Thursday, July 21, 2011

Movies and Music

I have always loved music, especially classical music and movie music, and I have always loved movies, almost every kind. Oddly enough, I have occasionally discovered musical treasures through movies. After recovering from extreme shock and fear from ALIEN's multiple scares, I was lulled into recovery by some ethereal music that just didn't seem to match the rest of the score. Of course, it didn't hurt that a lithesome and sexy Sigourney Weaver was stripping for her pod escape. But somehow I missed the name of the composer as the credits rolled. A few years later, as I was driving home from Atlanta, I heard the ALIEN music on NPR. I almost swerved off the road. It wasn't long before I had Howard Hanson's in my permanent collection. To further my addiction to this lush, almost hypnotic symphony, I used the film of ALIEN in my film class. Naturally the students loved ALIEN (many had already seen it), but introducing them more formally to Hanson's music was a great bonus for me and for them.

I also discovered another popular classical theme when I fell in love with EXCALIBUR, John Boorman's fantastical take on the Arturian legends. No, I'm not talking about Ricard Wagner's operatic takes on Germanic legends; they are hardly subtle, though beautifully evocative of mood and narrative. No, I'm talking about the famous scene in which Arthur leaves Camelot to restore THE LAND! As he and his shining knights rode through the barren countryside, a rousing chant accompanied them and branches began sprouting blooms. The scene ends in an orgiastic explosion of white petals slashed by Arthur's red banners. Like everything else in EXCALIBUR (particularly Helen Mirren as Morgan le Fay), the scene is over the top, and Carl Orff's Carmina Burana is the perfect accompaniment for such delightful excess. Again, I used said film in my film class but also put it to good use in my Humanities class where we could compare Wagner, Orff, and Pre-Raphaelite art. Since EXCALIBUR debuted, Orff's short and blustery music has dominateeved action movie previews and become almost a sad cliche.

The last example is the most obvious. It may be hard to believe, but in 1967 I had never heard Ricard Strauss' Thus Sprach Zarathustra, the awe-inspiring music used at major moments of discovery in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. This is a short series of long chords that build in majesty and finish with a lingering organ echo. Since that time, this particular theme has become the most cliched classical theme of all, out-performing even Tchaikovsky's love theme from Romeo and Juliet. TV commercials and movies the world over still love to use this theme, usually in a mocking way. But in Kubrick's world of space exploration and inner discovery, it couldn't have been more original.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

All grown up with facial hair and tears to prove it

At long last, J.K. Rowling's epic saga of a cute little fellow with the odd birthmark and even odder glasses has reached its end. The reading and viewing worlds owe an amazing debt to the author who turned on kids to almost addictive reading and movie-goers to a superb series of movies based on the books.

The last film, Part II of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, is one of the finest of the group, despite its being weighted by the daunting task of bringing back so many of the fine characters and character actors for a last hurrah as well as tying up all the loose ends. But essentially it all boils down to one major climax--Harry's last face-off with his dreaded enemy Lord Voldemort. Ralph Fiennes' embodiment of pure, slithering, soulless evil almost dominates the film, though he is closely followed by a harrowing performance by Alan Rickman as the ambiguously cold Professor Snape. Watching Rickman and Fiennes is akin to seeing the best in the world in any field. They are that good!

And the film almost matches them. It has stunning effects, gorgeous music, and a moving story. And what most people want to see is the fate of the three protagonists Harry Potter, Hermoine Granger, and Ron Wesley. When these roles were cast over a decade ago, the actors Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint were green kids with more charm than ability, but by the third film, they were becoming their characters, and in the last two films they have a gravity that makes them real people and adults. So it is with some sadness that we watch them leave the world of magic for the world of reality, the one we have to face on a daily basis. Perhaps that is the major reason the series has been so popular with adults as well as youngsters. It is more than escapism that fuels such success, more than special effects. Our strong need for the verification of good triumphing over relentless, soulless evil can't be easily found in the world we see on the news, but it still exists. Often it has its fulfillment in art. The Harry Potter phenomenon is a great example of a populist desire for a better life.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

OF GODS AND MEN....A testament to faith and courage

The Cannes Film festival award winner OF GODS AND MEN has just been released on DVD. In a time when the multiplexes and pay for view channels are flooded with alien invasions, super heroes, and raunchy buddy comedies, this French drama, based closely on historical fact, is a poignant reminder that there are always serious topics that can be dramatized and be entertaining and thought-provoking. Directed and co-written by Xavier Beauvois, the film chronicles the excruciating decisions made by French Catholic priests during a time of political upheaval and terrorism in Algeria. Nine Trappist monks who have lived in harmony with the poor and sick Muslims near their monastery are quickly pulled into the political conflict between the Algerian government and a radical Islamist terrorist group. As the violence around them escalates, they must decide whether to leave for France or stay and face possible death.

The outcome is no surprise. What is surprising and enriching is the depiction of the monks' devotion to rituals, the local populace, and to each other. Photographed with almost religious artistry, OF GODS AND MEN shows the daily life of the monastery, especially the monks' beautiful chants during services. When it becomes apparent that their lives are endangered by both the terrorists and the fanatical army leaders, they must decide whether to leave or to stay and support the villagers. Eventually seven of them are kidnapped and martyred.

This short plot outline does not begin to do justice to the subtleties of this film. All of the actors embue their characters with warmth, love, and fear. To their leader, played with dignity and feeling by Lambert Wilson, falls the onerous duty of guiding and protecting his brothers. As their fate becomes imminent, their love for God and each other grows. And so does our deep respect for their faith and courage.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Freedom for you and me, but what about them?

This is the day we are supposed to think about and treasure our freedoms in America. Being born in the U.S.A. is not a given nor a right but an accident of time and place. Being citizens goes beyond having the freedom to be as stupid as the motorcylist who died several days ago protesting motorcyle helmets. Yes, he gets the latest Darwin award for amazing foolishness in not wearing his helmet, but it was his right, or so he believed, to forego practical and legal prohibitions.

Millions like him believe that our forefathers wanted us to be free to do whatever we wanted in and with our lives. So, with this abundant freedom, we can blog our opinions, fire off nasty notes and photos on line and on twitter, buy our children video games that feature disembowlment and torture (often of women), smoke despite every warning imaginable (seen those new pack designs?), do all sorts of drugs and therefore ramp up the drug cartel violence in Mexico, or choose to believe that all these really don't matter to the vast majority of free Americans.

But they do matter. We are not as free as many want to be or think they are, and that is probably a good thing. I am glad there are speed limits, traffic lights, checks and balances in our various governments (I just wish they worked better). I am happy to pay my share of taxes for the benefits that I and other Americans receive and need. Unlike some congressional leaders, I appreciate Medicare, Social Security, and ObamaCare. I also believe that there should be limits on how corporations make obscene profits while disregarding nature and most people.

What this short diatribe comes down to is this: we as Americans are not just takers. We have to be participants in whatever ways we can--voting, volunteering, caring. That is the price of freedom