Wednesday, July 12, 2017

On Piccolo

I first heard Shostakovich's Jazz Suite when I saw Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999). I'm pretty sure Kubrick introduced me to a lot of the Golden Oldies of classical music, like Strauss's waltz in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Handel's Sarabande in Barry Lyndon (1975). I connect to the music, and I don't think the tunes are interchangable from one film to the next. The Sarabande would have made the spaceships' dance to Strauss ominous. Shostakovich suggests animal energy, whatever his original intention. As a matter of cultural reference, I don't know if there is much of a difference between Shostakovich, Handel, and Strauss in the three films. I listen to classical music, but I'm a classical music ignoramus. And I wonder if each of these tunes means more or less the same thing across all of his films, namely a juxtaposition of high civilization as something pure with a culture of violence (Barry Lyndon) or as something of the past with the future (2001), or as something that a futurist dystopia will remake in its own image, as in the case of Wendy Carlos's take on Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange (1971).

Does recognizable classical music in film mean anything other than "classical"?

I offer this question as a lead-in to a passage in my dissertation on Dušan Vukotić's Piccolo (1959).

The opening credits of Piccolo depict a screen split between blocks of green and light purple, cut at once in a vertical line, then horizontally, and then diagonally. The order is achieved with the exhiliration of pop art. The story opens on a house divided on each side by green and purple, with one wall separating the two sides. In the background of the green side, there are other green houses. In the background of the purple side, there are purple houses. The setting is simple, and suggests a small, but growing city, much like Zagreb at the time of the film’s production, with faint black outlines of nearly identical houses.
Two men, one short and fat, the other tall and thin, live on respectives sides of the house. They are friends. When a storm bursts out and the short man’s roof starts to leak, the tall man, in an exercise of self-reflexive flat-graphic humor, cuts the lines of rain which border his side of the house with a pair of scissors. They shake hands. A small bird appears on a tree near the short man’s house and sings a tune, first harshly and out of tune, marked by a harmonica-shriek on the soundtrack, and then, after clearing his throat with egg yolk, more smoothly. The tall man loves the tune and the short man, employing again the convenient rules of the animation form, removes the tree to the tall man’s side. The bird flies away. The tall man buys a harmonica in order to enjoy the sound of music again. The movements of the man and the bird jump from one frame to the next in pace with the simple jumps of the tune. The music is grounded in folk life. It is grounded in the body.
When the tall man plays his harmonica, he disrupts the short man’s peace, and thus  a war begins and escalates between the two men, as each attacks the other one with a different tune from a different instrument as a weapon. Eventually, the two men invite choruses that reflect their respective identities -- the short man invites short men and the tall man invites tall men -- and they destroy each other in a crescendo in a blast from the Overture of 1812.
The Zagreb School would employ several music genres through its history, including classical music, jazz, and pop music, almost all of it from Yugoslav composers and musicians. The music can be grotesque and the sound can be purposely grating, but it can just as easily be exuberant, a celebration of the mixtures of the popular music of the era. Kostelac’s Zbog jednog tanjura / All Because of a Plate (1959), but the possibility of treating music as a source of horror is just as common. Piccolo, though it indulges the audience’s desire for visual pleasure, is a self-reflexive film about the possibilities of music to become a weapon. “When music is applied to warlike ends, we tend to believe that it has been turned against its innocent nature,” the music critic Alex Ross writes. “We resist evidence suggesting that music can cloud reason, stir rage, cause pain, even kill.”
Music, as a cultural force, is presented as simply an idea of the cultural landscape. There’s not an obvious source for most of the music in Piccolo. The harmonica evokes folk music. The jazz drumming is relatively generic. Some of the tunes on the piano and the cello contain possible references to Chopin and Liszt. In the final minutes, the sources are more obvious. The men battle each other with choruses singing the “Toreador Song” from Carmen and the “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore, and then the small man recruits an orchestra to play the Overture of 1812.  Some of the music is played competently. Some of it grates, or at very least is meant to suggest the idea of music grating, and is comically out of tune. The use of music in relation to the visual movements recalls McLaren’s experiments from the period. The dividing line between their sides of the house changes shape, at one moment pointed, at another curved to match the rhythm and quality of the instruments. But the synchronization between the music and the line changes is not as precise. The film, lying somewhere between the idea of a gag film and a high-art film, pokes fun at the Zagreb School’s aesthetic pretensions. Unlike Premijera, Piccolo does not dramatize a fight between various forms of cosmopolitanism. It is a fight between all sounds, brought down to their lowest, most primitive essence.
Of all the films discussed in this chapter, Piccolo comes closest to depicting at least an idea of interethnic conflict, a failure of the brastvo in the slogan of Titoist Yugoslavia. It is rare for the Zagreb School to depict any specifically Yugoslav regional, ethnic, or national identity in its films. As noted in the previous chapter, although the cities of Yugoslavia underwent a massive population surge in the years after World War II, a surge that involved a massive internal migration of and then mixing of ethnic groups to the cities, the Zagreb School does not depict the idea of a city as a site of interethnic relationships. Still, the original script, written by Vukotić, suggests a possible reference to regional history and culture in its choice of music and characters. In the final film, the choirs which accompany the respective adversaries are identical with them, but the original script called for either a choir of gypsies or a choir of don cossacks. If one of the choirs had been made up of gypsies, the film would have grounded the story in an identifiably Balkan context. The use of cossacks may reference the Russian division of the Nazi army that fought the Partisans during World War II or the larger history of the cossack army in Tsarist Russia. The sidenote suggest a subliminal reference in the film not so much to interethnic strife, but to something exotic or identifiably “eastern.” The erasure of these possibilities in the final film speaks to the approach to universalize the themes of the Zagreb School’s films, but the suggestions of the theme remains.
The film is about the fragility of the project of civilization and, in the context of Yugoslavia, of the project of nation-building. It notes the thin line not just between high and low culture, all of which was consumed and celebrated in Yugoslavia, but of peace and war.

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