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THE PRODIGAL SON

THE LIFE AND WORK OF SERGEI PROKOFIEV

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As the film moves onto Prokofiev’s return to the Soviet Union, the autobiographical recollections and letter recitations become less personal and more businesslike. The narrative, propelled by bombastic excerpts from Zdravitsa and the Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, now favours abundant Soviet-era stock footage of armies, parades, and widespread grief, as if Prokofiev’s voice were being swallowed up by Stalinist drudgery. The most memorable of Prokofiev’s Soviet-era recollections we hear narrated is taken from an address made to the All-Union Congress of Composers, and is accompanied by mocking footage of Soviet factories pumping out what appear to be colossal pretzels and bizarrely pig-shaped biscuits: “The Soviet people are striving ahead in all spheres of the economy. We are the country of the future [...]. Our collective farms, our great constructions, our ideas of the future are imported in the present day. Why then do the comrade musicians imagine that they alone can feed on yesterday’s bread and rotten beef?” While Prokofiev’s critique of Khrennikovism may have been politically incorrect, the film in no way suggests that October or Zdravitsa were anything but fresh approaches to Bolshevism, particularly as they accompany footage of a preposterous gymnastics procession derived from the same neoclassical body-worship that was, at the time, also inspiring the Nazis and Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938). With so much of Soviet musicology turning on the aesthetics of coded political resistance (Shostakovich’s use of Jewish melodies, et al.), an entire documentary focused just on the ideological tensions in Prokofiev’s (arguably satirical) Soviet-era compositions could have been more illuminating than a nationalistic rationalisation of Prokofiev’s “new simplicity”. (3) How much more curious and subversive it would have been, too, if the film intercut Gergiev’s performance of the supposedly “optimistic” Fifth Symphony with footage of gulags and pogroms rather than homecoming soldiers embracing their wives, as happens here. Again, the film follows Prokofiev’s own “official” accounts, ignoring the darker depths of the Fifth discovered, for instance, by Michael Tilson-Thomas in his recording of the work with the London Symphony Orchestra.

This account of Prokofiev’s nationalism becomes intriguing, however, when the film addresses Peter and the Wolf. As Peter’s jocose violin theme hums on the soundtrack, we see quietly unnerving footage of camouflaged children – perhaps Young Pioneers – engaged in paramilitary exercises, wielding wooden carbines and commanding nearly life-size toy tanks, while intercut footage of a preening Hitler is announced by the wolf’s three horns and tremolo cymbals. Never has Peter’s naiveté seemed so ominous, even apocalyptic. Soviet critics circa 1936, desperate for a praiseworthy example of socialist realism, prized Peter’s musical transparencies as something more than mere child’s play: “Here we have [...] the melodic and harmonic style of mature Prokofiev [...], we have the elements of a new Soviet symphonic style, free from both intellectual self-analysis and a tragic view of reality.” But let’s not forget that Peter’s narrative outcome, though shorn of “intellectual self-analysis”, remains shrewdly subversive and anti-authoritarian, for only in defiance of the patriarchal grandfather does Peter seize the omnivorous wolf and cease its mad conquest. Though musically congruent with the idiom of socialist realism, Peter and the Wolf ’s morality champions individualist initiative and insubordination, not submission to hierarchy.

The film’s depiction of Prokofiev’s middle-to-late period – that of his “Soviet tragedy” – proffers several touchingly dramatised moments: Prokofiev and Eisenstein screening the “Field of the Dead” sequence from Alexander Nevsky right before Meyerhold’s shadowy execution; an ailing, destitute Prokofiev recalling the sweetness of his childhood to the tune of the First Violin Concerto, its precocity now made melancholic; and Prokofiev’s deathbed scene, where Mira Mendelson, acting as Prokofiev’s amanuensis, takes down those imaginary, hopeful opus numbers she knows he’ll never live to realise. More tantalising, though, is a dramatised sequence wherein Eisenstein, working alongside Prokofiev on Alexander Nevsky, believes he’s discovered “the key to Prokofiev’s creativity” after asking for his new telephone number. When Prokofiev articulates the number not in casual, mundane tones but in a precisely intoned, stop-and-go rhythm, Eisenstein becomes aware of Prokofiev’s preternatural sense of intonation – the “key to melody”, as Eisenstein says. I actually wish Nekrasov had begun the film with this kind of offbeat insight, and concentrated on demystifying Prokofiev through an analysis of the compositional procedures that tie together his diverse musical periods, instead of cleverly visualising a biography that can already be pieced together from written documentation. Extrapolating from one intellectual, cultural, or especially semiotic aspect of an artist’s work can be more profitable than hurrying through his or her entire life story in ninety minutes, squeezing in as much humanistic detail as will fit. In other words, what we need is not an exegesis of Prokofiev’s life, an interpretation extracted from known histories, but an eisegesis, the free, unorthodox interpretation of a biography (or text) through means as subjective as, for instance, Eisenstein’s offhand, indeed underdeveloped observation about Prokofiev’s notion of temporality.

Some of my criticisms of Prodigal Son are, admittedly, exceedingly harsh; this is, after all, a finely crafted film, and by rejecting the use of renowned, charismatic actors, the film thankfully avoids playing into the fetishistic cult of personality perpetuated by so many fictionalised treatments of composers. (4) Indeed, composer biopics are remembered generally for the heavy charisma accrued from their lead actors, from Cornel Wilde’s fulsomely romantic Chopin in A Song to Remember (1945), to Harry Baur’s inquisitive, naturally curious Beethoven in Gance’s Un grand amour de Beethoven (1936), to Gary Oldman’s pathetic, enfeebled Beethoven in Immortal Beloved (1994), to Tom Hulce’s impish Mozart in Amadeus (1984), to Richard Chamberlain’s overheated, panicked Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers (1970), to Richard Burton’s lugubrious, ham-fisted portrayal in Tony Palmer’s Wagner (1983). What rises above such variously romanticist portrayals are eccentric characterisations that mitigate hero worship with neurotic wit and cerebral thespianism – think of Ben Kingsley’s Shostakovich in Tony Palmer’s Testimony (1987), Robert Powell’s delicate portrayal in Russell’s Mahler (1974), and, especially, Max Adrian’s crotchety, endearingly unsound Delius in Russell’s Song of Summer (1968).

While Prodigal Son’s use of first-person voiceover is obviously not novel in documentary filmmaking – it has a distant precedent in Ken Russell’s BBC biopics of the 1960s, and has become an unfortunate cliché of post-Ken Burns American public television – it does make us question whether Nekrasov’s historical objectivity, rather than a brilliantly eccentric, fictionalised performance, best illuminates for a lay audience how the imagination of an enigmatic artist works. Of course, even if an eccentric performance such as Max Adrian’s Delius effuses a lighter, less lugubrious charisma, it still amplifies the inscrutable aura of romantic genius, neurotic as it may be. Meanwhile, the sterile conservatism of Nekrasov’s approach, enthralled to the cold, impeccably tongued English of its BBC-style narration, inhibits personality worship at the expense of personality itself. Narrative cinema, beholden to surfaces and appearances, may be inherently ill-equipped to represent the depths of genius without the aid of a charismatic actor. It is perhaps a compromise, then, that Prodigal Son’s most effective moments engage the timeless “charisma” of Prokofiev’s music – particularly in its final sequence, when, from the random cacophony Gergiev’s orchestra creates to signify Prokofiev’s death, the magnetic sounds of the Third Symphony emerge as a beacon of sanity, of a personality that cannot be wholly represented in a cinema of visual surfaces and egoist performance.
 


Available on VHS and DVD-R in the United States and Canada through “Films for the Humanities and Sciences,” P.O. Box 2053, Princeton, NJ 08543-2053. The film can be ordered by calling 1-800-257-5126, or by visiting their website, www.films.com (where the film is catalogued under the title “Prokofiev: The Prodigal Son”). Beware, however, the prohibitive institutional pricing: the VHS sells for $159.95, and the DVD-R for $149.95.

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(3) The now-familiar diagnosis of October as satire was an argument already put into play (by Ian MacDonald, for instance) in the 1980s, before the film’s production. The sarcastic trumpet melody that opens Flourish O Mighty Homeland and the eight false endings of Meeting of the Volga and the Don are to my mind even more “satirical” than making Stalin’s prosaic propaganda melodious.

(4) When the film broaches Prokofiev’s predilection for “Christian Science, tarot, and the Kabbala”, it does briefly romanticise and/or fetishise Prokofiev’s genius – yet with an ironic touch. As we hear Prokofiev’s proxy voiceover declaiming that “he is life itself!”, we see a scene in which, during a gin game, a card Prokofiev holds transforms into “The Tower” card from a Tarot deck, bearing the image of a man knocked from a tower by the force of a lightning bolt. Prokofiev’s genius, we surmise, did not prevent the shock of Stalinism and Zhdanovism from toppling him from the tower of his own ego.

14 JUNE 2007