At one point in my errant school career I was receiving so many lines as punishment (“The rules of Latin grammar are to be approached with diligence, and ignored at one’s peril”, or “I must not flick paper pellets at my fellow pupils”) that my mother summoned my form teacher and took him to task:
“You seem to have lost control of my son. I have not.”
“And why do you set him all these lines to write? I cannot think of an undertaking of less merit that wastes so much time to absolutely no purpose.”
“That’s the point….”
“Well it seems a singularly useless one. Why, since he is dedicating so much time to making up for his errant ways, don’t you give him something useful to do?”
“What would you suggest?” inquired Mr. Gapper, with the mildly condescending tone that teachers sometimes use when addressing recalcitrant and demanding parents.
My mother, however, was now so wrapped up in her theme that she was oblivious.
“Have him learn something by heart. Like poetry for example.”
“And, since he is clearly a repeat offender, why don’t you pick something long, so that you don’t have to keep on coming up with new suggestions. How about The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? That’ll keep him busy. It’s in rhyme, so it shouldn’t be too difficult for him to remember. And maybe he will pay heed to the moral of the tale”, at which she fixed me, like the Mariner does the Wedding Guest, with a glittering eye.
Thus having settled the matter of how I should be disciplined, she swept imperiously away. Mr. Gapper let out a deep sigh of relief. Or was it anguish? Or a bit of both. My mother could have that effect on teachers (as well as bankers, accountants, and doctors). I think he felt a little sorry for me.
The upshot to this change in my disciplinary regime was that by the age of 13 I knew most of Coleridge’s 625-line poem by heart. And, while I enjoyed quite a sense of pride at this accomplishment, I had also discovered that learning poetry was much harder work than writing lines, and my behaviour in class had improved considerably as a result.
Little did I know that this unusual addition to my school resumé would one day prompt one of the most enjoyable creative experiences of my career in radio. In 1988 I was working as a producer at WBUR-FM in Boston, one of the flagship stations in the NPR system of member stations. My work largely consisted of writing and producing a range of music programming for both local and national broadcast, but I had also started directing, producing and writing radio dramas. These had, surprisingly, turned out to be very successful in terms of station carriage and, more importantly, attracting corporate underwriting. All this was very unexpected, because the popular wisdom in America was that radio drama was dead. Well, in our own small way, we were proving them wrong.
The reason any of this was happening at all was due to the support and vision of our station manager, Jane Christo. A feisty, no-nonsense lady from Maine, she had taken WBUR from being an outlier in the NPR universe to the hottest station in the system, with a kick-ass news department and a little show called Car Talk that was just starting to make an impression on the national airwaves. One day Jane summoned me to her office and said: “We need a special for Easter. Can’t be religious, but something with some sort of Easter theme might work. Any ideas?” I thought for a moment, and suddenly the literary punishment of my errant schooldays came to mind.
“What about The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? It’s got a spiritual message of the importance of loving all things great and small, and it’s classy.”
Jane, who always had a keen sense of the marketplace, hesitated: “Isn’t that a little too rarefied? I mean, a long poem written over two hundred years ago?”
“Don’t worry, Jane. I’ll make it sexy.”
‘Sexy’ was one of Jane’s trigger words. If you said a program would be sexy you were assured of her full attention.
“Okay. Surprise me, Mark.”
As I left her office I had just enough good sense to realize I had made a somewhat rash promise. I had proposed the following. Recording an epic poem written in rhyme about a salty old sea dog shooting an albatross, thereby bringing down a curse upon his ship and fellow sailors that ends up killing everyone except him; he goes on a voyage into purgatory with attendant supernatural terrors, where he learns to respect the value of mercy and respect for all his fellow creatures; nevertheless he has to wander the earth for the rest of his life to tell his tale to random strangers, to warn them not to go around shooting albatrosses etc.
And I was going to make this sexy? What was I thinking?
What indeed! Well, the first thing I decided was I was not going to do a straightforward reading of the poem. No matter how good the actors were (and I had worn out an old record of Richard Burton reading the poem which was, needless to say, the nonpareil), the result of recording it in this fashion was unlikely to be described as sexy. Even if Richard Burton had been available.
No, this had to be a truly radiophonic version of the poem, something which used sound creatively to bring Coleridge’s fantastical journey to life.
I also decided this could not be a straightforward “words with sound effects” deal. That was the standard BBC Radio approach, and it would not do for this project. Funnily enough, the place where I had heard the most consistently interesting sound work growing up was on TV, on a little show called Doctor Who. Sounds and music suitable for a time and space travelling nomad in a police box were provided by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
This enterprising collective of composers and sound artists using a hodge-podge of synthesizers and electronics were the quaint British version of places like WDR-Cologne and, later, IRCAM at the Pompidou Center, where avant-garde composers like Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez were redefining music and how to use the recording studio.
The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was mostly doing the honors for daleks, cybermen and assorted denizens of the Doctor’s travels. Its work filtered into other areas of the BBC’s line-up too, and every so often I would hear a radio play that went into the more experimental zone as a result of featuring the Workshop‘s sound experimenters.
But at WBUR-Boston we had no such equivalent or elaborate electronic gizmos. People’s reaction to seeing the main studio and control room echoed that of Arthur Dent seeing the interior of a spaceship for the first time on The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “I was expecting gleaming control panels, flashing lights, computer screens…. Not old mattresses!” We didn’t even have a sound effects library. What we did have was a staff of incredibly creative engineers, all of whom engaged in a range of eclectic musical and recording gigs outside their regular jobs. I already had a hunch that one particular engineer was the right fit for the job. Rick Wolf moonlighted as a performance artist, and I had been impressed by his one-man show which incorporated very creative, often interactive, sound design. An idea was already forming about how I was going to approach the project, and I broached it to him. He got it right away, and revealed that he had a decent 8-track recording set-up at home, with some good basic outboard gear, in particular reverb and delay – essential items for what I had in mind.
Coleridge’s poem, although written in traditional rhyming verse, was, in fact, nothing more or less than a phantasmagorical trip. It was a hippie version of a morality tale, complete with acid visions, out-of-body experiences, spirit visitations and voices, natural cataclysms, and zombies. Remember, this was the same poet who had written “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree….” and its succeeding hallucinatory verses after tripping on opium, only to be awakened from his spell by the intrusive knock of a visitor. The spell broken, he couldn’t finish the poem.
What I had decided to do was to tap into the fantastical, hallucinatory aspect of the Mariner’s voyage via the language, and use the words themselves, as spoken, to generate a trippy sound world. We would record the poem as well as we could, then manipulate the recording, breaking down words and the voices speaking them into pure sound. This would then weave aural textures around the actors’ voices, reflecting the emotion, and supernatural elements, of the story. I would also add music, timed carefully to flow with the contours of the sound and the events of the story. There would be no sound effects per se beyond the bare minimum at the opening and close of the tale, when we are in the real world. Once we entered the fantastic realm, it would all be pure sound and music. By sampling the speech to create its own music track, as it were, the sound world, at its core, would have a pure, organic quality, all tied into the primacy of the actors’ voices and the words they were speaking. The language would, in effect, generate the “trip”.
I was, in part, inspired by what the director Stanley Kubrick had done in the Stargate sequence that leads into the final section of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Here, Kubrick needed to create a visual correlative for, and narrative of, travelling into another dimension of space and time, making contact with a higher intelligence. Through this contact, the astronaut hero (and, by implication, Mankind) would be taking an evolutionary step forward.
Working with his brilliant visual effects supervisor, Douglas Trumbull, Kubrick devised a slit scan-device in which light was broken down into a constantly morphing, travelling array of colors, shapes, and designs. Essentially they deconstructed light itself, as it passed from source via lens to the film’s emulsion — the building blocks of the filmed image. It was both the perfect method, and metaphor, for what was happening in the story.
When 2001 first played in cinemas in 1968 it rapidly became a favorite for audiences tripping on LSD, and was even promoted as “The Ultimate Trip”. Well, in its own time, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was similarly an exploration of different stages of consciousness and supernatural experience. Deconstructing and reconstructing the building blocks of the medium I was working in — language, voices and sound — seemed the perfect way to dramatize it for radio, just as deconstructing light had been the right path for Kubrick.
There was one significant challenge, though. We needed to find an actor who could not only handle the tricky task of speaking rhyming couplets in such a way that they would not become tedious, but also would have a voice one could believe as that of a grizzled sea-dog. It would also have to be rich enough to generate the kind of varied sound palette our approach demanded. Even if Richard Burton himself had walked into the studio I doubted he would have been right for the job. I needed the radio equivalent of a method actor, someone whose voice “lived” the part.
The whole enterprise could have foundered on this point, but by some miracle a friend of mine who was an actor and worked part-time at the station said he knew just the person for the job. And boy did he. One memorable afternoon, into the station walked Mr. Brian Way, a well-known member of the local acting scene, and the moment he opened his mouth I knew we had our Mariner. He fairly breathed the swells of the Atlantic, and his voice communicated several lifetimes’ worth of rich experience. I told him what I wanted: “You are the Mariner. You lived this story. I want you to tell this tale as if your life depended upon it. With every word you speak you relive this horrendous experience that you must repeat endlessly to prevent others from making the same mistake you did. Do not hold back. Relish every word, every syllable. The language is the music by which you take me into your memory, your suffering, and your vision of redemption.”
Brian’s eyes glittered with relish already.
For the role of the narrator and a few other incidental characters I turned to students and faculty who were at Boston University’s College of Communication. We had already worked together on a few other radio drama projects, and they leapt at the chance to do something so unusual. Amongst them were the Dean of the School, Ronald Goldman, who lent a splendidly resonant baritone to the proceedings, along with an ethereal whisper for one of the spirits that visit the Mariner’s dreams. His colleague, Leila Saad, was Egyptian, and her rich accent was perfect for the nightmarish figure of Life in Death who wins the Mariner’s soul in a game of dice. The cast was rounded out by Robert Reames as the Narrator and Payman K. as the Wedding-Guest, and other assorted roles.
The day of the recording arrived. From the moment we rolled tape Brian Way transfixed everyone in the studio. We hardly ever had to do second takes. The poetry was in his bones, and he rode the tricky rhythms of the couplet form effortlessly. Needless to say, the quality of his performance made everyone else bring their A-game.
Once Rick and I had edited together the spoken performances we repaired to his studio. We began the process of molding the recording with delay and reverb to create the fundamental, as it were, of the soundscape. As the voyage began the voices were untreated, but once the storm hit and the ship entered the frozen wastes we began to introduce our effects. After the Mariner has killed the albatross and the story enters its supernatural phase we began the process of carving loops and feedback out of the words.
It was akin to creating an orchestral score out of one instrument, harmonies and counterpoint working together, never against each other, to convey a consistent, unified aural argument.
Simultaneously I started to pick out music to accompany the journey. I had settled on two works.
First, Vaughan-Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica, which was based on the score he had written for the film Scott of the Antarctic. It was as if the music had been specifically composed for Coleridge’s poem, so perfectly did its moods, rhythms and textures reflect the Mariner’s ordeal. Second, selections from Bernard Herrmann’s score for the film Journey to the Center of the Earth, another musical depiction of an epic journey and fantastical visions, perfectly dovetailed with the Vaughan-Williams. For a scene where spirits discuss what the cursed Mariner’s fate should be, a piece Herrmann had composed to evoke a lost subterranean ocean, using organ and vibraphone, conjured the necessary otherworldly quality. In a few places I also added a little extra spice with electronic sounds and motifs of my own devising.
Whenever our spirits flagged as we assembled the tracks, we had only to listen to Coleridge’s words and Brian Way’s extraordinary performance to feel rejuvenated.
Finally, after completing the mix, Rick declared it time to listen to the thing properly, all the way through. We doused the lights, lit candles, lay on the floor and cranked the volume. We cracked open a bottle of wine. I’d like to think Rick lit up something stronger, though honestly I cannot remember whether he did or not. Certainly it was the kind of show that would gain extra dimensions through “filtered” listening. Using headphones in darkness is also highly recommended.
After the broadcast we had listeners calling and writing in to declare their love for the program. Teachers asked for copies to use in the classroom. It won a bunch of awards. Jane, my boss, delivered her verdict: “Sexy!”. The show was repeated for a number of years, on far more stations than you would expect for such a quirky, “old world” venture. A 200-year-old poem was a certifiable hit, and I quietly thanked my mother for her intervention in my disciplinary regime at school all those years ago. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner remains one of my favorite pieces of radio work. I hope you enjoy it too.
You can listen to the complete dramatization of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner here, with the accompanying drawings by Gustav Dore.
Or you can access it for streaming, or download, on my Soundcloud page.
Directed and Produced by Mark Ward for WBUR-FM and NPR Playhouse.
Engineering by Rick Wolff.
Starring BRIAN WAY as the Ancient Mariner, and ROBERT REAMES as the Narrator. Also starring PAYMAN K., RONALD GOLDMAN, and LEILA SAAD. Introduced by MARK SCHILLING and FRAN McQUADE.
You can listen to the full radiophonic dramatization of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner here —
or here —
(If the player fails to load, you can follow this link, from which you can also DOWNLOAD the program).
You can read about the making of this dramatization here.
The following are selected illustrations by Gustav Doré from the 1876 edition, with one illustration by Mervyn Peake.
Imagine you receive a letter through the mail telling you that someone you have had sex with has tested positive for HIV.
Except the letter doesn’t tell you who.
That’s exactly the situation Jack Everhart, the hero of Clinic E, finds himself in. What he does next may surprise you…..
You can now watch my award-winning short, Clinic E, on my Vimeo channel. The password is CLINICE.
Sadly, this darkly comic tale of how we tend to ignore common sense when sex is involved is even more relevant today than when it was made in the mid-90s. Endorsed by leading AIDS Healthcare organizations and foundations of the time, it was a sly take on the dangers of profligate behavior. Unfortunately, the power of denial is considerable, and if anything the film’s message is even more pertinent today.
Full cast and crew are at imdb.
iTunes and imdb both invite feedback, so do feel free to leave a rating or comment there — especially if it’s positive!
“Filmmaking is rarely glamorous. Being ankle deep in pig shit every day is the reality.”
“A film director has to have the sensitivity of a poet and the stamina of a construction worker. The trouble is that rather too many of us get it the wrong way around.”
“Francois Truffaut said that British Cinema was an oxymoron. (Like French Rock music.)”
“I think you have to be strong willed and swift of foot to survive in Hollywood. I always said we are guerrillas on bicycles stealing our art away from them.”
You can read my interview with Alan Parker talking about the career of fellow filmmaker and Oscar-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow here.
‘Tis the season of mysteries. And in the movie world one of many recurring mysteries is why so many film directors insist on shooting themselves in the foot, music-wise.
As in: wrong music, too much music, not enough music, music in the wrong places, and, in the most peculiar scenario of all, going to the trouble of hiring a great composer and not letting him (or her) do the job.
This comes to mind since I was recently sitting in on a film music class at UCLA, and under discussion was the issue of a director’s and composer’s intent. We looked at scenes with cues that had been shuffled to see how readily an audience picks up on music that was not originally intended for the images it played with. The answer is that film sends pretty strong signals as to what kind of music will work in any given scene, and an audience intuitively gets all of them. So mess with the natural order at your peril.
I once witnessed the phenomenon of a director shutting down his composer, and thereby unintentionally hobbling his film, during the sessions for An American Werewolf in London.
I was at university, incurring the wrath (or at least the healthy skepticism) of my professors by writing a thesis on the film music of Bernard Herrmann. This was not quite the done thing within a traditional academic syllabus, especially since I was attempting to examine the interrelationship between music and image in detail, in a truly cross-disciplinary way. I was certainly no expert in film theory; but I felt I knew enough to make the attempt. The thesis included a cue-by-cue analysis of Citizen Kane and Psycho, but I could not lay my hands on the scores for these films. Herrmann had passed away some years earlier (the night of completing the final mix for Taxi Driver), so I contacted his last producer, Christopher Palmer, in the hopes that he could help me find the material I needed.
At that time Christopher Palmer was the guy in film music, the only one who was writing about it seriously in the mainstream media, and helping to put together recording projects like the RCA Hollywood Classic Film Score Series and the Herrmann Phase 4 records, touchstones for how to present film music properly on LP. He was also working as an orchestrator and composer in his own right.
Back then, few people took film music seriously. Certainly not the music establishment, classical or pop. I was one of a growing number of avid film music fans whose obsession was beginning to ripple through popular culture owing to the chart topping success of John Williams’s scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters. Suddenly one was starting to see dedicated film music concerts taking place, and the RCA series of records had paved the way for new LP compilations. While Williams was the rock star of film music, Herrmann was considered the Old Master — albeit an entirely modernist one.
One memorable day, Christopher handed over bound photocopies of the autographed scores to Citizen Kane and Psycho.
“So, Mark”, Chris said, as my mouth fell open at the sight of Herrmann’s own handwriting on the scores, “Have you ever been to a film scoring session?”
“No,” I replied.
“Well, if you are going to write about film music you’d better come and see how it’s done. I’m producing a session for Elmer Bernstein in a couple of weeks. Come and sit in.”
It turned out the session was around the corner from where we lived, in the London village of Barnes, on the shores of the Thames. The annual Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race used to pass by the high street.
As I walked through the doors of Olympic Studios I had little idea of the roll call of legendary musicians in whose footsteps I was following. I quickly found out, since the equally legendary engineer for the sessions, Keith Grant, had also done the honors for the likes of the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, and King Crimson. And during breaks he liked to tell stories. Boy do I wish I had written them down.
Anyway, as Christopher Palmer settled in for the session I noticed a bearded gentleman sitting in the corner of the control room. He wasn’t saying much, at least not yet, but I quickly gleaned he was the director. On hearing his name I got pretty excited, because John Landis had made one of my favorite guilty movie pleasures at university: National Lampoon’s Animal House. Back then, this would screen regularly on a Friday night at 11 to a packed house of pale English students, eager to soak up the anarchies of American campus life, complete with John Belushi gross-outs and topless co-eds, as we munched on greasy chips out of newspaper, smothered in salt and vinegar.
As the session got under way Landis lived up to all my expectations of what a young, hot-shot American director would be like. He was heavily bearded and wore a baseball cap like Steven Spielberg, and was constantly, brashly conversational, full of banter, movie gossip and opinions.
Out on the floor of Studio One, Elmer Bernstein, the distinguished composer of such classics as The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Escape, who had also written the music for Animal House, was revving up his scratch orchestra, a selection of the top studio and orchestral musicians in London. Recording film music is a profoundly technical process, because everything has to time out perfectly. As I watched Bernstein, baton at the ready, scrutinize the screen with its specially prepared clips from the film (cued with dots and moving lines scatched into the film, known as punches and streamers) and repeatedly cue in his musicians perfectly, I marveled at the marriage of musicianship and mathematical precision by which he had composed his cues in meters that ran in tandem with set numbers of film frames. You were never aware of the technological underpinnings: the music flowed with the images as if it had been conjured with no need to perfectly match markers in the film’s action. It was just magically “right”. Never doubt the extraordinary craft and artistry it takes to sync your musical composition to a film, let alone come up with the melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, orchestration that work with the film’s action, its emotion, its sub-text – and do not distract.
Anyway, as the film unspooled it rapidly became clear that it was something quite unusual for a horror film. Two American students were backpacking around England. The tone was light and breezy. And then something odd happened.
Getting lost, they got caught out on the moors at night. There was a full moon. Suddenly they were attacked by a wild animal, and one of them was brutally, bloodily killed.
The hero, David (David Naughton) languished in hospital having his wounds tended to by Nurse Alex. Alex was played by the actress who had been the object of a generation of English schoolboys’ fantasies, Jenny Agutter. Naturally she was wearing a nurse’s uniform, at the sight of which swathes of english manhood were felled on the spot.
David started to have odd dreams, and in the cartoonish nightmare imagery of those dreams it was clear this was a film which was taking the usually predictable horror form and upending it with something fresh, fun, and still very scary.
Nurse Alex starts to take more of a personal interest in her charge, and when he is discharged she invites him home to stay with her. Pretty soon she is tending to more than his wounds.
Now we arrived at the scene which Landis had been proclaiming to the assembled control room was going to “blow the movie out of the water”: the first transformation scene, in which the hero gets fully in touch with his inner lupus. But an odd thing happened. As Bernstein lifted his arms to record the cue, Landis leaned into the mixing console microphone and pressed the talkback button.
“Er, Elmer, that’s fine, but we’re not gonna use it.”
Bernstein shot back: “You haven’t heard it yet.”
“Yeah, I know, but we talked about this. We’re gonna use Blue Moon.”
“Have you got the rights?”
At this point Landis’s equally bearded producer, George Folsey, Jr., chimed in: “We’re waiting to hear back.”
“What if they say no?” persisted Bernstein.
“They won’t”, said Landis, though it was clear from the look he exchanged with his producer that they might.
“Yeah, they might,” said Bernstein, who was as canny an old-hand in the music biz as you’ll ever meet. “Then what’ll you do? You need music here. You might like what I’ve got better”.
“Ok, Elmer,” Landis said, clearly not thinking this was possible.
Bernstein was determined. He raised his arms. Up went the bows. Silence. The film cued up.
The scene began, and so did the music. And both were something else.
The full moon rose. The hero, alone in the nurse’s flat, screamed, fell to the ground. And something started to happen, unlike anything I, or anyone else at the session, had seen on film before.
His clothes ripped, his muscles rippled, his skeleton and skin stretched. But it was all happening on-screen in real time. There were no dissolves as in the classic werewolf movies I had grown up with. A man was violently turning into a very large, rapacious werewolf indeed. It was brilliant.
The work of now legendary make-up designer Rick Baker, then relatively unknown, was extraordinary. This was the first time we saw animated prosthetics on camera, and they were combined with carefully animated visual effects to create a vivid illusion of metamorphosis. Bones expanded, fur grew, nails turned into claws, ears elongated, and eyes darkened as the beast within was unleashed.
In the final coup de théâtre the hero’s elongated wolvine jaw pushed forward, stretching the human face into a fanged canine muzzle. The newly birthed American Werewolf howled to the moon.
And with every extravagant metamorphosis on screen the music more than kept pace: it drove the transformation. It gave voice to our horror, and the character’s terror, at what was happening, at the same time as capturing all the grand beauty of the spectacle. As the sequence ended and the music smashed to its conclusion, the orchestra and control room erupted into applause. This is a rare thing. London session musicians have seen and heard it all. But it was clear that what we had just witnessed, music and image together, was a showstopper. The combination of groundbreaking visuals and barnstorming music was one for the ages. It would, in the words the director had spoken earlier in the session, “blow the movie out of the water”.
The orchestra and conductor/composer waited for the pronouncement from the control-room.
“It’s great, Elmer.” John Landis’s voice was authoritative. “But if I get Blue Moon I’m using it. Let’s move on.”
No one made a comment, but we all knew what we were thinking.
What are you thinking?
A year later, venturing into a cinema to see the completed film, I secretly prayed that the rights to Blue Moon had been denied, and that the world would see what I had seen and heard that memorable afternoon in Olympic Studios. As the film neared the transformation scene I braced myself. The hero pottered around Jenny Agutter’s flat, the moon rose and –
The unmistakeable tones of Sam Cooke rang through the theatre. As the hero submitted to his bodily eruptions I kept hoping John Landis had come to his senses and would segue into Bernstein’s apocalyptic cue. But no. I was left to intellectually appreciate the director’s ironical juxtaposition of music and image, rather than submit to the terror and awe-inspiring horror of a man becoming a beast, red in tooth and claw. The transformation, while still striking, was robbed of its ultimate animal ferocity. It became oddly prosaic, fully serving neither the story nor the audience. Since this was a film that, for all its jokiness, had at its core the tragedy of a man destroyed by his true nature, then playing down the moment when that nature emerged for all the world to see seemed an odd choice. Knowing as I did what the scene could have been with Bernstein’s cue, it was something worse than a missed opportunity. It was a regrettable example of a director remaining wedded to his original concept, rather than listening to what the work itself and his highly experienced collaborator were telling him.
In the end, the scene did not “blow the movie out of the water” — but it certainly blew.
FILM MUSIC AFICIONADOS AND COMPLETISTS, PLEASE SEE MY EXPANDED THOUGHTS ON THIS IN THE COMMENTS BOXES BELOW.
ADDENDUM (September 2019): As you will see from my comments below, a lively discussion took place on the site FSM (Film Score Monthly) after this article was published. We all agreed that the missing cue turned up as “Metamorphosis”, later re-recorded by Nic Raine and the Prague Philharmonic. An enterprising soul, Mr. von Kralingen, has now synced that cue with the original scene, more or less as it would have originally played — and here it is. Enjoy!
- Director John Landis attacks Hollywood studio system (theguardian.com)
I wouldn’t say it is the greatest movie ever made, but it is certainly one of the greatest moviegoing experiences you will ever have.
Audiences worldwide may have thrilled to the silent-movie charms of 2011’s Oscar-winner, The Artist, but Londoners are soon to have the chance to take the ultimate cinematic ride – and the ultimate trip into cinema’s haloed past. On November 30th the Royal Festival Hall plays host to a rare screening of 1927’s Napoleon, vu par Abel Gance in the most recent restoration by Oscar-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow. When this made its American début last year at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Los Angeles Times could merely exclaim, breathlessly: “Napoleon came. Napoleon was seen. Napoleon conquered.”
This was no mere hyperbole. I was there. Twice. And, even though I had been present at this restoration’s fabled first screening in London over thirty years ago, the screenings in Oakland’s Paramount Theater, a beautifully restored art-deco extravaganza, were in a class of their own. Just entering the lobby transported you into another world.
Then, as the film itself began, the 21st century receded, and for the next 5-1/2 hours one was was completely immersed in the world of the French Revolution, brought to life with a veracity, vigor and, conversely, modernity, that has yet to be matched. By the time the final triptych had unspooled my 15-year old daughter was rendered speechless with awe.
She made up for her uncharacteristic muteness by telling everyone during the following weeks she had seen the greatest film ever made. E-V-E-R.
And who amongst those who were there could argue with her? Napoleon is a complete one-off, a film sui generis. The apogee of the silent movie art. To see it under these optimal conditions is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event.
How could a modern, plugged-in teenager be so completely wowed by a nearly 90-year old silent picture?
For starters, the film operates on a level of visual innovation and spectacle that today’s movies are still catching up with. (Gance even did tests for shooting some of it in 3D). Then there are those obsessively detailed sets and costumes which give the film an incredibly authentic feel and texture. Scenes in Corsica were shot in Napoleon’s actual family home on the island.
The performances range from grand to intimate, with a sense of commitment that is riveting.
Then there’s Carl Davis’s score, performed by a live orchestra, which forms a visceral conduit into both the period and the emotions of the drama. (Comparing it to the insipid score by Carmine Coppola, the only music Americans had heard during previous road shows of the restoration in this country, provides an object lesson in good and bad film scoring.)
The audience in London, like that in Oakland, will be seeing the most complete version of the film in existence, a restoration that has occupied Brownlow for a lifetime, funded by the British Film Institute and Photoplay Productions. It will be projected at the correct speed (making movement more naturalistic), and is hand tinted. Accompanying it will be that same original score composed and conducted by Carl Davis.
Over a period of more than four decades, Davis and Brownlow, together with producing partners Patrick Stanbury and David Gill (who died in 1997), have done more than anyone to bring silent films back from the grave of decaying film libraries, where 73% of films made before the coming of sound have crumbled into dust. Through a plethora of documentaries and live presentations in grand theatres with symphony orchestras, classics like Greed and Ben-Hur, as well as lesser-known gems like The Wind and The Chess Player, have all left viewers agog at the forgotten accomplishments of filmmakers of the silent era.
Napoleon, though, is the one to beat: a film whose ambition to redefine the art-form is evident in every frame. Originally intended to be six films covering Bonaparte’s entire life, in the end Gance blew his entire budget on Part One.
By the time of its première at the Paris Opéra in 1927 the film had already being cut down by its nervous producers.
In the succeeding decades the film was scattered across archives, private collections, and flea markets around the world.
Gance himself never regained his full creative powers: a later, sound version of the film that incorporates some of the original footage has none of the original’s flair. By 1953, when the 15-year-old Kevin Brownlow, already an avid collector of silent films, screened fragments of a home-movie version in his makeshift home cinema, Gance and his film barely made the footnotes in movie histories. The story of Brownlow’s quest to restore the film, and Gance’s reputation, is one of those tales from the back rooms of film history that is as riveting as the film itself.
The film covers Napoleon’s childhood days at military school, the Revolution and his rise to power, his romance with Josephine, and climaxes with his leading the French army to liberate Italy. I was lucky enough to be present at the restoration’s first, now legendary screening, at the Empire Theater in Leicester Square, back in 1980.
It was the only venue with a screen wide enough to accommodate the 3-screen/3-projector finale, and an auditorium big enough for a 60-strong symphony orchestra. From the start you could tell you were watching something unique. The effect on the audience was no different from what Brownlow remembers when he first ran fragments of the film on his 9.5mm home projector as a teenager. “The camera did things that I didn’t think it could do, and it represented the cinema as I thought it ought to be, but had never seen an example of. It was beautifully, brilliantly staged. It looked like an 18th century newsreel. You couldn’t believe this had been shot in the 20s.”
When the first of many bravura editing sequences unspooled, the audience knew it was in for a rollercoaster. A snowball fight between two “armies” of young cadets, in which the young Napoleon demonstrates his aptitude for future military leadership by successfully charging and occupying the opposing camp, turned into a pyrotechnical workout for the camera as it was hurled, literally, into the action.
It was many years into his quest for lost footage before Brownlow first clapped eyes on this sequence. He was sitting in the archives of the French Cinémathèque, an organization which had already demonstrated its disdain for what it considered the hubristic efforts of an Englishman daring to restore a French classic. Left alone for a few moments with an unlabelled can of film, Brownlow examined the reel within against the light: “I couldn’t believe it! This snowball fight was like “Rosebud” [in Citizen Kane]. It was constantly talked about as a masterpiece of rapid cutting, but was never seen. And I happened to be very interested in rapid cutting. I thought it had been invented by Eisenstein. When [the archivist] Marie Epstein came back in she was quite upset that I had started looking in her absence, but she had a good heart and coaxed the film through the flatbed viewer, and I always regard that experience as one of the greatest moments of my life.
“It was the most astonishing piece of editing I had ever seen, and it was a perfect example of the avant-garde in the mainstream of French cinema. Gance tried to make the audience into active participants. You get punched on the nose, you fall over, and you run away.” (The editing throughout Napoleon is all the more extraordinary for the fact that it was done by hand, without the benefit of a flatbed or movieola; Gance would hold the film up to the light to figure out where to make his cuts).
Later on, during a dormitory pillow fight, Gance not only accelerates the tempo of his editing with cuts that last as little as a few frames, but also divides the screen into multiple segments, all with their own independent fast-cutting images.
This he considered the first use of what he called Polyvision, which in the final section of the film became three screens – pre-dating Cinerama by twenty-five years.
Abel Gance saw film as an immersive medium of poetry and passion, and his editing was as much about conjuring ideas as it was emotions. Brownlow: “In a scene in which Napoleon was escaping from Corsica in a dinghy, he gets caught in a storm and it intercuts with a riot in the Revolutionary Convention. Gance wanted to express Victor Hugo’s thought that to be a member of the Convention was like being a wave on the ocean, and the technical director built a pendulum hanging from the ceiling of the studio, to swing the camera over the extras. I remember Gance saying that the crowd reacted in their cringing very effectively, and you do get the feeling that you’re in the storm at sea, as well as in the storm of the Convention, and you can see a man drowning among his fellow members of the Convention.”
This sequence had a powerful effect on the English director Sir Alan Parker, who was then shooting the big-screen adaptation of Pink Floyd The Wall: “After seeing Napoleon I built a giant pendulum rig over a swimming pool at Pinewood Studios for a scene where Bob Geldof, with flailing arms, seems to be drowning in his own blood.”
Parker continues: “We also threw the camera around at any opportunity, influenced by Gance. A lot of the film was hand-held cameras. Gance taught us that all the usual rules could be broken to create cinematic energy, and a surreal, anarchic, in-your-face film like The Wall was a perfect vehicle.”
Here, from 1980, is a short film in which Kevin Brownlow talks about Gance and his many innovations, with extensive clips from Napoleon:
The great American film director King Vidor once said that music was responsible for half of a film’s emotion and effectiveness. Brownlow is quick to acknowledge that a huge part of the success of his restoration is owed to composer/conductor Carl Davis.
Davis, who was born in New York, is a true polymath, having grown up listening to and performing every kind of music, from jazz to ballet. His move to London in the early 1960s was prompted by the excitement of the arts scene there, and a desire to write music for drama. “There was a lot of classic theater, there was film and the standards of television were very, very high. What went on English TV was very ambitious, and still is.”
Davis met up with Brownlow and his then producing partner David Gill for a TV documentary series about the silent era, Hollywood (1980) which had grown out of Brownlow’s defining book on the subject, The Parade’s Gone By.
Over the course of thirteen one-hour programs Davis had supplied a huge range of music in a multiplicity of styles and orchestrations. In preparation he had spoken to numerous musicians of the silent era, and had integrated their techniques of matching borrowed music with original themes. When it was announced that Napoleon would be their first “live” presentation of a silent, he had just over three months to come up with five hours of music. There simply wasn’t the time for him to compose a completely original score.
Brownlow: “Carl came up with this fantastic idea, an idea of genius, which was to use composers that were alive when Napoleon was alive, which gave the film the most extraordinary authentic feeling, which it has anyway, but it enhances it tremendously.”
At the core of this group of composers was Beethoven, who had famously dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon, only to scratch out the dedication upon hearing of Napoleon declaring himself Emperor.
Davis: “Beethoven did four versions of the Eroica theme – the symphony, a set of piano variations, a ballet (The Creatures of Prometheus), and a contredanse. It was an idée fixe for him. I also used Egmont, music for plays, marches, minuets. The idea from an artistic view was not to make it seem random. If the whole film is a biography, a portrait of Napoleon, it could also be a study in the music of Napoleon’s time. Mozart, Haydn, Cherubini, Gluck….“
In typically impish fashion, Gance decided to throw down his own musical challenge. A long, central sequence features Parisians hearing the anthem of the Revolution, the Marseillaise, for the first time, and learning to sing it. This in a silent film! Davis rises to the occasion with a virtuoso set of variations, and elsewhere throws in other popular songs of the period for good measure.
However, one important visual and thematic strand of the film did not yet have a musical identity. Davis: “There was an almost sci-fi view of Napoleon as omniscient, linked to some great force of nature, unstoppable, implacable – an expression of an ideal that had to do with the 1920s as opposed to the 1790s.
“There I had to write something myself that was more like a Hollywood kind of theme – grand, noble, immediately accessible, memorable.”
Young Napoleon, taunted by his classmates and disciplined by his teachers, is left alone in a freezing garret. There he is visited by his pet eagle, and in a vivid inspiration, Gance turns the eagle into the visual metaphor for Napoleon’s destiny, to re-appear at key turning points in the film. It is a moment rife with danger, so on-the-nose that it could easily elicit titters rather than awe from the audience. But Davis steps forward with his majestic theme to nail the emotion and the idea behind it. Patrick Stanbury, now Brownlow’s co-producer, but in 1980 just a member of the audience at the first screening, recalls that moment: “Suddenly it was magic.”
Behind the scenes at that first performance in 1980, Davis was heroically keeping the orchestra in sync to the film by his wits alone (disdaining technological assists like click tracks), while the performers were wrestling with some unexpected problems. Davis: “The actual quantity of music that was sitting on the music stands grew and grew, and finally when we got to the third part, which was very long and very stuck together with tape, suddenly all the music fell on the floor. It was in the middle of the Bal des Victimes – very lively using Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. I suddenly lost three quarters of the orchestra, and there is actually a recording of me shouting “Play! Play! Please play!” And we were down on the ground trying to put the music back on the stands again.”
In the following videos, Carl Davis talks at greater length about his score.
On that faraway day in 1980 at the Empire, Leicester Square, I — like my daughter over thirty years later — would never forget the overwhelming impact of the last act of Napoleon. Suddenly, the curtains at the side of the screen drew back, and the image expanded to fill my field of vision. The audience gasped as one — an effect repeated even more emphatically at the Paramount, thirty two years later. Before us unfurled the spectacle of Napoleon’s army on three conjoined screens, in crystalline black and white. Sometimes the screens join to create continuous panoramas; sometimes they fragment into three sets of evolving images. It’s a spectacle made all the more vivid for its capture by relatively primitive technology. But that does not account for the artist’s eye, of Gance and of his brilliant cinematographers and camera operators. In this triptych sequence the film expands literally and thematically in every direction, juggling static and moving panoramas and montages that gather together all the imagery of the proceeding five hours, hurling it at you with ever increasing density. Those screens are so bright with the projectors’ reflected light it’s as if the theater’s roof has been lifted off and daylight is streaming in on the audience — a cinematic sunrise.
Accompanying this spectacle are the rousing cadences of the music’s climax, a mash-up of Beethoven in full cry with Davis’s own transcendent “Eagle of Destiny” theme.
Back in 1980, when Napoleon finally came to an end (and at a certain point it feels like it will never end — the film just keeps topping itself), the theatre erupted into bravos as the film detonated into the red, white and blue tricolor of its final frames spread across three screens.
For Brownlow, after a lifetime struggling to bring this forgotten masterpiece back into the light, the full force of the experience hit home. In his book he recalls that moment: “I looked at the picture as though I’d never seen it before. I recalled Lillian Gish talking about the premiere of The Birth of a Nation: ‘I sat at the end of a row with men, and during some parts the whole row shook with their sobs, it was so moving.’ Well, I shook my row, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I was overcome with relief and suffused with joy that the film was at last being seen as it was supposed to be seen.”
For those heading to the Royal Festival Hall at the end of November, that moment can be relived again in all its cinematic glory. Wish I could be there…..
The following “review” of Napoleon includes more excerpts from the film, including the snowball fight (though without Carl Davis’s score, alas).
You can read my full interview with director Sir Alan Parker talking about Kevin Brownlow here. And you can view clips from another classic silent, Flesh and the Devil starring Greta Garbo, with original music by Carl Davis here.
Before Munchausen and Brazil there was:
and Tales of Brave Knights:
The occasional documentary:
Re-inventing movie trailers (oh, if only they were all like this):
He can be a bit of a klutz….
— but with visions like this (long before the advent of CGI and done with no budget) —
— all is forgiven:
Thanks Mr. Gilliam! And Happy Birthday!
Ever wondered what an alien invasion sounds like?
Well, 75 years ago, on October 30th 1938, large swathes of America got to find out. Listeners to CBS radio heard their regular programming interrupted by news reports of strange eruptions in space, and objects crashing to earth. That was only the beginning. It wasn’t long before the eastern seaboard was gripped by panic, and people were flooding into the streets – trying to escape what they thought was a full-scale Martian invasion.
Meanwhile, word of the panic spread to the CBS studio, where Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre company of actors were gleefully rampaging their way through Howard Koch’s adaptation of this science-fiction classic.
With little inkling of the furore outside, Orson Welles decided to defuse the situation. After speaking the last scripted lines of Professor Pierson, he announced – “out of character” – that the program had “…no further significance than the holiday offering it was intended to be”. With an impish smile in his voice he concluded: “And remember, please, for the next day or so, the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living-room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and there’s no-one there, that was no Martian… it’s Halloween.”
They went off-the-air. Then, leaving the cocoon of the studio, Welles was confronted by the magnitude of the panic he had unleashed. The laughter died on his lips. Even the master showman had been blindsided.
History was made that night. It was the first major media “Got ya!” and it turned Welles, already a cause célèbre in the theater world, into a media star. Hollywood came calling with an unprecedented contract, which resulted in the equally unprecedented innovations of Citizen Kane and a film career of, in equal measures, maddening genius and frustrated intentions. Maybe the Martians had the last laugh after all.
When I was producing radio theater for National Public Radio I had occasion to revisit that legendary night of broadcasting. L.A.TheatreWorks decided to record an updated version of Howard Koch’s script for Orson Welles with members of Star Trek, old and new generation.
Thus Wil Wheaton and Gates McFadden joisted at the microphones with Brent Spiner, while Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, took the central role of Professor Pierson.
His voice commanded the airwaves in a manner all of these Hollywood old-timers, who grew up doing radio, theater and live TV, have to themselves. You felt every syllable of his awe and fear in the face of the alien invader. Researching the script for a subsequent rebroadcast on Halloween (naturally) I delved into the history of that original transmission, and of the book that started it all. There were a few surprises along the way. (In particular, Simon Callow’s excellent biography of Orson Welles provided a wealth of anecdotal material and pertinent observation, some of which I reference in the following.)
Science fiction, it is fair to say, was invented by H.G. Wells, along with Jules Verne.
Wells had found a new way to explore the greatest aspirations and deepest fears of humanity through the metaphors of science and technology, and the worlds they were unveiling. But he knew the quest for knowledge was a double-edged sword, and fully exploited the unease that walks hand-in-hand with our boundless curiosity for the unknown.
For his most famous prophetic warning of the fragility of civilisation, Wells exploited the current fascination with the possibility that “We are not alone”.
In 1894, the planet Mars had been near enough to Earth to be observed in detail. The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli identified linear patterns on the surface that he named “canalli” which, in Italian, means “channels”.
But in one of the great mistranslations of all time, English-speaking peoples thought he meant “canals”, leading to widespread speculation about the possibility of life on the red planet. Another observer claimed to have seen a strange light flashing on Mars, fuelling the debate.
Meanwhile H.G. Wells was making his own observations closer to the Earth. Germany had unified, and embarked on a program of militarization. Wells and others feared this might lead to war in Europe. Inspired to fire his own warning shot, he turned to the public’s fascination with the possibility of life on Mars as a way to warn of the danger.
In his hands, the utopian vision of disparate cultures uniting, of civilisation reaching beyond the stars, disintegrated in the beam of a heat ray.
Instead humanity faced the nightmare of a pre-emptive first strike by superior technologies of Armageddon, serving masters whose only thought was: what was the point of sharing when you could have it all?
Wells told his fantastical fable in a semi-documentary style, giving it a credibility and power it might have otherwise lacked.
When, in 1938, Howard Koch came to adapt War of the Worlds for the radio broadcast by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air, he faced two major challenges. How to find a modern-day equivalent for the book’s hyper-realistic style, and how to overcome the dated, provincial aspects of the novel because of its period setting in England. He decided to move the action to America, randomly selecting the New Jersey village of Grover’s Mill as the site of the invasion. From then on, realistic imperatives drove the script. Koch made the medium the message, turning radio’s ability to broadcast live events as they happened into an integral part of telling the story.
It was a brilliant narrative strategy, but Orson Welles and John Houseman, co-founders of the Mercury Theatre Company, were initially underwhelmed by the script. Preoccupied by what had turned into a hellish theatre production of Danton’s Death, they picked at the script in their usual way, pulling it about structurally and demanding more realism. Welles dismissed it as “corny”. A lot of emphasis was placed on sound effects, in the hope they would distract attention from the thinness of the piece.
Despite – or because of this – Welles and his fellow actors went for broke, playing it for all it was worth.
Everything was pushed to the extreme – the apparent breakdowns in transmissions, the desperate eruptions of dance music – all held longer than would be thought possible in order to build suspense. The vividness of the dramatization echoed the real-life newscasts whose bulletins so frequently concerned events ominously gathering in Europe. But whether Houseman or Welles intended any serious parallel is debatable: they just wanted to liven up the story, using what was going on all around them, on the air and in the papers.
So why did listeners think there was a real invasion from Mars being reported? Houseman attributed it to a chance circumstance. Broadcasting on another wavelength was the hugely popular Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show.
At twelve minutes past eight the improbable principal act – a ventriloquist and his assorted dummies – took a break, and so did listeners. They reached for their dials, surfed the frequencies, and happened upon a news report, well under way, of the Martian invasion. As the play progressed so did the hysteria.
An estimate for the number of American families who had radios at the time was twenty seven-and-a-half million. The radio was frequently the principal, and often the only, source of information for Americans about the wider world. And in those days listeners trusted unquestioningly that what they heard was the truth. Despite announcements that this was a dramatization of a book, people took to the streets, screaming that it was the end of the world.
There are many colorful stories of that night. Here’s one of them. In Staten Island, Connie Casamissina was about to get married. Latecomers to the reception took the microphone from the singing waiter and announced the invasion. As Connie recalled: “Everyone ran to get their coats. I took the microphone and started to cry – Please don’t spoil my wedding-day! – and then my husband started singing hymns, and I decided I was going to dance the Charleston. And I did, for 15 minutes straight. I did every step there is in the Charleston.”
After the program went off the air, terrified listeners who’d called CBS angrily threatened violence against Welles and the company, after discovering they were victims of what they thought had been a malicious hoax. One employee recalled: “Someone had called threatening to blow up the CBS building, so we called the police and hid in the ladies’ room on the studio floor.”
The fallout from the broadcast was extensive. How would the populace have reacted in the event of a real air raid?
There were calls for censorship, but freedom of speech on the airwaves was fiercely defended. In a striking piece in the New York Tribune, columnist Dorothy Thompson acclaimed the broadcast as “one of the most fascinating and important events of all time… It is the story of the century… Far from blaming Mr. Orson Welles, he ought to be given a Congressional medal and a national prize for having made the most amazing and important of contributions to the social sciences… He made the scare to end all scares, the menace to end menaces, the unreason to end unreason, the perfect demonstration that the menace is not from Mars but from the theatrical demagogues.”
As for Orson, he made a chastened appearance in a newsreel, adopting the air of a schoolboy who’s not sure whether he’s gotten away with a prank.
He wasn’t as worried about society’s judgment as he was about potentially more serious, legal penalties. In the end nothing stuck, and it all turned out to be one of the most fortuitous events of his career. But his personal creative responsibility for the show had been negligible, beyond the flair of his direction and performance. In a foreshadowing of his attempts to take credit away from Herman Mankiewicz for the script of Citizen Kane, Welles repeatedly attempted to deny Howard Koch’s authorship of War of the Worlds. Unsuccessfully, to his considerable annoyance.
There’s no evidence to support his contention that the program was planned as a Halloween prank all along. The idea was improvised on the spot as a sop to the panic released during the broadcast. Nor was there a conscious attempt to play on fears of a European invasion. The fact was that Welles barely thought about the program, being completely occupied until the last minute by his losing struggle with the theatre production of Danton’s Death.
However, he did get a Hollywood contract out of it.