Sunday, November 30, 2014

Concert Review: Mahler 7, MTT, and SFSO

 Mahler’s 7th symphony has always been considered a “problematic” symphony, not only for its unbalanced five-movement structure, but also for its transition from the dark abyss to the grand, bright, and epic finale. Michael Tilson Thomas has a long history of being an active Mahler interpreter. For Mahler 7 alone, he has recorded it twice, with London Symphony Orchestra in the 90s, and with San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in the last decade. I owned both recordings and have long regarded them as a modernist sharp and critical approach. Now it has almost been another decade since their last mahler 7 recording. During the concert on November 19 in the Carnegie Hall, I felt his approach had a significant departure to his earlier interpretation. Although it was a good and elegant attempt, it ultimately failed to deliver artistically and sonically.

the program on Nov 19
The beginning of Mahler 7 is very gloomy. MTT and San Fran did a very good job setting up the tone. The tenor horn player delivered the hauntingly nightmarish melody in the silky-smooth timbre. However, the tone did not progress and develop any further from the beginning for the next three or four minutes. I speculated that it was a result of the program being under-rehearsed and over-performed. By looking at the performing calendar of the orchestra, Carnegie Hall was the last stop on their tour where the Mahler was played, and they had been performing this piece since the end of October! The coarse and lack momentum of the string section might be the result: The strings play an utterly huge part in the first movement of Mahler 7 as if they are the eerie wind of the night, but for many moments in the first two movements, the strings of San Fran Symphony were not playing entirely in unison. It entirely deflated my expectation for the sound of San Fran Symphony, which had always been in the categories of being mercurial and precise in my memories. 

The balance of the orchestra really threw me off. The brass section was particularly unbalanced from the rest of the orchestra. They felt more like solo instruments playing in front of the whole orchestra rather like members from it. Mahler 7 demands a very sharp sound from the brass to melt into the high voices of the strings, but from the sound of the orchestra the two were very apart from each other. At times both sections seem to have a lack of attack. Even when the orchestra was playing at full intensity the two did not have an overwhelming, joint-force effect. On the contrary, MTT’s approach to the woodwind section was rather monochromatically aggressive. At times they almost sounded like percussion instruments rather than woodwinds. This negative experience might partially be the acoustic design of the Carnegie Hall, as my seat was situated in the second tier box, and the sound of the brass might be sent straight through the hall to my seat rather than reflecting off the space.

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall on Nov 19
Another surprise was the lack of dynamic. MTT always leaves me with the impression of precise rhythmic control, energetic and analytical phrasing from the recordings. During the Wednesday concert, MTT didn’t seem to want to take the opportunity to bite into the rich and detailed writing of Mahler and bring the rhythmic energy out of it. Last year I attended a concert of MTT conducting Mahler 9 with Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I remember that even though the string section was not particularly the strength of CSO, it had a really wonderful brilliance through the precise phrasing and the analytical reading under the baton of MTT. With this expectation brought into this Mahler 7 concert, I was much uninspired. It might very much be MTT’s change in approach to Mahler 7. Rather making the symphony clear and analytical, he tried to bring a more coherent quality to the entire symphony in order to tackle the “problematic” transition from night to light. However, with the conscious undermining of the strong contrasting dynamics in the opening movements, MTT missed the most important part of Mahler’s Symphony- the drama.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Buzzy Malone

Bugsy Malone is a musical gangster film made in 1976. Directed by Alan Parker. What is unique about the film is not the combination between the two not-so-matching genres, but rather, the use of children cast. Despite the fact of its odd choice of casting, the film resembles many of the thematic aspects from the depression-era American gangster films.

The story of Bugsy Malone was directed adapted by the stories of the Al Capone and Bugs Moran, which draw a direct parallel to the classic gangster movies like Scarface because of its temporal setting – it is set to the depression era. The characters, though they are all children, behave and talk just like the real gangsters in the classic gangster movies do. Their common character traits all come together in terms of their character wants. They all want power and money. One of the main characters, Fat Sam, his struggle with Dandy Dan, which is the other gangster in the area, presents the traditional power struggle in the world of the gangster. Most of the conflicts are caused by the power hungry nature of the characters. Fat Sam ambition of expanding his control is also shown by his need of getting new weapons, which also automatically results the demise of many of his boys. These events all resemble the thematic elements in the typical gangster films. For example, the machine gun played a big part in the bloody fight between Tony and the other gang. Tony’s fascination and Fat Sam’s fascination of guns because of the destruction it can give to the competitors show the similar thematic element and makes Bugsy Malone having more a gangster-film feel to it.

Another important trait of gangster film is the idea of American dream. This them is very much explored in the Bugsy Malone character and his girlfriend (in the end) Blousey. Blousey has big dreams. She wants to be a star in Hollywood, and such a character want drives her to where she lands at the end. Bugsy Malone has similar dreams but his need isn’t as strong, aside from his need for money. His dream gets fulfilled when he was driven by the push from the love for Blousey. Romance, which is also an important but not overwhelming element in gangster, plays an important factor to make the American dream come true.

The ending song has an interesting effect to the film. Most gangster films have either a negative ending (e.g. Scarface) or ambiguous ending (e.g. Miller’s Crossing). Bugsy Malone, however, has such an optimistic song at the end to tie the two gangs together. Such an ending is made much due to its nature of being a children’s movie. It is the combination of the two makes Bugsy Malone a much more interesting film to watch.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


Annie was an American musical comedy film made in 1982. The story focuses on Annie, an orphan living in New York City and her experience after meeting Warbucks. The film is rated PG. It is apparently a film that is suitable for family to watch. The film touches much of the idea of capitalism and its way of shaping people’s life in different classes, but as for a film that’s made for family. It is a much hopeful film. It looks at the American Society during the great depression in a more positive way.

Annie is an orphan. She is sort of the leader in the Hudson Street Orphanage. She is a strong protagonist, which is different from all the other kids in the orphanage. We get to be introduced to her character from the very beginning of the film, and the first song starts out with the melodic theme of “tomorrow”. The theme goes through the whole film consistently. It is the theme of hope, which is the central theme of the story.
In the first act Annie, as an orphan, longs for a better day, better place. Annie is a representation of the lower class in America, and in order to be exposed to different class, the inciting incident happens when Warbucks’ secretary decides to bring Annie to Warbucks’ place for a week. Warbucks in the film is depicted as a perfect example for American upper class- rich, earned fortune by hard work. Though Warbucks appears as an antagonist because of his bad temper, he later becomes a friendly guy. The way the film first introduces us to Warbucks’ palace is through the song “I think I’m gonna like it here”. In the song, capitalism is revealed through the fancy properties that Warbucks have. Annie’s exposure to the high materialism world shows how the common Americans desire for a better day, a better tomorrow.

The way the plot is unfolded, the way the friendship between Annie and Warbucks is built and developed are all toward the hopeful, optimistic end of capitalism. From accepting Annie’s dog to be in the house to adapting Annie, Warbucks go through a huge change from not appreciating lower class people, to understanding the way to build a better “tomorrow”. The film shows a path of the arc of hope in America, which is shown through the character of Annie, the low-class orphan. It implies the unity of social classes and creates a hopeful ending, which automatically shows what the film is intended for, building hope in young audience’s mind.

Miller's Crossing Crosses the Genre

Miller’s Crossing is a Coen brother film made in 1990. It is a gangster film that focuses on the protagonist, Tom Reagan’s machinations and his rise and fall in the world of gangster.

Similar to Scarface, the classic Hollywood gangster film, Miller’s Crossing depicted the internal conflicts within the gangs. It carries the usual gangster film themes, the power struggle, and the faith in royalty. The protagonist, Tom who works with the boss Leo tries to plan (to a certain degree) this grand scheme in order to steal the girl he is having an affair with. In its storytelling it certainly utilizes the gangster genre’s convention. The film is very violent. Coen brothers did not hide or imply any kind of on-screen violence, which gave the film an R rating. The idea of power is also represented in its use of the hat symbol. The directors paid a lot of attention to the on-and-off of the hat. The film also criticized the society as a result of capitalism. We are focusing on the upper-class people who rule the city while ignoring the citizens. The citizens are ruthlessly forgotten in the epic battles and power shifting of the “big guys”.

However, Miller’s Crossing is a significant different gangster film from Scarface. Scarface was made during the production code era. The governmental message had to be added. For the same reason, the use of blood is much more striking and apparent in Miller’s Crossing. In the scene when Caspar blinds Dane with the axe, the bloodiness and violence is jar staggering. Also, Miller’s Crossing is a much modern film. Its use of camera movement and dense storytelling techniques is much richer, and shows the drama in a different way. The ending of Miller’s Crossing is much different from the conventional gangster genre. It does not end the note on Tom’s career as a gangster, but rather, on the relationship between Tom and Verna.

a violent scene from Miller's Crossing

Aesthetic-wise the film has a warm but desiderated color tone to it, which brings out the nostalgic feeling of the film. Contrasting to Scarface, which is shot in black-and-white, it does not have as much harshness and sharp violence. For example, though the guns are used exclusively in the film, it does not have nearly as much gun fight as that in Scarface. In Miller’s crossing, such aspect of violence is shown in a rather more carefully choreographed way. In its craft, there is more a sense of elegance and beauty.

Overall Miller’s Crossing is a gangster film that borrows most of the traditional gangster genre conventions but also adds a little modern filmmaking touch to it. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


Scarface was a classic gangster film directed by Howard Hawks in 1932 (not the 1983 remake). The story follows the rise and fall of Tony Camonte, aka “Scarface”. It’s a classic example of power struggle story. It is easily categorized as a gangster film because of its heavy use of gangster conventions. I’ll list out and analyze a few in this post.

In Scarface, obtain power and losing power is the central theme. Tony started as someone in Lovo’s gang and later becomes the king of the gangsters, while at the end he loses all the power and gets arrested by the police. Power struggle is a conventional theme for gangster films. Scarface is no exception. The character arc of Tony Camonte is a good demonstration of how the lust of struggle is able to corrupt such a person’s life. It’s a criticism of American materialism. The longing for the American dream is a convention of the gangster films, and Scarface does so in a traditional way.

The use of guns might be the most significant genre trait for gangster genre. Scarface was known for its violence. It was banned in several states and its release was delayed in many other areas. The guns played a major part in Scarface. The introduction of the machine gun plays a big part in the development of the plot. It is the machine gun that adds more violent aspect to the visual aspect and the sound aspect. The sequence when the gangsters shooting at the store windows and people on the street is just horrifying. Plus the role of sound made everything even more intense. The sound of machine gun really gave me goose bumps when I saw it. I think, its violence is very effective for production code to a certain degree. The way the opening title card is questioning people is fairly questioned by the violence in the film. Though the filmmaker did not intend to make them function the way the production code makes it to do, it works somehow in an ironic way.

The aspect of family plays a major role in Scarface as well. The family is consisted by the mother, the sister, and Tony Camonte. They stay much close to each other through the story though it is not depicted as a “normal” family. The relationship between the brother and sister is worth mentioning. The aspect of incest in gangster films was later toned down due to the production code. It is still a way of showing the union of a family, which kind of reminiscent the family aspect in western films. This implicitly draws a connection to the conventions in western films.

It is these conventions that make Scarface such a gangster classic. Without such a gangster film landmark, the films come afterward would not have the same plot structure as they do nowadays.

"this is what we do nowadays, we smile like pigs" :D

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Shaun of the Screwed

Shaun of the Dead was a successful example of the Zom Rom Com genre. It mixes up the horror elements from traditional zombie films and comedic elements from screwball comedies perfectly. It is quite a refreshing viewing experience after watching Night of the Living Dead, the landmark of traditional zombie horror film.

Shaun of the Dead borrows many zombie film conventions in order to make up the zombie aspect in it. First of all, the design of the zombies: everyone who has seen an zombie movie can tell these slowly moving creatures on the streets are zombies. They have the same character traits as the ones in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead- they look like normal citizens, and they all long for the taste of flesh. Dianne’s character describes zombie’s character like such in the film, “it’s vacant, with a hint of sadness. Like a drunk who’s lost a bet”. Another important argument in Shaun of the Dead reminiscent the plot of Night of the Living Dead. Mom and Dad who are normal humans, turn into Zombies. The difficult choice Shaun has to make in the pub is similar to the choice the mom in Night of the Living Dead, the one that she has to kill her daughter, which she chooses not to contrast to Shaun, who pulls the trigger at the end.

Shaun of the Dead’s comedic aspect is different from the traditional screwball comedies. Screwball comedies’ comedy is usually pulled off the plot, acting, and characters, while some of the comedic element comes from the modern camera moves and sound effects. However, the plot and character design comes a lot from screwball comedies. Compared to the screwball comedy classic, Some Like It Hot, they share a lot of similarities. First, the character designs, the protagonist Shaun has a friend, or, rather, a close buddy named Ed. They go through the journey together just like Joe and Jerry do. Their friendship is as deep as that of Joe and Jerry, and they share same kind of intimateness between the two. Second, the female character, Liz, in some aspects is like Sugar in Some Like It Hot. Though she has more of the bitchiness than that of Sugar, they are both the central figures who draws the storyline forward: Liz is Shaun’s girlfriend and Shaun needs to protect her from zombies on their journey, while Sugar is in the center of the love triangle with Joe and Jerry.

"with a hint of sadness?" No! With a hint of weakness!
As cinema goes more and more into the modern age, newer-age audience can get tired of tradition cinematic conventions. That makes mixed-genre film much more attractive. Shaun of the Dead is a good, successful example for the mixed genre films.

"I'm quite mixed up!"

Who Are the Living Dead?

Night of the Living Dead is a horror film directed by George Romero, which was the first film that really started the Zombie genre.
i like green
The film starts with two siblings going to a cemetery, zombies start to come out, and the brother gets killed. The sister runs into an abandoned house for hiding, and meets a strong man, who tries preventing zombies from getting into the house.

What’s interesting about the film is that the distinguishment between the alive and the zombies isn’t clear. The film does not give much details on why the zombies are the way the way they are but the speculation, which is that the radiation-covered NASA satellite retuned from Venus and mutates the dead, and turns them into the living dead. It remains unclear from the beginning till the end that whether or not those scary creatures are humans. As a visual depiction, the crowds of zombies are not only consisted by grown men, but also children, woman, and the elders. Though they behave like monsters, their appearance is much like human despite the bloody mouth and somehow weird-looking facial expression. The confusing visual representation builds up the complexity of the enemy that the characters fight for.

Therefore it is easy to draw the conclusion that what the living Americans fight against is partially themselves. Ironically, what turns zombies into zombies is also the American because of the implicit suggestion of the speculation. The zombie apocalypse in Night of the Living Dead can be interpreted as human cannibalism. This conclusion can be more supported by the ending, when the policeman kills the main guy in the film without a doubt, just like killing a zombie. It questions the audience, what is the difference between a zombie and a human being, what is the enemy that American is fighting for. From this point, it is clear to see a connection between the unnecessary death in the Vietnam War and the assassinations in the 60s. It was a public fear that the death of human being is understated.

The later zombie films also tried to explore this moral controversy and none of them had such a significant effect as much as in Night of the Living Dead. The reason might much be the year that the film came out. People in 60s could resonate with the fear in the film more.