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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Rear Window


Title: Rear Window

Year of Release: 1954

Date Viewed: September 2nd, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG

Before we get to today's movie, I'd like to tell you about our family dog. He's a small poodle-bichan breed named Campbell. About the size of a typical stuffed animal. Loves people to death. If there are none around, he'll sit on top of the living room couch and stare out the window waiting for someone to return. And even when not alone, a lot of time is spent at that same lookout point surveying the neighborhood. He's doing it right now as a matter of fact. Any change in scenery whether it's a moving car or pedestrians is met with a bark that only Campbell thinks is intimidating. He's a living breathing security system that often works too well. Nobody knows the geographic details of the street better than Campbell and the human residents have lived here for seventeen years longer.

Bottom line: If any event no matter how insignificant were to occur in the neighborhood, Campbell will learn about it and learn about it first. Lately I've been drawn to a fun habit of relating my movies of choice to personal biographic parallels. Only when I began setting up this post did it occur to me that while my career as a neighborhood spy isn't interesting enough for the written word, Campbell is practically L.B. Jeffries reincarnated to the real world. This brings up the uncomfortable thought about a possible Lars Thorwald lurking within our midst.

The L.B. 'Jeff' Jeffries of the cinematic world is played by screen legend James Stewart. As an on-location journalist, Jeff has taken many dangerous risks to snap the pictures he needs to illustrate the media's top stories. But one day his guardian angels failed to protect him from a race car that veered offtrack into Jeff's leg, breaking it and rendering him temporarily immobile. There are no more assignments for the time being but the investigative instincts burn stronger than ever. Now stuck in a New York apartment and wheelchair, Jeff spends his days looking outside the rear window observing the day-to-night routines of his many neighbors. There's a desperate need to find something worthwhile to study. Something to take a curiosity in. Something to report on.

Jeff thinks that day has finally come when he notices that the wife of a couple that lives across the courtyard no longer resides in her respective apartment. Nobody had actually seen her depart but the husband that goes by the name Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) raises suspicion by transporting a heavy tote case outside. And then a saw. Then a crate.

Jeff witnesses all of this activity through the aid of a specially-made telephoto lens while Thorwald is completely oblivious to the condition that he's being watched. Fearing possible foul play, Jeff contacts a detective colleague (Wendell Corey) to explain what transpired but he's dismissive of the scenario. However, the room's other two frequent visitors have more reason to believe in the cover-up operation because of their own experiences of using Jeff's viewing tools. Grace Kelly plays the socialite love interest named Lisa Fremont. She's persistent to win permanent affection from Jeff even though he's too demoralized to believe in it. Stella (Thelma Ritter) is the know-it-all therapist, caretaker and primary source of comic relief. She has so many shining moments that one could easily mistake this film as a comedy from only watching the first act.

The odd thing about Rear Window is how the film holds up as one of the true classic thrillers from Hollywood's golden age yet there are very few scenes that are actually exciting in the traditional sense of the word. So what makes the film so interesting to watch? Part of it can be attributed to director Alfred Hitchcock's peculiar reliance on the POV camera angle to explore glimpses of Jeff's mind. There's a shot of Jeff positioning his observation point. Then a shot of exactly what he sees. Then a cut back to Jeff. Then back to the location of interest. Nothing unusual here. Let's move on the next spot. Repeat once or twice. Hold on a second. Let's go back to the previous room. Something there didn't seem right.

This is related to another intriguing directorial idea: the careful attention to detail of the location at hand. The action never leaves Jeff's rear window view, so much time is spent relating to the character's tedious observations. Every minor character publicly displays a piece of their story (and never closes their shades evidently). It's like watching an action figure playset come to life. There's a music composer brainstorming with a piano, an exercise enthusiast who loves to work out in her underwear and a dog that's allowed to roam the courtyard at its leisurely pace. (What could possibly go wrong there?) Jeff observes all these people in the hopes of catching something extraordinary or at least noteworthy. And we are meant to do the same thing while wondering why we're sitting on the couch watching this in the first place. But it's a fun feeling of wonder.

The film is consistent with its most important rule. Even though we don't share the exact same set of eyes as Jeff, the character POV is never broken. The only audible conversations are the ones that Jeff is participating in. The rest are up to speculation. Until the climatic scene, there is never a clear indication of whether Thorwald is guilty or not. The hero protagonist could be right on the money with his conclusion. And with the frantic nature of time, the chance for justice could be slipping away. Or perhaps the burning need for a story has made him his own victim. It's scary how often paranoia trumps over reason. This strong understanding of human psychology is one of many reasons why Hitchcock was considered to be the master of suspense.

Campbell is still staring out that window. I wonder what he learned.

Rating: 8 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Commentary: Terry Herald versus David Arnold


October 10th, 2011

With a small notebook and a cup of vending machine coffee in my hands, I entered 205 Varner Hall at the Oakland University campus and took my usual spot four rows back center. My brain hates early morning classes but what helps cope is that it's a course that I hold genuine interest for; a rare thing I'll admit. Professor Terry Herald teaches the history of music that is written for the movies and I'm one of his current students.

My friends didn't believe me at first when I explained that my instructor was a full-time musician who taught music history as a side job. In their minds, the only full-time musicians that exist in the world are notable ones like John Williams and Danny Elfman who often spend entire days composing new material and later receiving studio payment for it. Professor Herald is actually not far off from that. He has written original music for several independent films and television projects. When not employed by a studio, he can often be seen conducting orchestras for various events in Michigan and probably elsewhere too.

Along with the usual movie clips followed by the professor's commentary, all students were scheduled today to receive the results of our second critique paper. At various points throughout the semester, we are assigned to research two movies with original music scores and report our findings in the form of a critique. My paper dealt with two films that contain emotional monologues spoken by heroic characters; James Horner's score for Braveheart and David Arnold's score for Independence Day. In the document, I praised both composers for their ability to convey ideas of location, emotion and deep meaning into their work. The ID4 score in particular held some sentimental value because the end credits theme stayed in my mind for a long time ever since I first saw the film back in 1996. It's a splendid patriotic tune that doubles as a world anthem. Fitting since the film explored the idea of the Fourth of July becoming more than just an American holiday but one for the entire planet. There was a time when I couldn't even hear the words "Independence Day" without being reminded of that terrific theme.

Professor Herald was chatting with some of the other students as he often does when they arrive early. Noticing my entrance, he wrapped up his conversation and addressed me. I expected to hear some early feedback on the assignment but wasn't prepared for the oncoming bombshell.

"Ian..." he began with a proud smile. "I sued David Arnold and Twentieth Century Fox for plagiarizing my work. We reached an out-of-court settlement."

My reaction was comparable to a deer staring at the headlights of a speeding car. But it wasn't a total surprise either. At our very first class meeting, Professor Herald took some time to introduce himself to his students and demonstrate some of his original work not unlike the film music composers we would be studying every week. In 1991, he wrote music for a public television documentary titled "Air Force One: The Planes and the Presidents." After explaining the process of creating and evolving the main theme, the final result was demonstrated before us. You can see and hear it for yourself below.

My immediate reaction was "Wow. This sounds a lot like Independence Day." Now play the next clip (from the ID4 score) at the 6:32 mark. What do you think?

There are probably many more examples that can be found with deeper digging, but that's the most obvious familiarity. According to Professor Herald, the temp track and at least five melodies were directly lifted from the Air Force One documentary without permission.

I didn't bring those reactionary thoughts to my teacher's attention because coincidences in sound and structure happen everywhere in film scoring. There's even a chapter in our assigned textbook "Film Music and Everything Else" that covers the topic of originality. Author Charles Bernstein points out that all composers have the same eight notes to play with and that can make the quest for originality torturous. Yet lawsuits accounting for cases of accused plagiarism remain seldom. Kind of amazing when all things are considered.

Since small talk with the teacher after class had become a habit, I had originally planned to joke that he probably could have easily written Independence Day and made a fortune. If I had only known how close to reality that was, some embarrassment could have been saved. If all the learned details of the controversy are true, that means I had complimented a composer that my teacher had good reason to feel animosity towards. Fortunately though, Professor Herald is a good natured man and didn't hold it against me. I was still awarded a perfect score on that critique paper. Just to be safe, I asked if there were any other lawsuits I should know about before writing future assignments. Then we shared a good laugh.

The extent of the merit behind the David Arnold lawsuit will be pondered in my brain for many years to come. For now though, I can enjoy the amusing knowledge that the original Independence Day composer is my newest friend.

Monday, October 24, 2011

World Trade Center


Title: World Trade Center

Year of Release: 2006

Date Viewed: September 1st, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG-13

"And the rockets red glare
The bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there"

Until September 11th of 2001, The Star Spangled Banner (United States national anthem) was simply a routine for most Americans. It's traditionally performed before every organized sporting event. And some schools instruct our youth to recite both that and the Pledge of Allegiance before every school day as a way of paying respect to the country's founders. But the song and especially those italicized lyrics hit home on a personal level like never before following the surprise suicide attacks by a group of religious extremists that took the lives of nearly three thousand civilians. The motives are still debated except for the ultimate goal which was to paralyze the country into fear and despair. That didn't happen. After the initial wave of shock and confusion, Americans from all cultures and backgrounds set aside their partisan differences to mourn the loss of their fellow citizens and encourage each other to stay optimistic for the future. There was a felling of unity that many had never experienced before. The country's spirit was still alive. The flag was still there.

A movie based on the September 11th events was inevitable. But when news of upcoming major Hollywood projects hit the media machine, there was a lot of protest and skepticism. Many believed it to be too soon and insensitive to financially capitalize on a national tragedy. There were also some concerned questions about how the subject matter would be handled. Will it be a political rally? Will it follow the Titanic/Pearl Harbor formula? Will it be a conspiracy theory? The announcement of Oliver Stone signing on to direct a project titled "World Trade Center" gave legitimacy to that last question. But if the skeptics knew exactly what Stone and screenwriter Andrea Berloff had in mind, there wouldn't have been much of an issue at all because the message is a vital one in that special spirit of unity that gradually (and unfortunately) became lost again over time.

Part of what made the tragedy so memorable was how there was never a reason to anticipate it. The movie follows the fact-based accounts of two Port Authority police officers. Their September 11th morning started the same way as all others. With a routine. The opening shot is a darkened bedroom illuminated only by a digital alarm clock; the first thing most everyone sees every morning.

The two police heroes follow a typical routine of showering in the morning, driving to work ahead of rush hour dawn and checking in for assigned duties. Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) has a lot to look forward to in life. His law enforcement career shows promise and a new daughter is months away from joining the family. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) is a veteran Sergeant with the more impressive resume and the more stressful home life. In recent years, he's been falling out of touch with his wife and children.

The ordinary day turns into an unforgettably dark event when two hijacked commercial airplanes crash into the two World Trade Center towers. McLoughlin leads a group of police volunteers in an attempt to rescue trapped civilians inside one of the buildings. But before they could even make their initial ascent, the two buildings crumble to the ground and kill most everyone within its destruction radius. McLoughlin and Jimeno are the only surviving members of their squad but are trapped and injured underneath the rubble. Nobody outside of their claustrophobic prison knows if they are alive or dead.

Stone's film begins as a view from the outside looking in. He doesn't even bother to recreate the fatal plane crash because the realization of danger is more powerful than actually witnessing it. All we ever see of the crash is a passing shadow. Just as how the real events unfolded, there is first rampant fear and confusion. The officers depicted in the picture learn all their information from phone calls of family members watching the early aftermath on television; still not knowing who was behind it and why. It's not until McLoughlin and Jimeno fall victim to the wreckage when the movie shifts to the inside looking out. Now begins a film solely about the victims and the grieving families. With the exception of a brief audio clip of President George W. Bush addressing the nation, there is no mention of terrorism or politics. The trapped policemen have nothing to do except struggle to stay awake while waiting and hoping for a rescue team to hear their painful cries for help.

To balance out monotony, Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal deliver heartbreaking performances as the officers' wives. They eagerly anticipate the phone call that will confirm their husbands' fate but fear the undesired outcome. Being spontaneously thrown into this psychological pit of despair can cause one to lose a clear sense of the world around him/her. The actions of Jimeno's wife can seem irrational or even comical when seen out of context but are so true to life for anyone that can vividly remember their last experience of trauma. It's the basis for psychological horror but the filmmakers are able to grow it into something more meaningful; like a clearer understanding of what's truly important in life. Whatever falling out McLoughlin had with his wife doesn't hold a candle to the possibility of them never seeing each other again. What could seem as the end of the world yesterday is now meaningless in the present.

I often see fellow bloggers comment that movies like this won't have the same effect on people who live outside North America. I can't entirely agree because it depends on what kind of effect they're referring to. World Trade Center is sure to bring back the butterflies that lurked in the stomachs of everyone who watched the events unfold through the media outlets. For those who cannot fully relate to that scarring experience, there still remains the universal messages of doing what's right and never losing hope even when the light seems unreachable. The world witnessed the best and worst of mankind on September 11th, 2001. This movie is a celebration of the best.

Rating: 9