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_April 2007 _

The Goodness of Jazz


If you examine the numerous boxed sets and single film releases by Criterion, there’s always a clever mix of high-profile titles – namely the Kurosawas, Fellinis, Antonionis – that outsell and help finance lesser-known and riskier ventures, including sets like Paul Robeson: Portrait of the Artist, which features seven rare films, lovingly transferred to DVD.

Criterion has maintained the standard in presenting vintage and contemporary classics with stellar transfers and archival extras that help put a film many may never have heard of in its proper historical context. That’s certainly the case with Robeson’s work, which has kind of fallen under the radar largely because his films weren’t always produced by major Hollywood studios.

He wasn’t always the star or co-star, and after turning his back on films & weak roles in 1942 for civil rights activism and to further his song and stage work (Robeson sang the definitive version of “Ol’ Man River” in the 1936 version of Show Boat), Communist with-hunters made him a major target during the fifties, which probably kept his film work out of broad circulation, and may have hampered any proactive preservation efforts.

Robeson’s early films, from silents to primal soundies, are covered in Criterion’s 6-disc, 7-film set, and the two of interest to film and jazz fans are a pair of silents with recently commissioned music scores.

Most silent films are given large orchestral scores which hark back to the era of movie palaces, or modest chamber scores that convey the intimacy of social dramas, but it’s pretty rare when jazz is applied to an entire film with zero sound effects or dialogue to worry about.

Borderline (1930) was an experimental film by the Pool group, comprised of poets, photographers, actors, and film critics who basically wanted to put their ideas onto celluloid, proving perhaps to themselves as well as critics that an experimentalism could work in a feature-length format without a formal story.

Starring Paul Robeson and his then wife Eslanda Robeson, the film loosely deals with a black man’s return to a mountain town where his beloved had an affair with a white man. There’s a murder, local racism, and moments of lengthy reflection; the photography in Switzerland is attractive, stark, and dramatic; the editing quite insane; and the performances are highly stylized, although Robeson probably gives the most natural performance in a film of strained personages trapped in a story that doesn’t really make much sense because there isn’t really a resolution.

The eclecticism of Borderline is perfectly captured by Courtney Pine, the noted British jazz musician whose aggressive sax work was incorporated by Trevor Jones in Angel Heart (1987) before Pine himself took the baton and scored a handful of films (including the wonky thriller Spy Games / History is Made at Night, in 1999).

Aside from his early jazz albums, Pine’s own music has sometimes dipped into synth-enhanced, fusion jazz, which wasn’t always a welcome shift for fans of his harsh, driving sax work.

There are synth enhancements in Boderline, but they’re quite suitable, and augment the handful of diverse instruments – including an electric violin – that match the film’s hypnotic use of close-ups, and montages that often accelerate the flood of images to accent moments of anger, a murderous deed, or joyful memories.

A good example of the latter is Robeson’s fond thinking of his beloved in his dark hotel room. Standing with his fist clenched to his heart, the images consist of Robeson’s initially grave visage, his immense physique, and the first of what’s plainly the director’s odd fetish for hands.

Pine uses a pair of syncopated taps, synth strings, and violin to add tenderness as the portraitures of a grave Robeson move towards shots of the actor’s smile, shots of Eslanda by a town wall, Robeson lying in bed, and jump cuts of Robeson’s increasingly joyful visage and outstretched arm and hand.

Pine also plays with instrumental colours, using bass clarinet, keyboards, and deep, resonating bass and percussion. Each of these components are used for a lengthy sequence following Robeson’s happy memories, with the actor wandering through town, apparently following and then encountering his love in an alcove, followed drunken chatter in a local bar, jealous looks, and racist epithets by the barflies – one of the few times title cards actually appear in the film.

The lack of any dialogue clarification is a boon for Pine, because the cues aren’t tied to whole scenes or a formal story: the music draws from ephemeral character moments – walks, hugs, arguments, reveling, murder – and whatever meaning Pine gleans from some of the eccentric montages.

Pine’s music, however, is also dramatically functional, and it’s a great example of how jazz can fulfill a movie’s needs without the use of dialogue or sound effects. In a ‘straight’ film, musicians’ improvisations and rhythmic ideas have to be subjugated by these elements unless it’s a love scene, a doom-and-gloom montage on a rainy street, or a club scene – clichés that don’t really allow musicians like Pine room to really give voice to a film.

What’s equally important is that Pine’s score doesn’t impose a traditional narrative on the film, and while it may contemporize it in terms of a modern jazz style, long chunks of improv, and a few formal melodies, the idiomatic use of jazz for a vintage film proves jazz is just as appropriate as a classic orchestral score.

Those less fond of jazz might feel differently, but the same can be said of scores comprised of chamber instruments, solo organ, or a pastiche of period songs repeated ad nauseam to hammer home specific emotions and themes to more facile audiences – approaches that can solidify a particular sensibility in audiences, irrespective of a filmmaker’s intention.

Whereas Pine’s score was recorded in 2006, Wycliffe Gordon’s own jazz score for Body and Soul (1925) was performed live at a Savannah, Georgia screening, using a big jazz orchestra.

Robeson’s screen debut in Oscar Micheaux’s classic film is a major highlight of the set (not because it’s more linear and logical) and features a deliciously evil character called Black Carl – a crook who masquerades as a preacher, assaults and blackmails a virgin lass, and drives her to desperate measures while few townspeople suspect his scandalous antics.

Micheaux, considered the pioneer of independent African American cinema, had made several films since his 1919 debut, The Homesteader, and while much of Body has locked off, static positions, Micheaux’s own montages nicely convey irony, character conflicts, and some frank, pre-Code behaviour. (A drunken priest leering after a young woman would’ve been a serious no-no ten years later.)

The film’s subtitles are very colloquial – “Ah tries tu intertain de boys when dey’s off wo’l” – and a bit too fleeting to read, but Micheaux’s drama is full of wit, making the finale feel more like an obligatory spiritual closing to keep audiences and local censors quiet, when the writer/director would’ve been perfectly happy to have the villainous preacher settle into a new town and continue his cycle of abuse.

Gordon’s score is another perfect marriage with a silent film, and he makes use of a large jazz orchestra – plus a gutsy brass and rhythm sections – and bursts of vocals to create a number of great motifs.

The chanting of ‘Black Carl’ colours a newspaper report of the criminal’s breech from jail, and the chorus later interrupts a gospel instrumental when Carl recognizes his cell mate seated among the parishoners. The vocals continue through the scene as Carl stumbles through his homily, and while his buddy smirks, low brass swagger to and fro.

Just as amusing are the sharp brass warbles that mimic the small chatter of exiting parishoners, and woodwinds carrying the see-saw melody as the Carl mingles and eyes pretty Isabelle (Mercedes Gilbert), who drifts off into a memory of her true love Sylvester (also played by Robeson).

Gordon’s use of gospel and hymnal-styled songs is also juxtaposed in a sophisticated 4-part sequence that has chatty parishoners visiting Isabelle’s rather daft mother; Carl waking up from a booze binge; Carl’s buddy scheming with a local watering hole manager for free booze; and Isabelle meeting nattily attired Sylvester. Gordon accordingly emphasizes solos, instrumentation, and rhythm to suite each thread in the sequence, nicely phrasing the progression of interrelated irony, and the nuances of each character – a pretty deft accomplishment.

The opening ‘Black Carl’ theme follows Carl’s stroll down the street, and his wait until Isabelle’s mum has left the home so he can enter and accost the woman’s virtue and take the family cash (stashed in the family bible). Gordon basically repeats the syncopated phrase, adding more solos – including a twittering trumpet as mum gabs with her friends and wastes valuable time – and adds some discordant piano to further the tension as Isabelle leaves town in shame, while her mother misses her exit and comes home to Isabelle’s harsh parting note. The cue ends with a final chant of “Black Carl,” and precedes one of a few rare silent pauses in Gordon’s lengthy score.

Another clever moment has Carl chatting on the street corner with his former cellmate who threatens to reveal his identity unless there’s some financial compensation. Gordon shifts the music to actual tap dance textures – a motif he carries into the following scene – to show how Carl dances about the issue and searches for a way to ensure his advantageous position remains firmly rooted in the community.

Blues vocals and percussion are the only underscore for Isabelle’s confession of unpleasant events to her mother, who’s tracked her down to a seedy rental apartment. Kick drum and cymbal hits form the underpinning, while the sweet chorus really augments Isabelle’s terrible shame.

Gordon’s style recalls Duke Ellington’s late forties/early fifties big band performances, and the recording used for the DVD is clean without any audience noise. Like Borderline, the jazz score for Body and Soul fits the movie like a slick leather glove, and both scores also work as lengthy narrative albums – another bonus in this rewarding set.

Criterion’s Paul Robeson box also contains newly mastered transfers of The Emperor Jones (1933), The Proud Valley (1940), Native Land (1942), Sanders of the River (1935), and Jericho (1937). Some of the films, like Body and Soul, include audio commentaries by historians, and the set also comes with a book that reprints some rare interviews, essays, and reviews.

Robeson only appeared in thirteen films, so these seven – plus a documentary – are a valuable archive of a neglected talent, and a hidden gem among Criterion’s more recognizable releases.

Those interested in other rare works by early African American filmmakers should check out Image Entertainment’s 3-disc The Origin of Film, and S’More Entertainment’s 3-disc documentary series, That’s Black Entertainment.


Mark R. Hasan (2007)

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