Friday Film (93)

For Bouchra…

The other day, I was chatting to a visiting student who, it turned out, was born and brought up in Algeria. We didn’t get the opportunity to talk for more than a few minutes; but in that short space of time our conversation touched upon both the history of film and, as it were, the history of history — in particular, Algeria’s 132 years as a French possession subjected to literally every variety of brutal violence by its colonial overlords.

Since Algeria — almost four times the area of France, and nowadays Africa’s largest nation-state — won its struggle for independence 56 years ago, I daresay that not even the parents of my young acquaintance would have been born in time to see Charles de Gaulle magnanimously handing the country back to itself. Interestingly, though, my friend still knew enough about her nation’s eight-year war of liberation (1954-62) to talk about the execution (by guillotine) of one of its freedom fighters — and to suggest that I should watch the 1966 Italian-Algerian historical film The Battle of Algiers (in the original Italian release La battaglia di Algeri). And so, of course, I went and looked it up on YouTube — and its trailer, too…

As it happens, I went into this convinced that I’d seen the film long ago; curiously, however, the more I watched this trailer — and the more I racked my brains trying to recall when and where it was that I’d encountered the film itself — the more I had to admit that I remembered literally nothing about it beyond the documentary ‘feel’ of its neo-realist camera-work. And, watching it now after what must surely be a gap of at least three decades, I think I can tell why: not only does the film contain much that is disturbing, but its reluctance to proceed structurally in terms of a main character following a straightforward narrative arc means that much of its powerful content is not cushioned by comfortingly familiar cinematic convention. In short, I suspect that, watching this film as a callow youth, I simply couldn’t take it all in

Well, now that I’ve seen it as a grizzled adult — and this time, I hope, absorbed it properly — I want to say a few things about the film’s music that may or may not have been apparent to my friendly acquaintance: I genuinely don’t know how much interest she has in the European classical music tradition — and, within that, the religious music of 18th-century North European Protestantism. For the fact is that, here and there, the film’s score is oriented around the sound-world — and even the actual music — of J. S. Bach

Now, I need to come clean at this point and say that, while I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that this stretch of organ music had been creatively (= transgressively!) ‘based upon’, ‘derived from’ or ‘constructed from the elements of’ an actual Bach ‘chorale prelude’, my hasty scanning of both my musical memory and the imslp.org repository of Bach organ scores has failed to turn up anything that could have given rise to it in the way that, say, the opening of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor eventually gave rise to the organ solo of the ‘baptism sequence’ in The Godfather (1972). And the fact — as my pal Hugh pointed out! — that the music for this scene appears on the ‘Original Soundtrack Album’ under the name of the ultra-famous and mega-successful Ennio Morricone (b. 1928) certainly points to it being an original Morricone composition. But … even so … somewhere in my soul there lurks a niggling thought that makes me reluctant to consider this a piece of ‘pure’ Morricone. Let me come back to that in a few hundred words’ time…

In any case, there is some Bach in the film that could hardly be more genune or easier to identify — though, admittedly, the precise manner of its use does leave me scratching my head: has something been cut out that leaves only a bafflingly tiny fragment of something musically and emotionally immense…?

The Bach work in question is, of course, the St Matthew Passion, BWV 244 — the composer’s titanic (2 1/2-hour!) ‘sacred oratorio’ from 1727 — and, if I’m to be honest, I can’t say that I altogether approve of its use: so far as I can see, what we get of it here — at least, in the film as it reaches us! — cannot possibly do anything at that point besides distort and mislead.

A page from the St Matthew Passion in Bach’s handwriting [Click for a larger image]

Of course, the world being in the mess that it is, there will be readers whose immediate assumption is that I have ‘religious reasons’ for objecting to that music’s use here — so let me say straight away that, personally, I am not even slightly religious, and I refuse to accept the notion of ‘religious reasons’ as a legitimate concept in any context whatsoever.

What is more, as far as specifically Christian mythology and its daft ‘crucifixion’ narrative is concerned, I hold no brief at all for what ought to be universally regarded as a radically incoherent outpouring of sickness and imbecility — and would be, were it not for the fact that so many billions of vulnerable young minds have been damaged by its compulsory absurdity.

In other words, what makes this piece of Bach so wrong for this juncture is a straightforward mismatch on the strictly dramatic and musico-dramatic level: our torture victim, for all his suffering, is simply not a ‘Christ figure’, either in terms of his actions and their consequences, or measured by the extent of his ‘centrality’ to the following drama. And, as a result, the snippet of Bach — distorting and misleading, as I said! — turns out to contribute nothing except gloomy ‘colour’ if you don’t know what it is, and ponderous directorial pomposity if you do. What is more, after a mere four bars, it then gets treated as disposable garbage — being ripped away from the soundtrack in favour of the bespoke score’s musically trivial military drumming and would-be tension-generating ‘sixties-style’ chromatic ostinati…

Needless to say, what I’ve claimed about the immense musical stature of the Matthew Passion‘s opening segment requires to be substantiated, at least to some extent: many a reader won’t know the piece at all, and won’t have even the vaguest notion of how musically overpowering it is. So let me provide three clips that will illuminate the issue.

First, here is a longer version of the stretch chosen by the film. It’s the very opening of the work … and its breathtakingly clear complexity will no doubt have made itself felt by the end of, say, the sixteenth orchestral bar…

Yes, at the very end of that clip, the work’s two baroque orchestras were joined by its two choirs — at which point (and as you are about to hear in the next clip) what was a perfectly splendid orchestral texture becomes a perfectly splendid choral texture with orchestral accompaniment … and with Bach showing that the instrumental idea that started off at the top of the texture now works excellently as a choral entry at the bottom of the texture — and that the one that was originally played in the middle can now be sung at the top… (No, this isn’t all that we’re going to get; but it’s enough to talk about for now.)

Here are the (strictly ridiculous) words that are being sung — and, by the way, note that not only does Bach immediately subject his lines of (nitwit) text to musically varied and overlapping restatement (the first line alone takes ages…), but also that when he eventually gets to the (crackpot) second line, he uses the ‘question and answer’ format as an excuse to start throwing the text from one choir to the other…

If, in the clip that follows, you read through the written text while the music is on, you’ll see that I stop the extract before the two choirs have even got close to starting work on their sixth line — because, believe me, you won’t want to miss what is about to happen at this point…

So what does happen next? Well, if you’ve got your ears on right, you’ll hear for yourself; but I’ll tell you anyway. What Bach does — having first presented an E minor orchestral texture with invertible parts, and turned it into an E minor choral texture with invertible parts and question-and-answer interplay — is to show that what has so far been developed (and expanded as far as the relative major key) also works without the slightest friction as a mere accompaniment to that ‘Chorale’ — a major-mode passiontide hymn-tune from 1541: we see and hear everyone continue in the same manner as before — questions and answers included! — while the children’s chorus sails across it all with a statement of the added hymn-tune in long notes and in G major

I think this staggering triumph of compositional artistry will be best demonstrated by going right back to the start of the piece and letting it run all the way to the end. (And when you do get to the end, remember: that’s just the introduction to a work that still has around two-and a half hours to go…)

So, there we are. And if anyone reading this ever feels like taking a tiny bit of the Matthew Passion‘s opening and adding it to something that happens in a movie they’re making, the smart money says don’t: however worthy your scene in its own dramatic context, the Bach will either mean nothing much … or will steamroller it out of existence.

I mentioned Ennio Morricone earlier, and now I want to explain why it is that I am — on some dark and unforgiving level of my being — so reluctant to admit to myself that he could have written ‘from scratch’ that piece of ‘sort-of, almost, kind-of-like Bach‘, that chorale prelude ‘as if’. For this explanation to be clear, though, I need to present an extended, harrowing clip from the film — and with no explanation, because none is ultimately necessary…

All right: let’s consider what we heard there. We had no music at all throughout a good deal of powerful and sometimes ‘documentary-style’ footage; we had some extrinsic (‘non-diegetic’) scoring of palpable impact but no great meaningfulness; and we had stretches of intrinsic (‘diegetic’) music of little beyond situational appropriateness. Then, finally, we had some extrinsic music for the post-bombing scenes of death, injury and destruction … and, compositionally and expressively speaking, this last music — in some respects, the most important music in the entire sequence! — was truly pitiful.

Now, I’m going to look like a complete idiot if that disappointing last piece of music wasn’t actually written by Ennio Morricone; but my ears (as well as the seeming soundtrack album) tell me that it was; and — strange though it may seem — my ears are all I listen to. What I’m leading up to, ladies and gentlemen, is the declaration — which I’ve never even seen hinted at in the work of any other writer — that, great film-musical talent though Morricone undoubtedly is, there is a vast and profound emotional area that he simply cannot reach, compositionally speaking. For when there is searingly tragic death — or even significant pain — to be directly interpreted or ironically, ‘distantly’ accompanied, Morricone doesn’t have a clue. It is as if he ‘switches off’ — or goes to some kind of semi-creative ‘auto-pilot’ — and avoids the emotional issue entirely

You think I’m kidding? Let me tell you: I have been consciously watching him fail at this for decades. Friends of mine — and regular readers of this blog! — will be aware that, non-critic that I am, I will bend over backwards to acknowledge the achievement of folks who get the job done, however imperfectly. But when something isn’t there, dear reader, it is my humble duty to point out that it just isn’t there: in the preceding extract and the two that follow (and I could have provided more, had the clips been available), what Morricone provides is rubbish — and don’t anyone write in pretending they can’t tell what I mean…

No; never; not at all: faced though I am with the ‘Original Soundtrack Album’ that has Morricone’s name all over it, something compels me to feel that, when required to score a scene in which Algerians are being tortured by French soldiers, Morricone could not — in a hundred years! — have come up ‘from scratch’ with something as good as that piece of ‘sort-of, almost, kind-of-like Bach‘, that chorale prelude ‘as if’

Be all this as it may, of course, The Battle of Algiers is still a towering filmic and indeed political achievement — and a movie that literally everyone in the imperial and neoimperial West needs to see.

Watch it here…

MD

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