“It’s Iowa”

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Opening day 2008. My Toronto Blue Jays were rained out at Yankee Stadium, so I must wait one more day for the season to begin. Every spring the start of the baseball season is pretty significant for me, since it’s the only real professional sport that I follow consistently from beginning to end. It was easy for me to get hooked as a small boy, since Toronto was building momentum through the 1980s to emerge in the early 1990s as the team to beat. I was fortunate enough to be at the All Star Game at Sky Dome in ’91 and witnessed Joe Carter’s game-winning blast in Game Six of the ’93 Series from six rows up on the third base line.

I remember feeling the roar of the crowd as the ball sailed over the left field wall. I was thirteen and haven’t experienced anything like that since.

My love of the game is simple. It’s a game of precision and concision. It isn’t afraid to take its time. There’s a genuine sense of excitement when a pitcher goes 3-2 and has the crowd on the edge of their seats, and then fires a third strike to end the inning or the game.

And each year it begins again with a clean slate. This is when you hear the smattering of fans proclaiming, “This is the year we go all the way.” By mid-season their tune changes slightly: “We’ll take the division.” By September, it’s “There’s always next year.” And so that’s basically been my experience with the Jays since 1994. Of course, if you were to ask me today, I’d be lying if I thought this year wasn’t the year we take the AL East.

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Waiting for the rain delay to end — which it never did — I thought about the ways in which baseball has been portrayed in the movies. Which obviously got me onto considering my favorite baseball movies. I realized that some were about baseball, while others only mentioned the game or used it as a set piece for certain scenes.

There’s Major League (1989) — by far the funniest movie about baseball. Pedro Cerrano yelling at his voodoo doll is worth the price of admission: “I stuck up for you Jobu. You no help me now…I say fuck you Jobu. I do it myself.” The Naked Gun (1987) features a climactic scene at a baseball game that is pretty memorable — remember Enrico Pallazzo? As a kid I couldn’t help but love Rookie of the Year (1993). And more recently I re-discovered Eight Men Out (1988), The Bad News Bears (1976), and Bull Durham (1988).

What makes a good baseball movie?

Every year my wife nudges me to read W.P. Kinsella’s baseball novels and short stories, which were inspiring for her. Unfortunately, I still haven’t gotten around to reading Kinsella. But the film adaptation of his novel Shoeless Joe sits atop my list of “favorite baseball movies.”

Field of Dreams captures the spirit of baseball without having to actually show much of the game in action. There are only a few short scenes of play, while the rest of the film wrestles with the philosophical and spiritual textures that the game inspires. The simplicity of the game is romanticized as characters repeatedly ask to “have a catch.” The finale sees Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) ask his ghost-father for one last game of catch to mend their broken relationship. This scene defines the “male weepie” status allotted to the film by some critics and non-believers who dismissed the emotional power of baseball — and more significantly the power of having a catch with your old man.

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Some have said that the film is about second chances. While it’s hard to dismiss this thematic thread, I tend to think that the film better reflects the sense of renewal that the beginning of every new season brings to players and fans.

It’s hard not to be touched by Terence Mann’s (played by James Earl Jones) monologue late in the film:

“Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

Mann’s poetic refrain is undoubtedly corny, but undeniably touching. It’s about those little moments in the game that shape a lifetime’s worth of memories.

Death of the Title Sequence

 

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Since my return from Philadelphia I’ve been listening to Film Score Monthly’s groundbreaking release of the music of Superman. The FSM “Blue Box” contains eight compact discs containing the complete original scores from all four Christopher Reeve Superman films (1978-1987) and the music from the short-lived 1988 Superman cartoon series. It’s a remarkable achievement by such a small record label, who specialize in the music of the movies. The rich history of the Superman films and their music is documented in an accompanying 160 page book — a must-have for any fan of the series or the music of John Williams.

Superman: The Movie remains the quintessential superhero film and the comic book adaptation against which all others are judged. While director Richard Donner has had other successes — namely The Omen and the Lethal Weapon franchises — his most accomplished work remains Superman. The expensive and exhausting production of the original 1978 film has been documented elsewhere, most recently in the 12-DVD box set released by Warners in 2006 to celebrate their “year of Superman” that coincided with the release of Brian Singer’s Superman Returns. I’d like to focus on a few smaller aspects of Donner’s work, namely the music and the main titles.

Listening to the music of Superman: The Movie by John Williams, I recall being six years old and hearing the soaring march for the first time. The Superman theme — which includes a brilliant three-note phrase that seems to call out “Sup-er-man!” — is the music of flight. It is visceral and transparent, and most important, it soars. Perhaps most interesting is the “balletic preparatory” music that precedes the introduction of the fanfare and, by corollary, Superman himself. It’s a dotted triplet rhythm that is carried by the low strings and sets a variety of action sequences in motion. It’s used to great effect during the first big reveal, when Clark Kent transforms into Superman on the streets of Metropolis to save the life of Lois Lane, who dangles off a building roof. There’s something about that “preparatory” phrase that is very John Williams. It’s dead serious, yet playful, and entirely cinematic. It reassures the audience of Superman’s imminent arrival in the same way that the shark motif in Jaws warned of imminent danger. The moment when Clark tears open his shirt, revealing the Superman shield, is effective because of this musical lead-up.

Part of the original film’s appeal is the opening title sequence — designed by R. Greenberg and Associates — that features the full musical fanfare and march in Dolby Stereo. Donner’s intent was to immerse the audience in the world of Metropolis and the mythology of Superman without losing a sense of verisimilitude — the quality of appearing real. This was also manifested in the film’s marketing campaign, which utilized the tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly.” As such, the film itself begins in a movie theater with the curtains closed. The frame-within-a-frame reveals another frame when the curtains part (like in those old picture palaces) and a screen appears, followed by the noise of an old projector.

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The appearance of the date “June 1938” is followed by a black-and-white faux newsreel narrated by a small child, who explains that during the Great Depression, not even the great city of Metropolis was spared hardships and despair. The child turns the pages of an Action Comics book and the camera focuses on a sketch of the Daily Planet. The newsreel then dissolves to a live-action version of the Daily Planet building at night, and the camera arches beyond its roof and into the heavens.

Though music has been playing in the background up until this point, it’s been nondescript. A timpani roll formally introduces the beginning of the title sequence and the film-proper. The first title, that of producer Alexander Salkind, appears to move beyond the old-fashioned movie screen (whose ratio is approximately 1.33:1) and into the theater space. As the blue letters invade the theater space, the screen widens to the full Panavision width of 2.35:1 and the side curtains move beyond the limits of the frame.

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The music continues to swell, building off of the preparatory phrase, until the S shield fills the screen with a red glow.

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The remainder of the title sequence repeats the innovative 3-D effect for each name and credit, giving the impression they are flying past the audience.

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The starfield background is occasionally interrupted by a cosmic anamoly or starburst, which is timed to the music. Or, should I say, the music is timed to the image. Either way, it works beautifully to convey the grand spectacle to follow. In his original review of the film, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther expressed his distaste for the sequence when he wrote that the “opening credits … are so portentous they could be announcing the discovery of a new mouthwash…”

Little did he know that the main title sequence was slowly fading from view. In the years since Superman: The Movie, studio executives and filmmakers have moved the bulk of credits to the end of the film. My own research reveals that by the early 1990s, most Hollywood films held the “main” credits for the end, reversing a long history of studio filmmaking that announced up-front who was responsible for the film you were about to see. Some have attributed this move to audience polling during advance screenings. Studios risk losing the audience’s attention during long, cumbersome title sequences. Even Steven Spielberg has noted that he prefers the end credit system, since it enables him to start the film without disruption or pause.

This is ironic since Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can opens with one of the most entertaining title sequences in recent memory. Indeed, the animated titles pay homage to a by-gone era of studio filmmaking, when title songs and sequences became as famous — or even more famous — than the films themselves. Here I’m thinking of the Pink Panther and James Bond series, which incorporated complex animation and choreography to open each installment.

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While Catch Me If You Can appears to be the exception, a number of studio films continue to place the main titles at the beginning of the film. They are noticeably translucent, tucked at the edges of the frame, in order not to detract from the introductory scenes that, no doubt, are establishing character and plot. The Devil Wears Prada opens with a montage sequence showing Andy and other women preparing for an early morning job interview. The sequence is set to the up-tempo KT Tunstall song “Suddenly I See,” which glues the whole thing together, and sets a rhythmic tone for the film to follow.

Some films have even crafted intricate and visually interesting end credit sequences. The second and third Bourne films showcase an array of graphics that interact with crew names. The use of Moby’s “Extreme Ways” works not only a musical signature for all three films (they all incorporate this song over the end credits), but it provides the quick tempo and catchy melody that turns ordinary credits into an arresting credit sequence. See the credits here.

Other films have dispensed with opening titles altogether. After studio logos, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor opens on the image of a sunset and gets down to business without even announcing the title of the film. Batman Begins opens with an elaborate sunset shot filled with swarming bats that form the shape of the bat signal. No title, just the shield. I admit there’s an immediacy to this technique, since you are instantly plunged into a fiction without the presentational aspects that have shaped our collective notions of movie structure.

More recently, 3:10 to Yuma, Michael Clayton, and No Country for Old Men offer their respective titles at the start of the film, but nothing more until the closing credits. This is by far the most common technique utilized by current filmmakers: state the title and get on with it.

For a while, especially in the 1960s, the title sequence was an emerging art form. Saul Bass is a legend in the field, producing the titles for Psycho, Anatomy of a Murder, Vertigo, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and my personal favorite, Casino. In addition to Superman, R. Greenberg and Associates created the titles for Home Alone and The Untochables. And, of course, Maurice Binder’s Bond sequences are among some of the finest and trashiest ever produced.

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The novelty of these sequences lies in their ability to set a tone, create a visual and sonic signature, and synthesize the iconographic elements of a given film. The best ones can emerge as standalone set pieces, while others simply serve as introductory “warm ups.” It’s not surprising, then, that the Superman sequence began with a ritual that has also faded from our movie-going habit: the grand theater with a proscenium and curtains that reveal the screen.

Instead, we now get more commercials in front of the feature, smaller screens, and movies that are all too willing to cut to the chase.

What are your favorite title sequences?

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“Did you feel that?”

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From March 6-9th I attended the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, which was held in Philadelphia. In many ways it turned out to be a reunion of friends and family. Not only is Philly the city of brotherly love, but it also happens to be the town where my mother grew up. So amidst the academic chatter and panel presentations on Soviet montage, I managed to squeeze in some time with my family and old friends.

Philadelphia is a great city — not only because it’s the home of Rocky Balboa and those art museum steps. On this trip I discovered great restaurants, shops, and a friendly vibe that permeates the city center. And if you’re even the most modest cinephile there’s nothing quite like running up those Rocky stairs, along with all the other tourists. (For the diehard fans: the city relocated the Rocky statue to the Spectrum arena years ago to protect it from pigeons and haters).

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The SCMS conference is another family affair of sorts, since it’s a place where all cinema (and media) scholars can come together for four days of academic posturing and reverie. It’s the Olympics for film studies: hundreds of panels devoted to a myriad of research areas. For the past few years I’ve had the privilege of presenting with some of the most impressive people working in contemporary film sound. William Whittington and Mark Kerins, who continue to chair our panels, are doing their part to open the ears of film studies. Randolph Jordan, who is completing his PhD in Montreal, continues to use sound theory to reshape the way I hear contemporary cinema. My work on sound technology and sound style rounded out our panel. This year Elisabeth Weis was our official respondent — the co-editor of Film Sound: Theory and Practice and author of The Silent Scream — which was a thrill for me, since her work greatly influenced my decision to pursue this PhD.

It’s always good fun to present at the SCMS, and this year was no exception. We had a strong audience for our panel, who seemed to genuinely respond to the research being presented. This year, I spoke about the use of Low Frequency sound and how it is being utilized in current suspense thrillers and horror films. There’s a line from Jurassic Park that basically summarizes my position on the use of sub-audible sounds in cinema. Little Tim turns to his sister, Lex, in the Explorer and asks, “Did you feel that?” At about the same time, Lex and the audience begin to feel the vibration from the weight of the T-Rex’s footfalls. For the next minute, besides the rain effects, the sound track reverberates with the sub-audible frequencies of the T-Rex’s movement. It’s important that Tim says feel instead of hear, since the sensation is most definitely felt not heard.

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There’s always a flurry of activity at the SCMS meeting, since it’s a place to share research but also catch up with old friends. To do both means that by Sunday you’re exhausted and ready for three days of sleep.

This year’s panoply of panels didn’t disappoint. I did my best to get to all the soundtrack panels, which this year included several papers on film music and early sync sound conventions. While I disagreed with the approach and findings of some in this area, I was impressed by others who re-evaluating how to write about and teach film music and sound technology in the 1920s.

By far the most lively panel I attended was one devoted to new trends in film and television comedy. A paper on the “cringe” aesthetic explored how shows like The Office and The Sarah Silverman Program specialize in uncomfortable, awkward moments that border on the offensive. Some might even say they are offensive. Another paper examined the ways in which Jon Stewart balances his position on The Daily Show as a low-brow comic and a political pundit. It was obvious who in the audience preferred Stewart as pundit and Stewart as dispenser of fart jokes, since only half the crowd chuckled at the potty jokes. I, for one, can see the humor in both strands of humor, but some of my colleagues were none too pleased that the show regularly punches below the belt for a quick snicker fix.

Another memorable year at SCMS. So many panels so little time. At least there’s always next year.

The Scream Heard ‘Round the World

 

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A few months ago I published a short piece on the history of the Wilhelm Scream in Offscreen, an upstart film journal. They put out an issue on sound in the cinema, and I was asked to contribute a short article on my favorite moment of film sound. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my most favorite moment was, in fact, the repeated use of a classic studio sound effect, known affectionately as the Wilhelm Scream.

For a brief history of the Scream, see my original article which is available here at the Offscreen website. In short, the scream was first heard in the Gary Cooper western Distant Drums (1951), when an American soldier attempts to evade a slew of Seminole Indians in a Florida swamp and ends up being dragged under the water and eaten by an alligator. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the voice effect — originally recorded by Sheb Wooley — was re-used in several films that required a high-pitch male cry, including The Charge at Feather River (1953) and Them! (1954). Contrary to popular belief, there were five Screams, each different in duration and pitch. In the mid-1970s, Ben Burtt was combing through studio sound libraries searching for material for Star Wars (1977) and came across the Screams, which were then catalogued as “man getting bit by an alligator.” It was the Scream’s use in The Charge at Feather River that inspired Burtt to rename the effect the Wilhelm Scream after the character who is unceremoniously shot with an Indian’s arrow and falls off his horse.

Burtt’s inside-joke homage to old studio sound effects led to the Scream’s use in the original Star Wars trilogy and the first three installments of Indiana Jones. The Scream invariably accompanies a villain’s fall, such as when one of Jabba the Hut’s goons falls into the Sarlac pit in Return of the Jedi (1983) and when a Nazi is thrown off a moving truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). For Burtt and directors like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg the Scream functions as a comic gag and an allusion to the old Hollywood system of which Star Wars and Indiana Jones are indebted.

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After the final Star Wars prequel was released in 2005, Burtt announced that he was retiring the vocal effect from any further use in his own work. However, Burtt’s decision has had the opposite effect on sound editors and filmmakers, who have saturated its use in movies and TV shows. By the turn of the 21st century the novelty of Wilhelm has worn thin as a new crop of filmmakers have used the effect as an homage not to classical Hollywood, but to the New Hollywood and its second-generation revival. Quentin Tarantino used it sparingly in Reservoir Dogs (1992), while Peter Jackson and his sound team placed the Scream in all three Lord of the Rings films. It’s been used in animated films such as Beauty and the Beast (1991), Toy Story (1995), and most ingeniously in Gary Rydstrom’s Pixar short, Lifted (2007).

Indeed, it has become difficult not to spot the Wilhelm Scream in current movies and TV shows. Family Guy and American Dad treat the Scream like a musical sting that accentuates a gag. Both shows wear their love of the Star Wars saga and 1980s pop culture on their sleeves, so it is not surprising that the cultural currency of Wilhelm is not lost on their writers. More and more films are using the Scream, including Batman Returns (1992), Lethal Weapon 4 (1998), Hellboy (2004), Team America: World Police (2004), Anchorman (2004), and Aeon Flux (2005).

Interestingly, I can’t think of a film or TV show in recent memory that has used the Scream in a straight-forward and dramatic fashion. In some sense, there’s a comic quality to the tone and timbre of the scream itself, which lends itself to parody and homage in programs like Family Guy.

 

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As much as I am a fan of the Wilhelm Scream, I can’t help but think that it has overstayed its welcome. As a punchline, it is no longer that funny, since its singular use (to enhance someone’s fall) has been repeated with little variation. As homage, the Scream is in its third generation of use, and its allusionist qualities are wearing thin. As the Scream is endlessly repeated, its value as a Hollywood artifact and inside joke is greatly diminished. Perhaps retirement is not necessary, but a more creative and textured approach is definitely needed in order to keep Wilhelm from becoming a stock comic effect in the sound track arsenal.

For those who don’t see the irony in the situation, let me clarify. Burtt revived the original Scream, which had become a stock sound effect in the studio system, and fell out of favor with New Hollywood craftsmen in the early 1970s. Burtt’s placement of the Scream in Star Wars alluded not only to the B-movie origin of Lucas’ space narrative, but to a by-gone era of studio filmmaking. Its use in Star Wars and Indiana Jones is pastiche at its most fun and irreverent.

For a time, the recycling of the Scream became a game for sharp listeners, who, after being introduced to it in the 1980s, fell under its spell. You felt as if you were part of a secret club of movie geeks who could list all the Scream’s appearances in the post-Star Wars era. Now, even the most untrained ears can spot the buffoonish cry under layers of other sound effects.

The Scream, which was once used to parody old stock sound effects, has become a parody of itself. We’ve had our fun, so let’s store it away for a while, let it collect some dust, and wait for another sound designer to one day discover it all over again.

For the uninitiated, here is the Wilhelm Scream. What are your own favorite Wilhelm moments?

 

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