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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 01/05/01 -- Vol. 19, No. 27
Table of Contents
Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper, 732-817-5619, firstname.lastname@example.org Factotum: Evelyn Leeper, 732-332-6218, email@example.com Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell, firstname.lastname@example.org HO Chair Emeritus: John Jetzt, email@example.com HO Librarian Emeritus: Nick Sauer, firstname.lastname@example.org Back issues at http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper. All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.
It is said that it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good.
I turned on the radio to NPR in the middle of a story and heard this odd story. It was about a new classical concerto based on themes from the music of the rock group The Doors. You know, they did "Come on Baby, Light My Fire," "When You're Strange," that sort of thing. In fact you probably know better than me. It was not my style of music. Somebody wrote an entire concerto based on themes from their music and was now recording it.
The first thing I thought of is that it is probably some Eastern European symphony orchestra playing the music and lending their name to give dignity to something less than their usual orthodox classical music. It seems in Eastern Europe there are these orchestras that used to be under the thumb of the Soviets. In those days they played Russian music until they had it coming out the kazoo. They were probably not happy about the circumstances. Now the Soviet Union is no longer funding them and they realize some advantages of the old system. They now need to earn money how they may. They need to find work where it found them before, however dull. Playing dull Russian music may have been better than being out of work.
This situation is bad news for them, but it is good news for some of us over here in the US. There are those of us for whom film music is a genre of its own. A lot of better film music is now turning up. For example, since the 1960s there were a few rare recordings of music taken from horror and science fiction films. Sometimes they were accurate to the original film scores in the film. More often it was filtered through the questionable sensibilities of some cretin arranger who wanted to see how it sounded with his own flourishes. In recreating film music, the ideal is the original soundtrack recording. Anything that makes it noticeably not like the original score is bad. You would get people who would end the music in some pointlessly creative impromtu composition; you would get music that would change the tempo. These renditions would whet ones appetite for the original score rather than satisfy it. There were some pretty miserable variations on a theme film fans cherished.
Come the fall of the Soviet Union and there are a bunch of orchestras used to being paid little enough to play the Soviets' music. Now they are scratching to earn even that much. These are orchestras who work for a small part of what an American orchestra would. And they have talented people, people who grew up with great melodic music. And playing that musis was a respectable profession. Today these musicians just want work, they do not need to put their own private creativity into film scores. They may or may not have even seen the films whose scores they are now imitating.
One company, Monstrous Movie Music--named for their first CD--are getting the original scores to classic films like IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, THEM!, and GORGO and getting them together with the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra in Krakow, Poland. They are doing flawless re-recordings. I do not know if the orchestras ever saw the original films or not, but they get the music pretty close to how it sounded in the film. This music can get what would be a really expensive performance if done domestically. They get it for a small fraction of the price because they are recording it in Krakow.
So the first thing I thought to myself when they said that someone had written a concerto for music of the Doors is that it is probably recorded by the selfsame Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra in Krakow doing what nobody else would. It sounds impressive that they are getting it played by a real symphony orchestra, but they may be doing it on the cheap.
Well, I was half wrong. The concerto was recorded by the City of Prague Symphony Orchestra. No, they don't record science fiction film music as far as I know. They record Western film music. I have their album "The Wild West." They do a pretty good job of recreating the scores of American Westerns. You know: THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER, THE SEARCHERS, THE BIG COUNTRY, some of the great Westerns. Other notable albums include ZULU, the music of John Barry. They leave the monster movie scores to their Polish friends. But they do basically the same thing. They usually record for Silva Screen, a label that deals in their own very good recreations of classic film music. I guess they can keep the orchestra going with jobs like this. They may even have some fun with it. I suppose old movies in English are a godsend to Eastern European symphony orchestras. And even to someone who wants to put an impressive frame on a concerto written on themes of The Doors. It is the musical equivalent of a vanity press. [-mrl]
O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: In 1937 Mississippi three fugitives from a chain gang race to save a treasure from being flooded by a new dam. Lacking the power of the best of the Coen Brothers, this is a sly little Southern Odyssey with more than its share of chuckles. The story works only in episodes but the unusual time and setting and the odd characterization pull the film along. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), low +2 (-4 to +4)
The 1941 Preston Sturges comedy SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS told of a movie director who decided that in the hard depression era, fluffy comedies just were not what the world needed. He wants to make a serious film about the down-trodden in the South. When the director sees the real world he discovers what the world really needs is more fluffy comedies like . . . well, like that Preston Sturges guy makes. On to the ash heap go his plans to make the serious and important film O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? Apparently Joel and Ethan Coen have decided to make a film called O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? after all. In spite of the dour title it seems that neither Sullivan nor the Coens could resist the urge to make fluff that belies the harsh setting.
The plot is simple enough. We start with a chain gang working soulfully in the blistering Mississippi sun. Somehow three men have managed to escape (as convicts always seem to from cinematic chain gangs) and are hiding in a cornfield. They are hobbled by a chain around their ankles and betrayed by their telltale broad- striped prison clothing. There is Everett Ulysses McGill (played by George Clooney), Pete Hogwollop (John Turturro), and Delmar O'Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson. The story follows them on a short odyssey into the poor South past sights and though a series of episodes, some of which will be drawn together in the final reel. Along the way they pick up and then lose a black guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King). They mix into music, and politics; they see a famous criminal's getaway, a baptism, and a Klan rally. In the end they have multiple whimsical Dei Ex Machinae. Some of the incidents are loosely and slightly pretentiously based on episodes of Homer's Odyssey. Others are inspired by SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS and perhaps bits of other films set in the Depression-era South like NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and FOOLS' PARADE and Davis Grubb stories.
The Coen Brothers are, of course, some of the most creative filmmakers going. This film is released by the unconventional combination of Touchstone and Universal. Roger Deakins shot the entire film with washed out colors to give the film something of a period feel. It works, though I am not sure why. They drop into scenes 1930s products, particularly hair pomade for the dapper Ulysses. They avoided two pitfalls here. They used no brands currently available so they respected their film sufficiently to avoid product placements. They also avoided that great cliche of the South, Moon Pies. One cliche they did not avoid is the choreographed and slightly too poetic chain gang. It always seems like an appeal to social conscience to show men chained up, though how different is it from children led together through town on a rope as we see in the latter portion of the film?
The music by T-Bone Burnett and others becomes an important element of the film rather than just creating atmosphere for incidents. The movie is suffused with the "Old Timey" music of the period which becomes important in the plot. There is a repeating theme of the characters getting into strange circumstances by following mystical music coming from the woods. Each time it is heard the boys will be tested in some way. Tim Blake Nelson is not one of the more familiar faces on the screen but manages to stand up with the more popular Clooney and Turturro, though in the musical scenes he seems relegated to a distinct third place. Also along in much smaller roles are familiar Coen veterans Charles Durning, John Goodman, and Holly Hunter.
As a single story, O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? just does not amount to much. But the individual episodes are entertaining. I rate it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
FINDING FORRESTER (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: Gus Van Sant returns to the familiar territory of GOOD WILL HUNTING with a retread of that concept. This time the genius is a ghetto boy and basketball star who hides the fact he is one of America's best writers. While there are a few nice moments the film reeks of a filmmaker who is desperate to have a successful film. Sean Connery stars as J. D. Salinger type who helps the hero develop his talent. Van Sant respects great writers but desperately needs one himself. Rating: 4 (0 to 10), 0 (-4 to +4)
Two films back Gus Van Sant had a large success with GOOD WILL HUNTING. The public seemed to go in a big way for this story of a blue collar mathematics genius. (Mine was one of the few dissenting opinions and mostly for the unlikelihood of the premise.) Van Sant's follow-up made a definite thud with an almost scene-for- scene remake of the classic PSYCHO. PSYCHO is one of those films that one ought not to remake. Van Sant needs another success to show that GOOD WILL HUNTING was not just a fluke. He really has to have another GOOD WILL HUNTING. Sadly that is rather transparently what he was trying a little too hard to make. He took the premise of his former success and doctored it to be an even surer success. First he plays the race card. This time his hero is not just a blue collar worker, he is a really deserving sixteen-year-old black writer who is trying to succeed in an academic world dominated by white males, some of them nasty. Coming to a new and posh school a rich white girl takes an interest in our young writer, and you know immediately they are going to hit it off. Why? Van Sant is taking no chances. If they fight the script will have to make one of them right. It can not make a white right in a conflict with a black or a man right in a conflict with a woman. Neither would be safe filmmaking, so the clearly can be no conflict between the two of them. Then to make the film even safer there is a big part for Sean Connery as a great writer who takes our deserving lad under his wing. Connery makes few films that do not succeed and here he even was one of the producers. Retread concept, political correctness, and Sean Connery: this is Van Sant playing it super- safe. Oh, yes, and did I mention there is also a "big game"?
Outwardly, Jamal Wallace (played by Robert Brown) seems like just about any other ghetto kid. Well, he is great at basketball. But privately Jamal likes to read the great works of Western literature. And then he has his notebooks where he writes his thoughts that he does not want to share with the world. In this Bronx neighborhood there is a strange old man who never leaves his apartment. He just stares out the window at the passing parade and does who knows what else. He just looms as a presence over the neighborhood.
On a dare Jamal breaks into the strange apartment and is about to steal something small to prove he was there but is frightened off leaving behind his backpack with his writings. The old man eventually gives the backpack back, but the notebooks have been marked up with the critical comments that could only come from a great writer. It is the kind of tutelage that Jamal desperately wants. The recluse turns out to be the great William Forrester (Sean Connery), the J. D. Salinger-like writer who wrote one great novel and then never published again.
Meanwhile Jamal has attracted the attention of a prestigious school who wants the students for his basketball skills and only secondarily for the potential that his test scores show he has. But there is pressure in the new school to push Jamal into the basketball track while his writing teacher Professor Crawford (F. Murray Abraham) finding his writing getting better and better bigotedly suspects Jamal of cheating.
There is not doubt that the best part of the film is the writing lessons which are written with insight. Suggestions like writing first from the heart and then rewriting from the mind sound useful, though they may be a little obvious. And they are a special treat delivered by the charismatic Connery who, though not known for his writing ability, has the hypnotic style that would make even toilet repair sound enthralling.
This is the second film I have seen this year photographed by Harris Savides, the other being THE YARDS. I definitely see a pattern forming. Both are films in film noir style with overuse of dimly lit scenes. Many of the scenes really seem to be carved from the darkness. In Forrester's apartment the lighting is so muted that shadows on Connery join with the background darkness. Crawford's classroom is also filmed in dim and downbeat style. Scenes are frequently washed out. It feels to me like this is manipulation, though in a better film it might more sympathetically be called style. In any case there seems to be an excess of it here.
By trying too hard to be successful, this film rarely rises above mediocrity. I rate it a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. I did like the writing lesson, but with that exception everything I ever needed to know about FINDING FORRESTER I got from watching the trailer. [-mrl]
Quote of the Week:
Cynicism is an unpleasant way of saying the truth. -- Lillian Hellman