Tuesday, February 20, 2007

THE SLIFR-TLRHB OSCAR CLUB: Morricone, Monsters, Motors and Mutilated Motown

To: Dennis

My final thoughts on director: The Best Director winner will be announced and the camera will cut to Clint Eastwood...leading the standing ovation for Martin Scorsese. And that will be a beautiful thing to see. Bank on it.

Now, I'll take up your obvious bait on Cars and the Best Animated Film category. I know you're going for Monster House, aren't you? I erased a long parental rant on how Monster House is just another over-the-top action movie, with inappropriate references to teen drinking and puberty, and Happy Feet is trying to pimp out a dark tale of animal enslavement on the back of a witty kids' flick about singing, dancing penguins. But we can argue Holywood's loose morals some other time. The filmmakers certainly have the right to make those movies and they weren't bad by any stretch, but they aren't making them for kids, necessarily, which is my big beef with this stuff. Which is why I loved Cars (and Curious George and Charlotte's Web) so much.

I think Cars deserves the Best Animated Film Oscar. Here is a movie, not about unnecessarily scaring the shit out of your kids, but about imparting gentle lessons of loyalty, friendship and the dangers of self-absorption. It's got a fun story, visual delight in the way the cars' grilles becomes human-like, a great voice cast (both Paul Newman and Larry the Cable Guy would have livened up the Best Supporting Actor category), and witty signifiers for both motorheads and cinephile adults, from John Ford's westerns to American Graffiti. And no kid is going to get the heartfelt yearning director John Lasseter has for an older, lost America of mom-and-pop stores and smaller communities, a culture that enjoyed fast cars but not necessarily the soulless roadways that came in their wake. But I hope its spirit infects them. It's just a beautiful, beautiful movie, one which I believe will grow in stature over the years. I'm very thankful that this was my four-year-old daughter's first true obsession movie, like mine was your dreaded Mary Poppins.

And Cars should also win the Best Song. I guess this is where I need to rant again. The music from Dreamgirls annoys me to no end, and the multiple nominations are a travesty. It's bad enough that this story makes hash of what Motown really was and pushes a story that Florence Ballard deserved the spotlight more than Diana Ross, which is as bad a reworking of history as anything that Oliver Stone is accused of. But the movie's true sin is the insult it pays to the great songwriters of Hitsville, U.S.A. The Supremes would have never recorded this tripe, and the brilliant songwriting teams of Motown would have been laughed out of Berry Gordy's legendary production meetings if they had submitted these weak, charmless trifles. I've got no beef with Broadway, except when it tries to produce rock musicals. Hair is a joke. Rent is a joke. And so is Dreamgirls. The one and only reason Dreamgirls is Dreamgirls is the big JHud song, and that's not even eligible for Best Song. (If the Oscar producers had brains, they'd open the show with Jennifer Hudson belting it to the rafters.) I don't even know why a song from An Incovenient Truth is here, other than to point out that it might be time to do away with the Best Song category for good. The only song that should win is the Cars tune by Randy Newman, sung with such a mournful quality by James Taylor, because it is so perfectly entwined in the movie's core sequence, the remembrance of the times before the interstates bypassed the smaller towns, and curvier routes hugged the country and didn't plow an unsightly straight line through it.

See how the Oscars can get you all irritated? Let's end this post on a more joyous vibe: Ennio Morricone's well-deserved and long-overdue honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. Getting to listen to his music again while preparing for this post has brought me such pleasure. Ennio Morricone really was film's first punk rocker. At his best, he was more original than any other film composer. My other favorites — Bernard
Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, Max Steiner, John Barry, John Williams — all worked within a recognizable frame, while stretching the boundaries of that frame. But whistling? Surf-rock guitar? Spanish trumpets? Operatic yodeling? Heavy-metal harmonica? Thundering chorales? And the collaboration with Joan Baez, of all people, on the Sacco and Vanzetti score. Or his work on The Battle of Algiers. Some of his more obscure themes feature sounds ranging from what appears to be frogs croaking to a woman's orgasmic moans. The great theme to Navaho Joe is mind-blowing, mixing Eastern chants and banshee wails. Who ever thought to score films to these beats before Morricone? The man would try anything. He always had those sweet strings that eventually became his dominant mode of composition. But in the early, best themes, they were used as background or counterpoint to the harder, rock-like drives of percussion and guitar and brass and barks and yelps of strange vocalizing.

The spaghetti Westerns for Leone are only the tip of the spear. He did so many great themes for unknown romantic Italian films, Charles Bronson crime movies, sci-fi and other genre pics. His scores have outlived most of the movies they were written for. And it's important to note that he rejected the typical chianti-esque sounds of Italian theme music. It's hard to even get a handle on everything he did, except that
he brought to film a sense of the sounds of the time, from Bacharach-like melody to the rock beats dominating the charts. Now, for some younger film fans, it might be hard to figure out what is special about Morricone's music today. Like most composers, he's gone back to the same well over and over again, preferring blander, romance-light scores. He's generally lost that vibrant melodic line that he once called up so effortlessly. Unfortunately, most movies today don't care whether the scores have a memorable melody, just some orchestral tension, which is so sad. Morricone and the other greats proved how important a hummable tune is to a film's essence. I think The Mission was Morricone's last great score, and his only great score in that light romantic vein. Still, like Scorsese (odd they never worked together, or did they?), he's got nothing to explain or justify. He gave us endless ecstasies of gold.

Of course, I'm terrified that the Oscar show is not going to give a decent representation of his music, or will likely use The Good, The Bad and the Ugly as the only theme from his golden years. And the word that Celine Dion will be singing a song with lyrics by the Bergmans to Morricone's music also leaves me with a sense of cold foreboding. I still have a dream...that Eastwood will walk out in the poncho again to present the award to Morricone and the curtains will part and we'll see Eli Wallach tied up on top of a wooden cross begging Eastwood to shoot him down. Of course, maybe we should put Celine Dion in the noose instead?



Anonymous said...

Well gosh, IMDb lists an uncredited actor who played "First Squadron Leader" in Tarantula as the future director of Play Misty for Me.

If you haven't heard it, I have on tape an album by John Zorn of Morricone music stretched every which way. If you can, check it out.

And as I told TLRHB, if Scorsese loses again, at least he didn't have Oscar winner John Avildsen's career.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Mr. Nellhaus does not disappoint! There's a sequence in the movie where the giant tarantula is making his way down a lonely stretch of highway while being strafed by a couple of bomber planes. The pilot of one of the aircraft, if you look behind the face mask, is visible as none other than Clint Eastwood. If memory serves, he was also in Revenge of the Creature, the second in the Universal/Gill Man series.

Peter, I used to have that CD of Morricone as processed by John Zorn, and I'll be damned if I know what ever became of it. You're right, though-- if ever a twisted composer found his best twisted interpreter, it was here. A true meeting of minds and hearts and souls.

And you're absolutely right about Avildsen and the Oscar. I think I knew it was pretty much over for him (despite those Karate Kid movies still to come) when he followed up Rocky with Slow Dancing in the Big City... Whoa! I almost fell asleep just TYPING that!