Monthly Archives: December 2005

December 22, 2005

Merry Christmas?

I’m not sure what this is. It’s something to do with worship and meditation and such but I couldn’t say exactly what.

As usual, I just made something up and listened to it afterward, but obviously this is heavily indebted to Bernstein. And also to the guy who used to improvise on the organ in the synagogue. And maybe also to some stuff from video games.

There’s maybe some sort of grim epiphany at the end there, but it’s completely unprepared, so you get to decide how big a deal it is. Probably not very. I like this kind of ending as an idea, but I have yet to actually execute it so that it reads.

December 21, 2005

Fish Commercial

That is, a commercial made by fish.

Just the latest in a very long line of overwritten manic doodles.

Pretty silly stuff.

Perhaps I’ll find some nice stock images of fish and make a little animated visual to go along with. But don’t hold your breath.

December 1, 2005


I was just looking over the several little tunes that I’ve posted on this site, and noted to Beth that this one was the most solid, because it was the closest to standard practice – formally, harmonically, etc. She asked if I was saying that I liked it better. I said that, no, I was just saying that I was more confident about it because I knew it was better grounded. She told me that this was just a symptom of my thinking of everything in defensive terms. And she was right.

It’s not as though I haven’t already noted that this is a problem of mine (and, to some degree, of almost everyone who aspires to be creative) – but just it clicked in my mind that this is the fundamental fallacy behind serialism. Arnold Schoenberg started writing “12-tone” works because he felt that atonality guided purely by aesthetic instinct was insufficient. Insufficient how? He put it in terms that made it sound like it was limiting on what you could write with it, because it wasn’t a method; but of course, by definition, you could write absolutely anything with it. The point of a method is not to allow you to write something – it’s to allow you to write something with confidence. Serialism was not designed to serve a purpose for the listener*; it was designed to serve a purpose for the composer, and that purpose is to make the composer feel like he’s better grounded. It might be fun to pretentiously say that some serialist has a particularly good ear – but it’s very difficult to say that a serialist has a bad ear. Because he can always say that he didn’t write it with his ears, he wrote it with a method, and you can take issue with the method if you must, but not with the composer; he at worst, was just following orders.

Grounding artistic work in accepted practice purely as self-defense is to be avoided. Whipping up some kind of impersonal “theory” to justify your work so that you can pre-empt criticism is genuinely bad artistic behavior. On the other hand, tradition and standard practice are important, and I’d like to believe that if I had the guts to let it all hang out all of the time, I still wouldn’t.** But I think there are probably a lot of artists for whom the threat of disapproval is what keeps them in line, writing valuable stuff rather than merely indulging themselves.

Artists shouldn’t spend their time building tomato armor to wear on stage; it will hamper their performance. Schoenberg built a tomato fortress and the serialists all crouched inside it, impervious to any possible tomato. Then 50 years later they peeked out and noticed that everyone had left the theater.

Right, fair enough. At the same time, it’s probably healthy to always consider the possibility that there might be some tomatoes out there. But don’t cringe and don’t think about it too much. It’s a fine line. I guess the only real answer is to spend a whole lot of time out on that stage. But even that wasn’t enough for Arnold, who had already achieved a fair bit of success and respect before he felt the chill. Some things are just that embarrassing.

* It would have been designed much differently if it had been, since it’s almost impossible for most people to hear the workings of serial techniques, even in the simplest pieces.

** Schoenberg himself is an odd case, since he did let it all hang out for a little while there, even though he was apparently quite sensitive to the vulnerability involved.

December 1, 2005

House of Wax (2005)

directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
screenplay by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes
after a story/play by Charles Belden (1933?)*

A bunch of us were in a hotel room and chose this off the pay-per-view service because something really trashy seemed to be in order. We got what we paid for. I don’t know the original but I’m sure that as a remake this is a horrible embarrassment. Obviously, the filmmakers couldn’t have cared less. Movies like this are dumb on arrival, so they tend to get away with being dumb even within their own dumbness, and I guess I’m going to let this one off the hook too – what would be the point of complaining that the twist at the end was only superficially a twist, or that we got to know way too much about the bad guys too early on for them to remain satisfyingly scary, or that all the “hey it’s Paris Hilton, get it?” attention to Paris Hilton was a drag on the script…? I’m ignoring the “none of them are looking at the road while they’re driving” and “you can’t touch melting wax like that, it’s burning hot” type of problems – I’m just talking about the storytelling problems, the stuff that actually hurts the movie. Does anyone care? I guess not, and I don’t want to be the loser who misses the point. But: just because the target audience is only here for the cheap shocks doesn’t mean they wouldn’t still have more fun if the movie were better thought-out. Even those of us who came in search of trash would have been more satisfied if we’d found, to our surprise, a clever thrill-ride. But we didn’t! We did, however, find some over-the-top gore that we weren’t entirely expecting. A bunch of it was supposed to be goofily horrid, in an Itchy & Scratchy vein, but two slashed Achilles tendons in one movie is just in bad taste. Not to mention the completely gratuitous finger-severing. John Ottman’s score was fun in a junky, unmemorable way. That’s what the whole movie wanted to be, but only parts of it were. But I guess when junk is your stated goal and your audience already expects trash, it’s hard to know what counts as success. For our “hey let’s watch something really dumb” purposes, this was a grand slam.

* I swore I’d review this in one paragraph, so I have to put this stuff down here in a footnote: This movie is based on the 1953 movie House of Wax, which was based on the 1933 movie Mystery of the Wax Museum, which was “based on a play by Charles Belden.” I can find no record (online at least) of this “play” ever having been produced or published in an original form. I’m betting it was never performed as a play and Belden sold it directly to the movies. But that’d be quite a play!

December 1, 2005

The Haunting (1963)

directed by Robert Wise
screenplay by Nelson Gidding
after the novel by Shirley Jackson (1959)

The book was better, but was the movie any good? I think it was, but in a weaker way. The biggest problem with the book was that it wasn’t perfect, so to speak – it was trying for an effect of carefully controlled atmosphere, but there were little gaps and irregularities in the cloth. Maybe the more eccentric choices were all intentional, but they still tended to dilute the spell, and the spell would seem to be the whole point. The movie suffered from the same problem, but moreso. We’re there for the atmosphere, so every time we have to think “that came off a little odd; oh well, I’m going to be a good sport and go along with it…” the experience falls a notch.

Was it that the movie had aged poorly? Not particularly, though it’s definitely full of dated mannerisms in the writing and staging. In the movie, dialogue that in the book had seemed atmospherically peculiar just seemed clumsy and unlikely. Maybe there’s just something more self-assured about text on a page that helps it age better. Or maybe, as I suspect, this movie was always clunkier than the book.

The score was by Humphrey Searle – whom you may know as the “S” in Franz Liszt’s “19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, S. 244” et al. – and while a good deal of the music was interesting on its own terms, it was a bad score that, I think, hurt the movie considerably. This movie could make an excellent case study in the difference between incidental music and independent music – rather than adding to the effect of the visual, Searle consistently describes it, as though he’s writing for radio. As we’re being shown several “forbidding” shots of the house, meant to convey the immediate aversion of our heroine upon her arrival, we hear a little discordant fanfare figure in each shot. The music here emphasizes the artifice of the editing, and comments on the significance of the shots, rather than contributing to the feeling of the scene – good way to bring a viewer out of the moment. Furthermore, when Searle does try for scary effects, he doesn’t have a good sense of which avant-gardisms “sound” and which just come off like an orchestra doing something weird. All too often this music registers to the viewer as “some kind of weird music,” because of the distracting trombone-iness and harp-iness of what’s going on, if you know what I mean. Stravinsky talked about wanting to write for violin in a way that captured its inherent “violin-iness” (okay, so he didn’t use that word – I’m just saying that real composers care about this concept) – and that’s exactly the sort of writing that shouldn’t be employed in incidental music. The effect is everything; the means should be invisible, or at least ignorable.

That said, I like his main theme* – it very successfully captures what the book is going for, I think – and wish he had known better how to deploy it.

The black and white looks great and the sets, costumes and location are nicely done, especially considering that the book relies so heavily on the reader’s imagination to make this stuff more unnerving than any actual image could ever be. The book is about feeling upset and scared while looking at very mild things – so the movie has a very hard task, since the viewer is much more likely to feel the way any normal person would feel, looking at, say, a wall. I think Robert Wise did a fine job in his struggle against that problem; I admire the scene that’s just a shot of the wall. In fact there are a lot of striking, well-shot, pleasantly eerie visuals throughout. But turning insinuations into actual imagery is still an uphill battle and the movie doesn’t exactly make it to the top.

I should however mention that this movie has an excellent scare in it that made me shout out loud in shock, which I never ever do. I don’t want to give it away – I’ll just say that it conformed exactly to a theory of mine about how to make the worst possible scare in a movie: first give the audience about one second of not being sure what’s happening and then hit them with the scare image. It’s the unknown that’s scary, not the surprise itself – surprise is just a means of making something unfamiliar. A jump scare that comes in a tense context, where the audience is already braced for a scare, isn’t nearly as terrible as a jump scare that comes when everyone’s guard is down – as long as you prime your audience with that one second of “oh, what’s this?” so that when it shows up, they know without a doubt what’s happening – they’re getting caught with their guard down. Terrifying. Robert Wise and his editor pulled it off exactly.

Julie Harris makes the main character suitably pathetic, but doesn’t quite bring the sympathetic quality that comes for free in the book just from the fact that she’s narrating. Claire Bloom does the cruelly unpredictable stuff that’s written for her, but like I said, behavior that’s jarring in the book is ridiculous on the screen unless we’re convinced of it, and I wasn’t at all convinced. Russ Tamblyn seems to be present. The best thing in the movie is Richard Johnson as Dr. Markway**. I haven’t seen him in anything else – given his filmography I guess that’s not surprising – and I thought he was a really entertaining presence, a well-bred British fellow with absolutely no shame about raising an eyebrow and saying things as though they’re really interesting. He goes about his business with a sort of constant, non-sequitur dignity; it’s a pleasure to watch. The DVD commentary track has all the major cast members plus the director and screenwriter showing up for at least a few words, but the majority of it is a 75-year-old Johnson waxing on about his career in general. He comes off more or less exactly like Dr. Markway. I enjoyed it.

One thing he mentions is that he was offered the role of James Bond before Sean Connery, but turned it down. He says something like, “at first glance, I do seem like a more obvious choice for the role,” which at first sounds absurd but on second consideration makes sense – he’s an actual debonair fellow, rather than a smirking rogue. He goes on to say that the rougher quality “Sean” brought to the role was a big part of the success of the James Bond series, which is also certainly true. However, IMDB tells me that Richard Johnson went on to star in two “Bulldog Drummond” movies. Drummond, whose name rings the tiniest of bells for me, was a longstanding detective character who was retooled in Bond’s image in the late 60s. I think I’d enjoy seeing Deadlier Than the Male (1966) and Some Girls Do (1969), both as period James Bond ripoffs and for the chance to imagine what the Richard Johnson Bond movies might have been like. But apparently they’re not easy to come by.

I leave you with this promotional still from Deadlier Than the Male. If you set out intentionally to take a photo for the caption “The poor man’s James Bond,” I don’t think you could do better than this.

* Listen to the excerpt of track 2 here.

** For no good reason, the movie changes “Dr. Montague” to “Dr. Markway” and “Eleanor Vance” to the significantly inferior “Eleanor Lance.” This is corroborated on the DVD commentary by the screenwriter, who says he can’t remember why he did it.