Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Soothing Savage Breasts

In his play, The Mourning Bride (1697), William Congreve famously wrote:

"Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I've read, that things inanimate have mov'd,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform'd,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound."

Music's strange powers have been used to hypnotize snakes, get the rats to leave Hamelin, and calm the nerves of the dazed and confused passengers who were about to drown as the Titanic sank into the Atlantic Ocean on a cold, starlit night in 1912. Mozart's Magic Flute was able to charm wild beasts, Pan's pipe was sounded throughout Greek mythology. In Wagner's Ring of the NibelungenSiegfried's horn awakened the sleeping giant Fafner, luring him from the safety of his cave while, over in the French repertoire, Lakme's famous Act II "Bell Song" coaxed her secret lover from his hiding place in a crowded Indian bazaar. 

Professor Harold Hill sold musical instruments to the tone-deaf youngsters of River City while, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg blasted his way toward finding a means of intergalactic communication between species using the tones of the diatonic scale. The Phantom of the Opera managed to pump out the "music of the night" each time he fingered his mighty organ.

But tango music played on an accordian in Finland?  More specifically, an accordian being used to drown out the ectastic moans of a hypersexual young woman with Down's syndrome as her wheelchair-bound boyfriend (who thinks he is Clark Kent) performs cunnilingus on her for the very first time?  For that, you'll have to be inside the Castro Theater on January 21st for a screening of Finnish Tango that is part and parcel of the 2009 Berlin and Beyond Festival. If you like your comedy black -- as black as Harold and Maude, Eating Raoul, or Something For Everyone -- then this film is for you. 

Nele Winkler and Michael Schumacher in Finnish Tango

After Tommy (the leader of a small band) freaks out and commits suicide by driving a stolen van into a wall at high speed,  one of the surviving musicians drags his trusty accordian from the wreck and finds himself battered, bleeding, and without a future.  He has no funds, nowhere to live, and the rock band whose van he helped steal wants money or blood.  The other surviving musician is furious with Alex (Christopher Bach) because he chose to rescue his accordian first and his friend second.

Homeless and hungry, Alex can't get hired as a musician to save his life. But when he discovers that people would have to hire him if he were certifiably disabled, he acts quickly to forge a new identity as a grief-stricken epileptic on the run from a group home in Berlin. Inquiring after a job with a theater company comprised primarily of disabled and mentally challenged wards of the state, he auditions for them by reenacting his favorite scene from Evil Dead II.

Alex may not get the role, but he does get invited to stay in a group home with an odd assortment of characters.  There is the stuttering, wheelchair-bound Clark (Michael Schumacher), the perpetually horny Marilyn (Nele Winkler), and a crippled, self-pitying suicidal intellectual named Rudolph (Fabian Busch), who could easily show Bud Cort's Harold a few things about how to fake a death scene.  Their "house mother" is a sweet young woman named Lotte (Mira Bartuschek), who easily develops a crush on Alex.

Mira Bartuschek and Christopher Bach

Although Alex must confront a few of his own demons, he quickly realizes that if he keeps playing the disabled card, his physical and financial needs will easily be met. Much merriment ensues (accompanied by hysterics, suicide attempts, and sex between the aforementioned cripple and his lusty retarded girlfriend).  

And, yes, Virignia.  There is also accordian music.

Darkly written by Marcus Hertneck and directed with an almost malevolent glee by Buket Alakus, Finnish Tango is hardly what one would call a feel-good movie.  Its humor is inspired by the disabled, heavily character driven, frequently brutal, and often shockingly hilarious. This is definitely not a good choice for the squeamish or those seeking "family fare." And yet, in its bizarre and twisted way, this film -- thanks in large part to its strong acting ensemble -- proves to be a strangely satisfying indie gem.  

* * * * * * * * 
Less morbid and yet equally fascinating is a documentary about the most frequently performed song in the world: La Paloma. Since its creation sometime around 1863 by Sebastian Iradie, La Paloma has morphed into a popular wedding song in Zanzibar (where it is sung in Swahili), a burial song in Romania, and been requested by the Nazi SS to serenade children on their way to the gas chambers during World War II. 

The simple little habanera that went on to become La Paloma was incorporated by Georges Bizet into Act I of Carmen and, more than 140 years after it was written, is still being sung around in the world in one form or another.  La Paloma has been used as a popular sailor's song in Germany, as a plot point in numerous movies, and recorded in nearly 2,000 different versions. It has been sung by all kinds of artists ranging from the Ghetto Swingers (where it became a staple of Coco Schumann's repertory) to Makame Faki's recording in Zanzibar.

According to Harry Koizumi, it was the guitar-playing Spanish cowboys who brought the song with them to Hawaii after King Kamehameha's herds of cattle became too populous to control. Eugenia Leon has performed it at numerous political rallies in Mexico and, in Sigrid Faltin's intensely-researched documentary, you'll even hear it performed by an ensemble of handheld bell ringers!

Probably the only film you will ever see that contains footage of both Grace Bumbry and Elvis Presley. La Paloma will be screened on Saturday, January 17 at noon at the Castro Theater. Here's the trailer:

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