Joshua Gizelt (swashbuckler332) wrote,
Joshua Gizelt

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Meandering monologue on a few of my favorite things...

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the numbness that occurs to me after a viewing of Vertigo.

Last night, having just finished Steven C. Smith's A Heart At Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann, I reflected upon what the book offered.

I did, indeed, have a much better understanding of Herrmann himself. I have read biographies before, but never one in which so much of the subject's life work has meant so much to me, on both artistic and personal levels. With the exception of his work in radio, Herrmann's music (which was the subject of an interesting renaissiance in the 1990's) has always been a part of my life.

Herrmann himself has always been a touchstone personality in film music, as much for his irrascible and colorful demeanor as for his work on some of the most important films ever made.

On my way home from work, having complete the book, I began listening to the Elmer Bernstein recording of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, which is some of Herrmann's most beautiful and evocative work. Some have also averred to Herrmann himself considering it to be among the scores he was most proud of, although at times Herrmann denied having preferences among his own musical works. This was the first time I have heard it since learning how it fit into the context of his life, and as entranced as I usually am by this score (especially in this beautifully performed and precisely engineered recording), in this particular instance I found the emotions the score illustrates to be that much more moving for knowing a bit better the great heart at the fire's center.

Herrmann was a very sensitive man, although every relationship in his life was tempestuous. While many were to bear ill-will towards him in life, his music has gone on to inspire newer generations, and the effect he has had one the art of film scoring is impossible to quantify.

Thoughts of this nature led me to a minor epiphany regarding film music and why I like it so much.

"Ah," many would say, "You are a filmmaker. Your attention to movies and a partiality to music makes such a predilaction inevitable."


For one thing, there are plenty of filmmakers out there who don't like film mmusic, and an even greater number who don't really understand it. The popularity of the endless rehashings of the same old shit by James Horner and the endless dull noodlings of completely talentless hacks such as Hans Zimmer and his pets over at Media Ventures prove that even some of the most talented filmmakers may not have a grasp on what makes a film score work.

Furthermore, my taste for film scores extend beyond what I like as far as the films they service. Many of my favorites made their impression without me having seen the film: Henry Mancini's LifeForce; Jerry Goldsmith's The Blue Max, Freud, The Wind and the Lion and The Final Conflict, Patrick Doyle's Secondhand Lions, Michael Nyman's The Piano, Georges Auric's Beauty and the Beast, Elmer Bernstein's Far From Heaven, George Fenton's Dangerous Liaisons and Memphis Belle, Howard Shore's Looking for Richard and many others made their impression first from their albums, not the films.

No, Herrmann's contribution, and my enjoyment of film music are essentially this: function. The purpose of a film score is to intensify the experience of watching a film. What this means is not only subject to interpretation, but there is also the possibility that different approaches will work, albeit differently.

Film music is especially difficult for aficionados of classical and romantic music to understand, mostly because while the primary tool of its expression - the orchestra - is familiar to them, its structure is imposed by the film and its vocabulary is often wildly different from those other idioms. Film music is not necessarily linear in construction, but is often built vertically upon a scene, which yields a very different aesthetic from any other type of music.

Herrmann insisted on doing his own orchestrations because of his reliance upon texture over melody, although his abilities with melody can't really be questioned, as is evidenced by The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Jane Eyre.

Film music must, by nature, be effective, and as a result there is an element of drama to it that doesn't exist often in other musical idioms. It is drama that is what communicates to me, more than any other element.

Last night, high on Herrmann, and with the first evening to myself since this shit with the car happened, I decided to sit down and watch a film scored by Herrmann. I went directly to the source, his first film, and the granddaddy of modern cinema.


My friends know that it isn't difficult to get me to watch this film with them, but as this is the film I saw most often in school (Rear Window is the only one that even comes close, and not too close at that), I have actually never watched it by myself.

Citizen Kane is one of those films, like Alfred Hitchock's Vertigo, Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless and Alain Renais' Last Year at Marienbad that have a tendency to overstimulate a filmmaker.

No film is as well-made as Orson Welles made Kane, although Alfred Hitchcock and Francis Ford Coppola have produced works which, arguably, equal it in art and craft. Kane, however, stands alone as the most influential film ever made outside of The Great Train Robbery. And few films ever have the kind of unity of content and form that Kane has.

What grabbed my attention more than any other element was Kane himself, a tragic figure filled with contradictions. Charles Foster Kane is a man who outlives the world's use for him; the changing landscape of America is an intergral aspect of the film (an element lost on younger audiences who lack the historical context of the earlier part of this century). Like Michael Corleone, Kane has come to represent the darker side of the American dream, how the brightest ascension can mask a great emptiness.

Rosebud itself, that ultimate MagGuffin, tells us nothing but that Kane, like all men, yearns for a simpler, more innocent time. Kane remains an enigma to the audience, even though we learn what Rosebud is while the "News on the March" team never does.

Kane's combination of technical prowess and the pressures placed upon it by William Randolph Hearst have generated more discussion than the story itself (the ultimate irony of this latter fact being that the cinematic alter-ego that Hearst tried so hard to destroy has eclipsed the actual man), but Welles uses every element of the cinematic medium in service of this story. Information is conveyed with an economy previously unthinkable, and the cast is one of the best ever assembled for a film.

Herrmann's music is groundbreaking not just in how he relied more on texture than melody (although the "power" motif conveys quite a lot of information, not least of which is what, exactly, Rosebud is, long before it is ever actually visually revealed to the audience), but also in spotting (that is, where music is used). Knowing from his work in radio that music can soften transitions between scenes, Herrmann's cue placement was heavily innovative, mostly (but not entirely) over changeovers and montages.

One of his most noticable contributions to the film is the faux opera Salaambo, which is made to sound as obnoxiously full-of-itself as it possibly could while drowning out the specific pitch of the singer.

Although the film is over fifty years old, and I have seen it many times, it still has the power to grip me and make me pay attention. Part of this is that Welles' mise-en-scene and use of sound has not dated; if anything, the state of the cinematic art has deteriorated.

Warner Brothers' DVD of the film has the best looking presentation of the film I've ever seen, and that includes the 35 millimeter print I saw at Bryant Park. Gregg Tolland's work has never looked so sharp and 3 dimensional, while the sound conveys everything with a clarity that I defy a modern, overpumped sound mix, to best.

Still terrific.

In an unrelated subject, my brother has begun a shrine (still under construction) to Willie and Indiana.

To my sensibilities, they're both dogs.
Tags: alfred hitchcock, bernard herrmann, film music, memorial

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