Saturday, June 08, 2024

Bachmotifs for Batvillains


Shirley Walker, the composer who did the music for Batman: The Animated Series, was a skilled crafter of leitmotifs (musical themes to used as the signature music for particular characters).  Sometimes she missed the mark a bit (what possessed her to give Two-Face a theme that's in THREE, I cannot imagine).  But the fact that themes for the Penguin, Two-Face, and (especially) the Joker are all based on Elfman's Batman theme is simply genius.  

In this episode ("The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne", Oct. 29, 1992), the three themes are all played in immediate succession as they get off the plane to visit Hugo Strange.

But what if Walker had not been available and we had to rely on an earlier musical talent? Say...

J.S. Bach.

Batman may merit a more serious composer.
But I have still chosen Bach.

That is to say, what pieces of J.S. Bach would one use as leitmotifs for Batman's most iconic villains? Here are my choices.

The Joker 

Die Kunst der Fuge, Contrapunctus IX, BWV1080

Bach wasn't exactly a free spirit.  A obsessively hard working perfectionist with anger issues, who still had a tender side.

Reminds me of someone else, seen here firing Alfred's predecessor. 

Bach was pretty strait-laced. But if there is any Bach piece that can be said to sound unhinged, it is Contrapunctus IX.  Boldly themed, it leaps out of the gate with an octave jump and pell-mell scalar run that always remind me of a madman's laugh, its theme punching through frequently, almost mockingly, above the melee of the voices. 

The exemplifying performance I offer you is by the modern madman of the keyboard, Glenn Gould.  I find it easy to imagine this version playing as the accompaniment to scenes of chaos perpetrated by the Joker as he is chased by Batman.  In fact, when I listen to it, I find it hard to picture anything else.

The Penguin

English Suite #5, Prelude (BWV 810: I)

This piece, like the Penguin, has a peculiar rolling gait. Bach's having a bit of fun with the "English" style; it's a bit precious and seems almost to take itself too seriously. It's trying to be dignified with its pompous theme, but can't help coming across as risible.  

However, the repeated reassertions of the theme give it a diehard dignity with a dark undercurrent. This is still Bach, after all, and despite his rolly-polly appearance, his ability is not to be underestimated. And genius disguised as gentility is the hallmark of the Penguin.

This harpsichord version by the impish Chiara Massini captures this feel.  The Prelude is the opening part, but you might enjoy the rest of the suite as well.


Now, some people would have gone right to Bach's Two-Part Inventions, which are all about the interplay between two voices with related themes.  But I am not among those people, because I think Two-Face is a much more complex character than that.

I mean, c'mon; it's music for KIDS.

Instead, I have thematically chosen not one, but TWO pieces that could serve as leitmotifs for Two-Face.; one is for keyboard, the other is choral.

Canon 1 à 2 from J. S. Bach's Musical Offering (BWV 1079).

You don't see the Soprano Clef often.
Let alone a REVERSE Soprano Clef.

This deceptively simple-looking piece is more commonly known as Bach's Crab Canon.  A crab canon is a piece that can be played forwards or backwards, and --

here's the tricky part--

forwards and backwards SIMULTANEOUSLY.  Let that sink in a bit.

If you are old enough to, like me,  have suffered through the painfully baroque Goedel, Escher, Bach, you will already be familiar with this piece, or at least its structure.

The forward and backwards versions of the canon are like the obverse and reverse of a continually flipping coin. They are two opposite melodies that nevertheless fit perfectly together, both balanced and inextricably intertwined. Neither can "triumph" over the other, since they are the same thing. As such I think they well represent the "good" and "evil" sides of Two-Face and how he views those as merely two sides of the same coin, each implying the other.

It also sounds pretty creepy, and I have chosen Jos Leys' version for your listening AND watching enjoyment because it illustrates its unique nature well.

That is my cerebral, "amoral" choice of theme. My other (also creepy) choice is a more emotional and morally charged choral piece: the opening motet-style chorus from the cantata Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei (BWV 179).

Mein Gott, what a terrible translation.

Boy, this baby had them squirming in their pews in Leipzig on August 8, 1723! "Mind that your fear of God isn't hypocrisy" is a rather scoldy title, even for a hard-ass JSB church cantata.  But he wasn't kidding around here; the work is considered his musical condemnation of, well, people who were two-faced.  Being Bach, he built that into the musical structure. Each time the theme enters, it is answered (in stretto!) by an inversion of the theme as a counter-subject, with some chromatic spin, which is Bach's nifty (and salty) way of demonstrating (and condemning) two-facedness.  

It can be hard to pick out by ear if you aren't looking at the score and lyrics can be distracting, so I offer you a malinowskigram of the piece that may make it easier to perceive and, if you really want to get into it, here's a detailed analysis of the chorus.

The Riddler 

The Fugue in A minor (BWV543, No. 2)

What were you expecting: Schubert's Ave Maria?

This one was easy.

It's a fugue, because only a fugue could convey the complexity of the Riddler's schemes. It's in A minor, because the Riddler is weird and creepy.  It's relentlessly driven yet still capering, like the Riddler; its hiccuppy melody evokes Frank Gorshin's manic giggle; its frequent suspensions mimic the tension of confusion that the Riddler causes in those he challenges.

For decency, I must present you with music-stud Matthias Havinga's definitive organ interp, for atmosphere, I offer you Michele Bianco's plangent accordion version; and for clarity, a version that follows the score AND an especially helpful malinowskigram.

And, no, don't be silly: I didn't consider any of his "riddle" canons. Those are "riddles" only in historical context and nothing in their musical nature is appropriate to the Riddler.

The Catwoman

Ricercar à 6 from Musical Offering

Like the Crab Canon, this six-voice fugue is from Bach's Musical Offering (BWV 1079), which has a bunch of separate but related pieces.  It's a little sad, a little slinky, with an oddly jumpy melody that's a bit like a cat walking on a keyboard.   Being a ricercar, it's not strict and formal like Baroque fugue, so it's got a meandering quality, as if it simply can't be bothered to follow the rules.  And that reminds me of Catwoman.  Like Catwoman, the piece is actually more complicated than it might seem. 

Ordinarily, I don't approve of Bach played on a piano, but this version captures the Catwoman feel I get from the piece. Stretch out and relax to listen; it takes its time.

Thursday, June 06, 2024

Superman's Costume


Okay, I'm going to address this issue (the teaser pic from the upcoming Superman film) to get it out of my system. I am possibly the only DC comics fan who has NOT read any of the debate about this. But I have seen the HEADLINES of those articles enough to keep me aware of the issue.

Before I address the photo, I have to remind us of something about Superman's outfit:

It's a costume.

That may seem like a dumb statement of the obvious, but let me explain.  My point is that it is not a "combat suit" (such as Batman and other non-super characters favor, out of necessity). 

Some combat outfits are tactical.
Other are mostly ... strategic.

The man's invulnerable; the idea of a suit that "aids" him in combat is absurd. The only outfit that could possibly "aid" him in combat would be his birthday suit, since the fewer clothes he has on the faster he should be able to soak up solar energy.

That's what the Metropolis Prurient Scientific Society would prefer.

It's not a "disguise" (as are superhero outfits with masks).  Superman does want to keep his private identity secret, but he doesn't really rely on his heroing outfit to do that.  He relies on his super-thespianism and the idea that no one really has any reason to suspect that Superman even HAS a civilian identity.  

Now THAT is a disguise.

It's not a "uniform", such as the original X-Men wore to designate their status a members of a team,

Except for the guy running around apparently (mostly?) naked like he's a gay porn star.  
Must be an influencer.

or like those coordinated but individualized uniforms the Athramites designed for the Legion.

I love the Athramites.
If you do not know the Athramites, you have been deprived.

Uniforms, after all, are for characters who are known principally as members of a team, not merely incidentally.

The dumbest part about the New 52 Justice League was giving three of them the SAME COLLAR to give them more of a team look.  As if Hal, Arthur, and Clark go SHOPPING together.

No, it is costume, which he puts on for his "performances" as Superman (because, as previously discussed, Superman is essentially a circus performer).  

With all that in mind, let's examine the missteps in the photo of the film costume.

The costume does not seem well designed for the costume's purpose.  In contrast to, say, Batman's outfit, the purpose of Superman's costume is to make him very visible: a circus performer must be SEEN.  And clearly visible from a distance.

This iconic sequence of utterances conveys this need perfectly.

Superman needs to be as visible as possible so that people can be inspired by his presence and comforted by his arrival on the scene.  The movie costume doesn't shy away from the inherent color contrast in Superman's colors, but they have made them rather dark. The colors are right, but the hues are wrong, in that the fail to serve the costume's actual purpose.  That's misstep #1.

Misstep #2 is the texture.  The movie costume is all line-ified and Braille-bumpy.

Superman is a superhero, not a sofa, and does not require "texture".  This added complexity is not merely unnecessary, it is distracting.

For 25 years I was a performer on stage with a large chorus.  Often we were reminded to focus less on "adding" to the performance than on "subtracting" anything that would distract the audience. It was a process of working to remove moves or notes or vocal occurrences that might "stick out" from the whole, and distract the audience from the entirety of the performance.

So, too, should be the approach to Superman's performances as Superman.  His outfit already has a cape, and pants with a belt over a leotard, a chest emblem, those funky books and sometimes funky sleeves.  No additions are welcome, certain not detail that is completely invisible to the crowd of citizens who is the audience for his deeds.  Superman is not a complex character.  He may have lots of powers, but part of his appeal and staying power is just how simple a concept he is.  Anything that veers away from that simplicity is counter purposeful.

No counterargument based in some cobbled together movie lore can prevail. "Well, it's a Kryptonian garb that blah blah blah."  These are merely post hoc justifications for an aesthetic misstep and I will not dignify them with refutation; they are simply to be dismissed.

I do NOT deem the movie costume's collar as a misstep.  Yes, Superman's outfit traditionally  has an open neckline evocative of the shirts worn by circus strongmen.

But, other than showing how thick his neck is, that element of his costume serves no purpose but as a historical reference, and if someone wants to use a more natural and modern collar style, I see no reason to object strongly.

Also, I give a thumb's UP to the chest logo.  It looks BOTH like an alien symbol AND an image that any user of the Roman alphabet would perceive as an "S".  It's a fine line to tow, and they seemed to have done an excellent job on it, especially as it is MORE abstract than we have often seen, and so is in keeping with my views of the need for simplicity in Superman's costume.

Now for the blocking of the photo.  Look, I'm all for subverting expectations here and there to freshen up a literary property.  

For example, John Byrne's revivification of the Kents in his reboot of Superman became obvious only in retrospect; they had been DEAD in every other version of Superman (no, Superboy doesn't count).  

But this relaxed boot-donning pose is a severe misstep. Superman was mean to be a man of action; it's LITERALLY the title of the comic he started in.  And this putting on his boot pensively while sitting down is just about as inactive a pose as you could find outside a Hopper painting. Personally, the only thing I can think when looking at him in this pose is William Moulton Marston's fetish about Wonder Woman putting on her boots.

Showing Superman slowly putting on one boot like he's about to walk the dog in the rain, with no sign of urgency, concern, or even awareness of the disaster befalling Metropolis behind isn't some fresh interp, it's possibly the most aggressively out of character pose I can imagine.

Trite though it might seem after 90 years, there is a reason that THIS is our consistent image of Superman going into action. People are in DANGER and, superspeed notwithstanding, Superman LEAPS into action to save them, before even having finished his costume change, because there is no time to waste while lives are in danger.

And these are only the criticisms of the scene's symbolism.  There are also cogent, in-universe, fanboy logistical objections that are hard to dismiss.  Superman can FLY.  He is often depicted floating in mid-air simply because he CAN (and it leaves him more ready to act).  Why on earth is he SITTING DOWN to put his boot on?!  That's how humans do it because we can't defy gravity through force of will. 

Perhaps the creators of this film thought that the emphasis on him putting on his costume was a good way of highlighting the costume. However, as far as I call tell, it only seems to highlight much they simply don't get what Superman is about, not merely to me, but to most people.