Setter’s ‘Spectives: Why We Are the Makers of Manners

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613It’s now been a quarter-century since I last saw someone scream in the movie theater.

The rebel yell occurred in Manhattan during a showing of Kenneth Branagh’s intense, glorious Henry V, which had recently debuted. Crowded, hot and uncomfortable was the interior as a host of New Yorkers, squished together in narrow seats, silently watched the actor perform with the utmost passion. When it came to the famed St. Crispin’s Day speech, one of Shakespeare’s finest, the music went into crescendo mode. The theater listened. Branagh reached a climactic point.

And one man sitting in front of me pumped his fist high, like a champion weightlifter.

“Yeeeaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!” he screamed, louder than any Patrick Doyle melody.

We stared at him, surprised. Some of us laughed. Me, I smiled. I knew how he felt. He, like the rest of us, wanted to join Henry’s band of brothers. The speech was so well-acted that the guy forgot he wasn’t part of the English army at Agincourt.

I’ve never heard anything as raucous in a movie theater since. I’m proud—it was a unique cinematic experience. Yet it also tells us something about great art: that it’s able, at its best, to transform us, inspire us. That there’s nothing else as immersive … and we can happily disappear into the canvases we embrace.

Sometimes I wish I had done the same thing at that time. I certainly felt like doing it. I realize, however, that the moment belonged to the fellow in front of me, as well as Branagh, whose speech made the reaction possible.

And it’s better that way, I think. Movie magic couldn’t, in my opinion, have been better expressed.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Labeling Tragic Masterpieces Correctly

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613I think we should start calling sad movies something else if they’re good enough.

It’s really a misnomer. The greatest films—even those surrounding the most tragic subjects–are elating, not painful. They don’t make me unhappy. They make me glad.

That’s how I felt after watching Satyajit Ray’s masterful Pather Panchali on TCM last night. It was the second time I’ve seen it, and despite the harrowing story—which concerns the struggles of an impoverished Bengali family as they try to make ends meet—I wasn’t upset by the time the devastating end came. Instead, I was ecstatic, overjoyed that I could watch such a film and immerse myself in it.

The pleasures were myriad: a hypnotic, wistful score by Ravi Shankar; superb cinematography that made me feel like I was living in an Indian village along with everyone else; terrific acting by a magnificent cast (I dare you not to be moved at the end); and a simple yet profound script providing astute social commentary without belaboring the viewer.

No, these are qualities to revel in, not be sad about. And I reveled in them accordingly, all the while wondering if there’s another name we can give this kind of film—a name that conveys its subject matter concisely while suggesting there’s no need to mourn the protagonists … just its ending, which warrants tears only because there’s no more movie left.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: They’re Mumbling at You, Barbra!

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613You know, you don’t have to wait for Halloween to watch a scary movie.

I did it last night, turning out the lights to savor George Romero’s 1968 zombie flick Night of the Living Dead on TCM.

All right, I didn’t exactly savor it. It ain’t a cinema masterpiece. In fact, much of it is pretty silly—especially the eponymous undeadsters, whose knock-kneed, reach-out-and-grasp-someone attacks and circle-eyed makeup are barely more frightening than the jocular denizens of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.

So why, then, do I still find this movie effective?

Well, the script’s tight, the camerawork’s claustrophobic, and the direction’s economical. But last night, I noticed a huge asset that hadn’t been clear to me before.

Its sound. Its muffled, low-tech sound.

Those hungry zombies chomping so zestfully on the purported pieces of people make a lot of subdued noise. And when they try to grab folks through the doors and the windows, you hardly hear any crashing. You do, however, hear a lot of natural-esque sound, of bumping, scratching, brushing and rustling.

And that’s what’s so effective. It’s rarely loud, with minimal (though requisite for the genre) screaming—making its impact all the more powerful. It feels real, despite the ludicrous premise and sometimes-amateurish acting. The sound makes the difference.

Few other horror movies take sound so seriously. Kwaidan is one, with its minimalist, crackling score by Toru Takemitsu. If horror these days is to remain fresh, it should take a frame out of these fearful reels. Loud smashes and bangs don’t always spark cinematic fright. But a softer, more judiciously used soundscape can—and, in turn, create an eerie atmosphere worthy of pre-Halloween watching.

In that light, I’m happy I turned up the volume on Night of the Living Dead.

Skip’s Quips: Mahlerpropisms and Other Music Miscues

Blog Sketch 082813Today—in response to his most recent post expressing concern that Hollywood would start using Mahler symphonies in its films—my colleague Setter was reminded by one of our many astute readers that director Luchino Visconti used the Adagietto from the composer’s Fifth Symphony in the movie Death in Venice. I also referred my colleague to Ken Russell’s little-known film about Mahler in an effort to outline the industry’s familiarity with his works.

Setter’s reaction was typically defensive: “Those aren’t Hollywood movies. I’m talking about domestic, commercial films using his music. Why are you all ganging up on me?”

This is why I try not to talk to him.

Skip’s Quips: Top Little-Known Scores That Make Their Movies Sing

Sometimes I read my colleague Setter’s movie reviews and think: “This dude’s truly Mr. Overanalysis.”

But his last post on film scores made me wonder if I take movie music for granted. It’s so ingrained in our cinema lexicon that we almost start when watching a flick without it.

I look at a score as a flavor enhancer–like salt or pepper. A bit too much, and a movie’s unpalatable. Too little, and it feels like you’re missing something.

Just the right amount, however, and you’ve got a tasty meal. And it could be one you never thought you’d like.

The following is a short list of unsung films that are bolstered greatly by their sumptuous scores…and wouldn’t have been first choice for my cinema viewing otherwise. (Order not included.)

Far from the Madding Crowd

Cartouche

Odd Man Out

Watership Down

Kwaidan

The Devil and Daniel Webster

Time Bandits

I Know Where I’m Going!

A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven

Setter’s ‘Spective: What a Piece of Work Is a Score

Can lousy music ruin a perfectly decent film?

I asked myself this question during a recent viewing of The Unsaid, a 2001 Andy Garcia vehicle featuring a particularly tiresome original score. Mind you, I wasn’t mulling this idea because the movie was any good. Actually, it was dreadful: a dreary, overacted drama starring the usually reliable Garcia as a depressed, single-dad psychiatrist trying to help a disturbed youth (played by Mad Men stalwart Vincent Kartheiser, in an early role) who reminds him of his own, late son. The flick’s minimal interest value, however, ensured the presence of numerous lulls–enough time to think about the role of music and its interplay with onscreen action. If The Unsaid were a better movie, would the score have affected its quality?

Trying to think of great films with not-so-great soundscapes is difficult. Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha comes to mind immediately, but that obvious, brass-infused music, with all of its bombast, is surprisingly effective in certain scenes–particularly the end, where the destruction of the Takeda clan on the battlefield is shown in all of its waste. The truth is, most good movies are enjoyable because all of their parts work together; you can’t extract one from another and say it could’ve been better with a different piece. Maybe Fumio Hayasaka’s music for The Seven Samurai isn’t as magnificent as Sergei Prokofiev’s score for Alexander Nevsky, but I can’t imagine how TSS would be without it. These aren’t contemporary artworks where perception can change with the components. They’re completed, set in stone…and you either like them or you don’t.

So I guess I’ve answered my own question, though I wonder if I should keep asking it. Because if a movie like The Unsaid has me thinking along these lines, how can I be sure my cinematic tastes aren’t unsound?