Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Follow-up: Beethoven and the Basterds

The critical teacup-storm surrounding this film is getting interesting. The Independent this weekend had a front page article entitled "The Tragedy of Tarantino - How He Squandered The Chance To Become One Of The Greats"...

In the wake of this (entirely coincidentally), yesterday I read a book about Beethoven's Third Symphony. The parallels were perhaps latent already: an established artist, popular with the critical elite, suddenly taking on a much more serious, political, subject, on an unprecedented, epic scale (the 3rd symphony is all about Napoleon Bonaparte, and was almost an hour long: nearly three times as long as any previous symphony). Beethoven even has epic violence followed by a 'drinking scene' (the 3rd movement is based on a soldier's 'trinklied')! With the Morricone-arranged 'Für Elise' of the opening, and the Beethoven card saliva-ed to a forehead in the drinking scene, the figure of Ludwig van seems to be constantly in the background of the film.

But the parallels didn't really hit me til I read the critical responses of the time, quoted in the book. Here is the critic from Der Freymüthige, assessing the responses in August 1806, about 10 months after the premiere:

"Some of Beethoven's particular admirers assert that it is just this symphony which is his masterpiece, that this is the true style for high-class music, and that if it does not please now, it is because the public is not cultured enough, artistically, to grasp all these lofty beauties; after a few thousand years have passed it will not fail of its effect.

"Another faction denies that the work has any artistic value and professes to see in it an untamed striving for singularity which has quite failed. By means of strange modulations and violent transitions, by combining the most heterogeneous elements, as for instance when a pastoral in the largest style is ripped up by the basses by three horns, a certain undesirable originality is perhaps achieved, but genius should not proclaim itself in the unusual or the fantastic.

"The third party, a very small one, stands midway between the others - it admits that the symphony contains many beauties, but concedes that the connection is often disrupted entirely, and that the inordinate length of this longest, and perhaps most beautiful of all symphonies, wearies even the cognoscenti, and is unendurable to the mere music lover; it wishes that Herr van Beethoven would employ his acknowledgedly great talents in giving us works like his previous two symphonies, works which have placed him forever in the ranks of the foremost instrumental composers."

The parallel is incredible. This is a work now (200 years later) universally acknowledged as a (and by a number of critics THE) turning point in western music. A watershed work of art, by a major artist. But it was met with accusations of "strange modulations and violent transitions" and claims that he has unsuccessfully combined "the most heterogeneous elements". Or the faint Mark Kermodeish praise of admitting that "the symphony contains many beauties, but the connection is often disrupted entirely, and the inordinate length wearies even the cognoscenti". The final wish ("that Herr van Beethoven would employ his acknowledgedly great talents in giving us works like his previous two symphonies") is so similar to the Independent/Guardian desire for another Reservoir Fiction as to be quite uncanny.

It isn't hard to think of films that gathered universal approval, but which will never be discussed in a decade's time (let alone 'a few thousand years'): just think of Sideways, Pan's Labyrinth, Capote, Lost in Translation etc etc... I think that Inglourious Basterds is quite another thing all together. Maybe a true watershed work. At last, somebody is forcing the focus of cinema towards the American Epic literary form: a huge and cascading novel of a film.

Here, at least, is an attempt to take the film seriously on its own terms:

If only more critics were making the effort. But, as seen in a review from 1806, perhaps they never did.

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