"Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away"

. . . as the great Willie Nelson sang. This evening marked the 23rd anniversary of my first date with Margo. In other words, when we met for the first time (about a week earlier), it was still the first ghastly term of the Reagan administration. American film was in the process of self-immolation under the guiding hands of Lucas and Spielberg and toy manufacturers everywhere.

Hmmm. Some things haven't changed all the much.

We spent the evening watching The Saddest Music in the World, Guy Maddin's delicious cyanide cocktail and I was reminded once again that sometimes the best film critic in the world is someone who is merely highly intelligent with a smattering of film knowledge, someone like the b.w., that is. Within moments of the film's opening credits she had made a crystal clear connection that had eluded me the two or three times I saw the film before (at least once in the company of another estimable film expert who, like me, didn't spot this one). As soon as the Lady Pont Huntington beer jingle came on the soundtrack, she started laughing uproariously and turned to me with a grin and said, "It's a Preston Sturges film!" Of course, I had been so fixated on the more obvious influences -- the visual ones -- Murnau, the '20s Soviets, pre-Code melodrama, that I had missed an important point that was glaring at me all along. And, of course, The Saddest Music is the one Maddin film (to date) that does owe a lot to Sturges, particularly in the dialogue for Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), the brash, pushy Broadway denizen. It's nothing less than the motor that drives the plot and gives the film its title. Doh!

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It always strikes me as rather amusing to backtrack my train of thought and see how I reached some particularly arcane -- or just inappropriate -- subject. Tonight, the signs were easy to follow. I was listening to Maria de Medeiros doing a jazzed-up rendition of "The Song Is You," went and got the utterly indispensable Lissauer guide to American popular song and looked up the ditty. As I suspected, it's Jerome Kern, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. And they are damned clever but very flowery lyrics. They succeed brilliantly, as do similar words to another Kern tune, "All the Things You Are." Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that I dislike almost all of the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog (we won't even speak of the film versions, which are beneath contempt), yet I find myself thinking, 'Gee, these Hammerstein lyrics are so right, so apt. They're not any less self-consciously literary than the later ones. How come these work?"

And that's when the lightning struck. Of all the great American songwriters of the Golden Age (and if you don't know when and what I mean, get yourself a copy of Alec Wilder's book on American popular song and come back when you've read it), Jerome Kern is the one, I think, who owes the most to and travelled the fewest miles from the Old Country. His melodies and harmonies owe the most to his European musical forebears. I suspect that may be because he is the oldest of the giants, three years older than Irving Berlin, and the one whose career began when the American musical theater was still a young sprout from the operetta/light opera tree-trunk. Berlin was born in Russia while Kern was born in New York City, but musically, Kern could have been born next door to Rudolph Friml. Kern is the pivotal figure in the transition to an American musical theater, distinct from its Continental predecessors (although still owing a lot in terms of narrative structure and characterization); for that to be the case, he had to be the one who had something to break with. Hammerstein, for all the hoo-hah about the innovations of Oklahoma and subsequent R&H shows, was firmly rooted in that old-world tradition, too. He never entirely shakes that lilac-scented romanticism with its no less purple wordcraft. But when you put his words to Kern's music, magic happens.

I'd be curious to know what Guy Maddin was thinking when he decided to make "The Song Is You" the centerpiece of his film. Oh, yeah, and was he thinking of Sturges?

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Coming attractions time:
Sometime this weekend I'll be posting my review of The Walker, the new Paul Schrader, which I enjoyed, although it feels like a minor Schrader. And during the week, I'll pass along my review of Nanking, a new documentary that is deeply disturbing for both good and bad reasons. (You know damned well the only reason for doing this is to force myself to write the pieces. I can't stand reneging on a promise, especially one that millions of people, in theory, can read. I guess that finishes off my political career.)




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