Sign of the times
If you want to know how hardened we’ve become to vitriol and violence in our politics and in the world around us, you need only to look at the entertainment industry and what passes for amusement. Not one, but two musicals are currently in the works based on the black and white ’62 flick “The Exterminating Angel,” Luis Bunuel’s portrayal of the ruling class as depraved and cruel in Franco’s Spain. A movie about man’s inhumanity can enlighten. But turning that savagery into a song and dance can make light of it.
Composer Stephen Sondheim, a Pulitzer Prize winner for the musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” sparked by a Georges Seurat landscape, now is galvanized by a horror movie to be staged on Broadway next year. And British composer Thomas Ades, who set the same horror story to music, will bring his opus to the Metropolitan Opera next year as well.
What’s wrong with this picture?
How unseemly is making the macabre melodious? Let’s review the story in Bunuel’s film. It opens with an elegant dinner party attended by guests in formal wear making polite, pointless conversation. Everyone is on his best behavior- well, best for entitled people who prospered under Franco’s cruel dictatorship. But after dinner when the diners move to the drawing room, they discover they’re unable to leave. In the course of time, they run out of food and drink. Left without sustenance, without servants, they turn violent. Some die. And when a lamb wanders into the room, they slaughter it for food, which they roast over a fire fueled with the surrounding furniture. And there you have it, folks – civilization reverted to its caveman days.
In your dreams
Clearly this is Bunuel’s wet dream - the disintegration of the ruling class. “The Exterminating Angel” is disturbing and dark and hardly worth a tuneful celebration. Granted, Mel Brooks’ ’84 movie “To Be Or Not To Be” was a musical about Hitler, complete with a chorus line, but the happy ending redeemed it. In Bunuel’s movie, you get endless horror. Making #Art out of evil can end up glorifying the evil. A recent example of such glorification was the Whitney Museum exhibit of abstract art based on NSA’s encrypted surveillance program that whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed.
The unseemliness of giving “The Exterminating Angel” melodies is like watching flamenco dance performing against a stage backdrop of Picasso's anti-war mural “Guernica” at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid two years ago. How silly is that? It’s like dancers performing, say, the Can-can against a backdrop of “Liberty Leading the People,” which Theodore Gericault painted to honored the French Revolution.
Turning a bad thing into an art form should give us pause. When Peter Paul Rubens painted men attacking women in the “Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus” the scene came off as fun-loving to several leading art critics, including Kerry Downes, a British authority on Rubens, who saw the rape as a “romance.”