Tag Archives: Sam Mendes

Edward Hopper—Dark, Detached, Delicious

American painter Edward Hopper was born on this day in 1882. The spare, cool, detached way he depicts his subjects contrasts powerfully with his use of dramatic darkness, intense light and shadow and vivid colors. Hopper’s works are carefully composed to create interest and visual movement even though the subjects themselves are usually completely still.

Hopper painted many architecturally interesting exteriors, landscapes and interior scenes, and even his compositions involving human figures emphasize an architectural sense of balance, order and solidity. The compositions and settings are as much the subject of his paintings as the people portrayed in them are.

Most of Hopper’s masterwork, “Nighthawks,” was painted just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. was plunged into fear that there would be air attacks on the U.S. mainland. Americans began sewing blackout curtains for their windows as the people of Britain had been doing for years in efforts to make it harder for potential attackers to target their homes from the air. But while the country prepared for enemy attacks, Hopper continued to work into the evenings with his studio curtains wide open. Appropriately, “Nighthawks” featured four people awake late at night in an empty landscape, together yet somehow separated from each other in a bright but foreboding cafe.

In nature, nighthawks are nocturnal predators of the nightjar family. They, like the nighthawks of the painting, spend the night awake—restless, watching, waiting.

The contrast between still, calm, composed subjects and vibrant color surrounded by intense darkness makes his works visually exciting, but also inspires feelings of melancholy and alienation. Hopper has inspired many other visual artists, including filmmakers like Sam Mendes, Ridley Scott and the Coen Brothers. Mendes’s bleak and brilliant film “The Road to Perdition” in particular reads as a perfect visual homage to the painter, with each scene composed, colored and lit like a Hopper painting.

Dangerous Gems: The Subversive Music of Thomas Newman

Some film score composers have styles so distinctive that one can tell from hearing just a few measures of one of their compositions exactly who wrote it. Danny Elfman’s bold, busy, occasionally bombastic scores for Tim Burton’s movies have a particular power and energy, and it’s hard to imagine Alfred Hitchcock’s films without Bernard Herrman‘s sweeping, urgent orchestral pieces. Randy Newman’s scores usually have a bit of his trademark ragtime shuffle somewhere, and sometimes a touch of Aaron Copland to them, and Randy’s cousin, the fellow film-score-composer Thomas Newman, has his own compositional quirks that often make his work especially compelling and recognizable. His penchant for odd instruments, time signatures and percussion make his compositions unlike anyone else’s.

The scores of Thomas Newman are distinctive in their use of unusual time signatures, heavily percussive instrumentation and unrecognizable sounds created by his collection of rare instruments, all layered together in rich and unexpected ways. His scores have included the sounds of the zither, hurdy-gurdy, psaltery and hammered dulcimer, aboriginal chants, and even the chirping of cicadas. He weaves synthesizers and lush string arrangements in among the more organic sounds, and alters his sonic findings to create aural oddities that nobody has heard before.

Newman’s theme to the groundbreaking HBO television series Six Feet Under was created primarily with recognizable instruments—strings and reeds, for example—that are overlaid with washes of dissonant, shimmering, zithery sounds that remind one of harp glissandi but aren’t. They are then warmed by melodic oboe lines and set off by strange background sounds similar to the low squeaks one accidentally makes when rubbing wet wine glasses in a tub of suds. For the film WALL•E, Newman collaborated with Peter Gabriel to create the Oscar-nominated song “Down to Earth,” a perfect melding of synthesized, metallic, otherworldly sounds and rich, earthy, very human voices. The song sounds at once very much like Newman while being perfectly in sync with Gabriel’s body of work, and is a delicious auditory morsel that’s quite an appropriate accompaniment to the story of the film.

Newman has worked extensively with the innovative director Sam Mendes, and his haunting and anxiety-provoking scores provide powerful backdrops for all but one of Mendes’s angst-filled films. These include Spectre, American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road, Skyfall and Jarhead. It is also hard to imagine the moody and intense Frank Darabont films The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile without the oppressive sonic blankets that Newman created to press down on us and make us feel the fear and claustrophobia inherent to prison life.

Often Newman draws out discordant musical phrases and refuses to resolve them, leaving us feeling perplexed, nervous and worried. His theme to Revolutionary Road is a simple, repetitive piano tune layered with cymbals and repeating string lines that serves to build a deep reservoir of pain that cannot be released, just as the film does. Hopeful woodwinds peek up among the swirling strings at times, like a drowning swimmer trying to rise up for air before sinking below the surface one last time. The piece “Road to Chicago” from the intense and underrated Sam Mendes film Road to Perdition also begins with a simple piano motif, but then it hums with danger as washes of strings begin to press down on the piano tune. We wait for the chords to resolve but they only recede, pulling us far down a lonesome road, fading like the lights on a car driving into a dark, cold night.

The score for Jarhead brims with the intensity and violence of war, jolting the audience to attention with discordant Middle Eastern-sounding motifs played on stringed instruments mingled with synthesizers and insistent percussion, the unrecognizably altered sounds stirring fear in our hearts and melting our brains like waves of heat in the deserts of the Persian Gulf.

Born in 1955, Newman is the son of legendary composer and conductor Alfred Newman, who was the composer of scores for over 200 films and the winner of nine Oscars, an achievement that no other film composer has ever matched. Thomas has himself been nominated for (but not won) twelve Oscars and has won two BAFTAs, six Grammys and an Emmy. While he is best known for his film work, he was first interested in musical theater, just as his father had been, and while he was at Yale young Thomas was mentored by Stephen Sondheim. He then moved to Hollywood to follow in the footsteps of his father and his celebrated uncle Lionel Newman, another major player in Hollywood history who himself composed scores for over 200 films as well as a number of classic TV show theme songs. Another uncle, Emil Newman, was also an accomplished Hollywood conductor of long standing.

Newman’s work, like that of his frequent collaborator Sam Mendes, is as unsettling as it is beautiful. Both are intended to push us out of our comfort zones, nudging us to see something stylish and beautiful among the shadows and ruins. Mendes’s work uncovers the sinister forces lurking near us and sometimes within us, and his films ask us to stare uncomfortably at the black cracks in our own psyches. Newman’s music is like the dark music that rises from those cracks—haunting, frightening, altogether new yet somehow familiar. His music and Mendes’s films also present to us a painful yearning and loneliness that can seemingly never be filled. That hollow, empty quality is what makes their darkest works so frightening yet so brilliant, so recognizable and unfathomable all at once. They are dark masters and their creations are dangerous gems.

 

I Don’t Care Much

Recently I’ve been listening to a song that’s been around for a half-century but which was made fresh and new to me when I heard Alan Cumming sing it last June in the latest Broadway revival of the musical Cabaret. It’s a jaded, cynical song sung by a character who pretends to feel no pain and who appears to be inured to the ugliness of the world. But the power of the performance comes from the realization that, while the prostitute singing the song may no longer seem to care what he (or she) has to do to get by, that purported apathy comes after years of suffering and having experienced so much pain and loss that no longer caring almost seems like a blessing:

I don’t care much
Go or stay
I don’t care very much
Either way
Hearts grow hard
On a windy street
Lips grow cold
With the rent to meet
So if you kiss me
If we touch
Warning’s fair
I don’t care very much

“I Don’t Care Much,” like other songs in that brilliant musical, underscores the desperation and fear that led people living in Berlin under Nazi rule to try to blot out reality with a bit of naughty pleasure, and sometimes to lose their hearts (and maybe souls) to apathy or pretense in order to try to imagine away evils that they couldn’t bear to fight or even face.

When performed in the 1993, 1998 and 2014-15 Sam Mendes-directed Broadway productions of Cabaret, the song is sung with great bravado by an actor in drag. When I sit down to sing it at the piano, I like to do it more  quietly, with restraint and softness, to underscore the fact that the singer may no longer feel so much, but she or he recognizes the tragedy in the loss of caring. The person telling the story may not feel whole and complete anymore, but he does remember that once there was a heart beating within him that could care. There is still a soul within that registers the loss. I can never be a person who does not care much, so when I sing the song, I must be a person who pretends not to care.

After singing the song so much this week, I got to thinking about some of the classic popular songs I love that are sung by or about prostitutes. It seems an odd theme for a pop song, I know, but really, aren’t a vast number of popular songs about lost love and the pain that comes from longing? Think about how many songs are about people’s desperate search for an escape from loneliness, or about the bliss that comes from feeling a deep and true connection to another person after a tormented period of hopelessness. People often think of prostitutes as dirty, dangerous and jaded, but their profession exists to offer the promise of pleasure and escape from the pain of the world. Their job is to sell a bit of themselves for a little while to people who are desperate to connect, to feel something deep and real, to feel cared for and soothed and satisfied for a sliver of time before they go back out into the freezing night, rushing to their homes, hoping to avoid being seen by those who would crush and destroy them for having the audacity to believe in whatever pleasure and happiness they can find (or pretend to find) in a dark and dirty world.

Guilt, shame and social ostracism are braided into the fiber of their lives; they exist to provide comfort and to satisfy elemental longings, but they are despised and punished for providing services that are both desperately sought after and deeply reviled. Theirs is a jaded, bitter corner of the world of longing and desire, and that is what makes their songs and stories so dramatic and powerful a counterpoint to the light and airy songs we usually associate with love. Drama comes from contrasts. In order for the spotlight to shimmer brightly, it must be surrounded by dark shadows to set it off.

I first saw the film version of the musical Cabaret when I was just nine. My outgoing mother liked to take me along with her as often as possible when she socialized, so despite the adult nature of the film, she and a friend brought me along to see Cabaret. I dutifully covered my ears and closed my eyes on command whenever Mom turned to me and whispered “PG! PG!” or “Parental guidance time!” The whole film was infused with a bawdy, mysterious sexuality far beyond my understanding, but it was compelling and fascinating enough that I enjoyed every lurid, intoxicating moment of it. It cleverly incorporated stories within stories, and it was full of great Bob Fosse dance numbers and catchy, seemingly lighthearted nightclub songs that were invested with deeper, uglier meanings. The songs reflected and expanded on the stories of the main characters and had scary parallels to the Nazi-inflicted horrors going on in the streets of Berlin just outside the doors of the cabaret.

The story is essentially about the unwillingness of many Germans (and many foreigners then living in Berlin) to acknowledge the growing danger of Hitler’s leadership in the early 1930s, and about the political apathy and, ultimately, the fear that fueled German society’s acceptance of inhumanity and depravity. The musical play, which is based on John van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera and Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 book of stories called Goodbye to Berlin, is about the sickness that grows in a culture and in the hearts of its citizens when they refuse to see what is going on around them and refuse to look after each other out of fear for their own welfare. The musical numbers by John Kander and Fred Ebb are perfectly attuned to the zeitgeist of 1930s Berlin, and are gems in and of themselves. They also expand on, deepen and enrich the power of the story in ways that few composers for musical theater ever achieve.

The team of Kander and Ebb had a wonderful knack for drinking in the style and feel of the music of the past and then creating their own versions of those songs so that they felt completely authentic but were also entirely original. John Kander has said that when he was preparing to compose the music for plays like Chicago (which takes place in the 1920s) or Cabaret (which is set in the 1930s), he liked to immerse himself in the music of the time and listen to it so fully, deeply and constantly that it filled his brain. He then put it aside completely for a while and let it marinate and stew, and then when he began to write, the influences and motifs of that time period would wend their ways into his songs naturally, so he could compose comfortably in a fashion that had gone out of style forty years before. He was so masterful at it that a number of his songs, which seem so appropriate in the context of their original plays, went on to be popular standards that can stand on their own—songs like “Mein Herr,” “Cabaret,” Wilkommen,” “New York, New York” and “All That Jazz.”

The song “I Don’t Care Much” was written for the original Broadway production of Cabaret, but it was cut from the film version. I saw a stage production of the show featuring Joel Grey (the Tony- and Oscar-winning original Emcee) over 25 years ago, but the song never stuck with me until I saw Alan Cumming sing it last June in full drag in the astounding revival of Cabaret that is currently finishing up its run at Studio 54. When he stood at the microphone in his shimmering dress and heavy makeup, he was mesmerizing. Previous Sam Mendes-directed revivals of Cabaret starring Alan Cumming were staged in London in 1993 and in New York in 1998;  the video above was excerpted from the 1993 production. Mendes’s dark, lurid style of staging the show works splendidly to underscore the tatty, raw, dangerous quality of life lived by those who spent their time in Berlin’s dark underbelly during the 1930s. The costumes are ripped, the makeup is smeared, the voices are gritty and the desperate quality of the characters is more evident and affecting than in the prettier, cleaner film version and earlier stage productions.

Alan Cumming said in his excellent interview with Terry Gross on her NPR radio show “Fresh Air” that he came up with a back story for his Emcee character in which he started off as a young male prostitute and worked his way into the cabaret life, so as a former rent-boy he has no fancy graces, and no desire to hide his voracious sexual appetites or comfort with the seedier side of life. In earlier productions of the show, Joel Grey held every eye and commanded attention with his strange, sexless, voyeuristic portrayal of the Emcee: he was an outsider laughing and smirking at the performers and the audience in a detached, amoral way. Alan Cumming’s version is immersed in the world of the cabaret, reveling in it, tainted by it, and ravaged by sex and drugs and decadence. The outsider Emcee of Joel Grey acted like a Greek chorus, pointing us at the depths of degradation others went to to shield their eyes from the ugliness of the outside world. Alan Cumming’s Emcee is drenched in underworld decadence and is ultimately pulled down and destroyed by it, as are all the others who could not escape from the decadent, dangerous world they were trapped in.

Cumming stands at the microphone in the dark and sings the song of a weary, degraded prostitute stripped of feeling by a sick and dangerous world, no longer caring what he must do to make enough money to eat or pay the rent or buy a coat thick enough to keep out winter’s chill. At first, as he stands in a dress and full makeup, the audience sometimes laughs at his outlandishness, thinking this is just another lark, a humorous way to remind us of the fluid and open sexuality of decadent pre-World-War-II Berliners. But in short order, his rough voice tells us that his kisses mean nothing. His comforts can be bought as a way to keep shoes on his feet and food in his stomach, but they mean little more to him:

Words sound false
When your coat’s too thin
Feet don’t waltz
When the roof caves in
So if you kiss me
If we touch
Warning’s fair
I don’t care very much

Another beautiful song about streetwalkers is Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” which was considered bordering on scandalous when it was introduced in the musical The New Yorkers, which opened on Broadway in 1930. There are many fine versions of this song; the Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday versions are classics. My own favorite is the simple version recorded by Elvis Costello with nothing more than an acoustic guitar early in his career. The song is sung to passersby as a come-on, much as flower sellers or strawberry sellers used to hawk their wares:

Love for sale,
Appetizing young love for sale.
Love that’s fresh and still unspoiled,
Love that’s only slightly soiled,
Love for sale.
Who will buy?
Who would like to sample my supply?
Who’s prepared to pay the price,
For a trip to paradise?
Love for sale.

The song was banned from the radio in the 1930s, but it became a hit for multiple artists in the following two years nonetheless, and it has been recorded by scores of major singers in the decades since. Even k.d. lang and Fine Young Cannibals put their stamp on the song. The faded, jaded quality deepens as the song progresses:

Let the poets pipe of love
in their childish way,
I know every type of love
Better far than they.
If you want the thrill of love,
I’ve been through the mill of love;
Old love, new love
Every love but true love.

During her 2011 tour, Broadway star Idina Menzel sang the song as a bored-sounding, lite-jazz mashup with another prostitution-related song, “Roxanne,” by The Police. Most of us know the driving, original version of the plaintive call by a lover to his streetwalker sweetheart to give up her career to be with him and him alone. However, my favorite version is a gorgeous, stripped down solo version sung by Sting in the filmed version of the 1981 Amnesty International benefit concert called The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. In it, Sting, accompanied only but his own spare, loose guitar playing, wails with so much more hopeless yearning than in the original song. His pain is greater, and his angst is so thick it hangs in the air and echoes along with his desperate voice. The performance is a tour de force that still gives me chills.

Elvis Costello is not the only musician in his family who can sing despairingly of the shattered dreams and desperate acts of those who walk the streets for money. His wife, jazz pianist and chanteuse Diana Krall, does a stunning version of the 1933 hit song “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” No, not the song by  Green Day—I mean the Harry Warren/Al Dubin classic that starts like this:

I walk along the street of sorrow
The boulevard of broken dreams
Where gigolo and gigolette
Can take a kiss without regret
So they forget their broken dreams
You laugh tonight and cry tomorrow
When you behold your shattered schemes
Gigolo and gigolette
Wake up to find their eyes are wet
With tears that tell of broken dreams

Gigolos and gigolettes were considered just one step, if that, from prostitution. A gigolo is, by definition, a man who seeks the company and monetary support of wealthy people (usually women) who pay him for his charms. The term came about in the 1920s as a back-formation from the term “gigolette,” which then referred to a woman hired to be a dancing partner (and sometimes something more). This song is often sung with swelling passion and force, such as in the 1952 version by Tony Bennett, but I think the slow, melting version sung by crackle-voiced alto Diana Krall is the most haunting version of them all. Its restraint is more inviting and much sexier than the bolder, brighter Tony Bennett version. As famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee said, always leave your audience wanting more.

It may seem contrarian of me to write about the darker, sadder side of love and desire just in time for Valentine’s Day, but so many of the richest, deepest songs about love are the ones based on loss and longing. If you find yourself feeling scarred or let down by life and love over the Valentine’s Day weekend, know this: you are not alone, and the pain of lost love will heal. Skip the new film about the sadist whose stalking, assault and abuse of a young virgin are painted as “romantic” by a passion-starved populace. Instead, drown your sorrows in a few of these songs about the darker side of love, and then get up, go out and be the loving, kind and openhearted sort of person you’re looking for. Acts of loving kindness set in motion by good-hearted people reverberate through time; they are carried in the hearts of the people whom we touch with our love long after we ourselves are gone. Enjoy these angst-filled musical gems, but don’t let yourself become jaded. Be your best self and keep loving.