Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Whistling A Different Tune

Several years ago, I published a blog post on songs that feature whistling. At the time, I wrote about the many significations of whistling: contentment (“Don't Worry, Be Happy”), solitary, melancholy contemplation (“(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay”), self-absorbed autoeroticism (“Centerfold”), pleasant, relaxing idleness (the theme from The Andy Griffith Show), or simply to pass the time, to avoid monotony when speech is either impossible or forbidden (“Colonel Bogey March”; “Whistle While You Work” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). Whistling can also simply represent an individual’s joie de vivre ("Daydream").

But there's another aspect of whistling that I ignored when I wrote the earlier post, that whistling can bring bad luck. A popular superstition holds that whistling at night is dangerous and may bring unwanted attention from creatures that stalk the night, or perhaps may attract evil spirits. There are some world cultures that believe whistling is a means to summon supernatural beings.

Perhaps because of the association of whistling with certain morbid superstitions, movies have used whistling as means to establish an ominous mood or atmosphere. Each of  the films in Columbia's 8-film Whistler series (1944-1948) begins with the slightly sinister narrator whistling an eerie tune, soon to introduce himself as The Whistler: “I am the Whistler and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes, I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak.” A few years prior to the debut of the Whistler series, in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), throughout the film the child murderer, Hans Beckert, identifies himself off-screen by whistling Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” An inspired cinematic use of whistling is Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score for the psycho-thriller Twisted Nerve (1968), widely known as the “Kill Bill whistle song,” having been appropriated by Quentin Tarantino for a sequence in Kill Bill Vol. I (2003). Tarantino follows Fritz Lang’s lead in having the whistler introduced off-screen prior to the character’s actual appearance. The “whistle song” was again used by Tarantino as a phone’s ringtone in Death Proof (2007).

I find Herrmann’s melodic theme for Twisted Nerve powerful and haunting because, to use a linguistic analogy, it is like an antonym: it is both tranquil and foreboding at the same time. It is the sonic equivalent of M’s Hans Beckert, whose jolly smile and jaunty whistle cloaks his murderous intent. I hear Twisted Nerve’s whistle in many songs that use whistling but are musically much different. I hear it in Roy Orbison’s “Here Comes the Rain, Baby,” the beginning of Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” (1977), the whistling that closes Peter Gabriel's masterful “Intruder,” Roxy Music's cover of “Jealous Guy,” and Scorpions’ “Wind of Change," among others. 

Here are a few songs to listen to and think about in the way they use whistling:


A Fistful of Dollars (Main Title) – Ennio Morricone (1964) (Alessandro Alessandroni, whistler)

Here Comes The Rain, Baby – Roy Orbison (1967) (Mickey Newbury)

One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong – Leonard Cohen (1967) (Features Cohen using a hand whistle)

Twisted Nerve (Main Title) – Bernard Herrmann (1968) (Gareth Williams, whistler)

Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life – Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) (Eric Idle)

Intruder – Peter Gabriel (1980)

Generals and Majors – XTC (1980)

Roxy Music – Jealous Guy (1981) (John Lennon tribute)

Patience – Guns N' Roses (1988) 

Wind of Change – Scorpions (1990)

The Big Bang – Rock Mafia featuring Miley Cyrus (Video, 2010)

Sunday, August 27, 2023

The New School

How many critics—of the theater, movies, music, contemporary fine arts—wake up each morning with the uncomfortable feeling that someday they will be wrong in their critical judgment? After all, what is a critic’s deepest fear? To have erred in judgment, to have made the wrong call, to have missed the boat. Certainly, no movie critic wants to miss the boat—to have critically underestimated, or what’s worse, to have dismissed the next Citizen Kane (1941), for instance—so in order to avoid making such an unwitting mistake, the critic engages in what Robert Ray, employing a term taken from Max Ernst, calls critical overcomprehension (How a Film Theory Got Lost, Indiana University Press, 2001, p. 82). Ray writes:

 Aware of previous mistakes, reviewers become increasingly afraid to condemn anything....Hence ... [one] ... of modern criticism’s ... great dangers, what Max Ernst called “overcomprehension” or “the waning of indignation”.... (82)


No critic, of course, can see beyond the curtain of Time. Time is the ultimate critic, and the critic’s limited perspective doesn’t allow him to see beyond his own pitifully narrow moment in history. Critical overcomprehension—the act of giving every new movie an equally glowing reception—is a result of the critic’s deep fear that history may prove him wrong. No one wants to be, for instance, television critic Jack Gould, who reviewed The Milton Berle Show appearance of Elvis Presley for the New York Times in 1956:


Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability. His specialty is rhythm songs which he renders in an undistinguished whine; his phrasing, if it can be called that, consists of the stereotyped variations that go with a beginner's aria in a bathtub. For the ear, he is an unutterable bore, not nearly so talented as Frank Sinatra back in the latter's rather hysterical days at the Paramount Theater. (qtd. in Robert Ray, 80)


However, as Ray points out, Gould’s kind of critical misjudgment has its own unintended consequences: such gross critical mistakes have led to “rejection and incomprehensibility as promises of ultimate value” (82). For instance, if a record album sold poorly, or the artist who recorded it was given little or no attention—or worse, completely neglected in his or her own time, the record must therefore be great, perhaps even a masterwork. The initial neglect of 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico serves as a useful example. Ignored upon release, it is now considered a classic. Initial neglect as a sign of greatness is a powerful myth and governs much of modern criticism of the arts.


According to Self-Styled Siren (critic and film historian Farran Smith Nehme), whose knowledge of silent era Hollywood is nothing short of encyclopedic, the practice of critical overcomprehension is currently being applied to Babylon (2022), a box-office failure upon release last year that also divided critics (“Bye, bye Babylon,” August 23, 2023). While the Siren believes it is a “lousy movie,” nonetheless she has noticed that there are ongoing attempts to enshrine last year's Babylon as some kind of masterwork,” which is to say, for some, the movie's initial rejection is a surefire guarantee of its ultimate value. The myth serves to shield such movies from negative reviews.

In addition, the Siren refers to a recent New York Times article about the new phenomenon of “MovieTok” influencers. The Times calls them “the new school of film critic,” observing that “some tenets of the profession—such as rendering judgments or making claims that go beyond one’s personal taste—are now considered antiquated and objectionable.” Critics of the new school are never going to make an egregious mistake like Jack Gould made with Elvis Presley. More than that, by insisting that the tenets of a previous generation of critics have become antiquated—meaning they are too old to get what’s really going on—the new school of film critics seeks to shield itself, not simply certain films, but from criticism as well. The new school influencers have little concern for the movie itself. Instead, they are far more interested in the multiple ways they can attribute significance to the movie, e.g., “outrageous,” “extravagant,” “over the top,” “mind-blowing,” “thought-provoking,” on and on. Criticism is simply a form of publicity, and the film itself a commodity.