In 1982, my friend Michael Gordon came to visit me at my parents’ house in Los Angeles. We went to see the new action film starring a young unknown actor named Mel Gibson called The Road Warrior, a violent and darkly post-apocalyptic story that included a 45-minute car chase through the Australian outback. It was so intense that when it was over, we couldn’t move. We ended up watching it twice in a row, pinned to our seats.
I became a little obsessed with the movie, and I read everything I could about it and its director George Miller. I found out that he had been heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. So I got a copy, and sure enough, there it all was: the extraordinary individual, the quest, the journey, the impossible odds, the relentless pursuit of public good. I thought I had seen a movie about a dystopian future, but it was really an ancient, unchanging archetype.
It so happens that when heroes go somewhere, music goes along with them. Music to accompany the telling of a hero’s exploits is as old as time. In The Odyssey, Homer often advances the plot through exploits recounted by singers. On his long trip home from Troy, Odysseus hears how word of the Trojan War has spread throughout the Mediterranean, told by poets and storytellers and accompanied by music. This is a kind of meta-singing, since Homer himself would sing or intone the words of these stories as he recounted Odysseus’s adventures on his long trip home. The very first line of The Odyssey is “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.” Hero and music
It is easy to imagine why music should be the heroic tale’s helper. Telling epic stories requires a huge amount of text, with hundreds of names and places and gods, which may make it both hard to remember for the bard and hard to follow for the listener. Music helps organize both the telling and the listening.
It is also true that a heroic tale moves forward, as does its hero, in the same way that stories move forward in movies. There are moments of suspense, moments of struggle and of reflection, moments of fear and of excitement, and the anticipation of more fear and excitement. A journey, a struggle, impossible odds: It sounds like a movie to me. In fact, the musical function that helps organize a bard’s retelling of The Odyssey is not so different from how the late, great Australian film composer Brian May used music to help support the story of The Road Warrior.
It is clear that the music in such situations is the text’s helper. The music changes its character when the text tells it to. The music emerges from the text, it supports the text, it tells you how to gauge the emotional world behind the text and to anticipate the text that lies ahead, but it is the text that comes first. The music intensifies our hearing of the words, but hearing the words is where the action is.
In 2009, I went to The Cloisters to see Benjamin Bagby perform his retelling of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. I didn’t understand a word of what he was saying, but I was riveted by the intensity of his performance. Intoning the text and accompanied only by his medieval lyre, the music made it possible for me to follow the story—when to be tense, when to relax, when to shrink in fear for the poor defenseless subjects of King Hrothgar, and when to exult in the triumphal exploits of the powerful Beowulf.
Intoned text, lyre accompaniment, hero story. It occurred to me that I had seen this kind of storytelling before in the work of American composer Harry Partch.
Harry Partch is an American original, a primarily self-taught composer who looked to Asian and ancient tuning systems as an alternative to modern times, who built his own surreal collection of instruments made from found objects and army surplus, and composed music for them based on his highly personal interpretations of drama in ancient Greece.
Partch was something of a road warrior himself, wandering across the country in search of work and respect, taking odd jobs, hitchhiking, and riding the rails. He spent much of the Great Depression as a hobo, and he started writing music that described the things that he noticed in his travels, collected in his opera The Wayward. It is all there: the immense effort it takes to survive, the intense instability of the life on the road, the need to keep moving. A journey, a struggle, impossible odds. Plus really exciting music.
The instruments you see tonight are the very instruments that Partch himself built with his own hands. And in a spectacular act of cosmic coincidence, most of the music in Harry Partch’s opera The Wayward was premiered 70 years ago tonight: April 22, 1944. And where was it premiered? Carnegie Hall.
Tuesday, April 22, 2014 | 6 PM
BENJAMIN BAGBY Scenes from Beowulf
PARTCH The Wayward
Benjamin Bagby, Storyteller and Medieval Harp
Harry Partch Institute Ensemble
Stephen Kalm, Baritone
Robert Osborne, Bass-Baritone
Charles Corey, Kithara II and Cloud-Chamber Bowls
Christi L. Corey, Surrogate Kithara
Sverre Kyvik Bauge, Cello and Harmonic Canons David Broome, Chromelodeon I
Joe Fee, Diamond Marimba and Spoils of War
Joe Bergen, Bamboo Marimba, Bloboy, and Cloud-Chamber Bowls
Matt Olsson, Bass Marimba
Kenny Savelson, Production Manager and Executive Producer
Danlee Mitchell, Chief Artistic Advisor
Charles Corey, Producer and Musical Director
Jon Roy, Artistic Director, Video Artist, and Projection Supervisor
Nick Helton, Assistant Artistic Director and Video Artist
Philip Blackburn, Video Artist
Alice Peragine, Video Artist
Gerd Stern, Multimedia Consultant
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A REVIEW OF PHILIP MARLOWE
To celebrate collected stories, The Believer posted pieces from past issues that tied into the themes of each show. The first concert in collected stories, Hero, is paired with Greg Cwik’s review of Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s film adaptation of The Long Goodbye (from the May 2013 issue of the Believer).
A Review of Philip Marlowe in the Long Goodbye, Directed by Robert Altman
CENTRAL QUESTION: How does a filmmaker make an outdated character relevant?
Number of times Philip Marlowe has been portrayed on film: ten
Age of Elliott Gould when he played Marlowe: thirty-four
Age of Robert Mitchum when he played Marlowe three years later: fifty-eight
Best Hemingway impersonation in The Long Goodbye: Sterling Hayden, allegedly stoned the whole time
Actor Hayden replaced: Dan Blocker, who died just before principal photography began
Film’s tag line: “Nothing says goodbye like a bullet.”
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is malleable: literary Play-Doh for the craftily minded. As our sapient narrator, he is a lens through which we see the squalor of modern Los Angeles. We know he’s morally rigid, like an animated slab of unwritten commandments, inextirpable in his personal and political proclivities. He doesn’t take money if he finds a job unethical; he doesn’t respect corrupt police or politicians, regardless of their motivations; he doesn’t sympathize with drunks or wife-beaters; he doesn’t like the rich but he doesn’t weep for the poor. He’s a well-worn scourge of complications and intricacies, his own Osiris.
Howard Hawks and William Faulkner gracefully and loyally translated Marlowe to the screen for The Big Sleep, just seven years after the novel’s initial publication. By 1946, Chandler’s books were growing in stature, and American cinema was suffused with film noir, so the character was already relevant; he didn’t need to be modified. By 1973, though, Marlowe and his hard-boiled kin were forgotten, irrelevant, so naturalist auteur Robert Altman had a few changes to make. If Hawks’s Big Sleepis the archetypal faithful Marlowe film, Altman’s adaptation ofThe Long Goodbye is the archetypal modification: characteristically syncopated and opaque, both satire and homage, poison love letter to a genre and inside joke to its enthusiasts.
Chandler’s Marlowe thinks fast, talks faster, takes a punch like a champ. He’s invidious, antagonizing authority figures into socking him; once he sees how they throw a hook, they don’t get the chance to land a second. Altman’s Marlowe wears wide lapels and talks to his cat. He ponders his own sad, solipsistic musings because no one else will. He’s out of touch, out of his element, caught in the slipstream of modernity. Altman steeps him in voyeuristic discomfort, the camera drifting and floating and suddenly zooming, never content to stay still. The camera’s constant activity underscores Marlowe’s desuetude, makes him even more pitiable.
The Long Goodbye, Chandler’s longest and deepest novel, dissects the life of a private eye: the boring parts, the tormenting parts, everything in between. It’s more social commentary than noir, with a thread of dubious mystery holding the narrative together. Corruption, sinisterly sunny L.A., big men throwing their meaty bellies around, slamming hairy knuckles on desks, pounding shots of cheap whiskey to euthanize the slivers of passing morality. Marlowe is our tour guide on a joyless ride through the American dream as sordid reality. Sketch and scuzz are ubiquitous in Chandler’s L.A., and Marlowe is not a bright, shining light: he’s part of the city, one of its fleshy appendages who just happens to rebel a little more than most.
Altman takes Marlowe, Sherlock of the noir age, and cruelly drops him into California circa 1973. In the role, Elliott Gould possesses an air of otherness: he’s pathetically paranoid, a moke susceptible to life’s aleatory afflictions, like the mean streets have chewed him up and spat him out. His outdated wisecracks go over the heads of the police; he sucks down cigarettes while the spandex-clad ladies next door succumb to fleeting health crazes. Most jarring to viewers, Gould doesn’t look like, doesn’t sound like, doesn’t act like, doesn’t possess the authoritative suavity of Humphrey Bogart. Bogie was Philip Marlowe, setting the standard for detectives the way Sean Connery set the standard for spies. You never suspected Bogart might take a bullet to the gut, or fail to solve whatever convoluted case had fallen into his lap. By comparison, Gould’s performance is subtle and not very attractive. Bogart was a loner; Gould is lonely.
People found Gould to be an awkward and unbelievable Marlowe. They were right: he is an awkward and unbelievable Marlowe, and that’s why The Long Goodbye works so well as an introspective, almost satirical take on Chandler’s anti-hero. A year before Roman Polanski and Robert Towne momentarily rejuvenated noir with the wickedly intelligent Chinatown,Altman showed audiences in post-Vietnam/Watergate America how outdated the masculine hero of The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon had become. The morally admirable, contrarian avenger was something Americans needed, but something we didn’t want.
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