Friday, August 20, 2010

Best of the Best of the Best...Mam! See How I Changed That Just A Little And Called It Original?! See How I Did That?!

So anyway, I've taken on the task of answering the James Horner portion of Reed’s question posed on Brad’s facebook page the other day. If you need a refresher (and after Brad’s ginormous fucking post on Jerry Goldsmith, you really shouldn't you no-short-term-memory-bastard), the question was:

“A question for those concerned: what, in your opinion, is Goldsmith’s best Fantasy score? What is his best sci-fi score? What is his best score not in those two genres? Same question for James Horner? Same question for one film composer of your choosing.”

Before I begin, I think some clear definitions are in order. A problem arises with how we all define the genres of Fantasy and Sci-Fi. This was touched on in Brad’s post, and I’d like to expand upon it here. I divide Fantasy into pure fantasy, and quasi-real fantasy. For me, a broad definition of pure fantasy is a story contained in its own world, during its own undefined time, where our understanding of both the laws of physics, nature, and general reality don’t necessarily apply. In film, this would include the likes of Krull, Willow, Dragonslayer, and most especially The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. A common element amongst all of these films is the use of magic. I exclude films like the Harry Potter films because, while they include magic, they exist in our world, specifically, in 21st Century England. Harry Potter I feel falls into the quasi-real fantasy category. I realize that you may not share these ideas, but my blog, my rules [gives reader raspberries].

And then a new problem arises. Limiting the discussion to the realm of pure fantasy inhibits the discussion. Why? Because you can take every A-list composer since the beginning of cinema, and count on one hand the number of films they scored that fall into pure fantasy. I think to be fair you have to include both categories. But then…where do you draw the line. Because it takes place in the real world, but bends our conceptions of physics and nature, does a film like The Rocketeer fall into the category of quasi-real fantasy? Or is it Science Fiction? I’m not even going to try to define Sci-Fi. I’d have better luck getting Katy Perry and Megan Fox to take turns going Ass-to-Mouth with my cock then I would coming up with an all-encompassing definition of Sci-Fi. Let’s just say that I consider The Rocketeer Sci-Fi because of how its story centers on an improbable, but not impossible piece of technology. That, I think, will be my foundation for Sci-Fi in this context.

I should also note that a somewhat humorous discussion came up with Brad’s post. He originally included the film Capricorn One as a stand-out example of Goldsmith’s sci-fi composing until I pointed out that Capricorn One isn't a sci-fi film. Why not? Because it’s a conspiracy thriller. A conspiracy thriller with an ever so slight Sci-Fi bent, but a conspiracy thriller nonetheless. For those that don’t know, Capricorn One is about a faked Mars landing (building itself around all the fake moon landing conspiracies since the Apollo missions) and what happens when the government tries to cover up the project and eliminate everyone involved. So for future reference, films like Capricorn Onenot Sci-Fi! That’s why it’s not in his post anymore!

…and with all that out of the way – on with the show…

Discussing the best of James Horner is considerably simpler than Jerry Goldsmith if for no other reason than because his career has been half as long. It’s not necessary to divide Horner’s career into time periods because he’s really only had two, the 80’s…and everything after. For the purposes of this post, I’ll do my best to avoid digging into a lot of the negativity surrounding his infamous proclivities in his writing style. Those are matters of personal taste and not really germane to this post. If you’re one to hold those things against him – you probably shouldn't be reading this anyway.

Finding Horner’s best Fantasy score is actually quite simple; you literally can count on one hand how many Fantasy films he’s composed for. There are five. Just five. Of those, two are pure fantasy, three qualify as quasi-real fantasy. And the obvious choice is, well…obvious. Krull. Talk about a classic case of blowing your creative load early! It could be argued that Basil Poledouris had the same problem with Conan the Barbarian. It’s a fair argument that Krull is not only Horner’s best Fantasy score, but perhaps one of the (if not the) greatest achievements of his career. If you’re wondering, the other pure fantasy score was Willow. The other three would be Field of Dreams, Jumanji, and Casper. These latter three, all good scores in their own right, I think certainly qualify as quasi-real fantasy – you've got: The ghosts of the Chicago eight showing up in an Iowa corn farmers field to play baseball, and find redemption; A board game that brings the wilds of its surreal jungle to life as you play; and a love story between a young girl and a ghost who lives in the house that her father has just inherited. All of them taking place in the modern world with fantastical elements. One could make an argument in favor of Willow’s superiority over Krull I suppose. You can certainly hear the maturity in writing that developed in the five short years between it and Krull. But you can also hear the obvious beginnings of Horner’s penchant for self-plagiary.

His contributions to Sci-Fi film music are a little bit harder to sift through – but not much. For those who are interested, here’s a list of Horner’s complete Sci-Fi output, in chronological order (beginning with his first “larger budget” feature):

Battle Beyond the Stars, Star Trek II, Brainstorm, Star Trek III, Cocoon, Aliens, *Batteries Not Included, Cocoon II, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, Deep Impact, and Avatar.

Not a bad resume of Sci-Fi really. I was really surprised how few there actually were. As I researched his filmography, it struck me how many dramas, action films, and epics (modern and historical) he’s done. Of the twelve scores on that list, I realized I have eleven. I never picked up Deep Impact, it was a little too Horner-y (read: lazy) for me. If I were to pick a favorite from that list, it would have to come down to either one of the Star Trek films or Aliens. Don’t ask me to pick just one; I don’t think I could do it. The score for Star Trek II has been argued as being the best of the entire film series – and for good reason. Aside from brilliant writing, it single-handedly changed the tone of the entire Star Trek musical universe going forward. I've always had a soft spot for III, why I don’t know – there’s just something about it that always stood out for me. Aliens is notable not only for its brilliant combination of atmospheric horror and kinetic action scoring, but also the speed in which such an inspired score was produced. There’s an interesting divergence that happens with The Rocketeer. The Rocketeer was 1991, after which, Horner (with the two listed exceptions) completely stayed away from Science Fiction. Brad also made a fascinating observation to me the other day that The Rocketeer was also the last time Horner wrote a truly large, orchestral, original, non-gimmicky, non-ethnic, non-epic score. Maybe that’s why it’s one of my favorites of his – regardless of genre.

If you want to know a lot about James Horner the composer, you’d do well to concentrate on his 1980’s output. Beginning with Battle Beyond the Stars going all the way to The Rocketeer, the 80’s represents a truly masterful period of Horner’s compositional and creative output. That’s not to say that anything he did post 1991 wasn't good, even damned good – hell, brilliant even. But there’s something so…new and fresh about 1980’s James Horner. The scores to Apollo 13, Braveheart, Titanic, Avatar, Legends of the Fall, the Zorro films – are all excellent, and highly entertaining. They’re true highlights of his output in the last 20 years and deserving of whatever accolades one sees fit to apply to them. But I think they lack that certain something, that spark that came with the best of what Horner gave us in the 80’s. Amongst the films I've already listed, we also have Glory, The Land Before Time, An American Tale, Red Heat, Commando, 48 hrs., Where the River Runs Black, The Journey of Natty Gann, Uncommon Valor, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and In the Name of the Rose. Of course in between those, you also have films like Streets of Fire, Gorky Park, Wolfen, and even a little “gem” called Barbarian Queen (good luck finding that one).

Maybe I’m just waxing nostalgically because I grew up with so many of these films – they’re important to me. Maybe I’m just struggling because I haven’t written “fuck” since the beginning of this post. I’m having “fuck” withdrawal – it starts with the shakes, followed by profuse sweating, and then paranoia. Eventually sufferers de-evolve into a primitive state, flinging their poo at people and masturbating uncontrollably. So...par for the course for me. Who knows?! At any rate, I hope this helps, sorry if it dragged on a paragraph or twelve too long!


Herr Vogler said...

Krull and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

"Scoop o' chocolate, scoop o' vanilla. Don't waste my time."

the warrior bard said...

Funny, someone is watching Star Trek II in the next room as I read this post.

Pikey, your differentiation of "pure" and "quasi-" fantasy are apt, though the actual term instead of "pure" is high fantasy. Harry Potter and Percy Jackson are a couple of real-world pussies who discover their fantasy-world superior destinies. I always find it just a little disappointing when the story thinks it needs to "anchor" us, the audience, in itself by means of a "real-world" protagonist. High fantasy is rarely done, and even more rarely done well.

That is not to say that only high fantasy is fantasy. Pan's Labyrinth is still fantasy. Alice In Wonderland is fantasy. Little girls who get wrapped up in a fantastical plot in a fantastical setting and aren't believed by their real-world families.

Sci-Fi is more of a stage than a genre in and of itself. Alien, for example, is a horror movie in a Sci-Fi genre. Event Horizon... sucks, but you get my point.

Fuck you, pikey, for encouraging this shit. Fuck you, Brad, for being you. And fuck you, Reed, for asking the impossible. Pikey, nobody ever took you up on your "favorite moment" challenge, but you've forgotten and allowed yourself to be distracted with this new discussion, distracted from the fact that we all FUCKED you.

That being said, I am considering the pikey's erstwhile challenge instead of this one...

Mikey the Pikey said...

"Hey...fuck you, buddy!"

And you're right, no one ever did accept the challenge. I didn't forget, I just put it in storage. So what's everybody waiting for?!?!


vw: tralated - It's quite common for residents of Arkansas to be tralated.

Herr Vogler said...

"The Warrior Bard? I wouldn't mess with him. He's, um...cranky."