Robert Winter is not out for a lazy country drive. He’s changing lanes as often as staying in them. He outguns one driver, noses in front of another, rams to a stop, then blasts off again. All the while, this hyperanimated, goateed figure – he has Frank Zappa looks, minus the built-in satire – is babbling excitedly, free-associating, cracking jokes, telling indiscreet stories.
This is a distinguished music professor? A former head of the University of California at Los Angeles music department? A classical music scholar?
Well, certainly not your traditional example. Winter is part of a new generation of scholars who are reinventing music studies. Adoring the tradition of Western music while despising the hierarchical thinking that makes a monument of it, he’s a fire-breathing reformer with scathing opinions about what he calls the “music-appreciation racket.” His head’s as full of Middle Eastern music and Tupac Shakur as it is of Schubert. When he teaches a survey class, “The Art of Listening,” he brings local performers — from rappers to string quartets — into the classroom with him. It’s one of the university’s most popular courses; students not only fill the 565 seats in the hall but also jam the aisles.
At the same time, he’s among the first masters of multimedia. His CD-ROM programs – on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Mozart’s “Dissonant” Quartet, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and, most recently, Antonín Dvorák’s From the New World symphony – are knockouts good enough to justify the purchase of a CD-ROM setup. These are some of the most satisfying discs Winter’s publisher, The Voyager Company, has produced.
Recently, Winter decided to make a run at digital mogulhood. He reduced his duties at UCLA and informed Voyager’s Bob Stein that he was splitting to form his own company with Jay Heifetz, the marketing/distribution executive and son of the legendary violinist Jascha. The new company will be called Calliope Media — “We swore we wouldn’t be part of a company with the words ‘digital,’ ‘technology,’ or ‘interactive’ in its name” — after both the Greek muse of epic poetry and the steam-driven, wheezy musical instrument. Their vision for Calliope? “We want to be the premier arts and humanities company in the digital world,” says Winter. “No less. I’ve too often heard Voyager spoken of as appealing to a niche market. We hope to persuade people that the arts and humanities aren’t desserts but main courses.”
Winter and Heifetz anticipate that their first titles will become available in late 1995. Among them: one by Winter on ragtime, and another by Richard Lanham, author of The Electronic Word, on the roots and evolution of multimedia and interactivity, tentatively titled From the Greeks to the Geeks.
What makes Winter’s CD-ROMs stand out is the way his mind and the technology synchronize. Winter isn’t out to dazzle or show off the technology. (Elegantly designed in black and white, the programs score notably low on the whiz-bang scale; they aren’t out just to make you exclaim, “Cool!”) He uses the technology to convey a new vision of music.
He does so with a teacher’s knowledge of what you need to know and when you need to know it, and a performer’s knack for dramatizing his points. (When’s the last time you met a scholar who cites as influences the Marx Brothers, Truffaut, and Spielberg?) You don’t set his CD-ROMs aside when you’ve exhausted the gimmicks; you keep coming back to them. There always seems to be more intellectual matter — more substance — to uncover.
Winter wants you to see music from a variety of angles – political, social, and historical as well as purely musical. For him, classical music isn’t a matter for lofty connoisseurship; it’s a springboard for exploration and for making connections. “I want to start a discussion,” is what he says when asked what drives him – then later: “I want to transform people.”
Command central for Winter’s campaign is his production studio — the 400-square-foot garage of the small Santa Monica house he shares with his wife, Julia Winter, their daughter, Kelly, and Cairn terrier, Teddy. The studio is crammed with books, CDs, monitors, three different music keyboards, Mac equipment, and a CD-ROM mastering machine. “Of course they’re scared,” he says gleefully of print publishing houses and movie studios. “In multimedia, there’s nothing Paramount or Random House can do with their millions that I can’t do with my US$50,000 worth of equipment.” When people call to ask about how to get started in multimedia, he advises: “Guerrilla teams and no overhead.”
This afternoon, he’s putting finishing touches on the Dvorák piece and thinking about future projects. After the ragtime disc, he wants to do a general musical reference, a disc on Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and beyond that, The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll that will begin with Robert Johnson and work up to 1954. He envisions 16 songs, dozens of other examples, interviews, printed primary sources, video clips. “The thing I can do that people who write about rock generally can’t is talk about the music. When you hear Chuck Berry do ‘Maybellene,’ there is a certain kind of rhythmic impulse in the way in which the subdominant functions and the melodic apex is reached. That may sound very technical, but it’s not. It’s rooted in performance.”
Winter is exhilarated by digital technology. In the new medium, he finds, he doesn’t have to fight the tedious old cultural-literacy battles. They’re irrelevant, and the results are implicit in the technology, so he’s free to go on and realize his own ideas. Winter calls the computer “the ultimate postmodern machine – intrinsically playful and unstable.” Even so, he’s less of a Utopian than many of the digital futurists and propagandists: “The good guys may not win. I saw what the so-called ‘promise of FM’ turned into – and look at FM radio today. All I’m saying is that in the digital world, talent and brains may have a slightly better chance of rising to the top.”
The son of Florida Republicans — “but really, really lovely people” — Winter grew up with no particular interest in music, and gave no evidence of special musical talents beyond a good ear. He lettered in three sports in high school and briefly considered a career as a professional baseball player before going to Brown University to study science.
“My father was an engineer, and it never occurred to me that boys did anything other than follow in their fathers’ footsteps.” He struggled joylessly his first year, earning Cs. Then, at a mixer one night, a classmate played part of a Mozart concerto. Within the week he switched majors to music; a year later, he says, he was playing a concerto himself in front of the school orchestra. Eventually he earned a master’s of Fine Arts in piano and a doctorate in the history and theory of music.
His next epiphany occurred more recently, in front of a computer screen. Bob Stein of Voyager had met Winter years before in one of Winter’s courses and told him he was a natural multimedia personality. “I had no idea what he meant,” recalls Winter. In 1989, Stein showed up at Winter’s house with a CD-ROM drive, hooked it up to a Macintosh, and demonstrated how the rig could provide onscreen buttons that could take him in less than a second to the exact micro-instant on a CD where he wanted to be.
“I knew then and there that this was my medium,” Winter recalls. Within a couple of months, he and Stein had roughed out a sketch of his Beethoven’s Ninth disc for Voyager and designed the interface. At the high-powered TED conference in 1990, Winter gave a demo of the program before an audience that included Microsoft’s Bill Gates. The crowd reacted ecstatically. “We’ve finally seen what CD-ROM was made for,” said Gates, who has since licensed the Winter programs to produce PC versions.
The Dvorák program is Winter’s richest yet. He takes you into the music’s structure, including a measure-by-measure analysis of the complete score. And he leads you out into the larger world of the era, using the music to “provide a window on cultural history.” Like his other programs, the Dvorák disc is part engaging (if rudimentary) videogame, part major work of scholarship. You click around among historical chapters, a breakdown of the piece’s structure, a glossary that’s really a collection of short essays about music, dozens of demonstrations and examples, and more than 800 pages of original documents – press accounts, reviews, letters. Sitting at your computer, your head buzzing with information, ideas, and music, you feel you’re in a room with records, books, scores, and an exciting teacher — all right there with you — and every bit of it is available to you at the click of a mouse.
The complex Dvorák is an ideal subject for Winter’s multiple-perspectives treatment. Dvorák was a larger-than-life, beer-guzzling fount of creativity who shocked proper New York during his 1890s visit by asserting that America’s greatest musical resources were its African and Native American traditions. It says something about this moment in cultural history that the most valuable work available on a figure as protean as Dvorák should be not a book but rather a computer program.
The press has received Winter’s discs enthusiastically. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner wrote, “It takes us directly up to Beethoven’s worktable, and lays bare the whole creative process.” The New York Times says, “A master teacher is the guide … an ideal musical companion.” MacUser included all three of Winter’s discs then available on its 1993 list of the top 50 CD-ROMs.
Winter calculates that he and the team at Voyager, including then-editor-in-chief Jane Wheeler and programmer Steve Riggins, along with independent designer/programmer Peter Bogdanoff, put 2,500 hours into creating the Dvorák disc. They included an impressive amount of scholarly sleuthing. One standard academic source that Winter consulted stated that a famous Dvorák protégé, Harry T. Burleigh – the black musician who brought gospel into the concert hall – had never been recorded. This claim intrigued Winter, who knew that Burleigh hadn’t died until 1948. Following up on some rumors, he finally located a recording in the possession of a music collector in Connecticut. “How did you ever find me?” the man asked. Winter included the complete recording on the disc.
If Winter’s an immaculately pedigreed academic, he’s also a renegade intellectual in the tradition of Norman O. Brown, Glenn Gould, Paul Goodman, and Pauline Kael – original yet accessible thinkers with a taste for intellectual roughhousing. The only other comparable figure working today may be Camille Paglia, but unlike Paglia, with her kamikaze dives for traditional media celebrity, Winter uses the alternative life of the Internet, bulletin boards on CompuServe, and computer conventions. He addresses crowds at computer shows and carries on monster e-mail correspondences. He’s probably the first major intellectual to have given up traditional print publishing for digital; his CD-ROMs aren’t hobbies, they’re his major works.
Winter’s live presentations consist of nothing but a guy, his piano, and his mind, but your brain cells light up as bright as they do at any rock concert. He was once coaxed into giving a night school course by UCLA’s extension program. The first week he had 20 students; within a couple of years, the course was attracting hundreds. Eventually these talks were taped and broadcast nationally by American Public Radio. Winter doesn’t bring an outline or note card with him; his preparation consists of a look at the syllabus to see what needs covering. Then he wings it.
In his classroom at UCLA, he’s a flamboyant, ebullient figure in a burgundy silk shirt – “To the hard rock world I’m probably a meek little professorial type; to the musicology world, I’m Mick Jagger,” he says. He paces as he talks, lunging to the piano to illustrate points, or to the Macintosh to play portions of his CD-ROMs. (When he heads to campus he carries bulging canvas sacks containing, among other things, a portable CD-ROM drive and a PowerBook.) He’s charismatic but accessible, making connections not just intellectual but personal. Trying to convey the political content of Beethoven’s Napoleon-besotted Eroica symphony in a class, he realizes he has to make an even more basic point: music can be political. He asks one student whether she thinks Nirvana has any political import. She nods shyly but hopefully. Score! During breaks, the kids mill about, looking dizzied but happy.
A hookup to some invisible energy grid seems to pump an extra megawatt or two into Winter. “He’s always addressing an audience,” laughs one LA music scene old-timer. Winter explains, “I’m a borderline manic-depressive.” But he seems to live almost entirely on the up side of the hyphen and to have no trouble focusing the energy. He roars through breakneck 18- and 19-hour days, pausing occasionally for brief naps that “take all the garbage out.”
His wife, Julia, recalls a party when a stranger asked her if she had “any stuff.” It took her a second to realize he was asking her for drugs. “You know,” the guy urged, “whatever it is your husband’s on.”
Playing with CD-ROMs, it’s hard not to succumb — for a while — to the Whoopee! Factor. You’re dizzied by techno-euphoria. But most of the programs come to feel thin so fast that they’re most useful as lessons in the perils of digital.
A label has been developed for CD-ROMs that try to do everything: Shovelware. Designers, technicians and marketers of CD-ROMs often don’t know how to stop; since anything’s possible, everything must be included. The ironic result is that, if all you’ve played with are dud CD-ROMs, you wind up convinced that the medium doesn’t yet have the oomph it needs. Although a present-day CD-ROM can store a staggering amount of information — about 250,000 double-spaced, typed pages — that doesn’t seem so infinite when you compare it to infinity, which is what shovelware programs essentially ask you to do. My hunch is that even when the programs and machines are 10 times more powerful than they are now, they’ll still leave you hungry for horsepower. Shovelware programs, like drugs, will always fall short of delivering the Cosmic All that they promise.
In digital, everything simply does connect with everything else — that’s given. In other words, what’s often taken as the ultimate message of the arts has now become technology’s starting point. That explains part of the Whoopee! Factor. You feel freed, if only for a moment, to entertain such notions as: With machines like these, who needs to think? Who needs to imagine?
Giving in to temptation, designers and marketers have created vast numbers of CD-ROMs that are, at least from a user’s point of view, essentially thought-free and imagination-free. They’re games, or reference works with some multimedia gimmicks woven in — animations and timelines and links between highlighted words and subjects. Once the Whoopee! Factor exhausts itself, you crash down to earth, right down to such basic gripings as: After all, it’s not as easy to read from a cathode-ray screen as from a well-printed book. And if all you want is to look something up, it’s much faster to pull a book off the shelf than to turn on your computer and load a CD-ROM. Given the effort it takes, you need to spend some time (an hour, maybe) clicking around inside a reference program to make the effort feel worthwhile. You quit that hour having encountered no personality, and no point of view. You’ve just found out a bunch of things.
In the past what distinguished a medium was the limits it imposed on you. What digital imposes on you is boundlessness. (Digital has already begun to blur the boundaries between the publishing, movie, television and software businesses.) The designer or artist isn’t sweating to shape something into an A-B-B-A form, or to wrest life from inert matter; he’s confronted with the fact that his medium allows him — encourages him — to do most anything.
Of the CD-ROMs I’ve played with the ones that have any elegance in their design have invariably come from among the more modest packages, such as “Microsoft Musical Instruments,” designed by the Dorling Kindersley team. What these designers have discovered is that digital tends to explode from every point in three dimensions. (And from those new points to explode yet further …) The team has been smart enough not to succumb to the promise of everything-included, and to be ruthless about focus, exclusion and simplicity.
I’ve only been able to sample programs that can be run on an IBM-compatible computer. But the standout by far has been “Multimedia Beethoven,” a look at Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony put together by the UCLA music scholar Robert Winter and a team of people associated with Voyager, a small media company. (Winter and Voyager have put together four CD-ROMs for the Macintosh; I’d bet all are worth a look. “Multimedia Beethoven” is the first to appear for the IBM; the rest will follow later this year.)
It’s the only CD-ROM I’ve found that’s a vehicle for a point of view. You don’t feel you’re drowning in information soup. You sense a mind and an imagination at work using the (multi)medium to make you see, hear, and understand things. It was common in the Eighties to deplore the way movies were turning into video games; “Multimedia Beethoven” suggests a video game with the depth and intelligence of a good movie.
Winter makes the symphony take form as a geodesic dome-like, floating mental object; it seems available to you all at once, to examine at your own speed. “Multimedia Beethoven” has the form of nested modules that enable you to step back for an overview or to move in close for measure-by-measure commentary; it also supplies historical context (in casual essays) and dissects the elements of classical music.
It really does seem like magic to have any part of this program, and any part of the symphony itself, only a few mouse-clicks away from any other; the mouse starts to feel like a magic wand. It’s like having slides, essays (Winter is a gracefully colloquial writer), musical examples and every bit of the entire symphony all in one room — with all of it instantly available. (If you have ears that balk a little at Western art music, using this program is an ideal way to coax them along.) This is the rare example of the computer behaving like the ideal slave you imagine it should be. Like “Microsoft Musical Instruments,” “Multimedia Beethoven” has a design that can leave you convinced that the best computer interfaces ought to be included on any list of the great creations of the Eighties and Nineties. The program is so head-clearing that it makes you imagine a future moment when — despite all the shovelware — a shelf of CD-ROMs will have been created that will more than equal the best possible college education.
But even Winter occasionally succumbs to another Digital Peril — that of spoon-feeding the user. Winter gets beyond the usual browsing-and-grazing method, but when he presents a screen of text saying how if he’s sparked you into seeing things your own way, he will have done his job, he’s like a teacher anxious not to offend his touchy, spoiled charges.
Life among digital artifacts, like life under multiculturalism, can starve you of argument, disagreement, forceful assertion — everything that provides sting and contrast. (You can sometimes suspect that the drive towards digital stems in part from a fear of being offended, turned on or upset.) The never-ending encouragement and playfulness that digital promotes can make you reflect that, if digital has provided an escape from authoritarian family horrors, it has done so only to place us in day care. And much like shopping malls, digital encourages the fantasy that in window-shopping you’re expressing yourself.
“Beethoven” centers on a hyper-dramatic, hyperlinear piece of the highest 19th-century heroic art. You keep rocketing off from it into all sorts of connections, and returning to it from new directions. But it’s the music that provides the program’s center of gravity; for the moment, what digital, the medium of the coming information age, seems to do best is let us examine artifacts of the period we’re leaving, what has now come to be known (semi-nostalgically and semi-contemptuously) as the industrial age. Winter may genuinely believe that all he’s doing is making his knowledge and perceptions available — scattering a few more drops into the sea. But part of what makes his work arresting is his commitment to his way of seeing, and his eagerness to drive home his points. You can’t keep your focus in a wilderness, even a user-friendly digital wilderness, without some force and determination.
The history of HyperCard. HyperCard was an early Apple application for building nonlinear multimedia presentations. It foreshadowed the Web, and was the program “Multimedia Beethoven” was built on.
Robert Altman’s “Nashville” was released in 1975. We’d only recently pulled out of Vietnam; the energy crisis was upon us; Nixon had just resigned; and hardly anyone had heard of an oddly ambitious Southern governor named Jimmy Carter.
The world of filmmaking and filmgoing circa 1975 seems just as remote. The idea of studying movies in college was new and exciting; the filmmakers of the French New Wave still had some vitality; screenplays and collections of movie reviews were regularly published — indeed, a film critic, Pauline Kael, was one of the country’s most argued-over intellectuals; the annual summer onslaught of action-adventure extravaganzas was as yet unanticipated. Repertory houses showing older and foreign films could be found in many cities, and colleges were the homes of competing film series.
Most of the big hits of the 1970s were as square as they’ve always been, but there was always something for movie buffs to quarrel about. Had Godard blown it by embracing Maoism and video? Were Bertolucci and Bellochio really the equal of Antonioni and Fellini? Why were so few people aware of Ichikawa?
In America, the World War II/Korean War generation of filmmakers — Sidney Lumet, Sam Peckinpah, Altman, Arthur Penn — was in full bloom at the same time the “film generation” baby boomers (Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese) were introducing a new cosmopolitan art consciousness into American movies. There were heroes to root for and bad guys to hiss; the model was “the artist” vs. “the businessman.”
With the release of “Nashville” and “Jaws,” the summer of ’75 delivered both the culmination — and the beginning of the end — of that period. “Nashville” seemed to incarnate a film buff’s hopes for American movies. Here was an artist putting the machinery of popular culture to work for the sake of art, yet entering into the spirit of popular culture and partaking of its energy too. That was the dream: the power of popular art combined with the complexity of fine art, high and low not at war, and not blurred indistinguishably into each other, but embracing.
“Nashville” was debated in the mainstream press in a way that seems inconceivable now: The New York Times ran at least eight pieces about the movie, and editorial writers and critics weighed in with opinions and interpretations for months after the film opened. (The movie’s 25th anniversary isn’t going unnoted. The Times and Premiere have already run major pieces about Altman; Fox Television will broadcast a documentary about him, “Altman: On His Own Terms,” on August 13; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened the film on June 22 in Los Angeles, with Altman and various cast and crew members in attendance; and, in November, Simon & Schuster will publish “The ‘Nashville’ Chronicles,” by the Newsday film critic Jan Stuart. Paramount will release the DVD version, offering its proper Panavision screen-aspect ratio, on August 15.)
But it was “Jaws” that captured the mass audience and really changed movies. It wasn’t the first big success of the boomer generation, but it was a hit on a scale no one had ever seen before. (Within a month of its release, the stock of MCI, the conglomerate that owned the film company that released “Jaws,” went up 22 points.) The aftereffects of “Jaws” rattled the world of film from top to bottom. Soon the artists were coming a cropper — Altman spent the rest of the decade creating ever-more-perverse head-scratchers; Coppola spent years on the debilitating “Apocalypse Now,” and seems never to have recovered his energy or concentration; Scorsese tripped himself up making the over-ambitious, epic musical, “New York, New York.” In 1977, George Lucas’ “Star Wars” was released, and the intellectual and art side of filmmaking and filmgoing has been scattered to the four winds ever since. Despite the occasional good movie, the news since has all been about technology, effects, gender, race and business.
Through most of the ’70s, Robert Altman ran a kind of medicine ball caravan of an operation, and, following his work, you could feel like a participant in an ongoing party. He was a hip impresario, moving from detective movie to western to gangster movie, tweaking and twisting them, demanding more of these genres than they were used to providing. If Peckinpah was the barbaric, bitter celebrator of boozy grandeur, staking it all on the one great certain-to-lose gesture, Altman played the margins with a slipstream elegance, keeping a variety of bets in play at once. Tall and charismatic, with a goatee and long fine hands, he looked like something out of a Mark Twain story — a frontier campaign manager, perhaps, or a riverboat gambler turned grandee.
He enjoyed shooting his mouth off about the cowardice of studio executives — he always seemed to need an enemy — and about his own preferences in drugs, booze and actresses. He brought to the movies a no-big-deal elegance; a taste for risk, humor and the unhinged; a hatred of rigidity and the overbearing; and an intransigent take-it-or-leave-it spirit. He also had — and still does have — an intoxicating line of California-Zen “It’s the art, man” baloney, and a hipster/psychic’s ability to find (and touch) you where, as we used to say, you really live. I once had lunch with him for a magazine interview, and by the end of it was ready to follow him anywhere. It took me a day to come to my senses and realize I’d been snowed.
As an essayist about popular culture, Altman was our Godard; in his view of life as a sad/funny circus, he was our Fellini; in the way he looked for truth in the souls of actresses, he was our Bergman; in the way he always saw people as part of a larger context, he was our Renoir. He’s also a natural joker, a satirist at heart (even as he dreams of tragedy and art), a profane and lowdown American who can’t put on fancy European airs without looking foolish — not that that stops him from trying. (Altman’s an orchestrater and conductor of genius, but as a composer he’s a dry well.) But when he messed with pop and film archetypes — western heroes, frontier hookers, country-bumpkin thieves — he could deliver a many-layered experience.
The jokey babble of “M*A*S*H,” the vanishing-before-you melancholy of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” the offhand goof “The Long Goodbye,” the from-the-peripheries tone poem “Thieves Like Us” — different as they were — all seemed spun off the same reel. On the surface were familiar, linear story landmarks; beneath and around them burbled impressions and half-formed thoughts, feelings, and perceptions organized according to modernist art principles. Altman often works with what you’re not used to noticing or admitting to consciousness, what you normally tune out: objects and actions at the edges of your vision, overheard sounds, half-formed thoughts, hazy memories. He draws you away from what you usually focus on and into less-familiar areas. What can’t be transcribed is often the point. A quality of revelation runs parallel to (and intermingles with) the surface throughout; part of the beauty of his movies is the way your attention flickers back and forth between these two levels, often unsure which is which. Some years back, a maker of CD-ROMs told me how eager he was to see Altman’s then-new “Short Cuts”: “Altman was making nonlinear multimedia before the form existed,” he said.
2. America, after the breakdown
There was a third kind of film Altman has made over and over again — films whipped up out of nothing but how he makes movies. Over and over, from “Brewster McCloud” to “H.E.A.L.T.H.” to “Ready to Wear,” they’ve been duds. “Nashville” is the great exception. There’s an exultant quality to it, as though the artist is glorying in his prowess, that can remind you of Picasso once he learned to cut loose with his own language. It’s a satirical musical comedy worked up around the idea that an independent/outsider presidential candidate — calling his new organization the Replacement Party — is coming to town to throw a fundraising (and publicity-garnering) concert.
The film has often been described as a tapestry, and that’s about right. The city of Nashville is used as a nexus or hub; even the people who live there seem like they might be tourists. (The exception is Keenan Wynn, playing a geezer with a small boardinghouse and a wife in the hospital. “What are you doing in Nashville?” a guy asks Wynn genially at a coffee shop. “I live here,” says Wynn. “Oh,” says the guy. It’s a real conversation killer.)
A dozen or so characters are moving through town. A dozen or so others are based in town. Keith Carradine is the sexily self-absorbed star of a hit folk-rock trio; Lily Tomlin is a suburban wife and gospel singer — she has something of the angelic and something of the shellshocked about her — with two deaf children. Henry Gibson plays the oily Haven Hamilton, a specialist in sanctimonious spoken-sung inspirational weepers, and the city’s unofficial greeter.
Geraldine Chaplin is the hopelessly pretentious flibbertigibbet “Opal, of the BBC.” “Un, deux, trois, quatre. Testing, testing,” she murmurs into her mike as she warms up her tape recorder. She’s there as a stand-in for Altman, and for anyone who would breeze into town to make overblown metaphorical points. The central figures — although they get no more screen time than many other characters — are Michael Murphy, as the candidate’s smooth advance man, and Ronee Blakley, playing an emotionally fragile star who’s returning to town after being away, recovering from burns she got from a “fire baton.” (“Nashville” probably took its self-mocking tone, as well as its subject matter, from William Price Fox’s Nashville novel “Ruby Red” and his script “The Great Southern Amusement Company,” both of which Altman had read.)
The film is like a series of overlapping variety shows set in parking lots, airport lobbies, hotel rooms, commercial strips and hospitals, and seen through plate glass and past billboards. It’s a jerry-built world of the disposable and the efficient. Altman gets the look of small-city mid-America: the knee-high socks, the businessmen in their tan suits — a Chamber of Commerce, high-school-athletic-team look.
People who wanted a tribute to the city of Nashville, or to country music, took the film very hard, as though the music and the city needed defending. “Cheap shot,” “patronizing,” “rip-off” — these were some of the accusations thrown at the film. I was willing to believe Altman had been a little rough on his subject until I visited Nashville for the first time, years after seeing the film. I was thunderstruck by how little the film had exaggerated; it had been more of a documentary and less of a satire than I’d thought. There was no escaping the bad middle-range singers, the bored backup musicians, the terrifying big hair, the Goo-Goo candy bars, the homey sentiments, the cranky retirees in cheery T-shirts.
The film comes across as a piece of New Journalism; it’s like Norman Mailer’s reports from conventions and rallies. Altman is using Nashville metaphorically — he’s really talking about politics. I wish he didn’t make that quite so explicit. There’s a reference to Dallas and a few to the Kennedys, as well as some red-white-and-blue visual cues, that the film could have done without. Still, the result is an X-ray of the era’s uneasy political soul.
What it reveals is a country trying to pull itself together from a nervous breakdown. As a young man, Altman had been taken by the Method, and in many of his films he has shown a love of watching women go to pieces. Here we watch not a blond in a slip but the entire country going through a crackup. It’s a country that’s wired up tight with tension masquerading as happiness. In this film about country music, the marketplace has leveled the ground, and there’s only one shot of the countryside. It’s of a funeral — the arc of a life returning to its sources.
Recording and communication devices — wires, phones, intercoms, cameras, mikes, speakers — seem to be everywhere; so does the machinery of publicity and fame. We watch the city recording itself, playing itself back to itself and marketing that image to itself. We eavesdrop on the culture’s conversation with itself. We’re watching people decide how they want to see themselves and how they want to sell themselves. Altman treats Nashville as a provincial New York or Hollywood, as one of the places where the culture manufactures its image of itself (this is Nashville in the early stages of getting slick and L.A.-ified). Altman shows us the image, and what goes into creating and sustaining it. He cuts between public functions and private domestic scenes; he shoots in studios and theaters, from onstage and from behind control booths. We gather that this is a culture that believes that its self-image accounts, or ought to account, for everything. And its image of itself is cheerful, upbeat, carefree: “It don’t worry me,” people sing.
Altman brings us into the space between the culture and its image of itself. We see the determination that goes into containing oneself in the pop image of just-folks. We see the jumpy creature within, and we see how Nashville’s self-image becomes a straitjacket. The songs that the characters sing, sell and buy are about roots and homesickness, and make a great show of being about “real” people and “real” problems. But they’re completely formulaic. The real energy goes into the marketing. There’s a consensus reality that has been created of simple shapes, bright colors and sweetened sentiments. A lot of the humor in “Nashville” comes from seeing how much heightening and industry go into producing this music that has such claims to relaxed authenticity.
The film is also a picture of a populist culture driving itself mad with celebrity. People want in to stardom, as they want in to heaven. And if they can’t get at least a piece of stardom, they’re furious. Altman shows us how we use stars. They give us focus. We tell ourselves their stories, and we organize our mental pictures around them. We want them to be real yet conform to our desires. But as populists, we’re picky about whether our stars are putting on airs (as though that were the greatest sin). We’re even picky about whether they’re just too dang professional. They have to be one of us, yet special, because we want to feel we’re a little special too.
The stages and studios of “Nashville” are full of professionals, but the stars themselves are near-amateurs, or very skilled at playing near-amateurs. Someone who really connects (like the Ronee Blakley character) can be a lightning rod for our frustrations. If there’s a revelation “Nashville” drives toward, it has to do with how attached we are to our fictions and how inescapable we have made them. “How do you get outside?” we overhear a frazzled soul ask at a hospital nurses station. Comes the polite answer: “You dial 9.” We feel starved for contact with the spiritual and the mythic, yet we live in a popularity-game world full of gods and superstitions. Altman uses the kids playing Lily Tomlin’s deaf children symbolically. In this film with the most complicated of all movie soundtracks, they’re the only characters untouched by the clamor and hubbub.
Yet the film is jubilant and festive; a freeway pileup turns into an impromptu picnic. The people are grotesques and caricatures of themselves, but they’re also — even the most flagrant losers among them — wily self-starters. (This seems truer and more accurate — to this Middle American, at least — than does the Raymond Carver view of ordinary Americans as stunted dead-enders.) The film feels like both a piece of drama and a painting with a time element.
In one scene, Lily Tomlin and Keith Carradine have just had sex. (A tape of him singing plays on his tape recorder: This seems to be a seduction technique of his — he’s purveying his self-regard.) In bed, relaxing, he has her show him how to say “I love you” in American Sign Language. She smiles happily, then realizes it’s getting late. She straightens her hair and pulls on her clothes, sizing up the damage in a bathroom mirror. Carradine is stung — we’ve seen him with a number of other women, but he’s opened up only with her. You can see him thinking: “People don’t leave me. I leave them.”
He retaliates by dialing up an old girlfriend, working his charm on her and offering to bring her to Nashville in full hearing of Lily. Almost imperceptibly, Lily — a straitlaced mother and wife who has probably never before cheated on her husband — registers how childish and selfish the man she’s just had sex with is; she also registers how badly she must have needed this tumble. She waves goodbye briskly and leaves wearing a different smile than the one she wore in bed; Carradine ends his phone conversation abruptly. He can make any woman in a club think he’s singing a song for her alone, but here, now, he’s frustrated and disconsolate.
With its profusion of wires, recording and communication devices, its mirrors and reflections and its concern with language, playacting, time and revelation, this brief scene is more complex than anything I can think of in the work of intellectual gameplayer-directors like Peter Greenaway. Yet the complicatedness isn’t made much of. We just take in the environment and the characters and what they’re going through. For Altman, this kind of thing happens to all of us, all the time. Signals get crossed, unwanted frequencies come wafting in, reflections we’d rather avoid bounce back at us, ghosts from the past sweep us up and then drop us, and when one thing comes into focus another falls out.
“I’m looking for surprises,” Altman said to a reporter at the time of “Nashville.” “If we had just taken what was in my head and put that vision on film, it would have been a pretty lousy movie. Or at least very, very ordinary. One head, no matter how good — well, it just can’t be the same as everyone bringing something to it.” Over his career, Altman developed a variety of techniques to allow for inclusiveness. The sound systems he developed with the sound engineers Jim Webb and Chris McLaughlin let him record and present more ambient and minor-character noise than we’d been used to. With his cinematographers — during this period, usually Vilmos Zsigmond and, here, Paul Lohmann — Altman used multiple cameras and lighted entire environments, not just individual shots. This gave his actors an unusual freedom of movement; it also meant that, since they often didn’t know from which direction they were being filmed, or which angle was likely to be used in the final cut, they couldn’t play to a camera.
Altman often has his actors fill out their characters with their own substance. Blakley, for instance, actually was once burned by a fire baton. An actress might choose her own wardrobe and write her own dialogue; the structure that Altman’s screenwriter, Joan Tewkesbury, worked out allowed for a great deal of improvisation. The actor’s rapport with his role becomes what we recognize as the character. Here, many of the performers playing singers wrote or co-wrote their own songs. (That’s how Keith Carradine got his Oscar.) There’s always a mixture of real and not-real in what we watch in a fiction movie. Some filmmakers take this to be a problem, and put all their energy into strong-arming you to believe in the fiction they’re presenting. For Altman, a desire to believe is basic to human nature. It doesn’t need goosing, just inviting. And, yes, what we’re watching is both real and not-real. Why not invite both to the party?
He works by crosscutting and parallel action, by implication and suggestion. One of his distinctive camera techniques is to move the cameras and have them zoom at the same time. Cameras in motion add depth to an image. They’re generally used to heighten involvement; they invite us into roundedness and mass. Zooms flatten the image out. They’re usually used to heighten tension: The bomb is in the trunk, the microfilm was left in this drawer. The way Altman combines the two cuts us loose from our lock on the conventional subject, and frees us to rove through the entire image at our own rate. The camera work (like the soundtrack) seems elastic, submarine. It has a Japanese-screen effect; we move back and forth between losing ourselves in abstraction and pattern, and seizing on the concrete and specific.
When he does zoom to pick something out, it’s usually a character trying to decide what response is appropriate. He’s drawn to moments when you can’t figure out how to take things. Altman has his actors reacting to more than they can keep track of. Part of the fun is in watching them try to puzzle their way through a moment. “Truth” for Altman, as for many people in the performing arts, often seems to be what happens when a performance is working. (The one bad performance in “Nashville” is Allen Garfield’s; he overdoes the sleazy pushiness. While everyone else is fitting in, he’s doing his best to stand out.) Perhaps the film’s funniest moment comes when Blakley is singing on an outdoor stage that’s a mockup of a paddle wheeler. She sings beautifully to a relaxed, rapt crowd. Scott Glenn plays a soldier who’s infatuated with Blakley, and he’s staring at her and listening to her, agog. Geraldine Chaplin pushes her microphone in front of him and asks if he’s been to Vietnam. He doesn’t respond; he’s too caught up in Blakley’s singing. “Oh,” says Chaplin, empathizing wildly, “I can see that you have been.” She’s incapable of realizing that there’s magic happening on the stage before her.
Henry Gibson is spectacular as the viciously competitive Haven Hamilton. He’s an imperious cornpone cynic, a virtuoso of sanctimonious boilerplate constantly making appreciative reference to “this business that’s been so kind to me.” He makes his toupee and girdle seem major statements. But it’s with the actresses that Altman shows his best stuff. Watching some movies, you get the feeling that the director is having a sexual exchange with his actresses, and that the film captures a pulsing, we’re-breathing-each-other’s-breath quality. You sometimes see this when D.W. Griffith directs Lillian Gish, Bergman directs Bibi Andersson or when François Truffaut directs Jeanne Moreau.
Altman’s work with actresses is often in that league; in fact, there may never have been another director who has given us such a rich panorama of female performances, or who has delighted in such a wide range of physical and emotional female types. They range from the hard-bitten yet vulnerable examples of Julie Christie (in “McCabe”) and Susannah York (in “Images”) to the high-strung, self-dramatizingly serious women (Blakley in “Nashville” and Sally Kellerman in “M*A*S*H”), all forehead and cheekbones, for whom Faye Dunaway might have been a template, to the long-faced, down-to-earth women like Louise Fletcher (in “Thieves Like Us”) and Lily Tomlin to the one-of-a-kind Shelley Duvall (in “McCabe,” “Three Women” and “Popeye”).
From Sandy Dennis in “That Cold Day in the Park” (1969) to Embeth Davidtz in “The Gingerbread Man” (1998), Altman is fascinated by the beauty and power women are capable of, as well as by the potential for destructiveness that coexists with their sense of themselves as vulnerable. In “Nashville,” Geraldine Chaplin is a wizard at archness, missing the main point repeatedly with great wit. In her first film, Blakley gives a performance that’s ridged with emotion. When she isn’t performing, her Barbara Jean, a reigning country queen, is just psychic flotsam and jetsam. When she does perform, all the bits and pieces come into sync. There may not be a real personality in Barbara Jean, but at least it all sometimes moves to the same rhythm. Barbara Harris, a jazzy stylist of instability, never registered in another film as memorably as she does here. Playing a daffy, miniskirted, bleached-blond hillbilly with fantasies of stardom, she’s like a kitten on Quaaludes. When she does get her chance to sing, and she strews leftover flowers to the crowd, it’s as though she’s distributing bits of her ragamuffin heart.
It’s eerie how accurately “Nashville” pointed the way to the future. Here is our coming attachment to the “outsider” candidate, and our tireless hunger for authenticity and sincerity; here’s how feeling good about ourselves and griping about taxes came in the ’80s to take precedence over everything else political. In the film, once the crisis has been reached, every relationship snaps back to its previous state; we’re watching the country try to reaffirm its innocence. It rejects what it has seen of itself; the surface closes over again, like ice over a pond. This could almost be an anticipation of how, during the Reagan years, we acted out a manufactured version of normality and cheerfulness for ourselves.
Altman’s 1970-1975 streak can be seen as an extension of American painting from the mid-’50s on, and of American writing of the ’60s — as an example of pop art. For a couple of decades after World War II, pop — the teen-centered, Imperial America version of consumer culture — seemed young, irreverent and disrespectful of tradition and stuffiness, as well as garish and horrifying. To many artists, it seemed a great subject, source and vehicle for art. Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Terry Southern, among many others, took on pop subjects and worked in pop forms, bringing sophistication and perspective to pop while borrowing back its pizazz and accessibility. In a movie such as “Major Dundee,” Peckinpah dramatized his antagonistic relationship to pop with an abstract-expressionist fury. Altman was cooler, looser and more flexible — Robert Frank as a happy cartoonist.
The outdoor concert occurs at the Parthenon, a giant replica of the Greek temple erected for Nashville’s 1897 Centennial Exposition. (Originally constructed of wood and plaster, it was rebuilt in its present form in 1922.) The reporter Howard K. Smith does an essay on television about the candidate; the Goodyear blimp passes overhead flashing the candidate’s slogan. It’s a cloudy, milky day, but the colors are thick, broad and flat. We watch the stage being built, the traffic jam up and a line of black limos snake through town.
This getting-ready sequence seems straightforward, but it has a fated quality. (Even if you don’t respond to it as I do, it’s still a model of bringing strands together while keeping them all distinct.) I ran it over and over on my VCR, and I still can’t explain why it has the poised yet deranging, hallucinogenic effect it does. When the black limos pull onto the green grass behind the Parthenon, we watch them circle from above, between massive lemon-cream pillars. As Blakley and Gibson swing into a song, we’re above and behind them too. Then Blakley starts to sing about her parents, and we’re watching her from close up and underneath. There’s an immense flag fixed to the pillars behind her. When it billows out with the wind, you’re reminded of a scene earlier in the film. It’s at the airport; Blakley is returning from her convalescence to a city-sponsored welcome that’s like a parade. There are bands, reporters, crowds and marching girls. For a few seconds the sound of the entire scene is drowned out by a taxiing jet with a big “American” sign on its side. The colossal scale of the joke is part of the humor — it’s one of the biggest damn jokes since Buster Keaton tumbled a train into a river in “The General.”
Watching the earlier scene, you giggle. Here, when that flag billows out, you feel like you’re going insane. Blakley’s emotions surge, rise and crest. And amazingly, at that moment the sun — the sun! — comes out. The moment is so intense you don’t know whether you’re in ecstasy or whether you shouldn’t don an aluminum-foil hat to shield yourself from so many vibrations. All that’s on screen is a singer singing, yet — if you respond to Altman as I do — the inside of your skull feels as though it’s being painted on by such “artists of the insane” as Christian Wolfi. The feeling is sinister and beautiful; you feel there’s no turning back. Altman creates disordered, media-overload effects of the sort Thomas Pynchon is often said to create, and he does it without sacrificing aesthetic distance. (Pynchon always seems to me more interested in creating a nervous breakdown than in writing about one.) The center comes apart, and we’ve never felt freer. And we love our affliction.
3. The cinema of information
In the summer of 1975, I was a film student at NYU, and the day “Nashville” opened, I was among the first people in line at the Baronet. (Altman’s 1971 “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” was the film that made me fall in love with movies.) Altman walked by with a few people, checking out the business. I ran after him and asked for an autograph. Feeling foolish, dizzy and thrilled, I gave him the only thing I had with me he could sign — a copy, as it turned out, of Karel Reisz’s book on film editing.
It was a cuckoo time. There was an intoxication about filmmaking and filmgoing — a euphoria and a fever. For many people, an interest in movies and movie history provided a way into the arts and a framework for exploring them. Films like “Nashville,” “The Conformist” and “The Godfather” were peak experiences that seemed to bring together all your interests in the arts — high and low, visual, auditory and literary. A figure like Godard or Altman or Coppola opened up new directions and led you into discoveries not just in art but also in your life, in terms of sex, philosophy, love, fantasy and friendship. So these figures meant something to you personally. They transformed you; they made a difference in your sense of what was possible.
By 1980, Altman was unable to find financing for his projects in Hollywood. He directed plays in New York, then moved to Paris and directed opera, TV and small films. He returned to Hollywood moviemaking in 1992 with “The Player.” By then, the baby boomers were running the joint. By now, they have set the tone in the media for 20 years. It’s striking how on-the-money Altman is in “Nashville” about the dark side of the baby boomers. Even when they’re successes, and even when they view themselves ironically as such, they always see themselves as outlaws. The character Keith Carradine plays — in his leather vest, his sun-kissed tresses, his contempt and his sensitivity — rings true in his vanity, his sense of entitlement and his selfishness. A character played by Cristina Raines is so wrapped up in her narcissism and masochism that she can barely bring herself to make baby talk. In the film, the older characters make an effort to keep up appearances. The hip, solipsistic younger people generally just act out.
In American movies, what the 25 years since the release of “Nashville” have brought is an evolution in the direction of selling the story and the hook — the movie equivalent of pop music’s three chords in 4/4 time. It’s as though the goal of filmmakers has become to make the package and the product one — to make the movie live up to its ad campaign. Given this, it isn’t surprising that Altman’s influence has been greater on TV than on movies. A few kinds of new-Hollywood film genres reflect his work: the ensemble film organized around a lifestyle or occupation theme (“Parenthood,” “Pushing Tin”), and the Mad-magazine style movie spoof (“Airplane,” the various “National Lampoon” movies). On TV, his influence can seem to be everywhere. “Hill Street Blues” and its mixed-mode, ensemble-cast descendants (“ER,” for instance) are straight out of “M*A*S*H.” The projects that combine story and documentary material in new ways, from the dramatic reenactments on shows like “A Current Affair” to attempts like Court TV and “Cops,” come out of Altman’s experiments in mixing fact and fiction.
In the years the baby boomers have been in charge, I’ve fallen out of love with moviegoing. What American movies deliver now are, on the one hand, Hollywood marketing extravaganzas and, on the other, what’s somewhat optimistically called the “independent cinema.” The extravaganzas are essentially big-budget versions of what were once known as exploitation pictures. The ’50s and ’60s exploitation films were often happy-go-lucky time-wasters and pocket-pickers. You could feel fond of a Roger Corman or a William Castle for aiming so low, and for taking the money and running. You didn’t resent them any more than you did the people who ran a carnival.
It’s hard to feel any fondness for the people behind films like “Dinosaur” or “Gone in 60 Seconds.” These films do the same kind of button-pushing as the old B pictures, and they often give the same impression of being made out of recycled stock footage. But there’s an immense commercial anxiety behind them, and you can sense that they’re basically respectable. (You can feel the careers hanging in the balance.) The people involved don’t seem to be entertaining vulgarians or small-time opportunists — they feel like yuppies taking advantage of our reflexes. Tony Scott, the director of such aggressive marketing machines as “Top Gun” and “Crimson Tide,” has had his tasteful, serene house written up in interior-design magazines. And the independent films aren’t any more motivated by aesthetic concerns than the smasheroo studio films. They’re either illustrating a p.c. point or projecting a flip “alternative” attitude. The independent directors and producers often seem to think that the best response to database-driven commercial moviemaking is no technique at all. The result is anorexic filmmaking.
The language developed over a hundred years by such people as Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, William Wyler and Marcel Carné can sometimes seem to be a vanishing thing. I long ago became used to the fact that the movies I love don’t often succeed financially. What’s recently come as a surprise is how many of the films I’ve enjoyed most — from “Devil in a Blue Dress” to “The Last Bolshevik” to “Breakdown” to “Romance” — aren’t even talked about. They’re just ignored. I can’t help noticing that something these low-key films share is that they speak the language of movies. They draw on movie history and respond to it. I suspect that that’s what makes them irrelevant to most people.
In 1975, film was potentially the greatest of all the arts; in 2000, it’s one data stream among many. The hierarchical, centralized culture the baby boomers reacted against could be exclusionary, and its emphasis on ego and on greatness could be annoying. But it offered the possibility of something called “depth,” and it also provided a shared culture and language. The atomized, decentered culture we have now allows for horizontal ranging about; the new digital tools (and media) are irresistible; and the openness to cultural mixing is certainly a relief. But this mix-and-match culture can also seem shallow. If everything’s always available, why bother trying to unearth anything? (If it isn’t on a database, it doesn’t exist.)
A young Ivy League graduate I know made a success in arts journalism without ever having seen a Bergman picture. When she finally caught up with one, she was stunned to realize that there’d once been a time when people went to a movie theater to watch characters agonize and philosophize at each other. She hasn’t seen another Bergman since, and she hasn’t gone on to read any Scandinavian literature, or to search out further examples of Swedish films either. In Altman’s “The Player,” a comedy about what has become of Hollywood, a young studio executive is watching his career dissolve, and recovers his momentum only when he learns to stop worrying about integrity and depth. During my lunch with him, Altman observed wryly that one thing he could say for the executives he’d battled in the ’70s was that they cared enough about the work being done to get angry at you, and to hate your movies. Nowadays, when someone takes an idea upstairs for a decision, there’s nothing there but a computer.
Watched on videotape today, “Nashville” seems in its element in a way many movies don’t. It’s alive, and it doesn’t suffer from the fragmenting effects of stop-and-start, at-home viewing. This may be because Altman is instinctively drawn to multiple points of view and unresolved resolutions. It doesn’t exactly cohere, but it seems to bring our channel-surfing minds and experiences into some kind of loose relationship. It gives the impression of being a video installation rather than a routine feature; you can get the feeling that it’s playing on several monitors at once. Watching it made me think that one way of conceiving of TV is as movies gone to pieces and turned into wallpaper.
It also made me think that an upbeat way of looking at where we’ve arrived is this: We have been freed — perhaps against our will — of our attachment to the idea of art as a rebel activity, a gesture toward freedom made for the sake of the unconscious and revolution. Now it has become simply an activity some people pursue, and perhaps get something out of — as legitimate as (but no more vanguard than) business, cleaning, sports, science and child-rearing. “Nashville,” seen at this distance, looks like a snapshot of the moment when substance began to vaporize into information.
In 2010, when the movie turned 35, Dennis Cozzalio wrote beautifully about “Nashville.”
Of all the many different film genres, the composer biopic is one of the scroungiest. The tones of these films range all over the map, from the show-bizzy extroversion of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (George M. Cohan) to the hambone fruitiness of “Two Loves Had I …Puccini” to the many-layered high intellectualism of “Harvest of Sorrow” (Rachmaninoff and exile).
Despite this, one of the most remarkable aspects of the genre is how specific the expectations that we bring to these films are. Will the composer’s first professional triumph happen before or after he finds true love? And when will his long-suffering Significant Other finally lace into the composer for caring more about his music than he does about, y’know, people?
But perhaps the first question that tends to arise when we slip one of these films into the DVD player is the matter of factual accuracy. Simple moviegoing experience suggests that being “respectful of the facts” can sometimes translate into soporific viewing, while “completely untrustworthy” might very well go hand in hand with “devilishly entertaining.”
This is a truism well illustrated by Hollywood’s two biopics about Cole Porter. 1946’s “Night and Day” is a glossy lie that features Cary Grant at his heartiest and most hetero-seeming, while the 2004 “De-Lovely” is admirably true to the gay realities of Porter’s life. Yet “Night and Day” is a confident and enjoyable Technicolor fantasy, while “De-Lovely” is a droopy misfire.
It also needs to be said that there’s more than one way to deliver solid facts. George MacDonald Fraser makes an important point in “The Hollywood History of the World”: however untrustworthy the narratives they tell often are, history-based films nearly always supply visuals that are informative and well researched. If our modern minds are well stocked with images of what the Strauss family’s Vienna looked like and how people dressed when attending an opening at La Scala, it’s because moviemakers have created these pictures for us. Visuals are facts, too.
As with the movies of any genre, a big part of the fun of watching composer biopics is taking note of how the filmmakers are playing the genre’s game. If a romantic comedy needs to give its “meet cute” plot-point some charm, and if a gangster movie needs to make something tense out of the moment when the ambitious anti-hero declares his independence from his mentor, composer biopics need to address their own set of requirements. Here are some of them:
What is the container for the film’s incidents going to be?
Most lives don’t have dramatic arcs built into them, after all, and this is perhaps especially the case with the lives of creative types who spend a lot of time alone. To engage us and deliver some rounded-off satisfaction, feature-length biopics will almost always do some intensifying and heightening. It has to be said that, in this area, filmmakers in the field of composer biopics could show a little more invention than they often do. From “Mahler” to “The Double Life of Franz Schubert,” biopics of classical composers too often begin and end with the composer ill or dying and reviewing the events of his life.
To what extent should the filmmakers connect the composer’s creations with the events of his life?
It would be silly to pretend that unfortunate life-episodes always result in sad music, or that upbeat times always find expression in happy compositions. Yet if no connection can be made at all between a composer’s life-events and his music, what’s the point of the picture? Perhaps this conundrum helps explain why we haven’t yet seen a notable biopic about that unstoppable workhorse Haydn. Cheerful or gloomy, he seldom failed to crank out his expected allotment of music. Where’s the drama in that?
How to people the supporting cast?
Mothers, lovers, rivals and managers turn up with regularity, fathers and children rather less often. An admirer or rival can be useful as a point of entry for the audience. “Amadeus” — nothing if not an effective piece of audience engineering — provides the classic example of this, with Salieri (in real life an excellent and successful composer) used as a striving nothing for us fellow nothings to identify with as we gaze upon the bewildering wonder that is Mozart. “I am the patron saint of mediocrity!” Salieri cries, in case we’re so mediocre that we’ve failed to grasp the role he’s been assigned in the drama.
How to portray the creative process?
This question cuts to the heart of the genre. We don’t generally explore biographies of creative people simply because we’re curious about their lives; we’re often hoping to cozy up to Creativity itself. Films about Beethoven are especially frank about this motivation: getting to know Beethoven is portrayed as getting closer to God. Bernard Rose lays the divinity stuff on very thick in his Kubrick-influenced (and sexily enjoyable) 1994 “Immortal Beloved.” Lightning flashes, revulsions and raptures, funny shivers felt by female fans … God in all his incomprehensibility is manifesting Himself through the music of this cloddish, inspired peasant.
One of the peculiar characteristics of the genre is the way these films so often make a point of distinguishing between music in the abstract and popular tune-making — and do so not as a practical matter but as a big deal. Music in the abstract is inevitably understood to involve suffering, and to represent a Statement About Life. As a striking recent Norwegian biopic asks straight out in its title: “Edvard Grieg: What Price Immortality?” Audience-pleasing, by contrast, is regularly presented as mere entertainment, and as shoddy and transient. In a 1972 British miniseries about the Strauss family, even the busy, prolific and rich Johann Jr. finds time to mope about his lack of gravitas and dignity. “I sometimes wonder what I might have made of my talents had the music not come so easily,” he confides morosely to a visiting Brahms, who receives this confession with a skeptical, indeed disbelieving, look.
Just as marked in the genre is the near-omnipresence of the Romantic point of view. You almost never get away from it — and, like the art-versus-entertainment theme, it can get to be a bit much. Romantic myths are of course highly picturesque and dramatic; they also have their practical uses. In his book “Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography” (2005), John C. Tibbetts confesses that what cemented his interest in classical music as a boy was a moment in the colorful Chopin biopic “A Song to Remember.” The tubercular Chopin hunches over the piano and gives a cough. “A spot of blood spatters onto the keyboard” — and with that image, another music fan was born. It’s just that one can tire of the whole Genius/Divinity/Immortality value-set. More power, then, to directors Straub and Huillet for their resolutely dispassionate and avant-garde “Chronicles of Anna Magdalena Bach,” with Gustav Leonhardt as Johann Sebastian, piously devoting himself to the daily grind of his musical duties. But we could also use a few mainstream films that spotlight Classical, Baroque or folk points of view.
Rather surprisingly, the genre has a couple of specialists. The form’s grand old man is British director Ken Russell. He has a well-deserved reputation for flamboyance that sometimes obscures some major virtues: no matter how controversial they often are, all of his composer biopics are informed by a genuine understanding of music, as well as by a sympathetic (if often bitchy) appreciation of the souls of artists.
My favorite of Russell’s films is an uncharacteristically small and sober early example — a seventy-three-minute-long TV drama about Frederick Delius called “Song of Summer” (available as disc 3 of the Ken Russell at the BBC DVD package). Russell wrote the script in collaboration with Eric Fenby, who as a young man had worked as Delius’s amanuensis, and it’s an honest, indeed sometimes painful, portrayal of both a difficult character — Delius was far from the most lovable of men — and the heartbreaks and rewards of a creative life. A very moving, if bittersweet, classic, the film also addresses very directly one of the most basic of questions that making a biopic raises: do you try to cover the entirety of your subject’s life or try to nail his or her character by focusing on one well-defined episode? By dealing only with Fenby’s time with Delius, “Song of Summer” demonstrates how much can be extracted from the more modest approach.
Of Russell’s big-budget, sweeping and sensationalistic extravaganzas, the most successful is “The Music Lovers,” a 1970 feature about Tchaikovsky. It’s a gossipy and catty bash that’s full of the bursting-out-of-the-closet spirits of the ’70s. Where earlier film treatments of the Tchaikovsky story had sidestepped the question of the composer’s sexuality and instability, Russell and his star, Richard Chamberlain, dive right in. They give us a Tchaikovsky who’s a queeny hysteric, a morally reprehensible narcissist and a sponge. Right from the film’s first scene — an all-male romp in the snow — this Piotr is a lusty but fragile, hyper-gifted but overeager, anxiety-ridden train wreck waiting to happen.
Much of the film concerns his mad attempt to construct a heterosexual life for himself. These passages are harsh, ungenerous and probably unfair, but they’re also intense, funny and very entertaining. Antonina Miliukova, the woman who married Tchaikovsky, is portrayed as a money-hungry liar and climber with less than no interest in music. Their disastrous honeymoon is one of movie history’s more memorable nightmare sequences. When Antonina (Glenda Jackson) bares first her breasts and then her pubic hair to Piotr in an attempt to stir his lust, the poor man’s horror merges with the rocking of the train compartment the newlyweds are sharing into a gaudy image of erotic nausea. Russell delivers an unexpectedly vivid character in Antonina’s mother, wickedly conceived of as a Dickensian cockney so amoral that she cheerfully pimps out her own daughter. And the client roster the women service! “I’m quite famous, you know,” Antonina murmurs as one man nuzzles her neck. “Nearly as famous as you are, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.” Not long after, Mom ushers in a horny Alexander Borodin.
Russell went even farther with his campier instincts in his ultra-flamboyant, notorious 1975 “Lisztomania,” which proposes Liszt as a bare-chested glitter-rock icon. I didn’t enjoy it as much as “The Music Lovers,” but it’s certainly worth searching out. Full of nudity, disco-ready renditions of Liszt’s music and S&M fantasy sequences, the film comes — for better and worse — as close to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” as any composer-biopic ever has. It’s also true to the general outlines of Liszt’s life, as well as amazingly shrewd about the nature of tabloid stardom.
The genre’s other specialist is another Englishman, the less well-known Tony Palmer. Palmer has his own kind of cinematic daring, and he has made as many pictures about composers as Ken Russell has. But he’s a far more intellectual figure; a typical Palmer film is a mélange of staged material, research scraps and New York Review of Books-style musings. Though his work is so reflective that it often puts me right to sleep, it still deserves to be sampled. My suggestion is to start with either “Testimony,” his engrossing and complex treatment of Shostakovich’s battles with Stalin, or “England, My England,” his movie about Henry Purcell. I liked the latter film somewhat better. It makes the Restoration era visually unforgettable; it portrays the composer as a robust and politically capable man of his era; and it takes the trouble to clearly lay out the options (court, church, theater) that a professional composer had at that time and in that place. Purcell’s lovely, proud music — supervised here by John Eliot Gardiner — is an ear-clearing pleasure.
Of the genre’s other major pleasures, let me urge you not to overlook:
James Lapine and Sarah Kernochan’s 1991 “Impromptu,” a lighthearted, poignant caprice about the French novelist George Sand’s infatuation with Chopin. Judy Davis is at her comically overdramatic best as the scandal-courting Sand.
“Elgar’sTenth Muse,” a beautifully sad two-hander about an infatuation between the elderly composer and a young violinist. James Fox and Selma Alispahic portray the conflicts between reserve and yearning, age and youth touchingly and trenchantly.
Renato Castellani’s eleven-hour (or eight-hour, depending on the version you get hold of) long Italian production “The Life of Verdi.” Beautifully mounted and shot, as solid and responsible as any birth-to-death biography, it features a many-sided and fully felt portrayal of Verdi by English actor Ronald Pickup, and vocal performances by Callas, Nilsson and Pavarotti. One lesson to be learned from this beauty: if you’re going to take the all-inclusive approach to telling a composer’s life, it’s perhaps best to do it at the length of a miniseries.
Abel Gance’s 1937 “Un Grand Amour de Beethoven.” Yet another variant on the Immortal Beloved theme, this stirring absurdity is enjoyable for its unbridled myth-making. Gance — famous for his barn-burning silent film “Napoleon” — delivers a virtuoso directorial performance. The film is full of poetic closeups and brilliant editing flurries; the legendary French actor Harry Baur gives a towering performance; and the passages conveying the composer’s growing deafness are as heartbreaking as can be.
But why talk so much about quality? Let’s admit flat-out that it’s impossible to sustain an interest in any movie genre if you haven’t learned how to relish its stinkers too. God knows that the composer-biopic genre has delivered no shortage of these. Two casting goofs to be marveled at:
The arch and languorous Dirk Bogarde was a peculiar choice to play that outgoing whirlwind Liszt in 1960’s “Song Without End.” Bogarde spends the film looking as if he’d rather be making elegantly weary, poisonous remarks about some Countess’s fashion choices than delivering himself body and soul to his hordes of sweaty and salivating lady-fans.
What was Agnieszka Holland thinking when she chose Ed Harris to star in her film “Copying Beethoven”? God knows you can’t criticize Harris for failing to give the role his all — but he is what he is, and this is surely the only Beethoven in movie history who comes across like a beer-swigging, iron-pumping ol’ Austin cowboy-hippie.
A special award for all-around badness beyond the call of duty has to be reserved for “Song of Norway,” a 1970 tribute to the life of Grieg made in the dirndls-and-clog-dancing style of “The Sound of Music.” This isn’t just the worst composer-biopic of all time, it’s one of the most terrifyingly wholesome movies ever made. With Grieg’s not-very-catchy songs presented as though he intended them to be sunny Broadway showstoppers, and featuring innumerable montages of buttercups, seagulls and waterfalls, “Song of Norway” may qualify both as essential Bad Movie viewing and as an all-time camp classic. May it be issued on DVD soon.
All of these movies deliver their share of pleasures, whether of the intended or unintended sort, and I look forward to many further entries in the field. There’s so much material yet to be explored, after all. William Byrd? Why not? Let’s hope someone takes on Leiber and Stoller. And is anyone else as eager as I am for “The Anton Webern Story”?
The very lively website of Opera News, the magazine where this piece was first published.
The biggest surprise when “Nixon in China” opened in 1987 wasn’t the music: the opera’s composer, John Adams, had been moving away from minimalist purism for some years. It wasn’t the production’s staging, either. By 1987, on-the-cusp culture buffs had already learned to enjoy the mix-and-match irreverence of director Peter Sellars. It wasn’t even the way the opera proposed viewing near-current events as legitimate material for grand opera. “Nixon in China” — now acknowledged as having kicked off a brief trend for “CNN operas” based on topics torn from the news — asserted its authority quickly. It seemed not just funny but natural to be watching a story set in the very recent past, featuring characters with names like Henry Kissinger, Chou En-lai and Madame Mao. After all, what are the creatures who inhabit our media world if not figures of modern myth?
No, what was most startling for the culture-class was the opera’s rounded, even sympathetic portrayal of Richard Nixon. Act I may have begun with a pop-art-style recreation of the famous descent from the Presidential jet in Peking. But things soon moved in more unfamiliar directions. In Act II, Pat Nixon rushes onstage during a performance of a Madame Mao opera to protest the cruelty of some of its characters; Dick follows her and sweetly comforts her. And in Act III, we’re given a Nixon indulging in wistful reflection. Recalling a day during World War II that he thought he wouldn’t survive, he sings, “I felt so weak / With disappointment and relief / Everything seemed larger than life.” Here was something unfamiliar — a Richard Nixon capable of tenderness and dreams.
We in the audience went into the theater eager to witness an art-gamble: could BAM-style post-modernism deliver an experience that would command our attention on a scale commensurate with grand opera? What we left with was a bonus — a shift in our perceptions of one of the country’s most controversial figures. If Peter Sellars, John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman could let themselves conceive of Richard Nixon as something other than a cartoon ogre, maybe the rest of us could, too.
By 1987, more than a decade had passed since Watergate, Vietnam and the resignation, yet feelings were still raw. One of the main reasons was Nixon himself, who, in his disgrace, hadn’t exactly hidden under a rock. Legendary as a fighter who would never give up, he’d set about rehabilitating himself soon after leaving office. He wrote and wrote, issuing several books, including a nearly 1,200-page-long memoir. The first of his four interviews with British broadcaster David Frost in 1977 was watched by 45 million viewers. He traveled overseas and connected with world leaders. He offered himself up to the media and to other politicians as a wise old foreign-policy expert. He was the public figure we’d never be done with — like it or not.
But Nixon had been a flash point for the country since the U.S. emerged from World War II. The startling aggressiveness of his campaigning had won him early attention, and his conduct during the investigation of the Alger Hiss case had made him a Congressional leader during his first term as a Congressman. His successes highlighted the emergence of the West Coast, and especially California, as a national power-center, confidently asserting itself in the face of the old Northeast.
Nixon never failed to stress his humble origins as the son of a grocer. A huge class of never-before-seen voters — inhabitants of the new suburbs, lower-middle-class and middle-class car owners striving to do even better for themselves — responded. They identified with Nixon’s embattled, Horatio-Alger-versus-the-elites self-image and cheered him on. Within only a few years of setting out on a political career, Richard Nixon became one of the nation’s youngest-ever Vice Presidents.
Has anyone ever had such an up-and-down career? After the early triumphs, Nixon lost the 1960 Presidential election to JFK by a whisker, then fell to Pat Brown in the 1962 race for California governor. The entire country seemed willing to write him off; ABC entitled a news program about him “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon.”
Yet by 1965 — with race riots breaking out in many cities and Vietnam emerging as a quagmire — the liberal consensus that had seemed so all-powerful in ’64 was crumbling. Soon, the country was tearing itself apart. Faced with the craziness, most people wanted nothing more than a return to stability. And the unlikely character who rode that wave into the White House in 1968 was back-from-the-dead Richard Nixon — the first Californian ever to occupy the office. In 1972, less than a decade after he’d been declared politically done-with, Nixon was reelected to a second term, winning everywhere but in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. He may have been “Tricky Dick” to the left, but in one poll 75 percent of the electorate said they found him “more sincere and believable” than George McGovern.
Then, a mere twenty-one months after this triumph, Nixon himself was gone. In ’72, he’d taken more than 60 percent of the popular vote; by August 1974, 65 percent of the public wanted him impeached. For the right it was a hard-to-digest disgrace. The Library that opened in Yorba Linda in 1990 in honor of his presidency was denied public sponsorship and had to be financed by private subscription.
The bond Nixon had with the white middle class caused the left immense frustration in an era when good liberals defined themselves by their devotion to civil rights. For lefties, raging against Nixon became something like a competitive sport. In 1971, Philip Roth’s political satire “Our Gang” featured a main character named “Trick E. Dixon,” who destroys Copenhagen and has an operation to remove the sweat glands from his upper lip. Gore Vidal, in his 1972 play “An Evening with Richard Nixon,” used Nixon’s own words to portray the president as a man with “no conscious mind.” In 1977, Robert Coover one-upped everyone with “The Public Burning,” in which Nixon has an affair with Communist spy Ethel Rosenberg and is raped by Uncle Sam. “To the cosmopolitan liberals,” writes the historian Rick Perlstein, “hating Richard Nixon … was becoming part and parcel of a political identity.”
For the right, Nixon had always been an ambiguous, even disruptive, figure. Nixon’s politeness, his determination, his endless repetitions of how he’d come from good but humble beginnings — even his physical awkwardness — spoke eloquently to his fans. But Nixon also unnerved many established factions on the right. The Northeast Republican patricians looked down on him as a sweaty, hustling, West Coast prole. His enthusiasm for ambitious government programs and a dynamic foreign policy put him at odds with the heartland small-government/isolationist types known as Taft Republicans.
Culturally, Nixon’s presence was felt in such right-wing works as the popular movie “The Green Berets,” in Bob Hope’s tours, in the hippie-taunting of “Li’l Abner” creator Al Capp, and in the square pop music of the time — from the Carpenters to many defiantly patriotic country songs. His law-and-order presence helped shape one of the key, and most popular, movie forms of the era, the mad-at-the-damn-liberals, vigilante-movie genre epitomized by “Dirty Harry.”
Robert Altman’s 1984 film about Nixon, “Secret Honor” — from a play by Donald Freed and Arnold Stone, and featuring a great performance by Philip Baker Hall — represented something new. In the film, Nixon is alone in his office, in exile, downing Scotch after Scotch as he dictates what he has told himself will be his last will and testament. Produced for a pittance and using only one set, it’s one of Altman’s best movies — experimental, graceful and shrewd. What was fresh in its presentation of Nixon was that it wasn’t just harsh and funny. It also delivered a fully embodied portrayal of the man; watching the film was like watching a David Levine cartoon take on three-dimensional life. Altman may have been a liberal and a media-biz person, but he’d grown up in the heartland, and he knew his subject’s type: “‘I will be a winner because I was a loser’ — this was Nixon’s credo,” Altman explained. He even admitted that he felt more sympathy for Nixon than he did for Reagan.
But moviegoers, right and left, weren’t ready yet for such a treatment. Though the film was a hit at festivals and appeared in many end-of-the-year best-of lists, it never won a large audience. Altman reported that the only people who gave him a hard time for the film were lefties who thought he’d accorded Nixon too much humanity.
Several years later, though, “Nixon in China” could successfully propose an attitude of reconsideration. We were now ready for it. Perhaps the Nixon years had encompassed more than just Vietnam and Watergate. (Watergate is never even foreshadowed in Adams’s opera.) Opening up diplomatic relations with China was an immense achievement, after all, as well as a real showstopper: here was Nixon, the legendary Red-baiter, making peace with Communists. Librettist Alice Goodman shrewdly captures Nixon observing his achievement: “Though we spoke quietly / The eyes and ears of history / Caught every gesture,” he sings. Nixon had a mental habit of watching himself take his place in history.
Did “Nixon in China” trigger off this new attitude, or was the opera merely one manifestation of its era? And why were so many — on both the right and the left — so unwilling to let go of the man? The legacies of Eisenhower and LBJ were sorted out soon after they left office. The assassination left John F. Kennedy frozen in amber as the glamorous swaggerer cut off in his prime. Nixon, though, has proved to be a loose tooth unlike any other. Perhaps it’s because — despite all his victories, and all the years he spent in office — there remained something unrealized about him. Americans love battlers and strivers, people who won’t quit. So someone like Nixon — a man of potential and drive, a paranoid who wrecked his chances yet never gave up the fight — transfixes us. A failure on an epic scale, he’s the kind of outsized “He had so much going for him” case that irks and fascinates Americans. How can such a figure ever be nailed down?
Whatever the case, the success of “Nixon in China” seemed to free others to venture out of over-familiar partisan ruts. New thoughts were being entertained. Perhaps Nixon had been an effective President, and not in entirely awful ways. The Environmental Protection Agency … the SALT agreements … the “triangular diplomacy” that his visit to Peking was part of … was it a terrible record? In 1988, historian Francis Russell, while allowing that there is indeed “a repellent quality to Richard Nixon,” argued that Nixon was our most underrated President. Liberal columnist Tom Wicker — during Nixon’s Presidency a staunch critic — pointedly entitled his 1991 book about Nixon “One of Us” and admitted candidly to one interviewer that it was “more favorable to Richard Nixon than some people would wish for it to be.”
By the time of his death, in 1994, Richard Nixon was occupying center stage in real life once again. The praise and nostalgia got so thick that Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose, observing the occasion as a commentator for ABC, marveled, “To everyone’s amazement, except his, he’s our beloved elder statesman.”
The following year, a more modern kind of monumental recognition came Nixon’s way — an Oliver Stone movie. With his knack for exploiting hot-button topics and his eagerness to write his own version of recent history — the director had already put his touch on Vietnam, JFK and Wall Street — Stone now settled on Nixon. This time, though, he chose to forgo his usual fevered-madman treatment. It’s a dignified movie, made with full Greek-tragedy solemnity. Perhaps this was because Stone (like many boomers) saw some of his own father in Nixon and found that moving. In any case, the director dedicated the film to the memory of his father.
The film is a long, ponderous watch, as well as monotonously overemphatic in the Stone way. “He’s the darkness, reaching out for the darkness,” E. Howard Hunt tells John Dean about Nixon, in case you hadn’t noticed the way that Stone has Nixon literally inhabiting a Rembrandt/Godfather-esque darkness. And how convincing a Nixon did Anthony Hopkins make? Quivering with unease and anxiety, pulling his facial muscles around to convey the idea that Nixon was both puppet master and his own puppet, Hopkins didn’t even try to capture Nixon’s confidence, his drive or his victory-lust. (Watching old tapes of Nixon, I was struck by how much he loved campaigning and how happy he was when connecting with a crowd.)
The film nonetheless delivers an intelligent and plausible — and very un-cartoonish — Nixon. Here’s a man who isn’t just obsessed with greatness in others; he came very close to greatness himself. Where Altman and Hall gave us a small-town go-getter who was out of his depth as President — someone who had always been so eager to succeed that he never developed a central core of his own — Stone and Hopkins’s Nixon is a driven, skillful grownup, brilliant in many ways and unquestionably a master politician, but crippled by inhibitions, as well as prone to projections and paranoia.
In the years since, treatments of Nixon have become even more variegated. A young woman named Monica Crowley, who had worked for Nixon during his final years in Saddle River, New Jersey, brought out a memoir in 1996 of her time with Nixon that included long passages in his voice. Her Nixon comes across as brilliant, thoughtful, vulnerable — and unexpectedly kind on a personal level. Unable to let Nixon (or his rage at him) go, Philip Roth launched another anti-Nixon attack in his 1998 novel “I Married a Communist.” Zack Snyder’s 2009 film of Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Watchmen” uses Nixon as an icon of looming fascism.
But the more resonant works in recent years about Nixon have tended to be many-faceted ones. Margaret Macmillan’s 2007 “Nixon and Mao” shifts around between points of view and leaves you in no doubt about what an impressive bit of diplomatic engineering the real-life subject of “Nixon in China” was. In “Watergate in American Memory” (1992), sociologist Michael Schudson makes the case that even Watergate is no easily-encapsulated phenomenon. For some it was a scandal, for others a constitutional crisis, while for a third set it was simply politics as usual. Cultural historian Daniel Frick’s “Reinventing Richard Nixon” is a cool survey of the Nixon stories, images and iconography that have flowed past us through the decades, from campaign posters to plays to New Yorker cartoons to the gift shop at the Nixon Library.
Perhaps the most magisterial reconsideration of the era is historian Rick Perlstein’s 2008 “Nixonland.” In it, Perlstein proposes Nixon as the crucial politician of the 1965–’74 era — the figure who most embodies and sums up those turbulent times. For Perlstein, it’s important to understand Nixon as a “brilliant and tormented” man who struggled “to forge a public language that promised mastery of the strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments wracking the nation in the 1960s.”
For oldies, it’s a bit of a shock to realize that one of the country’s most august authorities on the era was barely a child himself when Nixon was actually in office. But youth can confer virtues; although a left-liberal himself, Perlstein has a perspective that those of us who were around at the time can’t achieve. He doesn’t, for example, flinch from suggesting that the left’s fury kept them from understanding Nixon and his fans. “There was a kind of dehumanization going on, on the left,” he told one interviewer.
The most recent major pop-culture portrayal of Nixon is Ron Howard’s 2008 movie “Frost/Nixon,” adapted by Peter Morgan from his own play about the 1977 Frost–Nixon interviews. The movie — genuinely thoughtful if, perhaps, surprisingly square — generates a lot of suspense, as well as a lot of sympathy for both its protagonists. We spend the movie watching the two contrasting characters joust — the overeager Frost trying to pull off a media coup and establish his personal bona fides as a journalist of substance, the cagey Nixon eager both for the money and to present his own version of events. But the main effect of the movie is to humanize Nixon, who by the end feels almost like an old, if slightly sketchy, friend. Frank Langella’s performance as Nixon goes much deeper than a mere impersonation of the man; it earned Langella an Oscar nomination. What better proof could there be that Nixon — no matter whether you take him as villain or hero, victim or creep — has now been accepted as one of our most enduring national characters? In the year before “Frost/Nixon” was released, the Nixon Library was incorporated into the National Archives and Records Administration, there to take its place next to all of our other Presidential libraries.
At Nixon’s funeral, Bob Dole proclaimed post-World War II America “the age of Nixon.” That’s a judgment that’s very hard to argue with where popular culture goes. What other president has left such a sizable legacy of iconic moments and images? Can we summon up more than half a dozen images of JFK, as popular as he remains? Does Ike, despite being a two-term President of fairly recent vintage, qualify as a pop-culture figure at all? For sheer quantity of memorable images and moments — from the triumph in China to the V-for-Victory gesture, from “I am not a crook” and “the silent majority” to the Checkers speech, from the farewell wave before the helicopter to the way we still append the suffix “-gate” to any and all scandals — Nixon is unmatchable.
If there’s no longer any doubt about “Nixon in China”‘s artistic stature, the opera’s revival at the Met raises an interesting question — namely: What will the audience make of Nixon now? My hunch is that the Nixon era has been sufficiently sifted through for the moment, and that the discussion will now move on to Nixon the man. Though the facts of his life are well known, he has always been an enigma, a labyrinth beckoning friends and enemies alike to lose themselves in his mind’s twists and paradoxes. Twenty-three years after “Nixon in China” opened, and nearly seventeen years after the man’s death, we aren’t yet done with Nixon — and he isn’t yet done with us.
From 1892 to 1895, the Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak lived in New York. Lured here by the sponsor of the new National Conservatory of Music to help Americans develop a distinctive style of music, he worked, drank oceans of beer, and was wowed by the surreal scale of the country. What he discovered about our musical life came as a surprise: we already had a magnificent tradition. “In the Negro melodies of America I find all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” he wrote. “There is nothing in the whole range of composition which cannot be supplied from this source.”
Josef Skvorecky tells the story of this visit in his bighearted and wide-ranging novel “Dvorak in Love” (translated by Paul Wilson; Knopf), using it as an opportunity to explore American musical history and to suggest the mystery of Dvorak’s creative fire. He takes us from the 1840s, when a composer in search of the American essence entitled one of his orchestral works “Pocahontas, fantasia romanza,” to the mid-20th century, when jazz was finally performed at Carnegie Hall. And, though he never brings us inside Dvorak’s mind, he sketches a vivid, mobile portrait of an earthy man of the senses with a peasant’s simple religious faith, who also happens to be a genius. The “love” of the title is Dvorak’s private drama: his adoration of his wife’s older sister, an actress who died early and for whom Dvorak composed his most cherished melody. Skvorecky tenderly and humorously places this unrequited passion at the center of his novel; the effect is to draw a connection between ephemerality and love.
That’s what happens in “Dvorak in Love,” narratively and structurally. But this is a far from conventional novel. You don’t experience it primarily in terms of drama, character development, or finely tuned sentences. You experience it musically, as an unruly jazz suite on themes suggested by Dvorak’s visit: high art and folk art, the Old World and the New, music and words, exile. The chapters, told from a variety of points of view, many of which shift internally, are riffs — long, seemingly improvised passages that charge off in all directions. “To me, literature is blowing a horn,” Skvorecky has said. It’s clear that, for him, beauty, youth, emotion and music are close to synonymous, and that his writing is an effort to keep them alive, to prolong the music. His books, including the novels “Miss Silver’s Past” and “The Engineer of Human Souls,” are soulful, comic laments about what vanishes between youth and age, one language and another. In his best work — in passages here and in his earlier volume, “The Bass Saxophone” — his humor and lyricism work together in ways that make entire paragraphs seem to rise right off the page, borne away by nostalgia, bewilderment and love.
“Dvorak in Love” is sometimes halting and it has its tedious stretches. But the network of themes Skvorecky has devised is loose enough to let his riffs take off and sturdy enough to hold them together. His prose is robust — it has a smoky, gypsy flavor — yet the book has an airy theatricality. Skvorecky shines the poetic light of a “lunatic moon” on this factually based past, and he tells wild, true stories about early visionary naifs like Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, who once led an orchestra of 2,000 and a chorus of 20,000, and who kept his huge ensemble in some rough kind of synch by firing off cannons.
Some of the solos in “Dvorak in Love” have the nakedness and lift of great spirituals. In one chapter, set in the 1940s, the woman patron of the arts who brought Dvorak to America is musing about Duke Ellington and the sound of saxophones, and she wonders how the long-dead Dvorak would have responded to swing. This old lady settles into sleep, and when she “awakens,” whom should she see but Dvorak himself. There he was, “sitting next to her bed in a waistcoat, with his sleeves rolled up, and he was playing the saxophone.”
Robert Winter’s CD-ROM about Dvorak’s “From the New World” symphony is a wonderful work in its own right. I can’t find anyplace that currently sells the disc, but you might be able to find a copy on eBay. Highly recommended.
A collection of a writer’s short nonfiction — what in the 18th century was called a miscellany — can be a ragtag thing. It can also be a showcase for the writer’s mind, freed from the effort to make statements for the ages and unbothered with self-consciousness. Even a so-so collection will feature a variety of subjects and attacks, and is likely to have a little of the rowdiness and informality that some readers treasure in 18th century essays.
Which is by way of giving a hand to St. Martin’s Press for bringing out Tom Piazza’s peppery, bristling “Blues Up and Down.” In more freewheeling times, it wasn’t unusual for a major publishing house to release such a collection; in these concept-is-all days, the unkempt miscellany is a rarity, and the streamlined, one-idea theme book is the rage. Piazza’s new book is an inspired grab-bag of features, reviews and profiles that for the most part makes sense of the advent of neotraditionalism in jazz.
What does it mean that young musicians are mastering old arrangements? Does “classic” have to mean “lifeless?” Piazza is exploring territory opened up by Albert Murray in “Stomping the Blues,” and he often takes as his antagonist jazz writers who maintain that jazz is freedom, man, it’s self-expression, the unconscious and the revolutionary. To Piazza, that kind of thinking isn’t just sentimental, it’s one of the reasons why jazz ran into one dead end after another in the ’60s and ’70s.
He tosses off ear-and-brain openers at an exciting rate. On one page comes a throwaway descriptive dazzler — a reference to “the slowly exfoliating logic” of a Thelonious Monk performance. On another is an inspired summing-up passage: “The evolution that was needed at the point when [Wynton] Marsalis came along was not the imagining of a new solo style, but was rather a reimagining both of the nature of ensemble playing and of jazz’s place in the culture as a whole — a reimagining of context.” This is useful in explaining why the ensemble playing of the neotraditionalists is often more convincing than their solo work. Taking on where-are-the-brilliant-new-innovators objections, he makes the often forgotten but essential point that when such legends as Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker were at their peak, “The language itself was healthy and widely practiced.” (Critics writing for the ages aren’t likely to make such bold and entertainingly provocative assertions.) If you’re one of those people who find Wynton Marsalis cold and reactionary, Piazza’s profile of him may change your mind.
Trying to make a virtue of a mistake — signing up two books that concern the same subject but argue opposing points of view — St. Martin’s is releasing on the same day as Piazza’s book Eric Nisenson’s “Blue: The Murder of Jazz.” Nisenson agrees with Piazza that, with free jazz and fusion, jazz ran itself into a cul-de-sac. For Nisenson, though, it’s the neotraditionalist response that spells the death of jazz; this is a theme book, and that’s Nisenson’s theme. A good attack on Marsalis could conceivably be made, but Nisenson’s argument runs out of gas a quarter of the way in, and he offers only a few pages on the performers he does enjoy. His language — that of a well-meaning, beleaguered social-studies teacher — doesn’t exactly stir the reader’s blood: “Armstrong, needless to say, was a man deeply affected by the society in which he lived and his own hopes and dreams for that society.”
Nisenson is one of the “jazz is freedom” guys, and he doesn’t want to see jazz defined, let alone redefined; Piazza is convincing when he writes that, for such writers, jazz isn’t “something objective to be loved and studied … but an occasion for total immersion in purely subjective affect.” Weighed down by his theme and his one drippy idea, Nisenson seems punch-drunk from the opening bell. Piazza — loose, quick and focused as he dances from one subject and idea to the next — wins round after round. I’d like to think that Piazza’s victory also represents a triumph for the miscellany over the theme book.