Friday, April 25, 2008

Jazz Score: Some Game-Playing

Given their improvisational spirit, it is not surprising many French New Wave directors were receptive to jazz soundtracks. For a time Roger Vadim was included in the New Wave ranks, before veering into Barbarella territory. Indeed, some of his early films featured very influential jazz soundtracks, a particularly controversial example being Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which will screen as part of MoMA’s Jazz Score series.

Often referred to as Dangerous Liaisons 1960, despite having been filmed in 1959 and released in America in 1961, Vadim’s film is the first cinematic adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's novel and is particularly notable for the liberties it takes setting the film in contemporary times.

The film was notorious in its time, even facing French censorship for allegedly slandering French virtue (is that even possible?). Likewise, the jazz soundtrack was somewhat controversial, for more bread-and-butter issues of composer credits. There were two rival soundtrack albums available. The official release was recorded by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers augmented by French saxman Barney Wilen, performing themes written by the hitherto unheard of, and never to be heard from again, J. Marray. Duke Jordan, Charlie Parker’s longtime pianist also claimed credit for Liaison’s themes and would record them on his own album two years later.

Of the original themes, “No Problem” has become something of a standard, and nearly every version credits Jordan as composer. Ironically, for all the questions regarding authorship, most of the music heard throughout the film are Monk standards. The opening titles even acknowledge groups led by all three musicians, which happen to be some of the coolest credits ever, lingering over close-ups of chess pieces, while Monk’s ruminative music works its magic.

Of the various Liaisons, Vadim’s might be the stone coldest, thanks to Jeanne Moreau’s performance as the ruthless Juliette de Merteuil. Vadim radically alters the dynamics of the novel, making the two antagonists husband and wife. As the movie opens, they are enjoying a sort of open marriage, where each takes vicarious (and sadistic) pleasure in their partner’s conquests. Early in the film they debate how affairs should be ended. For Juliette argues it should be done with style, but Valmont’s favors a direct approach: “I wanted you, I had you, goodbye.”

Vadim’s power couple would seem to be courting a karmic payback, and indeed events take them outside their comfort zones when Valmont begins to pursue a woman out of genuine love rather than the seducing another target to suit the machinations of his wife. Moreau is perfectly matched by Gerard Philipe as Valmont, whose life was cut short by cancer less than a year after filming Liaison.

MoMA’s Jazz Score also features Joseph Losey’s The Servant, another film featuring quite a bit of psychological and sexual gamesmanship. Penned by Harold Pinter, The Servant is a disturbing look at the control games valet Hugo Barrett plays with his employer, Tony, played by James Fox. As Barrett, Dirk Bogarde is sinister and calculating but, aside from some implied sexual overtones, his motives are never explained. Of course, coming from lefties like Losey and Pinter, perhaps class distinctions are supposed to be motive enough for any hostile behavior. The Servant has moments of chilling black comedy, but as the film becomes increasingly fever-dreamlike it is difficult to stay invested in the story.

British jazz saxophonist Johnny Dankworth did compose an interesting score that does fit within the series parameters, thanks to his sax passages, but is often quite classical in its conception and use of string quartets. It features two notable musical “guest stars.” Dankworth’s wife and longtime vocalist, Dame Cleo Lane, recorded Pinter’s song “All Gone,” which is often heard on Tony’s turntable. Bert Jansch associate Davey Graham also appears briefly performing the folk-blues “Rock Me Mama” in a cafĂ© scene.

Unfortunately, Liaison and Servant are not scheduled for the same day, as they would make an interesting double feature. Of the two, Liaison is richer film and music. It screens May 3rd and 4th, while Servant screens April 26th.