COPLAND: The City.
Francis Guinan (narrator); Post-Classical Ensemble/Angel Gil-Ordóñez.
Naxos 2.110231 DVD () () TT: 131:4
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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
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
a chaotic, dangerous, crime-infested place. The alternative is the
planned community, exemplified by the New Deal's Greenbelt, Maryland,
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
this wonderful score into a concert suite.
S.G.S. (April 2009)
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