Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Growing Up James Horner (1953 - 2015)

It has been forty-eight hours since I heard the news across my brother's Facebook feed, and I'm still reeling with thoughts of the James Horner's influence upon my life. Ever since I grew to appreciate, and eventually love film scores, his work leapt out at me with a fierceness that could only happen to a quiet obsessive at the sponge-like adolescent stage. Film music to me has long been an irreplaceable part of the film watching experience. It is an essential part of the engine that allows for us to feel beyond the more literal fabric of a story. A carefully considered heartbeat. And Horner, no matter the veterans that his field was still very much dominated by, was able to carve an indelible place for himself in the pantheon of late twentieth century cinema, most notably genre works. As an important voice in the 1980s deluge of pure fantasy cinema, his sound became an unmistakable mark which assured viewers that what they were witnessing together in that darkened room was something closer to an operatic, and at times internal experience writ large. He never failed to make the corners of a film that much larger. So large that they often extended far beyond the confines of an auditorium.

They were among the first soundtracks I absolutely had to own, and wear down from overplaying.

And even if his motifs were re-used and remixed over the years, it felt less like the work of someone short on ideas, but rather new nuances to a larger story an artist was attempting to tell. Even though I may not have followed his work nearly as much as the 1990s wore on, his early works continue to inform and influence me when I write or think of stories with a certain largeness to them. Alongside masters like Goldsmith, and Williams, they help define the last bastion of classical cinema music. And now with Horner gone, it's as if a truly prolific component of the moviegoing experience has shuttered its doors for good. It's certainly one hell of a legacy, and something many filmmakers would do well to keep close.

And now, some standout favorites from those heady days of being starstruck by swelling strings, leitmotifs, and heroic themes..

Battle Beyond The Stars

Just plunking down some thoughts in memoriam of one of the last of a dying breed. Composer James Horner became a fixture in my own growing vernacular of storytelling when I was but six years old when I saw Battle Beyond The Stars for the first time. It's a rollicking, campy space western made in the mold of Star Wars, but with more emphasis on the western. Seven space faring warriors are gathered together by a young pilot as his planet is being bullied by a galactic conqueror. It's a fun little film, made all the more grand and fun by way of the young Horner's more than ample chops. (Fun Fact: Young James Cameron worked on this film in the props and art department, eager to move up in the world. - AND HUNGRY.)

Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan

Flash forward to 1982, when he was tasked with taking the already in danger Star Trek franchise into bold new territory. With a whole new look, attitude, and a flare for the hyperdramatic, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan has grown to be the most imitated and beloved Trek film. Leaping from Jerry Goldsmith's already iconic score, Horner's implies submarine battles in deep space, and a deep romantic feel that harkens to a more old world sea tale. This score moved me to tears as a kid. Still does from time to time. One of the greats, period.


Few scores later, Horner was reunited with now powerful indie genre maverick, James Cameron as he was ready to take the reins to the follow-up to the now horror classic, ALIEN. With ALIENS, the emphasis was less on horror, and more on action and gut-tightening suspense. Written and recorded in under a week, ALIENS is now famous for multiple reasons, not the least of which is its powerful, utterly exhausting score which became the most often used and imitated trailer music of all time. This sucker remains an all timer for me, and perhaps is most responsible for my heart problems. It's an unrelenting beast that still overwhelms today. As nerve-ripping as the film itself.

An American Tail

That same summer, Horner was assigned to animate former Disney darling, Don Bluth's second animated film, An American Tail. Say what one will about the final film, the score can wrench the waterworks from even the most cynical viewer.


1988, Horner was now poised to take on the big dogs when George Lucas and Ron Howard took on the hopeful fantasy Willow. With extended amounts of prep time, and the largest orchestra he had had experienced to date, Willow's score remains a woefully underappreciated gem. Grand, grand stuff. Possibly his richest score.


1989, Horner reaches for dramatic iconography with Edward Zwick's Glory. And the end theme still echoes on as a score lover's favorite. An incredible ode to heroes long thought forgotten. Stirs deeply even now.

The Rocketeer

And now, we jump forward to what is perhaps my all-time favorite Horner work, his grand, nostalgic, innocent and thrill-packed score for Joe Johnston's The Rocketeer(1991). I cannot express just how much this score means to me, and how much it makes me long for when orchestras ruled the cinema, and when music was an indispensable part of the filmic whole. The culmination of his work in the 1980s congeals into a heroic melange that is sorely missing in today's superhero congested climate. It's a reminder of not only simpler times, but of the innate humanity within our heroes and those who they struggle for. It's a romantic dance between the humble and grand, which makes Johnston's future as the man who brought dignity to Captain America, all the more potent. Sincere and soaring, much like the film itself. Just flat out Hollywoodland magic.

Patriot Games

Lastly tonight, we have the opening to one of his more understated, but no less stirring works, Patriot Games. The second film to be based upon the Jack Ryan novels by Tom Clancy, this was a revenge tale regarding a renegade IRA terrorist out to pay back former CIA analyst for accidentally killing his brother while on a trip to London. The Gaelic themes and moody electronics are a startling change of pace, but is perfect for this tale of late 20th century cloak and dagger. Doesn't hurt to have CLANNAD's Mary Boyle here for vocal support.

And there we have it. Just a peek into growing up with this man's sounds. And even though he later grew to legend status as the man responsible for the music to Titanic, Braveheart, and A Beautiful Mind, I was much more enamored with his earlier, more fiery works. It's such a sad loss for not only film music lovers, but of classical lovers as well. While it had been a long time since I last truly found myself enraptured by a full blown orchestral score, the yearning for that kind of analog accompaniment never ceases to be strong within me. And with James Horner, it was never hard to feel a film, even when the final product didn't seem to run parallel. Even so, any work that shared his musical spirit was a welcome reminder that somewhere in that piece, we were in great hands. May his works continue to encourage future storytellers to think large, and dream grand. My brothers and I are still reminiscing where we were, and what these scores meant to us. And as long as these songs endure, may the discussion of the legends they embrace continue to as well.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Lo Pan Dilemma: Why I Will Never See Another Big Trouble In Little China

"My problem is this place. It is my tomb. I'm buried here. A young man, a king, a warrior, is entombed within this.. old man's crippled body. And all I need is a woman, Mr. Burton. A special kind of woman with dragon green eyes to make me whole again. Young again. So that I may rule the universe from beyond this grave."

While it has been nearly a week since word came out that Dwayne Johnson was excited to star in a remake of one of my all-time favorites, the reactions, while to be expected, needed a little extra time to ferment. And while this feels like yet another case of Hollywood simply gambling on reliable IP to stay afloat, this attempt to make eyebrows perk up left me with an even more troubled mind. Especially in lieu of 2011's lukewarm pre-boot of John Carpenter's other less than financially stellar studio offering, The Thing(1982). Both being massive personal favorites despite their initial performances, I'm far more understanding of the former's existence. Over the last several years, remakes have grown to become a de-facto response to diminishing box office returns, often ironically to the tune of even greater losses. And many of the largest, most important cult film properties of the 1980s, have already seen themselves reconstituted and sold as hollow, zombified versions of themselves, so perhaps it was only a matter of time before the spotty hands of Hollywood would reach for the hidden gem bag yet again. But perhaps this time, they have reached the nadir of confusion. Desperation and disconnect so grand, that the end product could only reveal greater problems within an antiquated business model.

There are a myriad of reasons beyond mere love for the Carpenter film on a surface level that inform this bushel of feelings. Many of them stemming from just how unusual Big Trouble In Little China was on the film landscape at the time. In an era where just about any manner of pop culture mashup can be realized to the cheers of many, it simply was unthinkable in 1986. An era just awash in Vietnam revisionism, macho fantasy, and a longing for a 1950s simplicity of life. Hybrid culture had yet to gestate, and for the average moviegoer, the very idea that one film would be willing to embrace everything from kung-fu cinema, hard action, manga, video game silly, screwball comedy, and ensemble acting was simply too hard to accept. And then, there was a strange willingness on the part of the film to treat chinese characters as just characters, with the lesser known co-star being the film's stealth hero.

That's right. Big Trouble In Little China is special in that it subverts everything about the era in which it was made. It exists as both a marker of 1980s still brewing american xenophobia, and a growing movement toward seeing a more inclusive and understanding national identity. It utilizes the ideal of the individualistic proto-action icon in the All-American blowhard, Jack Burton. We are whisked alongside him in a vision of our own cultural glaucoma as it runs head on with the baggage of those tasked with making an american ideal possible. Burton's hapless buddy, Wang Chi(Dennis Dun) represents the then next generation's consciousness, tackling both tradition and burgeoning community sensibilities as his bride-to-be is kidnapped by street toughs, only to have her handed off to a centuries old evil sorcerer bent on becoming immortal through the use of her own unique physical qualities. He has no intention to marry Miao Yin for love, but rather for her green eyes. Not unlike Jack's need for his stolen truck to get by, the villainous Lo Pan is hellbent on this dehumanizing task to help enable his need to keep matters the same as so long ago.

In a very clever way, Lo Pan, while he has found himself to be a very saavy and occasionally witty businessman, running San Francisco Chinatown's underworld with a tightened claw, he seems more than happy to maintain the universe as it had long before the advent of the american ideal.

Burton, for all his friendliness toward people of all stripes, seems like a John Wayne gone Hanna-Barbera cartoon. A flag-waving tough guy with a head full of rocks. And as he voyages through the mounting weirdness that is this tale, his understanding of the world is endlessly rocked, leading to personal revelations about not only his own masculine prowess, but his own part in a larger community. And while he doesn't fully learn his lesson by the finale, there is indeed a hint that he knows himself far better now that he had at the beginning of the adventure. It's an endearing trick that Carpenter and Kurt Russell pulled off with the character, as all of Hollywood was basking in the instant gratification machinations of the Stallones, and now Schwarzeneggers of the world. It takes a great deal of self-effacement, and lack of seriousness to pull such a thing off, which only makes the character that much more charming.

On the side of good, there is also a cast of side characters who seem more than up to the task in changing perceptions in a film landscape that was still far too comfortable in treating certain characters without the respect they deserved. Just take Victor Wong's Egg Shen as a prime example. A local tour bus driver/local businessman/secret sorcery expert and wizard, with a smart mouth the likes few had seen in a major motion picture at that point. He's not only a man of numerous talents and abilities, he's also well-connected, and a natural wit who knows his ancient and San Francisco lore. And what of Uncle Chu, Eddie, The Chang Sing? Just treating characters as people goes such a long way, and BTLC never stoops low to sell us stale archetypes or ideas. In a film that so easily could have gone this way, every move seems calculated to avoid such turns, and remains perpetually ahead of the cultural curve. It knows we can be better, and drives for it every time, even as we are besieged by monsters, magic, kung-fu battles, and ghosts.

Big Trouble In Little China, is a perpetual cornerstone of popular culture that defies even the simplest of description, and as thus is without easy import. It's not a simple chassis with which to play with in some form of hyper-simplistic retooling. So if they truly wish to take us headlong into another go-round with Jack, Wang, and pals, the impetus is on today's filmmakers to delve deep into the murk of now, see exactly where we are as filmgoers, as well as social beings. It's not in Big Trouble's nature to retread what has been traveled before. It embraces the unexpected. And for befuddled studios to finally see this as a last ditch chip to cash in, seems not unlike a wily old sorcerer longing for the glory days. Partaking in the packaging, without a single inkling of the soul that lies beneath.

But much like his own undoing, it's all in the reflexes.