Talking Movies

September 4, 2020

Any Other Business: Part LIX

As the title suggests, so forth.

A Blacklist Darkly

Well, that was … unexpected. The unintentional season 7 finale of The Black List aired on Sky One last week. And it was half-live action, half-animated. Not at all the expensive rotoscoping over live action of A Scanner Darkly, but clearly that was at the back of someone’s mind as they tried to figure out how to finish the story with the remaining dialogue being phoned in by the actors, and a limited budget to render them and their environments accurately. Leading to such wonderful innovations as little title cards telling us the narrative and emotional import of the facial expressions of the animated characters when there was no time or money to actually make the avatars tell the story that way. One hopes that this approach is not going to catch on…

Golfgate, moral hysteria, and No Deal Brexit

Imagine a world where nobody in the media was allowed to use Twitter or report on Twitter. Imagine a world where government did not respond clumsily and frantically to frenzies whipped up by the tiny fraction of very loud people who use Twitter. In this world the Cork Examiner might still have taken out Dara Calleary, a target that remains highly suspicious, but not Phil Hogan. Instead the Twitter-led moral hysteria brigade have excelled themselves, and Phil Hogan is gone. Now nobody should cry over the end of Phil Hogan’s political career. The man was a boor of long standing and his disastrous quango Irish Water will outlive him. But to go now. For attending a dinner that was perfectly legal. As the Atlantic reported yesterday the rich in America are saving oodles of money because they have nowhere to go right now. If functions which separate people into groups of less than 50 and give them different exits, entrances, and toilets, are to be verboten because somebody might go mental on Twitter – who benefits? The hotels that cease to host such functions and shut down? The staff who cease to work such functions and go home? This is the self-defeating performance of austerity in another guise: where a billionaire decides not to buy a new yacht for fear of it being seen in a poor light, and a number of yacht-builders go on the dole because of the optics. So… less than 6 weeks to go until a deal needs to be ready to present to a top level EU gathering to approve Brexit with an actual trade deal. And the EU has no Trade Commissioner. And whoever comes in, with less than 6 weeks to appoint someone, will be totally clueless as to their brief as opposed to being on top of it from being there all thru the Brexit farrago. Good Job Everyone!!! A satisfying bout of righteous crucifixion during the silly season, and, well, come January, when we will be battling the flu season, the seasonal spike in patients on trolleys in hospitals, a surge in coronavirus as we all stay indoors without any preparation for proper ventilation, and probably another total lockdown we look forward to the final kibosh: 3 weeks of empty shelves, and an eternity of higher prices thereafter, as No Deal Brexit arrives like a tonne of bricks and all our imports from England become hugely expensive, and all our supplies perforce must come thru France at greater uncertainty and therefore a new model of supply chain management involving the resurrection of warehouses which don’t come for free, we can all content ourselves with the knowledge that the Bad Man Was Made Quit and that makes it all okay.

You really mean that this Spotify list is so highly classified you damn people would kill to keep it a government secret?!

Spotify these 60 songs for a 70s mood

Edwin Starr – War // Talking Heads – Life During Wartime // Blue Oyster Cult – Don’t Fear the Reaper // David Bowie – Station to Station // David Shire – The Taking of Pelham 123 theme // Led Zeppelin – Kashmir // Lou Reed – Sweet Jane live // Boston – More Than a Feeling // Iggy Pop – The Passenger // Bob Dylan – One More Cup of Coffee Before I Go // Creedence Clearwater Revival – Who’ll Stop the Rain // The Beatles – Across the Universe // Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water // Arvo Part – Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten // The Doors – Hyacinth House // Bob Dylan – Tangled Up in Blue // Blondie – One Way or Another // Roxy Music – Love is the Drug // Talking Heads – Psycho Killer // Creedence Clearwater Revival – Up Around the Bend // The Doors – LA Woman // Lynyrd Skynyrd – Freebird // ABBA – Voulez-Vous // David Bowie – Starman // T-Rex – Children of the Revolution // Kansas – Carry On My Wayward Son // Alice Cooper – School’s Out // Blondie – Heart of Glass // Stevie Wonder – Superstition // The Rolling Stones –Brown Sugar // The Clash – London Calling // Pink Floyd – Us and Them // Led Zeppelin – The Rain Song // Creedence Clearwater Revival – Have You Ever Seen the Rain // Bob Dylan – Shelter from the Storm // John Lennon – Imagine // Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody // The Doors – Love Her Madly // ABBA – S.O.S. // Blondie – Call Me // The Kinks – Lola // The Buzzcocks – Ever Fallen in Love // The Who – Won’t Get Fooled Again // John Williams – Jaws theme // David Bowie – Life on Mars // Van Morrison – Moondance // The Band – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down // Lou Reed – Satellite of Love // John Williams – Superman march // David Bowie – D.J. // Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised // Lou Reed – Walk on the Wild Side // Talking Heads – Memories Can’t Wait // David Shire – All the President’s Men finale // Glen Campbell – Rhinestone Cowboy // ELO – Mr Blue Sky // John Williams – Star Wars march // Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven // The Knack – My Sharona // The Sex Pistols – Pretty Vacant // ABBA – Waterloo

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.

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