Category Archives: Reflections

Miscellany…

Why John Williams Inspires Us…

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why john williams inspires us...

It’s understood that music enhances films, and no one has done that better than John Williams. But as I listen to his compositions, I wonder sometimes whether in fact his music does much more. Perhaps sometimes his music is the primary reason the film succeeds.

The common cliche is that all filmmaking is a collaborative process, so I wager Williams would be the first to deny the possibility his music alters anything. He’s written so many scores, including the scores for Star Wars, Home, Alone!, E.T., Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark,  Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, Superman, Harry Potter–movies I adore.

But I find if I mute the score when I’m watching those films, something seriously changes. It is as if the heart of the film is absent. Not just its emotional feeling tone, but the reason I’m watching.

The Music Is Telling the Story…

Williams’ music creates the story at a level we can’t resist:

  • “Luke’s Theme” plays as young Skywalker looks out at the discs of two suns–it is the notes we hear that reveal Luke’s yearning–a haunting, unforgettable image.
  • The neighborhood filled with Christmas lights as the camera zooms in becomes enchanted with the synth chimes and celeste, the woodwinds and sleigh bells that Williams gives to the opening of Home, Alone! He used the celeste again in the first Harry Potter film as “Hedwig’s Theme.” Who doesn’t want to enter a magical world like these two musical openings promise? (I remember a television ad appearing before the first film was released playing this theme as it showed the snowy owl Hedwig tracking to a bookstore–it pulled one in like a magnet.)
  • In Superman, there is marvelous thematic music, but underlying it also is something in the music itself that offers a sense of the unknown, of the immense mythology of the franchise, its origins back in the 30s, and the entry into a world that has such a wonderful being in it, our own mystical yearning for that kind of goodness.

His Music IS Storytelling

In these movies, as in the others he scored for, including Schindler’s List, I can’t separate the music from the film itself. Without the music, the movie loses more of its meaning.  What Williams has created does define the experience of watching the story. His music is storytelling. It can’t be left out.

As in Star Wars…

I remember in an interview George Lucas said that on the opening night of Star Wars he and his wife Marcia went out to get something to eat in L.A., and were astonished to see a mob of people across the street and a line around the block. He wondered why and suddenly realized it was to see Star Wars. He hadn’t expected such response. He felt it was a film he hadn’t been able to shape in its full potential, that he lacked the technical devices he needed to make it better.

I remember watching it in a theater in New York City, in Times Square, a few days after its release, and taking my three-year old son with me, and both of us sat mesmerized along with the rest of the world by the opening credits made colossal by Williams’ extraordinary music as the story began to unfold. Imagine that opening scene without that remarkable score. If for Lucas the technical aspects were not what he had dreamed of, Williams’ music made the entire movie a riveting, totally absorbing and emotional experience.

A Truly American Composer

He wrote symphonic themes, too, that were so essentially, blazingly American, defining the films that way. I remember hearing him conduct his original music for the film The Reivers. It held in it the same contours of folk melodies attached to the American landscape that appeared with Aaron Copland’s exquisite music in “Appalachian Spring” and “The Red Pony,” or Virgil Thomson’s “The Plow That Broke the Plains” for the documentary on the Dust Bowl. Williams is a true artist, and how fortunate we are he brought that same classical tradition into the movies.

And how fortunate that insightful directors asked him to write his brilliant  music for their films. So he did in ways that ensured the characters and their stories would forever be part of our hearts, and often, part of our souls.

The Unforgettable Thalia Theater

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Thalia Theater

The Thalia in the 70s

When I knew this theater, back in the day, it was just like this photo, a strange, narrow little place on 95th Street just down from Broadway, a few blocks away from where I lived. I remember the floor sloped up toward the screen, making it hard to see over heads sometimes. It was a magical place for someone like me, who had only recently come to the city from a small town. Each time I went I felt a frisson of anticipation, for no matter what film was playing, I knew I was going to fall in love with it. The old theater is long since renovated and it’s now called Symphony Space/Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre. I like that, being a Nimoy fan, and he was apparently a great supporter, but what a strange convergence, too–Mr. Spock and the old cinema.

Discovering Independent Films

The foreign films the Thalia showed came from Poland and India and Japan and Italy and France and Sweden. Many might seem stylized now, but I remember them as striking and powerful, from Bergman’s Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal to Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, from Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest to Fellini’s La Strada, from Andrzej Wajda‘s Ashes and Diamonds to everything by Kurosawa, from René Clément’s Is Paris Burning  to Alain Resnais’ extraordinary Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad–and so many more.

The Joy of Seeing Films from a Golden Time

The American and British films came mainly from the 30s and 40s, and they were enchanting, and never before seen, by me, anyway: Katherine Hepburn with Fred McMurray in the exquisitely quirky Alice Adams in 1935 or her heartbreaking Morning Glory from 1933, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca and Bogart with Bette Davis in The Petrified Forest, Noel Coward’s precious, unforgettable film Brief Encounter, Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles in Our Man in Havana and Citizen Kane, Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and The Lady Vanishes, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred McMurray in Double Indemnity, and Chaplin’s City Lights. The 50s and 60s got their turn, with Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan in Beware, My Lovely, John Sturgis’ The Magnificent Sevenand here, too, so many more.

The Thalia’s Enchantment

The Thalia I knew changed the bill often, and even included films from private collections and others seldom seen. It was an education of its own, an island of constant stimulation and entertainment like no other I’ve experienced since. It expanded my awareness not only of theater and film in general, but also my understanding of the boundless creativity movies have brought to us from every direction, and the enchantment of being able to experience them all.

 

Before the White Man

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Before the White Man

Depiction of the Algonquin God Gitchie Mantiou

I was exploring the origin of town and village names in the area where I live in upstate New York, and discovered many of them had Native American Indian names adopted by colonists in the 1600s. An image suddenly came to mind, unbidden, of what life had been like in this area before the white man arrived. For a thousand years people had lived here in much the same way, and surely imagined it would be so forever.

Into this came the white man and it was not just an arrival, it was an Armageddon. In a few generations the thousand-year-old way of life was utterly altered—forever. That is an old story now, one that everyone knows. Within those few generations, over 90 % of the Native American Indian population was gone. The Europeans brought smallpox with them, against which native populations had no defense and which decimated millions. The rest of the terror came from acts of violence in one form or another by colonists toward the native populations, including those in the region where I live. That is what invaders do, for reasons I cannot fathom.

In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson did not see the Native American Indians as equal but as “merciless savages.” None of the signers challenged the words.

I still have that image in my mind now, a visual so clear, as if I were watching it in real life. There is sunlight and men and women are carrying out chores and tasks. Children are playing. These people are not farmers, but used the land as needed. It was not an idyllic life for all, but it belonged to them. It was known territory, predictable and they were free to be utterly who they were. I can see the tall grass in summer, and hear the rains come, and watch snow falling over the land in winter. I see smoke from fires and hear voices talking, one to the other. It feels so real.

There are no guns, and no swords, and no white men racing down hillsides ready and willing to slaughter them and claim the land as their own. The image I have is like a thin edge, precarious but holding, of a time before the white man.

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Spirit Messengers in Everyday Life

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Messengers of spirit come our way every day, sometimes passing through our lives for only a brief moment, sometimes appearing in the guise of a close friend, and sometimes showing up when we are lost, when we need help the most. They respond to the inner call we send out into this three-dimensional human experience, the one that feels bewildered and asks for revelation. That call never goes unanswered, for these spirit messengers work on holy ground. What we keep missing is sensing that we are the messengers for one another, and that this holy ground is one we all share. We are meant to listen to each other with compassion, for we are all children of light and love, and there is no separation.

Sacred Memory and the Present Moment

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When he wrote Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust was trying to capture the essence of events that no longer existed except in his memories of them. He wanted to articulate the day-to-day feeling and evoke the sensations that had once been so real to him. He would tap into moments in time through his recollection of sights and scents and sounds. The resonance of memory for him lay not just in the moment that was being retrieved, but in the process and reason used to initiate the act of remembering. By the very immersion in scenes from his life, Proust was revising and coloring them from where he was as he wrote down the words describing the elusive past. Like the details of the Vermeer paintings he recalled, he wanted to apprehend again the detailed experience of all he had once known, but he could not be sure he had grasped what it was.

Our creativity with memory is inevitable, for we are all drawn over and over again to new versions of the visual and tangible effects of the memories we hold. Each memory cannot be accessed by us without our changing its content and form at once. This is an ongoing, familiar process that we each experience, with the result that both traumatic and joyful events, in time, are most often perceived very differently from the original event.
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