Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Few Random Reasons to Love Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder is one of those filmmakers I wish I knew more about. Because I have only seen six of his films (and half of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) I feel terribly inadequate trying to say anything substantial about him for the Billy Wilder Blog-a-thon that Jeff is hosting over at Filmscreed. So, I am simply going to post a few (totally random and highly personal) reasons I've come up with to love Billy Wilder.


I saw Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotuer for the first time the other day and was struck by this opening image:

The titles appear over the shot of a hangar wall as the shadow of a man wearing a trenchcoat and hat is cast on it. The credits continue and the man's shadow grows larger and larger until it is looming quite ominously over the director's name. It reminded me of the opening title sequence for Billy Widler's Double Indemnity (one of my favorites) where a silhouetted man in a hat hobbles towards the camera on a pair of crutches:

As it turns out, Hitchcock's film came out only two short years before Wilder's. Does that mean that Wilder was deliberately referencing Hitchcock? Not necessarily. It could just be a coincidence. If it is a conscious reference, though, I am sure it is an affectionate one. Just one great director paying homage to another great director.


The main titles of Sunset Blvd. also happen one of my favorite opening credit sequences, but it is the closing image (Norma Desmond, now having completely lost her mind, approaching the camera) that people tend to remember.

It's certainly very disturbing and Gloria Swanson looks incredibly creepy, but as I reveiewed the film again recently I happen to notice something, as Swanson was saying her final unforgettable lines, that escaped my attention the first time I saw it.

"And I promise you I'll never desert you again because after 'Salome' we'll make another picture and another picture. You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!... All right, Mr. DeMille. I'm ready for my close-up!"

As she says those lines to all of the newsreel cameras around her (which she imagines are film cameras) there is a moment when she actually looks into Wilder's camera and refers to us ("all those wonderful people out there in the dark"); not just in the vague sense of movie audiences in general, but quite specifically as the people watching this very film right now. In other words, she almost breaks the fourth wall.*

I say "almost" because she doesn't completely break it. She doesn't turn into Ferris Bueller and actually address the audience (in fact, I would argue that if she had, it would lose its effect; it's the ambiguity that actually contributes to the scene's eeriness). There's still an element of reality to the moment because at this point in the story her character is crazy. Within the world of Sunset Blvd. she still hasn't violated the "rules" (much like the opening shot of Godard's Contempt or a similar moment in Wolfgang Peterson's The Neverending Story) but I would imagine it was still rather unsettling to filmgoers in 1950 who saw it in the theatre... "in the dark."

I don't mean to to relate this to Hitchcock yet again but it's sort of like this moment in Rear Window:

Or perhaps this moment in Psycho:

To this day all of these shots send shivers down my spine.

*This phenomenon of "almost breaking the fourth wall" in movies may turn out to be the subject of one of my upcoming posts.


Apparently Wilder's idol and mentor was German director Ernst Lubitsch. Wilder even kept a sign hanging in his office that asked, "How would Lubitsch do it?" I just saw my first two Lubitsch films about a month ago (Trouble In Paradise and Shop Around the Corner; they were both marvelous) and can clearly see the influence he has had on Wilder's work.


Any director who can give us this shot...

..deserves our respect.


Of course we can't forget that in The Seven-Year Itch, Wilder created one of cinema's most indelible images and gave Marilyn Monroe her most iconic moment (even if it did drive the final nail into the coffin of her already dying marriage).


Given the high regard I hold for this film (and its director) and how much I know about the making of it, I can't believe I didn't discover this until yesterday.

Apparently Wilder collaborated closely with Steven Spielberg on the script for Schindler's List, and was one of several filmmakers (including Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet) being considered to direct it. Although Wilder strongly considered directing the film he felt that he was a little too old (he had already retired) and that the subject was almost too personal (both his mother and grandmother were killed in the Holocaust). Although he has said that if he had done it then it would've been his most personal film, he ultimately convinced Spielberg that he should be the one to direct it.

Billy, we ALL owe you thanks for that.


You have to love the last 60 seconds of Some Like it Hot (SPOILER obviously)

And finally...


Having seen the above clip, you gotta love this too!

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Day After Oscar

'Twas the day after Oscar and all across the net
Nary a tongue wasn't stirring that wasn't somehow upset
The blogosphere was abuzz with more criticism than praise
And one blogger couldn't comprehend why so many tempers were ablaze
Though he didn't intend on posting anything about Oscar this year
He felt compelled to offer his two cents to whomever'd lend an ear
He happened to think this year's telecast went off just fine
While most of his fellow bloggers could do nothing but whine
The cries of "too long" and "too dull" could (as usual) be heard
While this blogger felt such criticisms were (as usual) absurd
Anyone who didn't expect a lengthy ceremony by now
Must have the intelligence of a retarded cow
As for the common complaint that the evening was "too dull"
What'd they want? Peter O'Toole to bash in Forrest Whitaker's skull?
While "predictable" was another epithet that often arose
He thought there were plenty of "upsets" to keep people on their toes
Alan Arkin winning over Eddie Murphy was quite a surprise
As was Pan's Labyrinth not taking home the Best Foreign Film prize

The stars all looked nice (as they normally do)
With only one truly embarassing gown (maybe two)
While both Helen Mirren and Reese Witherspoon inspired adoration
It was Gwyneth who proved she's still the most beautful girl in creation
With her gorgeous dress and long hair she made quite an impact
Which more than makes up for her "raccoon" look several years back
Ellen Degeneres turned out to do admirably well as a host
Though she was perhaps not as "tough" or "edgy" as most
Any year without Billy or Steve Martin could go either way
But Ellen's still better than Stewart, Rock or Whoopi any day
The big winner for the night was, of course, none other than Marty
Who, at long last, got invited to the Oscar Winners' party
Seeing Lucas, Spielberg and Coppola give him his statuette
Made for a night I'm sure he (nor we) will never forget
On top of which his movie walked away with the final award
Though this blogger ain't complaining as it's a film he adored

So, it may not have been as "exciting" as some would've preferred
But this blogger chose not to "follow the rest of the herd."
He happened to think, when all is said and done,
That it provided, as it should, an evening of fun
And so I end this little poem (as you figured I might)
Happy Oscars to all... and to all a fun night!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Polanski: The Movie?

Watching Munich again the other night (don't worry, this is not another Spielberg post) I was reminded of something that occurred to me when I first saw it in the theatre. The French actor playing Louis (Mathieu Amalric) is a dead ringer for Roman Polanski! I remarked to myself that if someone were to ever make a film about the young director, he'd be the perfect actor to play him.

Naturally it would be absurd to make a film about someone's life just so that a particular actor could play the part (Beyond the Sea, anyone?), and in doing a little bit of research I discovered that Polanski has already been played by four different actors: Marek Probosz in 2004's TV movie Helter Skelter, Bruce McCarty in the 1995 TV movie Love and Betrayal: the Mia Farrow Story, Dane Cook(!) in the 2003 TV movie Windy City Heat and last, but certainly not least, by Polanski himself in 1994's Gross Fatigue.

Significant historical figures (Gandhi, Luther, Lincoln, etc) seem to be the more reliable subjects for a biopic and whenever one does happen to be made about somebody in the movie industry it's rarely a director. Still, the more I thought about it the more it seemed to me that a film about Roman Polanski could actually be very interesting. I have to be careful how I say this but (without intending any disrespect toward the terrible things that have been perpetrated to him, not to mention by him) I think his life story would be cinematic as hell! Between his surviving the Holocaust, the terrible murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by the Manson gang and the huge scandal involving his statutory rape of the 13-year-old Samantha Geimer and his subsequent flight from the United States, I'd say there's enough drama in Polanski's life for three movies. A film about him would certainly not be a "pretty" one, but it could be a very powerful one. Maybe someone will take up that task at some point. Perhaps Polanski could even make it himself (though shooting on location in Los Angeles might prove difficult).

Either way, I know the perfect actor to use!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Great Cinematic Speeches: A Few Good Men

As the third entry in my recurring feature on great cinematic speeches (the first one being on Jaws and the second being on Twelve Angry Men) I thought I might highlight that electrifying speech delivered by Jack Nicholson at the climax of Robr Reiner's A Few Good Men. I really don't have much to say about it except that although I'm not sure I'm prepared to say it's one of the "all-time great cinematic speeches," it is certainly one of the most well-known (and often imitated). Many times have I been in a conversation when, somehow or other, the word "truth" was used, to which someone invariably said in their best Nicholson impression: "You can't handle the truth!" Thank you, Jack!

Once again, SPOILERS follow.

Scene Stealers : A Few Good Men : Jack Nicholson Pt 4

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Rarest Love of All

*NOTE: The following post is my contribution the Lovesick Blog-a-thon. that is now being hosted by Lucas over at 100 Films. Be warned that it contains SPOILERS to the film The Shawshank Redemption, so if you haven't seen it you probably shouldn't read on. Instead, you should run out and rent the film to watch as soon as you possibly can. For the rest of you, I hope you enjoy it. Happy Valentine's Day!

There is a moment in The Shawshank Redemption that never fails to move me to tears every time I watch it. It comes in the film's final sequence. When Red (Morgan Freeman) has finally been released from prison and is walking along a beach which joins the Pacific Ocean. His friend Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is hard at work sanding his boat when he turns and sees Red walking toward him. Red smiles bigger than we have ever seen him smile. Andy also smiles as he stands up. Now at this point, just when the film looks like it is about to "overplay its hand" and slip into what could almost become "melodrama" with a close-up of these two good friends embracing and the music swelling, the filmmakers employ (as they have throughout the entire film) remarkable restraint that makes the moment even more powerful. It cuts to a helicoptor shot that is pulling away from the two men!

That's right! It is not moving towards them in order to fill every inch of the frame with their highly emotional reunion. It is going in the OTHER direction. It is giving them their "privacy." Allowing this moment to be shared by them alone. And yet, though they are very small, if you look carefully you can see Andy jumping down from the boat and walking towards his friend as Red does the same. Neither man runs, though their speeds do increase slightly. We see Red drop his luggage on the sand and, in a moment that is for me one of the most touching ever committed to celluloid, they meet. The two little dots on the screen unite and become one dot. I remember when I first saw the film, I wanted these two characters to hug more than I had ever wanted any two people to hug in a movie before. People can debate all they want about "the greatest kiss in movie history." In my mind, this is without a doubt the single greatest embrace in movie history... not in spite of the fact that it is seen from a distance but because it is (and it is capped off by an on-screen dedication to Frank Darabont's agent and close personal friend who died just before the completion of the movie due to AIDS complications).

The Shawshank Redemption is, among other things (including one of my all-time favorite films) an incredibly deep and profound love story. People might find it odd to refer to it in this manner since it is primarily a dark, dramatic prison movie and that the relationship between the two main characters is not really depicted as "love" in the conventional sense. In fact, the closest we ever get to seeing these two characters be vulnerable/emotional with each other (save for the final scene) is when Red softly asks, as the they play checkers together, "Andy, we getting to be kind of... friends, ain't we?" To which Andy replies, "Yeah, I guess." Has there ever been a more undertstated classification of a relationship than this?

And yet a love story is precisely what I say it is, for is not friendship, after all, a type of love? Can two men who are "just friends" be said to love each other? I think they can and I am sure most people would say they agree. So, why do we not we actually say it more often?

I think that "man love" gets somewhat a bad rap in our culture nowadays. It is something that we hardly ever see depicted in movies, TV, etc. Heterosexual love we see all the time. Homosexual love we're seeing more and more and casual friendships we see a lot too, but a profoundly deep and abiding love between two men that is not romantic/sexual in nature is pretty hard to find (though such a relationship between two women seems more common). For some reason it often seems to be mistaken for a sexual love. In fact, it is almost more acceptable nowadays to depict the "love that dare not speak its name" because at least with homosexuality there is no ambiguity. However, when two men display a genuinely warm regard and affection for one another, it is often mocked as being "gay" or "queer." I mean, how many countless jokes did we have to endure being made about Sam and Frodo's "relationship" in The lord of the Rings films? Too many as far as I'm concerned. Again, I think it's because such a love between two males is so rarely seen that it is difficult for a lot of people (particularly very "macho" or "masculine" males) to accept. And yet I can't help but wonder whether it is, in fact, rarely seen because it's harder to accept or whether it's harder to accept because we rarely see it. Even Tim Robbins himself has admitted that it is extremely rare in movies nowadays that you can get away with depicting such a relationship "without there being a car chase."

Perhaps it is because friendship itself is not valued as highly as it ought to be. Maybe, for some weird reason, it is just not considered as "special" as eros (i.e. "erotic love"). Perhaps we have devalued real friendship to the point where it has lost quite a lot of its meaning. We use the term "friends" to refer to people that are really just our acquaintances. We would rarely use the term "love" to describe a friendship and yet it was the belief of the ancients that it was the most admirable of loves. C.S. Lewis writes about this is in his book The Four Loves, where he defines friendship as being more than mere companionship, he describes it as the least "natural" of the loves because it is not biologically necessary to progeny like either affection (e.g., rearing a child), eros (e.g., creating a child), or charity (e.g., providing for a child). It has the least association with impulse or emotion. The saying may be that "love is blind" (lovers may often see no flaws in their beloved), but, as Ebert Hubbard wrote, "A Friend is someone who knows all about you and loves you anyway." There is wisdom in friendship. There is truth and honesty in friendship. There is trust and respect in friendship. There is, (I'm just gonna say it) redemption in friendship. Quite apart from what the "conventional wisdom" might be, the love of a friend is no less "special" or meaningful than erotic/romantic/sexual love. I am not necessarily saying it is superior, but it is definitely not inferior.

I debated for a long time on what to write about for this blog-a-thon (as I often do). At one point I considered writing about several movies that contain what are, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful love stories ever told: Breakfast at Tiffany's, When Harry Met Sally and Manhattan, (which, in particular, I am really glad I didn't write about as Dan Eisenberg did an admirable job in his post Not Everybody gets Corrupted). I was even about to compile a list of quotes from movies on love ("Love means never having to say you're sorry," etc) but at the last minute, and completely by accident, I was reminded of what is for me the most compelling love story of all and it is one that a lot of people wouldn't even recognize as such. The next time (or perhaps for some of you the first time) you watch The Shawshank Redemption, pay attention not only to how fantastic a film it is but also how marvelous a love story it is.

Monday, February 12, 2007

"The Bicycle Thief" or "Bicycle Thieves?"

NOTE: I'm sure this subject has been debated many times before (and will be again), but it has only recently come to the forefront of my mind and I feel compelled to discuss it now. Be aware, those who have not yet seen the film, that there are spoilers ahead.

I'm not entirely certain when I decided that I was going to refer to Vittoria De Sica's 1948 neorealist classic Ladri di Biciclelle as simply The Bicycle Thief or even if it was an entirely conscious decision. That was, after all, the title by which I first knew the film (I believe that's how they refer to it in Robert Altman's The Player, which I saw before De Sica's film). Occasionally I would hear it referred to as Bicycle Thieves and even, sometimes, as THE Bicycle Thieves, but I paid no attention to that. I knew what film they were talking about but I still preferred the singular title to the plural one. The Bicycle Thief just sounded better to me.

Recently, though, I found myself wondering about the film's "real" title. As someone who has had his own name ("Damian") spelled and pronouned wrongly more times than I care to count, I decided to try and determine this for myself. I soon discovered that in England they translate it Bicycle Thieves while in the U.S. (where I live) it is translated The Bicycle Thief. So, which one is "correct" translation? Well, according to Wikipedia:

The original Italian title of the film is literally translated into English as Bicycle Thieves, however the film has also been released in the US as The Bicycle Thief. According to critic Philip French of The Observer, this alternate title is misleading, "because the desperate hero eventually becomes himself a bicycle thief."

I then went to the IMDB where I found an entire thread on the film's board devoted to the subject. One poster wrote:

Most people may not care about the slight difference, but it really annoys me that the USA calls it "The Bicycle Thief" (singular). It's also a bit of a spoiler too. When I watched it for the 1st time (thinking the title was "The Bicycle Thief") I immediately knew that Mr. Ricci would end up stealing (or trying to steal) a bicycle. When the title is in the singular, you can assume that it refers to the protagonist (Mr. Ricci). So DUH you know what's going to happen, and furthermore you can guess that the whole movie is about the desperation that leads to his crimal act.

With the title "Bicycle Theives" (plural), it refers to more of a generic concept, and so we're not sure how it applies to the protagonist. Perhaps he's going to confront a criminal ring of bicycle theives in order to reclaim his property. It's much more ambiguous, and so the ending comes much more as a powerful shock. Gawd, I can't believe the idiots who indiscriminately changed the title without realizing what an effect a simple pluralization can cause. Spoiling a movie without warning should be a hanging offence.

This individual brings up some very interesting points, but it is a little disheartening to me because, despite all the arguments to the contrary, I still prefer the singular version of the title. However, another poster responded with:

I totally disagree. The plural version gives it away.

When the movie was simply called the "Bicycle Thief" you could assume it to be a reference to the man who originally stole the bike. It would be appropriate as a title even if he is a minor character, because that minor character's actions result in causing everything else that happens to happen. Without that singular thief at the beginning Ricci would never do what he did, so I don't see why the singular title would make you assume that the protagonist must be the thief referred to in the title.

By pluralizing it it is easier to figure out that the protagonist will end up doing the same thing, since there needs to be another thief.

I also sort of like it being singular because... and this is hard for me to put into words... by making it singular, and then having Ricci also take a bike it kind of shows that the original person we thought of as a "bad guy" and the person that we think of as the "good guy" will do the same thing for whatever reason they may have... in the end, they are one and the same.

Again, I am personally more sympathetic to this second poster's sentiments, though I realize my position is on somewhat "shaky" ground as the literal translation, apparently, suggests the plural. I also can't help but wonder if my preferrence toward the second poster's arguments stem from the fact that I am already predisposed toward the singular title.

This started me wondering what any given film's "real" and/or "official" title actually is. As most of us know, a movie can often go through several title changes in the process of its writing, pre-production, production, pos-production and distribution. Is it the title that all of the filmmakers can agree on? What if they don't all agree? To whom do I then give authority? The writer? The director? The producer? The studio? The distributors?

It is also very often the case that a movie (when released in foreign countries) will not only have its title translated into another language but actually completely changed (sometimes into what are arguably "better" titles). We've all heard I'm sure about the famous "Harry Potter Philosopher's/Sorcere's Stone" fiasco, but there are plenty others. In France, for example, Wedding Crashers became "Boys Without Honor," Sideways became "In Drift" and Lost in Translation became, quite ironically, "Unfaithful Translation."

If, as Andy Horbal says, naming things is indeed "a sacred act," then ought I not take as much care as possible in getting "right" the name of any given movie? I mean, if I really wanted to be as accurate as possible, I could call the film by its original Italian title Ladri di Biciclette (just as I know several people who refer to Roberto Benigni's 1997 film as "La Vita e bella" though I still call it "Life is Beautiful"). I guess I'd rather call it that than Bicycle Thieves, but I'd still rather call it The Bicycle Thief than either of those.

There is also part of me that feels like it doesn't really matter what it is called. As Shakespeare famously asked, "What's in a name?" After all, that which we call Bicycle Thief by any other name is still a great movie, right?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Twist and Shout

Heard the Beatles' "Twist and Shout" on the radio as I was driving home today. I have to admit that I can't hear that song without thinking of this scene and, for some reason, I can't think of this scene without feeling good.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

JERRY GOLDSMITH: a highly personal musical journey

It was with no small degree of surprise and delight that I discovered, upon visiting IMDB today, that two of our greatest filmmusic composers (John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith) shared birthdays within a couple days of each other. Though I will admit Williams has had more of an effect on me personally, it would be foolish to deny the fact that Goldsmith was one of the most beloved and talented filmmusic composers of all time. It has been estimated that at any given moment of the day, somewhere in the world, someone is listening to a piece of music written by Jerry Goldsmith. Indeed, with a career that spanned over sixty years, and with more than a hundred films to his name, Goldsmith was without a doubt one of the most active composers who ever lived. The truly remarkable thing, though, is the level of quality he was able to bring to such an abundant body of work. Each and every one of his scores is interesting and worthwhile, some of them are experimental and eclectic, many are memorable and melodic, a few are subtle and introspective, several are bold and exhilarating, but none of them, absolutely none of them, are boring. Listening to a Goldsmith score is guaranteed to be a satisfying experience, even if watching the film that the score accompanies is not. A shame we won’t be treated to any more of his work as Goldsmith, like Elmer Bernstein and Michael Kamen, recently passed on. Still, as a friend of mine said, “Maybe he’s making Heavenly music now.”

Although I will admit to always having found the idea of celebrating the birthday of someone who is no longer with us rather odd, I so enjoyed going on a personal musical journey with John Williams that I thought I might do the same today with Jerry Goldsmith (this will also provide me with yet another opportunity to shamelessly plug the Filmmusic Blog-a-thon that Windmills of My Mind will be hosting this June 22-25). So, without further ado, here are a few of my favorite scores from this extremely gifted composer:

ALIEN –It is interesting to note that that Goldsmith was frequently called upon to score sci-fi films (Outland, Logan’s Run, Total Recall, etc) far more than most of his contemporaries. In Alien he not only set the tone for the entire series that followed but developed a style that would be often mimicked throughout the genre. In fact, Goldsmith is probably more responsible for creating the “sound” of modern sci-fi more than any other composer (even John Williams). He could be quite majestic and soaring (as in Star Trek: the Motion Picture, more on that later) or he could be extremely abstract and unsettling (as in Planet of the Apes). For the most part Alien tends to fall into the latter category but it also employs many of the elements of a “horror” score as well and even ventures occasionally into the bizarrely romantic territory. Tense and terrifying, the score is also peppered with various shrill and innovative percussion effects that (very much like the titular creature) can jump our of nowhere and scare the piss out of the audience/listener. Since the alien spends most of the film off-screen (like the shark in Jaws), Goldsmith’s music is extremely important in keeping the creature real and threatening. This task he accomplishes with great aplomb.

CHINATOWN – Before he accomplished a similar feat for L.A. Confidential, Goldsmith perfectly captured the dark and mysterious atmosphere of Roman Polanski’s neo-noir masterpiece Chinatown. The justly famous solo trumpet theme that opens the film wonderfully sets the mood for the intriguing tale that is about to follow (and even surfaces again in cues like “Jake and Evelyn” and “The Wrong Clue”) while most of the rest of the score is led almost entirely with piano. What is truly incredible about Goldsmith’s work here is that this entire score (a last-minute replacement for Phillip Lambro who was discarded by the film's producer Robert Evans) was written and recorded in an astounding 11 days demonstrating, once again, that sometimes an artist can produce his best work when under heavy pressure.

DENNIS THE MENACE – There is such a fierce, boundless energy to this score that I couldn’t help but be totally won over it. The furiously fast main theme (which utilizes an entire orchestra but prominently features a single harmonica) brilliantly encapsulates the exuberant spirit of its title character. There is also a rather sinister theme for the film’s one truly horrendous villain (“Switchblade Sam,” deliciously played by Christopher Lloyd). There is certainly an awful lot of “mickey-mousing” done in the score as Goldsmith is required to acknowledge a barrage of pratfalls, sight gags and other various childish slapstick moments, but there is also a surprising amount of emotion in the score’s latter half. Overall, this one is a lot of fun.

FIRST BLOOD – Although it is clearly an action movie, Goldsmith’s score for First Blood, the first big screen adventure of Vietnam-vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), is surprisingly sad and lyrical. Choosing instead to focus on Rambo’s disillusionment, disorientation and isolation rather than on the enormous collection of car crashes, explosions, gun shots and personal injuries, Goldsmith creates a real depth, humanity and sense of reluctant heroism to the film. Goldsmith’s score is the heart and soul of Rambo. Of course, Goldsmith doesn’t sell the action short either. His score is just as exciting and bombastic as anything out there. Like its central character, the music can turn on a dime, launching from pleasant little refrain into a flurry of brass. By the time the sequels rolled around, and Rambo was elevated from social outcast to mythic hero, the action and violence became even more plentiful and Goldsmith was called upon to write scores that were even more “exciting” and “grandiose,” but some of the drama and emotion was lost. Still, here it is in its simpler, purer form, one of Goldsmith’s best efforts.

GREMLINS – Walking that fine line between cute and nasty, between cuddly and ugly, between sweet and scary (much like the film itself), Goldsmith wrote a wonderfully inventive and decidedly original score for this 1984 Spielberg-produced fantasy (directed by Joe Dante who would use Goldsmith on all of his films) about an adorable little creature found in Chinatown and brought to the small town of Kingston Falls as a pet, but who subsequently spawns a race of vicious little green monsters who wreak havoc. The entire score is an utter joy to listen to but there are two particular pieces that stand out as being among Goldsmith’s best. The first is “Gizmo’s theme,” a marvelous little melody that is almost as sad as it is beautiful (especially when it’s sung by Gizmo himself; in reality a very young girl provided the singing voice of the creature). The other is, of course, the outstanding (and highly memorable) “Gremlins Rag,” which is playfully wicked and eminently enjoyable.

MEDICINE MAN – The film may have been a dud but the score is a real winner. Medicine Man deals with a disenfranchised scientist (played by Sean Connery) who discovers a cure for cancer in the rainforests of South America and becomes involved in conservation issues. To further enhance the splendor of the film’s gorgeous jungle photography, Goldsmith creates an evocative tapestry of orchestral color, vibrantly splashed with expert strokes and subtle undercurrents, for his musical canvas. The soundtrack starts with a bouncy, Latin America-styled motif (“Rae’s Arrival”) with flutes, marimba and percussion embellished by synth. Violins foreshadow the film’s main theme (“The Trees”), a graceful melody which elegantly captures the beauty and mystery of the tropical rain forest in which the action takes place. Listening to this soundtrack, one can almost see the sparkling waterfalls, hear the soft wind blowing through the lush, green trees and feel bright, warm sunlight striking the skin. There is also a bitter, despairing theme (“Mocara”) that represents the main character’s desire to drown out his horrible memories with drink. Simply superb.

THE MUMMY – One thing that can be said for Goldsmith was that he never condescended to the movies he was composing. Whether he wrote for deep, profound stories or just mindless trash, Goldsmith always committed 100% to the material. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the score to Stephen Sommers’ dumb, but nonetheless immensely entertaining, remake of the 1932 classic The Mummy. In “Ihmotep”(the piece accompanying the film’s opening prologue showing the fate of the Egyptian priest who dared to fall in love with the Pharoah’s wife) Goldsmith introduces a main theme that is about as brassy as they come. The film’s adventurous aspects are wonderfully emphasized (as are the humor and the horror aspects) in cues like “Tauger Attack” and “The Camel Race,” which are exotic as well as exciting. Egyptian folk instruments are used, a wordless choir of voices provide just the right amount of sinister mood for the mummy’s antics and every piece of music has an energy about it that keeps even the more subtle and spooky moments interesting for the listener. A great score.

THE OMEN - It feels weird to call this one a favorite as I hardly ever listen to it. I can’t because, to be perfectly honest, I’m afraid to. The music is just THAT strong and powerful. Quite simply, it freaks me out (unlike the scary music in Jaws, Psycho and Alien which are still somewhat fun and enjoyable). Goldsmith received a well-deserved Oscar (his one and only win) for this dark and terrifying accompaniment to the Richard Donner horror film about the Anti-Christ. The Latin-chanting choir of voices that characterize the main theme (“Ave Satani,” which means literally “Hail, Satan!”) and which permeate throughout the entire score really penetrate the listener’s defenses and create a real aura of fear and discomfort, almost as if a sacrifice were about to be performed in the middle of a black mass or something. Intensely frightening and disturbing, it is interesting that Goldsmith manages to squeeze a surprisingly lyrical piano-voiced love theme (for the tragic Gregory peck-Lee Remick relationship) into the mix. This lends an air of humanity and sadness to all of the hangings, beheadings, stabbings and skewerings that go on.

THE SECRET OF N.I.M.H. – In this his first foray into animation, Goldsmith creates an unusually dark and serious, but still quite beautiful, score much more sophisticated than the average Disney fare. One of his finest effort of the 1980’s, written during an especially fertile period, Goldsmith punctuates his score with thrilling pieces (“The Tractor”) and mysterious cues (“Step Inside My House”) that sound more like parts of an action score or a suspense thriller than a children’s fantasy. Yet, Goldsmith still manages to find the humor, such as in the theme for the comically inept crow Jeremy (voiced by Dom Deluise), and the tenderness, such as in the lovely original song “Flying Dreams” which is, more or less, the main theme of the story's central protagonist (a widowed mouse named Mrs. Brisby) and is incorporated into most of the orchestral passages. Of course, the theme soars to its full glory in the climactic “House Raising” which places the perfect cap on this superior effort by Goldsmith all around.

THE SHADOW – Again, in a fairly forgettable film, Goldsmith produces an unforgettable, heroic theme that remains one of his finest creations. The immensely hummable main title (“Poppy Fields”) is a rhythmic, ascending figure for brass over horns, reeds and thundering percussion, with a weaving surge of violins underneath; it sounds ominous and resolute and lends an effective air of mystery (the strings) and power (the horns) to its shadowy crime-fighter (played by Alec Baldwin). There is also a lively Eastern-sounding theme for the villainous descendant of Genghis Kahn (John Lone) and, as always, the action cues are nothing less than thrilling. A worthy effort for a sub-par, but still amusing, film.

STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE – Whatever else Jerry Goldsmith did in his life, I think that the primary achievement he will be remembered for is creating the definitive Star Trek theme (arguably his most famous composition). Though the merits of the film (the first big-screen adventure of Captain Kirk and the crew of his starship Enterprise) continue to be debated, one thing that cannot be denied is the majesty and grandeur of Goldsmith’s score which provides the film with an epic, evocative and almost mystical spirit that actually aids (rather than simply complementing) the film’s massive special effects. Highlighted by the now legendary main theme (reprised for the Next Generation TV show) and the lovingly sad “Ilia Theme,” Star Trek is an outstanding score and earned Goldsmith another well-deserved Oscar nomination.

THE WIND AND THE LION – Regarded by many as Goldsmith’s finest adventure score, written for John Millius’ “historical” epic about an Arabian desert warrior (Sean Connery) who kidnaps an American woman during the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, this thunderously sweeping collection of exhilaratingly heroic cues creates a musical experience of amazing passion and scope. Utilizing Moroccan rhythms and instruments, this score evokes an exciting but dangerous world of sand and scimitars. The powerful Main Title, the exciting “Raisuli Attacks” (one of the most highly charged and insanely satisfying action blow-outs ever composed for film), and the gorgeously romantic love theme are all excellent pieces in this rousing score written in the grand Hollywood tradition. Nominated for an Oscar as well as a Grammy, this soundtrack is a bona fide classic.

Again, like Williams, I barely scratched the surface of great scores written by Goldsmith. There are, of course, many others that are just as good, if not better, than what I have listed here (Planet of the Apes, Basic Instinct, The Russia House, The Great Train Robbery, The Boys From Brazil, Air Force One, First Knight, The Edge, Matinee, Poltergeist and Mulan to name just a few), but these are the ones that I, personally, happen to love.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Once again, I spoke too soon

Having just finished posting an update on my parking situation little more than a week ago, I came home last night from seeing Letters of Iwo Jima (very good movie BTW) to find someone else's car in my spot. Oh well. I knew it wasn't going to last forever. Perhaps I even "jinxed" it by actually saying something. I don't know. Anyway, not a big deal. I parked on the street and left a friendly note on the windshield. We'll just take it from here.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

JOHN WILLIAMS: a highly personal musical journey

John Williams turns 75 tomorrow and in honor of his reaching the "3/4 of a century" age, I wanted to say a few words about him. Words that I was already planning to say in Edward Copeland's upcoming Star Wars Blog-athon (I even had a great title picked out: "The REAL star behind Wars"). Since this is, however, a landmark in William's life, I have decided instead to say them here and now (I'll just have to think of something else to write about on May 25).

Still, what could I possibly say about this classically trained composer/conductor that hasn’t already been said? Certainly he is one of the most popular musical minds of the twentieth century and has had more of an effect on filmmusic than any other living person, but we already know these things. Williams has been praised, criticized, discussed and dissected to such an extent that my trying to add something new to the conversation would be a futile endeavor. Thus, after a woefully brief synopsis of his musical career thus far, this post is going to become an intensely personal and highly subjective expression of my own regard for this supremely gifted artist. You will forgive me if I happen to “gush.”

After studying at Juilliard in the 1950's, “Johnny” Towner Williams (also known at times as "John Williams Jr.") got his start in the world of music writing for television (Lost in Space being one of his more remembered themes) and then, in the 1960’s, scoring films like How to Steal a Million and Valley of the Dolls. In an era heavily influenced by jazz, Williams’ work was no exception (I remember how intriguing it was for me to learn that Williams was at one-time a piano player in the Henry Mancini Orchestra; it’s as if one master was learning from another master). His scores were catchy, quaint and fun. Then, in 1971, a significant achievement came to Williams when he was given his first Oscar for orchestrating the film adaptation of the stage musical Fiddler on the Roof. Though worldwide fame still eluded him, it was just on the horizon when, in 1973, he met and collaborated with 25-year-old filmmaker Steven Spielberg on the movie Sugarland Express. This would produce two extremely important effects on Williams’ life: 1) his partnership with director Spielberg, which has lasted up to this day and 2) his association with Spielberg’s close friend George Lucas who would go on to create one of the most revolutionary, influential (and lucrative) movie franchises ever. These two events, coupled with Williams’ own blossoming talent and eventual replacement of Arthur Fielder as resident conductor for the Boston Pops Orchestra, solidified once and for all his place both in the history of cinema and the world of music. Williams has arguably become the most popular film composer ever; at the very least he's become one of the most popular. Williams has created some of the most enduring melodies of any musical artist of recent memory and has been nominated for more Oscars then any other individual (save Walt Disney). Incidentally, I once heard someone say that nominating John Williams for an Oscar is like answering “Jesus” in Sunday School. That may be, but perhaps there’s a reason why kids tend to feel like they always have to answer “Jesus” in class. Perhaps it’s because more often than not “Jesus” is the correct answer to whatever question the teacher is asking. Likewise, if Williams would only stop writing so many good scores, we wouldn’t have to keep hearing his name on the nominations list year after year.

I have long been a huge fan of John Williams. Being 30 years old I am of that generation that essentially “grew up” on his music, who spent our formative years in that period when Williams was, as many people say, “at his peak” (though I take issue with that statement). His scores are the ones that introduced me to the world of orchestral compositions and which eventually paved the way for my falling in love with classical music. Like a lot of people my age I knew by heart the themes to Star Wars, Superman, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I loved these movies and I loved the music that was in them, but though I might have appreciated them individually, the sense of wonder and respect I felt when I discovered that they were all done by the same man (I still vividly remember the night that I had this revelation) was monumental. I resolved to learn what I could about him and the more I read, saw and heard (which is probably most important of all), the more convinced I became that this fellow was a genius.

Anyway, I thought I might take some time and mention a few of my favorite scores of his. He has produced so many brilliant ones in the last forty years that anyone would be hard-pressed to select only a few. Nevertheless, I am going to try. So, here they are (in alphabetical order):

ALWAYS – Working once again with his friend Steven Spielberg, Williams wrote this delicate and ethereal tone poem almost, as the Musichound Soundtrack Guide eloquently says, as if it “existed on glass” (Years later, Williams would again try this approach with the Chris Columbus film Stepmom). Though the story involves the death and ghostly return of a pilot who douses forest fires from the air, Williams chose to emphasize the emotional aspects of the film, focusing more on the tragic love story than on the firefighting action. The whole score has an overwhelming gentleness and effervescence that cannot help but relax the listener (this would be great music to meditate to). Indeed, the lovely “Pete in Heaven” has an almost dreamy, new-age quality. As we listen to it we are always aware that though it is technically music, it seems to bear more in common with a “Sounds of the Ocean” CD. William’s score for Always is a beautiful, subtle, delicate piece of work that is far better than the film for which it was written.

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN – A real “trip down memory lane” for Johnny, Catch Me If You Can provided Williams with an opportunity to compose in a style he hadn’t worked in since the 1960’s (the period in which the film is set). Inspired by the true-life adventures of Frank Abagnale Jr., the world’s youngest con artist, this amusing story allowed Williams to reach back into his past (before the bombastic days of Star Wars, Superman, et al) and write a charming and sophisticated jazz score that is light, fluffy and fun… just like the Spielberg film it accompanies. One could almost say Williams pulls a “Mancini.” The “Main Title Theme,” a sneaky little cat-and-mouse number that first appears during the animated opening credits and reappears whenever federal agents are closing in on the main character, features a bouncy saxophone solo that one would swear was improvised, but apparently John wrote every single note of it. There is also an uplifting theme that plays whenever our hero does something particularly clever or narrowly eludes the FBI. Finally there’s the emotional “Father/son” theme that perfectly captures the affection and loneliness of the Leo DeCaprio/Chris Walken relationship. A wonderfully light, very pleasant score (described by Williams as a "bon-bon") which earned Williams one of his many Oscar nominations.

DRACULA – Williams scored this 1979 John Badham film having never seen a vampire movie of any kind. As it turned out this was a blessing because it allowed him to focus on the more tragic, romantic side of the infamous vampire (portrayed this time by a sexy young Frank Langella, reprising his role from the Broadway revival show) instead of playing up the “horror” aspects of the movie as previous composers have done. The music in the film has an almost operatic quality and, much like the Count himself, is hypnotic, seductive, passionate, powerful, sensual, exotic and, at times, even poignant. "Night Journeys" and "The Love Scene" are a couple of my personal favorite pieces and for action cues, they don't get much more exciting than "To Scarborough" (which has a technique Williams is an expert on: "scherzo") and the climactic "Dracula's Death." A lot of fun to listen to.

E.T. – Along with Star Wars, this is probably the first motion picture score to really grab me when I was young and make me pay attention to movie music. I believe I saw the Spielberg film only twice in the theatres, but I knew the music intimately, could recognize it instantly and could hum it effortlessly. To this day, listening to the CD (especially the uninterrupted ten-minute climactic cue; one of the rare times in cinema where the movie was actually edited to the music) gives me a warm, emotional feeling that few experiences can. A few moments that I happen to like are the exciting opening chase music, the tender “Toys,” the unforgettable “Flying” (can one hear this piece without visualizing that iconic "bicycle-before-the-moon" image?), the quirky “Halloween” cue (featuring a brief, humorous quotation of Williams’ own “Yoda” theme to underline the sight gag in the film), the terrifying “Invading Elliott’s House” (the scene that scared the crap out of me as a kid), the amusing “E.T. and Elliot get Drunk” and the... Aw, the hell with it! I love them ALL!

EMPIRE OF THE SUN – This is considered by some (including myself) to be one of Williams’ most underrated efforts. The merits of Spielberg’s film about a young English boy caught in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion of WWII may be debatable, but one cannot deny the beauty and lyricism of Williams’ rich, emotional score. The silm opens with the lovely “Suo Guan” being sung by the film's protagonist Jamie Graham (a young Christian Bale who I don't believe did his own singing) and accompanied by a boy’s choir. There is also the majestic “Cadillac of the Skies” (which surreally plays during a spectacular air raid on a Japansee labor camp), the joyful “Jim’s New Life,” the fantastic “Imaginary Air battle” and the anthem “Exsultate Justi.” All are marvelous cues that I just love listening to over and over and over...

THE FURYThe Fury provided Williams with an opportunity to write one of his dreamiest, most haunting and, at times, most stunning compositions. This is a lush, dark score that brilliantly captures the psychic terror of Brian DePalma’s chilling 1978 sci-fi/horror film about two young people with powerful telekinetic abilities. The slow, waltz-like main title, which uses the same kind of ascending / descending notes that characterized Bernard Hermann’s Vertigo, starts slow but builds to an intense, powerful climax that punches the listener square in the face. Williams constructs his entire score around the main theme and produces a thrilling listening experience even if you’ve never seen the movie. Two of my personal favorites cues are “Vision on the Stairs” (when Amy Irving’s character Gillian has a psychic episode while ascending some stairs) and “Gillian’s Escape” (an extended action sequence shot entirely in slow-mo where Gillian manages to effect an escape from the institute where she is being held).

HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE – I remember when I first saw the trailer to this movie. I could tell immediately that John Williams had done the score and I got quite excited because it sounded like something that I had been awaiting for a while, namely the return of the “John Williams of the late seventies-early eighties.” Don’t get me wrong, I love the mature, sensitive Williams of the late eighties and nineties (Always, Schindler’s List, Sabrina, Empire of the Sun, etc) but every now and again I want something that will just blow my socks off the way Star Wars, Superman, E.T. and Raiders did. When I heard the innocent, slightly sinister, but, most importantly, magical main theme that starts out soft and then builds into an amazing flurry of activity and excitement, I was quite pleased. This was the Williams I first fell in love with as a child, the Williams who was responsible for making me aware of the importance of movie music. Now, here he was again, doing it for a whole new generation of children. Though some might feel this score is little more than just the same thing repeated over and over again (a contention which BTW I disagree with; Williams does make ample use of the main theme but there are plenty of other different musical styles and melodies used throughout the film). Anyway, I never got tired of it. In fact, after having seen the film, I walked out of the theatre actually humming the theme. A great score and worthy of the Oscar nomination it received.

HOME ALONE – Every holiday season I whip this little baby out, stick in my player and remind myself (as if I needed reminding) how great Williams is. John Hughes’ obscenely successful film about a young boy who gets left home by his vacationing family somehow inspired Williams to write one of his most enjoyable scores. The memorable main theme (“The House”) is strangely innocent and sinister at the same time (reminiscent of something Danny Elfman would write). The high-spirited “Holiday Flight” is quite obviously inspired by “The Russian Dance” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Most wonderful of all, however, is the warm-hearted “Somewhere in My Memory” (with lyrics by Johnny Mercer) that is just as good as any classic Christmas song that Nat King Cole ever recorded. Both the song and the score got Williams yet another Oscar nomination.

JAWS – The second collaboration by Spielberg and Williams (after Sugarland Express) proved to be one of their greatest and most unforgettable efforts. Williams won his second Oscar for this score but this time, unlike Fiddler, he was being recognized for his own work. By now the choppy main title motif, perfectly capturing the mindless drive of what Richard Dreyfuss' character Matt Hooper calls an “eating-machine,” has become so legendary that the music and the animal it represents (a shark of course) have become forever linked in people’s minds, like the activity of taking showers and Hermann's score for Hithcock's Psycho. Most of the music in the film is scary and suspenseful, but a great deal is also rousing and fun (much like, as Williams himself said, a “pirate adventure”). The original LP soundtrack release also contained one of the most clever cue titles ever conceived: “Tourists on the Menu.” Never let it be said Williams doesn’t have a sense of humor.

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA – In a "making-of" segment on the film's DVD John Williams admits that this was the first score that he actually requested to work on. Having been quite moved by the book, Williams felt compelled to tell the story of Sayuri, a young Japanese girl taken from her family and forced into the life of a Geisha, through music. Williams’ deeply felt passion and affection for the material comes through beautifully as this score is extremely emotional. Aside from a similarly “Eastern” approach that Williams took to a previous score (Seven Years in Tibet), this experience marked a rather a decisive departure for the very “Western” Williams. In fact, with a few exceptions, one who didn’t know it was Williams would probably be unable to tell, as it sounds like something Tan Dun or Joe Hisaishi might do. The heartbreakingly sad, yet surprisingly hopeful, “Sayuri’s Theme” (sensitively played by cellist Yo-Yo Ma) functions as the centerpiece of the score and serves as an interesting counterpoint to the stoic yet romantic “Chairman’s Waltz” (played by Williams’ former Schindler’s List collaborator Itzhak Perlman); both themes are distinctly different and yet, at the same time, remarkably similar to demonstrate the connection between these two souls. A couple other cues I like are the playful "Going to School" (which follows the young Sayuri amd her friend Chiyo in their education) and the bold “Becoming a Geisha” (which plays during the montage where Michelle Yeoh shows the grown-up Sayuri, now played by Ziyi Zhang, about the ways of Geisha). Chalk up one more Oscar nod for Williams!

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – Although I love all three of the Indiana Jones films (yes, even the much maligned Temple of Doom), I maintain that the best one is still the first one. It is also contains the best score I think. From the eerie opening notes of “South America, 1936” to the lighthearted “Basket Game,” from the thrilling “Map Room: Dawn” to the sinister (and incredibly abstract) “Well of Souls,” from the exciting “Desert Chase” to the powerful “Miracle of the Ark” and from Marion’s romantic love melody to the eerie Ark of the Covenant motif (quoted briefly, and to humorous effect, in Last Crusade when Indy sees a drawing of the Ark on a cave wall) this Oscar-nominated score is a classic through and through. And, of course, nobody can forget that grandiose “Raiders March,” a hero’s theme if ever there was one!

SABRINA – For this 1995 Sydney Pollack remake of the 1954 Billy Wilder comedy, John Williams created an elegant and classy score that demonstrates once again his ability to reinvent himself. Nobody would ever guess listening to the numerous cues on this soundtrack CD that this is the same guy who wrote Star Wars, Superman or even Schindler’s List. Williams’ score for Sabrina is unusual but highly enjoyable. The theme for the title heroine (played by Julia Ormond), a marvelously romantic mini-concerto for a piano that eventually gets joined by a full-blown orchestra, recurs throughout the film in various forms. Meanwhile the theme for Linus Larrabee (Harrison Ford) is a very straight, business-like march that captures the “stuffiness” and comedic appeal of the character. At times suave and jazzy, at times sweet and sentimental, the best way to describe Williams’ work for Sabrina is to say quite simply that it “sparkles.” One of the composer’s most underrated efforts and the recipient of (you guessed it) an Oscar nomination!

SCHINDLER'S LIST – I am always amused when someone says to me, “How can you like John Williams so much? He’s a hack... at best! He just keeps repeating himself.” (Incidentally, I always find this is to be a rather interesting criticism when you compare Williams to, say, James Horner; I mean, I’ll grant Williams writes similar scores, he has a highly recognizable style, but Horner literally writes the same damn score over and over again). People love to claim that “all Williams can write is the larger-than-life action theme or the big, brassy Wagnerian marches. Superman, Star Wars, Raiders, etc! They're all the same!” To remind myself that said individual has absolutely no idea what he/she is talking about, I like to put on this soundtrack and revel in the beauty, subtlety, dignity and depth of Williams’ sublime work for Spielberg’s cinematic masterpiece. Following the directors’ lead, Williams used amazing restraint with Schindler’s List (a film that is over three hours in length and less than a third of which features actual score). Shedding his usual penchant for melodramatic emotions, Williams produced a score that is mournful, poignant and surprisingly low-key. Williams also employed the talents of renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman. Perlman’s soulful playing infuses the composer’s strains with a sensitivity that few other soloists could have offered. The haunting main theme, the hopeful “Remembrances,” the tragically innocent “OYF’N Pripetshok” (played during the unforgettable “girl-in-the-red-coat” scene), the intensely terrifying “Auschwitz” and the haunting “I Could Have Done More” are just some of the samplings this score has to offer. Schindler’s List is nothing short of stunning and definitely earned the Oscar that it won for Best Original Score. If ever you hear anyone express the idiotic sentiments I mentioned above (or worse, you find yourself starting to think them) listen to this soundtrack immediately and you’ll very shortly remember why Williams deserves his position as one of the most supremely gifted and versatile composers around.

STAR WARS – In the liner notes to the soundtrack CD for Star Wars Episode I, The Phantom Menace, John Williams writes: “While recently recording the music for Episode I with the London Symphony Orchestra I was delighted to see that there were a dozen or so members of the orchestra who had played on the original 1977 soundtrack. During our first intermission, several of the younger players approached me and explained that, as children, they had seen and heard Star Wars and immediately resolved to study music with the goal of playing with the London Symphony.” Wow. Now, how many film scores can you say have had that kind of effect on people?

George Lucas’ special effects extraveganza changed the movie industry in many ways, not the least of which was its effect on the modern motion picture score. Although the movie showed us things we had never seen on screen before, the music harkened back to the lush, romantic symphonies of Korngold and Wagner. In the words of Lucas, “the music served as an emotional anchor for the audience.” It captured the imagination of both lovers and non-lovers of music and became, at the time, the highest selling soundtrack album ever. At a time when movie music was dominated by pop song collections (The Graduate, Saturday Night Fever), Star Wars made orchestral scores “in” again. Suddenly filmmusic composers, who ended up having to go all the way over to Europe to get work, were sought after once again. It is no exaggeration I think to say that without Williams, none of the “newer” composers like Alan Silvestri, Danny Elfman, Joel McNeely, David Arnold and John Debney would even have jobs. And yet, despite its cultural significance, the score itself is a work of sheer brilliance. Who can’t whistle, at the drop of a hat, the spectacularly rousing fanfare that blasts off the screen during the film’s opening crawl? There is also the sweet “Princess Leia” theme, the Benny Goodman-style “Galactic Jazz” of the cantina Band, or the lyrically poignant Ben Kenobi/force melody that swells as Luke Skywalker stares longingly into the “Binary Sunset” (which is my personal favorite scene in the entire series).

Finally, one of the characteristics that (in my mind) separates the good scores from the “great” scores is the ability to function not only inside the movie but outside of the movie. Most scores can be said to work within the context of the actual film itself (helping to elevate the story, characters, emotions, etc), but not all scores make for satisfying listening experiences by themselves. This is yet another great thing about John Williams. Not only do his scores complement the films for which they are written (without being distracting or ostentatious) but they tell a complete story all their own. Nowhere is this quality more apparent than in his work for the Star Wars films. Like Howard Shore’s music for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the score it is a “journey unto itself,” taking the listener on a musical adventure that is exciting, suspenseful, sad, humorous and, most important of all, always extremely entertaining. An outstanding score that will not only take its place among the greatest movie music ever written but, as I am sure, among the greatest music of all time.

STAR WARS, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – Just when we thought John and George had both peaked and could not possibly outdo themselves, along comes the second entry in the successful operatic space saga. Considered by many (including myself) to be the best movie of the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back also boasts an arguably superior score by Williams. Reprising many of the original themes and adding some new ones including the wise and reflective melody for the new, and immensely popular, character Yoda, the military-style “Imperial March” (which many people forget was not introduced in the first film and eventually came to be associated with the villainous Darth Vader) and the tragic “Han/Leia” love theme, Empire surpassed everybody’s expectations including the new legion of filmmusic fans that the first Star Wars had created. Though the third film (Return of the Jedi) would not inspire as strong a score as the first two, it didn’t matter. By that time Williams had already established himself as “the” composer of filmmusic for the last quarter of the twentieth century.

SUPERMAN – The Ultimate super-hero score for the ultimate super-hero movie! John Williams’ exciting score for Richard Donner’s landmark film still stands as one of his best efforts. Who can forget that heroic main title fanfare (which, as Donner has pointed out in countless interviews, actually speaks the word “Superman” if you listen carefully to its three-note motif)? Or the romantic and vulnerable love theme? Or how about that mischievously comic “Villain’s march?” A great score for a great movie. Interesting too to consider that it almost never was since Jerry Goldsmith was originally going to write the score. One can’t help but wonder what sort of music Jerry would’ve produced for this film (although from the dismal 1984 spin-off Supergirl, which Goldsmith scored, we get a possible glimpse; not bad, but not certainly great).

As I said, there are many other great scores that naturally deserve a mention (Close Encounters, Jurassic Park, JFK, Munich, Family Plot, Angela's Ashes), but these are the ones that I personally never ever get tired of listening to.

I’m going to end this post with something that occurred to me just the other day. Everyone knows that in filmmaker Steven Spielberg Williams has found a close friend and professional collaborator. Their working relationship is one of the longest and most productive in film history. Williams has scored every one of Spielberg’s theatrical features (save The Color Purple, which was done by Quincy Jones). While visiting the John Williams board of the IMDB the other day, I saw that someone had posted the question: “Who’s Spielberg gonna use when Williams dies?” A few people suggested some other composers that Spielberg could work with. Perhaps he may just retire. I don’t know what Spielberg will do. I’m not even sure he knows what he will do. It’s not a very pleasant thing prospect to have to mull over, but I will admit that the thought has briefly crossed my mind before too. Usually, though, I try to get it out of my mind as quickly as possible because, truth be told, I don’t even want to think about what a world without John Williams would be like. Fortunately, one thing that I will never have to think about is what a world without John Williams’ music would be like.

P.S. Don't forget to participate in the Filmmusic Blog-a-thon here at Windmills Of My Mind this June 22-25.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Great Cinematic Speeches: Twelve Angry Men

In my first Great Cinematic Speeches post I wrote about the story that Robert Shaw's character Quint tells in the movie Jaws (often known as the "Indianapolis speech"). Today I am reminded of yet another cinematic soliloquy that I think is absolutely brilliant. I never intended for this to be a recurring feature. My original plan was to simply highlight one of my favorite on-screen speeches and then throw the door open for others to name some of theirs. That never really worked out, but I feel compelled nevertheless to mention another one. I don't know that I am prepared to say it is "one of the greatest cinematic speeches EVER," but it is certainly one of my favorites and it is the delivered by Lee J. Cobb's character in the finale scene of Sidney Lumet's Twelve Angry Men.

*NOTE: If you haven't seen this film yet then I suggest that you do not read on (nor view the film clip) as there are SPOILERS. I do, however, recommend that you view the film as soon as possible as it is an excellent movie. If you have seen it and are an "insulted cinephile" that I could possibly think you hadn't, I am sorry. One of the things they always taught us in writing class was not to assume TOO much about your readers. I figured, "better safe than sorry."

There are several characteristics that make this speech great. First of all, it doesn't feel like a speech. It's really more of a rant. All of the things that Cobb says are most likely scripted (though it's not exactly Shakespeare) but it has such an energy and spontaneity that it looks absolutely real. The "arguments" he gives for why he knows the boy is guilty are at best haphazard and random. At worst, they're completely incomprehensible. It's as if he's simply throwing out anything and everything that pops into his head without taking time to organize his thoughts or, at times, even finish them (The moment when he says "The knife falling through the hole is in his pocket," and then immediately changes the subject to "You can't prove he didn't get to the door," has always been one of my favorite parts). What becomes painfully clear throughout the course of the speech (and through the entire movie as a matter of fact) is that Cobb's verdict is not based on any actual reason or logic but rather on his own personal anger, prejudice and pain.

Another thing I noticed recently upon viewing it again was this it was done entirely in one take. There are a few cut-aways to the other faces in the room but when they cut back to Cobb it is clear that it's the same shot. Thus, rather than this being a performance that was "created in the editing room," this is a real soliloquy delivered by a fine actor. That probably makes this one of the more "theatrical" of cinema speeches and, in fact, the whole style and tone of Twelve Angry Men is very much like that of a stageplay.

Finally, the last gesture that Cobb makes at the end gives the scene, I think, real poignancy. I know I'm not telling anybody who has seen the movie anything they don't already know, but when Cobb sees the smiling face of his son looking at him from the photo in his wallet, it becomes painfully clear that he was not really executing the boy who was on his trial but his own son. As he explains earlier in the film, he and his son had a fight and he hadn't spoken to him for years. Voting guilty and sending the defendant to the chair was his way of "getting back" at his son, making him pay for the hurt that he had been caused by his son (hurt that he had really brought upon himself). When he couldn't take it out on the defendant or on the other jurors anymore, he tore up the photo (he needed to violently express himself somehow) and afterward, of course, realized what he was doing all along. That's why he sobs "Not guilty." He knew, in the end, that the others were right and he couldn't bear to make this poor boy pay for the mistakes he had made with his own child. I am always very moved by this moment in the speech and I am not ashamed to admit that if I am watching the film in its entirety, when we get to this scene, I tend to cry.

Anyway, I invite others, once again, to mention other great cinematic speeches that they might happen to like.