A Few Notes on Film Music by Peter Fraser

When a film is working, none of the individual elements stand out; that is, we are so caught by the complete work that we aren’t conscious of where the camera is positioned or what filters cover the lens or whether an actor is reciting a script or improvising. Such matters are for subsequent viewings; in fact, one of the singular pleasures of watching a really great film, say a Citizen Kane, is in knowing we can go back later to pick it apart.
        And so with film music. You may go later to buy a film’s soundtrack, but you shouldn’t be thinking about that journey while watching the film. When the background music becomes obvious, when it pulls us from the narrative, something has gone terrible wrong. For better or for worse, the tradition of narrative filmmaking has conditioned us to expect a seamless integration of all the filmic parts.
        Examples abound where the soundtrack of a film has ravaged an otherwise good story, especially from the sixties and seventies, the freewheeling decades following the collapse of the studio era. Recently I saw the cult horror film The Wicker Man (1973) with my wife and had to practically hold her to the chair through some of the musical interludes, which smacked of the quirkiness and false ebullience of the seventies. I’ve had similar moments myself revisiting films from Dirty Harry (1971) to American Graffiti (1973), and, I am somewhat hesitant to say, Easy Rider (1969). The music inordinately draws attention to the unfortunate era that produced it.
        This is the problem for many films with pop music tracks from the past few decades--pop music has a short shelf life. (Someone should tell this to the many critics falling over one another in praise of the quirky Moulin Rouge! (2001)).
        Film music most often is used to set a mood. Viewers care first about story. Add an appropriate mood to a good story and you have the beginning of something. Think of those great Bernard Herrmann scores to Hitchcock films like North by Northwest, or Psycho. Hermann wasn’t trying to be hip or trendy. His was a humbler labor. A more recent example might be the fine John Williams tracks for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Minority Report. Or the great soundtracks for Chariots of Fire (1981), The Mission (1986), and The Last of the Mohicans (1992).
        Sometimes a soundtrack can be extremely large and still work, as in David Lean’s 1945 classic Brief Encounter with its masterful integration of Rachmaninof’s Piano Concerto in C Minor, or in the recent O Brother, Where Art Thou? with its great folk soundtrack? However, these are exceptions to the general rule that with film music, discretion and humility is best.
        A word about the musical. Even musicals draw criticism when the music overwhelms the story. Most connoisseurs of the form prefer the sophisticated stories of An American in Paris (1951) and Chicago to the more primitive Busby Berkeley “putting on the show” stories which make you extremely aware of the coming on of song and dance numbers. And as for the pop music musicals like Saturday Night Fever (1977), Grease (1978), Tommy (1975) or Moulin Rouge!, well… Judy Garland took us somewhere over the rainbow; I don’t think the Bee-Gees ever accomplished quite that.
        Peter Fraser is Professor of English at Wisconsin Lutheran College and Chair of the Dept. of Modern Languages. He has written two books and numerous articles and reviews on film and culture.  Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.
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Mystic River of Misery by Peter Fraser

Don’t be fooled by the title. I liked Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, although it leaves one as optimistic about the human condition as his other classic, Unforgiven, which left us with a “redeemed” William Munny reverted back to vigilante killer.
        And if your tastes run toward Oedipus the King, you may especially like Mystic River. In the film’s epilogue one of the main characters drifts down a city street staring with open-mouthed bewilderment at several of the other characters whose lives continue, while hers has been inexplicably ruined. You realize as viewer that this tragedy has no silver lining, unless it be Aristotle’s cathartic “Ah, it is she, and not me.”
        The film begins in just that mood. Three boys play on a street when one is singled out by fate to endure an ordeal too awful to describe. Why this boy and this horror, neither Eastwood nor screenwriter Brian Helgeland tell us. Nor do they explain why providence allows the effects of this evil to ripple so wide. The inscrutable mystic river of life feeds some, while others it swallows alive.
        The film stops, or seems to stop, in a closed moment when all three main characters, the boys now grown, find the trajectory of their lives meeting at a point. One has died. The other two discover together the circumstances of that death, and learn fully their own complicity in it. The world is changed forever--the two wounded survivors walk off into the sunset in the fashion of the true Western, Eastwood’s tribute to the tradition that allowed him his career. The screen goes black and I am reaching for my hat when it lights again and the film offers the aforementioned epilogue, a heavy rain of ambiguity drenching the already muddy street.
        Before shifting here to the script and the performances, both of which are outstanding, I am duty bound to make one further comment about the film’s message, especially as it relates to the last film we reviewed in FILMMAKERS, The Magdalene Sisters. Crosses appear everywhere in Mystic River. The sick villain who helps perpetrate the atrocity that poisons the lives of all these characters leans over the passenger seat of a car in the opening scene displaying a ring with a cross, suggesting, I think, that he is a priest. In many of the interior scenes, crucifixes hang prominently on background walls. In the epilogue, the lead character of Jimmy, played by Sean Penn, sits on the edge of his bed with shirt off to reveal a huge tattoo of a sword pointed downward in the shape of, you guessed it, a cross.
        What does all this suggest? Perhaps that Eastwood, once devotee of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, believes that the golden thread weaving together the lives of women and men is not spun out from the loom of a benevolent God who providentially leads his children toward some final redemption. Rather, God murdered his own son, so beware.
        No one would be talking about Mystic River if not for the brilliant script behind it by Brian Helgeland (drawn from a Dennis Lehane novel), and the equally brilliant acting of Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden, and Kevin Bacon, in particular. Many of the scenes in this film find characters in the most extreme of circumstances. A wife goes to the morgue to meet her husband who has just identified the body of his beloved daughter, murdered and thrown into a hole. The wife is still in denial, the husband in shock but already plotting revenge. Try writing or performing that in a convincing way.
        There must be two dozen scenes in the film at this level of emotional complexity, and were it not for the level of the performances, especially Penn’s, this film would dissolve into maudlin misery. In fact, it is a wonder that director Eastwood took up the risk, notwithstanding the twenty-three previous films under his belt.
        Finally, if tempted to envision Clint Eastwood principally as the squinting man in the pancho with a lightning draw or as Dirty Harry Callahan holding his .44 magnum out and spitting, “C’mon, make my day” – think again. Mystic River proves that Unforgiven was no fluke and that Eastwood should now be looked upon as a director of the very first order.
        Peter Fraser is Professor of English and Chair of the Department of Modern Languages at Wisconsin Lutheran College. He has authored two books and numerous articles on film and popular culture.  Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.

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Adapting Novels to Film by Peter Fraser

Nearly all good films build around engaging stories with memorable characters. Thus, Hollywood and Independent filmmakers have often turned to novels for raw material. With a novel, you at least know that you start with something that works. But, the novel is just a starting place – for as certainly as a great novel like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn can be made into a great film, so certainly can a great novel like Dune become a dreadful film.
        Among the many problems of adaptation, chief may be that in the novel an author can speak a character’s mind, whereas in a film, apart from an occasional, and risky, voice-over, thoughts must be visualized. Remarkable how many great novels depend in key moments on the interior worlds of certain characters – think of any Russian novel, for example, like Dostoievski’s Crime and Punishment . The tormented protagonist can’t tell us he is tormented in a film version. We can’t read his thoughts. He must look and act tormented, and that can be difficult to pull off without maudlin performances or heavy-handed direction.
        Then, comes the problem of length and pacing. A good film will have perhaps six key scenes. The script will build toward and pull away from these. A four-hundred-page novel may have a dozen or more key scenes, or it may unfold gradually without huge peaks – think of a Willa Cather novel, for instance. What was wrong with The Return of the King, Peter Jackson’s concluding segment of The Lord of the Rings? Well, he strained a couple scenes, like the joyous return around Frodo’s bed and the departure to the Far Havens, to fit the conventions of filmmaking and thus threw the tone of the novel off-balance. And, he omitted one of the most thematically important scenes in the novel, the scouring of the Shire, so as not to throw the tone of the film off balance. A screenwriter has many difficult choices to make to boil a novel down to filmable size, choices that will guarantee enemies among the devotees of the book, and choices that pretty much guarantee a different texture to the final product.
        Third, a novel tends to have far more characters than a film can allow. Often a screenwriter will combine several characters from a novel into one in the film, and then out of that process will emerge something much larger than was contained in the book. Remember that a character in a film can visually dominate once on screen. The character of Seymour in Ghost World, literally took over the film once created out of the bits of him you find in the graphic novel, especially as realized by actor Steve Buscemi. The result, as in most adaptations, is a new product altogether.  Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.

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Hemlock Anyone? Room for Panic by Peter Fraser

Some film producers have been in their own rooms too long. They need to get out more, take a walk, watch some children playing at the local park...
        Having seen the trailer for David Fincher’s Panic Room, I pretty much knew the whole story. Jodie Foster plays a woman, separated from her rich husband, who buys for herself and her daughter a house with a secret room, the “panic room.” Bad guys come into the house and mother and daughter make it into the panic room, only to find that the bad guys want a stash of money hidden there.
        Given that premise, what can possibly hold an adult to a movie seat for two hours while this bit of fluff flickers up front? Unless the script is written by Jean-Paul Sartre or Anton Chekhov, the answer is – not much.
        Of course, “not much” in the mind of your average Hollywood producer translates into innovative special effects or voluptuous females. Panic Room, unfortunately, offers neither.
        So, I must conclude that this film is aimed at a teenage brain. Indeed, only the teenage daughter in the film gets to think; most of the adults wander around in circles speaking meaningless nonsense. The mother, Jodie Foster, is allowed minimal intelligence, but only developed after being locked in the room with her daughter for several hours; one of the bad guys, too, is given a brain, but only because he has a child of his own – no doubt a teenager.
        Viewing the film, then, as mindless entertainment designed to keep the kids out of trouble for a few hours on a Friday evening, I am compelled to respond as a parent and a grown-up. I could cite Plato here on art and society to add academic respectability to my comments, but I’ll hold back. This is personal.
        Early on in this film, the mother, Jodie Foster, and her daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart), sit at the kitchen table in the new house and try to relate. The mother is swilling a gigantic goblet of wine in an attempt to drown her misery and loneliness, the dad having left them only recently to live with some young thing. The daughter, sensing her mother’s trauma, and no doubt worrying about a future with a potential alcoholic, says to mom, and this is a rough paraphrase, “Mom, just say bleepdeep him.” The mother looks up and the daughter repeats this bit of wisdom. “Just say blupbleepdeep.” Mom, the lights going on like they did for the Frankenstein monster, nods dully, and repeats, “blupdeeperreep.” A bond has been formed.
        Now, I can’t speak for other parents, but I take offense at the notion that my child can teach me when and how to swear. I don’t swear much, and when I do, my kid damn well better not try to coach me.
        In fact, I take offense at the notion that my child is smarter than me. When, between the diapers and the Oreo cookies, did that great leap of learning and experience occur--at puberty? Ah yes, at puberty, my daughter (who is almost thirteen by the way) will receive a special injection of brainpower along with the estrogen when she turns thirteen.
        What in heaven’s name are we saying to kids in the pop art we give them? Time was when such a film would constitute a criminal offense – “corrupting the youth.” Socrates was made to drink hemlock for less.
        Granted, this film is nowhere near as bad as Brittany Spears teaching little girls that playing prostitute for middle-aged men is okay. But it leans in that direction.
        I’m only illustrating the point with this most obvious scene – everything else about the film sends the same message.
        The panic room should be seen as a metaphor for an adult person trapped in a neurotic adolescent’s brain. Jodi Foster walking circles in that small space mimics our own trauma as adults in a commercial culture exploiting children as a way to get at the parents’ pockets.
        How do I get out of this? Does anyone know I’m in here?
        We need to return to sanity as a culture. Our actions have consequences, especially when they shape the coming generation.
        Peter Fraser is Professor of English and Chair of the Dept. of Modern Languages at Wisconsin Lutheran College. He has authored two books on film and culture.  Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.

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STUDY SHEET by Peter Fraser, Chair, Department of English, WLC

Bruce Almighty
2003 Universal Pictures
Directed by Tom Shadyac
Featuring Jim Carrey, Jennifer Aniston, Morgan Freeman

Plot: Bruce Nolan, a good, but self-centered newsman, complains bitterly to God when he is overlooked for promotion to anchorman. God responds, allowing Bruce to exercise divine powers and respond to peoples’ prayers himself.

Consideration: One of the best ways to start discussing this film is to react to the plot itself. This plot device has been tried before, sometimes with marginal success as in Oh, God! (1977), in which George Burns as God responds to John Denver; and sometimes with celebrated success, as in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), in which God sends the angel Clarence to assist George Bailey in his distress, even allowing George a glimpse of a world in which he had never been born.
        1. In Bruce Almighty, can you accept the premise of Morgan Freeman as God responding to Jim Carrey’s prayer?
        2. Does the film ever cross the line of what is appropriate in a religious context and what is not? Why or why not?
        3. Does anything in the film – language, sexual situations – undercut the film’s attempt to make a larger theological point?

Analysis: Once past such preliminaries, once accepting the film on its own terms, what of the message that it offers regarding God’s responses to prayer or his balancing of free will and the greater good of individuals and humanity?
        1. Compare Bruce Nolan’s prayer after he is fired from his job to the prayer he offers when face-to-face with God in the clouds.  What has changed? Does the Bible teach the same? Consider James 4: 1-10.
            a. How does this apply to our prayers?
            b. Does Bruce’s adolescent attitude toward prayer characterize the prayers of many today in our self-absorbed culture? Explain.
        2. Bruce discovers that he cannot compel Grace (Jennifer Aniston) to love him.
            a. How does this reflect the Bible’s teaching about creation and the fall? Consider Matthew 23: 37-39, words Jesus spoke on the way to execution.
            b. Is God bound to allow us free will, as the film suggests? Do other Scriptures teach this?
        3. Bruce changes at the end into a selfless person?
            a. What has he learned, beyond how to pray? Consider Philippians 2: 3-11.
            b. Why does the humble man act more charitably?  
Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.

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Stylish and Thoughtful: The Princess and the Warrior by Peter Fraser

When a film gets wildly mixed reviews, it typically means that not all viewers know how to understand it. The poet Alexander Pope wrote, “a perfect judge will read each work of wit with the same spirit that its author writ.” The struggle for the film critic is to bury personal pride and allow a movie to be what it wants to be.
        Tom Tykwer’s The Princess and The Warrior wants to be a medieval romance in a modern setting and an allegory about love and faith. To want it to be a thriller, a Hollywood-style romance, or a drama about a bank heist will guarantee a bad evening of entertainment. Tykwer, writer and director of the international hit, Run, Lola, Run, has something important to say.
        Franka Potente stars as the Princess or Kaiserina, Sissi, who rules over the hearts of the inmates in an asylum where she has been raised, her father being a patient. A traffic accident in which she gets struck by a truck provides the “coincidence” that brings her to the Warrior, Bodo, a medieval knight at heart who lives under a curse. Bodo (Benno Furmann) feels responsible for his wife’s tragic death and so allows himself to serve as the pawn of his materialist brother who is planning a bank heist. When he saves Sissi after the accident and then disappears, Sissi, believing that this rescue must be a sign from God, pursues and “saves” him – from both the consequences of the failed heist, and from his spiritual death.
        Under the plot lies the Dante-esque belief that human romance comes as a message of divine providence. To live with any hope, Sissi must act on her belief that her coincidental rescue by a “knight” has its source in the grace of God. Bodo must, likewise, release the dead shell of himself to embrace Sissi’s love, and God’s mercy – he must return from the land of the curse to the land of the living.
        The Princess and the Warrior recalls both Run, Lola, Run and the recent French hit Amelie in its attitude toward love and providence. Tykwer attacks implicitly the post-modern existentialism that has been suffocating contemporary life and art.
        All this being said, the film unfolds episodically and with a luxury of visual display that will certainly put off any viewer anticipating The Matrix or Casablanca. The Princess and the Warrior may, indeed, play a bit long at 133 minutes, but it rewards the journey. The final scenes are moving and beautifully composed – and will linger in the memory. Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.

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Queen for a Day… or Two by Peter Fraser

Pop icons arise and fade according to the changing needs of the culture. It has been so since mass culture was birthed from the industrial fires of the late nineteenth century.
        Who was the “It Girl”? And why? Does anyone still know that if you wanted a quotable on any subject at the beginning of the 20th, yes 20th, century, you’d ask Mark Twain? Has anyone ever heard of “The Snark”? How about Dobey Gillis?
        The day will come, of course, when our children will need to have Madonna explained and J-Lo and Justin and even Bill Clinton, for that matter. The mill of God’s justice may grind slow, but the mill of pop fame grinds much faster.
        And so, Queen Latifah. I just happened to see Bringing Down the House not long after reviewing Chicago, so when asked to write about the Queen, I had images fresh in my mind. She is, above all else, a rising star whose presence lingers in the mind.
        She fills a large space. She’s talented, of course, but she’s also, well, she’s also… and that’s a good thing. She’s the perfect response to Halle Berry, the real woman versus the pin-up. And, she’s the logical next step in the civilizing of Hollywood, an industry which despite its current face of political correctness, has been very segregated and very petty through the years – witness the treatment of Hattie McDaniel, for one prime example.
        Queen Latifah may become the new Mae West. She’s a caricuture of herself – funny, loud, naughty, and well aware of it. And we’re aware of it. And she’s a black woman. And we’re aware of that, too. After Whoopi Goldberg, name some black female comics. Stumped?
        Queen L. is funny. I enjoyed Bringing Down the House, her Hollywood coming out party. She matched Steve Martin in sheer screen charisma in the slapstick sequences, and only let show her lack of polish when trying to pull off poignancy. If she can take that next step that Martin or a John Candy took and show genuine vulnerability on screen, she may be able to command her own starring roles. If not, she will at least have many opportunities to play supporting characters for many years.
        Not bad for Dana Elaine Owens from East Orange, New Jersey, former employee of Burger King, daughter of a cop. And not bad for someone marginalized in the narrow confines of rap, even someone with as many hit singles as she has amassed. She deserves credit for blasting her way through the bland misogyny of that world, drowning out mediocrity and ugliness with her own honest, good-natured, sassy self--on the Motown label, no less. Now she is set on blasting through the last cardboard wall of racism in the highly regulated Hollywood castle.
        Her talent is wrapped around her exhuberant personality and her place in the evolution of American pop. Her messages of unity and equal justice are toned just right. If she can keep from assaulting photographers and steer clear of the dissipation that swallows up so many talents like hers, she may be one of the more recognizable faces on the tabloids for, oh, a good fifteen years.
        Peter Fraser is Professor of English and Chair of the Dept. of Modern Languages at Wisconsin Lutheran College. He has written two books and numerous articles on film and popular culture.  Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.

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Chicago: Everything Promised And A Little Bit More by Peter Fraser

Easily the best film of a very forgettable year in film, Chicago showed that the film musical still has some force in today’s Hollywood. Granted, Renee Zeilweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Richard Gere cannot compare in talent to the likes of Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, and Gene Kelly; but the sheer visual energy and narrative play of Chicago more than compensates for the presence of "stars" where "talent" would have been in years past.
        The best way to describe Rob Marshall's adaptation of the late and great Bob Fosses 1975 Broadway show is that it is Moulin Rouge for adults. Electric in its cinematography and editing, full of knock-em dead Broadway numbers, like "All That Jazz" and "Cell Block Tango," Chicago also manages to put across an old-fashioned Prohibition-era black comedy.
        It's dark and it's naughty and it's informed, a cynical Cinderella story for people experienced in corrupt city politics who still like to live in the city. This is the film for fans of Damon Runyan, for people who have Lords of the Levee on their shelf at home and who enjoy anecdotes about the days of Charles Tyson Yerkes. Chicago's story is not nice, but it has a lot to say about the human condition.
        Beyond its root in the Fosse musical, Chicago was based loosely on history, more directly on the dark 1942 film comedy Roxie Hart, directed by William Weltman. In that one Ginger Rogers played the title character, the ambitious climber who kills her lover and then manages to use the event as a platform for her own stage career, with the help of a slick lawyer of course, played then by Adolphe Menjou, in the Marshall Version by Richard Gere.
        Renee Zeilweger is lovable, if not entirely plausible, as Roxie. Catherine Zeta-Jones, although maybe not worthy of the Oscar given her, is still fun to watch as she bumps and grinds through several very saucy numbers; she's Velma, convicted murderer of her own sister, and former dance-partner. Gere is the slick lawyer. Billy Flynn, about as good as he usually is, and here showing a bit of the musical talent he flashed last in Copolla's Cotton Club.
        But it's the secondary characters that make the film. Queen Latifah, certainly a rising star who can both sing and toss a comic line, plays the jail matron, "Mama Morion"; Taye Diggs, plays the slick bandleader who orchestrates the action on stage and narrates the story, a reflection of giants like Cab Galloway; and my favorite, the oafish husband of Roxie, Amos Hart, dupe of all, is played with great open-eyed idiocy by John C. Reilly.
        I went into this film not wanting to like it because its trailer boasted a bit too much and because it's stars didn’t seem up to the level of the Broadway show. But, I was won over. Especially when the film ended at a crisp one hour and fifty-three minutes, almost a miracle in contemporary cinema, here a testament to the thoughtfulness of the screenwriters and editors, who understood that in the theater you should wow them, then leave them begging for just one more.
        Peter Fraser is Professor of English and Chair of the Department of Modem Languages a! Wisconsin Lutheran College. He has written two books and numerous articles on film and popular culture.   Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.

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The Learning Tree by James Searles

The Learning Tree, 1969, semi-autographical, was written and directed by Gordon Parks, African-American. The film was among the first 25 films selected by the US Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry in 1989.  
Shot in rural Kansas in the 20’s, the film reflects Parks view growing up in a poor family in Kansas, youngest of 15 children. The Kansas land could quickly change to pain. The Learning Tree is based on a crime changed into a vehicle for hate. Parks in his youth saw more than one killing by the local sheriff, unquestioned authority, a racist. The film does not name a villain. It forces us to look at the economics that thrived in Kansas. Parks said that we can not just picture evil “and say ‘This is a bigot’ because bigots have a way of looking just like everyone else. What the camera had to do was to expose the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination, and the bigotry, by showing the people who suffered most under it.” 
        If we are asked to witness something, to many the term means explaining the events in a clear objective terms as they happened in a court. Another view might be found in a Black Baptist Church. Parks said “the word also means a deeply personal statement of an inner truth, spoken in a voice that can not be stilled or shouted down.” Parks framed the Kansas plains and the people in clarity. The film also witnesses another truth so important that can not be restrained. The combination showing the outer surface of society while at the same time viewing the inside of the protagonist’s hearts is an explosive combination. 
        The 1920 setting of Kansas is deceptive. The film called for change – briefly known as LEARN, BABY, LEARN, THE LEARNING TREE. In 1969 the flames of racial frustration had long simmered. The film was a cool wind showing viewers a different understanding of the black experience than the media view. Parks saw a view of a Kansas with strong families and honesty between the races and a nightmare red with the burning skies – a place where a young man has to pick between living with himself and others - a choice of life or death. “The learning tree grows alone, windblown and solitary on the dusty plains.” The film turns of the ability of whites to hate blacks and in doing so watch them self-destruct consumed by the hatred that they express. “In a place where the land ordinarily yields a rich bounty, this tree bears a bitter fruit.” Put this on your list of videos worth watching.
        Editors Note: A starting point to understand the book and movie might be here: http://skyways.lib.ks.us/orgs/kcfb/lt/book_review.htm   Back to topics

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