Talking Movies

September 10, 2018

The Lighthouse Presents Alfred Hitchcock

The Lighthouse is putting the Master of Suspense back on the big screen in September and October with a major retrospective comprising ten films from nearly two decades of work. A new restoration of Strangers on a Train is a highlight of a season showcasing icy blondes, blackly comic moments, pure cinema suspense sequences, and the greatest of director cameos.

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN

From 13th September

People who’ve never seen the film know what is meant by uttering the title.  Robert Walker’s psychotic socialite Bruno propounds to Farley Granger’s pro tennis star Guy, who he’s just met on a train, a very plausible theory on how two complete strangers could both get away with murder. By swapping murders the complete absence of motive would stump detection. And Bruno means to prove it… Patricia Highsmith’s first novel epitomised her creeping unease and smiling sociopaths, and Hitchcock embellished it with visual flourishes (reflections of murder in a glass, one sports spectator remaining aloof) and nail-biting suspense.

ROPE

From 14th September

Farley Granger and John Dall are the two young men, clearly modelled on the infamous real-life killers Leopold and Loeb, who strangle a classmate they have decided is inferior in their Nietzschean scheme of things. Displaying a sadistic sense of humour they hide his body in their apartment, invite his friends and family to a dinner party, and serve the food over his dead body. Can their mentor Jimmy Stewart rumble the perfect crime? This was shot by Hitchcock in ostentatiously long 10 minute takes that cut together by means of ‘jacket-wipes’ to give the impression of one unbroken real-time visualisation.

MARNIE

From 19th September

Tippi Hedren’s second film for Hitchcock cast her as the titular compulsive thief, troubled by the colour red, and the touch of any man, even Sean Connery at the height of Bond fame. Bernard Herrmann’s final Hitchcock score (though his rejected Torn Curtain music appeared in Scorsese’s Cape Fear) buoys some dime store pop psychology as Hitchcock displays a less than sure touch in navigating the line between twisted romance and twisted obsession. There is an infamous scene between Connery and Hedren that is arguably the beginning of the decline towards ever more showy cinematic conceits housed in increasingly mediocre films.

VERTIGO

From 20th September

Hitchcock’s 1958 magnum opus recently toppled Citizen Kane from its perch as the ‘greatest film ever made.’ Hitchcock burned money perfecting the dolly-in zoom-out effect so crucial for depicting Jimmy Stewart’s titular condition; and Spielberg cheekily appropriated it for one show-off shot in Jaws. The twisted plot from the French novelists behind Les Diaboliques is played brilliantly by the increasingly unhinged Stewart, Kim Novak as the anguished blonde he becomes obsessed with, and a young Barbara Bel Geddes as the friend who tries to keep him grounded. Visually gorgeous, lushly scored, and dripping pure cinema sequences without any dialogue – see this.

SPELLBOUND

From 22nd September

Ingrid Bergman’s psychiatrist protects her new boss (Gregory Peck) who turns out to be an amnesia victim accused of murder. On the run she attempts to recover his memory, while her old boss Leo G Carroll insists that Peck is a dangerous killer. Salvador Dali famously designed the dream sequence to explain Peck’s trauma, but producer David O Selznick cut it to ribbons. He had insisted Hitchcock make this picture anyway to fulfil his contract because Selznick had had a wonderful time in therapy. Hitchcock had a less wonderful time, even Miklos Rozsa’s score introducing the brand new theremin irked him.

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY

From 23rd September

The trouble with Harry is a bit of a curate’s egg. Foreign Correspondent’s hit-man Edmund Gwenn returns to the Hitchcock fold, and Shirley MacLaine makes her very winning film debut, but this is a black comedy that ends up more of a droll half-romantic drama. Four people in a Vermont village, led by his estranged wife, spend a Fall day running around with Harry’s dead body; one step ahead of the authorities, and each convinced twas they that did him in. After from MacLaine’s debut one must point out that from this unremarkable beginning grew the Hitchcock/Herrmann partnership.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST

From 26th September

Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman abandoned a fruitless novel adaptation for a scenario dazzlingly showcasing scenes Hitchcock had always longed to film; a murder at the United Nations, a man attacked by a crop-duster in an empty landscape. Cary Grant’s MadMan (cough) Roger O Thornhill; a man as hollow as  his affected middle initial; blunders into spymaster Leo G Carroll’s elaborate ruse and is ruthlessly and lethally pursued across America by the sinister James Mason and his clinging henchman Martin Landau, all the while dallying with their dangerous associate Eva  Marie Saint. Hitchcock’s preoccupations were never explored more enjoyably…

THE BIRDS

From 30th September

Hitchcock spun out Daphne Du Maurier’s short story which had been inspired by her simple thought when watching a flock wheel towards her over a field, “What if they  attacked?,” into  an unsettling and bloody film. Socialite Tippi Hedren’s pursuit of the judgemental lawyer Rod Taylor to his idyllic small town on the bay seems to cause the local birds to turn homicidal, but don’t look for explanations – just enjoy the slow-burn to the bravura attacks. Watch out for Alien’s Veronica Cartwright as Taylor’s young sister, and a bar stool philosophiser allegedly modelled on Hitchcock’s bruising encounters with Sean O’Casey…

DIAL M FOR MURDER 3-D

From 3rd October

Warner Bros. insisted that Hitchcock join the 3-D craze, so he perversely adapted a play without changing it much, something that had bedevilled cinema during the transition to sound. Hitchcock has immense fun layering the furniture of Grace Kelly’s flat, but after the interval (sic) largely loses interest in 3-D and focuses on Frederick Knott’s, ahem, knotty plot in which tennis pro Ray Milland blackmails Anthony Dawson into bumping off rich wife Grace Kelly. John Williams, who also appears in To Catch a Thief, is in fine form as the detective trying to puzzle out the crime.

PSYCHO

From 10th October

Hitchcock’s low budget 1960 classic boasted one of the drollest trailers imaginable  and his direction is equally parodic in the first act, with its sinister traffic-cop pursuit and endless misdirection, because Hitchcock relished investing the audience  in a shaggy-dog story which sets up a number of prolonged blackly comic sequences as well as some  chilling suspense. Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates emerges as a terrific resonant villain, especially in the chilling final scene scored by Bernard Herrmann with full-on Schoenbergian atonal serialism. The shower scene with Janet Leigh being slashed to Herrmann’s bravura stabbing strings orchestration remains an iconic ‘pure cinema’ scare.

Tickets can be booked at the Lighthouse’s website  (www.lighthousecinema.ie).

January 31, 2018

He Got Melody or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Love John Williams Again

It was while I was watching this John Williams BBC Prom at the end of last summer that I realised I had done him wrong.

John Williams gets stick in austere musicological circles for his tendency to write theme after theme with the same rhythm. And it’s certainly true that Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and E.T. all pomp along on more or less similar rhythmic lines. Well, so what? Danny Elfman writes interesting, varied, and energetic rhythms, and has barely written one melody in his entire career. What is his Spider-Man theme? Can you hum his Batman theme beyond the first five notes where the rhythmic variations kick in? You can’t really hum a rhythm without a melody, but, be the rhythms e’er so simple, everybody can hum any number of different Williams melodies. It was happenstance that I watched the John Williams Proms shortly after watching Neil Brand’s BBC documentary on the evolution of film music. As he got to the present day, let’s call it the Age of Zimmer, the all-pervading influence of modern synthesiser and digital programming and recording revealed the paucity of actual music written for actual instruments, as opposed to programming in a swathe of sound; a trick that works well for strings, brass, and percussion, hence the now trademark Hans Zimmer sound, but works less well when applied to woodwind instruments. Either you write a melody for the clarinets or you don’t, but you surely don’t need to throw 40 clarinets at a purely rhythmic ostinato developed from Zimmer at keyboard. And noticeable from early on in the John Williams Proms was woodwind instrument solos, everywhere.

I mentioned austere musicological circles, and I had in mind a particular academic faculty; but also a broader critical tendency. Discovering the Minimalists Glass, Reich, and Adams on BBC Radio 3 in the last five and a half years has been a joy, but has also left me retrospectively incredulous that my music theory education ignored them. I was taught that melody was debunked, Cage and Stockhausen were the heirs to Schoenberg, any other approach was Canute in staves, and that was that. Well, not quite, as it turns out. That tendency, to regard melody as an affront to modernity, is particularised in distaste for Williams’ scores. Jerry Goldsmith gets more love in such circles because he subscribed to their agenda of atonal experimental serialist dissonance. To a point, that is. And the point is interesting. Goldsmith wrote the immensely hummable themes for The Man from UNCLE and Star Trek: The Next Generation (first used for 1979’s The Motion Picture). He wrote a sinuous oboe for Basic Instinct, overpowering choral harmonies for The Omen, and a rambunctious march for Gremlins. But it is because he so often chose to write mood music not hummable melodies; prioritising dissonance over harmony, atmosphere over leitmotifs, and prepared percussion over woodwind solos; that he is esteemed a better composer. One might nearly say a more virtuous composer, because the valorisation is almost more ideological than it is aesthetic. And the result can be seen in a quick, easy, and telling contrast with John Williams.

Let us take some sci-fi classics. Goldsmith scored Planet of the Apes and Alien. Williams scored Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Having heard Williams’ Close Encounters of the Third Kind suite in the National Concert Hall I can attest it is largely dissonant mood music that isn’t particularly rewarding detached from the accompanying Spielbergian imagery. It is therefore probably the closest Williams in large scale came to the more critically valued Goldsmith model. And yet it contains a five note melody that is hummable seconds after you first hear it. If I show you a still of Francois Truffaut at Table Mountain regarding the gargantuan UFO mothership and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, hum those five notes. If I show you a still of Mark Hamill regarding the twin sunsets of Tatooine and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, start humming a swelling string melody. But if I show you a still of Charlton Heston regarding the Statue of Liberty on a beach and ask what music you associate with it, you should hum and haw, and mutter there was some business with horns and drums earlier in the chase sequence. If I show you a still of John Hurt regarding his Chinese dinner with unusual indigestion and ask what music you associate with it, you should be stumped, and mutter there was something slow, eerie, and atonal in space at the beginning.

Goldsmith’s opening titles for Alien are strongly influenced by a piece of music by, I think, Bartok or Shostakovich (I have aggravatingly misplaced my scribbled note). But the ur-text for Williams, especially for Spielbergian japery, is, I would argue, the 4th movement of Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony. And that is crucial. As a child Shostakovich was forbidding and austere to me, whereas Prokofiev was the beloved creator of Peter and the Wolf. (Shostakovich indeed has only truly come to life for me in the last five years.) And while Bartok and Shostakovich have the spiky rhythms and dissonant harmonies that make one modern, Prokofiev, like Gershwin, was held in less regard because of his continued devotion to melody; a mere melodist, not a serious composer. But that is why Peter and the Wolf works, because Prokofiev is effortlessly able to create memorable, instantly hummable melodies for each of the characters in his story. Leitmotifs – much like Williams’ old-fashioned approach to scoring character in action. When you hear Prokofiev’s music you can see in your mind’s eye the action the narrator interjects. And those melodies take on a life of their own beyond the production, in the same way that Williams’ melodies take on a life of their own beyond the cinema screen; appearing as ringtones, programming in classical concert halls, and literally hummed by people to one another at appropriate moments – much as people do their best screeching Psycho strings whenever a situation parodically calls for Bernard Herrmann’s equally screen-transcending moment.

As Neil Brand’s sweeping outline of the evolution of film music had it, everything begins with Korngold; bringing to Hollywood the leitmotifs of Wagnerian opera with an extra lush string-laded Romanticism. Bernard Herrmann introduced serialism, dissonance, and experimentation, but could equally effortlessly pen the frenetic and melodic North by Northwest title music. Jazz and atonal dissonance broadened the spectrum of sonic colours available; together in the case of David Shire’s music for The Taking of Pelham 123 in which the inimitable great rolling funk bass and percussion provided the mother of all propulsive and hummable hooks over which jazz trumpets blared in serialist sequence. And then the synthesiser began to take hold and film music became technological and thoroughly modern. … Until the biggest film of the decade, Star Wars, abjured all this for a return to Korngold. John Williams, then, was a titan, who forcefully and singlehandedly redirected film music back to the melodic orchestral track. A brief side-note: having previously thrown around the word ideological in the placing of Goldsmith over Williams it is meet to note here that Stockhausen himself was a man of self-regarding dogmatism, to the extent that a Hungarian composer stormed out of one of his fabled workshops volubly cursing that Stockhausen’s insistence that any return to melody and harmony was … counter-revolutionary … sounded all too unpleasantly familiar to someone who had lately run from Soviet tanks. But Williams’ counter-revolution would never have succeeded had he not had so many damn good melodies.

John Williams is 85, and still scoring the occasional movie for Spielberg or Lucas (sic). It is important that we treasure him while we can.

October 6, 2015

The Last Hotel

Playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh adds another string to his bow with his first libretto, the opera being scored by his Misterman collaborator Donnacha Dennehy.

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Mikel Murfi’s silent hotel porter cares for a ramshackle two-star hotel. At least it’s ramshackle from what we see in Jamie Vartan’s set, which impressively fills the Belvedere College stage; a canted platform surrounded by the detritus of hotel cleaning and catering, with a series of ad hoc handholds to one side for Murfi to shin up the back wall to his tiny bedroom above the stage. From that perch he notices with horror a bloodstain on the platform and descends to clean it up. This cleaning their room is what holds up the opera’s characters: Soprano Claudia Boyle’s Irishwoman who cheerfully greets an English couple; baritone Robin Adams and his sullen wife, soprano Katherine Manley. Adams helped Boyle at an event; she’d underestimated the amount of wine that would be drunk; so she’s turned to him for darker help…

Walsh’s libretto isn’t quite as outré as his plays, but it’s still recognisably his world. Adams and Manley have been hired to murder Boyle with a gas canister, a plastic bag, and some rope to make it fast. Manley is reluctant, and sings sadly of her husband’s emotional distance from her. Adams, however, extols the joys of hotel food; “People tend to pile the plate, but not me, I respect the buffet”; exults in the extension Boyle’s blood money will finance; “A kitchen of substantial size”; and scolds Murfi over his lack of hygiene in preparing mashed potatoes. Boyle seems to be suicidal because her teenage daughter is moody, or because everyone’s always looking to her for leadership; pretty flimsy reasons for checking out. But in this strangely haunted last hotel, as Manley chillingly predicts, no one can ever leave.

Walsh also directs, which means not only showcasing Murfi’s physical acting and creating an elevator from spotlighting a square light and having Crash Ensemble play muzak, but also, after recent bafflingly squib-free stabbings in A View from the Bridge and By the Bog of Cats, that blood is properly spilt when Adams and Murfi have an altercation. It’s harder to judge Dennehy’s contribution. Nobody’s going to mistake this for a Verdi score, and yet, while plenty atonal, it’s not Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire either. The most unsettling moments, especially the climax, are driven by jagged, frenzied strings that almost combine Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Herrmann’s Psycho. The prominent use of piano, flute, and xylophone gives an unusual texture to the music, while there are definite touches of Philip Glass in the minimalist repetition that Dennehy often uses to underpin arias.

The Last Hotel is a qualified success. It’s certainly an interesting meeting of minds between Enda Walsh and Landmark Productions and the other cultural world of Wide Open Opera.

3/5

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