclaimed Indian films of all time. Raj Kapoor's performance in the title role is listed as one of ten Great Performances in Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel's "All-TIME 100 Movies since the beginning of TIME" (Feb 12, 2005). Awāra is featured in Rachel Dwyer's 100 Bollywood Films (BFI, 2005); Subhash Jha writes that it "figures in the list of the three most influential films in Indian cinema" in his Essential Guide to Bollywood (Roli, 2005), although he doesn't name the other two; and Philip Lutgendorf writes that the film is "generally considered one of Kapoor's finest."

My feeling is a bit more ambivalent, mainly because of the parallels between Awāra and my least-favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel (1945). More about those parallels in a moment.

There's no question that Awāra is filled with excellent performances. This was the first film in which Kapoor appeared as The Tramp, a character based on Charlie Chaplin's beloved Little Tramp, although Kapoor's character Raj has a harder, more criminal edge. In fact, we first see Raj as a prisoner on trial, accused of attempted murder:

Raj in the dock

(The film's often striking images were composed by Kapoor—Awāra was the third film he directed—and cinematographer Radhu Karmakar.)

Raj's intended victim was Judge Raghunath (Prithviraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor's father—a relationship that will soon have resonance in the world of the film). Judge Raghunath has definite ideas about the origins of crime:

Judge Raghunath's genetic theory of crime

Raj's advocate is a young woman, Rita (Nargis), raised as the ward of Judge Raghunath. Throughout the film Nargis is simply radiant:

Rita for the defense

Under Rita's questioning, Judge Raghunath soon begins to reveal his family history: more than two decades ago, his wife Leela (Leela Chitnis) was kidnapped by a notorious daku, Jagga (K.N. Singh). This is no random kidnapping; Jagga had been unjustly sent to prison by Judge Raghunath, who condemned him because of his father's and grandfather's criminality:

Jagga discovers that Leela is pregnant and returns her to her home. When Judge Raghunath learns of the pregnancy, though, he believes that Leela is carrying Jagga's child. In an echo of Ram's repudiation of Sita after her rescue from Raavana, Judge Raghunath throws his pregnant wife out into the street on a stormy night:

Leela gives birth to a son, Raj, and raises him in poverty. At school the young Raj and Rita are classmates, and she befriends him. But they are soon separated when Judge Raghunath intervenes with the schoolmaster to have Raj barred from the classroom:

(If the young Raj looks familiar, it's because he's played by Raj Kapoor's younger brother Shashi.)

Leela falls ill, and a desperate Raj tries to steal some bread to ease her hunger, but he is caught and sent to a wayward children's home. Throughout the move Kapoor and writers K. A. Abbas and V. P. Sathe show how assumptions about criminality become self-fulfilling prophecies.

When we next see Raj, he's an adult, and has spent the past decade in and out of prison for a variety of petty crimes committed as a member of Jagga's gang, which he celebrates in the song "Awara hoon" ("I'm a tramp"; music by Shankar-Jaikishan, lyrics by Shailendra, sung by Mukesh):

Raj meets Rita again when he steals her purse, and then pretends to recover it from the thief. Raj and Rita begin a flirtation that soon deepens into love when the childhood sweethearts recognize each other.

Raj is torn between the salvation offered by Rita and the inescapable hold of Jagga; and this is where the parallels to Carousel start to become apparent. In the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, a man who lives outside of social norms (Billy Bigelow, a carnival barker) falls in love with a woman who is firmly tied to the local community (Julie Jordan, a millworker). Billy is lured into crime by a man named Jigger; is the name Jagga in Awāra a coincidence? When Billy dies he is taken to a version of heaven (Up There), but then plunges into a fiery hell before he can return to Earth; Raj similarly has a vision of heaven and hell in the famous dream sequence (the songs are "Tere Bina Aag Yeh Chandni" and "Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi," sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Manna Dey):

One day at the beach, Rita playfully calls Raj a "junglee"—savage—and he flies into a rage. He twists her arm, chokes her, and then starts hitting her:

He slaps her three times hard across her face, and then shoves her to the ground. The violence of this scene is shocking. What makes it even worse is Rita's response:

This is where the parallels to Carousel become inescapable. In anger and frustration at his ostracism by the townspeople, Billy hits Julie, but she stays with him. When, later in the play, Billy strikes his daughter Louise, she notoriously asks her mother if a hard slap can feel like a kiss, and Julie agrees. Awāra's great music (the playback singers also include Mohd. Rafi and Shamshad Begum), gorgeous black-and-white images, and the fiercely committed performances of its cast can't outweigh for me the sickening image of Rita offering her face to Raj for a slap as though for a kiss.

Update 14 April 2014: Awāra may also have borrowed some imagery from the Hollywood movie Down To Earth (1947); you can see the visual evidence by clicking on the title link.