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One of Cinema's Greatest Moments

The local library had a DVD copy of the movie "A Room With a View." Since it had been awhile since last seeing it...

In order to fully appreciate a movie like this, you must look at the overall context of movie-making: the money problems, the tastes of the general public, and the 'Media is the Message' syndrome. There is every reason to expect successes to be rare. But they do happen.

There are hundreds of comments on IMDB or Amazon on this movie. I sighed and then quit, after reading one comment that the Puccini musical score "enhanced the movie." Enhanced, indeed. It stole the show!

Now, long-suffering readers are just going to discount this opinion as that of a Puccini fanboy. But in fact I have seen movies exploit the use of operatic scores to little avail. What I am praising here is not Puccini per se, but rather, the re-combination of his music with the right visual and situational context.

To me, the movie's plot was OK, but I don't go gaga over English accents and genteel manners. The love triangle is as cliche-ridden as they get. But it is always fun to see Mediterranean Europe (Catholic, economically backward, chaotic, sensual, and artistic) contrasted with the repressed, more affluent, orderly, drab and colorless, Protestant drudges of northern Europe. Let's call it the north/south European split, for brevity's sake.

In the movie this Split is brought into focus by a masterful combination of eye-candy and ear-candy. The photography is delicious, both in Florence and in the nearby countryside.  But what really caused an explosion of pleasure for me was Puccini's music. It is indeed true that the 'whole is greater than the sum of the parts.'

The climax was 40 minutes into the movie when the uptight English tourists went for a tour in the countryside outside Florence. Something started happening to them, something  unintentional, something that they were powerless to stop. Uptight northern drudges though they may be, they could not resist the living force of landscape and music that imposed itself on them.

 The landscape was one of barley-covered hills, with trees in the background. The music was chosen carefully: the aria started off easily for an audience that presumably does not listen to much opera: it was just a peaceful solo-piano prelude. When the Fat Lady finally sang, she was restrained and soothing; and yet, the audience knew that she could shatter glass anytime she wanted. So as the aria developed, there was suspense, combined with feminine kindliness and grace.

If you have any claim to possessing a soul, you have to be affected by this scene. (grin) 

Why does this matter, especially to a Puccini non-fanboy? Choosing the right music for a movie might be a second-rate skill compared to that of Puccini himself, but 'second-rate' does not mean lowly or unimportant. It is the kind of accomplishment that many of us can understand and therefore aspire to, whereas the accomplishments of a Puccini are too hard to imagine. I can imagine doing something like the music editor did, in various arenas of life. Aren't these humble steps-forward, taken my numerous anonymous people, a big part of the advance of a civilization?  Normally we only think of the gigantic steps of the overtly famous.

Consider the basic form of the music editor's work here:

1. Deconstruction. Removal of the Bad. Identification of the Good. Normally in an opera, magnificent music gets combined with the drivel of some fool of a playwright. Hence love triangles, mistaken identity, revenge, rags-to-riches, True Love overcoming Conventional Love, etc.
2. Appreciation of new potential.
3. Reconstruction. A new combination. Opera is a good idea because instrumental music is combined with the human voice, and with human situations and visual context in the background. In this movie, the background was the Florentine landscape and the story of the North/South split. This is probably a more interesting background than the libretto of the original opera. (I'm not familiar with that of "La Rondine;" but if it was a typical libretto, it was probably idiotic.)

As a consequence of this creative new combination, millions of moviegoers were exposed to the idea that opera was a beautiful thing that they could actually enjoy.  The music-editor's success can be seen as a template-model that millions of people could use in their own lives in any number of ways; so could people who blog. 


XXXXX said…
The right music in the right place does take one's breath away, doesn't it? Some form of music has been present in every culture throughout history. Words could never capture correctly what the music so beautifully expresses in those certain moments.
I have my favorites too, those places in movies when the voice springs forth in just the right way. It sings in my head for days and days. Sometimes it's just instrumental.
As silly as the human happenings might be," the drivel of some fool of a playwright" as you say, it does seem to be part of the human condition. Betrayal, perfect love, love triangles, and more. Our own lives are not as dramatic (we don't have the benefit of music playing in the background, perfect scripts, etc.) but the same themes are there in their own way.
Of course, one could walk away from it all and many do.
Human drama. Plenty of it everywhere.
Glad that you appreciate the right music in the right place, George! Don't be so bashful: go ahead and mention "those places in movies when the voice springs forth in just the right way."
XXXXX said…
A Puccini aria as well.
From "The Sea Inside" foreign film a while back. Have you seen it? About a paraplegic who falls in love and, of course, cannot have any physical expression of that love.
From the opera "Turandot", still my favorite opera. About a man who falls in love with a princess who has a cold heart. During the night, he sings "Nessun Dorma". Oh, so famous an aria.
He says that even she cannot sleep. The stars tremble with love and hope. His secret is hidden within him and he will tell his secret only with his kiss, when he wins her.
In the movie, it is also love and hope. This is the secret that the paraplegic hides within himself. In the movie, his imagination allows him to fly to her, to touch her, to kiss her, and it is there that his secret is known to her. The kiss dissolves the silence between them and makes her his own.
It is wholly beautiful.
Because the challenges to the relationship have been given a physical form in the movie, it is clear he will never "win." But he still has hope in his heart and feels the pain of his defeat.
In the opera, he wins the girl but in the movie, he cannot.
The movie is based on a true story. Eventually the paraplegic figures out how to end it all without getting anyone in trouble who has assisted him in this process.
Surely, we all can easily relate to this sort of hope and defeat.

Gee, Amazon had a good price on this movie. I'm tempted to buy it. The only thing holding me back is that I'm loyal to the female voice. Unfortunately "Nessun Dorma" is for the damn tenor. (grin)
XXXXX said…
I should have made it clear that the aria plays during the scene in which his imagination allows him to fly to her, to touch her, to kiss her, etc.
XXXXX said…
Well, if it's the female voice you want, on youtube you can find the scene from the movie "Philadelphia" with Tom Hanks. "La Mamma Morta from Philadelphia" will bring it up.

Have you seen this movie? Tom Hanks is dying and his attorney is there to talk business but he is emotionally and physically moving away from the business of the living and slowly entering more and more of his own internal world. You'll love it.
TomInBellaVista said…
The aria from Turandot, "Nessun Dorma" is used to great effect in "The Killing Fields" Moving from Christmas scenes in Manhattan to the imprisonment of Dith Pran, the photographer, in Cambodia.
XXXXX said…
Tom, thanks for this. Very effective. I think in this scene "defeat" has become despair.
Boonie, seems like the entire movie "The Sea Inside" is on youtube as well.
Jim and Gayle said…
George the piece you refer to in Philadelphia is beautiful. I have enjoyed it with and without the visuals of the movie.

Of course, don't get me wrong I enjoy kicking back with some tasteless light beer and shooting bottles on public lands far more. It is so hard for me to be serious.

XXXXX said…
So nice to hear from one who also appreciates this scene. Just thought I'd post the words as well and anyone who knows the movie can surely appreciate why this particular aria was chosen to capture Hank's character's feelings.

They have killed my mother
at the door of my room
She died and saved me.
Later, at dead of night,
I was with Bersi,
when suddenly
a bright glow flickers
and lights were ahead of me
the dark street!
I looked –
My childhood home was on fire!
I was alone!
surrounded by nothingness!
Hunger and misery
deprivation, danger!
I fell ill,
and Bersi, so good and pure
made a market of her beauty
for my sake –
I bring misfortune to all who care for me!
It was then, in my grief,
that love came to me.
A voice full of harmony says,
"You must live, I am life itself!
Your heaven is in my eyes!
You are not alone.
I shall collect all your tears
I will walk with you and support you!
Smile and hope! I am Love!
Are you surrounded by blood and mire?
I am Divine! I am Oblivion!
I am the God who saves the World
I descend from Heaven and make this Earth
A heaven! Ah!
I am love, love, love."
And the angel approaches with a kiss,
and he kisses death –
A dying body is my body.
So take it.
I am already dead matter!
XXXXX said…
Excuse me for talking so much but I remember that movie although I had to refresh my memory by reading a synopsis. Perhaps the distinction between the "uptight English tourists" vacationing in the city of Florence vs the drive into the countryside is the metaphor for static vs dynamic, something I read online about this movie (book). Her engagement represented a static relationship, simply a repeat of the rules of bygone days but her attraction seemed to offer a dynamic relationship, one like a ship sailing the ever-changing ocean.
The aria is lovely and the words simply speak of a great love which I suppose is what she is thinking and feeling as she transitions from the status quo of the highly-structured city to the open, less-defined countryside which suggests potential.
Art is beautiful, isn't it?
John V said…
Calling a Room With A View "one of cinema's greatest moments" is comparable to calling Budweiser "one of fermentation's greatest moments".
I was praising that one scene in the hilly barleyfield, not the entire movie.