Talking Movies

June 10, 2018

They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people

The IFI presents a Killer Couples season for the month of June. Extremely notable by its absence is Bonnie & Clyde, which one would have thought essential. In its place there is a grab-bag of noirs, B-movies, black comedies, latter-day B-movies, and art-house drama, ranging from the 1940s to the 1990s, and Hollywood to New Zealand via the Nouvelle Vague.

Double Indemnity

Wednesday 6th June 18:20

Neil Brand claims for Miklos Rozsa’s opening chords the origin of the classic uneasy dissonance of high film noir music. One might note that the writing credits are equally seminal: the knowing dialogue of Raymond Chandler, the cynical plotting of James M Cain, and the chilly irony of director Billy Wilder. Nice guy Fred MacMurray is cast wonderfully against type as an insurance salesman who begins an affair with the wife of a client, Barbara Stanwyck’s definitive femme fatale.

Compulsion

Sunday 10th June 15:45

Orson Welles cameos as a thinly disguised Clarence Darrow pleading, at some length, for mercy for the upstanding rich young psychopaths he’s defending (Braford Dillman and Dean Stockwell). Based on the same infamous Leopold & Loeb murder case of 1924 that inspired Hitchcock’s Rope, director Richard Fleischer, in less fantastical territory than usual for him, chillingly depicts the students outwitting their elders with Nietzschean aphorisms before their abrogation of morality comes a cropper over a (providentially?) misplaced pair of glasses.

The Getaway

Wednesday 13th June 18:20

Cool character Steve McQueen is a hardened criminal in hard-man director Sam Peckinpah’s tough-minded version of hard-boiled novelist Jim Thompson’s brutal pulp novel, adapted by the thinking man’s hard man auteur Walter Hill. Yeah, there was a lot of competing machismo on the development and production of this 1972 movie. Poor Love Story star Ali McGraw got dog’s abuse for her poor acting from a perpetually drunk Peckinpah even as smitten co-star McQueen began a scandalous affair with her.

 

Ascenseur pour l’echafaud

Sunday 17th June 15:30

Louis Malle somehow convinced jazz great Miles Davis to simply improvise a score while watching footage of his 1957 directorial debut. Not technically a Nouvelle Vague film but it seems churlish to deny Malle’s kinship with them on account of two years’ chronology. Jeanne Moreau enigmatically wanders the streets of Paris at night waiting for her lover (Maurice Ronet), after their perfect murder of her husband goes predictably sideways, while a sub-plot sees two younger lovers cause chaos.

 

Pretty Poison

Wednesday 20th June 18:30

Psycho star Anthony Perkins is released from a mental institution under strict conditions but immediately runs into the murderous arms of manipulative teenager Tuesday Weld in this bizarre black comedy. A haze of insane conspiracies, mayhem, and bloodshed ensue, with an RD Laing zeitgeist-surfing vibe that the sane people are the ones in the asylum – the truly crazy people are the ones running around outside in the dramatically disintegrating America of 1968. Who wouldn’t prefer being safely locked up?

 

The Honeymoon Killers

Saturday 23rd June 15:30

French Connection and Jesus of Nazareth actor Tony Lo Bianco stars in Leonard Kastle’s blackly comic thriller as a con man who offers love and marriage to lonely women via lonely hearts newspaper classifieds but has something very different in mind, aided and abetted by his partner Shirley Stoler. A few scenes directed by Martin Scorsese still remain in the picture; astonishingly the exuberant motor-mouth was fired after 4 days because he was working too … slowly. Yep.

 

Natural Born Killers

Sunday 24th June 15:30

I think the IFI rather enjoys showing Oliver Stone’s 1994 throw-every-film-format-and-editing-style-there-is-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks media satire/fiasco just to remind everyone how they were prevented from doing so by the boo-hiss censor back in 1994. Now showing in 35mm, this may be your last chance to enjoy this as an original piece of madness before Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind is finally released (soon, allegedly) and we can see the footage that Stone was shown privately pre-JFK and NBK

Gun Crazy

Thursday 28th June 18:30

Rope star John Dall is a naive young man who meets and marries (unhinged) carnival sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr (Irish actress Peggy Cummins) only to fall into a world of trouble due to her criminal proclivities. Dalton Trumbo co-wrote this while blacklisted, and there is some showy single-take and fixed-position direction by Joseph Lewis. Recent contributor hereabouts Friedrich Bagel somehow fell asleep during a screen 2 showing of this B-movie classic in the IFI some years ago, for shame!

Heavenly Creatures

Saturday 30th June 18:20

Before the unexpected transition to epic fantasy with The Lord of the Rings and after Meet the Freebles was Peter Jackson’s equally unexpected gothic drama based on a real life cause celebre in 1950s New Zealand. Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey both made their impressive screen debuts as the teenagers whose obsessive bond and shared fantasy world led to a very savage murder in the here and now. Legendary Weta was formed by Jackson to create that fantasy world.

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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