Setter’s ‘Spectives: What Happened to All Those Great Opera Movies?

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Remember Franco Zeffirelli’s excellent film of Verdi’s Otello? Lush production, sexy direction, terrific acting, and of course, the great Placido Domingo as the titular Moor.

Why can’t we get more movies like that today?

It seems like there isn’t as much of an impetus to develop cinematic spectaculars based on classic operas as there was three decades ago, and I think that’s a shame. Once upon a time, you had Ingmar Bergman doing Mozart’s The Magic Flute, too. But now, it appears that directors of a certain stature are more content to craft large-scale pictures out of popular contemporary musicals than operatic standards. It makes sense from a commercial standpoint, as the latter have a more limited audience. From an artistic perspective, however, it’s lamentable.

I want to see a great celluloid version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, darn it! And not the nonsense that is Tristan + Isolde, see?

Today, with New York’s Metropolitan Opera doing HD films of various productions, it’s easy to think that we’ve come to an era where the genre is made accessible to everyone. I don’t think that’s the case, though. Movies of productions aren’t the same as cinematic iterations that aren’t confined to one stage; Zeffirelli’s Otello is proof of that. It was an actual film, not a filmed opera. That’s one of the reasons why it worked so well onscreen. Editing, cinematography, music, art direction – everything combined to make a powerful whole. It became a motion picture.

I don’t think opera is a dying art, nor do I believe it should be relegated to the upper class. It’s for everyone, and the great works deserve to be viewed and listened to by all. That’s why I’d like to see more of the type of thing that Zeffirelli has done in the theaters – not just HD versions. Many of these stories are quite cinematic, with fanciful plots and engaging characters. Shouldn’t they be put onscreen where they belong?

I think so. And I hope one day, we’ll see opera once again take its rightful place in the cinema.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Altman’s ‘3 Women’ Plus Busby, Too

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613I’m not a huge fan of Robert Altman’s movies, so I admit I went with trepidation to see his film 3 Women at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts last night. Fortunately, the evening was bolstered by the presence of composer Gerald Busby, who wrote the score to the picture and was slated to speak about it after the showing.

It was a good thing he did, because the film was very peculiar and not all that successful. The tale of a California nursing-home worker (Sissy Spacek) obsessed with her quirky colleague (Shelley Duvall), 3 Women at times was like watching the most intriguing, bizarrely colored paint dry. It had an off-the-cuff feeling that gave the impression it was made up as the shooting went along, and the characters’ motivations weren’t always believable. Busby’s score was the best thing about it: a dissonant, modern chamber piece replete with mournful, dread-filled horns and winds. Following the screening, he took the podium to talk a little about the movie, and it was quite a treat to listen to this dapper, elderly gentleman.

Busby spoke about Altman being “a Gershwin man” yet wanting something different and abstract for his film, as well as the process of showcasing his music to a room full of Altman staff and regulars stoned on marijuana. (According to Busby, he was one of a few composers to be considered for the film, and as part of the process, the compositions were played in the room to see how long people could go without speaking about them; people listened to his work the longest without saying something, which helped solidify the choice.)

All in all, it was quite a lovely evening, and I got to meet Busby as well, who lived in the same building as a good friend of ours. Plus, it was free, so that made watching the film all the more palatable. A not-so-typical New York night out, but a memorable one, nonetheless.

Skip’s Quips: Remembrance of Scares Past

Blog Sketch 082813Way back when, while I was still in college (so this is really back when), I attended a showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window at the campus theater. I’d seen it before, but I was interested in observing how other people reacted to it, given its age and lack of profanity, graphic violence or anything else that might draw a contemporary audience.

I settled into my uncomfortable, non-stadium seating chair. So did everyone else. The movie started. We watched.

And then we got to the part where Grace Kelly’s Lisa is wiggling her finger to show Jimmy Stewart’s Jeff—who is watching from his window across the courtyard—that she has the ring once owned by the wife of Raymond Burr’s murderous Lars Thorwald. Thorwald notices what she’s doing. Gradually, he looks up at the camera. At us.

“Aaaaaaaahhhhh!” screamed the audience.

Yep. Quintessential movie moment. Proof that great films, no matter how old they are, can still affect people. And Rear Window is a great one.

This seemingly trivial incident made me happy. It was like the train in silents of old coming at you onscreen and scaring the daylights of everyone in the theater. The flick is so good that the audience believed it was there with Jimmy in his apartment, looking into places he wasn’t supposed to. This despite the old-time New York of the 1950s depicted in the movie. This despite the film’s age. This despite the lack of swearing or blood-squibby gunfights or … well, it did actually have a steamy interlude: that great, slow-motion kiss that Kelly and Stewart have at the beginning. And there was quite a lot of innuendo, in the manner typical of Hitch.

But this wasn’t beat-you-over-the-head filmmaking. This was director-in-control stuff.  And it had the right effect: making everyone watching it shriek. In joy, of course, like the shriek you expel while riding a roller-coaster. A true movie shriek.

One of these days, I’ll have to go see Rear Window again in the theater to observe how people react now. I suspect it will be similar. Great films don’t date; they remain pertinent forever. So viewers will scream afresh … as long as Thorwald looks at them in recognition.

That’s the kind of scream we need more of at the movies.