All the good tunes

Unscientific thoughts on the strange demise of the iconic movie theme.

I’ve spent the last few days at a science conference for my day job, so I should know better than to cherry pick data to make a point. But all the same, here’s a shaky hypothesis to throw some objections at.

Film soundtrack composition has arguably never been stronger, more varied or imaginative.  Alexander Desplat, Dario Marianelli, John Powell, Hans Zimmer, Max Richter, David Arnold – just a few favourites at the top of their game. And although minimalist and moody sometimes tops melody – think The Hours or Inception –there’s still life in the hummable tune, from The Artist to the X-Men. (Sorry, couldn’t think of a recent film starting with Z.) But, and this is my proposition, after a golden age lasting from the 1950s to the late 1980s, the last couple of decades have seen the demise, or at least the significant diminishing, of the iconic theme tune. Continue reading

Socialists, eugenics and time travel

A bit of a longer post this time. A recentish piece by Jonathan Freedland on socialism’s past enthusiasm for eugenics got me thinking about (sorry that should read ‘has given me an excuse to write about’) one of those literary Fabians, H.G. Wells, and how he provides an interesting case study on this topic.

At the turn of the 20th Century, Wells was an enthusiastic eugenicist. In 1904 he wrote:

“The way of nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born. It is in the sterilization of failure, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies.”

Eugenics was by no means only a socialist preoccupation, but Freedland rightly recognises that neither was it at odds with the Victorian-Edwardian Fabianism that it prospered under, with their love of Science and Progress and Planning and Engineering, and other grand ideas starting with capital letters. Of all Wells’ fictional work, The Time Machine (1895) is a useful little prism through which to examine the reasons that eugenics held such allure for ‘progressive’ thinkers in the late nineteenth century. Continue reading

The rise (and fall?) of the Wilhelm Scream

Recently I came across this very thorough compilation of Wilhelm Screams. If you don’t know it, the Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect dating from 1951 that’s become a bit of an in-joke amongst movie makers. (There’s a good summary on Wikipedia and a nice little essay here.)

The compilation seemed to point, unsurprisingly, to an increase in use after the late 1970s when legendary sound designer Ben Burtt rediscovered it and used it in Star Wars (about 2 minutes into the above). Burtt also gave it its name after the original screaming character.

Idly I wished there was a graph that showed its use over time, but couldn’t find one. Realising that time doesn’t waste itself, with the help of www.whereswilhelm.net and IMDB I put one together. Continue reading

Franzen, a correction

Oh dear, according to Jonathan Franzen we are imperilled by ebooksHe is not the first to fret about Kindles, and won’t be the last. It’s not a great surprise that most of the internet appears to disagree with him: presumably those who do agree have followed his example of sealing up their ethernet ports.

It is entirely Franzen’s own business to not like ebooks, and as a recent Kindle-purchaser I can see that both formats have pros and cons. But just as in science we should run at great speed away from arguments of personal incredulity, when highly esteemed writer types make pronouncements we should remember, as Christopher Hitchens would have it, that they too are mammals. The problem with Franzen’s utterances is not that he dislikes ebooks, but more a sort of misunderstanding of what an ebook is and how it behaves in the wild. Continue reading

The Artist gives me Vertigo

So Kim Novak wants to report a rape. All because Michel Hazanavicius used Bernard Hermann’s Vertigo theme in the marvellous The Artist. Kim, where to start with the whole explaining about things that are not like rape? Here, someone says it better than me. Quite apart from her staggeringly tin ear, it’s hard to tell if she even gets the Artistic irony of shouting “I AM THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN SPEAK NOW” in block capitals on her advert. And I don’t remember her making this sort of fuss about the brilliantly metafictional use of Vertigo in Twelve Monkeys

Novak also seems to think she is speaking on behalf of Hitchcock, and it can’t exactly be said that the director had the most enlightened views about non-consensual sex. The Marnie issue springs to mind. And given that Vertigo is as close as mainstream Hollywood has come to depicting necrophilia… Not actual necrophilia, but necrophilia of the… oh never mind. Continue reading

No face like Holmes

Sidney Paget’s Holmes (1904)

Adaptations of iconic literary characters tread a fine line – too loyal and they seem staid and pointless, too radical and you lose the ‘fanbase’ (as they wouldn’t have said in 1886). If you want to be a purist, you can turn off the telly and get all the books essentially free on Kindle – and you’ll find that even Conan Doyle had trouble on occasion keeping up with his own continuity. And Holmes soaks up the spirit of the age and the preoccupations of his interpreters. After all, Basil Rathbone, one of the best known Holmes, spent a lot of his time fighting Nazis. Continue reading

Oniyo Fire Festival

As it’s just been bonfire night, in honour of setting light to things for spurious reasons, here are some pictures of a rather different fire festival.

The Oniyo Fire Festival of Kurume City, Fukuoka Prefecture in southern Japan happens every year on 7 January – and has done so apparently for the past 1900 years or so. Its purpose is to banish evil spirits from the town and grant luck, fertility and prosperity.

The temperature is close to freezing, and the men are dressed only in loincloths – so these campfires that they gather around are practical as much as ritual (generous quantities of Sake also help with proceedings.)

Continue reading

Tinker Tailor Soldier Trailer

I almost fell over myself with excitement a couple of months ago when I saw the trailer for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. One of the things that I knew was going to get me through the door the day it opened was the music. It so perfectly captured the tension and mood, hitting each beat of the trailer, underpinning each throaty utterance of the kind of actorly line-up that casting directors fantasise about.

Except when I went to see the film recently, the music was nowhere to be found. Tinker Tailor is, for my money, the standout film of 2011 so far, that appears to to have found an actual wormhole back to 1973. The score by Alberto Iglesias is nicely atmospheric, unobtrusive, gets the job done, no complaints.

But… but I just couldn’t help but feel a bit shortchanged, robbed of what I thought was going to be an integral part of the cinema experience of Tinker Tailor. Even if I had got a burst of the trailer music over the end credits I would have been happy. I didn’t of course and scrambled for the internet as soon as I was back to find out what I’d missed. Unexpectedly, it was Danny Elfman’s score for The Wolfman. Needless to say I was straight over to Amazon for the music. I’ve given that film a miss so far and I think I can live without it. Mind you I might have felt differently if they had used Elfman’s music in the trailer for The Wolfman rather than this bland semi-rock. Continue reading