Talking Movies

September 9, 2018

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part IX

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

“No, that doesn’t track”

We now know Wes Anderson’s next film will be live-action and set in post-WWII France, immediately post-war apparently. So perhaps taking cues from Les Enfants de Paradis, Jean Cocteau and Jour de Fete rather than the 50s of Clouzot, Bresson and early New Wave. Insofar as Wes Anderson takes cues from anyone… Any excitement I might have that he’s tackling a specific culture and time is tempered by the knowledge that it will be put thru the wringer until it comes out a Wes Anderson movie. A topic of conversation arises with Paul Fennessy every time there’s a new Wes Anderson – just how much of a straitjacket his trademarks have become. One of our favourite flights of fancy finds Wes and Jason Schwartzman or Roman Coppola or Owen Wilson seated at a diner in Austin; furiously scribbling dialogue and scene ideas in yellow legal pads, and beaming at each other happily, until a shadow crosses Wes’ face, and he asks in horror and disappointment, “But wait, can we do that as a tracking shot or a series of whip-pans?” Because if not, well, there’s no place for it in the cathedral of conventions that Wes Anderson has imprisoned himself within.

Photo: Matt Kennedy

“I can’t help if it I’m popular”

Well now, that didn’t take long. Less than a month after I derided it here, the Oscars abruptly threw engines into full reverse on their wonderfully patronising idea of giving out a new token Oscar for Best ‘Popular’ Movie. It was a bold move to keep the plebeians happy and watching the bloated ceremony honouring films nobody saw. I would wager cold hard cash the decision to ‘suspend’ the new award followed almost instantly on Chadwick Boseman scotching the notion he would be happy to see Black Panther dismissed with a token gong so transparently created merely to commend his all-conquering movie without commending it. He wanted, quite rightly, to be nominated, and seriously, for the Best Picture Oscar; like previous Oscar-winning crowd pleasers The Sting, Forrest Gump, and Rocky. Right now Black Panther has made 700,059,566 dollars at the North American Box Office.  Let us be cruel and note that the combined totals of every Best Picture Oscar winner this decade; The King’s Speech (135,453,143), The Artist (44,671,682), Argo (136,025,503), 12 Years a Slave (56,671,993), Birdman (42,340,598), Spotlight (45,055,776), Moonlight (27,854,932), The Shape of Water (63,859,435); come to just 551,933,062 dollars. That is why fewer and fewer people watch the obscurantist Oscars.

The means defeat the ends

Watching Ken Burns’ incredible documentary The Vietnam War last year it was hard not to think that when someone proclaims ‘the ends justify the means’ any means thus justified actually work against the proclaimed ends.  The brutal means employed in Vietnam actually strengthened the Vietcong and thus worked against the ends of keeping South Vietnam out of their hands.  And, in a disconcerting swoop to utter banality, the shamelessness of the cash-grab of The Hobbit trilogy meant grabbing shamefully little cash. Despite featuring the same writing/producing staff as the Lord of the Rings , (with the regrettable addition of Guillermo Del Toro), Peter Jackson as director, and Andrew Lesnie as cinematographer, the first two Hobbit films (I’ve avoided the last) were nothing like it. They were shot like Janusz Kaminski had left the supernova on in the soundstage, and the greenscreen room, and the digital FX studio, bedevilled by awful acting, unintentionally funny make-up and CGI make-up work, and muddled in nearly every imaginable respect of scripting and directing, with even promising sequences descending into over the top gibberish repeatedly, and this is before we even gripe that the slim volume of Tolkien being made into three films was, as Bilbo once said, like butter spread over too much bread. They were entirely lacking the magic of the Lord of the Rings mostly because of a bewildering lack of reality. Well, not that bewildering after all. The reason that unwelcome CGI was so omnipresent was because the forced perspective practical trickery of set design used to such great effect in the Lord of the Rings would not work for 3-D. So Ian McKellen got to interact with, essentially, named coconuts on sticks, until he started crying; and wailing ‘This is not why I became an actor’. Why abandon forced perspective for 3-D? Because they had to be in 3-D to make as much money as possible! But, because this made them look so awful, on top of the sheer greed of making a trilogy from a small book, people like me, who saw every Lord of the Rings film in the cinema at least twice, and then bought them on home release, in both versions, didn’t go to the cinema to suffer this misbegotten trilogy. Indeed after slogging to the end of the DVD of the second Hobbit film, with its inane love triangle and CGI Smaug whose scale was never clear during his scenes with Bilbo, and which ended with a slap in the face to the audience by leaving his attack till the next movie, I vowed never to watch the third.  And it seems many people felt as I did. The Hobbit’s takings were 1,000m, 958m, and 956m. As opposed to the Lord of the Rings’s takings of 871.5m, 926m, and 1,100m. Note how more people flocked to the Lord of the Rings film by film, while people backed away from The Hobbit. Note also that The Hobbit’s numbers are swelled by inflated 3-D ticket prices, and a decade of inflation. Well, that backfired spectacularly. The ends (making mucho money) justified the means (making awful-looking films, and too many of them, badly). And, the ends, of making mucho money, were defeated by the means employed, an unexpected trilogy of CGI in 3-D.

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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.

December 13, 2015

Speed-reading towards illiteracy

Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller gave an interview recently to BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme, which poses some intriguing questions about how new cinemagoers experience the medium.

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Miller cited Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By as a seminal text; the entire language of cinema was defined pre-sound. Miller was intrigued by the notion that there was a pure film language not reliant on the spoken word, and he decided to tell stories through that language; going so far as to describe Mad Max: Fury Road as a silent movie with sound – what matters is that one shot leads into the next shot to a purpose. As Miller notes this kind of cine-literacy is an acquired language, and a recent one; but it is one that can be mastered, in all cultures, before we’ve got a handle on actual literacy. But it’s his remark that we’re now all speed-reading stories (backed up by some statistics), that is a lit match tossed into a powder keg… Mad Max 2 had 1,200 shots, Mad Max: Fury Road had 2,900 shots, while Miller was told Jurassic Park had 950 shots, and Jurassic World by his estimation had more than triple that.

If we’re speed-reading stories, are we speed-reading into illiteracy? Back in 1997 Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese bemoaned the cine-illiteracy of young audiences:

ALLEN: I was talking to some college kids the other day, and they were bright kids who were going to a good college, and they had no idea about great directors. These bright college kids have no knowledge whatsoever of Truffaut’s films or Fellini’s films. And yet the universities do encourage them to read Mark Twain and Flaubert and Melville. … So many film students are film illiterate. They’re not unsophisticated. They probably know more about steadicams and special effects than the average audience. The guy who drives your cab will use those terms when talking about a film, but they’re illiterate in terms of —

SCORSESE: The lineage.

ALLEN: They’ve never seen any of these films. I think they have a different attention span. [My italics]

I admit my culpability in having that different attention span Woody Allen fretted over. I saw Scream as a teenager and was blown away by it. When I subsequently saw Hallowe’en I was inevitably bored by its slow pacing compared to its younger rival. I knew that without Hallowe’en there would be no Scream, I understood the lineage, I respected the execution, but I couldn’t stop myself wishing Carpenter would hustle things along a bit. As a result I’ve never re-watched Hallowe’en, while Scream remains one of my favourite and oft re-watched films. In 1997 Scorsese bemoaned his inability to be influenced by younger film-makers: “The young people today are the 21st century. I’m 20th century, I can’t help it. It’s hard to let new stuff in.” And there’s an equal generational problem in film criticism. The New Hollywood has been so valorised by audience that Bret Easton Ellis and Quentin Tarantino bemoan the 1980s to each other as the nadir of American movies. Whereas Back to the Future Day demonstrated the impact that decade’s movies had on their audience.

Miller extols the virtues of Buster Keaton and the montage technique of Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike, but will the youngsters who lapped up Mad Max: Fury Road delve back into cinema history to watch the movies that inspired Miller’s visual storytelling? No. If you are used to 2,900 shots a movie something that’s less than a third of that will bore you senseless. What was already a problem in 1997 is only going to get worse. ‘Jurassic World is a mere inept retread of Jurassic Park’ howl we who saw the original in the cinema. But, like a dead owl, the kids going to Jurassic World don’t give a hoot. They probably haven’t watched Jurassic Park all the way through because they find it unbearably slow-moving. This might explain the Russos’ baffling belief that the execrable Captain America 2 deserved an Oscar for casting Robert Redford and throwing 1970s paranoia shapes.

1970s paranoia was an organic cinematic response to the mood engendered by Watergate and Vietnam, and, like all movements that begin organically, when it became a commercial affectation it died a horrible death. The idea that Captain America 2 in rehashing a trope that was valid and original 40 years ago somehow itself becomes pertinent and (coughs in disbelief) original is as absurd as Gareth Edwards believing that his 2014 Godzilla is a good parallel for the trauma of Fukushima. If Sion Sono’s 2011 Himizu can react almost instantaneously to Fukushima in a valid and original cinematic fashion what makes Edwards think that Hollywood rehashing its interpretation of a 60 year old Japanese response to an entirely different national trauma is anything but a crass attempt to attach spurious relevance (via some extremely patronising cultural voiceover work) to the commercial imperative of rebooting a dormant franchise. But here’s the kicker – it doesn’t matter. None of the fulminations of film-makers or critics or punters of a certain age matter. My complaint that Jurassic World is not as good as Back to the Future doesn’t matter. Logic doesn’t even matter. The 12 year olds who go to Captain America 2 and Godzilla will likely never watch All The President’s Men or The Parallax View or Gojira because they’re too slow-moving and boring. 2045 will see Jurassic World as fondly remembered as Back to the Future is now, and all us haters will be so many Bret Eastons moaning that the 2010s were the nadir of American movies.

Perhaps we’re not speed-reading into illiteracy so much as into an eternal kinetic present. The past is a foreign country, they edit films boringly there.

November 20, 2014

Carte Noire IFI French Film Festival: 10 Films

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Les Combattants

Thursday 20th 18.30

Teenager Arnaud (Kevin Azais) meets surly Madeleine (Adele Haenel) during his summer holidays. His summer job of building garden sheds soon takes a back seat to falling in with her strange ambition to join a elite commando unit, as director Thomas Cailley mashes up the unlikely genre combination of rom-com, teen movie, and survivalist thriller.

The Blue Room

Friday 21st 19.15

Monday 24th 18.30

Mathieu Amalric directs himself as Julien in an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel co-written with his co-star Stephanie Cleau. A taut 76 minutes sees Julien’s affair with Esther (Cleau) lead to his arrest, and Amalric will do a Q&A after the Friday screening of his spare, stylish and mysterious noir.

Two in the Wave

Friday 21st 20.30

Emmanuel Laurent and Antoine de Baecque direct this feature documentary exploring the fractured friendship of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. They meet in 1950, work together in Cahiers du Cinema, collaborate on A Bout de Souffle, and part in 1968 over the necessity of engage: almost a politico-cultural history of the 5th Republic?

Mississippi Mermaid

Saturday 22nd 13.30

Francois Truffaut directs Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Denueve in a 1969 film that met a hostile reaction. Set on Reunion Island, the romantic thriller of the plot begins to take a back seat to Truffaut’s fascination with shooting Belmondo with the male gaze usually reserved for women, before latterly haring off in even stranger directions…

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Bird People

Saturday 22nd 18.15

Director Pascale Ferran will do a Q&A after the screening of a film that mixes the highly unusual influences of Peter Pan and The Host. Josh Charles stars as an American businessman who encounters chambermaid Anais Demoustier at Roissy Airport’s Hilton. Their unexpected connection inspires two chapters: one avowedly socially realistic, the other gleefully fantastical.

Love is the Perfect Crime

Saturday 22nd 21.00

College professor and renowned lecher Marc (Mathieu Amalric) lives with his sister Marianne (Karin Viard) next to his striking university in Lausanne. When his most recent student conquest disappears her mother Anna (Maiwenn) arrives to find her. Amalric will do a Q&A about the Brothers Larrieu unsettling comedy-thriller of amnesia and romance.

Two or Three Things I Know About Her

Sunday 23rd 16.30

Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 spectacle sees actors and actresses, including Marina Vlady, act with his direction echoing in their earpieces while he comments in voiceover on the scenes he’s shooting, and also on what he’s been reading, thinking, and feeling generally… So, a barmier(!) companion piece to Belle de Jour.

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Diplomacy

Sunday 23rd 20.15

Director Volker Schlondorff oversees a veritable acting duel between A Prophet’s Niels Arestrup and Andre Dussollier in this adaptation of Cyril Gely’s play. General von Choltitz (Arestrup) has mined Paris at Hitler’s orders, and Swedish Consul General Nordling (Dussollier) secretly tries to dissuade him from carrying out his diabolical orders to wantonly destroy France’s cultural heritage.

The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles

Saturday 29th 18.00

Director Cecile Telerman will do a Q&A about her serious comedy starring Emanuelle Beart as a spoilt Parisian, Iris. Iris lives on her husband’s fortune, but her penurious sister Josephine (Un Secret’s Julie Depardieu) has been abandoned for crocodiles by her husband; to her woes are added writing Iris’ touted novel.

Hiroshima mon amour

Sunday 30th 16.00

Before Marienbad there was Hiroshima mon amour, in which Alain Resnais left documentaries behind for this 1959 attempt to speculate on the fate of Hiroshima. Following after Night and Fog he still incorporated documentary footage but asked novelist Marguerite Duras to provide him with a story exploring despair and the impossibility of knowing apocalypse.

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