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The Big Dream: "Annette," "Perfect Lives," and the Gesamtkunstwerk

The heights of creatively hybridizing cinema and opera can be found in Leos Carax and Sparks' film and Robert Ashley's 1984 TV opera.
Ruairi McCann
Leos Carax's Annette is exclusively showing on MUBI in many countries starting November 26, 2021 in the series Luminaries.
The relationship between western opera and cinema has often been direct and codependent, with one “bigger than life” art form exchanging notes with the other. There’ve been films based on opera and vice-versa, the relatively recent trend of operas being live broadcast in cinemas, and the use of moving images have found their way to the opera stage. Two motion pictures, the film Annette and the television series Perfect Lives, give this connection a deeper treatment. To varying extents, they mine the vein between opera and cinema, combining libretto, music, and moving images. What they discover, directly or indirectly, are past forms, styles and approaches to art ripe for repurposing in the pursuit of artistic reflection and evolution.  
Annette, the new film directed by Leos Carax, co-written with Ron and Russell Mael of the band Sparks, incorporates opera into cinema as one component of its emotional and modal insecurity. Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry, a stand-up comedian tethered to a highly successful, provocative show called “The Ape of God.” Despite his reprobate image, he is also one half of a loved-up celebrity couple. He’s married to Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard), an opera soprano renowned on the world stage. Following a behind-the-scenes opening number, we are introduced to Henry and Ann in their separate lanes, preparing for their respective shows, which are then intercut. Ann’s performance, which we see less of, is a perfectly cohesive creation, enacted with a grand scope and formal purity. We see her in the ideal rendition of the culmination of her role, the soprano on a litany of tears which ends with the tragic salvation of death. She performs this climatic aria without the safety net of a microphone to a rapt audience on an expressive yet minimal stage, representing a dark forest. The alchemy is so potent that all simulacra dissipates: a back wall rises to reveal an actual forest scene.
Henry’s “Ape of God” act is far more scatter-shot. His neither fish nor fowl performance-art-cum-comedy-routine feels remote from those actual comedians, past and present, whose sets are marked for their edginess and self-loathing. Instead, “The Ape of God” comes across varyingly as a broken telephone version of the kind of early 20th century variety act from which stand-up was first developed, and a bitter, pop caricature of his partner’s high art, the phantom of her opera. 
Emerging in a state of mock-decrepitude, mirroring Ann’s own exalted disorientation, Henry’s muttering intro quickly explodes into a rap, then a balletic stride across the stage. His antics are accompanied by a choir, like that of a gospel or a soul group. Instead, they are set to Sparks’ whip-lash melange, a ceaseless shifting between Broadway-tinged orchestral music, rock opera, vaudevillian show tunes, harsher, quasi-industrial music with the occasional siphoning in from Ann’s performance, all set to excessive canned laughter. Driver also flits between different performance styles and registers. Henry portrays himself as a kind of manic showman or clown, cynical truth-teller and overwhelmed romantic, in a pointed parody of Ann’s character and her extreme emotional display. 
The formal and personal identity crisis that is Henry’s show evinces much of the qualities of the wider film: its irony and deep-seated sadness, a foreshadowing of Henry’s eventual fall. It’s also a pint-sized example of how the Maels and Leos Carax’s respective artistic visions, in their formal and stylistic promiscuity, resemble what composer Richard Wagner, with his notion of the “gesathamkunstwurk,” and other figures in the 19th century saw in opera: the total work of art. Its blend of different forms of music and performance with literature and visual art, and all the effects they had at their disposal, was seen by many as the logical, heightened encapsulation of all artistic practice. For Wagner, this included the incorporation of that ancient form of the myth, as one of the most primal and therefore powerful forms of art. It’s a heady mantle that to some degree cinema inherited, and which Maels and Carax find in the same sublime maximalism of music and cinema, and in the two forms together. 
Carax’s youth was marked by bands like Sparks who made 70s rock and pop a welter of modernism. Unlike many of their contemporaries in the initial wave of Glam Rock, Sparks operated without a strong footing in popular music’s primary genesis, the blues. Instead, their work was forward-thinking through antiquated means, infusing British Invasion and Beach Boys-influenced rock and later disco and synth-pop with influences and features from classical music, opera, showtunes, cabaret, vaudeville, and musical theatre. Both their music and their elaborate live performances were buoyed by committed studies in other artforms as well, such as modern art and cinema. Their resulting constellation of forebears is richly disparate, from Brian Wilson to Groucho Marx, Oscar and Hammerstein to Brecht and Weill. 
Carax also casts the new with the old and factors many non-cinematic inclinations and features into his filmmaking, which he has characterized as being musical, even if Annette is his first musical proper. This can be seen and heard not only in his use of evocative pop queues, but how his cinema demotes conventional narrative progression in favor of a logic that is emotional, metaphorical, and intuitive, teetering on abstraction. His deep affinity for silent cinema, for figures like King Vidor (referenced in Annette with an excerpt from The Crowd and a mention in the credits), comes from the same non-narrative impulse that governs his relationship with music. And he goes further back and onto other modes for his sense of characterization and drama, which he draws from literature.  Specifically the fairytale, next door to Wagner’s myths, and its development in the form of fantasy and the gothic. 
The results are a southern gothic tale, a rock opera and a modernist fairytale that uses the opera stage and a mockery of it as a springboard for a montage of effects: musically, visual and performatively, illusionist, disillusioning and achingly direct. Sparks’ music—continuing along a tact established with their album Lil’ Beethoven (2002) with its mostly orchestral instrumentation and rhythmic use of vocals and repetitive lyrics—is composed earnestly to a full operatic and melodramatic tilt but is also pock-marked with bitter, distancing ironies. The talisman being the recurring song “We Love Each Other So Much.” It’s a slow, romantic number that functions as a true profession of Henry and Ann’s initially strong but precarious bond and, especially as the film grows darker, its echo. The increasingly desperate mantra of a hollowed-out soul lost in the depths of self-deception, it is a parody of love songs as overly formalized, clamped down expressions of what is often untamed and inexpressible. 
Annette’s staging and backing are an amalgamation of a Brechtian influence and cinema’s innate tendency towards depicting reality, a dissocialized European hodgepodge shot for Los Angeles, with a chorus comprised of the everyday: nurses, cops, paparazzi along with parody of a glitzy, empty gossip program. Despite this distance, Carax often goes for very physical and direct effects. His silent filmmaker’s eye for manipulating the human body makes wonderful use of Driver’s hulking yet awkward physique. Not unlike how Murnau shot George O’Brien in Sunrise (1927), Carax emphasizes Henry’s ability to do harm when he’s hovering over or wrapped around Ann or holding Baby Annette, an abstraction of a child and yet an immediate and textured one, in the palm of his hand.
Annette springs to mind the work of composer Robert Ashley. There are many commonalities in the plumbing of modern loneliness and alienation, a deep cultural history, a similar sense of humor and the use of denuded and distanced settings. Most significantly there’s the use of opera and its many effects. However, there are striking differences in tenor and outlook in Annette, which is very much the work of still-inspired but aging modernists, who push their collage to a crushing moment of exhaust where all the pomp and escapism in the world cannot undo its Heathcliffian hero’s crimes. In his first serious approach to opera combined with moving images, Ashley did not have such rich yet pessimistic ends in mind. Instead, he saw a form he could strip down, make anew, and take into the future. 
Ashley was born in 1930 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and spent much of his working life between New York and back home in that nexus of experimental music and cinema. On returning to the city in 1959, to work at the University of Michigan's Speech Research Laboratories, he first scratched the surface of his later vocation: the intersection between music and spoken language. Despite this early clue, his career as a composer was a slow-burnishing one. Throughout the 60s, he would occupy important roles behind the scenes and in collaboration with many other major figures of American experimental music, post-John Cage. However, when it came to staging and performing his own music, he found it an exponentially disillusioning experience. Financial hardship and hostile audiences convinced him to quit in 1968, leading to a fallow period lasting several years. 
Fallow only in the sense of completed works. Just before and during this sabbatical, Ashley developed the ideas that would mark his body of work: the twinning of music and spoken language to create a form filled with characters and narratives, “amoral” and rhizomatic, like an expansive novel, elucidating manifold ideas. As opposed to pop music which he saw as restrictive in both length and subject matter, though like Sparks in reverse, he would gradually incorporate more popular forms. His eventual conclusion then was to make opera but rebuilt from the ground up and Americanized. Instead of just mimicking the patterns of Puccini’s Italian or Wagner’s German, his librettos would de-emphasize melody and overt emotional display and use a semi-sung American vernacular, timed to its faster, native tempo and particular inflections. His settings, for the most part, would be distinctly 20th century American spaces and the ideal venue would not be a grand auditorium but television screens. He found great appeal not only in the expressive qualities of moving images but how TV simultaneously allowed for an intimate performance space and a potentially enormous audience. 
After several years of reconstitution and new works, Ashley would eventually find his medium with the ambitious Perfect Lives (1983), a seven episode “comic opera about reincarnation” or “songs about the Cornbelt, with some of the people in it… or on it.” With a libretto written by Ashley and music composed by him along with frequent collaborators—the flamboyant and gifted pianist Robert Nathan Sheff a.k.a. Blue Gene Tyranny and composer Peter Gordon—Perfect Lives first came to fruition not as a whole but in dribs and drabs, live and in the studio, starting from 1977. Full synthesis began in 1980 with a commission and funding from New York’s The Kitchen. Now armed with a performance space and having recruited video artist John Sanborn, Ashley embarked on finishing his debut opera for television. 
Perfect Lives’s galaxy has its root in two proliferating, intercut and overlaid spaces. The first is The Kitchen, where Ashley, the primary vocalist and storyteller, and Blue Gene, on the piano, perform all dolled up and spangly against a sparse, neon-lined stage. Their accompaniment is a steady, rhythmic bed of synths and drum machine and a chorus composed of periodic subtitles and the voices of Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem. The scene is also set and elaborated with the second space: the video footage of Sanborn, much of which was filmed in rural Illinois. These images illustrate the libretto directly and obliquely, in skits, fits and spurts. A story, or series of stories, begins with a pair of blow-ins into a humdrum midwestern town. Raoul de Noget (Robert Ashley), a lounge singer, and his partner, Buddy, “The World’s Greatest Piano Player” (Blue Gene Tyranny), are on their way to a gig when they fall in with Isolde (Jill Kroesen) and her brusque brother Donnie (David Van Tieghem) or “D” or “The Captain of the Football Team.” They form a fraternal and farcical Bonnie and Clyde who’ve hatched the absurd scheme of staging a hoax-bank robbery. This act draws in a host of new characters and their intertwining lives and personal problems. 
Perfect Lives
This is a roughly accurate premise but belies a convoluted sequence. Perfect Lives moves not in a straight line but multiple directions, folding back on itself and exploring the outer and inner reaches. It’s only in rare instances that Ashley’s relentless patter ever places his audience within a single, stable scenario and point of view. Instead, he’s constantly changing tact, between the first, third and no definable person. He describes the characters’ actions, their innermost thoughts, Ashley’s, or maybe it’s Raoul’s, own interpretation along with numerous digressions that indulge in non-sequiturs and a wide swathe of historical, political, religious, and scientific ideas. This multiplicity is matched in both sound and vision. Sanborn’s camera both captures the performance and illustrates the libretto yet also goes off in strange and metaphorical vestiges, with the aid of the latest video synthesizing technology. These allow him to flip, contort, splice, and multiply the images, to make them as pliable and allusive as the spoken word. The score is equally mobile. Atop the electro pop base, Blue Gene’s piano functions like a silent film accompaniment, providing the emotional color to the action. Motivated by Ashley’s direction, his interpretation of his character and the project’s non-linearity, Blue Gene is also his own free-wheeling agent, playing a variety of jazz styles, sprightly and slow, direct and indirect, with the occasional atonal breakdown. 
This mix, a spinning plate at the intersection of pop and classical, electronic and traditional music, is indicative of another, extraordinary quality of Perfect Lives: its achieved aspiration to be a distinctly American gesamtkunstwerk. The Kitchen set alone evokes a myriad of different forms: a nightclub lounge, a chat show’s side stage and a TV preacher’s flashy pulpit. Ashley’s vocal style, a speedy and emphatic yet gentle midwestern drawl, follows in line with Whitman’s blank verse in that it borrows heavily from the rhythms and inflections of the American evangelist. The widening net of characters and their mundane and unexpected relations evokes soap operas and, with Ashley’s humorous and occasionally grotesque treatment, places him in a lineage with certain literary greats. William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Sherwood Anderson with his own midwestern cycle, Winesburg, Ohio and Herman Melville’s singular interspersing satire on Americanism, The Confidence-Man, His Masquerade (1857). 
A film like Annette has become an increasingly rare proposition, as a relatively big-budgeted work of cinema that is ambitious in both scale and artistry, and in its dovetailing between European modernist cinema and American popular culture. Perfect Lives, in hindsight, also comes across as a remnant, hailing from a more intrepid era of television on both sides of the Atlantic. After debuting in 1983 on UK’s Channel Four, then in the thick of a golden age of adventurous programming, it would travel to other channels in Europe and the States. And yet despite this success and Ashley’s efforts, it was the effective conclusion of his relationship with the medium that, to the end of his days, he preferred. The window for television as a creative medium had constricted under the pressure of mounting corporatization. 
Much of today’s corporate moving images, from Marvel movies to pumped-up Netflix fodder, are evidence of a popular medium in decline, suffering from a severe deficit in ambition, an impoverished sense of history and few ideas for the future. They pale in comparison to both Annette and Perfect Lives, which delve into a remarkable array of past and present forms to unify, on a tricked-out opera stage encased in images, experimentation, and spectacle. 


Now ShowingLéos CaraxRobert Ashley
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