“Judaism, Where Are You?”
The influence of Richard Wagner on the cinema is usually presented as a mere musical exchange. Critical theorist Theodor Adorno states quite simply, “The Wagnerian leitmotif leads directly to cinema music” (34). This is, of course, quite true. One cannot imagine Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score for 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood or John Williams’ music for 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back without The Ring of the Nibelung haunting the theatre. One of the most readily accessible references in the New Hollywood cinema is “The Ride of the Valkyries” in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), a substitution cipher in which gunship helicopters replace Teutonic women on flying horses. The scene is so iconic that Sam Mendes’ Jarhead (2005) uses it ironically in a sequence in which Marines are flown on a commercial airliner to the First Gulf War, more Disneyland than Westmoreland.
If we take one of Wagner’s major theoretical contributions to nineteenth-century criticism at face value—the concept of “the total work of art”—then the cinema, not only its music but also its images, are the direct descendants of the Wagnerian. We thus need to construct a wider array of intertextuality pertaining to Wagner and the moving image.
“The total work of art” implies a particular theory of narrative scope which lies in opposition to most cinema: except in the case of Andy Warhol, and more pointedly, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, the 90 – 180 minute run time is a virtually universal economic imperative in movie-making. The Wagnerian corpus tends toward the epic, moving from the multiple hour experiences of 1845’s Tannhauser to 1882’s Parsifal, to the grand epic structure of the Ring cycle. A four and a half hour normative performance time of The Master Singers of Nurnberg (1867) makes it the longest opera in the entire canon.
In the realm of the supposedly low cultural form that is the 23-minute television sitcom, Larry David devotes an entire episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm to telling the story of Christmas Day, 1870, when Richard Wagner arranged a surprise performance of his Siegfried Idyll for his wife, Cosima’s birthday. In the 2001 Halloween-themed episode, “Trick or Treat,” Larry gets into a fight on the streets of Los Angeles because he is whistling a Wagner tune. A friend of a friend of Larry’s accuses him of being a “self-hating Jew,” to which David responds that he may hate himself, but not because he is Jewish! When the man scornfully queries of Larry, “Where is your Judaism?,” Larry responds by screaming into the air, “Judaism, where are you?”
After several complications, such as his desire to play golf with his agent instead of spending time with his wife, Cheryl on her birthday, Larry ends the episode on the lawn of his Judaism-defending nemesis, awakening the man with a full orchestra blaring Wagner into the tony neighborhood. In so doing, David is able to use the mechanism of his sitcom to grapple with crucial questions about creativity. How can it be that the anti-Semitic Wagner made artworks that radically transformed for the good the entire narrative trajectory of Western civilization? Implicitly, David’s work raises an equally important question: What does it mean that the epic scope of nineteenth-century tragic opera has been successfully housed in a twenty-three minute comedy? From 1957’s “What’s Opera, Doc” onward, the down-conversion of Wagner is de rigueur in American mass media.
For a precious few artists—for example, Sophocles and Shakespeare—their works circulate energy with enough joules to register historically continuously on the kinetic map of all culture. Because of his ability to transform European myths of power and love into exquisitely beautiful and meaningful audio-visual artworks that continue to resonate into the second decade of the 21st century, Richard Wagner surely belongs in that pantheon, having influenced not just J.R.R. Tolkien and George Lucas, but American generic forms ranging from the animated cartoon to the television sitcom. To paraphrase Chuck Jones: “What’s Wagner, Doc?” Answering the question strikes at the heart of understanding contemporary American popular culture; the German composer is the author not just of great operatic music, but a major figure in the attempt to understand human experience in a greater artistic totality than was previously thought possible. Our contemporary total works of art, film and television, offer our best hope for continuing that much-needed project.