Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Ritme, rhythm, juxtaposed things

Brief notes:  70 % carinyena (carignan), 30% garnaxta (garnacha); brightly fruity with a dense but still plush core. From the Priorat region of northeast Spain, an area known for fine red wines particularly since the 1990s. Very delicious. Retail, about $25. 

Ritme means rhythm. The [English] word always reminds me of the time my school friend Nancy got herself out of a sixth-grade spelling bee by deliberately misspelling "rhythm." She glanced nervously at our other little school friend Kara, who had just done the same thing with some other word. They sat down together in the audience, flushed and finished. By age 13, they were too cool for spelling bees. I stayed in ....

So we think of rhythm, of mismatched things going together in a pleasing way. I know rhythm has a technical musical definition but I could never understand what it was, nor how it differed from beat. Those were the only two questions I got wrong on tests in a college Music Appreciation class. I was fine with specifics on the names of medieval musical notes, on the other hand.

Anyway rhythm in the sense of mismatched things going together in a pleasing way -- note the art on the label, above -- makes me think of a movie I watched again recently, a favorite. Do you remember Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006)? I gather the French press at Cannes hated it at the time, and I don't recall it being a box-office smash, but I have always liked it. For one thing, the photography is gorgeous, beginning with the scenes of a carriage journey through sumptuous gray-mist and amber-brown woods, just touched with red leaves and green moss on the trees, and going on to Versailles, which, to be sure, it would be difficult to make look bad. I especially like the occasional long overhead camera shots of one or two women in their gowns ascending immense staircases on the palace grounds. I don't suppose many people have had reason to climb those stairs in those clothes since the events in question, unless it were to make movies about them. So shots like that seem to me a snippet, almost, of time travel. Figures in a landscape. Here is how tiny they would have looked.

Once at Versailles, the film's juxtaposition of an eighteenth-century story with modern pop music and all those "jump cut" scenes of shoes and candy, again, gorgeous, might seem artistically a cacophony and a disaster. Not rhythmic. Add the hiring of healthy, toothy young American and Anglo actors and actresses to play characters whose minds we cannot possibly reconstruct -- and the mind shows through in the body, in posture and gestures, don't you think? -- and you have awkward scenes. Young modern men dressed in tricornered hats and breeches goof around in the woods. Young women in gowns and fichus apparently ad-lib their admiration of the chickens at the Petit Trianon's little fake farm, the "Hameau." The cameras follow them.

But I think these are exactly the things Ms. Coppola got oddly right. Those characters did wear those clothes in the woods in 1770. Duchesses invited to the Hameau may have had to enthuse weakly over the livestock. Overall I think she got right the understanding that here were some bored young people, living a life beyond mere wealth, who had very little to do all day. They followed palace etiquette, they milled around. The young men hunted. There were clothes and food. There was gambling. After forty-five minutes or so of this, plus shoes and candy, to be sure the movie-goer wants to say "all right, step up the pace, let's have something happen." But this is what their lives were like ... the slow passage of days and amusements, like pictures in a book. Eight years to consummate a marriage would seem an eternity.

The languid pace makes the final scenes, of disaster, also emotionally sensible because they come on as nearly inexplicably and violently as they must have done in real life. When we see the king and queen eat dinner in public as usual, but in a strangely dark room, we know something horrible has changed. The roar of the angry crowd penetrates from outside. Later, on her balcony, Marie Antoinette bows to the thousands in her courtyard, nothing heard but the thrum of the wind blowing the flames of the torches. The people's farm tools look beyond wicked. In bright silent daylight the next day, we see the shattered gorgeous bedroom.

The movie's real weaknesses may stem from Sofia Coppola's director's hand being languid and light in every respect. Not only do the performers seem often at a loss, but the IMDb movie site lists dozens of continuity and historical flaws in Marie Antoinette. Does that point to sheer laziness? Is that what the French at Cannes resented? The gorgeous carriage ride must be flaw number one. The woods look autumnal, but Madame la dauphine made her journey in May. Then there are the jet contrails above the palace. I never noticed. It might be a glancing, forgivable error except the camera was pointed deliberately up for that scene. I noticed later. Why didn't the cameraman see? Or the director? Four-tined forks and Pekingese dogs were both unknown in that era, IMDb also tells us, although that seems farfetched. Perhaps some diary or bill of sale will be unearthed someday, to attest that they were. On my first viewing of the gorgeousness I was more distracted by sheerly ignorant things. His Majesty's calling out "bravo" to his wife after a performance at her theater, for example. Her Majesty's inability to handle a tea cup and saucer.

Talking of distractions and flaws, maybe it's no one's fault but is simply today's beautiful, sophisticated cameras that are part of the trouble when it comes to telling a story set convincingly in the past. Hollywood no longer films period-piece stage plays, whose sets and costumes are already part of the creative structure and so help us along in suspending our disbelief. Recently I watched on YouTube Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, starring those two legends, Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh. Act One's rocky escarpment, Sphinx, and moonlight looked perfectly ridiculous, but they were at least professionally undistracting. This was theater. "We are in ancient Egypt." The beautiful modern camera, not focused on a stage but recording actors acting on a spot in our own world, records everything so perfectly that you cannot help seeing that is today's sunshine, lighting the silver-blonde curls of the little French girl playing Madame Royale, the queen's daughter. (I love French honorifics.) The tot is truly absorbed in "la petite abeille," the little bee, in the garden. And there are the jet contrails. Who was on that flight? Rip Torn, the actor, costumed, steps carefully over tree roots and underbrush to go and greet his new granddaughter-in-law, Kirsten Dunst/Marie Antoinette. If our Ms. Coppola ever ventures into stage work, I think she will have a hard time understanding the concept of the fourth wall.

In spite of all the foregoing, I find Marie Antoinette repays fresh viewings. If only for the sumptuous photography, perhaps. Juxtaposing it with Norma Shearer's Marie Antoinette (1938) can make the latter film seem actually heavyweight. Shearer and Robert Morley, as Louis, had emotions.

And I was wrong about rhythm meaning "mismatched things going together in a pleasing way." Maybe that is harmony? Rhythm means "a flow or movement characterized by recurring elements or features." From the Greek rhythmos, measure; base of rhein, to flow. "See STREAM."

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