Saturday, February 25, 2017

Reading and Singing Along to The Wizard of Oz

The first Oz thing I ever owned, long before I had any idea about collecting, must have been this read-along book and cassette tape: Superscope Storyteller's The Wizard of Oz.

Listening to this again, it occurs to me that my first awareness of elements of the story that are specific to the book, not the MGM film, was likely through this adaptation. Dorothy wears silver shoes, and the witch has one very powerful eye. I especially vividly remember the lion drinking his green liquid courage in this version. However, whereas these details are true to Baum's book, there are some peculiar differences as well. Dorothy has parents, rather than an Aunt and Uncle, and Toto is white in the illustrations. The story is more text-heavy than I would normally expect from this kind of product. The background score is richly orchestrated, showing some significant investment in the quality of the recording. The voice-over performances are informed by established expectations about many of the characters. Dorothy has an aw-shucks way of speaking that evokes Judy Garland in the film, and the Cowardly Lion’s voice involves a confluence of references to Bert Lahr, Snagglepuss, and Paul Lynde.

The really notable musical feature of the book/tape, however is a song the Munchkins sing when Dorothy sets of on the Yellow Brick Road, first heard at 2:42, and which is repeated (though not consistently) as she meets the other characters. Its words and music are an approximation of Arlen and Harburg’s “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” from the MGM:

Follow the Yellow Brick Road
That is what many are told
To find the wonderful Wizard
You must follow the Yellow Brick Road

It’s a pleasant, singable, and memorable tune, if highly derivative of the movie, which, unlike the elements from Baum’s book, is not in the public domain. It would appear significant that the impulse to sing and dance was considered a necessary inclusion in this adaptation. I wonder if this is because of the influence of the MGM film musical. Other adaptations of The Wizard of Oz to book and record also tend to incorporate songs, but this was common practice with many recordings of stories for children in any case. What is interesting about these book and record texts is that they combine reading with at least the evocation of embodied performance through song, dance, and play. The song is certainly catchy enough that one could sing along to the recording or sing it from memory later while skipping on down one's own imaginary Yellow Brick Road. Reading might be a more embodied experience than one would assume to begin with, but the ability to read, hear, and even sing and move with the story while reading it is a type of participatory and embodied reading that has perhaps not been fully investigated or appreciated--possibly because read-along recordings have not been not considered worthy of study. What are the forms of literacy that are being cultivated in this type of reading? What if we gave these books their due as literature? What are the complex ways in which this text references familiar elements of the book, the film, and musical theater conventions while forging its own version?

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Children of Heaven

In Iranian director Majid Majidi's 1997 film Children of Heaven, Ali loses his sister Zahra's shoes during an errand to have the repaired. Fearful of his father's wrath and conscientious of the family's impoverished financial situation, Ali begs Zahra not to tell him that he has lost the shoes. He offers to share his sneakers, which she wears to school in the mornings. They then switch off in the middle of the day so that he can attend school in the afternoon.

When Ali returns from school after the first day of sharing the sneakers, Zahra says she’s embarrassed to wear the shoes because they are dirty. Ali proposes that they wash them. At this point there is a striking shift in the film’s affective register. Twenty minutes into a movie that has relied on everyday realism and made no use of non-diegetic music, even in the opening credits, music is not only heard for the first time, but is foregrounded, directing the viewer’s consciousness to a different relationship with the film’s diegesis. Ali and Zahra scrub the shoes and then begin blowing bubbles, which seem to dance to the music. The delicate, colorful instrumentation conjures connotations of magic, joy, and the sublime (as well as the exotic, to Western ears). No words are exchanged during this moment. The children smile at each other as they blow bubbles, and when they are done, Ali places the shoes on the wall to dry.

Like bubbles that hang in the air, this moment of lyrical suspension arrests the linear progress of the narrative, opening a window onto the special world of the children. Much of the film involves a series of scenes in which the children navigate their physical environments and social relationships through progressive, if meandering, movement, often while running through narrow, winding, walled streets of the south section of Tehran. At other points later in the film, the foregrounding of non-diegetic music has varying temporal effects, either magically suspending the action as this scene does or helping to create forward momentum, as when Zahra loses one of the sneakers in the gutter and chases it through the streets while the music seems to give the shoe an enchanted will of its own.   In this particular scene of washing the shoes together, Ali and Zahra share affection, pleasure, reconciliation, and brotherly/sisterly devotion in a moment of repose and respite from their difficulties that positions them as idealized, sentimental, good children. These good children have a closeness to music, imagination, and nature different from adults.

This scene can be further understood, perhaps, in the context of post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema. After the Revolution, the old studio system was dismantled and restrictions were imposed on the content of films. Adult men and women could not touch each other, even as actors, if they were not married in reality, and not only overt sexuality but also singing and dancing were eliminated (Cardullo, 111; Sadr, 228). Children in Iranian film, who are not bound by the same restrictions and are read as having a fundamental innocence, have more freedom and mobility that adults. According to both Sadr and Cardullo, children allow Iranian cinema to address social, political, and other themes under the inoffensive cloak of child innocence. As Sadr notes “children liberate plots by introducing non-essential actions [acquiring] a tone of elevated romanticism that their parents never have” (233). Like Ali, who is able to get work for his father, these children are more capable in the modern world than the adults and are portrayed as hard-working (Sadr, 231). Whereas adult emotion is limited, children show a platonic way of loving (235), which Sadr associates with Iranian cinema’s “poetic realism.” These films “converted the question ‘why do people feel this way’ to ‘how does it feel to have such feelings?’