Perhaps, or perhaps not, you have heard of Blue, a 2014 album by the antic and virtuosic jazz combo Mostly Other People Do The Killing. It is a note-for-note re-creation, or "cover version" of Miles Davis' seminal 1959 LP Kind of Blue. MOPDTK is known for, among other things, an antic sense of humor that manifests itself in cheeky album cover artwork, as in the piss-take of Keith Jarrett's seminal The Koln Concert on its own 2011 disc The Caimbra Concert. That record also featured this provocative liner note: “In fact, every note and sound on this recording is a reference to some other recording or performance, real or imaginary. Enjoy!”
Blue is a record that raises all sorts of questions beyond the initial "Why?" It is useful to remember that, its one-time reputation as an ultra-suave makeout disc notwithstanding, the recording by the Davis quintet was a significant building block for free jazz: in putting into action some particular ideas provoked in him by the work of George Russell, and hooking improvisation to modes rather than chord changes, Davis was taking down a particular net, and one of the things Blue is asking is for the listener to experience the music of Kind of Blue in the explicit context of fifty years of the net being down. So it is apt that, for the liner notes to Blue, that disc's booklet reproduces in full the translated text of Jorge Luis Borges' droll and dizzying short story Pierre Menard, Author Of The Quixote.
Trying to do in music what Borges' Menard—a fictional character, we have to keep reminding ourselves—accomplished in writing is, practically speaking, a whole different enterprise. Here are three key paragraphs from Borges' story that illustrate pertinent problems (the translation, here as in the Blue liner notes, is Andrew Hurley's):
Those who have insinuated that Menard devoted his life to writing a contemporary Quixote besmirch his illustrious memory. Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote, which surely is easy enough—he wanted to compose the Quixote. Nor, surely, need one have to say that his goal was never a mechanical transcription of the original; he had no intention of copying it. His admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.
“My purpose is merely astonishing,” he wrote me on September 30, 1934, from Bayonne. “The final term of a theological or metaphysical proof—the world around us, or God, or chance, or universal Forms—is no more final, no more uncommon, than my revealed novel. The sole difference is that philosophers publish pleasant volumes containing the intermediate stages of their work, while I am resolved to suppress those stages of my own.” And indeed there is not a single draft to bear witness to that years-long labor.
Initially, Menard’s method was to be relatively simple: Learn Spanish, return to CatholIcism, fight against the Moor of Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 to 1918—be Miguel de Cervantes. Pierre Menard weighed that course (I know he pretty thoroughly mastered seventeenth-century Castilian) but he discarded it as too east. Too impossible,!, rather, the reader will say. Quite so, but the undertaking was impossible from the outset, and of all the impossible ways of bringing it about, this was the least interesting. To be a popular novelist of the seventeenth century in the twentieth seemed to Menard to be a diminuation. Being, somehow, Cervantes, and arriving thereby at the Quixote—that looked to Menard less challenging (and therefore less interesting) than continuing to be Pierre Menard and coming to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.
The members of Mostly Other People Do The Killing, augmented by a pianist, obviously came to Kind of Blue via their own experiences as human beings, white men, musicians, jazz musicians, readers of music, readers of music theory and criticism, and so on. But unlike Menard they were practically obliged to come to their Quixote, Kind of Blue, via all manner of mediating technology, beginning with their musical instruments.
As with music, so, even more so perhaps, with film. I thought of Borges' story, and of Blue, while watching again, for the first time in some time, and with a concentration suggested by my thoughts about Borges and Menard and Blue, Fritz Lang's two 1959 films The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, a two-feature quasi-serial. (I viewed them via the excellent UK import set from Eureka!/Masters of Cinema, a Region B issue, alas.) The movie is a remake of a 1921 picture that, I must admit, I have not seen: Das indische Grabmal erster Teil, another two-parter, silent, directed by Joe May, then a cinematic colleague and rival of Lang's. The scenario of the film was a creation of Thea von Harbou and, as it happens, Lang. If I read David Kalat's account (in his invaluable 2001 book The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse) correctly, the scenario was the first collaboration between what was to become the husband-and-wife team, an adaptation of von Harbou's own novel. Said novel, like the popular "Westerns" of Karl May, trucked in German pop culture's fascination with "the exotic." (It is crucial, of course, that we continually locate this fascination in the first three decades of the 20th Century.) German film industry machinations led to May, and not Lang, handling the direction of the film, which starred Conrad Veidt.
At the end of the 1950s Lang's Hollywood career was winding down as his eyesight degenerated. His final American-produced film was the severely pessimistic 1957 Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, its death-penalty centered plot making it, among other things, a mordant answer-film/companion piece to Lang's U.S. debut, the galvanic Fury, an anti-lynch mob parable. Both Doubt and Lang's prior While The City Sleeps took film noir fatalism into the realm of the police procedural and depicted modes of modern life corrupted in ways that Lang's romantic Metropolis had never foreseen. According to Kalat, when German producer Artur Brauner offered Lang a deal to remake the May film, he had no idea that Lang had been so intimately involved in the original: “Ironically, Brauner did not recognize what it meant to Lang: Brauner was unaware that Lang had been involved with the original and was ignorant of the entire story of Lang’s history with Joe May. As far as Brauner was concerned, he was simply pairing a remake of a golden oldie with one of the leading lights of the old school.” To Peter Bogdanovich, discussing the remake in 1965, Lang said simply "You should make a picture you started." He elaborated, reflecting that doing this at the end of his career was "like a circle that was beginning to close—a kind of fate."
I don't know that Lang read Borges, or even that he saw Performance for that matter; I cannot extrapolate from Lang's admiration of certain Jess Franco films the extent to which Lang had any kind of great enthusiasms for meta-narratives. What is certain is that the tropes which support the entire scenario of what I'll now refer to as a whole as The Indian Tomb had undergone a cataclysmic contextual shift between 1921 and 1959, and Lang's choice to ignore that shift in a sense represents a sort of triumph of Menardian thinking. Remember the way, in his story, Borges marvels at the two different representations of the notion of history being the mother of truth. In Cervantes, writes Borges, the phrase is "mere rhetorical praise of history." In Menard, "the idea is staggering." So in Tomb, observations concerning "Western" ideas, and dialogue like "I'm a European; we count in hours" carries a charge that simply could not have been present in the original version.
The casting of the Oklahoma-born Debra Paget as Seetha alone has implications that could fill a doctoral dissertation. Reputed love object of both Elvis Presley and Howard Hughes, not infrequent player of "Indian" girls in Hollywood Westerns, her skills as a seductively undulating dancer were first (as far as I know) and most convincingly displayed in believe it or not, the 1952 John Philip Sousa biopic Stars And Stripes Forever. In Tomb she is also a dancer, Seetha, and her moves, witnessed surreptitiously by German architect Harold Berger, bring about a change in the sculpted goddess to whom she dedicates her dance. Soon the couple are on the run pursued by a vengeful maharaja. Paget, as it happens, is the only truly vivid performer in the whole movie; the rest of the cast, and Hubschmid in particular, emit a generic anonymity that's actually rather in keeping with their functions in what is on a surface level an anachronistic exercise.
But as Tom Gunning points out in his invaluable study, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, the German critics who savaged this work on those grounds on its initial release could not have been more wrong: "Lang's control of colour photography [...] represents a truly modern aspect of film-making. The non-realistic, semi-abstract plot and characters would inspire the most advanced filmmakers of the 60s, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Marie Straub." (As we all know, Godard would also hire Lang to act, as himself, in Le Mepris, and offer therein an implicit explanation as to why he shot Tomb in color but not in widescreen.) Reflecting on the enterprise as a whole, Gunning writes that Lang's “return to Germany from exile […] yields a profound sense of the untimeliness of history, the knowledge that nothing can ever truly be repeated, and that in repetition lies not so much the promise of rebirth as the harbinger of death. Repetition involves a profound mourning for the passage of time.” Seeing the lepers of Tomb and recalling the underground dwellers of Metropolis certainly supports this idea. But the exercise was not without its drollery. Paget's dance, while in the context of the plot is meant to be part of a sacred rite, cannot help but recall the dance with which the Robot Maria seduces the scions of the ruling class in Metropolis, and it's kind of funny that Paget's moves in the film wound up running afoul of Hollywood prudery: they were cut from an American release of the film. Lang is not a director one customarily thinks of as playful, but we can see his pleasure principle at work in this, and in several other sequences of the film. In spite of the constraints of the source material, or maybe because of them, this movie feels like another example of Rossellini's "film of a free man."
Menard’s Quixote, which, I will once again point out, never really existed, was conceived and only partially executed in the circumscribed sphere of Borges’ story, in order to answer certain questions—some of which had not been in evidence at all until the "second" Quixote was manifested. MOPDTK’s Blue was conceived and executed with a large number of questions already in mind; and the work is an explicit posing of those questions. Just having them out there in that form fulfills the purpose of the enterprise. Lang’s work, I think, falls somewhere in between those of Borges/Menard and the jazz group. In a sense, this least sentimental of filmmakers was going on a kind of sentimental journey, sure. But there is also at work in every frame of Tomb a conscious and diligent testing of the elasticity of form. In returning to the narrative mode that helped make him one of the primary architects of dramatic cinema as we still know it today, Lang conducts an inquiry as to both its durability and whether its innocence can be recaptured. Except the second is a trick question; the movie lays bare the naivete of the scenario von Harbou and Lang and Joe May concocted in the first place, and reveals that what so many viewers process as innocence was in fact a contrivance. It’s for that reason that Lang's next and final film, The Thousand Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse, so seemingly inapposite a followup to this ostensibly romantic saga, is really its inevitable next move. Its anti-televisual paranoia and vision of a surveillance state further pulls the rug out from under Tomb's attempted romance. And to explicitly locate Tomb between the brackets of Beyond A Reasonable Doubt and Thousand Eyes evokes a frisson that's both undeniable and undeniably unpleasant. But very Lang.