Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Notes on SF trip tomorrow; stray Pazz & Jop comments after that. Today's guest informant is "Sea-Robber Maya" Gurantz, currently taking a seminar on Brecht at UCSD, who adds her three cents -- and then a couple of extra notes/clarifications. By way of warning: This is longish but (to me) fascinating. And whose blog is this? That's correct. All I will add is that some of Brecht's stated motivations are interesting in the light of his later, largely futile attempts at Hollywood screenwriting. Maya, now:

"The Pabst film of "Threepenny" was the cause of the infamous (to Brecht scholars, anyway) "Threepenny Lawsuit," in which Brecht, as an ideological publicity stunt, sued Nero Films for not using his film adaptation of the musical.

"The Backstory (apologies for anything you already know):

"The original musical was written fairly quickly--a Berlin actor was given 100,000 marks by his dad to open a theater, and wanted a show which would open on his 28th birthday that August. (I'm turning 27 in a week. I want: 100,000 marks for a show next Feb.) The rich kid approached Brecht in April--Brecht suggested doing an adaptation of collaborator Elisabeth Hauptmann's translation of John Gay's Beggar's Opera. Weill and Brecht and Hauptmann and Caspar Neher repaired to the south of France and wrote it in two shakes--returned and slapped it together. Against all odds (you know, actresses twisting their ankles and refusing to sing the racier songs, adding "Mac the Knife" at the last minute, etc.)...it was a huge hit. Everyone in Berlin loved it, the rest is history.

"Then Brecht read Marx.

"Thus began the shift from early Brecht (satirical, virile, angry, hilarious, politically cynical) to the Papa Brecht of Mother Courage 20 years later. He and Weill finished Mahagonny (for my money, the better musical), and he was concurrently creating the Lehrstuck (learning plays/cantatas done with working class choruses and union groups--meant to instill good revolutionary virtues by the ultimate breakdown of the audience/performer separation).

"So. By the time Nero wanted to buy Threepenny, Brecht's project had, to put it mildly, changed.

"Now, Brecht never made too many changes to musical of Threepenny. This is notable, considering (a) the rigorous, compulsive revisions he imposed on all his other plays throughout his life and (b) the fact that the play, while it pokes some good raucous fun at the bourgeoisie, ain't necessarily politically consistent. I think Threepenny's overwhelming success kept him from monkeying with it too much--it remained one of his favorite plays. (He did however, write a series of alternately provocative, useful, and hilariously overdetermined footnotes two years after Threepenny opened, in an aggressive attempt to show that he really--no really--meant it all along.)

"But we know better, because of what happened next. Brecht said he'd let Nero make a movie of Threepenny, as long as he got to present the initial treatment and final say for the script. "Co-determination" of the script is, I believe, the precise term.

"His treatment, then, entitled "The Bruise," is his post-Marx Threepenny. It's substantially different. Standouts:

"--Tellingly (Brecht's subconscious attachment to the popular elements of his work?), the entire musical is punctuated by new stanzas for Mac the Knife.
--It begins with Macheath's pursuit of Polly (whom he sees only from behind. "He begins to follow her immediately and knows: he will marry this charming bottom."), their instant marriage, and the collection of her stolen trousseau.
--The police whitewashing the London streets for the Coronation (and the added "Song About Whitewash.")
--The "bruise" of the title belongs to Sam, one of Peachum's beggars, who gets beaten up after snitching on one of Macheath's gang. The bruise is a running gag of sorts--Peachum drags the bruised man around with him to prove Macheath's brutality, emotionally blackmail Tiger Brown, etc.; when the bruise starts fading, Peachum hits him to keep it fresh. At some point, poor people begin to organize around Sam's bruise--"and no matter how small the bruise is, the fear of those above will make it larger, their bad conscience will see to that."
--Once Macheath runs from the law and leaves the business to Jenny, she decides to transform the gang into a legit organization, and buys out the National Deposit Bank. The gangsters become bankers. (This gets crosscut with Mac walking off to the whores, whistling his song that "has now become obsolete.")
--Ultimately, the plot elements are shaken down so that: "In a typically Brechtian interpretation of the Hollywood happy ending, the three main enemies [Peachum, Mackie, Tiger and the Police] discover their common interests when confronted with the threat of a revolt by the mass of exploited beggars." What's neat is that the revolt begins as Tiger Brown's dream and "such dreams have consequences".

"The Lawsuit:

"What Brecht delivered was not in any way what Nero bought. They went ahead with their script (which, as you saw, incorporates a lot of Brecht's changes). [fjb clarification: The 'bruise' idea itself isn't one of them.] Yes, that's just a fucked up reel change but that single skipping note was very annoying--they seem to be trying to push the "love story," they don't have Polly singing "Sea-Robber Jenny" (which made me sad, tho' of course Lenya), and they take forever to get to Peachum, so the set-up doesn't really hang together. They also added the kind of silly moment of the Queen being confronted by the beggars.

"Brecht, with only 15,000 marks, proceeded with a lawsuit (despite their best attempts to throw money at him).*

"In his arduous 70-page disquisition on the lawsuit, he insists that he knew he'd lose. In his words: "We tried in a specific, real case to get 'justice', to take a specific bourgeois ideology at its word and to let it be proven wrong by the bourgeois practice of the court." "Even our leftist friends regarded the lawsuit as superfluous. (The importance of proving that in a lawsuit against industry the individual is in the wrong! Doesn't everybody know that already? Indeed, everybody knew it.)" "The Threepenny lawsuit demonstrates how far the process of transforming intellectual values into commodities has progressed."**

"That's a big one for B.--that the bourgeois ideals of the 'artist' and 'artist's rights' are always contradicted by bourgeois practices, which are themselves determined by the factor of financial interests. Everything becomes a commodity under this apparatus, including justice itself. B. also attempts to prove that under the current capitalist film production system, the idea of film as art is impossible.

"As editor/translator Silberman puts it, "Brecht plays the role of the naive artist who goes to court to defend the inviolability of intellectual property guaranteed by the liberal, democratic constitution," maintaining a "one-sided, flawed understanding of 'co-determination."

"The main meat of the article consists of a painstaking (if often contradictory) analysis of the main 14 fallacies emerging from the case (both within the actual lawsuit and from the extensive amount of press commentary generated from the case). These range from "Art does not need the cinema" to "The public's taste casn be improved," "The cinema serves recreation", "A film can be regressive in content and progressive in form," etc.

"The weakness of Threepenny Lawsuit is in Brecht's remarkable lack of self-examination, his insistence on portraying himself as independent of the apparatus, without any critical examination of who he was and what he expected from the apparatus. It ends up sounding disingenous. He never answers the question, "well, if the idea of the artist is a bourgeois fallacy, who the heck are you, Mr. Brecht?" He never answers the question, "well, you wouldn't have Threepenny without Elisabeth Hauptmann's constant collaboration--where is she in this equation?" These are typical Brecht problems.***

"The strength is his desire to subject the philosophically and politically questionable elements of the film industry, which we (still!) simply assume as unquestioned, necessary evils, given circumstances of the form--and subject it to ideological, top-down criticism.

"Just a little more Brecht: 'Here again the road leads only over capitalism's dead body, but here again this a good road'."

"Yours in the revolution, Maya"

addenda from a later MG email

*"Brecht never actually saw the movie of "Threepenny" (!) though he's happy to refer to Pabst as "stupid" and "boneheaded" repeatedly in the article. Also, the "Threepenny Lawsuit" was part of the larger Weimar c(k?)inodebate (film debate) that emerged with the medium, as essential a document as Benjamin's "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," etc. Weill also sued, for slightly different reasons -- but he won his lawsuit, which leads to some snarky comments by B."

**"After all that, Brecht actually took money from Nero-Film! The case itself (of what constitutes an writers's rights w/r/t intellectual property in the film industry) set important legal precedent, and was one of the, if not the, first trial of its kind."

***"Realized I need to be slightly less reductive: Brecht's essay begins with the epigram: "Contradictions are our hope!", and in that spirit, he pursues his contradictions more deliberately than previously represented. His contradictions are essential to the discussion of the oft-contradictory apparatus he's critiquing. It's an often ironic, tongue in cheek legal/political prose performance. It's still awfully tough chewing, and he still totally avoids any kind of self-examination."

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?