Monday, March 06, 2006

Cinematic Compromises, Moral and Musical

Watching the Academy Awards was a dreary chore this year, with so many films to root against. The film I least wanted to see walk off with a little gold statuette was Stephen Spielberg’s Munich, which did indeed end the night empty-handed. When first released, The NY Sun via Powerline raised some excellent issues about the film’s historical omissions, such as Germany’s decision to voluntarily release the Black September terrorists in a cowardly act of appeasement.

Spielberg will always deserve credit for Schindler’s List, but of late it seems as if he has lost his way. His last “serious” drama, The Terminal also made unfortunate compromises, at least from the perspective of a jazz fanatic like myself.

Any film which features Art Kane’s A Great Day in Harlem photo as a major plot point, and showcases Benny Golson’s Quartet performing Killer Joe, albeit briefly, will be welcomed as a force for good by jazz enthusiasts and supporters. Unfortunately, many of those same people were disappointed by the film, particularly in its soundtrack.

In The Terminal (2004), Tom Hanks plays protagonist Viktor Navorski, a citizen of Krakozhia, a vaguely Balkan, fictional Eastern European country, who through a set of extraordinary diplomatic circumstances, finds himself confined to the international terminal of JFK International Airport. Navorski is not merely a tourist—he left for New York on a mission. As a boy Navorski’s father was inspired by Art Kane’s famous photo of fifty-seven jazz greats posed in front of a Harlem brownstone, to write each musician pictured, asking for an autograph. Over the years, responses came back to the senior Navorski, until at the time of his death, only one was outstanding—Benny Golson. As a tribute to his late father, Navorski intends to find Golson in New York to complete his set.

By relegating jazz to a brief walk-on role towards the film’s end, it makes it difficult to fully appreciate Navorski’s motivations. Incidentally, Spielberg’s film seems to miss the full significance of the Navorskis’ dedication to jazz. On the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, jazz was condemned as decadent American music. Listening to jazz on V.O.A. was an act of rebellion that could lead to prison, or worse.

There is much to praise in The Terminal. It is an original dramatic situation, well acted by all its players. Oddly, Spielberg shows little faith in jazz, or perhaps in general audiences’ ability to accept it in large doses, severely compromising its screen time. Instead The Terminal mostly features a blandly forgettable orchestral score by John Williams, a frequent collaborator. Ultimately, a full jazz soundtrack may have sacrificed verisimilitude, but it would have served character development. Indeed, Williams’s soothing orchestral themes are as out of place in an airport terminal as the swinging sounds of Golson’s group would have been.

Golson, who figures prominently in the storyline, composed many jazz standards like “Killer Joe” and “I Remember Clifford.” Having spent many years working as a Hollywood studio musician, he is most familiar with the demands of film soundtracks. While we can only speculate as to what could have been had he been commissioned to compose The Terminal’s soundtrack, we can have a potential sense of it by listening to Terminal 1 (Concord Records) a set of originals and standards performed by Golson’s group, inspired by the film he briefly appears in.

The press efforts for The Terminal frequently made the claim that Spielberg was a jazz enthusiast, but he hardly went to bat for the music he reportedly loves. Now with Munich, Spielberg has bent over backward to appear even-handed, but in doing so, obscures the real moral question. Should the civilized world stand up for its values, when terrorists murder innocent Israeli athletes in cold blood? While the Spielberg of Munich makes a show of agonizing over moral compromises, his recent filmography is rife with compromises.