Bernard Herrmann (and some stuff about Ray Harryhausen)—Two Maestros!

Bernnard Herrman showed an early talent for music by winning a $100 competition when he was 13 and went on to study at Julliard. His career was impressive with his scores for Orson Wells and Alfred Hitchcock.

But I remember him for some other works—not as “high-level” but, to me, equally impressive (given my perchance for Science Fiction and Fantasy films).

My uncle took my cousins and I to a matinee showing of a fantasy film called The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Here, I would “meet” two of my movie “loves” Ray Harryhausen and Bernard Herrmann.

Initially, it was the visual effects of animation master Ray Harryhausen who impressed me with his fantasy creatures—especially the cyclops.

(I would try to draw the cyclops dozens of times after the viewing.) But Ray’s “dynamation” creatures just blew me away. The “Snake Lady” creeped me out for years to come.  But behind it all, was Herrman’s wonderful score. His music took the viewer into a fantastic land where the impossible was possible: A giant 2 headed Roc; a massive fire-breathing dragon; and of course, my all-time favorite—the Cyclops!  (I would later build a clay version and animate it against a miniature background—fun stuff!) The scoring for the skeleton fight is a wonderful combination of percussion instruments which sounded like bones knocking together!

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was the first Harryhausen movie done in color and although Ray was reluctant to go to color his last film (20 Million Miles to Earth) was in black and white, he was able to develop a way to maintain proper color balance with his “DynaMation” process. This was Harryhausen’s masterpiece and was a top grossing film for 1958. Dennis Muren of Industrial Light and Magic said this movie was his major inspiration for getting into effects work. Many other effect animators were Inspired by Ray Harryhausen!

Harryhausen’s ability to put personality into his animated puppets was part of his genius. The intense concentration needed to move the puppet’s armature frame-by-frame and to “act” through them, even giving them an element of pathos—is a rare gift. The ultimate example of this extraordinary craftsmanship can be viewed in a scene from Jason and the Argonauts where Harryhausen must animate 7 skeletons dueling with 3 argonauts. It took Ray about 4 months to complete this scene which lasts 4 1/2 minutes on the screen. (3:35 minutes of actual animation time)! The ability to know where all 7 skeletons are and what particular action it is going through takes herculean concentration! (An interesting triva note: Ray had a small cameo in the remake of Mighty Joe Young, of which he did a good deal of the animation of Joe.)

But back to Bernard Herrman. His collaboration with producer Charles Shneer and Ray Harryhausen is a rather impressive body of work in itself. The rather British fanfare which opens The Three Worlds of Gulliver sets the tone for the rest of the movie and adds a sort of epic musical introduction to what follows. On Mysterious Island, when some shipwrecked crewmembers confront some giant bees, the whole orchestra is turned into a massive buzzing instrument! When the large, prehistoric bird menaces some British ladies, the music turns somewhat comical —matching the odd creature with the tone perfect musical accompaniment that enhances the odd awkwardness of the animal.

I’ve often wondered why a person of such preeminent stature—with credits like Citizen Kane and The Devil and Daniel Webster (of which Herrmann won an Oscar) would “stoop” to do the “B” films (O.K. “B+” films) of Ray Harryhausen (sorry Ray…). But my guess is that an artist does not care about a film’s budget or genre but the artistic challenge it presents. And with such an array of musical “tools” at Herrmann’s disposal, movies like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is just the ticket to exercise those musical muscles. (I’m just taking a “stab-in-the-dark” on this one.)

The score for Journey to the Center of the Earth with James Mason and Pat Boone is also quite impressive. Late in the film Herrmann utilizes an ancient horn called “The Serpent” (if memory serves) to add an odd reptillian effect when the explorers are trying to get through the ruins of Atlantis and must confront a giant Chameleon. One particular track, entitled “The Mountain/Sunrise” became the musical accompaniment for my college project on model construction. I built a miniature of the New Jerusalem out of plexi-glass and fiber-optics. That music worked wonderfully for that too…   (Sorry for the digression!)

In the classic Robert Wise film The Day the Earth Stood Still, Mr. Herrman utilizes the electronic accompaniment of the Treble & Bass Theremins played by Dr. Samuel Hoffmann. He also used another electronic instrument called the Mixturtrautonium (spelling?) played by Oskar Sala on Hitchcock’s The Birds where Herrmann functioned as musical consultant. There was no actual musical score but more of electronic bird sounds for the soundtrack.

Bernard Herrmann creativity is also evident in his classic score for Hitchcock’s Psycho where he uses only string instruments. The “screeching” violins for the infamous “shower scene” scared my aunt half to death— She was terrified of taking showers for weeks after viewing that movie! Obviously, the soundtrack contributed greatly to the effectiveness of that scene. The various moods that Herrmann created for Hitchcock’s movies added immensely to the effect Hitchcock wanted to achieve. It is hard to image any of Hitchcock’s films without the Herrmann touch to them. They just wouldn’t be the same!

Bernard Herrmann’s work so impressed a young composer that his creativity and unique style has been the inspiration of Danny Elfman.  Danny has scored many of Tim Burton’s works and admits his great admiration for Herrmann’s body of work. Sometimes Elfman gets a bit carried away and his compositions become too complex. He shared that his orchestrator would shake his head and indicate that there was just too much going on in Elman’s composition. Still, it is high praise for Bernard Herrmann’s own creative compositions.

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Jerry Goldsmith, favorite composer

I have always had a fondness for movie soundtracts.  Before CD’s came about, I had a massive record collection.  I would note a particular composer’s work in a movie and watch for the record album to come out.  I have no real musical background, I just know what I like.

I have a number of favorite composers but one that stands out (and I’m not sure if he has ever gained the kind of public attention he deserves is Jerrald King Goldsmith or more popularly, Jerry Goldsmith.

My first introduction into this versatle composer’s work was on Lilies of the Field—a black and white, Ralph Nelson production. The score was fairly simple with an harmonica, banjo and strings.  The ongoing theme was a riff on the old spiritual “Amen” “sung” by Sidney Poitier’s Homer Smith. (The actual singing was done by Jester Hairston if I remember correctly…) But the soundtract so underscored the narrative that it just fit marvelously. It had a simplicity that enhanced the story but never got in the way. The score is uplifting and inspiring—just as is the movie’s storyline.

The next Jerry Goldsmith score I enjoyed was the Flim-Flam Man starring George C. Scott as Mordecai Jones, the titlar character. Again, Mr. Goldsmith features the harmonica because of the rural setting but it tended to be a bit more complex than the Fields score.. There were some basic similarities with his Lilies of the Field score but stands on its own and is tremendously enjoyable to listen to. Although I was able to get the record album for Lilies, the score for the Flim-Flam Man was not cut (or at least, I could not find it in Hawaii).  I remember taking my little tape recorder and recording the opening sequence for the movie so I could listen to it after viewing it in the theater (was that illegal???). I have the movie on VHS because it has not been released on DVD yet.

When the James Bond phenomenon hit, TV had to have it’s own secret agents—so, to my delight came The Man from Uncle!  It was not until many years later that I found out that Jerry Goldsmith composed the pounding, brassy opening fanfare! He also composed the lilting Dr. Kildare theme before that…

Jerry Goldsmith has been quite prolific and there are times I’ll view a movie and discover it had been scored by him!  Of course, I’m always delighted to make that discovery! Mr. Goldsmith has written so many scores that I’m certain I am familiar with only a portion of his work.

My next “jump” to another Jerry Goldsmith score was Patton. The echoing “war horns” that begin the main title starts off slowly and then the fife/flutes come in, introducing the “Patton March.” This is followed by the brass which enter in majestically and the score builds to a magnificent, rousing cresendo and then tapers back to the soft echoing of the aforementioned horns— a “call to war” triplet as some have described it. These “triplet” horns were intended to represent Patton’s belief in reincarnation. Certainly a great score!

When the demands of Star Trek fans finally brought about a full movie version of the classic TV series, it was Jerry Goldsmith who did the score (and not Alexander Courage). One of my seminary friends complained that the score didn’t seem to have much of a “bottom” but I thought the score quite appropriate — and having “no bottom” was not a problem since this story takes place in outer space there seem to be no need for a heavy base line. Of course, Mr. Goldsmith’s main theme was carried over to the Star Trek TV’s Next Generation.

But of the various Goldsmith scores for Star Trek, the them that I LOVED  was the main theme for First Contact.  It is so beautiful!  It has a warmth that takes the visual narrative into a whole other realm (it seems). It may be the use of French Horns that may give it that “warmth” but I just loved it. I used the theme for various audio-visual slideshows I’ve put together. So, even though my visuals were more teresterial, the “extra-teresteral” theme still works wonderfully well!

The versitility of Mr. Goldsmith can also be seen in his scores for animated features.  The one of note that comes to mind is The Secret of N.I.M.H. which was a colaboration with Paul Williams who composed the songs.

Goldsmith’s score enhances the mystery, wonder and excitement to this Don Bluth animation film. Years later, Mr. Goldsmith scored the Disney hit Mulan.

Science fiction is not the only genre Jerry Goldsmith exells in. He wrote the score for the Tobe Hooper supernatural thriller Poltergeist. His music initially takes us through a generic neighborhood as we see children playing with their radio-remote cars. The music moves from the normal to the supernatural with wonderful flair and certainly adds to the horror that would befall the unfortunate family.

The horror genre would be the realm where Goldsmith would attain his first and only Academy Award. The movie The Omen, of the birth and early years of the Antichrist (“666”) would be one where the composer would use a choir in “an Avant-garde style.”  So, in 1976, Jerry Goldsmith walked up to receive his award for Best Original Score! Although Mr. Goldsmith has not won many awards, his scores have won numerous nominations and critical acclaim. I admire the score’s on its technical merits but have a hard time listening to it… it is too intense and scary!

Some composers seem to have common themes musical phrases and certain characteristics that one can recognize from score to score.  I have an extremely difficult time identifying a Jerry Goldsmith score—just because it is so unique and through his creativity, unlike anything he has done before. Jerry Goldsmith’s creativity and prolific body of work is second to none!

 

 

Musings about Groundhog Day

The Bill Murray vehicle “Groundhog Day” is a “guilty pleasure” of mine.  It apparently has been the “inspiration” for other story lines in shows like Supernatural (episode entitled “Mystery Spot”-Season 3) and the more recent Haven (“Audrey Parker’s Day Off” Season 2).  Each having their own twist to the Bill Murray original.

When I first viewed it, I reacted to Murray’s character negatively (correctly so!). He was certainly irritating, obnoxious, self-centered, egotistical… well, it certainly made the journey with the character of Phil more satisfying to see him change. His character arc was very satisfying as he became a more caring person.

Phil first starts off being confused and bewildered by his circumstances of reliving Groundhog day over. He tries to get medical help and then visits a psychologist but to no avail.  Then, interacting with two drunks in a bowling alley, Phil queries, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was the same and nothing that you did mattered?” The deadpan retort was: “That about sums it up for me.”  Yet these two reveal an important concept for Phil.  When he asks, “What if there were no tomorrow,” the somewhat astute answer is: “There would be no consequences… we could do whatever we wanted!” Of course this takes Phil in a wrong direction!  It unleashes Phil’s self-centeredness to a higher degree!  He pushes the boundaries of that concept by punching out “Needle-nose Ned” and gorging himself on sweets. When Rita asks about his lack of concern regarding his overindulges—Phil replies, “I don’t worry about anything anymore.”  We almost envy him at this point.

Then he tries to hit on a pretty celebrant, Nancy Taylor. But that ends in disaster! He steals from an armored truck so he can go to his favorite western movie in a limo. Since there are no consequences, Phil has no conscience to limit his actions.

Phil then takes aim at Rita—trying to make the most perfect date ever—learning from each blunder what to do and what NOT to do (“no white chocolate”). But with all his planning, she rebuffs him repeatedly. He cannot recapture the “magic of the previous “day” and his attempt to do so is repugnant. His self-serving attempts will not work with her. As Stephen Tolbosky shares, Rita strives for excellence and Phil just doesn’t live up to that standard!

 Phil then goes into a suicidal depression but fails to end his life after numerous attempts. His view of himself radically changes!

“I am god” Phil declares to Rita (or at least “a god).  Phil attempts to “proves” his omniscience by revealing details of everyone in the diner. Rita is intrigued and makes Phil her “science project” for the day. A minor time indicator of how much time has been consumed is Phil’s attempt to teach Rita to flip a playing card into a hat.  He reveals that  all it would take would be to practice “six months, 4-5 hours a day.” Phil gets brutally honest and admits he is a “jerk.”  “I’ve killed myself so many times that I don’t exist anymore.”  I’ve thought about that and have seen a possible parallel to the Christian concept of “dying to self.”  Our “old self” has many flaws and to make a significant change in our behavior, one must “die to the old self.”  Interesting…  Phil’s big regret that Rita will not remember all the good things that happened each relived day.  Rita responds by suggesting that what Phil is going through is “not a curse” but actually “depends on how you look at it.”  I believe this is the true turning point in Phil’s existence.

Phil now reaches out. The old beggar he’s been avoiding gets a handful of cash. He brings coffee for his co-workers and  inspired by a classic piano piece blaring out of a boom box—determines to learn to play the piano! (Earlier, Rita describes her perfect man as someone who can play a musical instrument—yet Phil is no longer trying to fit Rita’s standard of perfection but he just wants to do it for himself!)

His attention turns to those who need help in Punxsutawney. Saving a boy from a nasty fall, some ladies with a flat tire and a man from choking (played by Bill’s real brother Brian Doyle Murray). Yet his helpfulness is limited. He must confront the specter of death that comes for an old beggar who he tries desperately to save. Phil fails.  It seems that there are some things in this life that are inevitable—death, certainly.  Death is something that is out of our ability to control.  So we must concern ourselves with those things within our control!

Phil has developed compassion for others and a view toward self-improvement. He has become a better person in his initial quest to escape Groundhog Day.  His hope for escape has faded long ago and even His love for Rita takes a backseat to this desire to be of help to others.  Yet ironically, this is what finally attracts Rita to Phil at the very end.  And in her “purchasing” of Phil at a charity auction, their relationship is taken to the next level.  AND Groundhog Day finally ends! 

How long did Phil’s transformation take? From an initial watching of the movie, one might say a number of months at least —In one scene, Phil explains to Rita that if she were to practice flipping cards into a hat for 6 months, practicing 5 hours a day, she would become an expert.  And that was one of Phil’s lesser abilities.  How long does it take to learn to ice-sculpt?  How long does it take to learn to play the piano so that you can perform a jazzed up version of the 18th Variation from Rapsodie On a Theme of Paganini? Years! How many? Perhaps, 5-10 years of practice?  And if you only practice for the hour lesson (and not as other would do in practicing at home for a few hours more each day), it would take even longer!

 

How long was Phil’s Groundhog Day experience? My wild guess would be at least a 3-4 decades- give or take a decade either way! Danny Rubin, the screenwriter envisioned it to be thousands of years! He felt that those changes in Phil would not come easily and would take a long time—with Phil believing it would NEVER end.  That is a LONG redemptive process!  Jesus accomplished redemption in 3 1/2 years! (Of course, that’s Jesus! This is Phil…)

 

On a minor note, I have a bone to pick with the piano teacher. She threw her student out to take in Phil for $1000.  And each day he “returns” is her FIRST time

with him— After several years,  Phil has improved immeasurably and she has GOT to see that he had to have a few lessons before coming to her! Yet during one early lesson, she reacts to his sour notes with weird facial expressions –yet he must be doing quiet well for a rank beginner (from her perspective).  Then at the party, she brags that he is her student! (After ONE lesson???)  Hmmm…

 ImageDuring the special feature “Weight of Time” Harold Ramis the director ( I know him better as Dr. Egon Spengler…) shares that some of the positive responses to the film from Buddists, then a Yogi; letters from Jesuits and fundamentalist Christians each saying in essence “this is exactly what we are teaching—you must be one of us!” I can see this movie having an eastern religious flavoring. Many have embraced it because of the “redemptive” change in the life of Phil from being grossly ego-centric to becoming a caring person who has value to others.

 Harold Ramis states that Phil moves from being “a prisoner” of that time and place to being the “master” of that time and place.  It would be nice to be the “master” of our time and place—but more often, we feel like a victim of our circumstances. Perhaps a “secret” for living is accepting the limitations and problems we encounter and deal creatively with them. Would that we could “master” our environment.  Ramis also states: “When Phil stops worrying about himself all the time and starts living his life in service to others, then his life gets full indeed…”  In that, the Christian teaching of being a “servant of all “ certainly is comes into play.  There is certainly much value in living your life to help and serve others because most of us see the problem with being self-centered!  That is what stood out in my mind in watching Groundhog Day.

Finally, I would have preferred not to have Phil say to Rita, “Let’s live here,” but rather, “Let’s get married and live here.”  I still have a high regard for the institution of marriage and after all that work, that tough “courtship”—that would have been a better payoff.