Talking Movies

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.

September 13, 2017

IFI Open Day 2017

The IFI is holding its annual Open Day on Saturday September 16th with a line-up of free movies running from 1pm to 11pm. As well as free movies, the customary barbecue in the courtyard and special discount on annual IFI membership, there are a number of tours and a jazz brunch in the cafe bar.

 

In addition to the one preview, handful of old favourites, and several sheer oddities, there are chances to lift the curtain and see the wizard; with talks from the IFI Archive staff and tours of the Projection Booth. The ‘Ask an Archivist’ desk in the foyer will give visitors the opportunity to learn about different film stocks, preservation, restoration, digitisation, and even view and handle film. But projection tours to go behind the little window of flickering light, and check out the busy working of the specialised department; handling anything from digital, to 16mm and 35mm, up to 70mm – the IFI being the only cinema in the country that can run 70mm reels; are sadly sold out. As always IFI Membership will be available at a discounted rate for the Open Day and there’s a BBQ on the terrace from 16.00 onwards. And this year Air France are running a competition for a pair of return flights to Paris so that one might finally fulfil that nagging desire to run thru the Louvre as if in a nouvelle vague picture.

But what are the free movies? Well, here is a guide to the 12 films being shown in Temple Bar.

Film 1

The Mighty Ducks (13.00)
It’s 25 years since the IFI opened its door in Temple Bar, and there is one notable film also turning 25 this year that has been much discussed this summer. But enough about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me… Emilio Estevez is Gordon Bombay, a cut-throat lawyer sentenced to community service after a DUI, who coaches an unruly youth ice-hockey team with ruthlessness to earn redemption.

The Big Sleep (13.15)
A high water-mark of film noir, The Big Sleep was adapted by William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett from the first of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled novels about PI, and all-round shop-soiled Galahad, Philip Marlowe. The great Howard Hawks directs Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in a murky tangle of shady LA characters, innuendo laden dialogue, literate zingers, and baffling plotting. Just don’t ask who killed the chauffeur.

Speedy (13.30)
Harold Lloyd’s final silent film from 1928 sees his customary ‘glasses’ character this time appearing as a baseball-obsessed New Yorker determined to save the city’s last horse-drawn streetcar, just as another expression of a fine, noble, and disinterested nature, and also to impress the girl whose grandfather owns it. 86 minutes of rapid-fire sight gags and elaborate comedy set-ups ensue, and a cameo from Babe Ruth to boot.

Film 2

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (15.10)

Robert Wise, director of The Sound of Music, was the unlikely figure picked to lead the crew of the starship Enterprise into the new frontier of cinema. 132 minutes, a regrettable portion of which is lovingly sustained shots of the post-Star Wars VFX accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s new Trek theme, sees Kirk, Spock, Bones, et al investigate a mysterious alien entity posing a threat.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (15.30)
Steve Martin continued his fruitful collaboration with director Carl Reiner after The Jerk with this homage to 1940s film noir. While Woody Allen was busy inserting Len Zelig into world events, Reiner and Martin wrote a zany plot and built a farcical amount of sets in order to have Martin interact with old footage of Humphrey Bogart, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, and many more.

Intermission (15.40)
Cillian Murphy woos Kelly MacDonald, Colin Farrell is obsessed with woks, bus-driver Brían F. O’Byrne is aggrieved at a kid, David Wilmot is being unnerved by Deirdre O’Kane’s lust, and vainglorious Garda Colm Meaney is being filmed by documentarians. The blackly comic intersections of Mark O’Rowe’s screenplay no longer seem as impressive as they initially did back in 2003 when everyone was talking about brown sauce in tea.

MILLER’S CROSSING, Albert Finney, Gabriel Byrne, 1990. TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All Rights Reserved.

Film 3

Sorcerer (17.30)
William Friedkin decided, for reasons passing understanding, to use his post-French Connection and Exorcist clout to remake Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 suspense classic The Wages of Fear. Roy Scheider stars in a tale of men driving trucks with highly unstable nitroglycerine over rickety bridges on a mission to extinguish an oil well blaze. This is remembered now for Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ account of its disastrous production and reception.

Miller’s Crossing (18.00)
The Coen Brothers stepped up their ambitions from indie noir and screwball comedy with this expansive Prohibition-era gangster film. Gabriel Byrne is right-hand man to Albert Finney’s mob boss. When Byrne is banished, over John Turturro’s bookie and Marcia Gay Harden’s moll, it begins a deadly game of cat and mouse between rival gangs; featuring much double-crossing, hard-boiled badinage, and a spectacularly OTT use of ‘Danny Boy’.

Delicatessen (18.10)
Amelie creator Jean-Pierre Jeunet and his one-time directing partner Marc Caro’s 1991 debut is a queasily slapstick spin on Sweeney Todd. Clapet is a landlord in an apartment building in post-apocalyptic France, who controls his tenants’ food supply via his butcher’s shop; prime cuts from the men he hires. Louison (Dominique Pinon) fills the regular vacancy, but his love for Clapet’s daughter complicates matters in this queasy comedy.

Film 4

Weirdos (20.00)

In 1976 Nova Scotia fifteen-year-old Kit and his girlfriend Alice run away from home in order to reunite with his estranged mother (Molly Parker), while the USA bombastically celebrates its bicentennial. Accompanied by Kit’s imaginary version of Andy Warhol, the two undertake a road trip during which they confront the difficulties they face in their teenage romance. Quirky and comedic, Bruce McDonald’s film features beautifully photographed Canadian landscapes.

??? (20.20)

The audience choice is yet to be announced but voting for the shortlist of 10 drawn up by IFI staff has closed. Here’s hoping for Hunt for the Wilderpeople! Although as that screened in preview at last year’s Open Day having it again as a returning favourite might be pushing it. Past winners include SubmarineGood Vibrations, Short Term 12, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

The Cohens and Kellys (20.30)

A genuine oddity is a silent movie in prime time on Open Day… Accordionist Dermot Dunne and saxophonist Nick Roth, Artistic Director of the Yurodny Ensemble, will provide a live musical accompaniment, drawing heavily on Irish and Jewish folk music. The 1926 film is an ethnic comedy of the broadest of stock characters in 1920s NYC: Irish cop, Jewish storekeeper, cheerful Irish wife, Jewish mother.

 

So, those are the films, but that’s only planning’s first step… Sadly after two years of running five sets of films; which saw movies begin near 11pm and end near 1am; things are back to the traditional four in this 25th anniversary year. Trying to do four films was always an endurance marathon, but to get into five films was surely beyond mere mortals, and yet undoubtedly somebody did try in those two years… But even to do four movies one must sort out strategy, for two sets of reasons.

One can, obviously, only watch one of the three films running, but the film chosen from each set determines what films are available in subsequent sets. Choose The Big Sleep from the first set of films, and it becomes damn near impossible to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture from the second set of films. To make a quick-change from Star Trek: The Motion Picture to Sorcerer involves having to leave one screen and join a queue for another screen, with neither film starting on time, especially as some introductory speaker always overdoes curating their favourite film. The unexpected can derail well-laid plans as some films will be unexpectedly in demand whilst others unexpectedly languish, and it is impossible to predict which. Might one casually pick up a ticket for Miller’s Crossing a minute before it starts as Talking Movies’ occasional guest writer Elliot Harris once memorably did for The Purple Rose of Cairo? And how can popularity be predicted in the absence of announced screens? After all amongst past audience choice winners Good Vibrations and Short Term 12 did not make Screen 1, yet Submarine did. One needs a good mental map of run-times and queue-times for improvised plans.

And then there’s the second, newer reason to sort strategy if attempting multiple films. Tickets were allocated, 4 per person, first come first served, at 11am; which saw a queue forming from 9.30am, snaking to Dame Street. The days of that Open Day morning buzz are gone. For the second year in a row queues will form inside the IFI, a desk for each movie, an hour before screenings –2 tickets per person. Multiple movie devotees must work together, because they’d have to not be watching a movie in order to queue for tickets for the next movie; reducing them to a mere 2 movies! Expect the queue to form 30 minutes before tickets will be disbursed. Don’t expect pseudo-economists trading off queuing during films they don’t mind missing in order to get extra tickets for a film they do want to see, in order to get someone to queue for them for a later film they want to see.

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