[JPL] Jazz on Screen: The Sparks Are Eclectic

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April 13, 2008
FILM
Jazz on Screen: The Sparks Are Eclectic

By MATT ZOLLER SEITZ
THE forthcoming exhibition of jazz-related movies, posters, video clips and
merchandise at the Museum of Modern Art is dauntingly vast, but its title
could not be plainer: ³Jazz Score.² Those two words encompass the
exhibition¹s breadth and depth as well as its provocative omissions, and
they allude to jazz¹s complex, somewhat wary interaction with cinema ‹ one
that¹s fundamentally different from the alliance between film and its
longtime go-to music source, classical.

Classical music, like classical narrative filmmaking, prefers to execute
detailed plans. Jazz starts with a spare, flexible plan and finds its magic
in solo flourishes and the give and take of musical conversation. It
encourages happy accidents and flights of fancy, phenomena that are often
verboten in filmmaking because there¹s so much money at stake.

The exhibition, which opens Thursday and runs until Sept. 15, eschews some
well-known jazz-related movies (Clint Eastwood¹s 1988 ³Bird" and Spike Lee¹s
1990 ³Mo¹ Better Blues," to name just two) and makes room for films that
aren¹t necessarily known for their scores, like Mr. Eastwood¹s
bullet-riddled 1977 star vehicle ³The Gauntlet" (scored by Jerry Fielding)
and Mr. Lee¹s 1986 feature debut "She¹s Gotta Have It" and his 2006
Hurricane Katrina documentary, "When the Levees Broke."

The conservative end of the collaboration scale is represented by some
artistic triumphs and durable entertainments: Alexander Mackendrick¹s 1957
night-life melodrama, ³Sweet Smell of Success,² and Otto Preminger¹s 1955
jazz-addict cautionary tale, ³The Man With the Golden Arm²; Orson Welles¹s
baroque 1958 morality play, ³Touch of Evil²; Peter Yates¹s 1968 hard-boiled
cop picture, ³Bullitt²; Richard Brooks¹s 1967 true-crime adaptation, ³In
Cold Blood²; and Roman Polanski¹s 1962 psychological thriller, ³Knife in the
Water,² to name a few. But with some conspicuous exceptions these scores
support the drama rather than shape it. They¹re less jazz films than films
that happen to contain jazz.

Henry Mancini¹s jumpy, conga-driven brass arrangements for ³Touch of Evil,²
for example, match the film¹s jaunty, malevolent mood. And the 2000
theatrical re-release ‹ the version on the museum¹s screening schedule,
recut according to a detailed editing memo that Welles¹s studio disregarded
‹ spotlights them in the famous opening tracking shot, which follows
Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh through a decrepit border town while
Mancini¹s distinctive melody drifts through open windows in a variety of
modes (salsa, slow jazz, big band). Such touches, however striking, are more
triumphs of sound design than instances of one art form informing another.

The same can be said for ³Knife in the Water,² scored with Krzysztof
Komeda¹s stripped-down jazz quartet cues; ³Sweet Smell of Success² and ³The
Man With the Golden Arm,² both fueled by Elmer Bernstein¹s galumphing string
sections and hysterical bursts of brass; and Louis Malle¹s stunning
minimalist thriller ³Elevator to the Gallows,² scored by Miles Davis a year
before he recorded his landmark ³Kind of Blue.²

Make no mistake; these scores are terrific, and in Davis¹s case, brilliant.
The bebop reveries that underscore the most dramatic parts of ³Gallows² are
as reflective and meticulous as Mr. Malle¹s characters are recklessly
passionate; when Maurice Ronet¹s cold-blooded hero puts a gun to his boss¹s
head, Davis¹s fast-paced yet oddly relaxed music cue seems both to mirror
and mock his confidence. But while Mr. Malle gave Davis more creative input
than composers are typically allowed ‹ and even heeded his advice during
editing to remove some music and replace it with eerie silence ‹ here too
jazz is more boldly conceived than employed.

Even the most jazz-appreciative films ‹ a label that surely describes Mikio
Naruse¹s 1960 proto-feminist drama ³When a Woman Ascends the Stairs² and
Preminger¹s 1959 rape-trial thriller ³Anatomy of a Murder² ‹ tend to draw on
jazz¹s smart, sexy aura but not its liberating potential. ³When a Woman
Ascends the Stairs,² about a widowed bar hostess (Hideko Takamine) trying to
open her own place in Tokyo¹s nightclub district, employs Toshiro Mayuzumi¹s
piano-, xylophone- and triangle-dominated score for dramatic emphasis and
smoky atmosphere.

Duke Ellington¹s ³Anatomy of a Murder² score is an omnibus of influences,
from New Orleans jazz to Irish folk music, and provides a dandy excuse for
his cameo. Even so, the music¹s more urgent function is to reassure
audiences that they¹re worldly enough to hear the film¹s star, James
Stewart, use taboo words like ³panties² without being moved to write their
congressman.

But in other features screened by the museum, the music doesn¹t just help
the film; it very nearly is the film.

In ³The Servant,² an unsettling 1963 social satire written by Harold Pinter,
John Dankworth¹s score seconds the movie¹s progression from a droll comedy
of manners to something more unsettling, even sinister.

In Arthur Penn¹s 1965 ³Mickey One,² starring Warren Beatty as a struggling
nightclub comic, Eddie Sauter¹s eclectically influenced score doesn¹t just
reaffirm that the hero is stuck in an excitingly seedy milieu. It pursues
the same aesthetic strategy as the film¹s French New Wave-influenced editing
(by Aram Avakian, who cut the 1960 documentary ³Jazz on a Summer¹s Day²),
finding an analogue for Mickey¹s scattered thoughts and feelings.

More recently Terence Blanchard¹s score for Mr. Lee¹s ³When the Levees
Broke² is both a lament for vanished lives and property and an aural account
of the cultural history the flood washed away. Mr. Lee bends image to music,
truncating or extending shots to complement an ominous drumroll or a
mournfully elongated trumpet phrase.

A few selections go even further, to the point of letting jazz call the tune
that movies dance to. A double bill of Shirley Clarke¹s early ¹60s
race-conscious features ³The Cool World² and ³The Connection² shows how
jazz¹s penchant for controlled improvisation can be applied to filmmaking
without dispersing a movie¹s dramatic momentum or moral force. Zbigniew
Rybczynski¹s 1973 musical short ³Plamuz² ‹ one of many jazz-influenced
Polish movies in the exhibition ‹ animates a cool jazz ensemble¹s jam
session, splitting the screen into pulsing shards of color that dance to
different instruments from one moment to the next.

The crown jewel on the schedule is Henning Carlsen¹s 1962 neorealist-style
³Dilemma,² which contrasts the privileges of white South Africans with the
deprivations blacks endured under apartheid. The score juxtaposes American
and African musical styles and reflects the film¹s hopes as well as its
anxieties. The film¹s music-driven opening ‹ an extended, worldless montage
of Johannesburg life ‹ is a symphony of a city that makes life itself seem
musical.

Even less daring features have their lyrical, pure-jazz moments. Martin
Ritt¹s Ellington-scored 1961 movie, ³Paris Blues² ‹ a nearly plotless
account of two American musicians (Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman) in Paris
that is essentially an advertisement for jazz and French tourism ‹ would
rather marinate in cool than hustle toward catharsis. Good thing too. No
moviegoer in his right mind would take a drum-tight plot at the expense of a
dreamy-slow cover of ³Mood Indigo² that could be hold music for an opium
den, or the shot of Mr. Poitier and his lover (Diahann Carroll) strolling
arm in arm toward the Arc de Triomphe at dawn, Ellington¹s score imploring
them to get a room.


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