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How did “prestige horror” come about?

Friday | May 6, 2022

Trailer, The Northman (2022).

Kristin here:

Ever since last August I have been venturing into our local multiplexes to see movies. Fully vaccinated, twice boosterized, wearing a mask, and attending weekday matinees in the company of maybe four to ten other people, I have felt safe. It’s great to see movies on the big screen again, and I’ve seen nearly twenty, starting with Annette in August and not counting the five I saw at the Wisconsin Film Festival.

The latest was The Northman, on April 25, a Monday. I had seen the trailer for it three or four times before I realized that it was by Robert Eggers, director of The Witch, which I liked well enough, and of The Lighthouse, which I admire very much.

Before the film there was the usual flood of trailers, including ones for Nope, Men, and The Black Telephone. It struck me as I watched them that despite the fact that I am not particularly fond of the horror genre, there I was, waiting to see a horror film–at least I’m classifying it as such under the rather casual criteria I’m using here. And if you doubt it’s a horror film, I present you with a frame of the character identified in the credits as the He Witch, holding the mummified head of Heimar the Fool. (The story is based on an ancient Scandinavian myth, the same one whence Hamlet was derived. This may be the equivalent of the Yorick scene.)

Not only was I there to see a horror film, but I was looking forward to seeing two of the three such films previewed: Jordan Peele’s Nope and Alex Garland’s Men. (Apparently these succinct titles are designed to avoid even the faintest whiff of a spoiler.) Later, musing on that confluence of horror films coming out this spring, it occurred to me that all three of these directors had concentrated exclusively on the genre in the features they have made so far–three apiece, coincidentally. And while all three had had some degree of critical, popular, and/or financial success, none of the directors has so far moved into the world of franchise blockbusters. It’s so common these days for indie directors to be swept from the world of low-budget art-house filmmaking to to heady heights of franchise series that I suspect one or more of the three have received nibbles from the studios.

One or more may eventually succumb to the blandishments that have attracted such indie directors as Taika Waititi, Guillermo del Toro, and Chloe Zhao into the world of Hollywood blockbusters. For now, though, it’s remarkable to find three directors with such similar careers in many ways who have stuck to the modest genre that brought them success when they probably had other options. It’s so common these days for an aspiring filmmaker to break into the industry with a low-budget horror film that becomes a hit and then immediately to be helming an epic with a budget distinctly into nine figures. (For a list of superhero-film directors who started in horror, see here; for a more general one of indie directors who jumped to blockbusters, here.)

There’s a fourth director who belongs with this group. I haven’t yet seen a trailer for Ari Aster’s Disappointment Blvd., which is being kept under wraps but is due out this year. It is described as a comic horror film. Gamerant has the fullest information on it that I’ve found. Excerpts:

Following the tradition of his previous movies, Aster will serve as both writer and director of Disappointment Blvd. While the movie is shrouded in mystery and doesn’t have a trailer yet, it will be a decades-spanning horror-comedy about a famously successful entrepreneur. And if Hereditary and Midsommar are anything to go by, it will be a genre-bending horror-comedy at that. In conversation with UC Santa Barbara students, Aster described Disappointment Blvd. as a 4-hour long “nightmare comedy,” though whether he was joking about its length remains to be seen.

A24 will distribute Disappointment Blvd. as well as co-produce it with Square Pegs: Ari Aster and producer Lars Knudsen’s production company. Disappointment Blvd. began production in June last year and is set for release later this year, though no official date has been given yet.

There is speculation that the movie will have its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival due to take place from 17 to 28 May 2022. Fortunately, the festival announces its lineup on the 14th, so fans won’t have to wait long to find out.

Eggers, Peele, Garland, and Aster all unquestionably belong to a trend that has recently been given a name–in fact, two: “elevated horror” and “prestige horror.” Elevated horror as a concept began to gain currency after the release of Eggers’ first feature, The Witch, in 2015. I suspect that Garland’s Ex Machina, which came out in 2014, had something to do with that. Many would count it as science-fiction, but under my loose criteria here, it counts as horror–especially since Garland’s two subsequent films undeniably fall into the horror genre. Elevated horror, according to The Hollywood Reporter, is a treatment of films as quasi-art cinema, as well as a focus more on psychological dramas than gore.

I don’t care for the term “elevated horror,” since it could imply simply a ratcheting up of the level of horror included in the film. This is far from what these directors are doing, although The Northman has little interest in psychology and contains plenty of graphic dismemberment.

In recent years there has come to be a vituperative reaction against “elevated horror” among fans, who claim it implies that the rest of the genre is trivial, trash, whatever. I have no interest in the resulting debate, but google “elevated horror,” and you’ll find it.

The same basic debate simmers concerning the term “prestige horror,” with fans claiming that treating prestige as something new to horror films dismisses the many classics of the genre that have gained critical respect, awards, and status as classics. Yet The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, Jaws, Children of Men, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and others have been and remain well-respected. They have, in fact, prestige, as do the films of this younger group of filmmakers who have stuck to the horror genre. But the classics just listed were directed by people who worked in a variety of genres and did not stick to horror.  I’ll use “prestige horror” here, since it seems to me to accurately describe what distinguishes the work of these four directors and other films (e.g., A Quiet Place, Saint Maud) from more conventional mainstream horror films. The term basically, I think, is a suggestion of something more respectable emerging from an era in which “torture porn” seemed to dominate the genre.

This entry doesn’t aim to present an overview of prestige horror. I have simply been intrigued to see what these four filmmakers, who have made a body of work which could be considered the core of the current prestige-horror trend, have in common and how those commonalities have helped create this new perception of a trend within the larger genre.

My interest arises from the fact that within a short period these directors have each made multiple reasonably successful feature-length horror films that have attracted favorable attention from critics, film festivals, fans, and institutions dishing out awards.

 

The Films

Annilhilation

Here is a chronology of the four directors’ films, with information relevant to explaining their prestige status.

2014

EX MACHINA (Alex Garland)  Dist. A24

Budget: $15,000,000

Worldwide Gross: $36,869,414

Rotten Tomatoes: 92% critics 86% audience (6 points difference)

2015

THE WITCH  (Roger Eggers) Dist. A24

Budget: $4,000,000

Worldwide gross: $40,423,945

Rotten Tomatoes: 90% critics 59% audience (31 points difference)

2016

None

2017

GET OUT   (Jordan Peele) Prod. Blumhouse and Dist. Universal

Budget $4,500,000

Worldwide gross  $255,407,969

Rotten Tomatoes: 98% critics  86% audience (12 points difference)

2018

ANNIHILATION (Alex Garland) Prod. Skydance Media and Dist. Paramount

Budget: $40,000,000

Worldwide gross: $43,070,915

Rotten Tomatoes: 88% critics  66% audience (22 points difference)

HEREDITARY (Ari Aster) Prod. and Dist. A24

Budget:  $10,000,000

Worldwide gross  $80,200,936

Rotten Tomatoes: 89% critics  68% audience (21 points difference)

2019

THE LIGHTHOUSE (Robert Eggers) Prod. and Dist. A24

Budget: est. $11,000,000

Worldwide BO $18,177,614

Rotten Tomatoes:  90% critics 72% audience (18 points difference)

MIDSOMMAR (Ari Aster) Prod. and Dist. A24

Budget: $9,000,000

Worldwide gross: $47,967,636

Rotten Tomatoes: 83% critics  63% audience  (20 points difference)

US (Jordan Peele) Prod. Monkeypaw Productions and Dist. Universal

Budget  $20,000,000

Worldwide gross  $255,184,580

Rotten Tomatoes: 93% on RT, 60% audience (33 points difference)

2020

None

[DEVS, Alex Garland, 8-episode mini-series for Hulu]

2021

None

2022

THE NORTHMAN (Robert Eggers) Prod. by Regency and Dist. By Focus (specialty wing of Universal)

Budget: est. $70-90,000,000

Worldwide gross to May 4: $43,934,635

Rotten Tomatoes: 89% critics  66% audiences  (23 points difference)

MEN (Alex Garland) Prod. and Dist. A24

Budget: Unknown. Collider refers to it as “a low-budget horror film.”

NOPE (Jordan Peele) Prod. Monkeypaw Productions and Dist. Universal

Budget: Unknown

DISAPPOINTMENT BLVD. (Ali Aster) Prod. and Dist. A24

Budget: Unknown

Clearly the pandemic has delayed the completion and release of horror films, as it has with other genres, resulting in a rush of releases by all four directors in the same year. There might have been films by all four directors in 2019, but Garland was presumably busy producing, writing. and directing all eight episodes of the FX series Devs, which premiered on March 5, 2020. The series could be described as being a combination of the sci-fi and horror genres, rather like Ex Machina.

 

The prestige

Reviews, professional and amateur

These days, one indicator of public prestige, albeit a crude one, is the critical aggregator site, Rotten Tomatoes. It is striking that every film in this group has been rated more highly by professional critics than by audience members. Other films mentioned in discussions of prestige horror also see a similar split, as with Saint Maud (2019, Rose Glass, distributed by A24), which had a 93% critical rating versus 64% audience approval. On the other hand, Saw (2004, James Wan, distributed by Lions Gate), which is definitely not in the prestige category, had a 51% critics rating and 84% audience approval.

Festivals and Awards

It is perhaps going a bit far to call these art-house horror, since they usually play multiplexes. Still, some premiere at prestigious festivals dedicated mostly to indie films that do play art houses. These include Sundance for The Witch, Get Out, and Hereditary. Ex Machina and Us were first shown at SXSW, the latter as the opening night film–a position held by A Quiet Place the year before. The Lighthouse premiered out of competition at Cannes, and Men will do so later this month (and possibly Disappointment Blvd., see above). Announcing the latter, Deadline commented, “The non-competitive independent sidebar to the main Cannes festival has grown in reputation in recent years, having premiered pics such as Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project and The Rider by Oscar winner Chloé Zhao.”

For Nope, Peele took a more mainstream approach, revealing an extended trailer at Cinemacon on April 27, 2022.

Obviously awards signal prestige. To name some of the most notable, Eggers won for best director of a dramatic film for The Witch at Sundance. The Lighthouse won the critics’ FIPRESCI prize at Cannes, was nominated for an Oscar for best cinematography, and won the cinematography prize from the American Society of Cinematographers. Peele’s Get Out was nominated for four Oscars, winning best original screenplay. Peele made Time‘s list of the 100 most influential people in the world and the top-ten lists of the National Board of Review, the AFI, Time, and others. (He was also nominated as a producer of BlacKkKlansman.) Ex Machina surprised just about everyone by winning the Visual Effects Oscar in competition with Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and The Revenant. The Hollywood Reporter considered its win “arguably the night’s biggest upset.”

These are some of the highly prestigious prizes. Festivals and prizes have proliferated in recent years. Local critics’ associations and proliferating specialist sci-fi/horror/fantasy festivals give out hundreds of awards, most of which never come to the general public’s attention. They do, however, stimulate interest among the core audience for horror films. (Extensive lists of such festival’s nominees and winners are provided on IMDB.)

Production and Distribution

The first three films on the above list made impressive profits on small budgets–especially Get Out. Ex Machina and The Witch were financed by cobbling together money from small, obscure companies and then picked up for distribution by A24. Both films came out one and two years respectively after A24 had released its first film in 2013, so relatively early in the company’s existence. They were among the many that have made A24 the most successful, admired producer and distributor of independent and foreign films. Ex Machina provided A24 with its first Oscar win.

The third, Get Out, made a spectacular amount of money on its modest budget.

These successes may have encourage Paramount to pick up the fourth, Annihilation, in the expectation of a similar success. Despite being one of the best films of the group (in my opinion), it was not popular and is the biggest money-loser of the group (though the final grosses for The Northman are yet to come).

The sub-genre bounced back with Heredity, which was (and may still be) A24’s biggest money-maker. The company then bankrolled Aster’s follow-up, Midsommar, which was profitable, if less so than Heredity. A24 also produced both films, so it  was able to keep the entire take. These successes were perhaps some consolation for The Lighthouse‘s probable failure to break even. (A24 also produced it.) Eggers departed A24 for Regency, with an estimated $70-90,000,000 budget for The Northman–far and away the largest of any of the films released so far. Its worldwide gross as of May 4, two weeks after its release, is a bit under $44 million, making a profitable result unlikely.

The importance of A24 to the prestige horror film should be obvious. It has distributed six of the eleven films and produced three of those six.

A24 was formed in 2012. Today, the company’s astonishing list of films includes many indies of all types, including Moonlight, Minari, First Cow, The Florida Project, The Tragedy of Macbeth, and most recently Everything Everywhere All at Once.

A24 seems committed to Alex Garland, having announced that they will produce and release his next film beyond Men, entitled Civil War. That doesn’t sound like a horror film, but who knows?

A24 has clearly been crucial to the careers of Garland, Eggers, and Aster, but Peele has followed a different path to success. In 2002 he began as a stand-up comic and soon was appearing in occasional episodes of such shows as The Mindy Project and Fargo. He gained fame in the comedy series Keye & Peele, which ran from 2012 to 2015. He also produced it, forming his own production company, Monkeypaw Productions in 2012. Coincidentally this was the same year that A24 was formed, perhaps helping explain why the careers of these directors have progressed in parallel.  He has continued to produce  shows like Twilight Zone and Lovecraft Country. He turned to filmmaking in 2017 with Get Out, which was produced by Blumhouse, known for its low-budget, ordinarily less prestigious horror films. Universal distributed what became the most profitable film of the entire group, compared to its original budget, and soon formed a closer relationship with Peele.

In an interview with Indiewire, Peele described being cautious about asking for a larger budget for his next film, Us.

When he sat down with Universal, the studio that distributed “Get Out,” to pitch his sophomore feature, “the cards were kind of in my hands,” Peele said. “It didn’t feel like an audition. It was me telling them, ‘This is what I want to do, this is where I want to do it, how’s that sound?’” […]

“I had about five times the budget on this one, which by movie standards is still not that expensive of a film,” he said. “That was the key for me. Otherwise, I may not have had my freedom. As a filmmaker, I also thrive with a certain restriction. I didn’t want to overreach with the budget and all of a sudden have a studio being responsible on me.” He laughed. “There’s never been a point where they’ve expressed anything but wanting to make this.” When Universal gave Peele the green light to make “Us,” it also signed a first-look deal with his Monkeypaw Productions.

Universal financed and released the film, sending it to SXSW for its premiere. Remarkably, it and Get Out generated almost identical worldwide grosses. Indeed, they are far and away the top earners among this set of films. In 2019, the year Us came out, Universal signed Peele to a five-film contract, reportedly worth $300-400,000,000.

As a result of all this, Peele stands out from the rest of the group by being a very rich man. His worth in 2021 was widely estimated at $50,000,000.

This deal presumably included the recent remake of serial-killer film Candyman (2021), produced and written by Peele and directed by Nia DaCosta.

How much higher the budgets will be for these future films is impossible to predict. It is notable, however, that Nope was shot by Hoyte van Hoytema, cinematographer of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Dunkirk, Tenet, and upcoming Oppenheimer. It was made on film and had sequences done in 65mm. It will be shown in Imax theaters, an obvious step up from the previous two films.

Moreover, Peele is among top Hollywood directors collaborating on Imax’s development of its next generation of cameras. Indiewire reports:

The new models are expected to be an improvement over IMAX’s current offering of cameras that utilize their proprietary 65mm film. The new cameras will be quieter, with a series of new features added to enhance usability. In addition to the four new cameras, many existing IMAX cameras and lenses are expected to be updated and improved.

If that was not exciting enough, the company will be collaborating with some of Hollywood’s top visual artists on the camera designs. Major directors including Christopher Nolan and Jordan Peele will weigh in on the new film cameras, as will top cinematographers including Hoyte van Hoytema (“Tenet”), Linus Sandgren (“No Time To Die”), Rachel Morrison (“Black Panther”), Bradford Young (“Arrival”), and Dan Mindel (“Star Trek”). Combined, those filmmakers account for many of the most acclaimed large-scale movies shot on film in recent years, in addition to even more that were shot digitally.

If Nope is a success, as Forbes is predicting it will be, will Peele branch out into other genres or continue to make prestige horror films on a bigger budget? His enthusiasm about Imax technology may hint at an inclination to break out of his current pattern for other effects-heavy genres. Still, perhaps a clue comes from the name he gave his production company, Monkeypaw Productions, invoking the classic Le Fanu horror story.

The distributors, and in the case of A24 producers, of these films have turned these directors into brand names elevated above most directors of horror films. The trailer for The Northman touted Eggers as “visionary” (top) while Paramount combined the signs of prestige in its poster: “new terror,” emphasizing Peele’s consistency as a director of horror; his “mind,” suggesting his genius for this sort of filmmaking; and naturally his record as an Oscar winner (above left).

 

Midsommar madness

Midsommar has emerged as one of the most admired films of the cycle, despite having had the lowest Rotten Tomatoes critics score and third lowest audience score. Its move toward prestige began quickly when less than two months after the film’s July, 2019 release, Aster appeared at the Scary Movies Festival at Film at Lincoln Center, introducing the Director’s Cut of the film. The length was increased from 148 to 171 minutes.

Martin Scorsese unexpectedly helped to raise Aster’s profile. Readers will remember his infamous remarks about MCU films not being cinema and his subsequent explanation of what he meant in The New York Times. There he listed some directors whose films exemplify genuine cinema:

Another way of putting it would be that they are everything that the films of Paul Thomas Anderson or Claire Denis or Spike Lee or Ari Aster or Kathryn Bigelow or Wes Anderson are not. When I watch a movie by any of those filmmakers, I know I’m going to see something absolutely new and be taken to unexpected and maybe even unnameable areas of experience. My sense of what is possible in telling stories with moving images and sounds is going to be expanded.

That’s pretty heady company for a director of horror films who has made two features, but there was more to come.

Scorsese followed up by writing an introduction to a book accompanying A24’s release of the Director’s Cut on Standard Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD, available only directly from the company and packaged in jewel boxes charming enough that they could grace a Wes Anderson film. It shipped on July 20, 2020, about a year after the film’s release.

In early 2020, there was a considerable expectation among critics and fans that that the film would be nominated for Oscars. When that failed to happen, journalists’ lists of snubbed films often mentioned it indignantly. The Washington Post ran a story entitled, “The Oscars should get over their fear of horror films,” mentioning Midsommar, Us, and Heredity and especially Florence Pugh’s and Toni Colette’s performances. Indiewire listed Midsommar alongside The Farewell, Her Smell, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Booksmart, and Uncut Gems as films unfairly receiving no nominations.

Remarkably, a protest of sorts against Midsommar‘s lack of nominations was mounted during the opening musical number of the 2020 Oscars show, on February 9. Janelle Monáe headlined and staged it, including a group of backup dancers, some of whom were dressed as various characters from some of the year’s best-picture nominees: Joker, Jojo Rabbit, and Little Women.  Prominent among them, however, are four women in white Midsommar costumes, and to make the point completely clear, Monáe herself donned a copy of the protagonist’s floral May Queen dress for the last part of the number (see bottom). Pugh was in fact nominated for Best Supporting Actress that year, but it was for Little Women. She didn’t win, but she managed to get an implicit shout-out in the opener.

The extensive press coverage of the number suggested that the content was Monáe’s idea, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences must have approved and cooperated to some extent, given that it presumably provided the costumes and would have been aware during rehearsals that the film references in the song and dance gave the snubbed films equal or even greater attention than the nominated ones. The number inspired considerable coverage in the press, and many upset Midsommar fans posted tweets that suggested they were somewhat placated by the number.

The Academy made further amends two months later, when on May 9 the Academy Museum announced that it had put in the winning bid ($65,000) for the original May Queen dress from the film, which was sold in one of A24’s series of real movie props-and-costumes auctions for Covid-related charities (FDNYFoundation being the Fire Department of New York).

  

The dress was put on display in the Museum in time for the September 30, 2021 opening.

Based on a preview tour for journalists, on September 22 Timeout declared the dress one of the eleven coolest things to see at the Museum, a list which also included Judy Garland’s ruby slippers and the shark from Jaws. The first “prestige horror” film to be represented in the Academy Museum (I presume) had brought the genre a new level of respect.  Maybe next year Alexander Skarsgård or Steven Yuen or Jessie Buckley or Rory Kinnear might actually receive actor nominations, not to mention some best-picture nods for the new films.

 

One final observation. The prestige phenomenon has been happening for some time now with foreign films seeking release in North American market. Making inexpensive horror films occasionally works as a way for unknown directors to break into an otherwise difficult market for unknown directors. Examples would include the Swedish film Let the Right One In (2008, Tomas Alfredson), the Icelandic Lamb (2021, the first feature of Valdimar Jóhannsson), which premiered at Cannes and was nominated for best international film this year, and currently the Finnish Hatching (2022, the first feature of Hanna Bergholm). Interestingly, the pattern of critics rating the films higher than audiences as measured by Rotten Tomatoes holds true for such films as well, with the three titles scoring respectively: 98%/90%, 86%/61%, and 92%/59%. Their distributors were, respectively: Magnolia Pictures (under its genre label, Magnet Releasing), A24, and IFC Midnight (ICF Films‘s genre label).


A few notes.

Scott Derrickson is an interesting case where a director has specialized in mainstream horror films before moving on to a MCU franchise blockbuster, Doctor Strange (2016). He was at work on the sequel when a disagreement of some sort with Marvel led to his departure. He has returned to horror with the upcoming serial-killer film The Black Phone (distributed by Blumhouse) which I mentioned seeing the trailer for. His announced projects appear to be mainstream horror and fantasy.

The prestigious horror films of the past that I mentioned all received Oscar nominations, with some wins (in bold), mainly in below-the-line categories. The Exorcist: adapted screenplay, sound, picture, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress, director cinematography, art direction, editing; Rosemary’s Baby: adapted screenplay, supporting actress; Jaws: sound, editing, musical score, picture; Children of Men: adapted screenplay, cinematography, editing; and Bram Stoker’s Dracula: costume, sound effects editing, makeup, set design.

Directors of modest horror films do sometimes return to the fold after making a blockbuster. After a string of horror films, Scott Derrickson directed Doctor Strange (2016) but now returns with The Black Phone. From the trailer referenced above, this looks like a conventional serial-killer film, apart from having Ethan Hawke as its villain. Guillermo del Toro returned to his more comfortable indie roots after Pacific Rim, and Taika Waititi apparently is keeping his word about alternating big projects (Thor: Ragnarok and an upcoming Thor film) and personal ones (Jojo Rabbit); among his many announced films are several franchise films, but also Tower of Terror, apparently a horror film.

[May 17, 2022] Alex Garland seems to be abandoning the horror genre, at least for his next film. As its title, Civil War, suggests, its an action film about that conflict. As he says in a recent interview, he’s even contemplating giving up directing and sticking to screenwriting.

[May 22, 2022] Collider‘s Chase Hutchinson has posted a list ranking A24’s twenty-one horror films from worst to best. (I don’t know when it was originally posted, but it was updated yesterday, presumably to include Garland’s Men.) As I said, I’m not a big horror fan, so I had never heard of most of these, so I’m obviously not one to quibble with the ranking–apart from the fact that I would put The Lighthouse higher than Midsommar and The Witch. I haven’t seen Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, which tops the list, so I have no idea whether it really deserves to be number one.]

 

 

PERPLEXING PLOTS: On the horizon

Tuesday | April 26, 2022

DB here:

In the Before Times, I didn’t watch much fictional TV. Our modest monitor was chiefly a delivery device for news, DVDs, and Turner Classic Movies. We followed The Simpsons, and I came to like Deadwood and Justified, but usually the time commitment demanded by long-form series put me off. I gave my curmudgeonly reasons long ago on a blog entry.

But over the last nine months, forced to stay home, I dipped my toe in the water. Streaming made it easy to catch up with shows I’d never seen and offered a plethora, or rather a glut, of original series. This still-limited experience of long-form shows confirms the presence, if not the dominance, of what Jason Mittell in his excellent book calls Complex TV.

Many shows mix timelines with abandon. Both the documentary WeWork; or, The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn (2021) and the docudrama WeCrashed (2022) open near the end of the story action and then flash back to show what led up to it. (This crisis structure became especially common in 1940s Hollywood.) Billions, an older series I’d never followed, contains an episode (Season 2, 2016) that jumps to and fro among a funeral, scenes taking place before it, and scenes afterward, several attached to different characters. In the Hulu series Dopesick (2021) a sliding timeline graphic shifts among many periods and character viewpoints; to keep track of it all you’d need to make a spreadsheet. (It would amount to something like the whiteboard used in writers’ conference rooms to map out the unfolding series.) I can’t recall all the shows that friends have recommended as examples of daring play with narrative.

Of course all this isn’t news. For years both indie films and Hollywood blockbusters have offered complicated segmentations, broken timelines, and splintered viewpoints, with contradictory replays and unreliable narration. Still, it was good to be reminded that the problem I’m tackling in my latest book is still current—indeed, dominant. We may have to wait for the new Justified series to see a return to straightforward linear storytelling.

When and how did viewers develop the skills that lets them appreciate the New Narrative Complexity? This is at the center of Perplexing Plots: Popular Narrative and the Poetics of Murder. 

 

Maybe we were always smart

Intolerance (1916).

There’s a view, most eloquently posed by Steven Johnson in Everything Bad Is Good for You, that these comprehension skills are a fairly recent development. They stem from rising IQ levels, growing facility with video games, and other cultural phenomena after the 1970s. People are now smarter consumers of narrative than they were in the days of I Love Lucy.

I argue instead that popular narrative has been cultivating these skills across a much longer period, and they firmly took hold in mass culture at the start of the twentieth century. You can get a summary of my argument here on the Columbia University Press site.

Most broadly, a lot of (now-forgotten) mainstream plays and novels were as experimental in shifting point-of-view and juggling time frames as any we find today. For example, we celebrate backwards stories as typical of the demands of modern storytelling. The play and film Betrayal and the films Memento and Shimmer Lake are among many recent media products presenting the scenes in 3-2-1 order. But this possibility was discussed by a prominent critic in 1914, and soon a major woman actor wrote a play that used reverse chronology. There followed other examples, not least W. R. Burnett’s novel Goodbye to the Past (1934) and the Kaufman and Hart play Merrily We Roll Along (1934).

Some will argue that innovations of popular narrative are dumbed-down borrowings from modernist or avant-garde trends. I try to show this process as a two-way dynamic: modernism borrowing from popular forms, mainstream storytellers making modernist techniques more accessible. But we also find that popular storytelling has its own intrinsic sources of innovation, as with the reverse-chronology tale and Griffith’s application of crosscutting to different time frames in Intolerance (1916).

So it seems to me that audiences have long been capable of tracking the sort of fancy narrative devices we find now. They encountered them in many types of stories, and I devote the first part of Perplexing Plots to a quick survey of developments in novels and plays. (Yes, Stephen Sondheim is involved.) Audiences have learned to enjoy self-conscious artistry, an awareness of form and technique–what one disapproving reviewer of Wilkie Collins called “the taste of the construction.”

Such a taste was cultivated in depth in one mega-genre. That was a major training ground for giving us the skills to follow complex, sometimes deceptive storytelling.

 

Mystery on my mind

Pulp Fiction (1994).

Ever since my teenage years I’ve been a fan of mysteries on the page and on the screen. I’ve smuggled discussions of detective stories and crime thrillers into many of my books, and my last one, on 1940s Hollywood, did a lot with this form of storytelling–largely because it was so central to the films of that era.

Perplexing Plots in a way turns Reinventing Hollywood inside out. The earlier book put movies at the center while showing how filmmakers borrowed from mysteries in other media. The new one puts fiction, theatre, radio, and even comic books at the center, discussing how mystery conventions developed–and showed up in films as well. The two books complement each other, I guess, although the historical sweep of the new one runs from the 1910s to the present.

Mystery was essential to many classic novels, from Wuthering Heights to the tales of Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Dickens and Wilkie Collins made mystery a major attraction of “sensation fiction.” In the twentieth century, the Anglo-American whodunit, the suspense thriller, and the hardboiled detective tale–to take the three most well-known genres–trained audiences in appreciation of nonlinear plotting, misleading narration, and subterfuges of concealment.

A Western or a science-fiction tale may include a mystery, but it doesn’t have to. In mystery fiction, the suppression and misinterpretation of information is foundational to the genre itself. A mystery depends on a “hidden story,” which will often be revealed out of chronological order and refracted through the minds of several characters. At a meta-level, the genre cultivates a gamelike approach, where we expect the author to give with one hand and take away with the other. Across history, a mass audience became sophisticated consumers of complex narratives.

I trace how this happened with Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Marie Belloc Lowndes, E. C. Bentley, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Daphne du Maurier, Cornell Woolrich, and many other authors. I spend a lot of time analyzing both plot structure and the texture of the writing. If nothing else, I hope to show that this genre encourages not only great ingenuity in plotting but also subterfuges of style.

I trace this process into the 1940s, when in my view the basics of contemporary techniques crystallized and become widespread. The book then looks at some case studies of how crime novels and films have explored the various possibilities of broken timelines, disparate viewpoints, and misleading narration. I devote chapters to Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, Patricia Highsmith, Ed McBain, Donald Westlake, Quentin Tarantino, and Gillian Flynn.

I could have gone much farther. Every reader will have a long list of authors I’ve omitted. But I had to stop somewhere! And I decided to concentrate on some of my favorites. The result is, if nothing else, appreciations of the verbal artistry of some underestimated storytellers.

This isn’t to say that audiences of 1920 could have easily followed Inception (2010) or Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022). Storytellers have pushed forward, revising schemas that are widely known and teaching us to recognize the tweaks they’ve introduced. Audiences have accumulated a repertory of skills, built upon their experiences of other formal experiments. Those experiences, I want to show, have been crucially shaped by the conventions of mystery narratives.

 

Looking back on other things I’ve written, I find that I’m repeatedly concerned with finding beauty in popular genres and modes of storytelling. My studies of Hollywood, Hong Kong cinema, Japanese films, and other forms of cinema have taught me that mass entertainment harbors not only pleasures but also precise craft and daring artistry. While I’ll never give up my love of disruptive and “difficult” work, I find that films appealing to wide audiences, from His Girl Friday and Meet Me in St. Louis to the masterworks of Ozu and Hitchcock and Lang, have a unique power. Fortunately, we don’t have to choose.We can have them all. Perplexing Plots is my effort to show that storytelling craft in its humblest forms can yield its own rapture.

Advance appraisals of the book can be found here. (Click on “Reviews.”) It’s due to be published in January 2023. In the months ahead, from time to time I hope to blog more about the ideas in the book. In the meantime, I wait for the new installment of Slow Horses.


There are too many people to thank here; my debts are recorded in the book’s Acknowledgments. But at least I want to thank John Belton for supporting the project, and Philip Leventhal and Monique Briones at Columbia University Press for their swift and efficient work on the manuscript. And love to Kristin, who took care of me while I finished the book and recuperated from surgery.

The Lady Vanishes (1938).

Wisconsin Film Festival 2022: A return to the theaters

Wednesday | April 20, 2022

Hit the Road (2021).

KT here:

The Wisconsin Film Festival ended last week. This was the first in-person festival after one cancelled (2020) and one presented through streaming (2021). Given David’s health situation, I was not able to attend many films, but here are some of the highlights that I caught.

Wisconsinite David Koepp visited the festival, bringing two films he scripted, Kimi (Steven Soderbergh, 2022) and Death Becomes Her (Robert Zemeckis, 1992), as well as one that inspired the former, Sorry,  Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948). David and I had already seen Kimi on streaming, but I jumped at the chance to see it on the big screen. The sell-out crowd was utterly enthralled throughout, and David K. charmed them during an all-too-short Q&A session. I won’t say anything more about it, since David B. has blogged about it. I did enjoy two Middle Eastern films and the new Claire Denis. (Not the one about to be in competition at Cannes. The woman is certainly cranking them out.

 

Amira (2021)

In 2017, the Wisconsin Film Festival showed Mohamed Diab’s extraordinary Clash (2016), an epic restaging of the 2013 riots that brought down the Muslim Brotherhood government, all observed by a group of prisoners in a police paddy-wagon. I was excited to see that this year’s festival included Diab’s next film, Amira.

The new film is quite different from Clash. While that showed a cross-section of Cairo participants in the riots or simply bystanders swept up by the police, Amira centers on a personal drama of an extended family living in an unidentified occupied Palestinian area of Israel. (The film was shot in Jordan, so local landmarks would be no help in figuring out exactly where the family lives.) Amira’s parents have never consummated their marriage, since the husband, Nawar, is imprisoned for life, and his wife Warda became pregnant through semen smuggled out of the prison. Amira is officially the daughter of Nawar’s brother, but she is fiercely devoted to Nawar, going through elaborate security procedures to visit him in prison.

The plot gets going when it is revealed that Nawar has a genetic abnormality that rendered him sterile from birth. The close-knit family descends into vicious arguments and accusations, with Warda being suspected of infidelity, the men on both sides of the family indignantly refusing to take DNA tests, and Amira concocting wild schemes to protect both her parents and ultimately take revenge on the person deemed guilty of bringing disgrace on the family.

Despite the impressive shot of Amira and her boyfriend against the city (above, a cropped image from the widescreen film), the film opts for crowded interiors most of the time–though not as limited as the paddy-wagon of Clash. Small apartments, narrow alleyways, and above all the visits to the prison create a claustrophobic atmosphere where nature and the bustle of society in the city are largely eliminated.

The prison scenes involve extended shot/reverse-shot conversations between Nawar and his family members through a glass barrier.

  

Shot with telephoto lenses, the scenes use shallow focus to concentrate our attention on the central characters. At the same time, though, reflections and planes of action out of focus create a sense of cramped space and similar conversations going on in a cramped room. Here Nawar suggests that he and Warda have a second child, since an opportunity to smuggle out some of his semen again. Amira’s delight at the idea and Warda’s doubtful expression set up the disastrous revelation to come: that Nawar cannot in fact be Amira’s father.

Checking Diab’s filmography on IMDb, I was surprised to learn that he is the main director on the current Marvel streaming series, Moon Knight. I had been completely ignoring this show, since I have little to no interest in the MCU. I did notice some comments by Egyptological friends on Facebook that the hieroglyphic texts were authentic (an important chapter from the so-called Book of the Dead), as attested by actual Egyptologists. One reviewer commented, “Hollywood has had a problem with how Egypt is represented in both film and TV. ‘Moon Knight’ has done a superb job with episode three, showing Egypt as an actual modern civilization as opposed to a barren wasteland of only sand with a yellow tinted filter over it.” He does not seem to have noticed that this might be due to the fact that an actual Egyptian director was chosen.

I suppose this is not terribly surprising, since for years there has been a trend toward Hollywood producers suddenly elevating talented foreign and indie directors into the ranks of makers of big franchise films. Taika Waititi went from What We Do in the Shadows and Boy to Thor: Ragnarok and Chloe Zhao from Nomadland to Eternals. (I list a considerable number of similar leaps from the festival scene to the world of blockbusters in my entry on Waititi’s rise to international fame.) Still, Diab seems a strange choice. Maybe Clash was sufficient demonstration that he could do epic scenes of violence. I suppose I shall have to give Moon Knight a look.

 

Hit the Road (2021)

For years now we’ve been blogging about Panahi films (click on Directors: Panahi in the Categories at the right). Now we have another, but it’s not by Jafar. Panah Panahi is his son, and this is his feature debut. Panah began by making shorts, worked as a set photographer, and later as an editor, most notably on his father’s latest feature, Three Faces.

Hit the Road (the Farsi title is more literally translated as “Dirt Road”) reminded me more of the films of Abbas Kiarostami than of the elder Panahi. Jafar worked as an assistant director on Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees (1994). Panah was only ten years old at that point, having been born in 1984, the year of Kiarostami’s early feature documentary, First Graders. The New Iranian Cinema came to world prominence later in the 1980s and into the 1990s. Jafar moved into directing features in 1995 with The White Balloon.

Growing up, Panah must have become familiar with the now-classic films of Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, as well as those of his father in the years before the latter’s arrest in 2010.

Hit the Road is reminiscent of the “child quest” films of the early years of the movement. In this case, though, the child in question is not the center of the plot, even though the rambunctious kid steals every scene he’s in. He’s accompanying his parents and older son on a road trip that occupies the entire length of the film. The older son is as quiet as his brother is noisy, but it gradually comes out that he is heading for a spot where he will join others being smuggled out of the country in search of better lives. The parents keep this a secret from the little boy, fearing that he will blurt out something that will draw attention to their goal.

The film is a skillful blend of suspense on that account, of a poignant if quarrelsome love among the family, and a good deal of comedy supplied by the little boy. Amid all the raucous exchanges there are quiet moments, as when during a rest stop the unnamed mother nags her older son about smoking too much while sharing a cigarette with him and asking what his favorite movie is. By this point we suspect that she fears that she will never see him again once they reach the border. (Richard Brody’s insightful review captures this mixture of tones.)

Unlike Amira, Hit the Road is shot entirely out of doors, and often in beautiful, bleak Iranian landscapes (top of entry and below).

At times the family’s SUV climbs hills in shots that recall those of Kiarostami’s films,especially And Life Goes On and The Taste of Cherries, as in the frame at the top of this section. (The literal translation of the Farsi title, Jaddah Khaki, is “Dirt Road.”)

The film has been critically acclaimed and successful on the festival circuit, winner Best Film at the London and Mar del Plata festivals. It seems likely that we will now have two Panahis to report on from future festivals.

 

Avec amour et acharnement (aka Fire, 2022)

I found Denis’s latest a frustrating and puzzling film for almost its entire length. It reminded me of a similar experience I had with Pablo Larraín’s Ema at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival. I described my initial reaction to that film at the time: “While watching it, I could not discern much of a plot or even a coherent character study.”

Denis’s film, shown outside France under the rather baffling title Fire, starts out innocently enough with a scene of lovers, played by Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon, enjoying a blissful, solitary, wordless swim in the ocean. This sets up the “amour” part of the original title. Surprisingly enough, this idyllic sequence, the most visually attractive of the film (above and at the bottom of the entry) was shot during the pandemic on a phone with just the two actors, the director, and the cinematographer present.

Sara and Jean are long-time lovers, and their happiness together continues as they return to their Parisian flat. Soon, however, Sara’s previous lover, François, re-enters their life. He has asked Jean, who has in the past been in prison for some unspecified crime, probably financial, to join him in a athletic scouting agency. Coincidentally, Sara has spotted François in the street, an encounter that seemingly stirs up her old passion for him. She mentions the encounter to Jean, but treats it as a minor thing, expressing pleasure that Jean has been given an opportunity to go into business with his old friend.

From that point the film becomes largely a series of increasingly fraught arguments, as Sara seems to pledge her devotion to both men while resenting the jealousy that they both increasingly feel. All three are revealed to be unpleasant characters acting unwisely, and I, at least, wondered what the point of it all was. The plot seemed to be the classic love triangle, with the question being which man Sara should end up with and whether she will make the right decision–and the issue seeming not to make a great deal of difference for the viewer.

I don’t want to say any more about the plot, since the point of it is to figure out at the very end what Denis had been up to all along. I realized that she was undercutting our expecations about the very clichés that she had presented to us. Apparently I was right. In an interview with Denis, Joseph Cronk mentions that “In an interview in the press notes for the film, you mentioned that the film’s simplicity was ‘a way of foiling clichés.'” Indeed. I’m not sure that many people in the audience with whom I saw the film got the point. I heard some grumbling among the spectators as we left the theater.

It is rather odd to make a film where the audience can “enjoy” it only in retrospect.

I should add that the title Fire does not help a bit.I don’t know who came up with it, but it’s misleading. As Denis has pointed out in interviews, there is no equivalent word to acharnement in English. In the interview mentioned above, Cronk suggests that “With Love and Fury” might be a better title. Denis responds:

No, archarnement doesn’t mean fury. There’s no direct translation, but it means something–from our body, something from your flesh. A sort of tension in the flesh. Fury is something different than acharnement. When I tried translating Avec amour et acharnement, I found no English word I liked that could convey what acharnement means. But Stuart [Staples, the composer] had written the song “Both Sides of the Blade,” and I thought this would be the perfect English title.”

Actually I don’t think “Both Sides of the Blade” would give the spectator much of a clue as to what’s going on in the film. Keeping in mind Denis’s explanation of the French title, however, would.

 


The quotations from Joseph Cronk’s interview appear in the latest issue of cinema scope, #90 (July 31, 2022), “Not on the Lips: Claire Denis on Avec amour et acharnement.”

Thanks as always to Jim Healy, Ben Reiser, Mike King, and all the staff and volunteers of the Wisconsin Film Festival.

Avec amour et acharnement (aka Fire).

Oscar’s siren song: The revenge

Thursday | March 24, 2022

King Richard

The Oscars are upon us again. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may have decided that “Music (Original Score)” is one of the categories not important enough to show live along with the rest of the awarding of the golden statuettes. We, of course, think this is absurd. (Will the Oscar ceremony gain a single extra TV viewer through this tactic?)

We welcome back our friend and colleague Jeff Smith to continue his annual comments and predictions concerning the nominees in both musical categories: song and original score. This year he has, if anything, outdone himself in providing insights into the historical contexts and the formal qualities of the ten nominees.

 

‘Tis the season to pass out little gold men to people in gowns and tuxedos. This year’s Oscar ceremony is scheduled to take place on Sunday night, March 27th.  And this is about the time when I offer my annual assessment of the nominees in the music categories.

The title I’ve given this blog post might appear to represent a failure of imagination. After posting the first of these surveys, I opted for a sequelitis motif by using Roman numerals and corny words like “Return.” Yet this year’s sequel title seems all too apt.  The producers of the Academy Awards have been winnowing away the amount of airtime given to the music awards in the past two years. They no longer present all five of the Best Original Song nominees as part of the broadcast. This year the award for Original Score will be prerecorded before the broadcast and the winner announced in between other, presumably more important awards.

If the Academy Awards doesn’t seem to care about these categories, then why should I? Well, because as a scholar and educator, this is what I do. Consider this blog post the petty revenge of someone who believes these categories still matter, even if the organization sponsoring the awards doesn’t seem to think so.

In the case of the award for Best Original Score, there will be some bitter irony in the fact that we’ll never see the faces of the composers on the big five-way split screen used to show nominees. But we’ll hear their scores played as walk-up music if Penelope Cruz wins for Best Actress. Or if Greig Fraser wins for Best Cinematography. Or Encanto wins for Best Animated Film. Or Jane Campion wins for Best Director. Or Adam McKay wins for Best Original Screenplay.

At the end of each award preview, I’ll make an educated guess as to who the winner of the category will be. All the usual caveats apply. These predictions are not intended for wagering purposes, I offer the usual disclosure that my predictions over the years typically yield one right and one wrong. (It’s up to you to figure out which is which.)

Lastly, a warning of some spoilers.  I do my best to try to avoid giving away too much information about a film.  But sometimes it is unavoidable if you want to get into the nitty gritty of the choices composers make in how they score their films.

 

The Susan Lucci of songwriting

Last month, Diane Warren earned her 13th Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, the most by a woman in any category without a win.  This isn’t the most, though, in the music categories as composers Thomas Newman and Alex North both earned 15 nominations for Best Score without ever taking home Oscar. Last April, Warren told Billboard that she the old saw about it being “nice to be nominated” was true, but that she really would like to finally win an Oscar.  Said Warren, “I’m like a sports team that has lost the World Series for decades.  This is 33 years since my first nomination.” Warren’s record begs comparison with soap opera star Susan Lucci, who earned 18 Daytime Emmy nominations for her role as Erica Kane on All My Children before finally winning the award in 1999.

Warren’s current nomination is for her song, “Somehow You Do,” which is featured in Rodrigo Garcia’s drama about opioid addiction, Four Good Days. Sung by Reba McEntire, Warren’s number is a countrified version of the sort of power ballad that the tunesmith has specialized in for decades. The first verse is modestly arranged for two guitars, one an acoustic and the other pedal steel. The song gradually adds more texture as it nears the chorus, with the bass adding some bottom end and a chorus punching up McEntire’s lead vocal.

The second verse continues to build with the addition of a drum kit that firmly establishes the song’s 6/8 meter and slow tempo. The song’s bridge introduces a contrasting melody and roughens up the sweetness of McEntire’s voice with some pulsating power chords played by an electric guitar. This prepares for the requisite key change as the song shifts to the final verse and chorus. The tune reaches its emotional peak here and then gradually tapers down. A brief coda returns us to the spare sound of McEntire’s voice accompanied by an acoustic guitar.

The song is very well-crafted if a bit by the numbers. It is a testament to Warren’s mastery of her craft that she finds new ways to enliven the venerable AABA structure of classic songs and fit them to the dramatic needs of the films she works on.

Yet Warren’s chances of winning seem to be hampered by a couple of factors. If you asked yourself, “What is Four Good Days?”, you are not alone. The film garnered little attention from critics and fans, earning less than $900,000 during its theatrical release.  Moreover, although McEntire is a huge star in the world of country music, that probably won’t cut much ice for voters in the Academy music branch who represent a different industry demographic.

There seems little doubt that Warren has a dedicated following within the music branch.  However, although it is big enough to consistently yield nominations, it isn’t large enough to deliver the big prize. Warren likely will have to content herself with “It’s nice to be nominated.”  If she starts to feel too downhearted, Warren can console herself by looking at her royalty statements for “Rhythm of the Night.” Or “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” Or “How Do I Live.”  (You get the idea…)

 

The Legends (and I don’t mean John, Chrissy, Luna, and Miles)

 

The next two nominees are among pop music’s biggest icons, representing more than ninety years of combined experience in the biz.  A bit surprisingly, though, both artists also are first-time Oscar nominees.

First up is the man who epitomizes Northern Soul: Irish singer and songwriter Van Morrison. Morrison is nominated for “Down to Joy” from Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. Like Branagh, Morrison was born and raised in Belfast. He also has been closely associated with the city throughout his career, receiving the monikers of “the Belfast Cowboy” and “the Belfast Lion.”  The early peak of Morrison’s career also coincides with the onset in 1969 of “the Troubles” depicted in Belfast. Besides “Down to Joy,” Branagh selected eight other Morrison tracks for the film’s soundtrack, many of them lesser-known tracks like “Caledonia Swing” and “Carrickfergus.” By digging deep into Morrison’s catalog, Branagh is not only able to provide a musical biography of his childhood, but also indicates how deeply Van the Man’s music was woven into the fabric of everyday life in Belfast.

Morrison’s “Down to Joy” also shows the durability of AABA form, albeit in this case channeling the sound of his early mid-tempo rockers like “Caravan” and “Domino.” The latter recordings are among the songs that would cement Morrison’s status as a Celtic interpreter of the revue style of sixties soul music, especially the Stax sound epitomized by singers such as Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, and Otis Redding. Morrison based his entire career on melding those influences with more native elements of Irish folk music. For nearly sixty years, Morrison has demonstrated that the idiom of sixties soul seems almost timeless, an impression confirmed by even more modern practitioners, like Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings or Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats.

Appearing over the end credits, “Down to Joy” neatly encapsulates the overall tone of Belfast and its mix of nostalgia, melancholy, and hope. At the end of Belfast, young Buddy and his family have been displaced by “the Troubles,” forced to relocate by threats of IRA retaliation.  Their journey to England is colored by the pain of family separation. Yet it also represents a horizon of new possibilities. “Down to Joy” reflects that latter sentiment with lyrics describing a new morning after a dark night, and the glory and gratitude expressed through Buddy’s child-like naivete.

So, what are the chances that Van the Man wraps his hands around a small golden dude?  Not very good, if you ask me.

Don’t get me wrong!  Morrison albums of the late sixties and seventies – Astral Weeks, Moondance, Tupelo Honey, Saint Dominic’s Preview – are stone cold classics.  It’s Too Late to Stop Now is among the finest live albums ever recorded.  Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” is my wife’s very favorite song ever!

I’m a Van fan, but his public statements about the United Kingdom’s Coronavirus restrictions have probably killed his chances of winning an Oscar. If younger members of the Academy know Morrison at all, it is likely as a conspiracy crank who is now recording with equally obnoxious anti-vaxxer Eric Clapton. I just can’t see Academy voters giving Morrison a platform to air his views on social distancing and lockdowns. If they did, it would produce the kinds of news clips and headlines that the Academy would like to avoid. Just imagine the public response to an acceptance speech in which the boos from the crowd rain down on the winner. I imagine that a lot of folks in the music branch just can’t bring themselves to vote for Morrison in the current political landscape. And, even as a lifelong fan, I can’t really blame them.

The third nominee for Best Original Song is “Be Alive” by DIXSON and Beyoncé Knowles Carter.  The song appears in the end credits of King Richard, the biopic about Richard Williams, the father of tennis phenoms Serena and Venus. The tone of the music and lyrics succeed in doing something the film itself struggles to do, namely give voice to the two women who end up rewriting the record books of professional tennis.

In contrast, King Richard casts Williams the elder as a Svengali figure shepherding his young prodigies into the world of big-time sports. He acts as the girls’ agent, manager, coach, and protector, shielding Serena and Venus from the sorts of predations that characterize an industry with a bad reputation for chewing up and spitting out young talent. The lyrics of “Be Alive” speak to the family’s sense of fierce independence and Williams’ own “bootstrap” mentality.  This is evident in couplets like:

Couldn’t wipe this black off if I tried

That’s why I lift my head with pride

Later, Beyoncé sings the praises of sisterhood, a theme that can be heard in some of her biggest hits, such as “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” or “Independent Women Part I,” the latter recorded as a member of Destiny’s Child.

With its steady marching tempo borrowed from the Doors’ “Five to One” and Beyoncé’s soaring vocals, “Be Alive” bespeaks a mood of strength and defiance. Yet, it isn’t as well placed as some of the other songs in the category and, unlike many of Beyoncé’s popular records, it also isn’t the kind of earworm that lights up record charts. “Be Alive” peaked at #40 in Billboard’s Hot 100, likely a disappointment considering how well King Richard has performed in other audience metrics.

Come Sunday, I suspect that Beyoncé will likely go home empty handed.  Like Diane Warren, she’ll need to console herself with the mantra “It’s nice to be nominated” and the many other Grammys, ASCAP, Billboard, BET, MTV, and American Music Awards that line her trophy case.

 

The Young Bloods

The final two nominees had big years in the world of entertainment in 2021. An Oscar would put a capper on a period of creative ferment that’s the envy of most singers and songwriters. Yet, for these two performers, it just seems like another day at the office.

Lin-Manuel Miranda received his second Oscar nomination for “Dos Oruguitas,” one of several songs he wrote for the Disney animated musical Encanto. The song is performed by Columbian singer Sebastián Yatra and appears in a flashback that dramatizes Abuela Alma’s tragic backstory. As a young woman, Alma, her husband Pedro, and their triplets attempt to escape their village after war breaks out. During their journey, they are beset by armed horsemen. The refugees scatter, but Pedro is killed when he halts the charging caballeros, presumably to ask for mercy for himself and his family. A candle Alma is holding protects the rest of the group, and its magical properties transform their future home into the “Casita,” a fantastic space where its denizens are revealed to have supernatural abilities and the house has a mind of its own.

  

  

The sequence itself is reminiscent of similar moments from films made by Disney’s friendly rival, Pixar. The montage that encapsulates an entire life in a couple of minutes of screen time recalls the opening of Up (2008) which depicts the long, happy marriage of Carl and Ellie until her illness and untimely death. The song that accompanies a flashback explaining the source of a character’s trauma and grief is also seen in Toy Story 2. Cowgirl Jessie relates how she once was her owner Emily’s favorite doll, but ends up forgotten and left behind when Emily grows up. This is all set to the strains of Sarah McLachlan’s “When She Loved Me.” The montage from Encanto nicely fuses together both these narrative devices but gives them a Latin pop spin.

Like “Somehow You Do,” “Dos Oruguitas” begins quietly with a brief introduction played on an acoustic guitar. The slight syncopation of the guitar figure, though, gives it a bit of Hispanic flair.  As Yatra’s voice enters, the song’s chord structure follows a chromatically descending bass line, a device that heightens the harmonic tension until it circles back to the tonic. The tune pauses briefly as Abuela confesses her guilt for forgetting what the purpose of the magic was for.  Mirabel reassures her that the Madrigal family’s entire livelihood is due to the earlier sacrifices the Abuela made and the suffering she endured.  When they embrace, “Dos Oruguitas” kicks back in with a slightly faster tempo and with fuller orchestration that includes strings, percussion, a chorus, and a harp. With the rift between Alma and Mirabel healed, the Madrigals band together to rebuild the “Casita.” The harmony created by the restored family bonds allows it to regain its sentient properties.

As an Oscar nominee, “Dos Oruguitas” has a lot going for it. It accompanies a very emotional scene of intergenerational reconciliation. It is a featured track on the Encanto soundtrack, which has spent the past nine weeks atop Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. And Lin-Manuel Miranda is on a roll having served as the director of Tick, Tick…Boom!, the musical biopic of Rent composer Jonathan Larson, and as the producer of In the Heights, the screen adaptation of Miranda’s own hit Broadway play.

Perhaps the only thing working against it is the fact that it’s been overshadowed by another song from Encanto. “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is a certified pop culture sensation, spending five weeks as the #1 song on Billboard’s Hot 100, accumulating more than 300 million views on Vevo, and featured in 21 different languages on Instagram. Did Disney submit the wrong song for nomination? Maybe, but “Dos Oruguitas” still might been benefit from the reflected glory of its more popular sibling. This and the fact that Encanto is up for some other major awards have kept Miranda among the frontrunners.

The last nominee is the title song from the most recent entry in the venerable James Bond series, No Time to Die. The tune is performed by Billie Eilish and written by Eilish and her frequent songwriting partner, brother Finneas. Like Miranda, 2021 has been a good year for Eilish. Her new album Happier Than Ever topped the charts in 26 countries across the globe, including the US.  It also earned two Grammy awards and landed on several year-end “best of” lists. In addition to her music, Eilish also appeared in two films: a concert film featuring songs from Happier Than Ever and a “behind the scenes” documentary distributed by Neon and Apple TV+ called Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry.

In some respects, Eilish seems like an exemplary contributor to the amazing catalog of songs written for the Bond canon. She is an immensely popular artist. She is also someone who could update the template for the series by adding emo, dream-pop, and electro-pop touches to the usual Bond formula.

In other respects, though, Eilish represents something of a departure from previous Bond songstresses. When one thinks of iconic Bond songs, one thinks of tunes like “Goldfinger,” “Diamonds Are Forever,” “Licence to Kill,” “Goldeneye,” “The World is Not Enough,” “Skyfall,” and “Another Way to Die.”  What do these songs all have in common? They are all sung by women with big voices, belters like Gladys Knight, Tina Turner, Adele, Alicia Keys, and the two Shirleys: Bassey and Manson. In contrast, Eilish is known for a much softer style of singing: hushed, sensitive, and intimate. That seems fitting for a performer whose best-known album was inspired by lucid dreaming and night terrors. Yet it seems less well-suited for an almost mythic film character defined by his swagger, toughness, and even a streak of cruelty.

Yet, if there was moment to rethink the traits of the typical Bond song, this was certainly it.  In retrospect, the selection of Eilish was a masterstroke by the Bond brain trust led by Barbara Broccoli, the current head of Eon Productions. As the last film to feature Daniel Craig as James Bond, No Time to Die not only caps off his five-film arc, but also serves as a reflexive meditation on the series as a whole. At one level, the explicit meaning of No Time to Die is both simple and banal: everyone dies. Yet, by making references to several earlier films in the series, the accumulated weight of intertextual resonances invests the many deaths that occur in No Time to Die with an unusual sense of depth and gravity.

No Time to Die begins with a scene where Bond visits the tomb of Vesper Lynd, the fellow agent featured in Casino Royale who helps Bond defeat the evil Le Chiffre. Lynd and Bond fall in love, but she proves to be a double agent working for a rival operative. At film’s end, Lynd sacrifices herself when she drowns in a locked elevator car that has submerged.

M then reveals that she was an unwilling accomplice, a victim of blackmail after her previous boyfriend was abducted and threatened.

Bond’s pilgrimage to Lynd’s grave presages several additional deaths in the film. Bond’s best friend, CIA Agent Felix Leiter, and his mortal enemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, are killed in separate incidents. Even Bond himself perishes in the climax of No Time to Die. He sacrifices himself to foil a scheme by Lyutsifer Safin to unleash a bioweapon upon the world that is transmitted by touch and kills its victims based upon their DNA. After a missile strike is launched against Safin’s compound, Bond stays behind to assure that the silo’s blast-proof doors stay open. Bond’s gesture that not only saves the world but allows his current paramour, Madeleine Swann, and the young daughter he never knew he had, to safely escape the island.

Given how much of No Time to Die is pervaded by a sense of grief and sorrow, the decision to include a title song reflective of the film’s solemnity and melancholy makes perfect sense. Like some of the other nominees, Eilish’s tune begins slowly and quietly with a piano plunking out a repeated four note motif accompanied by strings and low brass. Eilish intones the first lyric, “I should have known” in a sung whisper. The serpentine melody unwinds through the verse and chorus, eventually taking Eilish into the upper range of her soprano on the lines:

Fool me once, fool me twice

Are you death or paradise?

You’ll never see me cry

There’s just no time to die

Just as the chorus ends, a thunderous bass chord enters, and the opening four note motif returns. The song continues to build, and more instruments are added as the song reaches its second chorus. Our four-note motif returns once more, but this time played in full orchestral splendor by the strings and the full brass section. The musical bombast ultimately fulfills the remit of other classic Bond songs. Eilish even follows suit by loudly belting out the chorus, revealing a power and huskiness to her voice that most of her fans probably hadn’t heard before.

“No Time to Die” finishes with a coda that returns to the sparse arrangement of the tune heard at the start. Eilish also goes back to the shivery murmur that is her stock in trade for one last iteration of the chorus’ last two lines.

No Time to Die larger themes of love, death, grief, and martyrdom presented a special challenge. Billie and Finneas rise to it beautifully. Moreover, the Eilishes also cleverly incorporate musical elements that evoke the harmonies and tonalities of John Barry’s best-known scores in the series. The four-note motif that serves as a spine for the song sounds like it could have easily been drawn from From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, or Thunderball. They also conclude the song with an electric guitar strumming an EmMaj9 chord, the so-called spy chord that Vic Flick plays at the end of the famous James Bond theme that started it all.

Does this mean that “No Time to Die” is the odds-on favorite to win? Perhaps, but it also seems to be overshadowed by another song, much as “Dos Oruguitas” was. In this case, the song was written for a completely different Bond film and mostly functions as an Easter Egg for die-hard fans of the series.  It is “We Have All the Time in the World,” which was written by John Barry and Hal David and performed by Louis Armstrong over the end credits of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1968). Notably, the song appears just after Bond’s new bride, Tracy, has been killed in a drive-by shooting by Blofeld and his assistant, Irma Bunt. It is yet another evocation of death in No Time to Die with Tracy, like Vesper Lynd, implicitly included in the film’s mounting body count. Notably Hans Zimmer’s score for No Time to Die incorporates the melody to “We Have All the Time in the World” in three of the cues he wrote for the film. Indeed, long-time fans like me might well recognize the older Bond song in Zimmer’s score much more readily than the new one specifically written for it.

 

Prediction for Best Original Song

An Oscar would confer EGOT status on Lin-Manuel Miranda, a distinction held by just a handful of other entertainment luminaries. In fact, because Miranda also won a Pulitzer Prize for Hamilton and a MacArthur Genius Award, an Oscar would place him in entirely unique category. Say hello to the MacPEGOT.

Yet, although an award for “Dos Oruguitas” would make history, recent Oscar ceremonies have favored Bond songs. Adele won for “Skyfall” in 2013. Sam Smith repeated the feat with “Writing’s on the Wall” in 2016. “No Time to Die” also has already won a Grammy, a Golden Globe, and more than a dozen awards from prominent critics’ societies. Eilish is also a newly minted pop star, whose personal story is the kind of underdog narrative that Oscar voters seem to like.

If you are looking for a dark horse in the field, you might consider “Be Alive.” (Although when would you ever consider Beyoncé a dark horse for anything?) But I am sticking with the favorite.  On Sunday, I expect Eilish to win.  It is the clubhouse leader in terms of the betting markets and also my personal favorite among the field.

 

An ode to the new cleffer

One of the first things you might notice about this year’s slate of nominees for Best Original Score is the relative absence of the “usual suspects” in the music branch, such as Thomas Newman, Alexandre Desplat, or John Williams. Between them, these three composers have received a total of 78 nominations. Admittedly, only one of the five nominees this year – Germaine Franco – is a first timer. However, aside from Hans Zimmer’s twelve previous nominations, none of the other composers has received more than four.

Franco’s nomination is significant for other reasons. In February, she became the sixth woman nominated for Best Original Score and the first Latina. The field has a decided international flair with nominees from Britain, Germany, and Spain joining two Americans.

Of the five nominees, Alberto Iglesias’ music for Parallel Mothers (above and at bottom) comes closest to the style of a classical score. Yet it also presents a slight departure from those norms in its use of a chamber orchestra with most cues arranged for strings, piano, and the occasional wind instrument. Some feature the strident bowing style associated with Bernard Herrmann’s famous score for Psycho (1960). Others create lush combinations of strings and solo piano, an approach reminiscent of Frank Skinner’s music for older Universal melodramas like All That Heaven Allows (1956).

If that sounds a bit odd, it shouldn’t. Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk have been prominent influences on Pedro Almodovar’s cinema over the years. Parallel Mothers is the thirteenth film that Iglesias has scored for the great Spanish auteur. The composer admits that Almodovar’s films are always rooted in melodrama. But Parallel Mothers also had the generic trappings of a thriller, and his music strived to infuse scenes of psychological intimacy such that they crackled “with energy and light.” Iglesias also sought to accentuate the protagonists’ intertwined lives at a macro-level, using parallel musical structures to underscore how Ana enters and exits Janis’ life at several points in the film.

Iglesias is a four-time nominee and his score for Parallel Mothers is among his best. But I fear this is not his year. Parallel Mothers is among the biggest longshots in the Oscar betting markets not only for Iglesias in the Best Score category but also for Penelope Cruz as Best Actress. Moreover, the fact that Spain snubbed Parallel Mothers when submitting its nominee for Best International Feature Film also doesn’t bode well. Iglesias is once again a very deserving nominee whose work is likely to be overlooked in a highly competitive field.

 

Stretching the classical style: Incorporating novel idioms

 

Nicholas Britell earned his third Oscar nomination for Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay’s acrid satire of contemporary politics and media. The film’s dark humor and its apocalyptic conclusion undoubtedly posed a conceptual challenge for Britell. How do you preserve the comedic qualities of the story while still respecting the existential crisis that hints at larger issues around climate change, COVID, and the increasing distrust of science and medicine? As Britell acknowledges, he was “unprepared for the wild ride” that viewers experience over the course of the film.  Britell’s solution? A hyperbolic paean to science, a smattering of wacky electronic sounds, some rollicking big band jazz, and garage-band style Farfisa organ.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Britell notes that two cues were especially important in articulating the overall concept for the score.  Even before production had wrapped, Britell created a demo cue entitled “Overture to Logic and Knowledge” that McKay played on set to enable the cast to get in the right frame of mind.

The piece unfolds as a canon performed on a piano that’s been recorded with heavy reverb. After the statement of the initial theme, Britell interweaves additional voices in contrapuntal harmony, approximating the sort of mathematical precision one associates with Bach fugues. Afterward, Britell then tried to suss out what the opposite of that compositional style might be, eventually landing on big band jazz. The idiom is evident in the film’s main title, which features walking bass, a simple brass and bass saxophone riff, and a soaring trumpet obligato. Another cue – “It’s a Strange Glorious World” – reprises that big band style, yet further estranges the viewer from the serious global crisis dramatized in Don’t Look Up with the use of banjo and toy piano for instrumental color.

Britell saves his most savage musical satire for a theme written for Peter Isherwell, the billionaire tech genius played by Mark Rylance.

The composer arranges the theme for celestas, toy pianos, Farfisa organ, and bass synthesizers. These instrumental colors suggest Isherwell’s childlike faith that new technology can solve all of humankind’s biggest problems. Of course, Isherwell exudes this relentless optimism to mask his real intentions. Isherwell proposes a foolhardy mission to try and capture the streaking comet rather than deflecting or destroying it. He does so to feed his corporate greed as the comet possesses rare minerals that Isherwell hopes to harvest for use in his production of microchips.

Britell’s score displays incredible musical sophistication even as it is asked to underscore scenes that occasionally seem silly or in which the satire seems all too crude.  That being said, I have some doubts that it will win for Best Original Score. This is not to gainsay Britell’s extraordinary ingenuity in devising his music. Rather, it is just the brute reality that other films have better odds in what seems to be a close race.

Germaine Franco’s music for Encanto also pushes the bounds of the classical score. In this case, though, it does so by incorporating various styles of Latin pop music rather than using big band jazz. To be sure, there was a strain of this type of composition in earlier eras, Think, for example, of the music written by Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle, and Quincy Jones for films of the 1960s. That music, though, reflected the predominant Latin pop styles of the period, which included congas, rhumbas, cha-chas, sambas, and bossa novas.

In contrast, Franco drew upon a different repertoire of Latin rhythms to fashion her score for Encanto, including some folk music styles specific to the film’s Colombian setting. These not only include more familiar idioms like salsa, but also more modern developments like reggaeton. The latter is a style that originated in Panama in the 1990s and mixes hip-hop beats with Jamaican riddims. It rapidly spread through Spanish-speaking countries in the Caribbean.

In Encanto, reggaeton can be heard in Luisa Madrigal’s big number, “Surface Pressure.” The song, of course, was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Franco then incorporated the style into certain cues to ensure a strong sense of unity between the mood and vibe of the songs and those of the score.

Other cues, however, are written in folk styles native to Colombia with Franco once again taking her cues from the rhythms of Miranda’s songs. Encanto’s opener, “The Family Madrigal,” is an up-tempo vallenato song played in standard 2/4 meter. It features marimba, three-button accordion, and guachara, a Colombian percussion instrument played by rubbing a fork over a wooden, ribbed stick. Mirabel’s “I want” song, “Waiting on a Miracle,” uses bambuco rhythms. It unfolds in a fast triple meter characteristic of the idiom. As the only song featuring this rhythm, Miranda used it to further underline how Mirabel feels separated from her family due to her lack of a special gift for magic.

Perhaps Franco’s most important gesture, though, was using cumbia rhythms to underscore Mirabel’s movement. Cumbia is popular style throughout South America but has its origins among enslaved African populations on the coasts of Colombia and different Caribbean nations. It uses a clave rhythm common in Afro-Cuban music. As the style spread throughout Colombia in the early 1900s, musicians incorporated indigenous drums and wind instruments, including tambora, llamador, and gaitas. As Franco has noted in interviews, she uses the cumbia to accompany Mirabel’s first entrance into the “Casita.” From that point on, according to Franco, “The rhythm of the cumbia becomes the forward motion of her trying to find a solution to the problem.”

I suspect Franco’s fellow composers in the music branch are as impressed as I am by her attention to details of rhythm and orchestration. To get the precise tone color needed for some of these Latin pop and folk styles, Franco had a special marimba native to the Choco rainforest region of Colombia disassembled and shipped to her in parts. After it was put back together, Franco played the marimba herself, two mallets in each hand.

Encanto isn’t the favorite to take home the prize for Original Score. But if you’re looking for a potential surprise on Sunday night, Franco seems to be in the best position to pull an upset.

 

Rock of the Westies

Many pop music fans know Jonny Greenwood from his work as a songwriter and lead guitarist in the British rock band, Radiohead. Greenwood, though, has also established a considerable reputation as a film composer. He is perhaps best known for his work with director Paul Thomas Anderson, who has collaborated with Greenwood on his past five projects. Beginning with There Will Be Blood (2007), Greenwood went on to score The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014), Phantom Thread (2018), and Licorice Pizza (2021).

In February, Greenwood earned his second Oscar nomination for Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. Much like the rest of the film, Greenwood’s score works against many of the conventions of the classic Hollywood Western. Many studio-era oaters developed their scores around orchestrated versions of tunes in the cowboy songbook or around Coplandesque rhythms and harmonies. Both these approaches strived to evoke the majesty of the films’ visuals, which often featured mountain vistas, endless prairies, and sunlit horizons.

Instead of looking to the “sweeping strings” style used in older Westerns, Greenwood was inspired by the atonal brass music that was used in old Star Trek episodes to underscore the exploration of unknown planets. When Peter ventures into the mountains and discovers a dead cow, Greenwood accompanies these scenes with a dissonant French horn duet to highlight the strange and forbidding quality this has on the impressionable teenager.

Similarly, instead of a big string sound, Greenwood opted for smaller ensembles, occasionally writing things for six cellos or four violas. Greenwood also plucked strings of a cello as a correlate for Phil’s onscreen banjo playing. Here again, the goal was to create a tone color that seemed just slightly off, emphasizing microtonal inflections to create a sound that was somber yet sinister.

Phil’s banjo playing also furnishes one of the most memorable scenes in The Power of the Dog. Peter’s mother, Rose, initially seems ill at ease after coming to live with George and Phil on the brothers’ ranch. At one point, she seats herself at the piano and proceeds to struggle through a piano reduction of Johann Strauss Sr.’s “Radetzky March.” Campion then cuts to Phil sitting in his bedroom offscreen. Phil then picks up the melody of the Strauss piece on his banjo, playing it almost effortlessly and improvising his own coda. In a test of wills, Phil’s virtuosity humiliates Rose, who increasingly turns to alcohol to soothe her emotional wounds.

 

Because of this scene, Greenwood used a detuned mechanical piano as a musical timbre associated with Rose.

To produce this effect, Greenwood used computer software to create the sound of a piano roll for his pianola. Then, as the music was played back, Greenwood used a tuning wrench to slightly alter the pitches to create a sound akin to the honkytonk pianos scene in the saloons of older Westerns. For Greenwood, the sound proved perfect for Rose’s character arc. As he states in an interview for Variety, “Not only is her story wrapped up in the instrument, but it was also a good texture for her gradual mental unraveling. I recorded hours of this stuff – poor Jane (Campion) had to hear quite a lot of it.”

Greenwood’s modernist take on the typical Western score makes him one of the top contenders in this year’s Oscars. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Greenwood wrote music for two other nominated films: Licorice Pizza and Pablo Larraín’s Princess Diana biopic, Spencer. The betting markets have Greenwood as a longshot. However, since The Power of the Dog leads the field with a dozen nominations in all, Greenwood could prevail in the event of a Dog sweep.

 

Today’s sounds for tomorrow’s people

 The last nominee for Original Score is the current favorite. Hans Zimmer earned his thirteenth Oscar nomination for Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s big budget adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science-fiction novel. As Zimmer notes in a New York Times profile, he self-consciously rejected the musical style associated with the Star Wars series and its many imitators. Those scores looked to the past for inspiration, finding it in Gustav Holst, Igor Stravinsky, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and even Benny Goodman. Instead, Zimmer set himself an almost impossible task, trying to create sounds that no one had ever heard before.

The result is a score that Darryn King calls “one of Zimmer’s most unorthodox and most provocative.” The composer reports that he spent days contriving new sounds, sometimes commissioning the construction of new instruments or using conventional instruments in extremely unusual ways to get the effect he desired. Although synthesizers keep the score rooted in Zimmer’s pop music past, he combines these with several unusual sonorities that include Irish whistles, Indian bamboo flutes, and metallic scraping noises.

Many of these instrumental choices are keyed to aspects of Dune’s intergalactic setting. The rumble of distorted electric guitars evokes the seismic shifts occurring beneath the desert sands on the planet’s surface. Zimmer even used some of the environmental details to communicate what he wanted from the musicians performing on the soundtrack. Slide guitarist David Fleming reports that Zimmer told him for one cue, “This needs to sound like sand.”

Zimmer performed similar wonders in his use of other instruments. For the scene where the House of Atreides arrives on Arrakis, Zimmer recorded thirty bagpipes playing in a Scottish church. The added reverberance raised the volume of the ensemble to ear-splitting levels of 130 decibels. The highland players needed to wear earplugs to avoiding damaging their hearing. But Zimmer got the sound he wanted, the musical equivalent of a blaring air raid siren.

Zimmer’s desire to find new sounds not only altered the usual timbres of instruments but also of the voice as well. For Dune, Zimmer engaged the services of music therapist and singer Loire Cotler. To create the qualities Zimmer was seeking, Cotler drew on several non-Western singing styles. Her syncretic method combined Jewish niggun, South Indian vocal percussion, Celtic lamentation, and Tuvan throat-singing. The end result was a hybridized style that sounded wholly unique: a war cry expressed as though it were an ancient antecedent of Esperanto. Cotler tried to find a name for the new vocal technique, ultimately settling for the person responsible; she called it the “Hans Zimmer.”

Perhaps Zimmer’s most audacious gesture involved hiring winds player Pedro Eustache to build new instruments from scratch. Eustache created a 21-foot horn, a sort of modern version of the old animal horns fashioned into shofars and zinks during the Middle Ages. He also produced a contrabass version of the duduk, which King described as a “supersize version of the ancient Armenian woodwind instrument.”

What does it all add up to? A score that hits all the right notes in transposing Herbert’s imposing epic to the big screen. Zimmer’s music is at times quietly menacing, somber and pensive at other moments, and brooding but anthemic for Dune’s big action scenes. Zimmer’s score for Dune does not depict the kind of triumphalism found in Star Wars or other space operas. Rather, it opts to capture the elements of dark mysticism and doleful psychedelia that made Herbert’s novel a literary head trip in the 1960s. To be sure, Zimmer’s music doesn’t concoct earworms to evoke the sandworms. Yet it succeeds admirably where others have failed nobly. (If you think this is easy, just watch and listen to David Lynch’s misbegotten adaptation from 1984.)

 

Prediction

One could easily make the case for Germaine Franco to win for Encanto. The score and the album have dominated the popular music scene ever since the film was released in late November. Yet Dune stands a good chance at claiming several other craft awards, such as those for Sound and Production Design, which bodes well for Zimmer’s chances on Sunday.

In the world of film music today, the Burgomeister of Bleeding Fingers Music casts a shadow over the field as large as any of the luminaries who preceded him like Ennio Morricone, Jerry Goldsmith, or Dimitri Tiomkin. When I contemplate the sheer number of innovations Zimmer made in the music he composed for Dune, I can’t bring myself to bet against him. I think Hans takes home the Oscar on Sunday. He’ll walk away with another hunk of metal to scrape for the Dune sequel.


Once again, I want to give a shout-out to Jon Burlingame for his excellent coverage of Hollywood and international film music for Variety.  As a subscriber, I always enjoy reading his work for the venerable trade journal, not just during awards season but year-round.

The Diane Warren interview with USA Today that I referenced can be found here. Additional interviews with Deadline and Gold Derby are found here and here.

Interviews with Lin-Manuel Miranda discussing the songs he wrote for Encanto can be found here , here, and here.

Vulture published a nice piece on the process of writing the title song for No Time to Die, which can be found here.

Alberto Iglesias discusses with work with director Pedro Almodovar here .

Nicholas Britell talks about his work Don’t Look Up with Indiewire and Variety here and here . One can find several interviews with Germaine Franco about her process on creating the score for Encanto. A sample can be found here, here, here, and here.   A movie score suite featuring Franco’s themes for Encanto can be found here.

Jonny Greenwood talks with Variety about his collaboration with Jane Campion here and here.

The indie-music website provides an interesting review of Greenwood’s soundtrack for The Power of the Dog here.

Finally, Darryn King’s superb overview of Hans Zimmer’s score for Dune can be found here.

Parallel Mothers

David Bordwell
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