Music hath charms to soothe the savage Star Wars fan

[The post is participating in Edward Copeland on Film’s John Williams blog-a-thon.]

One day in the summer of 1979, when I was not quite 13 years old, I opened a newspaper and learned not only that Star Wars was being re-released to theaters (ending a long drought — in those days there was no other way to see it), but that it would be preceded by a trailer for next year’s sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.

I fairly rocketed out of the bungalow, whooping and hollering, to spread the news. It was the first I’d heard that a sequel was in the works, and that the Star Wars oeuvre, which — can you imagine? — was all of two hours long,1 was about to be doubled.

The nine months between that August and the following May were the longest of my life. Beginning in February or so, desperate for crumbs — there was no TMZ or EW to keep me abreast of production news — I began cutting short my subway ride home from school each day, exiting at Woodhaven Boulevard to enter the Sam Goody music store that was there then, to see if they had the soundtrack album in stock yet. Invariably they didn’t and I’d walk the remaining mile and a half home.

…Until the day, a couple of dozen tries later, that they did have it in stock! I almost couldn’t believe it. I bought it and ran it home to play it. There, just as I expected, was the opening trumpet blast and fanfare, just as in the first movie (but was that a slight difference in instrumentation I heard? and oh! surprise! the fanfare now ends on a higher note than before). As I listened to the new but occasionally familiar music I scoured the liner notes for what information I could about the movie, which was still interminable weeks away. An asteroid field scene — cool! Jedi training! A city in the clouds! Hmm, “the effigy of Han Solo” — I didn’t like the sound of that (after I looked up the meaning of “effigy”).

The new Imperial March was impressive, of course. Princess Leia’s new theme was pretty, but it left me without the profound sense of yearning that the concert version of her original theme gave me three years earlier. Unable to visualize the on-screen action yet, I found much of the album a lot less listenable than my trusty old Star Wars LP’s, but I did play the more thrilling pieces to death — “The Asteroid Field” and “Hyperspace.”

Honestly, I don’t know if I would have made it those last few weeks before the movie’s premiere if it hadn’t been for John Williams’ music to tide me over. Now, oddly, decades later, my boys walk around the house humming the same John Williams tunes that I once did — with a few notable additions, such as his “Duel of the Fates,” a composition whose musical qualities are conspicuously out of proportion to the caliber of the movie it appears in.

But that’s always been true. The presence of a John Williams score in a bad movie can elevate it to watchability, even respectability. In a decent movie, his music is still usually the best thing about it. (I’m looking at you, Superman. And where would Close Encounters have been without him?) And even when a great movie has a John Williams score, long after one’s appetite for watching the movie has flagged, it’s the music that it’s possible to enjoy over and over without limit.

  1. Er, not including a certain very forgettable TV special. []


[This post is participating in Lazy Eye Theatre’s James Bond Blog-a-thon.]

1973. Live and Let Die. I was seven years old. My folks gave me five bucks and let me go to the movies on my own, just me and my friend Matt. Afterward we rehashed and debated everything that was cool about the film: the speedboat jump, walking on crocodiles, and that amazing LED watch showing tiny red numerals when Bond pressed a button on its side. (Years later I would see the film again and be appalled at its racism. Everyone white is a good guy. Everyone black is a bad guy.)

1975. The Man With the Golden Gun. Matt saw it without me, and then described how the bad guy had this amazing gun that he assembled from innocent-looking items like a gold lighter and a gold fountain pen that he could take anywhere and no one would ever know! It was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. Also: second Bond movie in a row with a bad guy’s name ending in -anga.

1977. The Spy Who Loved Me. I had forgotten about going to see Live and Let Die, and when my summer day camp organized an outing to see the film, I resisted, claiming haughtily that I only enjoyed the original and best Bond, Sean Connery. (In fact I’m not sure whether, at that point, I’d ever seen a Connery Bond film; but I’d heard this opinion expressed elsewhere and decided to adopt it.) But I tagged along, had a terrific time, and afterward readily admitted my error. Years later I would adopt a strong preference for Sean Connery, and a dislike for Roger Moore, for real.

1979. Moonraker. I easily spotted this as a pathetic Star Wars rip-off, and the Close Encounters joke it contained made me roll my eyes, but I still liked it well enough to go out and buy the novelization. Also the first time I can remember quoting a Bond film. (“I believe he’s attempting re-entry.” [Haw!])

1981. For Your Eyes Only. What the hell was that?

1983. Octopussy. You guys aren’t even trying anymore, are you?

1985. A View to a Kill. To this day, I haven’t even bothered to see it. By this time I am evangelizing to everyone that the only really good Bond film was From Russia With Love.

1987. The Living Daylights. A welcome return to a Bond who’s dangerous and sexy, whose flirtations with an equally sexy Moneypenny don’t make me bury my face in my hands. But what’s this? The PC police have caught up with the Bond series and conspicuously scrubbed it of smoking and (as the AIDS epidemic builds up a head of steam) womanizing. Phooey! That’s not what I go to the movies for. Any time I want to see someone not womanize I can just watch myself.

1989. Licence to Kill. The promise of the previous film not fulfilled. Wayne Newton, seriously?

2002. I’d skipped all the Pierce Brosnan Bond films, but I tagged along with my co-workers to the premiere of Die Another Day. It was a revelation. Mental note: go back and watch his other movies.

2006. Casino Royale. The Bond I’d been waiting my whole life to see.

Update [14 Nov 2008]: Matt wrote to question my recall about Live and Let Die. I agree with him it’s unlikely we went alone to the movies at age seven, especially if it meant crossing Queens Blvd. Maybe we saw a re-release a couple of years later.

Eat your vegetables

[This post is participating in The Cooler’s Politics and Movies blog-a-thon.]

I don’t know how my mom ever got me to watch the film 1776 in the first place. Probably it was by turning it on to watch it herself and relying on the hypnotic spell of the TV to pull me in. Ever since she did, I have spent a large part of my life trying — and failing, mostly — to persuade others to see it too. You see, the movie is almost impossible to describe without making it sound like “eat your vegetables” or “floss your teeth” or “do your homework” — something boring but essential because it’s good for you (shudder), even though it’s actually as entertaining a two hours as you’re ever likely to spend. Its educational value is just a nice little plus.

Here, I’ll show you what I mean:

1776 is the true story of how the Second Continental Congress, which at first opposed the idea of separating from Great Britain, eventually came to adopt the Declaration of Independence. And it’s a musical!

See? You couldn’t possibly want less to watch it now, could you? The fact that it’s a musical only seems to confirm that it’s a subject so dreary that it needs some added flavor, like oatmeal. Let me try again:

In 1776, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin persuade a reluctant Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence, and a reluctant Congress to adopt it.

Ugh, that’s worse. Try this on for size:

They’re not just names in history books. They’re not just stodgy portraits, marble statues, or dry-as-dust lists of accomplishments. They were ordinary people like you and me. 1776 makes them accessible and shows how they achieved the impossible.

Oy. Clearly I’m trying too hard. Maybe if I concoct a modern high-impact movie trailer using scenes from the film and some dramatic narration…

      You know how it ends.

Close up on the new Declaration of
Independence as John Hancock adds his
distinctive signature.

      That's a pretty large signature,

      So Fat George in London can read
      it without his glasses!

      But it almost didn't happen.

Congress in session.

      South Carolina will bury now and
      forever your dream of

Congress in session.

      They stopped our trade, seized our
      ships, blockaded our ports, burned
      our towns, and spilled our blood!

      In a world that doesn't know

Congress in session.

      I have no objections at all to
      being part of the greatest empire
      on earth!

Congress in session.

      Black slavery is our peculiar
      institution and a cherished way of

      ...a secret cabal...

Franklin indicates Jefferson, Adams, and

      A farmer, a lawyer, and a sage!

      ...defies the mightiest army on

Congress in session.

          (reading a dispatch)
      "There can be no doubt that their
      destination is New York for to
      take and hold this city and the
      Hudson Valley beyond would serve
      to separate New England from the
      other colonies permitting both
      sections to be crushed in turn."

      ...and an even greater enemy:

Congress in session.

      General Washington will continue
      wording his dispatches as he sees
      fit, and I'm sure we all pray that
      he finds happier thoughts to
      convey in the near --
          (swats a fly)
      -- future.

Outside Congress.

          (singing to the heavens)
      A second Flood, a simple famine,
      Plagues of locusts everywhere
      Or a cataclysmic earthquake
      I'd accept with some despair
      But no, you've sent us Congress!
      Good God, sir, was that fair?

            NARRATOR attempt the impossible.

Franklin and Adams scheming outdoors.

      No colony has ever broken from the
      parent stem in the history of the

      One man with a vision...

Congressional chamber, empty.

      I see fireworks!
      I see the pageant and pomp and parade!
      I hear the bells ringing out!
      I hear the cannons roar!
      I see Americans, all Americans
      Free forevermore!

            NARRATOR man with a quill...

Jefferson appears at his window and lets
a paper flutter down to Adams and
Franklin in the street below.

      Franklin, look!  He's written
      something -- he's done it!
      "Dear Mr. Adams: I am taking my
      wife back to bed.  Kindly go away.
      Your obedient, T. Jefferson."

      What, again?!

      ...and one man with the savvy to
      see it through...

Congress in session.

      We've spawned a new race here --
      rougher, simpler, more violent,
      more enterprising, and less
      refined.  We're a new nationality,
      Mr. Dickinson.  We require a new

      ...must overcome incredible

Congress in session.

      But it'll never be unanimous,

      If you say so, Mr. Adams.

      ...their personal prejudices...

Franklin and Adams scheming outdoors.

      Nobody listens to you.  You're
      obnoxious and disliked.

Hopkins and Franklin milling about in
the Congressional chamber.

      You are without a doubt a rogue, a
      rascal, a villain, a thief, a
      scoundrel, and a mean, dirty,
      stinking, sniveling, sneaking,
      pimping, pocket-picking, thrice
      double-damned, no good son of a

Outside Congress.

      Oh, Mr. Adams, you are driving me
      to homicide!

      ...and their own weaknesses...

Adams and Jefferson in Jefferson's

      Do you mean to say it's not

      No, sir.  I mean to say it's not

Adams and his wife.

      I've always been dissatisfied, I
      know that.  But lately I find that
      I reek of discontentment.  It
      fills my throat and floods my

Franklin and Adams in Congress.

      What will posterity think we
      were -- demigods?

            NARRATOR prove to the world...

Congress in session.

      Certainly we require the aid of a
      powerful nation like France or

Congress in session.

      Mr. Jefferson, are you seriously
      suggesting that we publish a paper
      declaring to all the world that an
      illegal rebellion is, in reality,
      a legal one?

      ...that all men...

Adams and Franklin in the Congressional

      Whether you like it or not, they
      and the people they represent will
      be a part of the new country you'd
      hope to create!  Either start
      learning how to live with them or
      pack up and go home!

      ...are created equal.

Congress in session.

      There's no backing out now.  If we
      don't hang together, we shall most
      assuredly hang separately!


      Gentlemen, forgive me if I don't
      join in the merriment, but if
      we're arrested now, my name is
      still the only one on the damn

Wait for it…

[This post is participating in Mystery Man’s Tension blog-a-thon.]

In preparation for this blog-a-thon I have been thinking for days about suspense in the movies and I now know exactly what makes it work.

Take the scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing in which Kurt Russell has tied up everyone, taken blood samples, and then poked each blood sample with a hot wire. He has reasoned that if one of them is really the Thing in human form, then every part of it can live on its own, be capable of shape-shifting, and so on. Even a blood sample from the Thing will have a survival instinct and should try to evade a hot wire. One by one he pokes the wire into a petri dish of blood. Poke… sizzle. Just plain blood. Poke… sizzle. Just plain blood. If he finds one that’s not just plain blood, what will it do? What will the tied-up “person” do when revealed to be the Thing? The scene is enormously tense because we don’t know whether something is going to happen, or what it will be when it does. That’s suspense.

Hmm, come to think of it, maybe that’s not suspense. I’m remembering now that when I saw Batman Begins, my heart was pounding like a triphammer in the scene where young Bruce Wayne exits the opera with his parents into a dark alley. I knew exactly what was about to happen, and I desperately didn’t want it to. Maybe that’s what suspense in film is all about: letting the audience see the bad thing coming before the characters see it. This was Hitchcock’s usual approach, so there must be something to it. It’s the same dread I felt as Matt Damon’s son was winding up to jump into the swimming pool in Syriana.

But then how to explain the even greater tension in similar scenes in Schindler’s List and Pan’s Labyrinth — scenes in which a sympathetic character is at the mercy of a psychotic military commander pretending at kindness that you know can explode at any second into depraved cruelty? We don’t know what horrible whim is about to be indulged, we just know that it’s gonna be bad, real bad; and there will be no escape for the victim, and no repercussions for the psycho. In these cases the evil is all too credible — the psychopath is recognizably human, not a cartoon; and the victim is someone in whom we’re invested, and with whom we identify. Maybe the secret of movie suspense is simply to depict fully realized, three-dimensional characters in bad situations.

This would certainly explain why the suspense in parts of Maria Full of Grace was so unbearable. People say “the suspense was unbearable” and they don’t mean it literally; but I do. I literally had to stop the movie because I was so keyed up and fearful of what would happen next. More than once. Why? The peril in which Maria places herself in that film is no greater than that endured by hundreds of other heroines in hundreds of other movies; in fact you could argue it’s much less. But the vérité style of the film, the simple and sympathetic depiction of an ordinary person in desperate circumstances, and the unflinching portrayal of a nerve-wracking ordeal combine to make an excellent film almost unwatchable.

Then again, maybe you can have suspense without such close identification with the characters. Consider the scene in Aliens where Ripley and Burke and a few surviving Marines have barricaded themselves in a room, rifles at the ready, while a motion sensor shows a veritable army of aliens closing in on them. Nothing against the writing or the performances in that film, but I don’t think it’s character that makes that scene suspenseful. You just know shit’s coming, which brings us back to the first point I was trying to make. (The scene ingeniously ratchets it up a notch when the motion sensor paradoxically shows the aliens already inside the room, even though the door is still barricaded. When the characters realize the aliens must be in the suspended ceiling, there are a few moments of even more suspense as one of them climbs up to poke a tile out of the way and have a look.)

So there you have it. Movies create suspense when you know something bad is about to happen, but you don’t know what. Except when they don’t, in which case they create suspense by letting you know exactly what’s coming. And if they don’t let you know exactly what’s coming, or even whether anything is, they can still create suspense by building real characters and suggesting that something might.

I want to suspend my disbelief

[This post is participating in South Dakota Dark’s X-Files blog-a-thon.]

I can’t resist a good blog-a-thon, and South Dakota Dark’s X-Files blog-a-thon, anticipating tomorrow’s release of the new X-Files movie, seemed as good as any. For the past couple of weeks I watched the date of the blog-a-thon approach and waited for a good idea to strike. By the time it began on Sunday, none had yet. And I don’t appear to be the only one — sad to say, the X-Files blog-a-thon appears to be even more sparsely attended than my “I Can Do It Better” blog-a-thon of a few months ago.

What can account for this? The X-Files was a major pop-culture phenomenon in its time. Was its time too recent? It takes a while to ferment a classic after all. Those who were fans while the show was on the air have long since moved on, finding no shortage of well-written, well-acted conspiracy/mystery/thriller/science-fiction shows. (I’m thinking particularly of Lost, whose jaw-dropping third season I just finished on DVD last night.) And it takes more than a scant decade for a new nostalgia-minded fan base to build.

As for myself, every time I tried to think of what to write about The X-Files, my mind kept drifting instead to The West Wing. Why was that happening? I think I know, and if I’m right, it doesn’t augur well for tomorrow’s premiere.

During the late 90’s, Andrea and I used to love sitting down and watching The West Wing each week. It took place in a progressive paradise where, even though the moneyed interests sometimes won — it was about presidential politics, after all, and dealt believably with moral and political dilemmas — at least the public interest was usually uppermost in the minds of the fictional senior officials.

Star Trek had nothing on The West Wing when it came to enticing visions of an enlightened possible future.

That all came to an abrupt end during a few wrenching weeks in late 2000. The real-life presidential election results were up in the air, hinging on voting irregularities in Florida. The bad guys gamed the system and bent the rules to get the count to go their way. The good guys, being too principled, didn’t put up enough of a fight. During those weeks there were reversals of fortune and counter-reversals and counter-counter-reversals. I was a wreck. I followed every development as closely as I could and each scrap of news flayed my nerves raw. Democracy itself was under attack, and everyone involved in the battle had a stake in the outcome — meaning there was no disinterested authority to help settle the matter reasonably, not even, in the end, the Supreme Court. That authority vacuum felt like a taste of anarchy; the election battle, a gang fight in a bad neighborhood where the cops never patrol. The bad guys won, democracy lost — and at once The West Wing went from uplifting, optimistic, educational entertainment to simple-minded, far-fetched wish-fulfillment fantasy. The very thought of watching another episode was almost too painful to bear. We did try a few times, but we weren’t entertained and we weren’t optimistic for the future. The show’s only remaining power was to remind us of the brutality perpetrated on our ideals and the ease and speed with which it had been done, and was continuing to be done.

I think something similar may have happened to X-Files fandom. After seven and a half years of George Bush, who could be entertained by the idea of a shadowy government conspiracy? Who would even find such a story remarkable? Our real-life news is a constant barrage of conspiracies and corruption taking place in broad daylight. Cigarette-Smoking Man, with his furtive ways, would be laughed out of the Bush administration! The Lone Gunmen wouldn’t be three weirdos in a basement shining light on official misdeeds, they’d be DailyKos! As for Mulder and Scully, if they wanted to keep their jobs at the FBI they’d have to accept assignments trumping up new terrorism fears, busting consumers sharing mixtapes, or cracking down on porn. (Hmm, that’s one Mulder might actually like.)

Well, there’s one thing that George Bush hasn’t managed to ruin, and that’s a good working relationship between two intelligent people with a lot of integrity and courage and a little sexual tension. If the producers were smart and made the movie be about that, then tomorrow’s premiere stands a decent chance.

Film clips

[This post is participating in Culture Snob’s Self-Involvement blog-a-thon.]

Culture Snob has asked for blog posts about movies that elicited very personal reactions, a subject on which I’ve written at great length here at gee bobg. I don’t have anything new to write on that subject right now (except to publicly recite my mantra for upcoming movies that look cool: “Dark Knight, please don’t suck, please don’t suck, please don’t suck”), so instead here’s a short retrospective of things I’ve said about how movies have affected my life.

To begin with, there’s Star Wars, which enveloped me in a miasma of intense fandom from age 10 to about age 20, at which point the mist began to clear and I finally started being able to think critically about it.

I had already developed the odd habit of recording, memorizing, and reciting the dialogue of miscellaneous TV shows when Star Wars came along and spurred me to perfect that strange hobby. Thanks to that (and to obsessive audio-recording of movies on HBO) I became something of an expert in verbatim, memorable movie dialogue, which contributed to the initial courting of my wife — I presented her with a transcript of The Princess Bride, written from memory, which amazed and delighted her (and which she still keeps handy) — and led me to a unique and lucrative entrepreneurial adventure.

(It was not my first movie-based entrepreneurial effort.)

Then there’s Koyaanisqatsi, the movie that was the first one I ever watched with my later-to-be-wife, and the strange way that came full circle when the aforementioned lucre ultimately got us invited to the gala premiere of the final film of the “Qatsi” trilogy.

More recently I’ve been better able to appreciate the message that some films have for parents and those facing middle age. Which is not to say I don’t sometimes return to those few films that transport me back to childhood by evoking New York the way I remember it.


[This post is participating in 12 Grand In Checking’s New York In the Movies Blog-a-thon.]

There are endless numbers of movies in which New York City is the star: New York as we’ve always imagined it; New York as we wish it really was; New York as we fear it actually is or might become. This is not about any of those movies.

I grew up in New York City, and by the time I left it to go to college I had an ample collection of authentic New York experiences under my belt. I explored every nook and cranny of the subway system. I told a cab driver to “step on it” and then hung on for dear life. I ate at Horn & Hardart’s. I outwitted muggers. I hung out at Greenwich Village coffee shops past midnight. I rode my bicycle hell-for-leather through midday traffic. I took my prom date on a horse-and-buggy ride up Sixth Avenue and through Central Park. In the middle of a discussion with my friends of the parallels between The Warriors (a New-York-as-we-fear-it-actually-is movie) and Homer’s Odyssey, a complete stranger joined in and explained that the more apt classical comparison was with a work called Xenophon’s Anabasis.

So when I got to college in Pittsburgh I felt smugly cosmopolitan. Pittsburgh was a podunk backwater by comparison, and the people I met there — the first people I ever knew who weren’t from New York — were country bumpkins sorely in need of being edified by me about the marvels they’d been missing by lacking a big-city upbringing. Honestly, it’s a wonder I made as many friends there as I did. For a time I was insufferably superior about having come from New York.

One day, I made a remark along these lines to my friend Mike, something about how he, being only from Rochester, NY, should take my word about something or other since I was from New York City. It wasn’t the first such remark I’d made, but it finally crossed the line for Mike, and he called me out. I wish I had a transcript of exactly what he said. I remember it both as very perfunctorily putting me in my place and also as encompassing all of the following points:

  • Though New York City may contain many things to see and do, they are still only a small fraction of all the things there are in the world to see and do;
  • Though growing up in New York City may provide a broader perspective on the world than growing up elsewhere, it is still only a single perspective;
  • Though very many people live and work in New York City, it is still only a small fraction of all the people in the world; and
  • Most of the other people in the world don’t go around saying that they know better than everyone else just because of where they’re from.

I don’t know if this was the first time my arrogant attitude was directly challenged, or just the first time that it got through to me. Either way, it had the desired effect, and then some. I recognized the validity of Mike’s criticism and took it to heart. No one ever heard that sort of elitism from me again — an improvement in my personality for which I will be forever grateful to Mike. Moreover, I began to open up to the charms of Pittsburgh. Before long I felt completely at home there, where previously I had only ever measured it against my memories of New York and found it wanting.

All of which is just preamble to the point I want to make about New York. When Mike gave me that much-needed dressing down he made me feel distinctly provincial, which at first struck me as an odd way for someone from The Big Apple to feel. The City That Never Sleeps! Gotham! But I had to admit that my worldview, and that of most of the other New Yorkers I’d left behind, was as insular, as parochial, as uncultured in its way as that from any one-horse hick town.

And that’s when my idea of New York began to change. It wasn’t really the teeming, glitzy metropolis that everyone always claimed, any more than Norma Jean was really Marilyn Monroe. At heart New York City was actually the world’s biggest small town — or rather, the biggest collection of small towns, jammed close together.

It’s hard to nail down just what I mean by that, but that’s where movies come in. Offhand I can think of a few films that capture the Norma Jean face of New York City, so you can see what I mean without my having to strain my writing muscles.

A movie like Woody Allen’s Manhattan does not capture it, because it makes the city bigger than the people in the story. It’s a New-York-as-we’ve-always-imagined-it movie. A movie like the little-seen Rich Kids, on the other hand, does. It can be set in no place other than New York, but not because New York makes the characters be who they are — the characters make New York what it is.

Neil Simon was good at this kind of New York story, and ironically the main characters in his best one, The Goodbye Girl, aren’t even New Yorkers! Marsha Mason’s character is from Cincinatti; Richard Dreyfus’s is from Chicago. But their banter is a big part of what makes New York the city it is. Quinn Cummings, even more so.

Martin Scorsese’s movies almost qualify for inclusion but rely too heavily on the violent (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver) and the bizarre (Taxi Driver, After Hours) to really capture my New York — the real, personal, cozy New York of my youth, the New York made primarily of neighborhood people and not of melodrama. On the other hand, Eyewitness and Dog Day Afternoon do qualify. Even though each contains some melodramatic crime and violence elements, they are both populated by actual New Yorkers: outspoken, ethnic, irritable, big-hearted in spite of everything; people who thoroughly inhabit their own small communities that form the patchwork quilt of the city.

It’s strange: Hero At Large captures my idea of small-town New York, but Turk 182! does not. Both are lighthearted comedies about anonymous heroes whose exploits capture the imagination of the entire city, but it’s instructive to see how Timothy Hutton and Robert Urich, the brothers in Turk 182!, fail to embody the things about New York that I’ve been talking about despite their obvious efforts at characterization, while John Ritter and Anne Archer, whose acting skills are blander, nevertheless succeed in Hero At Large on pure heart.

I’m sure I’ve failed to convey my point very well, but if you watch some of the movies I’ve named, maybe you’ll understand what I mean. Or maybe it’s only possible to understand that feeling about New York if you grew up there in the 1970’s, when giant retail chains did not yet dominate the landscape and perhaps it really was more of a small town than it is today.

There is no end zone

[This post is participating in Strange Culture’s Dads In Media blog-a-thon.]

Some time ago I wrote,

The movie […] teaches that worry is an inextricable part of parenthood, which is a comfort in a way. Thanks to Finding Nemo, when I encounter a worrying situation in my role as a father, I cope a little better. I know that it goes with the territory, that it’s universal, and that there’s a right way to deal with it.

An even more potent touchstone for teaching us to accept the worries of parenthood is Parenthood, the 1989 film by Ron Howard, and its central point is nicely summed up in a scene between Frank Buckman (Jason Robards) and his son Gil (Steve Martin). Frank has learned that his black-sheep son, Larry, is in deep trouble with the mob. While ostensibly asking Gil’s advice about whether to help Larry pay off his gambling debt, Frank’s really coming to terms with the hardest truth about having children: no matter how long you and your children live, if you love them, you never stop worrying about them.

Just earlier in the film, Gil had a fantasy in which his troubled young son Kevin grows up to be confident, successful, and happy, praising his dad in his valedictory address at college. Fantasy-Gil reveled in a job well done. Now here is Gil’s father with the dismal news that:

There is no end zone. You never cross the goal line, spike the ball and do your touchdown dance. Never.

And yet for all the worrying about children (of all ages) that occupies the film’s many parents, the message of the movie is a positive one: that lifelong worry is a small price to pay for the profound joys of parenthood. This too is summed up neatly in a scene where Grandma interrupts Gil’s obsessive fretting with a seemingly irrelevant story.

Indiana Jones and the Musical Gimmick

[This post is participating in Cerebral Mastication’s Indiana Jones blog-a-thon.]

Speaking of subtle filmmaking techniques

The rousing musical score that John Williams wrote for Raiders of the Lost Ark included several melodic themes: two for Indiana Jones and one for Marion, a motif for the German army, and of course a theme for the lost ark itself, suitably spooky. As an avid fan of the film and of John Williams I’ve listened to the score countless times over the past 27 years. But as a musical layman, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I noticed something clever that John Williams seemed to be doing with the Ark Theme.

We hear the Ark Theme for the first time when Indiana Jones shows an illustration of the ark to the Army intelligence men who come to meet him.

As you can perhaps hear in that clip, the melody doesn’t quite resolve; it segues into a few notes’ worth of Indy’s theme (a.k.a. “The Raiders March”). But the Ark’s theme is heard again just a few moments later when Marcus expresses his misgivings about this assignment to Indy.

In this clip, Indy starts out thinking about his old flame — “Suppose she’ll still be with him?” — and Marion’s theme plays for a few bars, but then Marcus tells him, “For nearly three thousand years, man has been searching for the lost ark,” at which point the Ark Theme comes in. But once again it does not resolve, segueing this time into the flying-boat travel montage.

The next time the Ark Theme appears, Indy is in the Map Room. This scene is divided into four sequences, each of which includes a rendition of the Ark Theme, each separated from the others by a cut to Indy’s friend Sallah, who’s waiting for him outside.

In the first Map Room sequence, Indy lowers himself by rope into the room and looks at the miniature city on the floor. The Ark Theme plays almost to completion, but leaves off the final note when cutting to Sallah being harassed by some German soldiers.

Next Indy deciphers some hieroglyphics and checks the position of the sun. The Ark Theme plays barely halfway through this time.

Now Indy affixes the medallion to the Staff of Ra, places the staff in the proper hole, and fervidly awaits the proper alignment of the sun. At last the angle is right and a brilliant beam of light reveals the location of the Well of the Souls! The music reaches a crescendo and a satisfying resolution — but while Indy was waiting for the sunlight to creep across the Map Room floor, the melody modulated into another key. We still have not heard the Ark Theme play from beginning to end!

In the coda to the Map Room scene, Indy snaps the Staff of Ra in two and looks for his rope to climb out, but it’s missing. Sallah drops an improvised replacement into the hole. The Ark Theme peters out on a visual gag: Indy discovering a Nazi flag knotted into his makeshift rope.

In the very next scene, Indy, disguised (poorly) as an Arab, ducks hastily out of sight when some soldiers approach too closely. He enters a tent and discovers, tied to a tent pole, Marion — who he thought had been killed! He’s about to free her when he realizes he can’t without raising an alarm. Marion wonders why he’s not cutting her bonds. He tells her, “I know where the ark is, Marion,” and we hear the Ark Theme again. As he explains and she becomes frantic, the music segues into Marion’s theme.

Next, Indy uses a surveying instrument to convert his Map Room calculations into an actual location for digging. A variation on the Ark Theme plays, still unresolved.

A short time later, Indy arrives at his calculated location with a team of diggers. He clambers up a rise alone, scopes it out, and calls his team over. The first half of the Ark Theme plays three times in slightly different forms, and there’s a crescendo as Indy removes the first shovelful of sand, but it’s still not a resolution of the complete Ark Theme.

We get a few notes of the Ark Theme again (listen closely) as Indy and Sallah heave the stone cover off the chest protecting the ark…

…and then a few more as they lift the ark out of its container…

…and another few when Belloq spots the illicit dig early in the morning (“Colonel, wake your men!”)…

…and then once more as German soldiers converge on Indy’s dig site. Once again the final resolving note is left off.

The next appearance of the Ark Theme comes much later. The main characters are now all on a secret Nazi island submarine base. The Ark Theme accompanies the procession of Belloq, Marion, a lot of Germans, and the ark itself (and secretly Indy too) across the island to the ceremonial altar. It’s interrupted when Indy steps out of hiding and levels a bazooka at the group.

Indy’s bluff is called, and he’s captured and brought to the altar to witness the opening of the ark. Belloq mutters some sacred words in Aramaic, the ark is opened — and the stone tablets are not inside, just a bunch of sand. (Psych!) Disappointment turns to bewilderment, though, as the electrical equipment shorts out and an eerie fog spills out of the ark. Here’s the Ark Theme again. This time, just before it resolves it gives way to a danse-macabre version of itself.

That version also doesn’t resolve. Instead it becomes a staccato nightmare as the power of the ark is unleashed.

Finally, the one and only time in the whole film that the Ark Theme is heard from beginning to end, complete with a melodic resolution in the same key, comes as the ark purifies the island by fire, then seals itself back up.

The long-awaited resolution of the Ark Theme creates a sensation of finality. The music subconsciously reinforces the action on the screen: hearing the melody conclude at last, there can be no question that that’s all we’ll see or hear from the ark. Not even the film’s final scene, in which the ark is packed away in a crate inside a gigantic warehouse, repeats the resolution.

Now let’s see if the new sequel betrays that satisfying sense of finality by “going back to the well,” as it were (the Well of Souls!) and unearthing the ark again.

The colors of Star Wars

[This post is participating in Too Many Projects’ Production Design blog-a-thon.]

As I’ve written before, there were a lot of things that bothered me about The Empire Strikes Back. But I was only thirteen when I saw it, and a diehard Star Wars fan. It took years even to admit I didn’t like it much, and decades to be able to articulate my complaints. But there was one problem with it that I was able to identify immediately in the summer of 1980: the soft, pinkish light in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. It hadn’t looked that way in the original, where the cockpit was shades of grey and fluorescent lighting and harsh shadows.

Had Han Solo had an interior decorator revamp his ship between the two films?

I wondered why the new lighting scheme bothered me so much. It could have been simply that change is painful — after all, the Millennium Falcon was already the coolest spaceship in sci-fi history, and you don’t mess with success. But I felt there must be a more substantive reason, and as I searched for it, I slowly awoke to the importance of production design, and specifically the cleverness of the color palette in the original Star Wars.

In that film, space is black, sprinkled with white stars. Spaceships are off-white and gunmetal grey. Stormtroopers, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia wear white. Darth Vader wears black. The surface and buildings of Tatooine are shades of beige, bleached by the sun. Inside the Death Star: grey walls and floors, grey-uniformed officers, black prison cells.

Everything is stark. There is almost no color in Star Wars — except when lasers are firing, lightsabers are clashing, and spaceships are exploding. Then what might have been only a modestly exciting action sequence is amplified, by contrast with the rest of the film’s chromatic drabness, into literally a dazzling thrill.

In 1939, when The Wizard of Oz shifted abruptly from dreary greys into Technicolor, audiences were exhilarated. Ingeniously, the art directors of Star Wars took that one tremendous sensation, chopped it up into small doses, and meted it out to their audience in electrifying little jolts throughout the entire movie — a strategy that the designers of Empire, with its more liberal and therefore less effective use of color, unwisely chose to forgo.