Atonal salvation for a pair of movies

Times Staff Writer

I Googled Raquel Welch and Alban Berg and got nothing. I tried Welch and "Wozzeck," Berg's atonal first opera. Still nothing. Certain my luck would improve, I typed in Welch and "Lulu," Berg's sexually brazen 12-tone opera. It didn't.

Maybe you are not surprised. But I was. The connection seemed so obvious after I'd watched the 1966 science-fiction film "Fantastic Voyage," which has just been released on a special-edition DVD.

A submarine and its crew are miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a comatose scientist who knows an important state secret. These microscopic mariners hope to zap a blood clot in the patient's brain with a nano-laser and save the free world.

The crew includes two medical specialists, the sub's captain, a security official and, in a form-fitting white jumpsuit zipped down just so, Welch -- as a medical assistant who seems to have a way with transistors. In the most exciting scene, she is attacked by antibodies as she swims around helping unstick the stuck sub. She's rescued and carried back to the vessel just as the antibodies tighten around her body. In a frenzy, eight male hands go straight for her chest and zipper.

The terrific music, overheated throughout the voyage, becomes especially chaotic here. It is atonal. Leonard Rosenman, the composer, claimed it was written according to the 12-tone system. The DVD includes an audio track on which you can hear the score without dialogue or sound effects, making all the more apparent the influence of Berg's operas on the intricate, heavy-panting, expressionistic language of Rosenman's orchestral writing, something the Juilliard-trained composer readily acknowledged.

Around the same time as "Fantastic Voyage" (four years later, to be exact), a film of "Wozzeck" was made in Hamburg, Germany, by Rolf Liebermann, and it too has just come out on DVD. Made for television, this "Wozzeck" is meant to be completely naturalistic, just the opposite of "Fantastic Voyage," with all its flamboyant special effects showing the interior of the body.

In fact, seen from the perspective created by four decades, these films are, in some ways, quite alike. To begin with, both look phony. However real the rural setting of "Wozzeck" -- a powerful psychological drama about a bumpkin soldier and the unfaithful woman who has borne him an illegitimate son -- the awkwardly lip-synced singing makes the whole enterprise feel crude, unreal. The tacky papier-mache sets of "Fantastic Voyage" have the same effect. But the very crudeness of these films gives the music space.

In a commentary on the "Fantastic Voyage" DVD, film and music historians Jeff Bond, Jon Burlingame and Nick Redman make the fascinating point that Rosenman got away with so adventurous and advanced a score because the special effects technology was relatively primitive. The music filled in viewers' imaginations. Once computer technology made science fiction look lifelike, these commentators argue, music became far less meaningful in blockbuster films.

Music as an ally

BERG'S powerfully expressive score also transforms the pedestrian film of his opera. To be sure, Liebermann takes full advantage of Toni Blankenheim's especially haunted Wozzeck and of Sena Jurinac's earthiness as his common-law wife, Marie. But what makes the film great is voluptuous conducting by the Italian composer Bruno Maderna, despite a not particularly good mono recording. Maderna reveals the opera to be a psychedelic fantastic voyage into the mind of a tormented man and a curious corollary to the pop sci-fi epic.

At the center of both films is sex, as much as "Fantastic Voyage" pretends to skirt the subject. The men leer at Welch, and she, with surprising class and competence, deflects them. Rosenman's music is her ally. It roils, unresolved. It brings to vivid life the movie's suppressed eroticism and shows just how close to a gang rape the scene with the antibodies is, despite this being family entertainment. Thanks to the score, "Fantastic Voyage" is more than one kind of anatomy lesson.

"Wozzeck" goes much further, with a suppressed eroticism that bursts its psychic seams. Wozzeck is a harried private, abused by his superiors and oppressed by the system. When his hands go for Marie, they lose control. He kills her in a jealous rage over her flirtations with a drum major. Berg builds up to this scene for about an hour, just as Rosenman does to the scene with the men pawing Welch, demonstrating the inevitability of that moment in very similar ways.

It would be absurd to carry this parallel too far. Surely there is no point Googling Welch and Jurinac, although I was struck by the self-assured acting, the knowledgeable controlled sexuality, from both women.

Still, I think it remarkable that these relics from a bygone era, very different in intent and sophistication, so magnificently convey that music can transform almost anything . And that act of transformation needn't be -- indeed couldn't be -- simplistic.

The late '60s was the last flowering of atonality, and the 12-tone system is now generally disparaged. Yet the demanding, difficult music accompanying these visually clumsy, dated films is not only accessible but provides a dramatic power that neither the latest high-tech summer blockbuster nor glitzy high-definition movie-house transmissions from the Metropolitan Opera come close to matching.


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