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Made for the 1939 New York World's Fair, The City is a seminal documentary film distinguished for the organic integration of narration, cinematography (Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke), and music(Aaron Copland). The score, arguably Copland's highest achievement in film, was also his ticket to Hollywood; it has been called "an astonishing missing link not only in the genesis of Copland's Americana style but in American music and cinema." (Mark Swed, The Los Angeles Times). As the film contains no dialogue, it is possible to create a fresh soundtrack and discover musical riches inaudible on the original monaural recording. As Copland created no suite from The City, this DVD at the same time marks the WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING of this music in its entirety.
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES:
The City with the original 1939 soundtrack featuring narrator Morris Carnovsky.
A documentary film from the Greenbelt Museum.
A conversation with Joseph Horowitz, the legendary film maker.
Commissioned by the American Institute of Planners to be shown in daily rotation at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair ("The World of Tomorrow"), The City is called a documentary. But it's more of a cinemagraphic--and musical-- meditation on the de-humanizing evils of modern urban life and, in the second half filmed at model community of Greenbelt, Maryland, on the remedy for those evils. Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke directed and supplied the striking cinematography, while the narration was written by urban historian, critic, and city planner Lewis Mumford. All of this is bound together by a mature Copland score in the composer's best populist, "Americana" style of the 1930s and 40s. The blurb on the back of the box claims this is Copland's "highest achievement in film". I'm not sure I'm ready to go that far, though I'll agree it's a substantial score that's well worth hearing and well served by this ensemble.
The film's premise is pretty simple. The City of the present (i.e., 1939) is dirty, oppressive, chaotic, corrupting, and de-humanizing, while the country is a wholesome, idyllic, democratic place where life is lived on a human scale and the Common Man can be comfortable and contented. In the City, we see dirty tenements, smokestacks belching black smoke, and dirty, sad-faced children. In the Country, we see kids playing in a swimming hole, sturdy country artisans plying their rural trades from horse-drawn wagons, and men cutting wheat with hand scythes. City work is back-breaking or tedious, and always depressing; Country work is so wholesome and rewarding it's not like work at all! In other words, the basic premise is largely built on a city slicker's view of the country. But before we snicker at the naivete, let's consider that if cities seem less oppressive and more livable now, maybe it's due, at least in some part, to the urban planning ideas depicted in The City.
The main interest for most ARG readers is probably going to be the new recording of Copland's complete score for the film by Gil- Ordonez and his committed band of players. Rarely has music been more closely interwoven with cinematography, even in straight dramas, let alone a documentary. Excerpts from the score have been recorded, but they're less interesting and evocative when separated from the visual element. So praise to executive producer Joseph Horowitz and Naxos for giving us the opportunity to experience the score in its intended setting--and in modern sound (Dolby and DTS Surround).
The film opens ominously enough with an epigraph by Mumford: "Year by year our cities grow more complex and less fit for living. The age of rebuilding is here. We must remold our old cities and build new communities better suited to our needs." A bit chilling but not surprising given that the piece was commissioned by folks whose business was to plan and build new cities. In contrast to the lushly orchestrated scores of contemporary Hollywood film, Copland's music is spare, forthright, and uncluttered, but also melodic. The opening music is very reminiscent of the Fanfare for the Common Man.
One problem with the film as a whole reflected in Copland's music is that the first half, depicting the bustle and chaos of the city, is more engaging than the idyllic vision of the second half, for which Copland writes suitably wholesome, uplifting, but somewhat bland music. More engaging are the sections depicting the 1930s equivalent of fast food, gridlocked city traffic, the fire and fury of blast furnaces, and the "smoke that brings prosperity". There's a bit of anti-capitalist, socialist propaganda, accompanied by suitably mocking music, but then the piece is a product of the New Deal.
As elder documentary maker George Stoney points out in the accompanying material, this is one of the very few documentaries that makes effective use of humor in the music as much as in clever editing. It captures the unintentional humor of people going about their daily business, and the music helps the humor balance out the weighty, somewhat apocalyptic message. Copland's contribution goes a long way toward keeping that message from becoming preachy.
Copland consciously used his work for The City as a springboard to Hollywood film work--and what an excellent calling card it was. It led directly to the full-length Hollywood movie scores for Of Mice and Men, Our Town, The Red Pony, and The Heiress. Naxos also claims this is the "world premiere recording of the complete score", which isn't exactly accurate since the score premiered as part of the original film!
The print of the film used for the DVD (4:3 aspect ratio) is fairly crisp, if not up to the best restorations of material from the same period, with the narration newly recorded by Francis Guinan. Freed from its original constricted low-fi monophonic soundtrack, Copland's score can finally make an effect that the original audience could only imagine. How do I know that? Because the DVD also contains the complete documentary with Morris Carnovsky's original narration and the original studio orchestra soundtrack conducted by Max Goberman. Nice for comparison. In the new soundtrack, Guinan narrates well enough, but I prefer Carnovsky's hard-boiled, slightly brash period delivery.
But wait! As a much-parodied TV commercial used to go, there's more! The disc is filled out with another 45 minutes of documentary material. There's a 30-minute interview of documentary maker and film-cinema professor George Stoney conducted by Mr Horowitz, with perceptive comments about The City and the film's broader historical significance. Still not enough? The last "bonus" is a 15-minute documentary from the Greenbelt Museum with interviews of folks who grew up there in the 1930s and 40s. Interesting to watch once or twice.
Despite the exemplary production values, only 45 minutes of real meat is rather short measure for a DVD. Copland compleatists will want this for sure. Others may want to put it in their Netflix queue and watch before they decide to buy. -- American Record Guide, Lawrence Hansen, May/June 200
"an astonishing missing link not only in the genesis of Copland's Americana style bun in American music and cinema" -- The Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed
Copland never composed anything finer for film than the music he provided for this documentary, a period curiosity made for the 1939 New York World's Fair. The didactic script by city planner Lewis Mumford draws a simplistic contrast between life in America's crowded urban jungles and the idyllic life afforded by planned suburban communities.
The film's true worth lies in its seamless integration of music, cinematography and narration, newly recorded by Chicago actor Francis Guinan. Copland's score, reflecting both his homespun manner and a harder-edged proto-minimalism, is recorded for the first time in its entirety by the Post-Classical Ensemble under Angel Gil-Ordonez.
This refurbished artifact from an earlier recession era amounts to a valuable and splendidly produced release. -- Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein, February 19, 2009
Two years ago, as if presciently planned, the Washington-based Post-Classical Ensemble took a fresh look at a 1939 documentary called The City that boasts a vivid score by Aaron Copland. The film, made by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke and scripted by urban planner Lewis Mumford, examines the most unattractive aspects of modern metropolitan life and promotes an environmentally friendly, government-spearheaded alternative.
This Great Depression-era product has now re-emerged on DVD by Naxos, with Post-Classical's freshly recorded soundtrack, just as the country is in the grip of the Great Recession and the air is full of talk about government projects, large-scale and green. Seems like great timing to me.
Movie and history buffs will want to check out The City, which looks and sounds great on the DVD - and is sure to make a strong impression when shown at the Charles Theatre this weekend, part of the Cinema Sundays series there. And music buffs will not want to miss the chance to hear what Post-Classical's artistic director, Joseph Horowitz, asserts is "arguably Copland's highest achievement as a film score."
That score, here conducted by the ensemble's music director, Angel Gil-Ordonez, with his usual care and expressiveness, comes through as vibrantly as the camerawork. This is particularly true in the brilliant urban scenes. It sounds as if Copland had more fun composing music for those city shots; that's where the music really jumps out at you. -- Baltimore Sun, Tim Smith, January 22, 2009
a time capsule ,for sure. The director had seen Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will for sure, especially the images of the Hitler Youth campsite at Nuremberg in 1934. Read morePublished 1 month ago by conrad thomason
Starts out well, but kinda peters out..........interesting sites not really explained by narration.Published 4 months ago by Bill M
Interesting documentary with a still living legacy as its subject. Wouldn't it be nice to live in a more equal, more peaceful world community? Read morePublished 12 months ago by E.C.W.
An excellent documentary done for the 1939 World's Fair. it gives you a insight as to what a planned city should look like done under the NRA. Read morePublished 14 months ago by Donald Weber