Monday, April 7, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 97):"GRAND HOTEL" (1973), Procol Harum

Sunday I saw Wes Anderson’s new film Grand Budapest Hotel and am happy to offer today’s song as a tie-in of sorts. The film’s early going thoroughly enthralled me with its evocation of a fading Hotel Grande, the kind celebrated in Procol Harum’s song from 1973. What is the attraction? Both my first hearing of this album—around ten years after it was released—and my viewing of Anderson’s film recalled to me the evocations of the hotel by the sea in Cabourg that the narrator of the Recherche stays in as a boy. Something of that sense of unsuspected confluences, of people coming together par hasard, and of the sumptuous qualities of the setting combine to give me a little frisson of imaginative splendor. As remarked in yesterday’s post, me and Marcel share the tendency to find life not quite adequate to our imaginings. In Anderson’s film, the character played so impeccably by Ralph Fiennes (one of the finest actors of his generation) helps to recreate that sense of someone for whom tawdry reality is just not good enough. While I may be aligning myself with dandies in these comments, I have to say that the great contribution of such refined types is that they make such heights of taste seem possible, even as I accepted soon enough that such are not available in twentieth-century America.

And look how dandified today’s song is: “Tonight we sleep on silken sheets / We drink fine wines and eat rare meats.” That all may be easy enough to do on your tour of any major city, but still. The spirit in which this is delivered, in the full flower of PH’s prog-era willingness to ape classic dance measures and to orchestrate their compositions sublimely (Procol Harum’s album recorded with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra was a top ten LP and the recasting of “Conquistador”—the 45 that was my first purchase by them—top twenty). The spirit can be best summed up by the way, here, the foxtrot, after that highly melodramatic sequence with orchestra and choir, segues into a trumpeting guitar solo.

Keith Reid and Gary Brooker
It’s all terrifically decadent as well, doubtless, which would have held great attraction for me at one time. Not so much when I finally got around to the album, but, even so, I like to think that the song inspired the kind of imaginative flights that Anderson’s film also serves. Boy with Apple, the fictitious Old Master painting that contributes to the plot of Grand Budapest Hotel, is the kind of “touch” that I find delightful. For, in a sense, one’s idea of the sumptuous past is a matter of oil paintings, back when the rendering of the tactile feel of material culture was one of the highest arts.  See how PH lyricist Keith Reid gives us a taste here: “It’s mirrored walls, and velvet drapes, / Dry champagne, and bursting grapes, / Dover sole, and Oeufs Mornay, / Profiteroles and Peach Flambé.” Gary Brooker’s vocal, as ever, does a nice tongue-in-cheek with Reid’s tendency to ornate lyrics; Brooker always sounds like a lad from Hackney, thus undercutting any pretensions to aristocracy.

Procol Harum was hot at this time, in my view. The live album with the orchestra, then Grand Hotel, then the one I consider my favorite, Exotic Birds and Fruit. Glorious, ain’t it, squire? “It’s serenade and Sarabande, / The nights we stay at Hotel Grande.” And who wouldn’t, with the affable M. Gustave H. as concierge. But Anderson’s film would be less affecting to me personally without the part of the writer, played by Jude Law. For in that image of the solitary traveler who does nothing but soak up the ambiance of a place and move on, I find one of my finest “abstract plane” type of imaginings. And certainly the evocation of a vanished Europe—which is already present in those great writers of the early part of the last century, Proust, Mann—does much to recommend the film to me.  A theme dear as well to Stefan Zweig (from whose writings Anderson derives his tale) who, a nomad after the rise of Nazism in Germany, took his life in a double suicide with his wife, in 1942, rather than endure what the world was becoming. Très raffiné, no doubt, but far be it from me to deplore the decision.

On Carousel and gambling stake
Our fortunes speed, and dissipate . . . .

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