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Carter Burwell


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Top secret leakage from my 2010 Muriels ballot!

It's a wrap for the 2010 Muriel Awards, but although the winners have been announced, there's still plenty of great stuff to read about the many winners and runners-up. ('Cause, as we all know, there's so much more to life than "winning.") I was pleased to be asked to write the mini-essay about "The Social Network" because, no, I'm not done with it. (Coming soon: a piece about the Winkelvii at the Henley Gregatta section -- which came in 11th among Muriel voters for the year's Best Cinematic Moment.)

You might recall that last summer I compared the editorial, directorial and storytelling challenges of a modest character-based comedy ("The Kids Are All Right") to a large-scale science-fiction spectacular based on the concept of shifting between various levels of reality/unreality -- whether in actual time and space or in consciousness and imagination. (The latter came in at No. 13 in the Muriels balloting; the former in a tie for No. 22.) My point was that, as far as narrative filmmaking is concerned, there isn't much difference. To illustrate a similar comparison this time, I've used a one-minute segment out of "The Social Network" (Multiple levels of storytelling in The Social Network). You might like one picture better than the other for any number of reasons, but I find their similarities more illuminating than their differences:


A couple interesting items about composer Carter Burwell

(Photo by Dean Parker)

"Carter Burwell's score, drawing from themes from American folk music of the era, is one of his greatest." -- Glenn Kenny, review of "True Grit" on MSN Movies


I had missed the news, quietly announced in late December, that Carter Burwell's score for the Coens' "True Grit" (which includes Mahleresque orchestrations based on the traditional hymn, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arm") and Clint Mansell's Tchaikovsky-influenced music for "Black Swan" (of course he's going to interpolate "Swan Lake" into the score -- that's the challenge!) would not be eligible for consideration in the Oscars' Best Original Score category. But the category is for score, not Best Original Tune. The presence of a hymn melody or passages from a famous ballet are key to what these compositions set out to accomplish, and how they are integrated into their respective movies. Those things shouldn't be held against them.

Orchestral composers have worked with folk music and other melodic sources for centuries. Mahler used "Frehre Jacques" in his first symphony and other traditional Jewish and folk tunes are found throughout his works. (For that matter, the melody -- and even part of the arrangement -- for TV's "Star Trek" theme is right there in Mahler's Seventh!) And Tchaikovsky -- jeeez, the 1812 Overture is just the French and Russian national anthems. But the composer fragmented them, wove them together and otherwise re-composed them into one of his most famous pieces.

(Besides, we've known for months that Hans Zimmer's score for "Inception" -- which is nominated -- is built on a slowed-down, sampled and otherwise manipulated recording of Edith Piaf singing "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien." That's using an existing tune in a movie score, too, isn't it? Seems to me that all of the above are legitimate compositional techniques.)


The really important Oscars

There are two of them that matter most to me, I think -- and not in the Best Picture category. ("The King's Speech" over "The Social Network"? Really? I can only shrug. Forget it, Jim -- it's the Academy...) I'm much more interested in seeing Roger Deakins and Skip Lievsay get their due recognition. DP Deakins, unquestionably one of the handful of great cinematographers working today, is nominated for "True Grit" (2010) -- his ninth nomination in 16 years, and he has yet to win. How can this be? For the record, here are the films for which he has been nominated by the Academy: "The Shawshank Redemption," "Fargo," "Kundun," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," "The Man Who Wasn't There" (black-and-white widescreen, my favorite format), "No Country for Old Men" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (both in the same year!), "The Reader" (co-nominated with the also-great Chris Menges, who should have won for "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada") and now, "True Grit." (What? No nomination for "A Serious Man"?!?!) He also photographed "Sid and Nancy," "Stormy Monday," "Mountains of the Moon," "Homicide," "Barton Fink," "The Secret Garden," "The Hudsucker Proxy," "Dead Man Walking" and "The Big Lebowski," among many others.

Watch the impressive featurette/interview above for a few examples of Deakins' brilliance (and, for once, that term is actually intended to refer to the intensity of light!).

The Carpetbagger has a short interview with Deakins today, too (which contains spoilers, although this excerpt does not):


Scanners' Exploding Head Awards 2010

Things in movies that made me feel as if my head would explode, in joy or disgust or both, during 2010.

Shot of the year: That's part of it, up there. "Sweetgrass" (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Ilisa Barbash)

Best opening shot: "Mother" (Bong Joon-ho)

Best final shot: The terrifyingly comedic/nihilistic ending of "The Ghost Writer" (Roman Polanski). It all comes down to this: meaningless chaos, scattered and swirling in the wind...

Most astounding shot: A slow zoom-in on a mountainside that outdoes the opening of Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God": "Sweetgrass"

Best movie-star shot: The one on the Staten Island Ferry that glides up behind Angelina Jolie and turns into a magnificent profile close-up. "Salt" (Phillip Noyce)


Favorite movies of 2009 movie: The commentary track

The first time I made a year-end list for Scanners, I did it by suggesting double-bills of 2006 films with older films (much like what contributors to The Auteurs did this year). In 2007, I made my first year-end movie, inspired by "L'Eclisse," as a tribute to the late Michelangelo Antonioni and a commentary on the WGA strike that was happening at the time. Last year, the concept was based on a shot of Hannah Schygulla, Goddess of Cinema, waking up, looking into the camera (in Fatih Akin's "The Edge of Heaven") and dreaming fragments of the films on my list.

This year, I'm not quite sure how it came together (see opening title), but I took my cue from my favorite movie of the year, the Coens' "A Serious Man." I knew I didn't want to adhere to any rigid countdown hierarchy this time, but to let the movies converse with themselves through images. I chose the word "conversation" knowing there would be no dialog except at the very beginning and the very end, with the Jefferson Airplane song "Somebody to Love" (recurring element in "A Serious Man") in between. That gave me approximately 2 minutes and 58 seconds for the montage....


A Serious Man and His Music

Nobody makes movies as richly and densely composed as the Coens. I've said it before that when I'm watching one of their films it's like being exposed to the distilled essence of cinema, and it makes me realize how anemic and unfocused most movies are. They pack a world of information into their words and images, but they also find the music within them. Their movies sing, every dimension in harmony or counterpoint with every other. Their soundtracks, created with the collaboration of sound designer Skip Lievsay and composer Carter Burwell, are the most vibrantly imagined anywhere. In "No Country for Old Men" they created soundscapes that served as the score, even though very little of it was actually music (beyond a few tones that almost subconsciously quiver beneath certain moments).

David Schwartz has a superlative interview with Carter Burwell at Moving Image Source, in which he talks about the thrilling sonic dimensions of "A Serious Man." Burwell has worked with the Coens for a quarter century, and they're all in tune with one another's genius:

Before the Coens had even cut more than a reel, they called me to say that they'd like me to start working on a piece of music that comes out of a story told entirely in Yiddish in some unspecified old world and leads right up to the opening bar of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love." The idea was that during this transition from the shtetl to the Jefferson Airplane, you're traveling through the ear canal of this boy in Hebrew school. It's a dark and mysterious tunnel, and when you finally get to the end it turns out that it's the earpiece of his portable radio through which he's listening to Jefferson Airplane. That was the first piece of music I wrote for the film.


And the best Oscar nomination goes to...

Skip Lievsay, sound genius. (photo: Mix Online)

... Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter Kurland -- and un-nominated co-conspirator, Carter Burwell -- for sound in "No Country for Old Men"! (See below.)

Meanwhile, I'm happy to see several mildly surprising nominations: Viggo Mortensen for "Eastern Promises"; Saoirse Ronan for "Atonement"; Hal Holbrook for "Into the Wild"; "Persepolis" for animated feature. No surprise, and absolutely proper: Roger Deakins for shooting both "No Country for Old Men" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (though I hope they don't cancel each other out). But nothing for "Zodiac"? At the very least it should have received a nomination for its amazing visual effects. But unless you've seen the Director's Cut DVD (or some Digital Domain clips on YouTube) you probably wouldn't have known they were effects. That's how good they are.

Looking at the odds, "Atonement" is an unlikely best picture because its director (Joe Wright) wasn't nominated. "Michael Clayton" and "Juno" lack an editing nomination, which (statistically speaking) is are crucial to winning the top prize. On the other hand, "Michael Clayton" is honored in three acting categories, for George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton -- and guess which branch of the Academy is the biggest? "No Country for Old Men" didn't claim a lead acting slot, perhaps because it's an ensemble piece. If you go strictly by statistically significant nominations, only "There Will Be Blood" has 'em all -- an old-fashioned Hollywood epic built around a big performance (by a previous Oscar winner). But will its unremittingly bleak nihilism (and the bizarre ending that alienated even some admirers) prove too bitter for Academy voters? I dunno.

I just want to take a moment here to acknowledge my favorite nomination. (This is where I congratulate myself on my foresight -- hey, I predicted Tom Wilkinson, too -- even though I'm a lousy Oscar guesser.) Back in September when I first saw "No Country for Old Men" in September, I wrote:


Scanners' 2007 Exploding Head Awards (Part 1)

View image And the Exploding Head goes to... Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd in "Knocked Up"?

I'll publish my annotated "best of" list next week, but while thinking back over the year's movies I recalled some things that seemed to me "beyond category." Or the usual categories, anyway. One way or another, they made my head feel that it might explode. So, while everybody's preoccupied with all those other awards, here are the 2007 Exploding Heads for Achievement in Movies:

Best endings: • "The Sopranos" (final episode): blackout • "No Country for Old Men": "Then I woke up." • "I'm Not There": Dylan's harmonica on "Mr. Tambourine Man" • "Superbad": Baby-steps toward adulthood, separating at the mall escalator • "Zodiac": Stare-down

Most electrifying moment: A dog. A river. "No Country for Old Men."

Best grandma: "Persepolis"

Best surrogate grandpa: Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"

"Arrested Development" Award for Best Throwaway Lines: • "Keep it in the oven..." -- Jason Bateman, "Juno" • "... Terrorism..." -- Michael Cera, "Superbad" (actually, Cera has so many astonishingly brilliant under-his-breath moments in "Superbad" and "Juno" it's uncanny)

Best performance by an inanimate object: (tie) The cloud (and its shadow), the candy wrapper, the blown lock housing in the motel room door, "No Country for Old Men"

Most cringe-worthy lines: • "My cooperation with the Nazis is only symbolic." -- "Youth Without Youth" • "That ain't no Etch-a-Sketch. This is one doodle that can't be undid, home skillet." -- "Juno" (the cutesy moment at the beginning when I nearly ran screaming for an exit; cutting this entire unnecessary scene would improve "Juno" immensely)

Funniest double-edged observation: "He's playing fetch... with my kids... he's treating my kids like they're dogs." -- Debbie (Leslie Mann) in "Knocked Up," watching Ben (Seth Rogen) play with her daughter, who is loving it. That's her point of view, and she's right, but she says it like it's a bad thing.

View image Ain't nothin' but the real thing, baby: Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener in "Into the Wild."

The Real Thing: "Non-actor" Brian Dierker, rubber tramp, "Into the Wild" (and, of course, his "old lady" Catherine Keener, actor extraordinaire)

Best film about the way The Industry really works since "The Big Picture": Jake Kasdan's "The TV Set." The moment I knew it was going to be exceptional (sharp, precise and, therefore, extraordinarily funny) was when the writer's choice for the lead role gives an audition that's just... underwhelming. He isn't good. He isn't terrible. He just isn't enough. Which then allows the network execs to push for the "broader" alternative ("To me, the broad is the funny"). And even he proves himself capable of being not-awful -- in rehearsal, at least...

Best political film: (tie) "12:08 East of Bucharest" and "Persepolis" -- a pair of smart, funny movies about the effects of political revolutions on individuals in (respectively) Romania and Iran.

Deadliest stare: (tie) Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), "No Country for Old Men"; Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), "Atonement"

Young comedy whippersnapper stars of the year: Michael Cera (19), Ellen Page (20), Seth Rogen (25), Jonah Hill (24), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (18)

Game savers: J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney, who come to the rescue of "Juno" not a moment too soon

Best torture porn: The excruciatingly funny baptism scene with Paul Dano and Daniel Day Lewis (both of 'em overactin' up a storm -- but in a fun way), "There Will Be Blood"

Most worthless critical label: "Independent." A movie should not be viewed through its budget, financing or distribution. And in these days of studio "dependents" (Miramax, Focus Features, Paramount Vantage, Fox Searchlight, etc.), the term "indie" is frequently misleading at the very least.

Best bureaucrat: Dr. Fischer (Alberta Watson), "Away From Her"

Best negotiations: • Chigurh and the gas station owner, "No Country for Old Men" • Chigurh and the trailer park lady, "No Country for Old Men" • Chigurh and Carla Jean, "No Country for Old Men" • "4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days": The painfully protracted, ever-shifting moral balance (and exhausting power-struggle) in the hotel room, between the friend and the abortionist -- while the pregnant woman herself passive-aggressively bows out of any responsibilities for what has happened, or will happen.

"Perfume" Award for Best Portrayal of Synesthesia: "Ratatouille"

Best Supporting Crotch: Sacha Baron Cohen, "Sweeney Todd." An squirm-inducing scene-stealer that makes you long for a change of angle: Please give us an above-the-waist shot! (Did they have spandex in mid-19th century London?)


TIFF 2007: The Coens = the essence of movies

View image You see it or you don't.

Toronto's is an international film festival, and naturally the films are shot in locations all over the world. But one thing so many of the best films in this year's fest have in common (a thing all great films have in common) is not the places in which they're shot, or set, but the places they create, and pull you into. These aren't travelogues. The films are the places, whether the geographical locations exist independently of the pictures or not.

There's Texas and there's Mexico and there's "No Country for Old Men."

Tommy Lee Jones' character, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell begins Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men" with an elegiac monologue about missing the "old times." His words are spoken over a montage of western landscapes in blazing oranges and reds (the incomparable Roger Deakins is the DP). By the end of this reverie, we're no longer in the past but in the harsh daylight of the present, and the color has drained from the images. The way Ed Tom sees it, he's outmatched in the modern world where violence is random, unmotivated, and unpredictable.

Within moments we see a shocking example of what he's talking about, as Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) strangles a man on the linoleum floor of an office, his dead yellow eyes fixed on the ceiling. That's a terrifying touch: Chigurth doesn't even look at his victim, even while he's garroting the guy. And then, one of those Coen touches: a shot of the floor, covered with a mess of black heel marks from the killer and his prey.

"No Country for Old Men" is one of those movies I think provides a critical litmus test. You can quibble about it all you like, but if you don't get the artistry at work then, I submit, you don't get what movies are. Critics can disapprove of the unsettling shifts in tone in the Coens' work, or their presumed attitude toward the characters, or their use of violence and humor -- but those complaints are petty and irrelevant in the context of the movies themselves: the way, for example, an ominous black shadow creeps across a field toward the observer ("No Country" has a credit for "Weather Wrangler"); or a phone call from a hotel room that you can hear ringing in the earpiece and at the front desk, where you're pretty sure something bad has happened but you don't need to see it; or the offhand reveal of one major character's fate from the POV of another just entering the scene; or... I could go on and on. To ignore such things in order to focus on something else says more about the critic's values than it does about the movies. It's like complaining that Bresson's actors don't emote enough, or that Ozu keeps his camera too low.

A moment here to celebrate the genius of one of the greatest talents in motion pictures, supervising sound editor Skip Lievsay, who has worked with the Coens (and Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese and others) since way back before the mosquito buzzing and peeling wallpaper of "Barton Fink." Since the bug zapper in "Blood Simple," in fact. Also, composer Carter Burwell ("Psycho III"!) has been associated with the Coens for just as long. He's credited with the music in "No Country," too, but it's to his merit that I don't even recall any music in the picture -- except for one memorably Coen-esque appearance by a mariachi band.

When I read Cormac McCarthy's novel, it struck me as a Coen screenplay just waiting to become a Coen film. Indeed, by that time it already was. And it could serve as a model of prose-to-film adaptation, choosing exactly the right moments and movements for the picture, and leaving alone others that are better suited to literature. (This is especially true of some very savvy omissions in the latter part of the movie.)

"No Country for Old Men" makes me want to echo Jean-Luc Godard's famous celebration of Nicholas Ray: "Le cinéma est les Coens!"


"There is no god!!!"

View image "There is no god!!!"

Thanks for all the terrific, thoughtful suggestions for my hypothetical Atheist Film Festival (below) -- "Freddie Got Fingered" (either "proof" of the absence of god, or a devastating comment on the divine sense of humor), "Contact," "Wise Blood," all of Buñuel, "Grizzly Man," "Crimes and Misdemeanors"... Don't stop now!

View image [Reverse zoom.] Whimpering: "I'm so sorry. Forgive me."

I think a slam-bang opening for such a festival would be one of my favorite underrated films of the 1980s, Anthony Perkins' 1986 "Psycho III," which begins with a black screen and a hair-raising scream of anguish: "There is no god!!!" What's more, we soon learn that it is the cry of a devastated novice, and that (even better) she's played by Diana Scarwid! (That's Christina Crawford to you "Mommie Dearest" fans -- and something tells me Perkins was one, too.)

View image [Reverse zoom, cont.] Stronger: "Give me a sign. Help me."

View image [Static shot.] Silence.

Before we know it (in the third shot -- or the fourth, if you include the blackness between the Universal logo and the statue of the Virgin), we've smudged the line between "Psycho" (1960) and "Vertigo" (1958), looking up into a California mission belltower. A few vertiginous shots and a maniacal sniveling nun (and a few nice ones) later, and the movie is off to a rip-roaring psycho-vertiginous start.

View image Psych-- er, Vertigo?

The nuns approach Maureen (the hysterical novitiate) and attempt to coax her down from the archway where she is poised to throw herself, Kim Novak-like, from the tower. "There is no god!" Maureen cries again -- not in rage but in despair, as if she's just discovered a shattering, horribly disappointing truth.

The crazy nun raves: "You wretched girl! How dare you!"

The eldest nun tries to snap her out of it: "Please Maureen, you mustn't. You have an obligation to Him!"

"I have nothing," Maureen says dejectedly. "I am nothing!"

View image Another blonde, another belltower...

And then all hell breaks loose.

That's just the first four minutes, before the titles. And it's not giving too much away to say that Maureen becomes Norman Bates' very first girlfriend. They're a match made in... wherever.

View image Inverted crosses, anyone?

"Psycho III" is a joy, a sequel that understands the original from the inside out. It's a celebration, a satire, a revisitation, and a deeply felt, detail-perfect homage to Hitchcock's bleak masterpiece. (I'd say "Psycho" is not so much an atheistic work as a nihilistic one. The specificity of the opening sequence perversely indicates the randomness of the particular story the movie chooses to tell. And Simon Oakland's psychobabble wrap-up at the end mocks not only psychology but any and all belief systems.)

View image Nun: "You have an obligation to Him!" Novice: "I have nothing. I am nothing!"

I've always thought of "Psycho" as a family black-comedy -- a horror sitcom. And, from the perspective of 1986, Perkins reminds us of how funny "Psycho" (and Norman) is. "Psycho III" strikes the perfect balance between horror, tragedy, and camp.

The screenplay is by Charles Edward Pogue, who is also credited with co-writing David Cronenberg's horror / comedy / romantic version of "The Fly" ("Be afraid -- be very afraid") the same year -- and the clever, underrated remake of "D.O.A." in 1988. And the rest of the crew is top-of-the-line, including such Clint Eastwood vets as D.P. Bruce Surtees ("Dirty Harry," "Night Moves," "Risky Business," "Pale Rider") and the late production designer Henry Bumstead ("Topaz," "Mystic River," "Flags of Our Fathers," "Letters From Iwo Jima"). The score is by Carter Burwell ("Miller's Crossing," "Barton Fink") and the producer is Hilton A. Green -- second unit / assistant director on "Psycho" and "Marnie."

If you want to discover Maureen's fate -- and see just how wittily and poignantly "Psycho III" pays attention to the details of its source -- check after the jump.

Meanwhile: Any more candidates for the Atheist Film Festival? (I've tried to refine what I mean by an "atheist film" -- as opposed to an anti-god or anti-Christian film -- in a comment here.)