Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Few Vague, Imprecise, and Highly Subjective Notes on the Use of Philip Glass’s Music in Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and Andrei Zvyagintsov’s Elena

Sometimes I like to joke to myself that Toru Takemitsu did the score for every Japanese movie made during his adult life (I say that I make this joke to myself because there are so few occasions on which I could share it with a broader audience).  Now, I’m exaggerating slightly when I say he scored every Japanese movie; according to the Wikipedia, Takemitsu composed the scores for only one hundred movies; perhaps these movies are disproportionately distributed in the United States, and that’s why it so often feels like every Japanese movie I see has a Takemitsu score.

Toru Takemitsu
But there’s at least one Japanese movie from Takemitsu’s period that he didn’t score, and that’s Paul Schrader’s masterpiece Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985).  As Schrader had never made a Japanese movie before—nor has he since, to my knowledge—I suspect he would plead ignorance and assert that he just didn’t know that all Japanese movies of that period had to have Takemitsu scores.  But I’m willing to overlook this error on Schrader’s part, because in place of Takemitsu, he brought in everybody’s favorite American minimalist composer, Philip Glass.  And I think that this movie has one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard, or, to put it another way, it’s one of the movies I’ve seen where the score was so noticeable that it seemed like an essential part of the work as a whole. 


And the Glass score is perfectly in tune with Yukio Mishima’s art, life, and death, at least as they are depicted by Paul Schrader.  As an aside, I think it’s likely a fairly accurate depiction, as Schrader had an agreement with Mishima’s widow by which the Mishima in the movie (in a pitch-perfect performance by Ken Ogata) would not say a single line that did not come from the established historical record of things Mishima wrote or said.  It will be interesting to compare Schrader’s film with Koji Wakamatsu’s recent Mishima biopic, 11/25: The Day He Chose His Own Fate, should the philistines who distribute these things ever see fit to release it in some form in the United States.

But yes, the Glass score.  The Glass score captures the ecstasies of Mishima’s art as well as the grandeur with which he lived and died (or at least, the grandeur with which he would have liked to think he lived and died.  I’m always reminded of the line from Spanish writer Javier Marias, who wrote, “The death of Yukio Mishima was so spectacular that it has almost succeeded in obliterating the many other stupid things he did in his life.”)

So Glass’s original score for Schrader’s Mishima film “nails it.” The same cannot be said for the way in which Glass’s music is used in Andrei Zvyagintsov’s recent film, Elena (2011), which I saw at the Edina Landmark Cinema last evening.  Elena makes frequent use of pre-existing Philip Glass music (from his Third Symphony, I believe) and tends to use it to illustrate scenes that would otherwise have passed in silence, like the titular Elena riding the train or her husband Vladimir working out at the gym.  Where the Glass music in Mishima was an integral part of the film, and contributed to its overall beauty, here it seems almost like a substitute for beauty, as if Zvyagintsov had said to himself, “How to make these scenes look ponderous and important? I know, some art music!” And that’s only when one notices the Glass music at all.  It has a tendency to disappear into the background and seem merely decorative.  Part of my prejudice here may stem from the fact that I’d seen attention called to the Glass music in reviews of this film before I saw it, and so I was expecting the music to be used more effectively.  Its misuse is especially disappointing given that I so strongly associate Glass with his Mishima score (a film I saw several years ago and with which I was, and continue to be, deeply impressed).

And so concludes my brief (I told you it would be brief) discussion of Philip Glass’s music as I’ve seen it in the movies.  I must apologize for my relative ignorance of musical terminology or contemporary classical (in terms of orchestration) music.  Anyone with more to say about Glass or how his or other minimalist composers’ music has been used in the movies should feel free to leave a comment below.

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