Tuesday, February 5, 2013

India in Technicolor, Partly Scored by Berlioz


 Powell and Pressburger's "Black Narcissus" has been in my collection for some time now, and I've watched it several times. Commentary in special features on the Criterion Collection DVD alluded to another Technicolor cinema masterpiece about India: Jean Renoir's "The River". Both movies, incidentally, are based on novels by Rumer Godden, who grew up in the India of the British Raj. She helped Renoir write the script for his movie. In features on the DVD, also a Criterion restoration, Godden blasts an earlier movie based on another one of her novels. She refuses to name the novel and movie, so disgusted is she with the film adaptation. Could she have been talking about "Black Narcissus"?

Well, regardless of Godden's disappointment with one movie, both movies have had me spellbound with their powerful stories and the artistry of the crews -- the Technicolor camera work, the music. Contrasts between the movies are interesting -- "The River" was shot entirely on location and set on the hot plains of the Subcontinent, presumably along the Ganges River (they never name it in the movie, though it is also a prominent character itself). Its main characters are members of an English family and close friends, all experiencing growing pains and other life lessons. "Black Narcissus" is set in the foothills of the Himalayas with the Roof of the World as stunning backdrop -- but you will learn surprising things about the apparent location shooting if you watch the special features. Far above the hot plains, it's obviously windy and chilly up there, and some of the chill and maybe a little breeze will creep into your living room as you watch. Several of the Narcissus main characters are nuns -- also experiencing growing pains and other life lessons! Deborah Kerr is the superior of the new convent established in what once was practically a private palatial brothel for a local prince.

Back to "The River":  One of Renoir's Indian actresses, Radha, was a dancer famous in India at the time. She gets one fantasy dance sequence in the movie, though she is a main character throughout. It's a wonderful introduction to Indian classical dance, and I had to find it again in the scene selection menu after I watched the movie the first time. (Uh, yes, I watched this masterpiece twice in a week after I purchased the DVD.)

Most of the score in "The River" is Indian music, but we hear some European ballroom music on the gramophone during a little party. I was amused to recognize what I believe was Hector Berlioz's "Invitation to the Dance". Anyone remember that? It was a popular orchestral lollipop at one time, and I heard several recordings of it in my exploration of classical vinyl LP's from the library many years ago. As I recall from album notes, the piece was actually Berlioz's orchestration of a piano work by Weber and it was used at some point in its history as the score for a ballet concerning a "specter or phantom of the rose". This has not turned up on several collections of French ballet and orchestral works I have, so I wonder if it has dropped out of favor in recent years. I'll let you know if I can find a recording of it.

Meanwhile, look for "The River" and "Black Narcissus" if you haven't seen them before and want to see some great classic Technicolor movies about westerners trying to understand India and learning about themselves. And we're still making such movies: "The Darjeeling Limited"; the animated "Sita Sings the Blues".

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My photographs here have nothing to do with India. They are more snapshots of our neighborhood Lake Kittamaqundi from last weekend (see preceding post).