Talking Movies

May 31, 2018

Re-appraisers of the Lost Archives

It has been an odd experience this past six weeks trawling through the pre-Talking Movies archives, finding reviews of films I haven’t seen or even thought about in a decade.

It’s startling that of the 17 films I’ve re-posted the now deleted Dublinks.com reviews to Talking Movies, I’ve only watched 2 of them again since the press screening. And one of them was 10,000 BC. Which was kind of research for my 2010 Dramsoc one-act play Roland Emmerich Movie, but mostly just to share its delirious nonsensicality with friends. A DVD extra that nearly killed us all revealed Erich von Daniken as an official consultant. Erich von Daniken, who a court-appointed psychologist decades ago concluded ‘a pathological liar’ whose book Chariots of the Gods was ‘a marvel of nonsense’, was telling Roland Emmerich what was what on science and history. The other film was a recent re-watch – again in the cinema! There Will Be Blood appealed to me more second time round, and on a battered 35mm print it seemed far older than its actual vintage, which perhaps added to its mood. But, while I found more nuance in Day-Lewis’ turn this time round, I still don’t think the film deserves nearly as much adulation it receives. The only thing I would change about my sceptical review is noting how Greenwood’s score echoes the frenzied 2nd movement of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony; which allegedly represents the demonic energy of Stalin – not a bad counterpoint when you realise Plainview is Capitalism made flesh. And 10,000 BC, likewise, I wouldn’t change a thing. I would now claim that, like the first Velvet Underground album, it was seen by few people, but everybody who did see it went on to write a trashy screenplay in Starbucks. Per my own words; “It’s less a film and more of an illustrated guide on how to write a really cheesy, dumb blockbuster. This is a very bad film indeed but it’s gloriously ludicrous. I haven’t enjoyed myself this much watching rubbish in quite some time”; I certainly set to screenwriting after it.

There are several reasons I haven’t re-watched 15 of these films. I saw so very many films for reviewing purposes in 2007 and 2008 that I had little desire to revisit any of them, indeed I had a strong desire to explore older, foreign films as an antidote to the industrial parade of clichés emanating from the Hollywood dream factory. I then took a break from cinema for most of 2009, to the displeasure of one, which left me hungry to discover as many new films as possible rather than obsessively re-watch familiar ones. It was the same spirit that simultaneously motivated me to read The Crack-Up, This Side of Paradise and Tender is the Night in quick succession rather than simply continuing to re-read an almost memorised Gatsby. I then moved on to wanting to round out certain directorial oeuvres. This impulse reached its zenith in 2012 when I substantially completed Woody Allen and made decent progress on Welles and Malle. Life then got in the way of such plans. That’s the macro perspective, but on a micro level I would only have wanted to revisit Stop Loss, Street Kings, Son of Rambow, Juno, and maybe Be Kind Rewind. Keanu’s disappearance from multiplexes put Street Kings out of my mind, Stop Loss disappeared from public view after the cinema, Son of Rambow was charming but I remembered the jokes too well, Juno suffered my increasing disenchantment with Jason Reitman, and Be Kind Rewind I remembered as being just about good – and it should never be a priority to knowingly watch bad movies when you could watch good movies. Talking of which… 27 Dresses, The Accidental Husband, and Fool’s Gold are high in the rogue’s gallery of why I hate rom-coms, Meet the Spartans is only of interest (and barely at that) as a time-capsule of internet memes c.2007, Sweeney Todd and The Cottage were unpleasant agonies to watch even once, Shine A Light verily bored me into a condition of coma, and Speed Racer, Jumper, and The Edge of Love were hard slogs by dint of dullness. Who would willingly re-watch any of them?

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February 24, 2018

A Bluffer’s Guide to Phantom Thread

Life is too short to watch the films nominated for the Oscars, but how else can one join in on conversations about the films nominated for the Oscars? Fear not, for here is your manual for being in the know.

Not having seen Phantom Thread should not stop you indulging in in-jokes about it, or making obscure references to scenes to cut out from the chatter people who also haven’t seen it, but haven’t read this piece either. There are three obscure things you simply must do. You must say, “Ah Fitzrovia, all shot on location there, as you recognised I’m sure” and then sigh wistfully, leaving your listeners discomfited at their lack of Old London chic. You must praise Brian Gleeson’s upper-crust English accent, and compare it to Day-Lewis’ cut-glass accent in 1985’s A Room with a View. You must impress upon people the extravagance of Paul Thomas Anderson hiring a 1950s red London double-decker bus for an entire day, only to drive it past a window, out of focus in the background of a shot, for two seconds; and then crush them by saying “Ah, yes, but it is indispensable. Phantom Thread isn’t just set in the 1950s, in that scene for those seconds it embodies the 1950s.”

Now then, quotable quotes; some of which are damned hard to work naturally into a conversation unless you find yourself in a kitchen or eating breakfast. If you do find yourself near some food, clatter the cutlery about, and make a noisy show of scraping your knife on toast; and then mutter “Entirely too much activity at breakfast” or “It’s like you rode a horse across the room” with a knowing wink. To completely dispel any doubt that you have no idea what you’re actually referencing then deadpan very seriously, “If his breakfast gets upset he finds it very hard to recover for the rest of the day.” To chide someone, shush them away, and then bark “The tea is going out, but the interruption is staying right here with me”. To exit in high dudgeon, say “There is an air of quiet death about this house, and I do not like how it smells”. If all this is too much to remember you could just offer to cook someone your famous mushroom omelette and then degenerate into helpless laughter.

So far so good, but you can layer your faux familiarity further. You should comment loudly on the omnipresence of Jonny Greenwood’s score and say that it puts one in mind of Shostakovich, but then of course the driving strings of Plainview’s theme in There Will Be Blood owed much to the 2nd movement of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, allegedly depicting Stalin’s ruthless energy. And then add in that a new note struck by Greenwood this time was the gorgeous piano cues, reminiscent of Debussy at his most gorgeous and minimal. As a feint you can feign ignorance if you think people are getting suspicious, note that you don’t fully (feign ignorance, never admit to ignorance) understand the purpose of the Clockwork Orange reference when Daniel Day-Lewis drives in the countryside at night. But then trump these sceptics by saying that this move’s ‘milkshake scene’ is surely the ‘asparagus scene’. Compare it to Pinter, compare it to Mamet, compare it to Le Carre as a joke because Day-Lewis raves about spies, and then seem to struggle to remember the words “You know that I like my asparagus cooked in butter and salt, yet you have cooked it in oil. Were the circumstances different I might be able to pretend to like it, but as they are I’m simply admiring my own gallantry for eating it in the way you prepared it.”

Now you are in the know. Go forth and bluster.

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.

November 30, 2017

ADIFF 2018: Animated and Silent Cinema

The Audi Dublin International Film Festival has announced the Irish premiere of Nora Twomey’s animated feature film, The Breadwinner, and the launch of the Silent Cinema programme for the 2018 festival.

The Breadwinner, directed by Nora Twomey and executive-produced by Angelina Jolie, will make its Irish premiere at ADIFF 2018. Co-produced by the award-winning Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, The Song Of The Sea), and based on Deborah Ellis’ acclaimed novel, The Breadwinner tells the extraordinary story of an 11-year-old Afghan girl Parvana, born into an ever-changing world of conflict and Taliban oppression, who must disguise herself as a boy to become her family’s sole breadwinner.

On behalf of everyone who worked on The Breadwinner, I am delighted that the film will have its Irish premiere at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival,” said Kilkenny-based director Twomey. “The festival has a long history of presenting  exciting films from across the globe and we are all so proud to be part of it this February.”

With a team of over 200 animators, artists and actors from around the world, Twomey created an innovative mix of 2-D animation with acrylic and digitally painted environments, as well as digital paper cut–out segments, all blended into a captivating story about family, friendship, and imagination. The film is a co-production with Aircraft Pictures (Canada), Melusine Productions (Luxembourg), and Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon.

The Irish premiere of The Breadwinner will take place on February 22nd, 2018 ,at Cineworld Dublin, on Parnell Street.

Ticket for The Breadwinner are on sale here.

ADIFF,  in association with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, also announced screenings of the silent films, Behind the Door (accompanied by musical director Stephen Horne on the piano) and The Italian Straw Hat (accompanied by live quartet) as part of 2018’s Silent Cinema programme. Never intended to be watched in actual silence, these films were always accompanied by carefully curated musical scores, or in the case of the young Shostakovich improvised madness on the piano, allowing for musically cued visual storytelling. ADIFF presents these films to the public as a culturally valuable historical record: “Silent films are a rare art form that have influenced generations of filmmakers and continue to inspire audiences almost a century after they were made,” said ADIFF Director Grainne Humphreys, “We are thrilled to be sharing these gems from the early days of cinema with audiences for the 2018 Festival.

Tickets are available at http://www.diff.ie/festival

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