Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Adventures in Ethnomusicology and Espionage

Some of you readers know that by trade I’m an ethnomusicologist, some of you don’t. Well, now if you didn’t, you do, and the reason I’m bringing it up is that (a) that’s what this blog is about and (b) I just watched this old Hitchcock film in which, I was surprised to discover, the hero is an ethnomusicologist, too. The movie is The Lady Vanishes from 1938. If you’ve seen Flightplan you have the basic idea, except that here the heroine is traveling on a train, not a plane, and the person who disappears is a kindly old woman she’s just met, not her daughter. Everyone denies the old woman was ever there, causing great consternation, but all is made clear at the end, and it has to do with the fact that Europe was about to enter WWII. I highly recommend the movie, especially if you too are an ethnomusicologist.

Anyway, the ethnomusicologist comes on the scene in the beginning as the heroine is trying to get a good night’s sleep in a quaint little inn somewhere in continental Europe (probably Germany, though we’re never told for sure).

A great stomping noise echoes throughout the hotel, rattling the light fixtures in the room below. The young woman staying there calls the front desk, demanding the manager put a stop to it so that she can get some sleep. Because she is one of the wealthier guests, the manager sees to it immediately.

When he opens the door to the room of the guilty party upstairs, he finds a strange scene. A young, mustachioed Englishman lies on a couch playing a very Central European-sounding melody on his clarinet as three picturesquely clothed peasants dance about in what appears to be some poor imitation of the Hungarian csardas. When he stops, they strike a pose, he makes a few notes on a pad, and then they all start up again. The manager insists that they desist.

“Will you kindly stop? They are all complaining in the hotel, you make too much noise!” he explains.

“Too much what?” the guest demands.

“Too much noise,” the manager replies in embarrassment.

“You dare to call it a noise?! The ancient music with which your peasant ancestors celebrated every wedding for countless generations, the dance they danced when your father married your mother, always supposing you were born in wedlock, which I doubt. I take it you are the manager?”

“Sure I am the manager of this-“

“Yes, unfortunately I am accustomed to squalor. Tell me who is complaining.”

“This young English lady underneath.”

“Well, you tell the young English lady underneath that I am putting on record for the benefit of mankind one of the last folk dances of central Europe, and furthermore she does not own this hotel!” he shoos the manager from his room with a flourish of his clarinet. A short while later, however, she succeeds in getting him thrown from his room with a well-placed bribe.

She should have known that he can’t be gotten rid of that easily: this man appears to be everywhere and know everyone. Later, on the train out, the woman encounters him on the coach class car, watching different peasants dance, this time to the music of violins. He reveals that he is writing a book on European folk dances, which he expects to finish in about four years. And when together they go about enquiring about the missing woman who is the subject of the film, and are introduced to some Italians, he exclaims, “Oh yes, I met her husband. He presented prizes at the folk dance festival. Minister of Propaganda,” he explains in an aside to his companion.

Naturally enough, the ethnomusicologist ends up saving the day. You could have seen that coming, no?

Basically, I wanted to bring up this movie because it is so much like my blog. Except that instead of clarinet, it’s accordion; instead of Germany, it’s the Dominican Republic; instead of a stomping pseudo-csardas it’s merengue; instead of a quaint Alpine inn clothed in snow, it’s a Santiago apartment under the boiling sun; instead of Ministers of Propaganda, it’s politicians, secretaries of tourism, and the like (although the difference there may be more of degree); instead of four years, I have one to finish what I’m writing; and instead of a train, it’s the Millenium Falcon. And of course, there is only a heroine in this story and no hero. But otherwise, the story is virtually indistinguishable. I’m hoping I too will be able to save a trainload of innocent passengers from the evil machinations of fascist spies at the end, although I could probably do without the shootout.


Alexandre said...

And instead of doing armchair ethnomusicology, the heroine is doing honest-to-goodness participant-observation with emphasis on participation.

anne said...

I'm not an ethnomusicologist, but I play one on TV. I think that qualifies me to enjoy this movie.

I'm guessing the heroine finds love with the ethnomusicologist a the end of the film? Wait, this is Hitchcock -- maybe not. I'll have to watch and give my assessment from the media critic's perspective (so that my grad school experience won't be in vain) to compare with your ethnomusicologist's perspective.

Heather said...

Being Hitchcock don't you think the Ethnomusicologist would lock everyone in a dungeoun alive, then walk away with a wry smile and the clarinet playing a mournful tune.

But mostly I'm posting to say, "Millenium Falcon"??????!

See you Sunday if not before,
Yer sister