COPLAND: The City.
Francis Guinan (narrator); Post-Classical Ensemble/Angel Gil-Ordóñez.
Naxos 2.110231 DVD () () TT: 131:4
In 1939, Aaron Copland landed a gig to score a documentary to be shown at the New York World's Fair. He had long been interested in film music for its own aesthetic sake and for the opportunity it afforded the modern composer to connect with a large audience. Also, George Antheil had regularly sent him reports from California of all the money to be made in the Hollywood studios. Copland decided to create a musical "calling card," which eventually got him the Hollywood work he sought. Along with Virgil Thomson, Copland created some of the finest and most influential film scores the U. S. has produced.

The film, The City, directed by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke and with a script by architectural critic and city planner Lewis Mumford, ranks, along with the work of Robert Flaherty and Pare Lorentz, among the classics of the American documentary movement. Essentially, it's a sermon on the virtues of city planning. The modern city is viewed as a chaotic, dangerous, crime-infested place. The alternative is the planned community, exemplified by the New Deal's Greenbelt, Maryland, project outside of Washington, D. C. -- a government enterprise that provided affordable housing for government workers during the Depression. The DVD's contents consist of the film with a newly-recorded soundtrack, the film with its original soundtrack, a documentary on Greenbelt, and a conversation with filmmaker and historian George Stoney on the importance of The City.

The City represents, among other things, the pre-war faith in science and in the efficacy of large-scale planning. The government undertook the building of Greenbelt both as a way to create jobs during the Depression and as a model for the private sector to emulate. New, rationally-designed communities would be located in the healthful countryside, linked to the city by broad highways. If it sounds familiar, it is because unfortunately, after the war, the government got its wish. Planned communities sprang up and continue to spring in the form of suburban development, the epitome of the bland and the sterile -- something that The City captures but doesn't notice. Greenbelt seems a bit as if it should house the Village of the Damned, with its Mondrian-like, surprisingly plain Deco architecture and orderly inhabitants, including, most distressingly, children. In context, the earlier part of the film, the city sequences, comes over as far more interesting and exciting. The children seem, somehow, more real, finding play space on the sidewalks and in the streets rather than on adult-designed playgrounds. Among the most delicious aspects of child's play is that it occurs away from the supervision (and taint) of adults. As a boy, I lived across the street from a rather nice playground, flanked by an extensive woods. We used the playground mostly as a passage to the woods. Despite Mumford's script, the filmmakers and certainly Copland draw more inspiration from city life rather than from Alphaville. To be fair, I should point out that the Greenbelt kids, now seventy years older, seem to have loved the place.

Copland's music is wonderful, long considered a peak of film scoring. He did reuse some of the sequences, notably "New England Countryside" and "Sunday Traffic," in his Music for the Movies. These undoubtedly count as the most familiar, but the entire score is worthy of a hearing. But the real test of a film score lies in its interaction with the screen image. Almost from the beginning, Copland shows himself a master. An idle mill-wheel suddenly becomes alive with river current, and the music instantly brightens in a spray of notes. In the most famous sequence (one that film students generally study), "Sunday Traffic," Copland works against the image to hilarious, ironic effect. A jaunty march accompanies roadway gridlock. I remember watching either Leonard Bernstein or Michael Tilson Thomas perform this bit to the film for one of their TV specials. Cinematically and musically, this is the documentary's highpoint.

Naxos has also provided new performances for Thomson's scores to Lorentz's Plow That Broke the Plains and Flaherty's The River and synchronized them to the films. To me, it's a great idea. I wonder why nobody thought to do it earlier. After all, you also get the film with its original soundtrack, so it's not as if you really lose anything, except crappier sound and the original narrator. The great tragedian Morris Carnovsky speaks the "voice of God" narration of The City. Francis Guinan replaces him. Frankly, I think Guinan does the more nuanced, more effective job. On the other hand, I'm not sure I'd want to see his Shylock or Lear.

The very good performance fits the images well. No disrespect to Max Goberman's original, rather gritty performance, but seeing the film with its now-stereo soundtrack reminds me of seeing a house with a fresh coat of paint. I learned a lot from the Stoney interview (Joseph Horowitz is the interloculator) about film history and about certain technical features of Thirties documentaries. Most important, I heard all of Copland's contribution to this project for the first time. Someone should make this wonderful score into a concert suite.

S.G.S. (April 2009)