Monday, September 28, 2009

Satie...Milhaud...Bacharach?

An old friend recently pointed out this title clip from the 1967 film of Casino Royale, with a dare that I couldn't blog about it.  The movie is notorious as an incoherent mess, due to a production gone wrong in just about every way a film can, proving that the more large ego-ed filmmakers and stars you can gather together the worse the outcome will be.  It ought to be unwatchable for too many reasons to count, but somehow, almost every awful bit manages to contain some spark that keeps you glued and — the neural receptors for pleasure and pain being as proximate as they are — willing to endure more.   

With the major exception of Alan Price's score to Anderson's O Lucky Man!, I actively dislike pop music soundtracks*, but Burt Bacharach's score here is not one of the film's problems, and although the score (much of it played by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass) was very much part of the commercial music of the era, it has so many features that are untypical of mid-60's pop music that it ultimately has to be put into a category of its own.  First of all, it provides precisely the continuity that the movie's producers threw out when the last traces of the source novel were ultimately abandoned to the horde of actors, directors, and screenwriters who assembled this dog's breakfast.  If, however, with the passage of time, we can look — and listen — again to this film, not as a work of mainstream narrative, but as an effort — if only in part intentional — in '60s-pop-tinged avant-garde filmmaking, then the strengths of the score become even clearer.  

I will even venture that the block-like construction of the opening credits above reveals Bacharach standing in an authentic lineage, via his teacher Milhaud, back to Milhaud's mentor, Satie, and Satie's score for the ballet Parade, and the film insert Entr'acte, in particular.  While there are details of Bacharach's harmonic practice — modal progessions, chords with "added tones" — that immediately make a Satie-via-Milhaud connection, and the negotiation of all three composers with popular genres is obvious, the important shared features here are really formal, with the deployment, almost at random, of a limit set of blocks of distinct material without development in terms of tonality, figuration, or texture.  Where Bacharach here innovates is in the sound production, in which the various blocks are assigned distinctive dynamic profiles and discrete positions in the stereo field, an innovation in projecting the block structure which I find entirely within the spirit of the Satie-Milhaud tradition. 

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* For that matter, I'm skeptical about the whole notion of a musical soundtrack for film; Robert Bresson's rejection of non-diegetic music almost convinces me, but I can't be that strict and serious: as long as we grant films license to suspend disbelief, there will be a place for music in film.


       

2 comments:

Adam Baratz said...

I can't hear the bridge from "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart" without thinking of the same harmonic move (same pitches even, at least according to my Bacharach/David songbook) from the 2nd Gnossienne.

sfmike said...

You might want to check out the Vittorio de Sica directed "After The Fox" from 1966 with Peter Sellers and a soundtrack by Burt Bacharach channeling Nino Rota. It's beyond odd, it's meta.