Let me say upfront that I know virtually nothing about opera. As I recall, I’ve been to the Met three times to see Der Rosenkavalier, some Leoš Janáček, and William Kentridge’s recent Gogolesque grotesquery. Once, in the pavilion on the boardwalk in Asbury Park New Jersey, only a few yards from where the Morro Castle had run aground, I saw a low-rent production of Tosca. My only enduring memory was when the lead singer’s girth got him caught in a doorway that almost pulled the whole cardboard set down. So I’m in no position to judge whether Ingmar Bergman’s film Trollflujten (The Magic Flute) does justice to Mozart. It is, though, a very entertaining movie, a picture a lot lighter than most of the director’s work. Bergman, of course, oscillated back and forth between stage and screen, and although The Magic Flute lacks some of his more startling imagery, he manages to bring in some cinematic touches. (The film does not lack for beautiful imagery, like the snow scenes and fiery cavern—homages of sorts to early D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. De Mille I’d suggest—in spite of being relatively stage-bound.)
Bergman invents a kind of Skype/locket for the princess, has the three spirits ride in a Jules Verne flying machine that could be in a Karel Zeman film, has a “follow the bouncing ball” sing-along, and makes the king’s council resemble Patrick Stewart’s Stonecutters on Matt Groening’s The Simpsons. All of this comes as a bit of relief to those of us not well versed in “high culture.” There are lots of close-ups, but that is typical of Bergman and the other great Scandinavian directors, and like the master Carl Th. Dreyer, Bergman is not averse to bending the rules of what CINEMA should be. By adding a good deal of humor, Bergman also bends the rules of what a Bergman film should be. In some sense, The Magic Flute fits in with the redefinition of movies that is endemic to recent loosened-up decades.
Not to detract from Bergman’s achievement, “opera” films have been a cinematic staple, even in the decades before the advent of sound. F. W. Murnau’s great Faust (shown in our recent The Aesthetics of Shadow exhibition, and as much Goethe as Gounod) reached multitudes who had never stepped inside of an opera house, and King Vidor’s La Boheme probably portrayed Mimi’s silent death, embodied by Lillian Gish, more movingly than any singer could manage. Before that there were lots of Carmens and the talkies brought Ernst Lubitsch and his imitators, Michael Powell’s The Tales of Hoffmann, and Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni. However, an uneasy relationship has always existed between the static, intense focus on a singer or two and the movies’ primal and not-to-be-denied urge toward kineticism. This sheds an interesting light on visual stylists like Bergman, Luchino Visconti, Werner Herzog, and others drawn to staging opera, causing an inherent tension between stasis and quasi-orgasmic explosiveness in much of their work.
This past week brought news of the death, at 84, of Paul Mazursky, one of the most underrated directors of post-studio-system Hollywood. Mazursky lacked the nebbishy onscreen charm of Woody Allen, the flamboyant visual style of Martin Scorsese, and the flashy commercial appeal of Steven Spielberg. Yet he remained an important auteur. Perhaps my favorite was Harry and Tonto, in which Mazursky directed Art Carney to an Oscar win, although this perhaps reflects a certain prejudice on my part. To paraphrase Henry Fonda’s herpetologist in Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve (and substitute felines for reptiles), cats are my life. As Mazursky confided to his dutiful Boswell, Sam Wasson, in Paul on Mazursky, the director/writer saw himself as a keen observer and chronicler of contemporary society as he was being immersed in it. It is likely, as Richard Corliss has suggested, that Mazursky’s importance will grow as we gain more historical perspective on his life and times.