Saturday, May 17, 2014

Notes and Frames II: Interview with Composer Jerry Goldsmith (1982)

Where the original Hollywood composers who pioneered film music, such as Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann and Alex North, either came from classical music backgrounds, or continued to do concert work while plying a trade scoring movies, Jerry Goldsmith always wanted to be a film composer. Born in 1929 in Los Angeles, he studied piano at six and by the time he was thirteen began having private lessons with the legendary concert pianist Jakob Gimpel. While studying counterpoint and theory with the Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (who also tutored Henry Mancini and John Williams), Goldsmith happened to see Hitchcock's Spellbound which was scored by Miklós Rózsa and he was hooked. Goldsmith would soon enrol and attend lectures Rózsa gave at the University of Southern California until he began more practical studies in scoring at Los Angeles City College.

By the Fifties, Jerry Goldsmith began work in radio and later scored live CBS television shows such as Climax! and Playhouse 90. Soon he was scoring multiple episodes of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (where he composed the famous opening theme music) and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. In 1961, composer Alfred Newman became deeply impressed with Goldsmith's work on Thriller and recommended him to Universal Pictures who needed a composer for their new modern western Lonely are the Brave (1962). From there Goldsmith mapped out a career that spanned over 40 years.

Most film composers have a style that makes their work recognizable from the very opening notes, but Jerry Goldsmith's work was eclectic and unpredictable. More than any other composer, perhaps save Henry Mancini and Ennio Morricone, Goldsmith employed elements of both pop and classical sounds into his work. And the films he scored, both good and bad, were as motley as the soundtracks he created. On John Huston's Freud (1962), for instance, Goldsmith didn't write a score in the style of Mahler or Strauss (which would have been the composers of Freud's time), but instead the more modern serialist atonal music of Schoenberg or Berg which better reflected the turbulent journeys into the unconscious mind. In 1968, Goldsmith would even write a complete 12-tone score for Planet of the Apes. He was a master of adaptability and without ever losing his individual voice whether it was composing epic pictures like The Sand Pebbles (1966) and Patton (1970), or intimate dramas like A Patch of Blue (1965) and Sam Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970). He had a distinctive touch with period dramas either being sweepingly romantic as in The Wind and the Lion (1975), delicate and moody in Chinatown (1974), or using pop and orchestral sounds to evoke an era as in L.A. Confidential (1997). Despite the wide range of pictures from the good (Six Degrees of Separation, The Russia House, Under Fire), the bad (Papillon, Damnation Alley, Outland), and the ugly (The Swarm, The Boys From Brazil), his work remained consistently intelligent and imaginative. He would win only one Academy Award for his beautifully foreboding chorale score to the dreadful, The Omen (1976), while being nominated a record 18 times. Goldsmith would die in 2004 from colon cancer.

When I spoke to Jerry Goldsmith in 1982 for CJRT-FM's radio show, On the Arts, he had just finished scoring the Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg horror thriller Poltergeist and was in Toronto to speak at a Film Music Symposium. At one point in the interview, we started discussing his thoughts on a variety of pictures and that section is what's included below.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Two Neglected Gems from 1935: Annie Oakley and Private Worlds

Melvyn Douglas, Barbara Stanwyck and Andy Clyde in Annie Oakley (1935)

George Stevens became a distinguished director in the post-war years, turning out prestige pictures, and though I like some of them very much – I Remember Mama with Irene Dunne, the rigged but deeply affecting A Place in the Sun with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor – it’s the less encumbered Stevens of the 1930s I love. This is the era in which he turned out Alice Adams with a heartrending Katharine Hepburn as Booth Tarkington’s small-town social climber, and the most sublime of the Astaire-Rogers musicals, Swing Time. And in between he made the handsome, satisfying entertainment Annie Oakley.

Annie Oakley mixes the conventions of several genres. Officially it’s a film bio of the celebrated late-nineteenth-century Ohio-born sharpshooter who became the leading attraction in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, though John Sayre and John Twist’s charming script is considerably fictionalized. It’s also an offbeat western, like Ruggles of Red Gap (also made in 1935) and 1939’s Destry Rides Again. And, like Destry, it contains elements of romantic comedy, though the filmmakers scramble them up with a little melodrama. Annie (Barbara Stanwyck) challenges Buffalo Bill’s star attraction, Toby Walker (Preston Foster), to a shooting contest, and he’s amused to find that this “rube from the tall timber” is a girl. (The proprietor of the general store, the Scots MacIvor, played by Andy Clyde, who has been buying fresh quail from her, has been thinking all this time that he’s dealing with a crack shot named Andy Oakley.) At first Toby condescends to her, but as she matches him shot for shot, he starts to look unsettled, his pride dampened. She lets him win when her mother (Margaret Armstrong) whispers anxiously that “that young man” might lose his job, but Jeff Hogarth (Melvyn Douglas), the manager of the Wild West Show, comes around later with an offer to join the show. Toby is a wised-up celeb from New York’s Bowery and a boastful egotist, but there’s another side to him: he’s sweet, generous and courageous. But only Annie gets to see those qualities; he’s alienated the rest of the Wild West Show, whom Annie has won over by dint of her talent and her modesty – triumphing in a traditional boys’ club – and who now want to see her make him look bad.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Cringe Cringe, Bang Bang: Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac

Uma Thurman, , Hugo Speer and Stacy Martin in Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac (Photo by Christian Geisnæs)

One of the most striking things about Lars von Trier’s recent work is that his canvass keeps expanding, even as his view of human beings grows ever smaller. It’s a quality that links his career to Stanley Kubrick’s, though one welcome difference between the two directors is that von Trier may be getting better with actors. I don’t know if he’s cut back on his trademark torturing of the performers between takes, but in his previous film, Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst gave the least traumatized-looking big performance by an actress in the history of Lars von Trier movies. That same movie featured a superb performance by Kiefer Sutherland in a role that seemed like a stretch for him, and in von Trier’s latest, Nymphomaniac, Christian Slater, who has the small but important role of the heroine’s father, is uncharacteristically not horrible.

Unlike the later Kubrick, von Trier doesn’t come across as thinking he’s above engaging with members of the human race, but he also doesn’t seem to have a very generous or interesting view of them. Nymphomaniac is in two parts, and depending on which version you see, the whole thing runs four hours, or about half an edit longer. That’s a long time to spend watching a demonstration that people are animals motivated by bestial urges, which only the most unfeeling of us can manage any control over. (The dialogue is full of would-be epigrams, most of them stillborn; in one of the better lines, the heroine sums up romantic love as “lust with jealousy added.”) It says a lot for how far von Trier has come as a showman that the movie is only intermittently repugnant.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Peter Sellars' Hercules and PTSD

Richard Croft, Lucy Crowe (ground), and Kaleb Alexander in Hercules (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The theatre is as much a social act as an aesthetic.
 Peter Sellars

The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.
 Ibsen

The spike-haired and infectiously exuberant operatic director, Peter Sellars, has always put his distinctive personal stamp on all of his productions. He is an iconoclast who is adamant about discarding the old sets and costumes and breaking down the boundaries between art and life that put the audience at a safe distance. His goal is to render the opera modern and immediate. In doing so he has both thrilled and infuriated opera lovers. The latter was upset about the recent Canadian Opera Company’s (COC) production of George Frideric Handel’s Hercules in which the captive, the Princess Iole (Lucy Crowe), is hauled on stage wearing an orange jump suit, her face hooded with a black cloth a la Abu Ghraib, by a machine-gun toting soldier, and by the final scene in which the coffin of Hercules is draped with an American flag. Some viewers regarded these contemporary allusions as gratuitous. But Sellars does not indulge in the gimmickry that his critics suggest even though he concedes that the visuals do present a “weird disjunction.” As a politically engaged artist, he deeply believes that the arts in general and opera specifically should provide a visceral intensity and the space for a contemplative experience, which he believes does not occur in the headlines approach to what is happening in our times. He also cares deeply about the music itself as the distinguished musicologist, Susan McClary, remarked in a recent symposium “Coming Home: Handel’s Hercules” held at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. She contrasted him with another renowned director, Robert Lepage, when she wondered whether the huge “machine” in the New York production of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung, which gave the performers so much trouble, deepened our understanding of the Ring cycle.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Dystopia Derailed: Bong Joon-Ho's Snowpiercer


Snowpiercer, translated from a 1980s French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige, takes place in a post-apocalyptic future wherein all life on Earth has been extinguished – frozen solid as an unfortunate side effect of an airborne chemical intended to control global warming by lowering atmospheric temperatures worldwide. This technology gets away from us, as it is invariably wont to do, and the tiny, fractured human population which remains is contained within the moving prison called Snowpiercer: a massive train whose track encircles the globe, powered by its own nonstop momentum. A strict societal order is imposed upon the train’s inhabitants, restricting the lower working castes to the crowded, filthy, windowless rear cars, where they can only dream of the fabulous and opulent lifestyles that exist nearer the front. The film’s protagonist (played by a bearded Chris Evans, looking oddly Just-For-Men) leads the tail section in a rebellion when the guards arrive to deliver food, and they aim to fight their way through the train, all the way to the engine, where the train’s creator Wilford is said to live. If it sounds like a noisy, uncertain, colourful, daring, and excessively violent film, it’s because that’s exactly what it is.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Stroman’s Spree: Bullets Over Broadway

Heléne Yorke, Zach Braff and Lenny Wolpe in the musical Bullets Over Broadway (Photo by Sara Krulwich)

Bullets Over Broadway is such a lark that its tepid reviews and poor showing in the Tony nominations feel like a bad joke. The musical isn’t without its flaws. But I’m not sure what the people who put it together – Woody Allen, who adapted the screenplay he and Douglas McGrath had written for the 1994 movie; Susan Stroman, the director-choreographer; designers Santo Loquasto (sets), William Ivey Long (costumes) and Donald Holder (lighting); and Glen Kelly, who adapted the 1920s tunes – could have done to make it much more entertaining.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

In for a Pound: Showtime's Penny Dreadful

Josh Hartnett, Harry Treadaway, Eva Green and Timothy Dalton in Penny Dreadful (Photo by Jonathan Hession)

Named for the Victorian-era pulp novels that captured the attention of young British men with their vivid tales of true crime and gothic horror, Showtime's new series Penny Dreadful premieres tonight. The show is a co-production of Showtime with Britain's Sky Atlantic and will begin airing for UK audiences on May 20th. The period horror series boasts strong production values, a talented cast of actors, and some genuine literary ambition. And also, it need not be said, vampires. Lots and lots of vampires.

With three seasons of FX's American Horror Story under our belt and the second season of its poorer Netflix cousin Hemlock Grove premiering in a month,  I wouldn't have thought that the television landscape needed another self-described "psychosexual" horror series. And honestly for this sometimes weak-stomached viewer, two horror series have sometimes been two too many, with the current shows erring too much and too often on the side of exploitation for me to enjoy them regularly. To its credit, Penny Dreadful  for all its gothic pedigree and explicitness regarding blood and sex  has succeeded in telling a story which is both creepy and entertaining. Sensationalist without being lurid, literary without being self-conscious, Penny Dreadful is a blast.