Friday, April 29, 2016

Villa-Lobos and the Cinema

"Flaubert believed that it was impossible to explain one art form in terms of another, and that great paintings required no words of explanation." - Julian Barnes in Keeping an Eye Open.

Back in 1982 Simon Wright wrote the short article "Villa-Lobos and the Cinema: A Note", Luso-Brazilian Review, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Winter, 1982), pp. 243-250. There are a lot of ideas to explore here, but I'm on board with the general idea that Villa-Lobos's orchestral music has a 'cinematic' character:

I've been wondering about this question recently, since I've come across similar statements about the cinema's influence on the other arts, most recently in David Thomson's How to Watch a Movie. In Andrew Shail's The Cinema and the Origins of Literary Modernism we have a rigorous examination of influences by cinema on the development of an art that's different than Villa-Lobos's, but most certainly sharing its modernist world-view. Is cinema, in Shail's scheme, first- or second-tier generative in Villa's music? Are we perhaps dealing with "...symptoms rather than analogues, products of unconscious developments rather than conscious engagement, ... general rather than writer-specific..."?

Villa-Lobos has no consistent, or even evolving, artistic world-view; his is a kitchen sink kind of aesthetic. Cinematic flourishes in a Choros are just one of a chaotic mix of ideas and techniques he pulls out of the air (yes, let's say "air"). Here's Shail again: "As a consequence, in part, of the influence of modernism’s own film theory, cinema appears as a new aesthetic toolkit to be consciously deployed by its own auteur practitioners, and equally consciously emulated by writers, rather than as a set of institutional and social practice."

I recently came across a review by Guy Rickards of Lisa Peppercorn's 1992 Villa-Lobos biography in which he says "Villa-Lobos was always meant to be listened to rather than written about." I'm not sure I agree. I see that Bach must be listened to AND written about. When John Eliot Gardiner brings as much insight to his book Music in the Castle of Heaven as he does to a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, this is obvious. Bach is a theologian as well as a composer, plus he's 300 years away, living in another world. There are lots of things great writers can say that make me understand Bach's music better. Now I don't have much objectivity here, since I've been living in the House of the Wolf for a very long time, but I think there are things to be written about Villa-Lobos that might be more interesting and insightful than there might be about better composers. The 21st century artist who is most like Villa-Lobos, I think, is Quentin Tarantino. Each is a master self-promoter and self-cannibalizer, acutely aware of his forebears, idolizing his Sensei and ticking off influences on his work, about which he would rather talk than do almost anything else. We may be no further ahead in understanding their art because of this self-promotion, but it's entertaining, and by now it's part of the schtick. Both are fun to listen to/watch, and both are fun to write about.

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