Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Oct 20, 2021 8:50 pm 
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THE PERPETUAL CIGARETTE (FROM BERNSTEIN'S WALL)

A film that satisfies and frustrates in equal measure

On the one hand there is urgent need for documentary films about one of the greatest figures in 20th-century classical music and so Bernstein's Wall, with its wealth of visual information and its constant running narration in the voice (or voices) of Leonard Bernstein himself, is very welcome. On the other hand, what is needed is not just a very good movie, which this is, but a searching, original, brilliant, and beautiful one, which this is not. Evidence of a certain lack of real depth, or bravery, is revealed in the relatively timid treatment of the subject's homosexuality. The lack of beauty is shown in the ugly, out of focus, badly exposed image of the man talking to the camera that starts things off. This is not what Todd Haynes would do, as his exquisite Velvet Underground film shows: it is beautiful from the first; it cares how it looks. Wouldn't Lenny?

That treatment (of the homosexuality) subtly and rather cleverly begins - but unfortunately also ends - with unvoiced on-screen printouts. They show excerpts from letters - from and to Aaron Copeland and to and from Bernstein's Chilean wife Felicia. There is delicacy in this. After all he was, essentially, closeted, and the topic and the behavior were taboo in the forties and fifties, when our story begins. But The film stops there, with nothing ever on the sound track, treating gayness by implication, now in the 21st century, like Wilde's "love that dare not speak its name": the facts are never voiced, and details readily found in books and the Wikipedia article on Bernstein are omitted.

Okay, maybe Lenny never spoke on film or tape about this topic.( Or did he?) In any case there could have been lots more printouts, and other images. There was a gay mafia of music just as there was a Jewish mafia of music, and therein doubtless lie many tales worth telling, and material for other documentaries.

The complexity of Bernstein's immense being, and contribution, lie in his embodying the ultimate mainstream American celebrity of his time, one who could kiss Jackie Kennedy dramatically on a stage in Washington and hobnob (to great notoriety and exploitation by the malicious right wing wit Tom Wolfe) with Black Panthers in his Park Avenue apartment. He could further the anti-Vietnam War cause simply by landing his celebrated name. He could conduct Beethoven's Ninth in West Berlin and East Berlin on successive days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he could write a musical about Latinos and a radical, controversial, epic mass (discussed with disgust by Haldeman and Nixon on a White House tape; the film's other villain is Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg, who attacked Bernstein mercilessly). He could conduct beloved televised Young People's Concerts and quibble amicably but firmly in public with Glenn Gould about tempos in a Brahms concerto (this is omitted from the film but important to me, as it was to them). He could be a full-on gay man (as Wikipedia says; Tirola doesn't) and have a wife and three kids. (The wife died young; the marriage is fraught; the kids give their blessing to this film, but the film tells us too little about them or their mother.)

All this could happen in one man because he was essentially an outsider, a Jew (and a gay man) who knew Hebrew, whose father, an emigrant from a Russian shtetl, wanted him to enter his successful beauty supply business - after he graduated from Harvard; because he was a genius, but had a common touch, recognized by construction workers on his passing. He was a man who lived intensely, who felt a lot, emoted a lot, smoked so constantly his whole life that it killed him, probably ate and drank too much and undoubtedly loved too much; Owen Gleiberman in Variety calls him "a fierce hedonist." All (or most) of this is mentioned, illustrated by this film, and recounted by Lenny, but needs the extra depth that would probe the full richness of irony, contradiction, and excess that define this man whose greatest gift is how he made these qualities accessible to millions by becoming the dominant superstar of American high culture.

Instead, there is so much (enjoyable, astonishing) information that little emerges profoundly and one wishes for a film that focused and went into depth. Possible films doing that might zero in on, to name a few topics for specialized films: Lenny the conductor (a topic blurred here by "feverish" editing); Lenny the composer; Lenny the celebrity; Lenny & Beethoven, Lenny & Vienna - and last but not least, gay Lenny.

To anyone who grew up in the fifties and sixties Leonard Bernstein was an inevitable figure, first associated with the New York Philharmonic, though one learns here that he resigned from that and became free-floating, never going back to being the official conductor or music director of any one orchestra (unless of Tanglewood? Another topic underrepresented here). What emerged to me later through Seiji Ozawa, whom he influenced (as he did several other San Francisco Symphony leaders), was the fluent, joyous, showy, dance-y conducting style. And there was something schmaltzy and kitsch about him. But not too much for him to give the prestigious Norton Lectures at Harvard. Those of us who dreamed or fantasized about being a conductor, were probably thinking primarily of Lenny, the joyous, hammy celebrant, or of Von Karajan, the forbidding, exultant commander.

A must-see, if you're interested in classical music and half a dozen other subjects. It's a place to start.

Bernstein's Wall, 100 mins., previewed at Tribeca Jun. 2021 and had its premiere at Telluride Sept. 2021, showing at Mill Valley, the Hamptons and San Diego in Oct. Nice review by Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com) written at Telluride.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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