Monday, March 5


For a few dollars Morricone

The Roxie and the Castro have both printed up calendars of their schedules up through late April, available at the respective theatres and elsewhere. Highlights at the Roxie look to include Robinson Devor's Police Beat (which has only been available in Frisco via broadcasts on the Sundance Channel, and then only in a reportedly cut version) April 6-12, Claude Chabrol's Comedy of Power April 20-26, and a number of free screenings, such as a Saturday morning series of film and video entitled Cine Del Barrio. Regular readers here could have pieced together from my previous posts practically the entire Castro program, including the restored print of the Rules of the Game March 9-14, the SF International Asian American Film Festival March 15-18, the Antonioni retrospective (also at the PFA in Berkeley) on various dates in March and April, and Two Or Three Things I Know About Her March 30-April 5. What I haven't mentioned yet are the slew of musicals in April (including Pennies From Heaven April 16th), a Friday the 13th MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS-presented prom movie triple-feature with Carrie as the blood-red centerpiece (also mark May 25th on your calendar for Gremlins, Howard the Duck and Troll 2), and best of all, the outstanding lineup of films chosen for the April 20-25 tribute to Ennio Morricone, probably the greatest living legend of film music (his main competition for that position being John Barry, who'll soon get his own tribute in the form of a James Bond series when the next Castro calendar is published).

Morricone's music seems ubiquitous to me; it exists well beyond the films he wrote it for, which in my book is one of the marks of a great film composer. The first Morricone-scored film I saw was probably the Untouchables, but I'm certain I knew some of his themes, particularly the famous ocarina call from the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, well before that, even though I wasn't lucky enough to grow up in a household with spaghetti Western music in the record rack. As I've watched more films scored by Morricone over the years, I still hear a great deal of his music long before glimpsing the images he composed it for, sometimes in the most unlikely of places. The classic example is when I first saw Once Upon a Time in the West and immediately recalled the iconic harmonica smear as the third critical sample in the trifecta of musical collage that forms one of my favorite pieces of danceclub strangeness, "Little Fluffy Clouds" by the Orb (the other two being Rickie Lee Jones' reminiscences of skies in Arizona and Pat Methany's recording of Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint). Years ago I was in a band which occasionally performed a cover of "Magic and Ecstasy" (quite different from this version) from Exorcist II: the Heretic, a film I've still never seen. And the only film featured in the Morricone montage put together for the Oscar ceremony last week that I hadn't seen before, Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, was accompanied by a theme I'm sure I've heard elsewhere. Perhaps in the background to a This American Life segment or two?

What minor epiphanies of recognition might the Castro's Morricone week bring me this time? Several of the films in the series would be near the very top of my to-see list even if I didn't know Morricone wrote their scores. Knowing it, they're at the top of my to-hear list too: Sam Fuller's long-shelved White Dog (playing with U-Turn April 20), Dario Argento's giallo horror Four Flies on Grey Velvet (with Once Upon a Time in the West April 21), Sergio Leone's Mexican revolution picture Duck, You Sucker! (with another unseen Western Italiano the Big Gundown, April 22). and Investigation of a Citizen Under Suspicion (with Petri's a Quiet Place in the Country, also unseen, April 24). Perhaps one or more of these will unlock the memory of a melody hidden in some unlabeled drawer of my brain. Or, like the first time I watched and heard the terrific percussion-heavy score of the Battle of Algiers (playing April 23 with the Mission, the only film of those I've seen in the series that I don't like), the music will be completely new to me and feel like another sort of revelation. All of these double-bills have great appeal, but the program I feel I can most heartily endorse is the April 25 pairing of Malick's Days of Heaven and Pasolini's Arabian Nights, both of which I've seen in gorgeous new prints in the last few years.

I remember the reports from watchers of the Golden Globe ceremony a little more than seven years ago that, when Jennifer Love-Hewitt was called upon to announce the winner of the award for Best Original Score, she not only balked at pronouncing the name of the composer behind the Legend of 1900, she assumed that "Ennio Morricone" was a band. When Morricone failed to be nominated for an Academy Award for that score, I realized he probably never would earn a competitive Oscar. He immediately became in my mind the classiest choice the Academy could pick to give an honorary Oscar to, following in the footsteps of Alex North, another composer who also never had an Oscar until receiving an honorary one in 1986. At the time I was rooting for it to happen soon; these days my investment of interest in Oscar decisions is a lot lower, but it was no less classy a pick. And if it helped put the wheels of this touring retrospective in motion, I'm particularly happy for it.

That said, let me be the millionth voice in the blogosphere to ask what devil's bargain is it that if Mr. Morricone gets an award, Celine Dion has to be involved? And was it my imagination or was the look on the honoree's face as her performance was announced something along the lines of "what have I gotten myself into?" If there's one shortcoming of the Castro tribute, it's that a screening of Once Upon a Time in America wasn't arranged so we could all cleanse our memory of whatever "I Knew I Loved You" was supposed to be.

And as much as the presence of a live orchestra must thrill the Kodak Theatre audience, I have to admit I was a little disappointed in how the orchestra tended to bland Morricone's scores out; so much of the innovation of his approach, especially in the early part of his career, rested in his unusual orchestrations and even recording practices. Russell Lack, in his superb history of film music, Twenty Four Frames Under, writes on Morricone:
One could perhaps isolate his tendency to avoid traditional symphonic development, concentrating instead on creating overlays which get at the thematic heart of the film rather than the incidentals demanded by a particular action sequence.
The Academy orchestra may have played the notes perfectly right, but it rarely came very close to sounding like a Morricone orchestra. It's really just another example of Oscar's tendency to treat the honors it bestows as some kind of branding tie-in, making whatever originality, personality and energy in a film or a filmmaker seem secondary to the glow of Oscar-worthiness they get by their association with the Academy Awards. I guess that's inevitable with something like the Oscars. When Alex Patterson of the Orb incorporates a piece of Morricone into his art it feels like a natural, but when a four-hour-long celebration of American-style middlebrow filmmaking does, not quite. Still, his tribute was a highlight of watching the Oscar ceremony at the Roxie Theatre, something I tried for the first time this year.

Anyway, of the hundreds of scores Ennio Morricone wrote, very few were for films that ever came close to winning or being nominated for Oscars. Most of the ones playing at the Castro April 20-25 weren't; only three (Days of Heaven, the Mission, and Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) were deemed Academy-friendly enough to even make it into the montage of clips played as part of the tribute. (I assume that the exclusion from the montage of the Battle of Algiers, which earned Gillo Pontecorvo two Oscar nominations in 1968, was somehow connected to the "don't mention the war" theme of this year's ceremony.) I hope to be there for some of these, but I suspect it's the more "disreputable" films I'm more certain to attend.

See you there!

I forgot to mention it in the main body of the post, but fans of Morricone's genre film scores who can't wait until April 20th can get their fix tonight at the Castro, where John Carpenter's version of the Thing plays at 7PM.

And for comparison's sake, the original Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby version of the film plays tomorrow and Thursday on a double-bill with Isle of the Dead at the Stanford Theatre.
Brian, thanks for the tip on Russell Lack's book, which I'd never heard of. Just the other day I was wondering about what books on film music were out there...

"24 Frames Under": I wonder what the title is referring to...
I wish I could answer your question, girish! I read the book straight through several years ago but if the meaning was made clear it has escaped my memory.

I tried paging through the book for an answer before I went to bed last night, but no luck with that either. Perhaps somebody else who reads this will know the answer and clue us in if they ever stumble across this page in a google search?
Thanks for looking, Brian!
The gun shot on the Morricone montage was one of my favorite parts, because it was the one moment of sharpness in the whole thing! Would it killed someone's ego to use the actual soundtracks? It's not a live performance show for crying out loud.

Il Maestro wasn't just present in his own tribute montage, no! There was a choice bit of Morricone touch in the "Sound Effects Choir" segment, the drop of water in Woody Strode's hat.

The 14 minute "natural sound" title sequence of "Once Upon a Time in the West" is said to have been Morricone's idea. It's right up there with Georges Auric suggesting the scrapping of his heist music from the robbery sequence of "Riffiffi" as an example of service to the larger work and not having to leave one's mark all over everything.

If only someone at the Oscar cast would have used the same restraint.
Darn, I almost wish I was visiting SF three weeks from when I will actually be there. I did get to see Four Flies theatrically, it was my first Argento film. The version of White Dog I saw was edited, and on cable. Sam Fuller could have presented his version in Denver at the short-lived cinematheque there, but the guy in charge decided in favor of Pickup on South Street. At least I got Fuller to sign my copy of one of his novels.
I'm looking forward to your upcoming visit, Peter. Hopefully we can catch a flick or grab a bite or both.

And Miriam, thanks for the reminder about the Once Upon a Time in the West moment in the sound effects choir (which I actually thought was a very enjoyable and impressive highlight of the telecast). And for the anecdotes about Morricone and Auric (another all-time great composer) knowing when to hold back on the notes for a while. Something a lot of current composers could take a cue from, so to speak.
I took a day off from work just to catch White Dog when the Morricone series was at NY's Film Forum. Beautiful film with some great Sam Fuller lines and cameo appearance. Not to be missed.

Just a guess, but "24 Frames Under" might be a reference to a piece of music being one second (24 frames) short of the running time of the accompanying film sequence, or something to that effect.
I enjoyed your write-up on the upcoming Morricone event Brian!

I am indeed very lucky that my dad loved movies and shared that with me. We had lots of soundtracks in our home as well. My dad grew up in Nevada and worked as a ranch hand before going to college so he loved lots of westerns and Sergio Leone's movies were favorites in my house.
I think you give TPTB too much credit, Brian, for omitting "Algiers" from the Morricone section. It wasn't because of the war, it's more likely that whoever was responsible didn't think anyone would recognize it. Here's a man that composed for Once Upon a Time in the West, Fists in the Pocket, 1900, The Hawks and the Sparrows, La Cage aux Folles, and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, but what films did AMPAS choose to list in that montage? Why Orca & Fat Man and Little Boy, of course! You know the former may be ranked #210 on IMDB among Morricone's entire body of work, but at least it's in English!

I'd also say that Maurice Jarre gives Barry a run for the money, settling comfortably into the 3rd place slot. Too bad they're not showing "Navajo Joe" at the Castro--my favorite EM score for a film I haven't seen (though their programming will let me cross a few off my Must See list--if I get a chance).
A note on the recognizability of "Battle of Algiers": I have a news alert set up for anything on Morricone and "Battle of Algiers" comes up time and time again. Furthermore, it got loads of press during its rerelease a few years back, and part of this was due to the fact that the Department of Defense was using it to look at insurgent tactics. "Investigation of a Citizen . . . " was in the montage, and I think it is a less well known film, also not in English, despite winning an Oscar for Foreign Language Film.

Perhaps orchestra-friendliness played a role . . .
THanks everyone for your comments! I think I'm personally still sticking with my paranoid conspiracy theory, though both archiveguy's and miriam's reasons have a certain ring of plausibility to them. At any rate, the Battle of Algiers feels like a film and score particularly resistant to assimilation into the Academy's current image. Which just shows how far away the days are when the likes of Antonioni, Pontecorvo, Costa-Gavras, and Fellini (even for Satyricon!) could earn Best Director nominations for making politically and/or aethetically challenging work.

I must admit I'd forgotten Jarre was still alive. With so many legendary film composers having died in the past five years or so, I think I'd all but assumed he'd been one of them.

I still like Barry and Morricone better though.
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