Category Archives: Film

The power of filmless film music

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 (When that was eventually superseded by the Arista anthology of near-complete Star Wars scores… well, I’m not ashamed to say I went a bit Yub-Nub in my celebrations.)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.

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If Shakespeare were alive today…

In my last post on the gestation of So Long, Shakespeare, I recounted the search for a fictitious solution to the seemingly unanswerable Shakespeare authorship conundrum. Inexorably, I arrived at the idea of using Shakespeare’s DNA to bring him back from the dead. Someone, somewhere, would devise a genetic means of transferring one person’s creativity into the body and mind of another. In so doing, they would discover – or at least, so it would seem – that the ‘man from Stratford’ was indeed an impostor.

The question was: who would achieve this world-changing feat, and why?

One option, clearly, was to make the cloning of Shakespeare’s DNA exclusively a question of authorship attribution – something designed to prove the point once and for all. But since my whole conceit was about disruption – shaking up the existing foundations of the authorship debate on all sides – this felt a little obvious. Instead, I wondered what would happen if the DNA resuscitation occurred for other reasons, in a totally different environment, and the associated authorship discovery were made entirely by accident? Wouldn’t that shake things up a treat?

I began thinking who else might want to harness Shakespeare’s talent, if such a thing were possible – and the answers came cascading in. Foremost in my mind was memory of that perennial debate: What would Shakespeare be doing if he were alive today?

The most popular answer is also the one to which I subscribe: namely, that he’d be in Hollywood, or at least big budget TV, writing for the masses, rather than a theatregoing minority. The stage, after all, was the mass culture of Shakespeare’s time. Like the great baroque composers, our latter-day perception of him as belonging to ‘high culture’ is not only precious but anomalous. First and foremost, he wrote not to enlighten but to make a living. The profound, life-enriching power of his plays was secondary to the requirement of entertaining as many people as could be attracted to watch them. Given which, it’s no surprise that many of his dramas explore precisely the same themes as the grandest Hollywood blockbusters – history, family and romance. The affinity, in many ways, is absolute.

But even if I hadn’t agreed with all this, Shakespeare-in-Tinseltown was still an irresistible fit. Here was a setting where talent talks, meaning the demand for his manifestly incomparable services would be automatic and unthinking. Moreover, it was a world where the financial firepower and hubristic imagination required to engineer such extraordinary genetic magic was readily available. In every sense, it was a credible scenario: Hollywood mogul tries to harness Shakespeare’s writing power for profit and artistic gain – only to discover, inadvertently and inconveniently, that Shakespeare didn’t really write the plays. His next step, quite naturally, would be to round up the DNA of the alternative candidates – which would require the assistance, in some form, of the established authorship fraternity. Soon enough, a fascinating mix would be coming to the boil, and we’d be well on our way to changing the flagship face of western culture.

There was just one big choice left to make. What kind of films would my mogul be making – and why would he feel the need to enlist Shakespeare’s help?

It was at that point that the two dominant Hollywood franchises of the time fused in my mind: Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

Death Star Globe

Hat-tip to Framescourer (framescourer.blogspot.com) for this Episode 7/So Long, Shakespeare-inspired piece of fan-art.

George Lucas’s original trilogy had given me some of the happiest moments of my childhood, and I didn’t think the prequel series was that bad. The design was glorious, the storyline wasn’t bad, and John Williams’s music was as powerful as ever. The problem, purely and simply, was with the prosaic, lifeless and entirely earthbound dialogue. That, and the impact it had on the acting.

Meanwhile, Peter Jackson’s epic re-telling of J R R Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga was ticking every box, dialogue included, such that, by the time Return of the King came around, the popular demand for Oscar recognition was met by precisely that.

So I set to wondering: what if there were a sci-fi auteur, whose films were terrifically successful but who harboured an over-riding yet unfulfilled ambition to have his populist achievements recognised by his establishment peers with victory at the Oscars? And what if the barrier to achieving this wasn’t, in fact, the snobbery of the elite, but the quality of his screenplays’ dialogue? Wouldn’t such a man be more than a little keen for some help with his writing? Wouldn’t he just love to have someone of Shakespeare’s calibre come to his aid, and help him attain his dream?

The answer, quite obviously, was yes – and so, indeed, it was to be.

If only A to B were as easy as A, B, C

A weekend home alone gave me a chance to catch up on some overdue viewing. In between the obligatory bouts of hoovering, staring uncomprehendingly at a malfunctioning kettle, and multiple trips to supermarket hell, I watched two films which, in retrospect, feel like natural companion pieces – even if outwardly they couldn’t be more different.

First up was E.T. The Extra Terrestrial on Blu-ray. Unoriginally, but at least unpretentiously, this is my favourite film of all-time. My very first date-specific memory is of December 1982, and going to see the movie at the old Cannon Cinema in Woodbridge Road, Guildford. This fact alone probably secures it the foremost spot in my mental Hall of Fame, but each time I revisit it I find that the film really is that good. The storytelling is taut yet never contained, the score emphatic but economical, and the performances – of which more in a moment – infectious in the extreme. As for the Blu-ray transfer, E.T. brushes up grainlessly well, and is complemented by a great new special feature, The E.T. Journals, chronicling principal photography via original behind-the-scenes footage shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll.

The second film was Michael Winterbottom’s latest, Everyday. Reuniting Winterbottom, John Simm, Shirley Henderson and screenwriter Laurence Coriat for the first time since 1999’s under-rated Wonderland, Everyday spans five years, and charts the experiences of a mother bringing up four children while her husband languishes in jail. Some critics have ranted about the lack of incident, but I found that the serial glimpses of the family’s life extremely powerful. Like Wonderland and (another Winterbottom favourite) The Trip, Everyday is largely a mood piece, providing plenty of breathing space for each viewer to fill in the blanks of his or her own volition, developing a powerful personal bond with the characters in the process.

The fascinating thing about seeing these movies back-to-back was the spontaneity of the two young casts. Who knows exactly how this was achieved. Certainly, one of the best things about The E.T. Journals is seeing Spielberg direct his young actors, explaining the action, helping them relate, then looking on with glee as something brilliant and unrehearsed occurs after he shouts ‘Action’. I’m sure Winterbottom adopted a similar approach, albeit with the additional advantage of his kids being real-life siblings, with much of the film even filmed in their own house.

What I think unquestionably helped the two casts, however, kids and adults alike, was that both films were shot chronologically: Everyday over the five year period of its story, and E.T. pretty much from a to b, specifically to enhance the kids’ plot comprehension and emotional responsiveness. In a weekend when I also squeezed in the director’s commentary on the muddled and emotionally confused Prometheus – in which Ridley Scott bemoans the seeming impossibility of ever shooting a screenplay in the right order – the comparable successes of E.T. and Everyday led me to wonder: how much better would all films be if only production managers could find a reliable way of shooting them in sequence? How many dreadful, jumbled messes would be redeemed – and how many masterpieces would be made even better?

Film review: Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous

(NOTE: This review first appeared in the winter 2011 edition of Around the Globe. I’m including it here as an addendum to my novel, So Long, Shakespeare.)

Alternative theories regarding the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays have a fundamental affinity with high-concept Hollywood blockbusters: both can be pitched in a single sentence – ‘Jaws in space’ for Alien; ‘Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays’ for Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous – after which, the rest pretty much writes itself. You might have to bandage over the odd plot hole, tweak any awkward historical facts, and pace things judiciously to suspend audience disbelief, but, in the spirit of Dr. Johnson’s critique of Gulliver’s Travels, ‘once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest’.

Yet while Anonymous, coming from the director of Godzilla and Independence Day, is a natural successor to its Oscar-laden forebear, Shakespeare in Love, the film’s appearance also chimes with the recent intensification of the authorship debate. Democratised by the internet, authenticated by two dedicated university courses, and advocated by knowledgeable, high-profile adherents, the controversy has been energised like never before. In this context, Anonymous represents a pivotal moment, dreamt of by some, dreaded by others: an unprecedented opportunity for the issue to leap into the mainstream, possibly even the classroom.

If that sounds overstated, the reaction of the Shakespeare establishment suggests otherwise. Many scholars have traditionally held their tongues on the authorship issue – to defend Shakespeare is to doubt Shakespeare – but the release of Anonymous, and mischievous promotional stunts like the distribution of an educational pack on the subject to US schools, has proved a call to arms. The battle is on for the hearts and minds of the masses.

Spearheading the Shakespearian fightback has been the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, fronted by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. Their brutal campaign began on 1st September, two months before the film’s release, and unfolded on several fronts. First came a web conference in which sixty luminaries (including the Prince of Wales, Stephen Fry and Roland Emmerich) responded to the film’s tagline ‘Was Shakespeare a Fraud?’. This was followed by an online seminar, e-book and several articles (including one in these pages) refuting the claims of anti-Shakespearians, with a myth-busting essay anthology from Cambridge University Press to follow in 2013. There was even a slightly counter-intuitive prank, just before the film’s release, involving the covering-up of Shakespeare’s name on pub and road signs.

It has been a passionate defence, but what of its impact? Well, media coverage of the film has been rampant, and the Trust’s pre-emptive strike – stealing a march on the enemy in order to shape the tone of reporting – seems to have paid dividends. A quick trawl through Stuart Ian Burns’ excellent @shakespearelogs Twitter aggregator confirms that the majority of mainstream opinion pieces have rejected Emmerich’s historical meddling, while also throwing up little gems like the story of the students who gathered outside a Pasadena cinema to defend Shakespeare’s honour. By contrast, most anti-Shakespearian coverage has emanated from those associated with the film – typically Emmerich himself, Rhys Ifans (who portrays the Earl of Oxford), and screenwriter John Orloff – or dyed-in-the-wool anti-Shakespearians, defending themselves in the comments below pro-Shakespeare web articles.

The saga is, of course, far from over – there’s still the Blu-Ray to come, and Mark Rylance is promising an in-kind riposte to the SBT’s web conference – but Anonymous feels unlikely to prompt a mass defection to the sceptics, and may even reinforce popular sympathy for Shakespeare’s claim. This impression is strengthened by the film faltering on release, with Sony stemming back its American distribution after poorly-received previews, and takings on both sides of the Atlantic well below par. The latter will doubtless prompt rejoicing at the SBT, even if nothing quite undermines the anti-Shakespeare cause as effectively as the film itself.

Beautifully designed, with sumptuous costumes, sets, and tremendous ‘money shots’ of Elizabethan London, Emmerich’s well-acted, potentially entertaining tale of convoluted court intrigue is hamstrung, simply and fatally, by having to make sense of the Oxfordian theory – a flight of high-concept fancy which proves that not all such stories unfurl as easily as Gulliver’s Travels, or indeed the far fleeter-footed Shakespeare in Love. The film does its valiant best, with a fractured chronology, steady drip of far-fetched revelations, and dutiful ticking-off of motivations for every character, but the illusion doesn’t last beyond the end credits. The house of cards imploded as I walked away, drawing attention to the very improbability of the premise. I emerged thinking it would be fun to believe Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays but, even as I fantasised, I felt ever more certain that he didn’t.

Bye bye, Blockbuster Crystal Palace

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.

Show me the Moneyball

A couple of weeks ago I saw Moneyball. Ever since, I’ve been wondering why I enjoyed it more than The Social Network. Now, I think I have a few answers.

First, though: why the comparison? Well, there’s the razor-sharp, high-stakes dialogue of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Also, the fact that both films are based on paradigm-shifting true stories from the last decade or so – and the fact that both stories are, in their own ways, still unfinished. There’s an affinity, too, in the renegade protagonist of each movie. Both Billy Beane and Mark Zuckerberg are single-minded guys – geeks? – with big ideas fighting different kinds of establishments. And yet, as is also the case with Sorkin’s problematic Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, neither big idea is, in itself, quite as important as Sorkin’s favoured vernacular demands.

So why, then – despite knowing nothing about baseball – did I enjoy Moneyball more?

Well, the first thing to say is that Moneyball isn’t really about baseball. Granted, neither is The Social Network really about Facebook, but what matters is what’s left once you dig below surface meaning. And it’s in that respect where Moneyball hits its blood-brother out of the park. How? Here are five possible answers.

1. Moneyball is told in real time, whereas the legal flashback framework in The Social Network – structured to add jeopardy to events that might otherwise seem undramatic – interferes with the linear momentum of the film. You never quite know where to look for the source of tension and, as a result, you never feel where resolution needs to occur.

2. Events in Moneyball are brought to a more satisfying conclusion. Despite the awkwardness of the real-life story still not having come full circle, Moneyball locates and nails the all-important pay-off, achieving emotional resolution in the absence of narrative closure. The Social Network, on the other hand, is left hanging, with the constituent episodes of the narrative failing to add up to a satisfying whole.

3. The characters in Moneyball are, to a man, more likeable than in The Social Network. Unavoidable, to an extent, but some avenue of empathy is required with even the hardest-nosed characters. With Zuckerberg in The Social Network, I always felt we were being told his story not because of who he is, but what he did. Whereas with the brilliant Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the person made sense of his passions.

4. Moneyball is about sport, and sport is a fully-functional, out-of-the-box metaphorical wizard; a guaranteed short-cut to any number of universal themes that are much harder to locate in other subjects. Whether fans or not, we all understand the aim of winning, for the team and its supporters, meaning the meddlesome detail – in Moneyball’s case, how you win – will always be secondary. In The Social Network, however, the subtleties were not only paramount, but proved difficult to universalise into cogency and relevance.

5. More personally, as a Liverpool fan, beholden to John Henry’s view of things, the detail of Moneyball (making a little go a long way) couldn’t be more timely. The same goes for football overall. Bloated as the Premier League has become – a few clubs swallowing the cream of others’ labour – the time is ripe for a different way of doing things, just as with baseball in the early 2000s. This, in contrast to The Social Network, where it felt hard to reapply even more specific themes to different contexts.

So there you have it. A personal comparison of two companion pieces, both of which I admired, but one of which most definitely trumped the other.

Will questions be answered?

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.

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