Friday, February 8, 2008

The Altman / Williams connection

Director-composer collaborations gave always been a great interest of mine. Rich in the old Hollywood filmmaking tradition, some of the best creative partnerships have been between directors and composers. Some of these relationships are so strong and long-lasting that it would be nearly impossible to imagine a director's images without his collaborating composer's music: case in point Tim Burton / Danny Elfman, and Steven Spielberg / John Williams. But in reality, many of these collaborations don't ensure, and the ones that do last tend to fade before too long. Perhaps the most famous director-composer relationship fitting this description is that of Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, who worked together to create some of the most beautiful and exhilirating marriages of image and sound the movies as ever known: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1954), Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), Marnie (1964), etc. And even though there is little consensus to this day regarding why they split -- the most reliable story to date being a feud over Torn Curtain (1966) -- it was no secret that they had a severe falling out. Still, I can't help but wonder what it would have been like had they settled their creative differences and continued their collaboration. Maybe the twilight in Hitchcock's career, from 1966 to 1976 would have been better remembered. But we will never know.

Although long-lasting collaborations between filmmakers and musicians are interesting, more intriguing are the relationships that never realized themselves after a spark of fire between two minds, one thinking in images, the other in notes. One of these mini-collaborations that is rarely spoken of is that of Robert Altman and John Williams, who worked together on two films early in both of their careers: Images (1972) and The Long Goodbye (1973). I'm sure there are numerous instances in the history of Hollywood in which a composer and director have worked together that many wouldn't consider to be a mini-collaboration; it's kind of like calling two consecutive wins a "winning streak." But I am more interested here in the kind of filmmaking minds these two individuals possessed, and how they uniquely came together resulting in two wonderful films and scores. After all, I would venture to guess that Robert Altman and John Williams aren't typically mentioned in the same sentence together, not just in terms of director-composer collaborations, but also when it comes to artistic sensibilities.

Images is one of Robert Altman's strangest films, especially considering how early in his career it was. Echoing Bergman and other abstract European filmmaking, it told a story through a series of disparate images and even more dissonant music. After listening to Williams' melodic work on Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter, it's hard to imagine that his name was attached to the film. But as devoted followers of his know, Williams is more than capable of writing strong abstract music. The score contrasts a haunting central theme with unconventional percussion which may first sound like noise but slowly reveals itself to be very complex.

For Altman, Images came one year after his critical success (and masterpiece, in this writer's perspective) McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), a film that stands today as the quintessential Altman film, whose only score was the gentle voice and guitar of Leonard Cohen. But Altman finds such beautiful music in the silence of his images, and in the neorealist-inspired narrative and compositional style. It would come as a surprise, then, that Altman would choose (or maybe he didn't choose) John Williams to compose the other-worldy score for Images. At the time, Williams was mostly known for throwaway comedy scores, for which he was being typecast as a composer. However, he had also been dabbling in action scoring for the disaster flicks of the pre-Star Wars era of action filmmaking. Either way, he wasn't known for writing the kind of music that Images called for. Whether the studio arbitrarily selected Williams or whether Altman picked up on Williams keen sensiblity for evoking beauties in "simple" cinematic images (e.g,, his beautiful take on Americana in The Reivers), it proved to be a wise decision, since the music injects the movement and non-movement of Altman's film.

Images was something of a departure for both Altman and Williams, but its effect is dizzying and at particular moments mesmerizing. Not a major hit at the time, Images still does not stand out as a significant entry in either Altman or Williams' filmography. After watching it though, it may provide new perspective on their work to follow.

Their second, and final collaborative effort came the following year, with a film that was about as far away from Images as one could imagine. The film, The Long Goodbye, was both a homage to and parody of the film noir genre, which, at the time, was thought to have run it's course. Although Chinatown, released the following year in 1974, was deemed the revisionist film noir of the 1970's (and rightly so), some credit should also be given to Altman's film, which is arguably just as impressive, if not as subtle. But then again, film noir was never known for its absence of identifiable style, but rather its extreme incorporation of shadow, smoke, and cold emotion. For Altman, The Long Goodbye was his third impressive showing in a row. Despite the film fitting a different tone than the previous two, with a somewhat comedic and outwardly self-aware detective story played in a dead-straight manner, Altman managed to create an evocative atmosphere through long takes and wide-angle lenses that permeates a mood both light and dark.

For Williams, the film presented a unique scenario wherein he could play off the pre-established norms of music for film noirs as well as ample opportunity for building comedy around musical ideas. Employing a leitmotif approach, Williams built the whole score around a single theme, a theme that is played and repeated several times over and in various orchestrations. It's so overtly repetitive that takes on farcical dimensions, which at times contrasts with the level of serious detail in the images -- far more than your typical parody. The combination of the images and the music make for an oddly intoxicating, yet comedic film that is one of Altman's more unique efforts behind the camera. One can almost see traces of style that would come to full light in later films like Short Cuits or The Player. Williams never again composed a score for Robert Altman, who in many ways moved away from traditional musical scores towards the late 70's and all through the 80's. Yet their brief collaboration, now a third of a century ago, can be viewed as a precursor to various movements and themes they would draw on and evoke in each of their respective careers, even though neither of them would return to this specific style of filmmaking/composing.

John Williams' and Robert Altman's short-lived time working together came at just the right crossroads in their respective careers, when they were each relatively new but had some credit to their respectives names. After The Long Goodbye their careers took off in directions, with Altman gaining more artistic freedom to pursue various personal projects before settling down and embracing his indie maverick status, and Williams hitting the double-jackpot with Jaws (1975)and Star Wars (1977) shortly therafter. Despite each showing tendencies and subtle returns to that style (Altman to the epic auteur image and Williams to the quieter simplicity that defines much of his best work), their paths would cross no more leaving movie and score lovers only to wonder what could have come of the seemingly endless plane of possibility evident in these two lesser known films in the early 1970's. And although their directions after The Long Goodbye and Images took very different shapes, there are traces of that crossing throughout each of their respective work.

This is one of my favorite Never-Fully-Realized director/composer relationships. Are there any other memorable (however short or long) filmmaker/musician collaborations worth discussing? If so, please share.


Benjamin Wright said...

Very timely post, since Williams turns 76 this week!

You are absolutely right about the Williams/Altman relationship. Images remains one of my favorite Williams scores.

Williams' work with Oliver Stone has always impressed me (Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Nixon), even though Stone has not utilized the composer in his more intimate or frenzied films. He very much drew on Williams' ability to create sweeping orchestral colors to bolster the presidential narratives.

I have always admired Jerry Goldsmith's short collaboration with Paul Verhoeven. Goldsmith added a sense of urgency and drive to a film like Total Recall, and provided the missing eroticism in Basic Instinct through his silky music.

They only collaborated on three films together (Hollow Man being the third), but these are three fine examples of how images and music can be deftly blended.

You also can't ignore Goldsmith's fun and eclectic relationship with Joe Dante. The 'burbs being my favorite.

Another great post.


Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks, Benjamin!

Williams had a nice stint with Stone, though it would have been interesting if Stone had employed him to score Natural Born Killers or one of his more edgy titles. Still, though, their three-film collaboration resulted in some nice scores, particularly JFK.

Re: Jerry Goldsmith, he is easily one of the great film composers of all time. It's funny, actually, that I posted this article on Williams' birthday, and now I'm writing a small blurb on Goldsmith on his birthday.

Goldsmith's collaboration with Joe Dante was really fun, indeed, as was his relationship with Paul Verhoeven. But my favorite collaboration he's had would be his long-standing one with Franklin J. Schaffner on films like Patton, Planet of the Apes, The Wind and the Lion and, my personal favorite, Lionheart. Although Lionheart is on some kind of moratorium, the score is worth purchasing on its own merit. It's one of Goldsmith's very finest works.

SRP said...

Totally agree about the 'missed opportunity' here, and I agree with Benjamin about Oliver Stone as well. Both of these brief collaborations are among the most interesting collaborations ever. It allowed Williams to compose some of his most interesting and (in the case of Stone) heartfelt music, they are totally unique in their place in Williams's filmography.

re: Goldsmith/Verhoven. The superb scores presented cannot be denied, but I am somewhat more hesitant about this one, as I think Verhoven has has a rather unimpressive career in Hollywood. I love The Long Goodbye and JFK, and also find a lot of good in Nixon and Born on the Fourth of July.

And, I would just like to add, about the nature of the Altman/Williams relationship- on the DVD of M.A.S.H, Altman stated that Williams was a good friend of his, and that, in fact, he was invited to an early screening of M.A.S.H, and was one ofhte first people who indicated to Altman that he had a great movie on his hands.

Damian said...

Excellent post, Ted. I saw Long Goodbye for the first time recently and was surprised to discover that Williams wrote the score. As you know I've long been interested in filmmusic and director/composer relationships in particular have fascinated me. You'ev mentioned some of the more famous ones (Williams and Spielberg, Elfman and Burton, Hermann and Hitchcock, etc) and benjamin has highlighted another one I've always enjoyed (Goldsmith/Dante).

A few more director/composer associations that I have also thought wroked rather well have been Robert Zemeckis/Alan Silvestri, Brian DePalma/Pino Donaggio, Kenneth Branagh/Patrick Doyle and the Coen brothers/Carter Burwell.

Ted Pigeon said...

Nice to see you again, Damian. Yes, the Zemeckis/Silvestri collaboration is definitely one of my favorites, especially as a kid growing up in the 80's. With Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (some of my favorite movies at the time), I thought of their collaboration very much like Spielberg/Williams. I was a bit disappointed with Beowulf, though, especially considering that it would have been a wonderful opportunity for operatic adventure music.

And good point about Coens/Burwell. I often forget about that one, which has resulted in a number of really great film/scores.

J. Nyhuis said...

Another terrific director/composer team that I don't think anyone has mentioned yet is David Cronenberg and Howard Shore. I can't imagine films like eXistenZ, Dead Ringers, or A History of Violence without Shore's haunting themes.

By the way, nice blog you have here. I've just recently begun reading it.