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The Dartmouth
April 15, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Glass' scores add panache to a mixed bag of 'Shorts'

Philip Glass has managed to carve out a unique niche for himself: composing music to accompany visual art. While composers from John Williams to Thomas Newman have built reputations on scoring movies, their work must never overshadow the film itself.

Glass finds himself in the unique position of seeing his name on the marquee when he and his ensemble travel around the world playing live scores to a collection of short art films. The ensemble performed "Shorts" in a sold-out Spaulding Auditorium Tuesday night.

Like the silent movies of yesteryear, the six films had no dialogue and no pre-recorded sound track; the 12 musicians sitting on stage in front of the screen supplied that. But the musicians' goal was different.

The films shown in "Shorts" were about mood more than narrative. So instead of merely underscoring the events of the film, as silent-film composers often did, Glass' compositions played a large part in determining the impact of each film.

In the first short, "The Man in the Bath," director Peter Greenaway creates a montage based around the image of a naked man in a bathtub. The film opens with computer-manipulated images of waves. Water splashes unnaturally before cutting to footage of ocean waves and then the core image of the bathtub, surrounded by columns in a wide, strangely elegant room with an apparently artificial layer of water on the floor. The image is dissected into overlapping rectangular frames.

Greenaway is determined to explore the idea of putting things in boxes, and the images repeatedly divide into smaller quadrilaterals, which move about the screen in unexpected ways, sliding into, out of, on top of and under each other. We see shelves, drawers, bookcases.

Throughout much of the film, an unseen hand moves a quill pen across the screen, writing laws of fluid displacement in ink that's as clear as water.

Glass' contribution to the endeavor is an equally fluid score, featuring a flutist and choral voices summoned up by several musicians playing synthesizers.

"The Man in the Bath" succeeds because there's no immediate message behind the image. By divorcing their film from the constraint of meaning, Greenaway and Glass make us focus on the interplay of its icons, letting us supply the signified for each signifier or even deny that they are signifiers at all.

We're challenged more by the next film, the less visually stimulating "Passage." The director, Shirin Neshat, tells a strange semi-narrative set in a desert.

The camera follows three images. First, a funeral procession moves from the sea toward the sandy interior. Then we see a ring of people shrouded in black, kneeling in a circle and apparently worshipping something. Finally we see a girl alone in the desert, pushing small rocks into piles and arranging them in rings.

The entire film is painted with blacks, whites, the harsh tans of the desert, the sickly blue of the sky -- and little more. Not much transpires during the film, but we start to notice things: sometimes the white cot the pallbearers are carrying seems to be empty; other times a shrouded figure lies in it -- and here a wild saxophone breaks into Glass' plodding score. Eventually we see that the people kneeling in the ring are not mourners but laborers, endlessly digging a pit in the center of the ring.

We're challenged to invent a context for the scene without having one thrust upon us, and that's among the reasons the film resonates.

The same can't be said for "Diaspora," which consists of grainy footage of sheep being herded somewhere, intercut with images -- lifted from Elia Kazan's "America America" -- of raging fires and people fleeing.

The visuals are presented in different tints (notably, blood-red) and levels of graininess, with different film techniques used: picture-in-picture, quick intercutting, reverse motion.

All the while, Glass' score progresses from brooding and funereal to apocalyptic, the high operatic voices evoking Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana."

The film's title makes its message excruciatingly clear, and we're faced with the confrontational and cliched metaphor of the sheep as Jews being driven to the Holocaust's slaughter.

This is not new emotional territory, nor is it carefully explored here. Instead, well-respected director Atom Egoyan seems content to pound us with imagery that tries to work on a visceral level, but fails, and Glass settles for hammering it home with an overstated score.

The next film, "Evidence," is an older piece by Godfrey Reggio. After a few grainy closeups of faces, skin, an eye, we cut to tight shots of children gazing in rapt wonder. As the camera pans from one to the next, the expressions vary from scared to amazed, spellbound, transfixed. Sometimes one gives a half-smile; one girl has tears in her eyes. A few of the expressions are vacant; some are knowingly intelligent.

As we stare at the screen, we can't help catching ourselves in some of the same states. Whoever the children are and whatever they're watching, they're reflections of ourselves.

Glass' score for the piece is wonderful, beginning with a mysterious tune reminiscent of John Ottman's themes throughout "The Usual Suspects." As the film continues, a tenor saxophone warbles in over warm sonic textures.

Some audience members chuckled when an end title reveals that the children had been watching television. Reggio has turned his lens inward on the range of human emotional response.

In the penultimate film, "Notes," Israeli director Michal Rovner never moves far beyond a clever idea. The film opens with grainy black-and-white footage of rows of people confronting each other in a snowy wasteland not unlike the desert setting of "Passage." Suddenly the people are walking around on five lines representing a musical staff -- they're notes, get it?

We move back and forth between these images, but little develops. In this case, the audience is left begging for a meaning to assign, since the visual imagery leaves us with so precious little to cling to.

The only redeeming element is Glass' score, which finally starts to develop something like a rhythm, drives forward and onward, seeking to help the audience through Rovner's lifeless endeavor.

The final film, "Anima Mundi," is the longest. For 20 minutes or so, Godfrey Reggio shows us the animal kingdom in all its wide variety, and at times it's fascinating. We see not just lions and monkeys and elephants, the usual wildlife-safari fare, but also grasshoppers, lizards, schools of fish, even amoebae and bacteria, all in glorious full-color close-ups.

The film was shot for the World Wildlife Fund, and it's no wonder: it serves as a veritable infomercial for biodiversity.

Glass' score runs from African drumming in the large-mammal segments to clacking franticness as we see bacteria divide and replicate.

Throughout the performance, the immediacy of the Glass Ensemble's live performance often took both good films and bad to new levels of immediacy, and showcased Glass' role as one of America's preeminent film scorers.