Monthly Archives: May 2008

My Favorite Movie Scores

This week the accomplished film-music composer Hans Zimmer spoke to one of my classes at UCLA, regaling us with stories of getting fired by Stanley Kubrick (on Full Metal Jacket), hired by Terrence Malick (who sought Zimmer out for The Thin Red Line because he loved the music in Disney’s The Lion King), and composing the “unprecedented” two-note Joker theme for the upcoming film, The Dark Knight.

Zimmer was quite interesting and gave me a new appreciation for the importance and artistry of film scoring. He also got me thinking about the films scores I have loved over the years—those that (in my opinion) elevated the films they accompanied to goosebump-inducing heights. The following is my list of my favorite ten movie scores of all time. What are your favorites?

10) Mulholland Drive – Angelo Badalamenti:
Like in his other work for David Lynch, Badalamenti creates a score here that is thick and layered and mysterious. Just like the film.

9) 25th Hour – Terrence Blanchard: This brooding, daring, deeply emotional score provides a cathartic and memorable accompaniment to Spike Lee’s sadly overlooked post-9/11 elegy.

8) Pride & Prejudice – Dario Marianelli: Marianelli received a lot of attention for his Atonement score last year, but I think his best work so far has been the lush, piano-driven score for Joe Wright’s 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice. Who can forget the impressionistic effect of the minimalist music in the famous sunrise scene at the end?

7) Hoosiers – Jerry Goldsmith: Music is so important for rousing sports movies (see Chariots of Fire), and in my view Jerry Goldsmith sets the standard with his synthy work in Hoosiers. Totally 80s… but totally timeless. It almost always makes me want to stand up and cheer.

6) Dances With Wolves – John Barry: Say what you will about the movie itself, but the sweeping, romantic score by the legendary John Barry is absolutely unforgettable. Combined with the film’s gorgeous western landscape photography, this music really soars.

5) Lord of the Rings trilogy – Howard Shore: The music in LOTR is bombastic and ubiquitous… but in all the right ways. So many memorable themes and melodies and moments. The climactic moment in Return of the King when Sam picks up Frodo on Mt. Doom and the music swells to the theme… Oh, man, it gets me every time.

4) Days of Heaven – Ennio Morricone: It was either this or The Mission for the obligatory inclusion of an Ennio Morricone score. I’ll go with Days, because it’s one of my favorite movies of all time… and Morricone’s score is such a beautiful tragedy.

3) Star Wars (the entire series) – John Williams: What can I say? It’s iconic. The Imperial March, the Cantina theme, the stunning main titles, even the “Duel of the Fates”… I don’t know what Star Wars would be without its wonderful music.

2) Braveheart – James Horner: Okay, so it’s true: music has never been more shamelessly employed for a tear-jerker ending. But it’s an ending that—thanks in no small part to the music—provides one of cinema’s most emotionally cathartic moments. Add in some bagpipe and woodwind glory and this is one of the most satisfying film scores I’ve ever heard.

1) The Thin Red Line – Hans Zimmer: A lot of people will tell you that Gladiator is Zimmer’s best film score, but in my view it doesn’t hold a candle to his masterful soundtrack to Terrence Malick’s epic WWII film. Utilizing a cacophony of dreamy strings, exotic chants, riffs on folk hymns, and otherworldy melodies, Zimmer creates a soundscape of Germanic romanticism and Heideggerian phenomenology—so fitting for a Malick film.

Just missed the list: The Hours (Philip Glass), American Beauty (Thomas Newman), The Godfather (Nino Rota), E.T. (John Williams), Last of the Mohicans (Randy Edelman), The Fountain (Clint Mansell), Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood), The Mission (Ennio Morricone), There Will Be Blood (Johnny Greenwood), Out of Africa (John Barry), Letters from Iwo Jima (Kyle Eastwood), The Cider House Rules (Rachel Portman).

Christianity: More Harm Than Good?

One of the things that really bothers me about Christians these days is that we are so ill-equipped to answer the increasingly well-articulated arguments from atheists and otherwise anti-religious persons who point out the horrible track record of Christianity and the irrevocable damage that has been done across the world in the name of Christ. Christians today are liable to just sort of shrug and say “that’s not what I’m like,” or find some other way to distance themselves from Christian history (such as calling themselves “followers of Jesus” rather than Christians or a “gathering” instead of “church”).

As marquee atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens proclaim Christianity to be the single most damaging thing to ever befall humanity, are Christians in any position to rebut? Or are we going to simply rely on the frail argument that the “new Christians” are different than the “old” ones (read: crusades, inquisition, imperialism, witch trials, etc)?

When one interrogates the assumption that Christianity has done more harm than good to humankind, we see that it is an idea founded in a rather shoddily conjured historicism. Sure, Christianity has been used to justify a lot of evil—but so have atheism, and paganism, and virtually all other –isms the world has ever seen. Any organized belief system, after all, can be skewed to fit the most heinous inclinations of a wayward soul. In fact, it is often the most secular, areligious societies that wreak the most havoc, not the Christian ones. Think about Stalinist Russia or the various other communist regimes that dotted the globe in the twentieth century. They rejected any belief in God and systematically slaughtered millions of their own people. Think about the French Revolution—a thoroughly secular, godless movement that resulted in the barbaric purging of wide swaths of the innocent citizenry. Clearly a belief in God is not a prerequisite for horrific violence. And then there is the much larger human history (10,000+ years) predating Christ’s arrival on earth: and surprise surprise, all of it is littered with bloodshed and brutality.

Far from a malevolent force of destruction in the world, however, Christianity has done more to make the world a better place than any other organized movement or guiding principle in history. Almost every major reform movement or social-justice campaign can be traced back to Christians, or at least Christian teachings. Christians led the way in the abolition of slavery and were the first to publicly deem it immoral and denounce it as sin (Wesley, Wilberforce, etc). Christians have historically been the first and most active responders to international relief, hunger, and justice issues, and most major charities and humanitarian organizations (Red Cross, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Samaritan’s Purse, Feed the Children, World Vision, etc) have decidedly Christian roots. Christians were the first to establish hospitals, schools, and universities (such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale). They led the way in literacy movements, adult education, prison reform, substance-abuse programs, and many other progressive reforms.

It all goes back to the teachings of Jesus (feed the hungry, clothe the poor, protect the widows, etc) and the practices of the early Christian church. The early church appointed deacons to care for widows and the sick (Acts 6:1, James 5:13), and they were remarkably more open and tolerant (to women, different races and classes, etc) than anyone else in the first century. Tim Keller explains it well when he writes, in The Reason for God,

“At the very heart of their view of reality was a man who died for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness. Reflection on this could only lead to a radically different way of dealing with those who were different from them. It meant they could not act in violence and oppression toward their opponents. We cannot skip lightly over the fact that there have been injustices done by the church in the name of Christ, yet who can deny that the force of Christians’ most fundamental beliefs can be a powerful impetus for peace-making in our troubled world?”

Furthermore, though it is hard to imagine it today (when Christians seem inexplicably marginal to the thought life of the world), devout Christians have also regularly been the biggest shapers of science, thought, art, and culture. People like Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Kierkegaard, Aquinas, Augustine, Rembrandt, Bach, Handel, Chaucer, Milton, Dostoevsky, and T.S. Eliot are just a few names from the impressive list of our Christian forbears.

I do not mean to offer any sort of defense for the many horrible things that have been done by Christians and in the name of Christ over the last 2,000 years. There is no justification for that. We must own up to them just as much as we own up to the many great, selfless things that have been done by Christians. But I also want to point out that Christ is who He is regardless of Christians. He is love, perfect and unconditional. We are just His followers: fallible, weak, human, confused. Sometimes we get it wrong, and sometimes we get it right. More often the latter, I hope and pray…

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

WARNING: Spoilers Galore!!

Someone once said that movies are not about reality, they are about other movies. This is never more true than in the films of Steven Spielberg, and especially in his Indiana Jones series. These are movies about the rousing spectacle that the moving image provides—the exotic adventures in faraway lands, outlandish stunts, and over-the-top action sequences that have been, since the very earliest days of silent cinema, the bread and butter of popular moviegoing.

The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is no different, and I’m so very glad. I loved loved loved this movie. Of course it helps that I’m something of a 50s-phile. The American postwar era in all of its technocratic, Levittown, Howdy Doody glory (with a little Cold War paranoia thrown in!) is my favorite of all historical periods. I nearly leapt out of my seat with glee at the rousing shot of Indy’s profile as he stands in front of the mushroom cloud. That amazing shot should’ve been the billboard for the film: welcome, Indiana Jones, to the Nuclear Age! Instead of Nazis there are now menacing Russians—vicious, cold, communist Russians, bound and determined to win the race for that most precious of Sputnik-era commodities: knowledge.

Skull lives and dies (mostly lives) by its placement within a Cold War context. But more than a real historical setting, Skull exists in the cinematic history of the era. Spielberg has an obvious affection for B movie kitsch of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and it shows in the Indiana Jones films. The earlier trilogy was set in the 1930s, and as such was heavily constructed from the films of that era, whether jungle serials, adventure films (such as 1939’s Gunga Din which served as the inspiration for Temple of Doom), musicals (as in 1936’s Anything Goes, also referenced in Doom), B westerns (The Last Crusade), and various war/anti-Nazi films of the late 30s.

With Skull, which is set in 1957, Spielberg is in full on 50s mode, and he excels at recreating this decade. The pop culture of the era is excavated in Skull as if it were an Indy-commissioned archeological dig. We get some Elvis, greaser gangs, poodle skirts, burger joints, Red-scare protests, and Area 51 UFO paranormal anomalies, among other things.

Unsurprisingly, Skull is also chalk full of cinematic references. The dramatic entrance of Shia LaBeouf is a can’t-miss nod to Marlon Brando in 1953’s The Wild One, and at other times Shia invokes such cinematic icons as Tarzan, Spiderman, and any number of Errol Flynn-era swashbuckling swordsmen. There are also vestiges of classic Cold War sci-fi cinema here—films like 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still and 1954’s buggy Them!

Of course Skull is also heavily self referential, with loads of nods to the other Indy films, as well as Spielberg’s broader cinematic portfolio. The film opens with a nice homage to Spielberg’s very first film, 1971’s Duel, and later contains direct references to George Lucas’ 1973 classic, American Graffiti. Of course, by the final scene we see that Spielberg is borrowing heavily from his various alien films too (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., A.I. etc), with special affinity with the whole “they’re been here for a long time” plot of War of the Worlds.

Indeed, while many fans have decried the outrageous ending of Skull (as somehow going “too far”), I absolutely loved it. Is it really that much more ridiculous to imagine an ancient civilization being built by aliens than it is to believe that the Ark of the Covenant melts peoples’ faces off? Or that Indy can walk on air to get to the Holy Grail? C’mon, people: these films are not about verisimilitude or physical reality. They’re about the fantastic and wonderful possibilities of cinema to throw some craziness in front of our eyes.

I thought the ending of Skull was in perfect keeping with what the film is ultimately about: 1950s culture. Science fiction paranoia (an outgrowth of Cold War uncertainties about nuclear technology) was crucial to that time period, never more than in the movies that came out of it. And the whole “I want to know” theme of Skull also reflects the tenor of the time—when the military industrial complex was reliant on specialized scientific knowledge, Freud-inspired psychoanalysis was in vogue, and education (the systematic accumulation of knowledge) was the highest-stakes battleground in the Russian-U.S. power struggle. No wonder Indy is so concerned that Junior go back to school!

As smart as it is in its commentary on Cold War America, Skull is, at the end of the day, mostly just a thrill ride of a movie (quite literally). Film historians often look back to Temple of Doom as the first “theme park” movie: what with its roller coaster mine sequence, snow-and-whitewater raft adventure, etc. Skull features (on my count) at least six sequences that could be turned into thrill rides at Disneyland: the nuclear launcher ride that Indy shares with the Russian thug, the flying refrigerator, the motorcycle chase, Mutt’s flying trapeze adventure, the boat-over-waterfalls sequence, and the spinning alien saucer launch sequence. I can’t wait for the ride!

Honestly,I don’t think Skull could possibly have been any better than this. As a 20-years-later installment with a 65-year-old lead actor and two decades of imitators (The Mummy, National Treasure, etc) to overcome, Skull faced a major uphill battle. Amazingly, it all turned out brilliantly—with a little originality mixed with a LOT of referentiality, some appropriate newness (CGI, Shia LaBeouf) complimenting a huge amount of necessary old stuff (the hat! the snakes! the bugs! the music!), and a formidable sense of blockbuster exuberance that Spielberg has—since Jaws—evoked better than just about anyone.

Mister Lonely

Harmony Korine is an arthouse director if there ever was one. Actually, he’s probably beyond arthouse–more avant-garde than anything. His films–1997’s Gummo, 1999’s Julien Donkey Boy, and now Mister Lonely–are unlike anything else coming out of American cinema. This is neither a praise nor a criticism. It is simply a fact that Harmony Korine–along with people like Vincent Gallo, David Gordon Green, and Richard Kelly–is one of the most distinct young voices in art cinema today.

Mister Lonely (see the trailer here) tells two simultaneous stories that have nothing at all to do with one another (though ultimately they do compliment each other). The first and dominant narrative concerns a commune in the Scottish highlands where a band of celebrity impersonators (including Madonna, James Dean, Queen Elizabeth, the Three Stooges, the Pope, Sammy Davis Jr. and Abraham Lincoln) live together in a bizarre and ultimately tragic fog of confused identity. The story focuses on Marilyn Monroe (the wonderful Samantha Morton) and Michael Jackson (a fantastic Diego Luna), as well as Madonna’s abusive husband (Charlie Chaplin) and their dainty daughter (Shirley Temple).

The second story is even more fantastical–and concerns a group of nuns somewhere in Latin America who discover that they can jump from planes without parachutes and survive. Their deep belief in God apparently bestows them with this miraculous ability, and by the end of the film the group–led by an eccentric priest (Werner Herzog) head off to the Vatican to have the Pope recognize their unique penchant for gravity-defying miracles.

Though there is plenty to talk about with respect to the “flying nuns” storyline, I’d like to discuss the celebrity wannabes in this particular post. I should first note that the actors who play these people (who impersonate their respective celebrity icons) are intentionally awkward and not all that good at what they do (though their costumes and basic mannerisms are spot-on). They are people who are so uncomfortable in their own skin that they feel they must live as (or through) the celebrities they idolize. It’s particularly sad to see them perform their stage “act” (in a decidedly minstrelsy scene late in the film) to an audience of about five. No one wants to see mediocre celebrity fakers; it’s terribly depressing. Indeed, the film’s mood is one of tragic, surrealist comedy: a sort of Waiting for Guffman-meets-David Lynch parade of naive whimsy and dark, eerie ambiance. It’s disarming to see Charlie Chaplin playing ping pong with Michael Jackson, or Queen Elizabeth dancing with James Dean. And these people never really break character (even when no one is watching), which is, well, just plain odd. It’s like watching an extended (and more poetic) episode of VH1’s The Surreal Life, only with A-list celebs who may or may not still be living.

It’s hard to say what exactly this film is about, but I think that’s probably the idea. The film is as confused as its characters are: about themselves, about each other, and about the world. But it feels very pertinent in this age of celebrity obsession, digital avatars, and postmodern identity. Increasingly we construct elaborate “lives” for ourselves in lieu of any sort of understood Self. Indeed, as Erving Goffman noted in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, we define ourselves in terms of the masks we try to live up to—and yet perhaps this mask is our truer self. In any case, there is a painful absence of self in this film: these people don’t know who they are, and Korine gives us nothing in the way of privileged knowledge otherwise. They are society’s outcasts, clinging together as spectral visages of immortalized icons, hoping for some sort of salvific utopia in their collective embodiment of the ghosts of pop culture’s past.

Though slow at parts, and certainly unfathomable from any conventional “what is this about?” point of view, Mister Lonely has some truly remarkable sequences and moments, beautifully photographed, edited, and assembled with an artist’s touch. The blend of image and sound is particularly strong, and in this way the film reminded me of Gus Van Sant’s recent triumph, Paranoid Park (my review here). Mister Lonely features a beautiful score from Jason Pierce of Spiritualized, as well as some classic hymns and modern tracks that accompany various stretches of poetic imagery. Bobby Vinton’s “Mister Lonely,” for example, is lusciously set to an introductory slow-mo sequence. An old recording of the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” provides the backdrop for one of the most striking montage sequences, and the Tennessee Mountaineers’ version of “Standing on the Promises” provides a striking song for the closing credits. Music by Aphex Twin and A Silver Mt. Zion also contribute to the overall ambience of the film.

Clearly Mister Lonely is not for everyone, and I daresay most people won’t be able to see it on the big screen even if they wanted to. But if you like lyrical, abstract-ish or surreal cinema, do make an effort to at least Netflix this film. There’s really nothing else like it.

Congratulations David Cook!

Kansas City is on a winning streak this Spring. In April, KC’s favorite hometown college (The University of Kansas) won the NCAA championship in basketball. Now we have another winner to boast: the newly-crowned American Idol, David Cook. Now if only the Royals can get above .500…

Cook beat “little David” by twelve million votes–a landslide victory even in spite of the judges’ effusive praise for David “I can sing the phone book with my eyes closed” Archuleta. Turns out America is ready for an American Idol winner who actually writes and plays music. Imagine that! I hope the Idol handlers can improve Cook’s talent (or at least not ruin him)… he already has one album under his belt (his self-released Analog Heart) and the forthcoming major-label debut should be interesting. Maybe he’ll do more Mariah Carey covers!

Anyway, here’s the video of his winning moment (and subsequent obligatory rendition of the incredibly cheesy winner’s anthem):

Don’t Look Back

This summer at Oxford I’m presenting paper on identity and Bob Dylan (specifically his representation in I’m Not There), and as such I’ve been revisiting the other cinematic representations of Dylan over the years. The one that started it all, however, still remains the most significant, I think: 1967’s Don’t Look Back. I’d like to recommend it wholeheartedly for your Netflix pleasure, and permit me to indulge in a bit of commentary on its significance for documentary (and Bob Dylan) theory…

D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back was significant on a number of levels—but perhaps most of all for the way that it made “public” the direct cinema/cinema verite style in America. Pioneered in the states by Robert Drew and Richard Leacock’s “Drew Associates” (whose 1960’s production of Primary is often considered the first major film of its style), direct cinema utilized technological developments in portable cameras and sync sound to more organically capture “reality” in an unobtrusive manner. The goal of these filmmakers was to remove themselves from the equation—to be mere observers without commentary, interview, or interference. Often with small (sometimes one-man) crews, Drew Associates’ films used quiet, lightweight, shoulder-mounted cameras and on-camera mics to “observe” their subjects in a mobile, improvisatory manner. Hence the classification Bill Nichols gives to direct cinema: they are films in the “observational mode.” According to Nichols, this mode stresses the nonintervention of the filmmaker, the ceding of “control,” the eschewing of anything nondiegetic, a preference for synchronous sound and long takes, and a commitment to the present-tense, the intimate, the immediate. “Observational cinema,” writes Nichols, “affords the viewer an opportunity to look in on and overhear something of the lived experience of others.”

While 1960’s Primary garnered critical acclaim and marked the much-heralded arrival of direct cinema, it wasn’t until 1967 and the release of Don’t Look Back that the artistic and commercial possibilities of direct cinema reached their apex. Pennebaker (a former “associate” of Drew Associates) set out in 1965 to observe Bob Dylan on his British concert tour, and the result—Don’t Look Back—proved to be one of the most memorable portraits of an icon/celebrity ever captured in cinema. It was Pennebaker’s first big-league documentary, and it invented the rock documentary (ultimately spawning such classics as Gimme Shelter (1970), Woodstock (1970), and Pennebaker’s own follow-up, Monterey Pop (1968)).

Capitalizing on the new youth culture’s consumer clout, Don’t Look Back broke all box office records for theatrical documentaries when it was released in 1967. Critical reception was more mixed at the time, with many prominent critics like Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael decrying the film for being “contrived” and “fake,” even while it claimed a somehow more objective or “direct” relationship to its subject. Other critics were impressed with the access and intimacy the film represented—giving audiences an “insider” view of the life of a superstar celebrity.

Among other things, Don’t Look Back signaled a revolution in a sort of “celebrity” documentary that pierced the distance between fans and celebrities, removing the iconic aura and mystique that so often accompanied such stars. There were precursors, certainly (1964’s What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA and 1966’s Meet Marlon Brando), but Don’t Look Back’s presentation of Bob Dylan took celebrity documentary to another level. As the camera observed Dylan, the audience saw all too clearly the fundamental rupture between the “stage/public” and the “private” persona—between the image and the self. With Dylan it was especially jarring, for his folk/populist image depended on a sort of authenticity or fidelity to self. But as he revealed himself in the documentary, Dylan was much more a master of spin and self-stylized performance than anything. Or was this only because there was, in fact, a camera always present? Don’t Look Back was the first step in the decades-old quest to understand the elusive identity of Bob Dylan. Is he for real? Can anything he says be trusted? From what soul or self are his ridiculously poetic lyrics flowing from?

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Don’t Look Back (aside from Dylan being an incredibly fascinating person) is that, in spite of itself, it is a very reflexive meta-critique of media itself. In the end, this is a film that is more about the media and how the media interfaces with its subjects (and the subjects with the media) than it is about Bob Dylan. A large part of the film is devoted to Dylan interacting with the British press (interviews, press conferences, reading articles about himself…). Dylan has a field day toying with and turning the tables on the stodgy, square reporters who ask him questions such as “do you love people?” (to which Dylan responds, “it depends on how you define terms like love and people”). In the famous final encounter between Dylan and Time magazine’s Judson Manning, Dylan says, “I know more about what you do—and you don’t have to ask me how or why or anything—just by looking, than you’ll ever know about me. Ever.”

Hmmm. Is that true, Bob? Are you that elusive, just because you are a poet? Perhaps.

As film historian Jeanne Hall has argued, this famous scene reveals less about Bob Dylan than it does about Pennebaker’s point of view, which she argues is a “systematic critique of traditional news-gathering and reporting practices” Ultimately this scene serves to validate Pennebaker’s own alternative method—suggesting that the passive gaze of direct cinema reveals more “just by looking” than any traditional expositional form might. Thus, even though it is still “direct cinema” and maintains a façade of objectivity, there is a clear editorial perspective here—a “story” being told through carefully selected and juxtaposed fragments. Don’t Look Back demonstrates how a documentary film can establish trust (with both the subject and audience) through observational distance, even while it can exploit that trust to convey—in the end product—a decidedly subjective point of view. Here’s the clip of the Time interview:

It’s funny because the film is ultimately treating Bob Dylan just as Dylan treats the press: as an object for its own purposes. But on his more cynical days, that is precisely the sort of vibe Dylan exudes in terms of his views of people, and of life: we are all just suckers, feeding off of and constantly trying to get the better of each other. A sad point of view, certainly, and one that, like Don’t Look Back, makes Bob Dylan look like a snotty little misanthropic punk from Minnesota (and nothing more).

But can we say that about Dylan and divorce it from our love of his music? I think so. Inasmuch as Don’t Look Back is about Bob Dylan, it is even moreso about his art, or art in general: an experience of seeing, hearing, encountering something, unhindered by a litany of muddled commentaries and abstract interpretation—even from the artist himself.

Four Easy Pieces


A lot of people are hating on Prince Caspian, for understandable (if not completely sympathetic) reasons: the movie is vastly different than the book, especially in overall tone and spirit. The film is a swashbuckling war epic that is about 66% battle scenes and/or sword fights, and certainly this is not what Lewis’s classic children’s tale is about. And yet I enjoyed the film, and I’m perplexed at all those who angrily dismiss it as “missing the point.” What do you expect when a children’s book from 50 years ago is transformed into a big-budget summer blockbuster in the year 2008? (That said, I do suggest reading this creative critique of the film.)

I don’t want to defend the film too much, because it is certainly not perfect; but to judge it on the merits of the book is not completely fair. The moving image, after all, is a remarkably different medium than the written word. Cinema removes the element of imagination (or at least downplays it) which is crucial to books and novels (especially children’s fantasy!). In books, we visualize the characters, settings, and action. In film, it is done for us—our attention directed hither and yon from one set piece, sequence, or costume to another. In lieu of the removed element of “interaction” (the ability of the reader to co-create the reality of the story), cinema must compensate in other ways: offering high-intensity spectacle, gloss, and action to hold our interest and transport us into a world.

To fault Caspian for being too action-heavy, then, is to misunderstand the purpose of cinematic adaptation. A film could never equal the experience of a book; the best book-to-film adaptations are those that are the most true to form (i.e. cinematic) and that don’t get bogged down in something that is ontologically contrary (i.e. the literary). Film theorist Andre Bazin harped on this, and for good reason. He wrote that “If the cinema today is capable of effectively taking on the realm of the novel and the theater, it is primarily because it is sure enough of itself and master enough of its means so that it no longer needs assert itself in the process. That is to say it can now aspire to fidelity—not the illusory fidelity of a replica—through an intimate understanding of its own true aesthetic structure which is a prerequisite and necessary condition of respect for the works it is about to make its own.”

The film version of Narnia does Lewis justice to not try to capture his literary genius on film. It does better to focus on its own form (spectacularized summer blockbuster) and wow the audience with cinematic wonder, in the way Lewis wows us with his poetic literary whimsy. One might complain, for example, that the film transforms Susan into a Tarantino-eque killing machine, wielding a bow-and-arrow with Legolas-like tenacity. But this is a film, built around action, so it’s much better to have our heroine Susan smack-dab in the middle of it all rather than cheering from the off-camera sidelines. Sure, the film loses much of the book’s innocence and spiritual “themes”—the “deeper magic” of Narnia, after all, is not something that WETA special effects can really evoke (certainly not as well as the written words of Lewis could). But the film offers us something altogether more visceral that the book could never express. But we’re talking about apples and oranges here: films and books. We should move on.


“The medium is the message,” said Marshall McLuhan. Meaning: the form of a message shapes its content. Indeed, the form is itself a kind of content. McLuhan wrote in the 60s, as the television form was revolutionizing the world. His contribution to communication theory was the idea that technological change (with particular respect to media and communication technologies) shapes humanity in deep and significant ways: new media forms “work us over completely,” he wrote. “They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered… Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.”

McLuhan divided history into eras and epochs of media transformation: the tribal era (oral, tribal culture, face-to-face communication), the literate era (invention of alphabets and written language, emphasis on the visual), the print era (printing press, birth of mass communication, visual emphasis), and the electronic era (computers, telegraph, emphasis on touch and hearing). Whether or not one agrees completely with McLuhan’s somewhat suspicious lineage here, I think it is definitely true that technology effects how humans relate to each other and the world.

And I wonder if we are not moving into some new “era” that is better fit to our digified, attention-challenged generation? A sort of bite-sized, schizophrenic, decontextualized-yet-hyperlinked period of human civilization.


Television was probably the beginning of this “snack” era. Its form, as noted by McLuhan’s heir Neil Postman, was one of decontextualized soundbites: segments of entertainment juxtaposed with advertisements, “news,” sports, and other diverse occurrences. The form of television news, for example, was one of total and utter schizophrenia: “this happened… and then this… now weather, now sports, now BREAKING NEWS, now pop culture fluff…” This very form (emphasizing ands rather than whys), argued Postman, has conditioned the human mind to be less capable of understanding context and perspective. In the stream of broadcast images and commercials, there is very little recourse to depth or understanding.

And how much moreso is this the case with the Internet! Here we are freed from all over-arching narratives, causal linkage or contextualized coherence. We can (and do) hop from to, from to ESPN, picking up bits and pieces and snippets of whatever our fingers feel led to click on. Since I’m on my computer now I might as well mimic this in my writing, since writing as a form is changing as well…

Here I am on, surveying the “news” on Sunday, May 18, 2008. Oh, there is a positive review from Cannes of Indiana Jones! Richard Corliss liked it, saying that it “delivers smart, robust, familiar entertainment.” This eases my mind a bit… though I have heard that other Cannes audience members were not quite as wowed as Corliss was… Speaking of Cannes, I just saw a picture of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie from the Kung Fu Panda premiere. Looking very, very good. I hope Brad Pitt isn’t messing up Terrence Malick’s new film Tree of Life, which is filming in Texas right now. Evidently Angelina is pregnant with twins, which probably means some unfortunate little Burmese orphan won’t get adopted this year. Speaking of Burma, I’m now clicking on the latest CNN headline about the cyclone in Mynamar… Evidently the UN is now saying over 100,000 might be dead. Meanwhile, China just started its three days of mourning for the earthquake victims, which now number 32,477. And if we’re talking numbers, I now see that Prince Caspian raked in $56.6 million to be the top film at the box office this weekend. That’s a lot more that Speed Racer made last week, but a lot less than Iron Man made in its first weekend. And the death toll from the earthquake in China is a lot more than the toll of those killed in tornadoes last weekend in America (24 I seem to recall), but a lot less than the 2004 tsunami disaster (more than 225,000 killed).


Unfortunately, as easy and accessible as the “news” and “numbers” are for all these things, there is scarcely little in the way of making sense of it all… Indeed, the very fact that we juxtapose things like Cannes glamour and human misery (earthquakes, cyclones) as if they were equally crucial bits of information makes it difficult to think of anything in terms of meaning or context. But perhaps we don’t want to. Perhaps the world is just too crazy, too horribly gone-wrong to reckon with on any level deeper than the snack-sized soundbite. To come to terms with the scope of the Asian disasters means to think about deeper things like God, death, evil, and nature, which gets quite broad and philosophical in a jiffy. Taking time to make connections is a dying art, just as reading is… and writing, and newspapers, and printed anything… Basically the “long form” and all that that entails is falling to the wayside in our easy-pieces-based culture. Thus, I should probably end this rather long blog post, and I should probably end somewhere near the start, as if clicking back on my browser about fifty times.

Prince Caspian the book and Prince Caspian the movie are quite different things, representing different times and cultures and mindsets. It’s true that the latter loses some of the magic and meaning of the former, but so it is with life these days. We’ve supplanted meaning with simulacra and snack-sized spectacle. Even though we probably need it more than ever, “the deeper magic” is ever more abstract and inaccessible to a world so desperate for instant and easy gratification.

Transmedia Superstars

When Scarlett Johansson announced she was going to release an album of Tom Waits cover songs, she was just the latest in a long line of celebrities who have “crossed over” from one media form to another—in her case, film to music. Celebs have been doing this for a long time, but these days it is happening with increasing frequency, it seems. Indeed, the “media-specific” star is pretty much dead; instead, we have “transmedia” superstars—those stars who transcend media forms and disseminate their personality in a multiplicity of forms and outlets.

It’s easy to see why this type of star is increasingly the norm. It has to do with shifts in the industrial landscape of Hollywood and the entertainment business. In a word: conglomeration. Disney was the first Hollywood “major” to introduce the concept of horizontal-integration back in the 50s, when it began cross-promoting Disney’s brand on television, in film, and in theme parks, earning money from each but also from the synergistic effects of the whole enterprise. Then in the 80s, government deregulation paved the way for more and more entertainmnent companies to combine and form massive conglomerates, so that one parent company (Viacom, for example) had control over film companies, TV channels (both network and cable), record companies, book publishers, etc. The result was an explosion of cross-promotion and intertextual dialogues: films based on television shows, television shows featuring the music by so-and-so, books based on films, etc… Throw in the Internet and it all adds up to a convergence in which media forms more fluidly relate to each other, telling the same stories just in different, though complimentary, ways.

Success in this sort of environment lives and dies on the strength of brand—namely brands that are strong enough to thrive on a multitude of media platforms (think The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, or Sex and the City)—and what better brands are there than celebrities? When you see a celebrity’s name on a movie poster, you know what that movie will offer. Quentin Tarantino is a brand. So is Beyonce. And Oprah, well, she’s the mother of all celeb brands.

For these celeb-brands, it makes sense (both for themselves and for the industries that finance them) to expand to as many media forms as possible. If I’m Oprah and I know millions of people will do whatever it is I do (or say), why not have a TV show, an entire TV channel, a magazine, some made-for-TV movies, a book club brand, and so on… In this day and age, there are no longer “movie stars” or “TV stars” as much as there are just “stars”… famous people with their hands in a little bit of everything.

American Idol epitomizes this whole idea. The point of the show isn’t so much to make music stars as it is to make stars. It’s a show about how to become famous; and once famous, its offspring can make money in a variety of ways. Idol alums have sold a lot of records, obviously, but they’ve also made a lot of money for FOX as TV stars, and some of them have become movie stars (Jennifer Hudson), Broadway stars (Clay Aiken, Tamyra Gray), and so on…

Obviously some transmedia careers are better than others, and some “brands” are just not strong enough to thrive in multiple platforms (and sometimes the talent isn’t there). As an example of this whole phenomenon, here’s my list of the best and worst of the transmedia superstars:


Beyonce – Media conquered: music, movies, fashion, Jay-Z
Miley Cyrus – Media conquered: music, television, movies, live concerts, theme parks, awards shows, magazine covers, basically the whole world.
Justin Timberlake – Media conquered: music, movies (he’s actually a very good actor), MTV.
Oprah – Media conquered: everything imaginable.
Jared Leto – Just kidding! Though he has been in some good movies (Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream) and good TV shows (My So-Called Life), his rock band (30 Seconds to Mars) is pretty terrible.

Jewel – Media conquered: music. Media failures: movies (she wasn’t bad in Ang Lee’s Ride With the Devil, but it was totally a one-and-done for her as an actress), poetry (A Night Without Armor, anyone?).
Britney Spears – Media conquered: music. Media failures: movies (Um… Crossroads), television (Britney and Kevin: Chaotic was a disaster, though she was pretty good on How I Met Your Mother), motherhood…
Paris Hilton – Media conquered: nightclubs, television (The Simple Life), adult video, prison. Media failures: music (one and done with the self-titled Paris), movies (House of Wax), and general classiness.

The Fall

The Fall is as cinematic a film as you will ever see. And this is fitting, because The Fall is essentially a love letter to the form—an outpouring of expressive sound, image, space, movement, and color, strewn together in delicately messy bursts and flourishes of filmic passion.

Helmed by Indian director Tarsem (whose only other film, 2000’s The Cell, was also hyper-stylized but ultimately little more), The Fall is set in the early years of cinema—circa 1915—and centers around a paralyzed movie stuntman (Lee Pace of ABC’s Pushing Daisies) who befriends a wide-eyed five-year-old immigrant (Catinca Untaru) who is a patient in the same hospital. The film moves back and forth between this “real” world and the fictional fantasy world of a swashbuckling tale the two conjure up together to help get through their convalescence.

A descendent of films like The Wizard of Oz, Big Fish, and even Pan’s Labyrinth, The Fall reminds us of the power of the moving image to provide both an escape from the harsh realities of life but also a means whereby humans can better understand themselves, and each other. In the “real life” scenes between Pace and Untaru, a partial language barrier makes it difficult for the two to always understand one another (indeed, the young and heavy-accented Untaru is often unintelligible). But when they “escape” to their shared and ongoing narrative fantasy, they achieve a transcendent understanding through the limitless possibilities of imagination.

The title of the film is not some allusion to Eden (though there are some shots and one tree in particular that might invite some such interpretations). Rather, it is a film about literal falls: the physical act of succumbing to gravity. The two main characters are in the hospital because of injuries suffered from falls, and time and time again there are dramatic, slow-mo falling shots in which characters fall into pools, off balconies, off bridges, etc. (reminiscent of the famous “kicked into the abyss” shot in The 300). The film revels in such highly expressive moments of intense action and vivid imagery. Indeed, the film is really just a collection of isolated moments and movements, following the form of a vaudeville revue, evoking the nascent cinema’s tendency to be what Tom Gunning called a “cinema of attractions.”

Eschewing CGI and digital fall-backs, Tarsem aims to capture the thrill and beauty of actual materiality, manipulated through old-fashioned filmmaking techniques to create transformative flights of fancy. Here again he pays homage to early cinema, where people like D.W. Griffith first realized the expressive potentials of cinematic storytelling: things like parallel and non-linear editing, varying shot lengths, and the ability to play “tricks” on the audience to make physical impossibilities appear possible.

The narrative of The Fall also references early cinema, which focused on episodic spectacle and serialized melodrama. The swashbuckling, globe-trotting adventures of The Fall’s fantasy world reflect the spirit of silent cinema’s first attempts at melodrama: serials like The Perils of Pauline, The Hazards of Helen, and The Exploits of Elaine. Those serials featured exotic locations and villains (often sheiks or Indians) with frequent literal cliffhangers, daring stunts, and other such (yes!) falls. Such early serials inspired later exotic adventures like Tarzan, Indiana Jones and The Mummy—films that were about, at least in part, the magic of cinema itself.

Tarsem has a strong command of the moving image form and a distinctive visual style honed through years of commercial and music video work. His career path mirrors style-centric directors like David Fincher and Spike Jonze, who serve as “presented by” marquee names for this film. The aesthetic of The Fall is a mixture of Dadism, surrealism, and naturalistic exoticism (with stunning location shoots in places like India, Namibia, and South Africa), and Tarsem seems to invoke people like M.C. Esher, Man Ray, Sergei Eisenstein, and Salvador Dali in his evocation of a pre-WWI modernist expressionism.

The result is a trip, to be sure, but one that is more accessible than, say, David Lynch’s Inland Empire (another film that thrills in pushing the boundaries of the cinematic). It isn’t perfect (the acting can at times be a tad too saccharine), but The Fall is certainly one of the most unique films of the year—a cinematic journey that is both thoroughly modern and strikingly classical.

Scarlett’s Album: Shockingly Good!

I’ve been a fan of Scarlett Johansson ever since The Horse Whisperer. And while her film career since then has not been totally pristine, she’s definitely proven herself one of the most talented young stars in Hollywood, with fantastic performances in Ghost World, Lost in Translation, Girl With a Pearl Earring, and Match Point (we can forget The Island).

The main reason I love Scarlett, however, is that she is the consummate Hollywood hipster… and oh do I love my hipsters. I remember turning down an invitation to attend an art gallery opening several years ago in Hollywood, only to find out later that it was Scarlett Johansson’s party and that she had greeted all guests. It’s one of my biggest regrets, but it underscores the artsy nature of Ms. Johansson, which made me like her even more. Sure, she’s now engaged to Van Wilder himself, Ryan Reynolds (negative hipster points), but she’s also an active campaigner for Obama (positive hipster points) and she’s perfected the 50s-glam combination of cat-eye sunglasses and bright red lipstick (uber hipster!). She also has that raspy, cynical voice that gives her even more hipster cred. Did I mention she was in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation?

Imagine my glee, then, when it was reported last year that Scarlett was planning to crossover to music with an album of Tom Waits covers! Could there possibly be anything more hipsterish for a Hollywood starlet to do? It’s almost as if she’s making a mockery of the Lindsay Lohans and Hilary Duffs of the world, who parlay their acting success into useless pop music as if it were some sort of ingénue rite of passage. This is Scarlett differentiating herself from the Hills stereotype: Lindsay Lohan and friends have probably never heard a Tom Waits song in their lives.

Scarlett has made no secret of her ambitions to transition to the music world. She appeared in then-boyfriend Justin Timberlake’s video for “What Goes Around Comes Around” last year, and then she starred in a lovely Bob Dylan music video for his song “When the Deal Goes Down.” Last year she even performed with The Jesus and Mary Chain at Coachella (for the song “Just Like Honey,” naturally). On May 20 her own album, Anywhere I Lay My Head, comes out, and let me just tell you right now: it’s shockingly good. Not good as in “perfect voice and easy listening” pop good… but good as in “a strangely progressive interpretation of Tom Waits” good…

The album kicks off with the triumphant instrumental “Fawn,” an organ-and-horn blasted revisioning of Waits’ shrieking-string original. The thick wall of sound sets the stage for an album that revels in meticulous instrumentation and jazzy noisemaking, aided in no small part by the producing skill of TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek. The next song, “Town With No Cheer,” introduces us to ScarJo’s voice, which is as musky and low-register and imperfect as we expected (and hoped!) it would be. The third song, “Falling Down,” is also the first “single/video,” which you can watch here to get a sense of the sound.

Scarlett knows she is not Cat Power, and thus she wisely stays close to the melody in her singing. The songs become “new” in the way they are arranged and pumped full of airy, droning electricity and shoegazer ambience. Indeed, the album’s self-defined genre classification—“designer shoegazing”—is totally apropos. This is an album full of atmospheric white noise and walls of synthy fuzz. It’s Tom Waits’ low-fi folk interpreted through an 80s British drug music lens. It’s clear that Scarlett is a huge fan of The Jesus and Mary Chain (I wonder if this predated Lost In Translation, which forever married her to the song “Just Like Honey”?) and she offers a nice 21st-century spin on it here.

The album is strong and cohesive, but there are some definite standout tracks. The title track, a Pharrell-meets-My Bloody Valentine adventure, is a curious little gem. The lovely “Fannin Street” benefits from David Bowie (yes, David Bowie!) backing vocals, and the melancholy “I Wish I Was in New Orleans” utilizes a persistent music box and “sweet little girl” mood to beautifully contrast with Waits’ ragged, frog-in-my-throat original. It’s the song that (perhaps) improves the most on the original. That is, until the next song, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” which employs a drum machine, handclaps, and shimmering keyboard riffs to create what is undoubtedly the album’s best song. Even the one original track, “Song For Jo,” is impressive: an ethereal dream that fits in perfectly with the rest of the album.

This is not the best album of the year, certainly, but it’s an impressive debut—a ballsy effort that actually works, paying homage to one of the strangest (and most awesome!) American songwriters of the last thirty years. It’s an album that will turn a lot of people off, but it’ll also give Scarlett even more of that most precious form of celebrity currency: hipster cred!