Posts Tagged ‘John Williams’

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Hello again!

A binding contract of lifelong friendship forges when the person across the dinner table chuckles after you say, “Good God; that’s a Hello Again-sized piece of chicken.” Frightfully large chicken brings to mind the frightfully good-bad film Hello Again (1987), featuring Shelley Long as a woman summoned back from the dead after choking to death on a South Korean chicken ball. I didn’t know how else to break the ice and find a way to say hello. You know, again.

The “Closed” sign has been up at The Ticket Booth for some time now; other meddling voices have filled both my head and pen, pulling me in some new and exciting directions. But I began thinking about the booth and missing it, acknowledging the mental nudge that I wanted to open it up again and see how much dust had collected inside. Either sentimental or just a reaction to that dust, I found myself getting a little choked up trying to figure out why I had stayed away for long, and how, or where, I should start?

Shall we jump back in with the last Joan Crawford movie that I watched last week? Familiar butterflies began to flutter during Sadie McKee (1934) when I realized that it was the same film featured decades later in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), another Joan Crawford picture that paired her with Bette Davis. As an actress without any recent successes to her name, both Crawford and her character in Jane sit in front of the television utterly mesmerized by Sadie, a towering and bouncy young lady almost 30 years her junior. T’was a powerful moment on the couch that night – life had all came full circle for me.

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Not in the mood for big JC? I could brag about the trip we took to the San Francisco Symphony, where my family and I did not, in fact, get kicked out of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) for rambunctious sobbing. The evening was a crowning achievement in my family’s history, as the Academy Award-winning score by John Williams generates a flood of nose hair-plucking tears for most of us.

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Maybe you’d like to hear about the Stanley Kubrick Exhibition where Michelle and I saw an Oscar statuette, props and costumes from The Shining (1980), and pleasant letters from religious groups scolding Mr. Kubrick for turning the filthy Lolita (1962) into a film. If I were to steal one thing from a museum, I’d sneak out with one of those letters under my shirt. Read more about the exhibition on Little Magazine.

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Not in a Kubrick mood? I get it; he’s a treat but not for every day. How about the time when I saw Cabaret: The Musical performed on stage, and the Emcee (played by Randy Harrison from Queer as Folk) pulled me up out of the audience to dance with him in front the entire theatre? “Do you have a little German in you?” he asked, and when I told him no, he hissed with smile, “Would you liiiiiiiike some?”

 

Too early for das Kit Kat Club? When I went to visit Dad for a boys’ weekend, I brought him two DVDs – Network (1976) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) – so he would never again have to worry about downloading them from those streaming services that tend to stall every three minutes. We ate; we drank; we swam; we barbecued; we teased Mom via text that we picked up KFC and without a coupon.

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Oh, and a few weeks ago, Barbra started her concert with “The Way We Were.” I was there; I heard it; I saw Barbra Streisand perform live . . . no biggie.

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The magic of film illuminates my life (the way your spirit illuminates my soul), but it just hasn’t appeared anywhere in my journals. And why? Because I’ve been sad. Hatred and fear surround us, and the two have joined forces to become what some have led us to believe is a constant threat that bursts into our nightclubs where we used to dance until dawn. It’s driving down promenades where we celebrate with our friends and friendly strangers. It’s shooting out of the guns controlled by law enforcement, and hours later it’s shooting out of the guns controlled by protesters. Hatred and fear surge from the mouths of men and women who are or want to become our elected leaders, and it’s being absorbed, magnified, and projected by their followers. For those of us who worry too much and insist on being in control of all things at all times, an overwhelming hodgepodge of sadness, anger, frustration and all the other googly–eyed emoticons was inescapable, but naturally I added one more fear to the pile – maybe writing about old movies just didn’t do it for me anymore.

Eventually the moment came when I could just about feel Cher’s palm meet the side of my face (we should all be so lucky), and I heard a firm but loving “Snap out of it!” It wasn’t a “snap out of it” advising me to ignore this world that frightened me so, but the time had come to tally up of all of those indestructible new memories and experiences that I just listed above. We have plenty to talk about and will, but before we chat about that new Ingrid Bergman documentary, the upcoming Dolly Parton concert, or the adorable little cat café where I started volunteering, first I just wanted to a quick little hello.

And it is time – it’s time first to acknowledge that sadness, anger, or fear and then release it all like you’re supposed to release a ghost. After that, grab your best (or, in my case, only) Dolce & Gabbana, find a theatre that serves champagne, and go see the new AbFab movie. We’ll talk more soon, because when you finally do snap out of it, you find that chicken balls are quite delicious.

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My apartment is dazzling. Mom was here for a few days and between meals, she relaxed in the best way she knows how – she gave this little home of mine a much-needed deep cleaning. The phrase “deep cleaning” brings back painful memories of sitting in the dentist’s chair over the span of two appointments and having each tooth and gum area poked and scraped and swabbed until my mouth sparkled. True, the blessed nitrous allowed me to meet a certain menacing needle with a temporary smile, but even a drugged grin is no match for the mental image of where, when, and how that needle would penetrate through my body and turn the soundtrack of my world into nails on a chalkboard. No one “likes” going to the dentist, and while the deep cleaning appointments were especially sinister for this guy, in the long run it turns out that they were necessary. Mom felt the same way about my bathtub. It, too, went through a couple of deep cleaning appointments along with the rest of the apartment, and now we all shine brightly having been scrubbed to perfection by experts in the field.

My goal of moving the mountain of books off of the kitchen floor required new bookcases, a purchase long overdue. If there’s anything more loathsome than a trip to the dentist, it’s the frustration that comes with the task of putting together those confounded shelves so they don’t lurch from side to side. In an email that I debated printing out and laminating before her arrival, Mom promised that she would take charge and put the bookcases together. No need for a notary; she stuck to her word, and over the course of two Madonna concerts and one Cher concert playing in the background, the shelves began to take form. As we stood up the first bookcase (yes, with that much, I would help), we saw that the unfinished side of the espresso-toned shelf was facing out. At some point during production, a portion of the shelf had been flipped, resulting in lighter shades of tan running parallel to the dark espresso tones (Target’s description, not mine), and I thought Mom was going to have a stroke.

Taking apart this beast of a bookcase and putting it back together was not an option, nor was my gently delivered “Well, I can live with it” (ooo, you should have seen her face!), so we came up with another solution . . . the shelves would have to be painted. Painted, they were, and they look fabulous. Thanks, Mom. But sometimes it happens that way; sometimes your boat simply isn’t big enough. Complications arise; sometimes they’re devastating beyond repair, and other times they arrive draped in those clever little disguises that blessings often wear. Bookcases that could have been a decorating disaster turned into an original combination of colors that now brighten up the entire room. As soon as the paint had dried and the books placed snuggly in their new home, my mind flashed on one complication in the world of film that ultimately worked out for the best. The most frightening musical scores ever composed resulted from three mechanical sharks that responded unfavorably when they interacted with water.

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All irrational fears may be blamed on composer John Williams. If those mechanical sharks hadn’t malfunctioned to such an extent that the film crew nicknamed the 1975 film “Flaws,” the tunes that announced the musically cloaked great white may have existed only the head of Mr. Williams. The opening scene in which a young lady swimming at night is thrashed around and pulled underwater by an alternating pattern of musical notes is perhaps the most frightening scene in all of film history (all due respect to Baby Jane and Norman Bates). I still love my parents’ pool, the pool of my childhood where I spent hours of my life fantasizing that I was Daryl Hannah from Splash (1984), swimming through the romantic waters of love in search of New York City map. But Daryl Hannah’s ocean was friendlier than Steven Spielberg’s, who, together with John Williams, created a film that made me question whether the deep end of my pool was free from danger and indeed a safe place for recreational swimming. The Pacific Ocean was only 20 minutes away, and there was no reason a great white shark couldn’t swim up on to the beach, into a sewer drain, through the pipes down Interstate 5 (before merging on to Interstate 8), find its way into the lake near the house, transfer to another pipe that led directly to the drain in the deep end of my parents’ pool, and drag me down to my death in its gaping jaws. If that shark in Jaws: The Revenge (1987) could follow Mrs. Brody from New England to the Bahamas, we’re not dealing with any ordinary species here, and thus my childhood fear of pool sharks continues to defy the portrayed logic of adulthood.

Ultimately the flaws led to Jaws, which, in turn, led to an Academy Award for Best Original Score along with two additional Oscars (the young Mr. Spielberg did not receive a directing nomination, but I think he survived). More than 20 years after my first time to Amity Island, Jaws will never lose its grip on me – the terrifying journey of Chief Brody, Quint, and Hooper keeps me out of the ocean and in the shallow ends of the pools, where I belong. It’s only a movie, we tell ourselves, but when that growing intensity of the music and the shrieks of its victims are cut off instantly by the silence of still waters, the only sound remaining is the chattering of own my deeply cleaned teeth.

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Academy Awards for Jaws (1976): Best Music (Original Dramatic Score); Best Sound; Best Film Editing

Add Jaws to your queue

Spoiler Alert — If you’ve never seen Psycho, I must insist, out of respect for Mr. Hitchcock, Mr. Perkins, and Miss Leigh, that you read to the end of this paragraph and then call it a day. About two months ago, I began to think about how best to tackle such a masterpiece as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. This was primarily because I had invited my family to come visit the Bay Area, as the San Francisco Symphony was going to perform Bernard Herrmann’s score for the film. We had gone to see the San Francisco Symphony do The Wizard of Oz (1939) about a year ago, and it is a truly remarkable experience. The musicians sit below a large movie screen that shows an entire movie with its dialogue only. The symphony provides the film’s full score, and trust me, when performed live, the Wicked Witch of the West’s theme music provided me with some wonderfully familiar smiles. So when I discovered that the beloved San Francisco Symphony was planning to do Psycho, I knew I had to get the family up here. As with The Wizard of Oz, I assumed the audience was pretty familiar with Norman Bates, his mother, and their motel showers; perhaps all moviegoers can’t recite the film from memory like a certain crazy film blogger, but I really believed that the majority of the audience knew in which direction certain scenes were headed. And if not, they at least knew how the film came to its wonderful close . . . I was wrong. The startled reactions that consisted of gasping, screaming, and even a kick or two were, in turn, what startled me — it never even entered my mind that Psycho’s storyline would surprise anyone these days. A part of me was a wee bit jealous of those who were experiencing (or re-experiencing) it for the first time. When it was first released in 1960, Mr. Hitchcock demanded that movie theatres refuse admission to those who showed up after the film had begun — oh, how I wished I could do the same when I worked at Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco. So again I beg you on behalf of all those who helped make it the masterpiece that it is, stop reading for now, pop yourself some corn, and treat yourself to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho from the very beginning . . . I’ll still be here.

If you’ve moved beyond my spoiler alert (there’s still time!), I’m guessing I don’t need to supply much of a plot summary — Marion Crane steals $40,000, hits the road, and stops at the Bates Motel for some rest, a meal, and perhaps the world of indoor plumbing’s most celebrated shower. Marion’s sister, boyfriend, and a private detective attempt to track her down and stumble into the Freudian world of Norman Bates and his mother. Originally stemming from a book by Robert Bloch, the idea to move from page to screen came about via Mr. Hitchcock’s weekly readings with his secretary of the New York Times Book Review. Joseph Stefano — who later battled the censor’s office over the film’s use of the word “transvestite,” not to mention the appearance of the first flushing toilet in film history — wrote a script that focused much more on the character of Marion (“Mary” in the book) than on Norman. When Mr. Hitchcock told Stefano that Alma read part of the script liked it, Stefano must have known it was going to be a success — from what I’ve learned, it was Alma Hitchcock who gave the last word on almost everything her husband brought to the screen.

After reading the story’s new treatment, Mr. Hitchcock felt certain that he could get a star to play Marion; he knew that since the poor girl is killed off about 45 minutes into the film, this would definitely throw even the sharpest audience off its game. According to her book, Miss Janet Leigh was the first actress to receive a copy of Robert Bloch’s book along with a definite offer from Mr. Hitchcock. Mr. Bloch’s original Norman Bates in an overweight, balding alcoholic, a character for whom the filmmakers did not believe audiences would feel sympathy. A few tweaks here and there allowed for the slim, young, and boyishly handsome Mr. Anthony Perkins to step into the role that, for better or worse, came to define his career.

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My first memory of Psycho is actually by way of another childhood classic . . . that is, a classic according to my family. My parents had taped the movie Meatballs (1979) off of TV at some point, and it became another regular in our loop of “Over and Overs.” Like The Wizard of Oz and our beloved Soap, the VHS of Meatballs had some wonderful commercials from the late 70s and early 80s. Naturally my favorite was the “Where’s the beef?” Wendy’s lady (whose husky voice convinced me that she was actually a man — my first drag queen, perhaps?). Two of those commercials stand out as some of my most terrifying childhood moments, along with Bette Davis as Baby Jane and Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan. The first commercial was for a late showing of The Birds (1963), and I can still remember a scene with a group of children running from Mr. Hitchcock’s winged killers. The other commercial, in what must have been part of a delicious marathon, was for Psycho and showed Miss Janet Leigh screaming as her shower curtain was flung open. All that combined with the deep, dark voice of the station announcer (unless it was really the “Where’s the beef?” lady) was enough for me to put Psycho on the back burner for years. Thankfully I grew old enough to reach that silly burner and move Psycho to its deserving spot up front.

Evidently there are only two required elements that make up a truly terrifying moment on-screen — water and music. Steven Spielberg’s malfunctioning shark would not have kept me out of a pool’s deep end without John Williams’ brilliant score for Jaws (1975). The vulnerable freedom that water provides, be it in the ocean or in the shower, is truly terrifying even in the absence of sound. But when those music notes sliced through the shower curtain or burst up from below the ocean’s surface, I imagine movie theatre owners across the globe discovered how best to remove urine stains from their cushioned seats. The seven days that Miss Janet Leigh spent shooting in that shower certainly paid off. The 70-odd takes were pieced together with Mr. Herrmann’s score in a beautiful marriage of music of murder, and 15 years before John Williams and that shark dragged their first victim below the surface, Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann showed us what it really meant to be afraid of the water. When Mr. Hitchcock finally found the perfect stunt double for Miss Leigh, it turned out to be a melon. Apparently he was hunting for something that would provide the perfect sound for when the poor dear is fatally stabbed. When the blue-prize melon was chosen, what else could it bleed but chocolate syrup, and that’s what we see running down the shower drain. Why Hollywood later chose to remake this movie in color, I’ll never understand.

Stories have always floated around about how Janet Leigh rarely (or never) took showers after filming Psycho. If there was no other way to bathe, Miss Leigh would make sure the doors and windows of whatever building she was in were locked, the bathroom door remained open, as did the shower door (or curtain, heaven forbid,) so she could have a clear view of the bathroom. Once in the shower, she would always face the bathroom door, despite the location of the shower head. I imagine the floods that must have built up on the floor were a greater hazard than any other physical danger, but we all have our meshugas. However accurate these tales of Miss Leigh’s bathing habits are (a part of me is slightly suspicious), she claimed that they set in after she saw the completed film, not during production.

Watching Marion come to the end of the road during her soul-cleansing shower leads me easily into a brief examination of movie violence. When film blood and guts are shoved in my face, my imagination is held back from creating a frightening image of its own — and those are the images that keep me up at night. Film violence that’s a bit more withheld stays with me and creeps into my head much more than when it’s handed to me on a bloody (s)platter. In reference to both the violence and sexuality of Psycho, Miss Leigh said that Mr. Hitchcock “allowed the audience to create what they thought they saw,” and using this explanation was a perfect tool for arguing with the fools in the censor’s office. I love to imagine him saying something like “you didn’t see a breast; you only thought you did.” We never actually see the Bates kitchen knife make contact with Marion’s body; the camera cuts (ha-ha) are so fast that for me, it’s actually the music and the melon that bring the murder scene to life. The music that lines up so perfectly with the cuts of the camera proves to me every time I watch it that the graphic violence isn’t always necessary — all I need for good old-fashioned movie fright is some violent music and the sound of the right fruit.

When the audience at the San Francisco Symphony saw “Phoenix, Arizona” flash across Psycho’s opening scene, the hissing darted from row to row, immediately followed by laughter. Arizona has recently left a bad taste in our mouths due to silly immigration laws, and yet after the hissing, we smiled over the one thought we all shared: “Oh San Francisco. . . !” Our evening at the symphony allowed me an opportunity for another one of my favorite thoughts — “I forgot how good this movie is!” Triggered by Bernard Herrmann’s score (which consists only of strings), my heart gets goose bumps — you know those times when you’re sitting still, and then suddenly it feels like you’re on a roller coaster that just took a sudden dip? That’s what I call a goose-bumped heart, and there it was again, only two chords into the film’s opening credits. It reminded me of the only scientific thing I can remember from college; a word I always loved but could never get off my tongue’s runway is “synesthesia,” (when normally separate senses are not separate but instead cross-wired — sight may mingle with sound, for example). If I controlled the dictionary, the more fitting definition would be “Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho,” music that I can’t help but feel when I hear it. Mr. Herrmann more than deserved an Oscar for his score, but apparently he was too good for even a nomination, goose-bumped hearts be damned!

Like so many before me, I could go on and on dissecting the shower scene, but really I don’t know enough about the technical side of film production to be of much use. I’m sure I can dig up a few books of quality for your reading pleasure. But I must move to the other side of the shower curtain and pay respects to dear Mrs. Bates and her son. Another performance that was just too good to even receive an Oscar nomination was that of Mr. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Everything from his little-boy body language and stutter to his graceful facial expressions give Norman Bates the frightening charm that forever associated Mr. Perkins with Hitchcock, showers, and movie murders. As wonderfully creepy as he is, I think Mr. Perkins adds so much to the fright of the film with the realistic bits of humor that are thrown in by the Bates family.

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In this, one of history’s greatest suspense films, are some lines that do nothing but crack me up. When Marion first arrives at the Bates Motel and overhears Norman arguing with mother, Mrs. Bates informs her son, “I refuse speak of disgusting things, because they disgust me!” Since Mr. Hitchcock did not want audiences putting the pieces together too early, Anthony Perkins did not supply Mrs. Bates with her voice. Some reports explain that it was a combination of actors and actresses, and elsewhere I’ve heard it was only one woman. Because sometimes I laugh at uncomfortable situations, and other times I laugh when cranky old women are funny (especially when they’re really men), Psycho and its sprinkling of humor are not to be overlooked! When Norman goes to tell Mother she needs to hide in the cellar, Mrs. Bates screams at her son, “No! I will not hide in the fruit cellar. Ah-ha, y’think I’m fruity, huh? I’m staying right here!” Because he forces us to imagine what this conversation looks like, as we only hear it taking place, again I believe the power of Psycho lies in what Hitchcock decided to withhold from us, be it violence, humor, sexuality, or psychotic behavior.

So after all that, why should you watch it again? The more I write, the more I come to realize that “just because it’s a classic” is not an acceptable reason for me — that reason led me towards a number of films that I found less than enjoyable. Psycho, however, is one of those wines that only gets better with age (or do all wines do that?). It still makes me want to shout “For the love of God, don’t get in that shower,” or “Whatever you do, don’t go up to that house!” I must extend enormous thanks to the San Francisco Symphony for reminding me of Psycho’s ability to decorate my heart with goose bumps after all these years. From the overall beauty of a black-and-white film and its chocolate syrup blood to Mr. Hitchcock’s masterful skills that force me to shift sympathy from a victim to her murderer in a matter of seconds; from violence that, by modern standards, is only hinted at but sparks my imagination to no end, to the mesmerizing performances of Mr. Anthony Perkins and Miss Janet Leigh — these are just a few of the countless reasons why I recommend Psycho to you all. I hope you do watch. You’ll see . . . you’ll see, and you’ll know, and you’ll say “Why she wouldn’t even harm a fly . . .”

Add it to your queue.