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[99 Problems] Carmen, Rear Window, Bed

April 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Originally published 2 June 2010. Hitchcock may be the only filmmaker who receives the same level of unabashed praise from me today as he did years ago.

I have seen and heard Carmen so many times that I could probably dictate most of the first couple acts from memory. Before I even had a clue what the opera was about, I first came in contact with some of the music from it by way of none other than Weird Al Yankovic. This song was put on a CD for me called the Z-Man-ZurZur-Fun-Mix in the fifth grade, long before I had any idea what beer was, tasted like, or how terrible Weird Al could be. That just shows how ridiculously popular Bizet’s music has become. I would be willing to bet that some children could recognize the Toreador song just as fast as Frere Jaques. With all the dancing around I probably did to “The Beer Song,” I had no idea how much I was going to fall in love with opera and how big a part Carmen was going to play in that.

When my family first got a DVR for the TV, one of the first things I recorded was a hyper-updated pseudo-futuristic version of Carmen with Barenboim conducting. It’s Euro-trashy, but the singing is unstoppable and the chorus is better than 90% of the CD’s you can find (and a good chorus is vital, here). Since then, I have watched that movie at least 30 times, Carmen being one of the 5 most abused scores in my library.

One of the most unique things about Bizet’s writing is his capacity for separation. He ever succumbs to melodrama and only gives the music that is necessary. By doing so, he invites the audience to relate to the characters directly, not necessarily through their music. This gives the piece a voyeuristic tone that many operas don’t carry, even when making the audience feel like a bunch of peeping-tom’s is often the point. Through the proscenium window, the observers come to understand Don Jose through the infatuation that Escamillo also experiences. His passion accelerates alongside his scenes with Carmen, moving with the arch of Rear Window, a steady but forceful incline from attraction to obsession to jealousy to murder. Carmen, however, remains enigmatic – most of her arias dealing out a varying degree of indifference to love or fate. Her motives in acting are never clear outside of the fact that she has clear attachment issues. This is evidence of her fear of commitment. Her mad acceptance of her fate is both puzzling and the only appropriate reaction for her character. Carmen must have had some crappy parents or no parents at all, judging from her insensitivity to Jose’s mother issues. (*aside: The Callas recording has some terrible terrible choruses but her performance proves that she should have spent way more time sifting through mezzo repertoire. Skip to 5:20 in that track for an inspiring few minutes. She is meditating on her impending death by way of Jose, revealed to her through tarot cards. If you watch this performed, Carmen should have eyes full of passion and pain at every “la mort.”)

On top of the voyeurism, Carmen plays with the thirst for fantasy – particularly sexual fantasy. Sexual desire is the tool with which Carmen controls Jose and all of her other victims. Both roles are constructed on common fantastical scenes. Jose is the submissive, sacrificial ball of Play-Doh until he gives in to ruthless jealousy. Carmen is the prototype mysterious, voluptuous (hopefully), and alluring woman – violent in her seduction. One of the most potent uses of subconscious suggestion in all non-Wagnerian opera is the finale. The fate of the characters is secured with a triumphal chorus (like a good opera comique should) in the background, but with painful, writhing string chords underneath. The triumphal chorus is none other than the Toreador song, the song of the reasonably harmless man who ran Jose’s reason into the ground.

Rauschenberg was a charming American artist. He had a refreshing fervor for pop culture, but rejected the angst and seriousness of abstract expressionism. He won fame in the fifties by creating “Combines,” his signature. They commented on society by using the very things that created the society – Presidential pictures, shoes, tennis balls, or other familiar objects. His ideas sat on a ledge that didn’t quite tip into “pop art,” to which he is considered a leading precursor. He always said that he wanted to “act between art and life.” So he did.

In the similar manner of Duchamp (who we will look at one of these days ahead), Rauschenberg made serious questions of what art really means. This video is great and reveals the wit, humility, and simple intelligence of the artist. His work pulled out of the basket today is “Bed” from the early 1950′s.

“Bed” thrives on energy and sexuality. Even violent sexuality. Rauschenberg clearly invites the observer into his personal space with this piece. It is said that the sheets, pillow, and quilt were all his own and used. He scatters paint, toothpaste, glue, and other personal artifacts across the place where man normally meets bed. The angles which we are encouraged to observe the piece have a voyeuristic feel. We look at it in many dimensions – at, into, onto, around. The artist asks us to seek answers to questions only the paint can satisfy.

Rauschenberg’s art is simultaneously personal and repulsing. Pictures like “Retroactive I” seem abstract and grotesque from a distance. Closer, though, they begin to formulate a dialogue. It is a Joycean stream of consciousness – a conversation where one segment flows softly (or not) into another. “Retroactive I” has more scenes than all of Rear Window and remains equally American in flavor.

Franz Waxman composed the music to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The score is bustling, jazzy, and full of metropolitan Bernsteinyness (who was busy writing for On The Waterfront at the time, a movie Grace Kelly turned down for the role of Lisa Fremont). Waxman allows for a cute little transition, since he wrote a famously difficult fantasy on themes from Carmen, still his most famous work.

I don’t have the guts or the intention to write a bad review of Hitchcock, but is there seriously not a bad shot in this entire film? There is virtually one scene in the entire 2 hours. Only he could pull that off. Until the end, we remain claustrophobic and voyeuristic with Jeffries. The very beginning states the theme of the movie, with blinds opening up to show a courtyard full of windows, activity, and private lives. The rear window of Jeffries’ room becomes a sort of movie screen, a proscenium through which we observe a false world. Hitchcock accomplishes this by using the same consistent shot, a pan of the courtyard followed by a swinging behind Jeffries to place us claustrophobic and in the room with him. The nurse says, “We’ve become a race of Peeping-Tom’s. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.” Still just as true, if not more, today. The obsession that Jeffries (another masterful collaboration with Stewart) experiences is a revelation that with enough time, we can discover the secrets and unflattering qualities of anyone. The only one in the film with no unflattering qualities seems to be Lisa (Grace Kelly, yum). Hitchcock makes full use of female beauty. Her character might be the only perfect human in any conceivable universe.

Jeffries uses his career as a migratory photographer to justify his fear of commitment, being unrealistically rude to Lisa until she finally enters the picture of his rear window by investigating the crime that drives the plot. With that, she enters his fantasy as well and their relationship remains solid. The human fixation on private affairs is also developed in the obsession that Jeffries’ guests eventually feel towards the crime. Hitchcock again masters suspense by utilizing a propulsive scheme, a steady upward roller-coaster track with a shocking rush downwards, no bumps in the middle.

Common throughout is Waxman’s score, evoking a city life and suggesting that all of our lives are public in a way. Especially with the advent of extreme social networking, privacy has become extinct. The voyeurism of Jeffries is reflected in all of us as we use screens to constantly look into the lives of others. But – like the neighbors across the way – many of us still don’t know how to close our blinds.

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