Sunday, August 22, 2010

Insufficiently Silly Love Songs

One post I've gotten some (polite) adverse feedback on is my "Why Sondheim can't write a love song" post, where I argued that Stephen Sondheim's ballads tend to suffer from vague, non-specific, generalized lyrics that could be about anything. As the comments noted, I was the one who was over-generalizing, and that's a fair point to make. (It's also a fair point to make that I over-indulged in jokey contrarianism for its own sake, blurring the line between serious points and over-the-top ones.)

Still, I can't say I've really changed my mind on the subject since reading Sondheim's first volume of collected lyrics, "Finishing the Hat." (It covers most of his produced shows from 1954-1981, with a second volume -- featuring the later shows and hopefully an appendix of other lyrics -- due out later.) I don't want to say anything about the book just yet, so this post won't quote anything from the book or Sondheim's annotations. But the lyrics are almost all familiar quantities, so I have to say that it still strikes me that he shuts down and goes bland whenever a ballad is called for.

There are lots of examples that jump out at me but the one that really struck me this time around was the climax of Anyone Can Whistle, a ballad called "With So Little To Be Sure Of," the most sincere moment in a surreal show and therefore the key moment in the evening. And while I've never cared much for the song (or the show), the incredible vagueness of the lyric stands out for me; there's really not an actual concrete image in the whole thing:

With so little to be sure of,
If there's anything at all,
If there's anything at all,
I'm sure of here and now and us together.
All I'll ever be I owe you,
If there's anything to be.
Being sure enough of you
Makes me sure enough of me.
Thanks for everything we did,
Everything that's past.
Everything that's over too fast,
None of it is wasted,
All of it will last,
Everything that's here and now and us together...

And so on. Now a moment like this arguably calls for vagueness because the characters aren't supposed to be three-dimensional; the show was a fable and there were very few "real" things in the show that could be incorporated into the lyric. But it's not just in that show; it happens in ballads all through the book, as early as West Side Story and as late as Merrily We Roll Along. But also, that's the kind of moment when other lyricists compensate for thin characters by finding other images and concrete ideas that can flesh out a typical subject; half the art of traditional lyric writing was finding some new image to express an old idea. It's what made Yip Harburg portray love as literally a force of nature in "Right as the Rain" or Sondheim's bete noire Larry Hart compare loneliness to being adrift on the ocean ("guided by just a lonely heart"), or even a less distinctive ballad like "Lost in Loveliness" calls forth a number of powerful images from Leo Robin, all of them describing what the singer does, not just what he feels (looking, going mad, reaching for a star, closing your eyes, walking away, dreaming, praying). Possibly because of his rule that nothing outside the show is relevant to a song, Sondheim often spends important numbers putting nothing but the familiar (abstract feelings, mostly) into a lyric. Which is how you get a lovely Richard Rodgers tune slightly weighed down by this fairly typical Sondheim idea (though at least it's got some hugging and holding in there to keep it from floating away into total abstraction):

Take the moment,
Let it happen,
Hug the moment,
Make it last.
Hold the feeling
For the moment
Or the moment
Will have passed.

He's hardly the only great lyricist who does this, of course. Still, I think one reason "Send In the Clowns" became a hit is that even though many listeners weren't sure what the title meant, it still conjures up something outside of the song -- a physical image, and even something happening (the clowns are already here). "Not a Day Goes By," which people keep trying to make into a hit ballad (they can't, because it's a rather poor song), is just a laundry list of feelings and abstract emotions in both its "happy" and "angry" versions -- though, typically, the angry version is a bit more concrete -- and doesn't have that kind of physical hook that can set it apart. Whereas "Losing My Mind," a song with some currency outside of the show, has all kinds of actual things, objects, actions, for the singer and the audience to latch onto and feel that there's a world being conjured up by the song.

While I'm at it, I should say a couple of things about Sondheim's criticisms of older lyricists -- and here, again, I'm going to stick to things he's said in the past, rather than direct quotations from the book. The things he's said about Larry Hart have always been fair, up to a point. That is, when he points to an example of mis-stress or awkward verbiage in Hart's lyrics, he's usually right, though he doesn't always distinguish between minor mis-steps and ones that actually hurt the song. (As an example of the latter: "Love Never Went to College," the song I quoted in my other post, is almost crippled by the fact that Hart sets Rodgers' tune with a strong accent on the first syllable of "never," making that syllable more strongly accented than "love," which is the actual subject of the song. The fact that this song never became popular probably has something to do with the fact that it's so terribly awkward to sing due to Hart's foul-up.)

My problem with Sondheim's comments on Hart are threefold. One I just mentioned, that he always tends to give the impression that all technical lapses are equally bad. This principle isn't a problem for his own lyrics -- at least not a big problem; it can lead to bloodlessness -- but isn't great for encouraging younger lyricists to take the kind of wild risks (with language, imagery, sound and sense) that can produce distinctive talents. I wouldn't really want someone conducting a songwriting workshop on that principle, but it's my impression that a lot of people do (which obviously is not Sondheim's fault; he's more a symptom than a cause). So you get the current situation where pop lyricists, with all their flaws of technique, are willing to put more weird and wild ideas into their songs than most theatre lyricists. And it doesn't have to be that way.

Another is that his comments, repeated often over the years, have helped create a portrait of Hart as an irredeemably sloppy technician. Now, again, that's not really Sondheim's fault; he's a contributing factor, but the main problem is that the Rodgers and Hart shows that get revived most often -- particularly Pal Joey and Babes in Arms -- include some of his worst work along with some of the best. By the late '30s and early '40s, for various possible reasons (drinking, growing apart from Rodgers, increasing involvement with book-writing and other tasks), Hart's work had become very uneven, and could go from technically brilliant to very sloppy in the same show or even two refrains of the same song. There are some shows from that period where Hart's work is great almost all night, but they're often flops like Higher and Higher (a much better score, song for song, than Pal Joey). And if you look at Rodgers and Hart's shows from the '20s, up to and through their stint in Hollywood in the early '30s, Hart's work is much more consistently sharp; even though he was rhyming even more heavily then, he usually managed to do it while keeping the lyrics clear and singable. (Look at "Manhattan," an early Rodgers/Hart song where the lyric maintains is colloquial style amidst a barrage of rhymes and jokes.) Basically a close look at Rodgers and Hart's work would show that Hart got sloppier as he got closer to death -- which doesn't let him off the hook for sloppiness, but is a bit different from saying that he was always sloppy. Though I may be biased because I think Rodgers and Hart's best work was in their '20s shows and movies like Love Me Tonight; by the time they split up, it was probably time for both of them to move on and find new partners (Rodgers did, of course; Hart died before he could find someone else to work with).

And the final thing is it just encourages a sort of culture of nit-picking which has become the bane of all pop-culture discussion, but has also infected the way Broadway buffs discuss lyrics: I'm always hearing "worst lyrics" discussions where most of the examples are gotcha-type examples of words that aren't real words, or images that couldn't exist in real life. (This isn't a Hart example, but seriously, can we stop making fun of the lark learning to pray? Have you seen the show? That's exactly the image that this character would come up with.) Which again helps perpetuate the idea that the best lyrics are sensible, technically perfect and realistic ones, an aesthetic that doesn't leave much room for a Hart or a Bob Merrill or many other great lyrics that don't follow every rule of lyrical technique. Again, some criticisms of technique -- bad stress, bad rhymes, unclear sense -- are fair. When it turns into critiquing lyrics for its own sake, irrespective of whether they work or not, it becomes limiting.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hassan (Would Have Gotten) Chop[ped]!

I didn't have much to add on the "Looney Tunes All-Stars" DVDs and the decision to present all the post-1954 cartoons in widescreen format (that is, with the top and bottom cut off). But Thad has some comparisons of screenshots from the fullscreen and widescreen versions, showing that compositions -- and sometimes even the ability to read signs -- aren't helped by the cropping.

I'll add a couple of things: starting in 1957 or so, the films seem to have gotten a little bit better about composing for the possibility of matting. I saw "Ducking the Devil" and a Road Runner cartoon ("Zip n' Snort," I think) in widescreen in a movie theatre, and they looked all right that way. "Ducking" looks OK on the DVD too. And you'll notice that even in that screenshot from "Mad as a Mars Hare," Jones made sure to keep the "Earth" sign in a spot where it wouldn't be cut off. Many of the 1954-1956 cartoons, however -- cartoons that were either made or begun before the studio shut down -- look quite bad in the fake widescreen; not only are the compositions bad but there's a feeling that the cartoons have been blown up or zoomed in.

The most irritating of all is "Lumber Jack Rabbit": the credits were not made with widescreen in mind, so WB has to present them in fullscreen (otherwise, as Thad says, they'd lose the copyright information), and then they switch to matted widescreen for the cartoon proper. And all of this without giving us the 3-D version that justifies this film's existence.

This thing does answer my question about why WB's "family entertainment" division was, according to rumor, reluctant to release any cartoons made before 1953. I wondered "why 1953?" Now we have our answer: they don't want to release cartoons in fullscreen. Yes, we're seeing a transition away from the days of pan n' scan to something arguably even worse: an insistence that all films shown on TV or home video must fill up the new widescreen TVs. I say this is even worse because it will effectively make it even more difficult than it is already for older films to get home video releases. Companies are now worried that customers will not accept a film that has those black bars on the sides.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Abbey Lincoln, 1930-2010

She had an exceptional, multi-layered career. As the obituary notes, the early phase of her career culminated in her appearance in The Girl Can't Help It, where her outfit was recycled from Marilyn Monroe's wardrobe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (There's at least one other Blondes costume that turns up in the film; medium-budget studio films got the most bang for their buck by re-using glamorous sets and costumes from earlier films.) She's one of the few non rock performers in the movie, yet she makes one of the biggest impressions.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

To Melodrama And Back Again

I've been asked by a couple of people what I think of the new Life With Archie magazine, which continues the Archie "marriage" flash-forwards from last year's famous arc. (For more details on the first issue, see Albert Ching's review at Newsarama and Chris Sims' review.) I may not be the absolute right person to ask, since although I'm a genuine Archiephile, I haven't really followed much of the company's recent output.

From what I do know, I think their work has improved in the past few years -- they no longer ask everybody to draw like DeCarlo; Jughead is no longer being given personality makeovers to make him more appealing to girls -- but there still hasn't been much, in art or writing, to compare to the era when they had some of the best humor comics in the business. (As I've said elsewhere, if you compare Frank Doyle's scripts for Betty and Veronica in its prime -- the late '50s and early '60s -- and compare them to the Stan Lee scripts Dan DeCarlo was illustrating for Marvel at the same time, you'd conclude that Archie was a better company than Timely/Marvel. And for humor comics, it was.) It's partly about an inability to get the best people, or perhaps an unwillingness to pay for them. (Though I don't want to disparage some of the people who are there: at least two writers, Kathleen Webb and Craig Boldman, do fine work in the Frank Doyle tradition.) But mostly it's just that they're not funny enough.

Now, Archie has been getting genuine buzz in the last year for the first time in a long time, and it's a sign that Jon Goldwater's aggressive new approach is working. (The aggressiveness is all a means to an end, of course: trying to increase awareness of the franchise to the point that they can finally, at last, get that elusive movie.) But most of this approach is based on comics that aren't really humor comics. The marriage arc that started all this was alternate-universe melodrama. Archie's romance with Valerie from Josie and the Pussycats: more soapy melodrama. Tom DeFalco's current arc in Archie is solidly in the franchise tradition, but it's light tongue-in-cheek action in the style of the original Life With Archie title. The only pure comedy stunt was getting Robot Chicken's Tom Root to write an issue of Jughead, and that didn't make as much noise as the others. (Unfortunately Jughead under Craig Boldman and Rex Lindsey, which has been the company's best title for some time, hasn't sold terribly well -- proof, perhaps, that funny doesn't sell any more.) This is still a humor comics company, but it's less of one than it was.

Now, I think it's mostly the extreme restrictions they've put on themselves in terms of what the characters can do. When Dan DeCarlo was booted out, he was free to complain that Betty and Veronica had lost the distinctive personalities that made them fun to draw: specifically, it had been years since Veronica was allowed to act really mean. (This was an ongoing process; Betty had been getting nicer, sweeter and less crazy -- and less funny -- since the '60s at least.) Bob Bolling said in his 2004 interview in Comic Book Artist that "I get these scripts that are nothing but heads talking... I got two stories recently that were exactly alike." Which is a consequence of the limitations on comic violence, anti-social behavior, and so on. It's not just Archie; nearly all of children's entertainment now suffers from gigantic self-imposed restrictions on what you can do and say. But since a funny Archie story, like a funny animated cartoon, depends on behavior that is mean or anti-social if you really look at it carefully, it's not surprising that it's hard for the comics to be funny.

So, given the fact that it's hard for kids' comics to be funny these days, and that funny isn't a great sales proposition anyway, it may make sense for their output to move more toward drama and romance and adventure. Which is what's good about this Life With Archie magazine: unlike the marriage arc, which felt like a bit of a stunt and had a lot of sloppy drawing, this one actually sort of feels like a concept that could work and has something new to say about the characters.

A lot of this has to do with the art, by Norm Breyfogle. He's using an art style that feels right for this franchise: it's dramatic and atypical of Archie in layouts and angles, but the characters all look like themselves, and their physical personalities are as we've come to expect after 70 years. This is a much better "Archie as drama" approach than the realistic new-look stories (which Breyfogle also worked on). In the melancholy feel and specific sense of place, it sometimes has a Bob Bolling feel to it, though more polished and with a less tongue-in-cheek sensibility.

The influence of Bolling seems pretty strong in Archie lately, not surprising given that Mike Uslan is a big fan and Victor Gorelick has tended to champion his work. Bolling's Mad Doctor Doom and Chester are the villains in the current Archie story, and in a key moment in Life With Archie, Archie meets a grown-up version of Ambrose, illustrated with bits from the 1958 one-shot "Little Ambrose" comic.

(Incidentally, Ambrose says here that he met the Martians Abercrombie and Stitch; that would be a so-called continuity error except that Bolling himself did a story a month ago where he brought those characters back to meet the young Ambrose. I don't know if that was deliberately co-ordinated.)

Second, while the stories are crazy melodramatic, they are at least sort of plausible -- unlike that To Riverdale and Back Again TV movie (and Gene Colan's comic-book spinoff, done in a realistic style). The way the familiar characters develop, in both stories, usually fits what we know about them, and it's a way of thinking about how permanently-young characters might grow up, if they were allowed to grow up.

And finally there's the already-infamous device of tying together not only the two stories, but literally the entire 70-year history of the franchise, by suggesting that there are parallel universes and that every Archie world is "real" within its own universe. This is nutty, but it's also kind of brilliant, because it's got something for everyone:

- For people whose interest in the franchise is mostly historical, like me, it allows for lots of shout-outs to history from a company that used to want to downplay how old the characters are. (One of the new characters owns a banking firm called "Mirth of a Nation," a reference to Archie's old tag-line.)

- For comic book fans, who don't usually read Archie, it gives them something to talk and argue about. It also brings the franchise in line with the modern requirement that they have continuity (something that was never necessary in the classic comics, any more than in Looney Tunes cartoons) while not forcing them to disown any of the nine zillion variant versions.

- And for kids, it's potentially a way of guiding them to other titles or at least the concept that there are other forms of this comic to explore.

I don't know how any of this is going to hold up in future issues; Paul Kupperberg takes over the writing in issue # 2, but I don't know what he has planned or if this conceit can be sustained. But for now, it's the first comic of the new run that has the potential to justify the move to melodrama: it has certain similarities to Marvel's soap-opera retools of Millie the Model and Patsy Walker (and let's not get into Patsy's superhero makeover), but unlike them, it doesn't reject the original purpose of the characters and therefore has room to move without alienating existing readers.

All in all, it's pretty impressive that they've made something interesting of this, given how bad it sounded. It was originally announced as two separate comics, which sounded like a silly attempt to keep the marriage publicity alive. Then it was announced as two comics in one magazine, which just seemed like a way of avoiding the inevitable lower sales for an "Archie Marries Veronica" comic. But there actually seems to be method to most of the madness: the magazine format is getting them back onto news-stands where they belong, and the presence of Justin Bieber on the cover might be worth it. They may sort of know what they're doing, which would be the first time in a while that you could say that about this company.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Patricia Neal, Like Marcia Jeffries, Has Left

Another classic film actress is gone: Patricia Neal, who was 84.

Of all the many difficult parts she took on and did brilliantly, one of the most difficult may have been the one that made her a star in the first place: Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest, her prequel to The Little Foxes. The part of the young Regina Hubbard called for a young, relatively inexperienced actress who could be convincing as the character Tallulah Bankhead and Bette Davis had already made famous. It's too bad Neal wasn't chosen to do the film version, but the movie was made by Universal and Neal was under contract to Warner Brothers. (Universal gave the film to a former Warner Brothers player, Ann Blyth; I guess they were figuring she could do what she did in Mildred Pierce.)

Neal came to Warner Brothers at probably the worst time to be a contractee at that studio: most of their best people were leaving (directors, producers and stars) and they had little ability to develop young actresses into stars -- Doris Day managed it, but she had her singing career to help force Warners into giving her starring roles, plus her first starring film was a hit. New contractees seemed to get one shot at stardom and if it didn't take, the studio seemed to give up on them: so as Neal said, when The Fountainhead flopped, her chance to be a big star was over. (Even though she did what she could with a terrible part.) Her other Warners films didn't make much of an impact; The Hasty Heart was based on a good play -- her role in it isn't much, though -- and I remember liking The Breaking Point, which was Warners' attempt to do a To Have and Have Not movie that (unlike Hawks's) had something to do with the book.

Her career after leaving Warners follows a typical arc for the '50s: one good film as a freelancer, The Day The Earth Stood Still; some other not-so-successful freelance films, and more emphasis on theatre and New York-based TV, plus the occasional film that utilized a lot of New York talent (A Face In the Crowd is a Hollywood film, but made with mostly New York-based actors). Her theatre work helped get her back into a film industry that had more respect for theatre and TV success, until she suffered the strokes that derailed her career in its prime.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Italian Screenwriting System

Thinking about Suso Cecchi D'Amico, the prolific Italian screenwriter who just died at the age of 96, it occurs to me: while it's often complained that U.S. screenwriters don't get enough credit, writers in other countries' film industries were in some ways even more anonymous.

When I became interested in old movies, the names of some U.S. screenwriters sort of leaped out at me from repeated viewing, but it was much more difficult to learn the styles of Italian or Japanese screenwriters -- and not just because of the names themselves. Italian movies usually credited the screenplay to a committee of writers, making it difficult to single out one particular writer as worthy of attention.

And outside the U.S. (and to a lesser extent England) it was much easier for a director to get a writing credit on a film: there are many directors from France, Italy and so on who were credited as writer-directors for contributions that would never have earned them a writing credit in the U.S. I'm not saying, mind you, that these directors didn't deserve writing credit or that their contributions to the writing were negligible. But some of them were not full-scale writer-directors like a Bergman or a Sturges; they hired writers and worked with them.

So in English-speaking countries, a director like Hitchcock or Lubitsch might put his stamp on every bit of the scripting process without being billed as a co-writer, whereas in other countries they (along with others who contributed) would get a screenplay credit. And when the director is listed as one of the writers, even if he's only one of five or six writers, it's hard to pay much attention to the other names. There were some directors who were not writers at all, and whose movies tended to be clearer (both in credit and style) about who the writers were; Alain Resnais, who rarely takes writing credits, is an example.

Add all this up and I think it's rare that a screenwriter -- with rare exceptions of genuine star screenwriters like Jacques Prévert -- gets much critical attention. Of course this is to some extent the way it should be: the writing of a film is usually done by several people, all supervised by and writing toward the goals set by one person (preferably the director). But I do think it's a gap in my knowledge that I don't fully understand what D'Amico brought to the films she worked on, and I think I need to find out more about that.