Talking Movies

May 25, 2018

At least we still have…

The first in an occasional new series in which I try to cheer myself up by remembering what still exists in the world and cannot ever be taken capriciously away.

For starters, there is this delivery of one single word by Gary Oldman in Leon, which still floors me with laughter no matter how many times I see it. The deliberate OTT take, that Oldman warned the sound recordist he was about to do, which of course Luc Besson ended up using in the final cut, launched a thousand GIFs.

And then there is the ‘Ode to Joy’ finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which I am going to experience in person for the first time in the National Concert Hall tonight. I think I can make a good case that this piece of music which permits of no encore, was written by a composer who had completely lost his hearing, requires considerable resources to perform, and triumphantly promotes a spirit of universal brotherhood, is the very pinnacle of Western Civilisation.

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April 26, 2018

Politik: Part VI

It has been, mercifully, over a year since this blog last strayed in the direction of politics; and yet now, very regrettably, it’s happening again.

The Whig Interpretation of History

Herbert Butterfield influentially examined the notion of always progressing from a less progressive past towards a more progressive present and an even more progressive future, usually when the party supported by the historian was in power. That Whig view of Britain inevitably driving towards constitutional monarchy and a democracy liberal enough to sensibly put the Whigs in power carries over in its generalities most everywhere, even as an unspoken assumption. And sometimes you find piquant examples to explode the notion, like this contrast between ringing patriotism and hesitant excuse delivered like Bertie Ahern’s evasions.

“No longer shall our children, like our cattle, be brought up for export” – Taoiseach Eamon DeValera, 1934, speech to Dail Eireann.

“Em, it’s always been the case to buy a house, ah, you need to, eh, raise a deposit. People do it in lots of different ways. Ehh, you know, sometimes peep-people people people go abroad for a period and they get money” – Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, 2018, speech to Dail Eireann.

 

Project 2040

Sitting in cinemas recently and suffering through the unskippable cutesy animation/propaganda reel the Government had spent our money on to publicise its Project 2040, I simmered with multiple feelings of déjà vu. I flashed back to my suffering through a previous cutesy animation explaining why Ruari Quinn’s nonsense ‘reforms’ of the Junior Cert could only be opposed by heartless monsters equally opposed to learning and out of touch with the real world. I flashed back to Bertie Ahern’s National Spatial Strategy in 2002 which would guide the next 20 years of Ireland’s regional development, based on the presence in key towns of … junior ministers. Plus ca change, we have Project 2040 advertisements referring to junior minister Boxer Moran as the King of the Midlands… It’s galling this advertisement is placed in cinemas to catch a captive youth audience and indoctrinate them by repetition of amiable propaganda. It’s galling there’s a spin doctor unit funded by our money working overtime to make Leo Varadkar appear to be a caring competent man of vision with a plan to do the country proud by 2040: he was willing to collapse the government just before Christmas supporting his Justice Minister on what could be described as a Nixonian point of principle – If I see wrongdoing, and I’m told it’s none of my business, that means that it’s none of my business. And it’s galling to know that there isn’t a damn thing we can do to stop Fine Gael using our money to lie to us about their awesomeness, strategically placing advertisements boosting their candidates for the next election. I will believe we have a plan drawn up impartially by experts working from objective data when the government hears it when we do. If we hear a horrified gasp from the back, “But there’s not even a f****** junior minister in Carrick-on-Shannon!”, then we’ll know this is a good plan.

Fair and Balanced, in all things

Sometimes two stories will pop up pages apart in a newspaper and their juxtaposition will beggar belief. I was reading the Irish Independent one day in March and found the NCH regrettably bowing to pressure for some sort of official gender policy to ensure that more music composed by women is performed. It doesn’t need to be good music, mind, just composed by women. Meanwhile a few pages over the BAI cheerfully announced print and broadcast media needed to know that they didn’t have to ask people from both sides to appear on a rigid 50/50 basis. There were other ways to achieve balance in the abortion referendum they suggested, like asking ‘hard questions’ of the Yes campaigners. So, there you have it, quotas are absolutely necessary to ensure fairness, except when they’re not.

He who pays the piper calls the tune or Most news is fake news

The Irish Times recently published their opinion poll announcing 47% of people supported repealing the 8th as a reasonable compromise that reasonable people would reasonably take on abortion to be reasonable. But then, they would say that, wouldn’t they? This is not news, though it may be mistaken by some for it. Opinion polls can cause certain people to act in disastrous ways, cf. the heave against Enda Kenny, and then they create actual news. Opinion polls are not news; they are not reporting on events that have occurred, they are creating headlines to control the news cycle, push an agenda, and make a newspaper seem important. Opinion polls can be manipulated with contemptuous ease by the framing of the questions, as Sir Humphrey memorably demonstrated by getting Bernard to assent and dissent within a minute to the same question. Can you recall any newspaper trumpeting on its front page an opinion poll announcing most people thought said newspaper’s political agenda was nonsense? He who pays the piper calls the tune… Expect the Irish Times to release another opinion poll the week of the referendum announcing Repeal is over the 50% mark, and therefore a majority of reasonable people reasonably agree with reasonable abortion, and anyone who demurs is a misogynist religious bigot with a yen for torturing suffering women. But it won’t be too far over the 50% mark, because they wouldn’t want to depress the Yes turnout by suggesting it was a foregone conclusion…

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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