Saturday, October 15, 2016

2001: a musical odyssey

I don't quite get the current fad of accompanying movies with a live orchestra. I can understand it for silent films; I once attended a screening of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin with the San Francisco Symphony playing a score stitched together from chunks of Shostakovich symphonies, less because I wanted to see Battleship Potemkin again than because the prospect of hearing a nonstop wad of 75 minutes of Shostakovich thrilled me to the bone. It was as good as I'd hoped. And the movie wasn't bad either.

But a recent film, usually a crappy adventure blockbuster, with the high-quality music track stripped out but the dialog left in, and a live orchestra trying to match the precision timing of the original? It seems pointless to me.

There's just one sound-era film I thought worthy, both musically and cinematically, of being performed this way: 2001: A Space Odyssey. This week the SFS did it, so I went. It was the first time I'd seen the movie on a big screen since the original release in 1968 (though not, this time, in the original Cinerama format). Seeing it for the first time back then was one of my formative experiences. I was awed by the whole thing, not least by the music, all of which I was hearing for the first time, even the Blue Danube Waltz (hey, I was eleven). As for the Ligeti, I didn't realize it was supposed to be music until I got the soundtrack album.

The live performance this time, conducted by Brad Lubman, was actually at its best in the Ligeti pieces. The Blue Danube was a little too dance-band in style and less of the cool elegance of the Karajan recording on the soundtrack. But the live music did bring a vividness that contrasted with the slightly canned sound of the soundtrack. I shudder at the thought of the contrasts to be heard when they do Casablanca, a movie whose music is not at the top of the list of its memorable qualities, later this season.

Nearly half a century on, 2001's dialogue is rather hokey and often unintentionally funny (the cost of Dr. Floyd's phone call caused particular amusement, as did HAL's overweening self-assurance). But the special effects still hold up beautifully, in a way that Star Wars' don't. Even the ape-men still look like real ape-men more than what they actually are, which is mimes in ape suits. And the space sequences, including the lunar surface, are awesome.

There was a special pre-concert treat, a brief interview with Keir Dullea, the actor who played Dave. He told us three things of interest, all having to do with sound. First, he suggested that the reason for the terseness of the dialog in the spaceship scenes is that Dave and Frank have been in space together for weeks already - "there isn't a lot to talk about." Second, that Douglas Rain as the voice of HAL was dubbed in during postproduction. On the set, the person who read HAL's part to cue the other actors was the assistant director. Dullea then performed for a us a few of HAL's lines as this guy did them: purest Cockney. To this day, he says, he thinks of HAL with a Cockney accent.

Third was that, when they were filming Dave's reaction shots to the Stargate scene (the infamous "light show" sequence), Kubrick played music to set the mood. But it wasn't Ligeti. It was the cold, slow "Landscape" movement from Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica. (Which was, by the way, derived from a film score, so we've gone full circle.)

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