Friday, July 12, 2013

Incongruous Soundtrack

            Music plays a huge part it what we perceive on screen in movies and television.  Shows have blamed various drops in quality on the loss of good music direction/production ("Star Trek: The Next Generation" is the example I can think of, dropping a talented musical presence just as the rest of the show was shifting into gear).  This is a tool I think can be used in other ways though.

            Prevalent in theaters there are a lot of remakes and adaptations of older movies and books, but these productions lack an identity of their own because they are just doing what was done before with slightly better special effects or lighting budgets.  I actually think that one of the stronger ways a movie can distinguish itself is through a drastic change in the anticipated musical choices to accompany the scenes.  The best example currently would probably be "The Great Gatsby" released last month.

            I do not care for the book of this story, I find it to be well written, but the subject matter and the characters are just so spit inducing bad that I can't muscle through it.  This movie has those same issues, but it does something to distract you: music.  By putting in a soundtrack that is not just another 1920's production the film wakes the audience up and invites comparison to other things.  Rap music in the modern day based upon singing about drug dealing and casual misogyny evolving into an industry that sings about being rich and how awesome it is.  This is juxtaposed against a world of rich, misogynistic assholes who are miserable, and one of them got his money from alcohol distribution during prohibition.

"How about we don't make just another forgettable remake?" -Luhrmann
            All of that aside it gives you something else.  "The Great Gatsby" has a look, a feel, expectations, and a lot of previous iterations that were the book.  The Robert Redford film from ages back is a bland and joyless movie with no sting or identity beyond being an adaptation of the novel... basically beat for beat.  But the modern Baz Luhrmann directed version has an authorial stamp that distinguishes it in the minds of people.

            Luhrmann's "Gatsby" will be remembered for sucking, but so will its unique presentation.  This style was applied to the director's other period pieces, "Romeo + Juliet" which took the dialogue of the original play and set it into the modern world, and "Moulin Rouge" which took a period setting but with modern music adapted into it, taking typical troupes and a lot of music people knew but presenting them differently enough to grant the work a memorable (albeit kind of shit) collective whole.

            If I could make another example, "A Knight's Tale" directed by Brian Helgeland takes a story from "Canterbury Tales" and adds a rock soundtrack... to great effect.  It shows how sport was a popular thing and instantly draws your mind to the music the stadium plays during lulls in a game to keep the crowd up and interested.  It is granting you a perspective and identifiable mentality to the audiences in the movie.  It is drawing you into a film that is at its core very cliché.

Though I imagine the reasons people saw this movie might vary.
            This sort of thing is sorely missed in a lot of movies that really needed it.  "Troy" was a god awful film starring a huge cast, tons of costuming, huge numbers of extras, and fight scenes that were really cool.  The dialogue and music did nothing.

Though I imagine that the reasons people saw this movie might vary.
            "Troy" did try to change its source material up, changing a story involving very active gods and magic and making it very terrestrial, but did nothing to fix the real problems of Homer's "Iliad" (the story this all turns on).  The real problem is that the work was translated very literally by people who have no ear for normal people.  The movie has speech that is stilted to the point of being unbearable; terribly clunky and formal.  People in ancient Greece did not talk in formal English, soldiers in that time spoke the equivalent of soldiers today, like regular people in a stressful situation far from home.  People going to a theater want to watch a movie that sounds legitimate, not like it is out of time.  One might say that the movie, "The Immortals" (while visually and story wise being balls to the wall insane) is vastly easier to watch and be taken in by because the characters sound like people.

Though I imagine that the reasons people saw this movie might vary.
            Imagine a movie in which you saw warfare in the Classical Age via dialogue and music that elicited the feel of a war movie set in World War II or Vietnam?  Playing "The Ride of the Valkyries", "The End" by the Doors, or "Ohio" by Neil Young.  The juxtaposition of music between modern war and classic war might make the audience think about how the people at war in "Troy" were just like those kids who went to war in our own time, and that the greed of kings like Agamemnon is a thing that is as old as history and is STILL AROUND.  Then you could loosen up the words to have them flow naturally instead of like they are being written by a Professor of Classical Literature who is masturbating to the thought of Homer blindly reciting this all to a group of Greek Aristocrats.

            For other examples of music working with genre to make something unique isn't hard, and I think it is going to be done more and more as directors and producers have to try to express their own creative interests in a movie world that will only let them do so via adaptation.  "Firefly" was a science fiction show with western music and themes, "Cowboy Bebop" was jazz science fiction, and "Samurai Champloo" was Samurai hip hop, all of these were original properties with a blending of music and themes, while "Scott Pilgrim Versus the World" was indie rock Superhero, an adapted work which took a lot of the source material and (I think) elevated it with music you can actually hear (I have no idea how some authors have the audacity to produce comic books about music the reader cannot hear).

(This is the gayest blog post I have ever done...)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Man of Steel" vs "Star Trek Into Darkness"

            Two of the biggest movies that came out this year, and two that I liked, were "Man of Steel" the start of a new Superman franchise as a creative collaboration of David S Goyer, Christopher Nolan, and Zack Snyder; and "Star Trek Into Darkness" which is a project by JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof (I think, I am cutting out several writers, but this script has a Lindelof-ish taste that I can't shake).

            The movies sort of parallel each other in some ways, a collection of 50+ year old science fiction characters battling against an evil mastermind in a gigantic spaceship, that villain kills a father/father-figure of the protagonist, and ultimately the movie ends with a knock down drag out fight in a major metropolitan area devastated by the conflict.  Both have large ensemble casts and play with big ideas ("Steel" deals with "Eugenics, conspicuous-consumption of natural resources, stagnation of societal evolution, militarized-revolution begetting fascism and abandonment of outward-looking intellectual curiosity" -Moviebob, while "Trek" deals with Eugenics, preemptive war, drone strikes, and the socio-political ramifications of its own interstellar navy: Starfleet).  The point is I think that neither completely realizes the ideas they are shooting for, but for two entirely different reasons.
            "Steel" doesn't fully explore its ideas because it is setting up a franchise that will address them.  Christopher Nolan is big on three act structure, and is very capable of delivering a social essay in the form of a movie.  Since he is producing, and the Warner Bros. studio is pleased with the movie and furthering the franchise in this direction, the ideas that were not fully put to use (because they somehow managed an origin story with a highly complex villain) and did not have time even with the epic length.

            "Trek" fails because it has Lindelof as a creative driver.  Lindelof makes stories that I like to term as "Studded".  Much like a denim jacket with shit tons of glittery bits of metal pressed into it, the ideas and symbols presented in "Trek" are not really a matter of function, but instead of flash.  Things are presented and dropped not because they have value to the story, but because the audience will go "Oh, okay".  That bit of familiarity, that bit of meaning is analogous to seeing the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, it is meaningful because of what the audience brings to it, not because the toast wanted you to have a religious experience.

Cumberbatch plays a cool character that just keeps getting betrayed, to the point where he is far more sympathetic than he really should be.  Actually, he kinda has a Jesus thing going on because he has blood that can heal you if you get it transmitted to you.
            Now I do not want to blame JJ Abrams for why "Trek" fell short.  He is not a "Trek" fan he is merely a mind-blowing-ly competent director of visuals, pacing, action, and acting.  JJ can't be expected to delve into the mythos and make sure to draw a clear line between well developed story with homage to classic stuff, and functional story studded with references to instill the material with associative weight and strength, that is the writer's job... THEIR ONLY JOB on a "Star Trek" movie, or any movie with an established lore.

            To go back to "Steel" almost all of the ideas hinted at and introduced have appeared in the comics and cartoons.  But at the same time they picked very specific aspects to focus on.  Superman's world is a rich science fiction universe to draw on, with god like aliens, doomed civilizations at their zenith, and the perils of scientific rationality taken to dangerous extremes for any number of reasons that are unethical.  "Steel" is the introductory paragraph to a bigger message using the familiar aspects and iconography of Superman to explain and explore the issues, it is actually only held back by a lot of movie conventions.  You know what character didn't really need to be in the movie?  Lois Lane and the entire Daily Planet crew.  I like them well enough, they are well cast and promise to hold their own in future movies, but pretty much nothing in this has anything to do with them needing to be there, and number of characters could have served Lois' role in the story, and done it better (I am looking at Richard Schiff who played the underused Dr. Hamilton, he could have followed Superman into the ice cave to find the Kryptonian ship, he could have asked to be brought along to Zod's ship when Superman is taken up, he could have talked with Jor-El and worked to modify Clark's Ship into the weapon used against the Kryptonians, Lois did not need to be there.  In fact everything she does would have worked better as the cold opener to a second movie, but movie conventions say that you need Lois, you need the love interest for Superman to save... Whatever.)

Shockingly, this Emmy winning actor was cast to play a character I consider to be rather prominent in the Superman universe and is used far too little in this movie.
            Lastly the big difference is the endings, which I won't spoil really.  "Steel" ends more ambiguously, Superman's relationship with the government is murky, his place in the world is still being felt out, and he is left burdened with how the fallout of the movie's events will play out in the future.  "Trek" just sort of ends.  They tie up the loose ends, no lasting effects are felt, there is no indication for what will happen in the future.  Even events set up in the first half of the movie (an impending war with the Klingon Empire) are not mentioned, even though the movie's epilogue is a flash forward to one year after the events of the film proper.  The bad guy gets an unsatisfactory conclusion (in a way it is quite horrifying) and a lot of bad precedent is set, a get out of jail free card that will end up ignored in the future.  I still liked "Trek", it was fun.  But it has issues, and I don't feel they were intended to be followed up on.