The Bolero / In Search of Cezanne (1973)

[5 June 2007]

By Marc Calderaro

Short film has been suffering from a disease.  Not incurable, but certainly genre-demic, this plague is known as YouTube.  With the recent proliferation of quirky, fun, free, immensely popular viral videos on the Internet, where can the short film go as a medium to separate itself from the dudes falling off trampolines?  This comparison is not to equivocate personal injury with any art form, but short films create an elegant efficiency of visual language, not unlike a poem.  Alas, with the diminishing attention span of the movie-going public, perpetuated by visual bursts of prepubescent girls singing into their hairbrushes and squirrels being shot out of catapults, how long can short films’ brevity be viewed as a conscious choice instead of a requirement?  What focus and meaning does a short film have to offer over a feature-length? For responses to these imperative questions, we need look no further than short films of the past.

Allan Miller supplies two different answers with The Bolero and In Search of Cézanne.  Filmed over 20-years apart, this oddball pairing from the Oscar-winning director showcases two gentle uses of the medium that, successful or not, provide evidence for the case for short films.

The Bolero, though perhaps a short subject documentary, won Miller the 1973 Oscar for “Short Subject (live action)” (the last year before the award was renamed “Short Film”).  Focused on the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Bolero presents a series of interviews with the powerful conductor, Zubin Mehta, and other members of the orchestra, and gathers tons of ideas and opinions, sometimes as simple as the role of classical music in the members’ lives, to better personalize the complicated and swirling nature of the Ravel masterwork, “Bolero”, the orchestra is currently rehearsing. 

Most of the comments shown are passing thoughts about the piece, or little tidbits to give the orchestra members individuality amidst the large ensemble.  After some introductory vignettes, it focuses on the instruments and intertwines solo performances with a full orchestral rehearsal of the parts just highlighted.  After Mehta remarks, “it’s actually the bassoon that makes [The Bolero] the sexiest,” we are treated to the exact section the conductor’s referring to, giving an almost step-by-step breakdown to what the orchestra enjoys most about “Bolero.”  After the interviews are over, we see “Bolero” performed from beginning to end; and instead of the static “best-seat-in-the-house” video-work common at the time, Miller is right on stage and close to the faces of all the musicians, constantly scanning the emotional rises and falls of the players.  This closeness provides an intimacy with the work and the performance that classical music had not seen before, and has been oft imitated since.

Zubin Mehta

Zubin Mehta

Mehta’s on-camera presence during the performance is beautifully suppressed until the ending climax.  His emphatic arm-waves and dramatic facial expressions embody our own newfound understanding for the “Bolero” and close out and impressive, Oscar-deserved film.

The film is amazingly successful in creating a viewer attachment to Maurice Ravel’s work.  Anyone interested in music on the whole will find enjoyment and understanding with an incredibly gifted orchestra’s performance and analysis of the towering, pre-modern work.  With that in mind, the film’s failure, ironically, is it’s own brevity.  The only people who are interviewed for more than a few seconds are the first-chair flautist, bassoonist, and Mehta, himself.  When the performance begins, you feel connected specifically with those three people, but you want more.  What about the violin section, slowly plucking muted strings louder and louder until their much-delayed entrance?  Or the french horns gracefully carrying the underlying theme?  Perhaps just five or seven more minutes of interviews before the performance would have opened up the entire piece.  As it is, we clutch to these few,  fragmented moments.

Noticeably less successful, and less inspiring to the short film world is In Search of Cézanne.  About the life and inspirations of French pre-cubist, Paul Cézanne, though educational, this film provides a more defeatist attitude towards the future of short films by proving a much-aligned and almost degrading use for art: public-school education.  Even the film’s length, the half-period before Lunch and Recess, is conducive to nothing more than a cursory glance at the lengthy and legendary catalogue of a lifetime painter. 

Where The Bolero seems to place the onus of musical comprehension on the viewer, In Search of Cézanne follows an invented documentarian through her made-up trials of what art means to her (complete with painfully acted voice-over monologues), and if she better understands Cézanne’s work at all if she better understands Cézanne.

Visually, the film is breathtaking.  Whisking “Martha” from the Metropolitan Opera House in New Yort to Cézanne’s hometown of Aix-en-Provence to the man-made caverns of Bibémus, all interspersed with close-up, detailed shots of many amazing works of art, In Search of Cézanne would have been much more focused and moving if Miller would have abandoned the half-written narrative to simply portray the images.

As it is, the whole dynamic of our faux-filmmaker, “Martha”, seems shoddy and half-hearted.  Pseudo-montages with existential “what-does-art-mean” dialogue detract from actual meaning and cater to those 4th-to-6th graders who can’t yet think critically.  Combine these reasons with at least three different drops of the boom microphone and very odd continuity glitches and you’ve proven to your viewer that your film was hastily made.  If this is the future of short films – forever rolling from classroom-to-classroom on a locked and labeled television cart – count me out.

The extras are nearly non-existent and hardly worth reviewing.  The Bolero was a landmark in its time, though now a bit outdated technologically.  Today’s use of cranes and multi-camera operations can easily achieve what made it so unique at the time, though it’s personal feel cannot be outdone by simply adding giant sweeps and dynamic editing.  However, education and documentation are two effective justifications for the short film format, regardless of how successful the films are on their own.  Visions of catapulted squirrels and the like are probably here to stay, but it’s nice to understand they won’t completely obsolete the art of short filmmaking.

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