Knowing that today is not ‘just another Friday’, but in fact July 7th — Mahler’s birthday, as I’ve mentioned on here before — I spent my entire afternoon coffee-break trying to think of a clip I could present tonight that connected Mahler with movies in some interesting way. (And before anyone asks: I specify ‘interesting way’ so that, right from the start, it’s clear that I’m not going to bother with Lucino Visconti’s Death in Venice  or Ken Russell’s Mahler , both of which I hate and despise — at least in parts — more than just about anything else I’ve ever seen on a screen.)
And, in the end, I managed to think of a suitable clip — which even turned out to be available online! So, just for a change, here is a ‘Friday Film’ posting with exactly the film clips I want it to have…
Since the film itself is one that I’ve never seen, though, this stretch of ‘movie Mahler’ is something that I’d only ever heard about — which means that I’ve now watched this little extract from the film and no other scene at all. Even so, I will shyly submit that I now have three interesting things to say about the film and its music: if you disagree with any of them, or feel that they aren’t all that interesting, then by all means say so at the end…
Let’s start — as usually we do! — with the collection of teasing fragments that the studio pasted together to form the official film trailer … which, again, I’d never seen before today…
And, now that we’ve seen that, let’s move straight on to the scene that features the Mahler. (Be warned: there are some graphically bloody moments before the end: young/sensitive readers may wish to look away once they get to 3′ 30″ and two of the characters start to laugh…)
Having now watched the trailer and this clip, I have to say that — fan though I usually am of neo-noir psychological thrillers — I can see perfectly well that this is a film I am very, very unlikely ever to watch. If you’ll pardon me for talking subjective opinion, I’ve long been of the view that Leonardo DiCaprio is always terrible, and that Martin Scorsese is terrible with very nearly the same depressing consistency. And the ‘terrible’ certainly piles up in the scene shown in that clip…
For one thing, the moment where DiCaprio mumbles ‘No’ just as Ben Kingsley walks between him and the camera is dim-bulb acting reinforced by slipshod directing. As indeed is the moment — immediately after it! — when we see precisely the same filmic solecism happening all over again: Max von Sydow (who is actually made to perform the entire scene twisted round in his chair!) starts speaking while his mouth is still obscured by that big urn.
In fact, I also think the script in this scene is every bit as stiff and unnatural as everyone’s delivery of it. On top of which there’s the weird circumstance that no psychoanalytically aware psychiatrist of the mid-1950s would have considered the detective’s aggressive riposte about ‘iced tea’ to be an indication of unconscious ‘defence mechanisms‘ unconsciously employed — or imagined that a person’s skill at ‘interrogation’ would benefit from what, psychodynamically speaking, is an anxiety-driven tendency to distort or deny reality. Oh, and then there’s the script’s pitiful inability to distinguish between ‘concentration camp’ (Konzentrationslager) and ‘extermination camp’ (Vernichtungslager, Todeslager): despite the tens of thousands of deaths, Dachau wasn’t actually a ‘death camp’. (See what I mean? This is a film I am never going to sit through…)
Now, here are my three hopefully interesting film-musical observations…
First, the trailer’s music (such as it is). I certainly wouldn’t have guessed from that trailer that the film was going to have any Mahler in it; but, more significantly, I would never have guessed that this film is one that is considered remarkable for the sheer quantity of serious, contemporary concert music contained on its soundtrack.
Yes, really: according to the film’s IMDB ‘Soundtrack‘ entry, Shutter Island (2010) makes use — to some degree, at least — of every one of the following works…
LONTANO (1967) by György Ligeti
FOG TROPES (1982) by Ingram Marshall
SYMPHONY NO. 3: PASSACAGLIA – ALLEGRO MODERATO (1988) by Krzysztof Penderecki
MUSIC FOR MARCEL DUCHAMP (1947) by John Cage
HOMMAGE Á JOHN CAGE (1959) by Nam June Paik
QUATTRO PEZZI (1959) by Giacinto Scelsi
ROTHKO CHAPEL 2 (1978) by Morton Feldman
ON THE NATURE OF DAYLIGHT (2004) by Max Richter
UAXUCTUM: THE LEGEND OF THE MAYAN CITY WHICH THEY THEMSELVES DESTROYED FOR RELIGIOUS REASONS (1966) by Giacinto Scelsi
PACIFIC SIRENS (1969) by Robert Erickson
THE LOST DAY (1982) by Brian Eno
FOUR HYMNS: II FOR CELLO AND DOUBLE BASS by Alfred Schnittke
LIZARD POINT (1982) by Brian Eno, Michael Beinhorn, Axel Gros & Bill Laswell
SUITE FOR SYMPHONIC STRINGS: NOCTURNE (1960) by Lou Harrison
CHRISTIAN ZEAL AND ACTIVITY (1973) by John Adams
ROOT OF AN UNFOCUS (1944) by John Cage
FLUORESCENCES (1961-62) by Krzysztof Penderecki
MY FATHER KNEW CHARLES IVES: THE LAKE (2006) by John Adams
FRAGOR (2003) by Tim Hodgkinson
PRELUDE – THE BAY (1990) by Ingram Marshall
TWO ETUDES: HARMONIES [n.d.] by György Ligeti
QUARTET FOR PIANO AND STRINGS IN A MINOR (1876) by Gustav Mahler
CRY (1951) by Churchill Kohlman
WHEEL OF FORTUNE (1952) by Bennie Benjamin & George David Weiss
TOMORROW NIGHT (1939) by Sam Coslow & Will Grosz
ON THE NATURE OF DAYLIGHT (2004) by Max Richter
THIS BITTER EARTH (1960) by Clyde Otis
Why is this of interest? I’ll tell you.
It so happens that I know some (not all!) of the works in that list, and — apart from a bit of Penderecki’s Fluorescences — I don’t hear any of them in the trailer; nor are we presented with any written mention of the works used, or of their composers. In other words, even though the people at Paramount were eventually happy to reveal that Scorsese’s collaborator Robbie Robertson — the man responsible for assembling this ‘heavyweight’ collection — was “proud of its scope and sound“, the actual nature of this remarkable soundtrack was in no way ‘flagged up’ to the cinema audiences who saw the trailer.
Yes, rather than the contemporary music content of the movie being presented as an interesting, positive achievement — and a feature to be celebrated — it was in fact treated as something from which the potential paying audience had to be shielded until they had paid their money: somewhere, some marketing guru must have decided that to allow ‘normal’ folks even the faintest inkling that the film contained Ligeti, Penderecki, Scelsi, Schnittke, et al, would have the cinema-going public staying away in droves…
Secondly, if you watched the gory ‘flashback’ sequence in the dying SS officer’s quarters, you will have seen the film wordlessly make the point that the same music — Mahler’s Piano Quartet movement in A minor — is also being played on his gramophone. What we are being asked to believe, therefore, is that an SS officer whose racism and whose loyalty are so pathologically intense as to fit him for a senior post at Dachau is going to be playing a record of music by a Jewish-born composer whose works were banned by the Nazis.
It really is too stupid for words: whoever chose the music for this part of the story was demonstrating the most remarkable historical and cultural illiteracy. And indeed insensitivity. I actually find myself offended on Mahler’s behalf that his music is shown as ending up on the record player of a concentration camp Nazi — and not least because I know that Mahler’s actual niece, Alma Rosé (1906–44) survived for 10 months in Auschwitz-Birkenau as the violinist-director of an orchestra of prisoners made to play for their Nazi captors: Martin Scorsese, Robbie Robertson, how bloody dare you put a piece of Mahler on a Dachau gramophone!
Thirdly, I think it’s worth pointing out that this piece’s appearance within the world of the film is also illiterate in straightforwardly chronological terms. You see, it so happens that Mahler’s Piano Quartet movement is a piece of juvenilia — apparently written by the year 1876, when he was 15 or 16 — and wasn’t known to the wider musical world until its emergence from unpublished obscurity in the early 1960s. Its first performance in the twentieth century was not until 1964 — which fact makes it utterly impossible that either of the gramophone recordings seen in the film could even have existed.
And if you want to know about something in the film that allows us to calibrate this particular example of our age’s seemingly culture-wide disrespect for art-musical fact and possibility, you can get a pretty good sense of scale by taking the film-makers’ casual and contemptuous appropriation of this piece of Mahler and comparing it with their extraordinary determination to equip one of the characters with the correct sort of pen. For the IMDB’s ‘Trivia‘ entry for the movie tells us that
The ball-point pen Teddy uses in the film is a Parker Jotter, it was released in 1954 (the year the film takes place) and was the first successful and reliable ball-point pen to hit the market, which quickly drove fountain pens into obsolescence. Over 3.5 million pens were sold that year and the Parker Jotter dominated the ball-point pen market during that decade.
After all of which, I simply want this film to go away; and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you felt the same way.
So let us erase it from our minds as much as we can by attending carefully to this video of Mahler’s actual Piano Quartet movement of 1876 — a piece written by a boy who, were he alive and among us today, would not even have begun to study for his A-levels…
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