Category Archives: Film
Film music has always been a pet passion. As a kid, I routinely hunted down the scores of films that had left an impression. With lengthy delays before the VHS release, and limited access to the family player, hearing the music was the most reliable way of rekindling the magic of my favourite movies. The first 7-inch single I owned was the ‘Theme from E.T.‘ (right). And I remember coveting a tape recording of a Star Wars Trilogy LP that we’d borrowed from the local library. (When that was eventually superseded by the Arista anthology of near-complete Star Wars scores… well, I’m not ashamed to say I went a bit Yub-Nub in my celebrations.)
But that was then. These days, the film score landscape is more sophisticated. In particular, companies like Film Score Monthly, Intrada, Varese Sarabande and La La Land have made an artform out of releasing previously-unavailable, expanded or remastered soundtrack albums. And it’s fair to say I’m in their debt. Why? Because I find it exceptionally useful to listen to film music when writing fiction.
No other genre quite does the job. Pop music occasionally works, but it doesn’t add to what I’m doing, and the words are a distraction. The latter also precludes opera, let alone musicals. And while instrumental classical music is good, the architecture of symphonies and sonatas is too self-contained to make them satisfactory companions as I wander through the expanses of imaginative endeavour.
Film music, however, is the perfect soulmate – particularly in the complete, underscore-and-all presentations favoured by specialist labels. It provides the ideal blend of ambience and inspiration, rarely interrupting my focus. Though narrative-driven, the emotional arcs are rarely rounded enough to interfere with the shape of whatever I’m doing. Instead, it provides the best kind of mood music, reinforcing my concentration within a broad atmospheric context.
It’s so helpful, in fact, that I frequently buy scores with no prior knowledge of either the music itself or the film for which it was written. And that lands me in a funny predicament. For once I know a score, shouldn’t I then seek out its associated film? After all, film music – however great – is only ever secondary to the pictures it supports. And since my enthusiasm for the genre was first triggered by wanting to remember the movies I’d seen as a child, surely the experience can only be enriched by watching the film itself?
Well, I’m not so sure. For the one drawback of writing to film music comes when I know the film too well. And when that happens – Alien is particularly tricky – I tend to start writing in the stylistic vernacular of the parent movie; imagining myself in its world, imitating its characters when voicing my own. And that’s too much. Yes I want emotional prompts from the music, but that level of familiarity provides too literal an inspiration.
I mention it now because I’ve just bought La La Land’s expanded edition of John Williams’ The Fury. Written in 1978 for Brian de Palma’s supernatural thriller, the score dates from the heart of Williams’ golden period – a time when he also wrote Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman and E.T.
Predictably, the music to The Fury is on a par with those others. Heavily indebted to Bernard Herrmann, it’s rich, varied and intensely atmospheric – definitely the kind of thing I’ll write well to. And yet have I seen the film? Of course not.
So once again I feel that strange obligation, and face my perennial dilemma. Should I track down a DVD of The Fury, or, in the interests of productivity, should I let it be?
The answer is simple. I’m going to let it be. The music must inspire me on its own. I’ve only listened to it a handful of times, but the score is already a valuable asset in my writing process: a prime cut of Williams, uniquely divorced from any specific cinematic associations. Absurd though it may sound, that’s too good a thing to compromise by seeing the actual film for which it was written.
Shopping for music is not what it used to be. Gone are the hours spent browsing endless titles on the high street. Internet shopping and, latterly, downloadable content have seen off the serendipitous finds and bargain-hunting that once swallowed up whole days at a time. For a while, the void left by music was filled by movies, but even they soon succumbed to being ‘always cheaper on the web’. Now, with 1080p HD streaming becoming more ubiquitous, even Blu-rays look like their best days are behind them. The death of physical media is nigh, and with it the last of the high street entertainment shops will fade from view.
Does this make me sad? Well, a little. But it’s not something I get too emotional about. The new technology is irresistibly immediate, for the most part affordable, and the range of content has reinvented the browsing experience in a whole new sphere. As for high street shopping, there was much to like, but also much that I didn’t. While others still wax lyrical about London’s lost indie record shops, I doubt I’m alone in having found many cliquey and unwelcoming.
But though I’m not exactly weeping with nostalgia, there are some trappings of the old experience which leave me a bit teary-eyed. And nowhere have I found these recalled more vividly in recent times than in my local Blockbuster.
It doesn’t make much sense. I’ve never been a big movie renter, and am not much for gaming either. Certainly, I’ve never met anyone who would champion a Blockbuster in the same way they’d celebrate some old vinyl emporium. But there are things about the Crystal Palace store – fragments of a former world – which thrill me with memories of times past.
I’m taking about the ancient VDUs behind the counter, and their companion, nicotine-stained keyboards. I’m talking about the 4:3 CRT tellies dotted above customers’ heads, shrieking out their trademark squeal. I’m talking about the sheer size of the place: two cavernous sections, one a kind of mezzanine, with miles of shelf space and innumerable identical titles, all lined up, with space to spare, in glorious abundance. I’m talking about the stained, gum-encrusted carpets and devil-may-care special offers, recalling the gung-ho, can-do-no-wrong zenith of years gone by.
Above all, I’m talking about the way the assistants take your chosen box, then dive beneath the counter: pulling open a drawer of delights, delving inside, searching for minutes through dog-eared cardboard, before finally slipping your chosen media out of its shell. There, right there, my childhood lives on. It’s faint and fleeting, but still just about alive: that magical moment of choosing your treasure in Our Price, Woolworths or WH Smith, then waiting with bated breath as the thing itself was summoned from that ordered realm of shelves and drawers that hid such manifold riches.
So I’ll be a little sad this coming Sunday, 18th November 2012, when the Blockbuster on Westow Street, SE19, finally breathes its last. It’s no great tragedy. The shop has long outlived its useful purpose, and it’s time to move on. But in a world which long ago forgot the peculiar, mainstream romance of high street entertainment shopping, I for one will struggle not to mourn its anachronistic glimpses of how things used to be.
The recent DVD/Blu-Ray release of Prometheus has revived a lot of the disappointment that followed the film’s cinematic release in June. People watching it for the first time feel let down, while most of those re-visiting it see no need to alter their original opinion – some critics, like Nigel Floyd, have even hardened in their stance that the film is bad, whether over-hyped or not.
I haven’t yet seen Prometheus at home, but I did see it twice in quick succession at the cinema – quick enough, indeed, to grant me a perspective which may have eluded those who waited longer to re-watch the film.
I should stress that – initially – I shared everyone’s disappointment, so I’m not really defending Prometheus’s shortcomings. If a film seems simultaneously jumbled and over-simplistic on first viewing, then it’s failed to do its job, regardless of any post hoc revisionism. But by seeing it again so soon after my first viewing, I knew exactly where the flaws were – the knotty plotting, the unexplained events – and actively looked for solutions.
And they they were. In fact, I found, the whole thing hangs together pretty well, as long as you pay attention and are happy to fill in the odd gap.
The question then is: why did I – and countless others – struggle the first time around? Were we just being lazy?
Well, yes and no. Yes, there may have been complacency among audiences, but no – it wasn’t our fault. Because what’s really fascinating is how quickly Prometheus gained a reputation for explaining too much, and rightly so. Certain parts of the plot – mostly the ‘big ideas’ – were flagged up so early, clumsily and prosaically that the screenplay itself set expectations to snore. Rather than being alerted to stay sharp, audiences were lulled into thinking everything would be explained for them. If anything, however, the balance of exposition needed reversing: the big themes given less exposition (they permeate the story by default), and the creepy little details highlighted more.
The film isn’t bad. It’s just self-defeating. When you actually assemble the myriad elements of the plot – which, I stress again, requires far nerdier attention-to-detail than it should (see right and here) – you’re left with a fascinating set of questions which, potentially, lays the foundations for a really good prequel series.
And that, in the end, is the truth about Prometheus. It is just a start. What follows next is key. If Lost-writer Damon Lindelof can shed his reputation for failing to answer his own questions, and show us that the
buried meticulous detail in Prometheus is more than mere ornamentation, the hype might yet be justified.