Monday, August 11, 2008

My favorite Randy Newman score

Please excuse this brief excursion into cinephilia...

Last weekend I was out of town, and in my endless channel-flipping one morning during my hotel stay, I came across one of my very favorite comedies, The Naked Gun (1988). I'd seen it numerous times since I was a kid and still cherish it immensely, but I never would have thought to gain insight into why this film always made such an impression on me, especially for being such an absurd comedy. Maybe it was the change of scenery, but I was able to enjoy the movie in a way that was both familiar (i.e. anticipating every shot, every joke) but different. It was kind of like being in a room that you're inside frequently, like an office or bedroom or classroom, but standing in a completely different area of it. You know the room, but it feels so strange and new from a different angle. My epiphany with The Naked Gun was the realization that it contains a perfect montage.

Here's the set-up: The scene occurs late in the movie, when Lt. Drebin (Leslie Nielson) is undercover as the home plate umpire at the Angels / Mariners game, where during the 7th inning stretch, one of the players is supposed to kill the visiting Queen of England. Drebin doesn't know which player will commit the crime, so he attempts to frisk each and every player at some point during the game. This isn't terribly interesting stuff, but it makes for some delightful comedic payoffs in the hands of Leslie Nielson, the world's best actor at playing dumb. It also sets up nicely for an expedient montage that shows us the passage of time in the game and provides comedy in rhythmic doses of visual set-ups.

Well, this montage does that and more, combining the perfect musical score with images of sports bloopers and Nielson-esque comedy. Have a look:

If you're seeing this for the first time, the absence of context may make it difficult to distinguish between this and the current (dismal) crop of spoofs. But for me, it's a time capsule to the 80's-- Not just with the Zucker brand of comedy (which began with Airplane!) that seemed so fresh, delightfully offensive, and hilarious at the time, but also the many minor details such as the old-but-not-vintage baseball uniforms, the facial hair and wardrobe of the spectators, etc.

That music you hear is one of Randy Newman's finest scores, even though it's not the film's score (which was written by Ira Newborn). The song is "I Love L.A.", and it it's got that perfect combination of a pleasurable, jumpy melody and a touch of synthesized sound that grounds the scene in the 80's. Although the song first appeared on Newman's 1983 album, Trouble in Paradise, it was beautifully employed here for this montage, representing a likely scenario in which the music for a scene was selected before the images were edited. In other words, it's the music that guides the images. The quick-cut images would have no life without the music; it would be dull and static. But with that song, the images just seem right. Something about the jovial tune, Newman's raspy voice, and the unbelievability of the game melding together in one short sequence is just perfect.

The images make little sense in the context of baseball or in any other way, whether it's the players rounding second base one-by-one to the high electronic notes in the song, or an elongated celebration at the plate after a home run (while Drebin frisks them all), or the frequent cuts to changing electronic numbers on the scoreboard. But they have an inexplicable rhythm and atmosphere that sells us on the comedy, the passage of time, and most importantly, the affective state or atmosphere that is unique to The Naked Gun which seems to exist outside the bounds of space and time.

While surely bearing no significance to those who didn't grow up watching this movie and associating it with childhood memories, montages like this one illustrate perhaps in some small way the intangible accessibility of movies; the way they are both relevant within and outside of our lives, how they reflect and inform our own state or the state of the world. These sensibilities extend far beyond conventionally attractive movies (by the standards of most critics), as I'm sure all of us have those movies that we simply love, no matter how critically taboo. Only when we change and movies do not can we realize that movies -- no matter how serious, dramatic, absurd, etc. -- mean something to us (both immediately and retrospectively) beyond our conscious appreciation.

How ironic that Montage allows us to experience that impermeability that movies have to time -- since, after all, Montage is all about time. As a concept and practice, montage can be thoroughly analyzed and dissected, but even if we are successful at excavating the sensations it can create in us in a comprehensible way --nostalgic or otherwise-- the sensuousness of that experience would likely be drained. Whether they are comprised of one shot or many, maybe movies themselves are larger montages in that, apart from boasting many individual moments, are moments unto themselves, enrapturing us in an affective experience built on associations and linkages having little to do with logic.


Adam Ross said...

"No, Dutch-Irish."

Are there any self-respecting film fans from our generation who hasn't seen "The Naked Gun" at least 10 times? I loved watching this again, and was hoping it would include Reggie Jackson's cameo. My favorite part of the montage has always been George Kennedy's personal buffet line, it plays into the music well.

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